Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Can One Speak of Painting If One Cannot Hold a Brush? Giulio Mancini, Medicine, and the Birth of the Connoisseur

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Can One Speak of Painting If One Cannot Hold a Brush? Giulio Mancini, Medicine, and the Birth of the Connoisseur

Article excerpt

Giulio Mancini opens his Considerazioni sulla pittura1 (ca. 1619-21) with some programmatic statements: "My intention," he declares, "is not to propose rules pertaining to painting or its practice, not only because it is not my profession, but also because this has been dealt with by Dürer and Gaurico . . . and after them by da Vinci, Vasari, Lomazzo and recently by Zuccaro, most eminent men in the profession."2 Mancini3 (1559-1630) was not a painter by training, but a celebrated doctor boasting a stellar medical career, becoming, from 1623, personal physician to Pope Urban VIII. However, Mancini decided to write about painting in the wake of his personal experiences as an art collector: "for quite some time," he states in the dedicatory epistle of the Considerazioni, "I have been collecting things pertaining to painting for my own amusement." His Considerazioni have been "put together from observing various paintings at different times and occasions and from having been friends with some of the celebrated painters of this century." So, he continues, "I intend to offer and consider some advice by which a man who enjoys such studies might readily judge paintings set before him and know how to buy, acquire and hang them in their places according to the time when they were done, the subject represented and the skill of the artisan who made them."4 One might object, Mancini concedes, that "such advice cannot be given by anyone outside the profession because the artifice of things men make cannot be recognized by those who do not make them." Indeed, in the eyes of his contemporaries, his experiences as collector and, informally, art dealer are insufficient to legitimate the project of the Considerazioni. For example, at about the time of the Considerazioni the painter Gaspare Celio wrote: "I do not wish to speak about degrees of excellence, so as to avoid the prodigality of those who dare speak without being painters, and who believe that is sufficient to be able to see the light to judge correctly. . . . They don't want to imitate a great Prince . . . who, when he spoke about paintings, was used to say to me: ? can say whether I like it or not, but I can't say if it is good or not.' "5 Mancini must erect a theoretical foundation for his position as a nonpractitioner wishing to teach how to judge and buy paintings. He therefore dedicates the remaining pages of the "Introduction" to a defense of his project. For the substance of this defense, he has recourse to topics drawn from ancient authors affirming the right of a non-painter to judge a painting. He concludes: "assuming that a painting may truly be judged by any expert who does not know how to handle a brush, my intention is to propose a manner in which a man of ordinary genius and common sense may learn how to judge and gain such erudition."6

Although Mancini was not primarily an art theorist, these introductory pages are of paramount importance to locate the Considerazioni within a theoretical and conceptual framework. 7 In recent decades, Mancini's work has been subjected to a wide critical debate. In a well-known article, published at the end of the 1970s, Carlo Ginzburg proposed that the Considerazioni constituted "the first attempt to establish connoisseurship, as it was to be called a century later."8 He also spoke of a deep relation between Mancini's profession ("a doctor famous for his brilliant diagnoses, who on visiting a patient 'could divine' with one rapid glance the outcome of the disease") and the content of his work: "we may surely see more than coincidence in this double skill, in his combination of the doctor's and the connoisseur's perceptions." For Ginzburg, then, Mancini is a precursor of Giovanni Morelli and of his attribution method. The peculiarity of his theoretical reflections resides in the fact that a "divinatory approach" communises medical semiotics and artistic connoisseurship, the physician's and the connoisseur's eye. Ginzburg's reading has recently been discussed and criticized by Donatella Livia Sparti. …

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