Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Italian Painters, Critical Studies of Their Works: The Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden. an Overview of Giovanni Morelli's Attributions 1

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Italian Painters, Critical Studies of Their Works: The Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden. an Overview of Giovanni Morelli's Attributions 1

Article excerpt

'This magnificent picture-gallery [of Dresden], unique in its way, owes its existence chiefly to the boundless love of art of August III of Saxony and his eccentric minister, Count Brühl.'2 With these words the Italian art connoisseur Giovanni Morelli (Verona 1816-1891 Milan) opened in 1880 the first edition of his critical treatise on the Old Masters Picture Gallery in Dresden (hereafter referred to as 'Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister'). The story of the Saxon collection can be traced back to the 16th century, when Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) was the court painter to the Albertine Duke George the Bearded (1500-1539). However, Morelli's remark is indubitably correct: it was in fact not until the reign of Augustus III (1696-1763) and his Prime Minister Heinrich von Brühl (1700-1763) that the gallery's most important art purchases took place.3 The year 1745 marks a decisive moment in the history of the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, as Augustus III acquired one hundred of some of the best artworks from the collection of Francesco III d'Este, Duke of Modena. In addition to this historically important event for the collection, in his introduction Morelli also recalls the purchase of two other paintings to which the Dresden collection owes in large part its fame:

Through the purchase of one hundred of the finest pictures, selected by connoisseurs out of the picture-collection of Modena, and above all by the nearly simultaneous acquisition of two other celebrated pictures, the socalled Sistine Madonna of Raphael from Piacenza and the Holbein Madonna from the Casa Dolfin at Venice, the fame of this collection spread all over the world; and it soon came to be regarded, and is regarded to the present day, as the richest and most brilliant picture-gallery that exists.4

If Raphael's (1483-1520) Sistine Madonna5 had earned the admiration of many art lovers, poets and philosophers since the dawn of Early German Romanticism, the 'Holbein-Madonna'6 had become by Morelli's time the symbol of a radical renewal of art criticism. The famous Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) exhibition which took place in Dresden in 1871 prompted numerous discussions about the authenticity of the Dresden painting of the Madonna of the Burgomaster of Basel Jakob Meyer zum Hasen. On this occasion, the Dresden panel hung for the first time next to the Darmstadt version,7 providing a unique opportunity for direct comparison of the two paintings. What emerged from this confrontation was that the Dresden version showed to be only a late copy of Holbein's original in Darmstadt realized by the painter Bartholomew Sarburgh (1590-after 1637). The socalled 'Holbein-Dispute' thus became the emblem of a new history of art, which no longer wished to be based on romantic-literary speculations, but aimed instead to achieve objective results by means of scientifically verifiable investigation.8

Giovanni Morelli's 'experimental method'

Giovanni Morelli started early in his career to apply a working method based on comparative vision, scientific proof and evidence. In 1832, the future art connoisseur enrolled in the Department of Comparative Anatomy at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. There, he soon became the assistant of Ignatius Döllinger (1770-1841), one of the 19th century's most respected biologists, and in 1836 he completed his degree presenting the thesis De Regione inguinali.9 The interest of the young medical student was at the time directed towards Georges Cuvier's (1769-1832) natural sciences research, studies on the morphology of plants and Friedrich W.J. Schelling's (1775-1854) philosophy of nature ('Naturphilosophie'). Of the latter, Morelli even translated a text into Italian.10 Morelli's numerous encounters and friendship with some of the most important figures of Romanticism11 and of the German artists' community12 complete the picture of his eclectic education. This multifaceted constellation which combined science and art later had a significant impact on Morelli's methodological approach to art historical research. …

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