In 1880 the Russian art critic Ivan Lermolieff published Die Werke italienischer Meister (translated into English as Italian Painters), a study of the Italian artworks held in German collections. He disputed dozens of attributions to Renaissance artists in the state galleries of Munich, Dresden, Berlin and elsewhere. ‘It has been a very common mistake,’ he wrote, ‘to ascribe to the greatest representatives of one epoch of art a large portion of the works produced during that period.’ He reduced the number of autograph drawings by Leonardo in the Uffizi from 27 down to five, and dismissed all the supposed Giorgiones, and all but one of the Titians, in the Doria Pamphilj. He didn’t conceal his disdain for experts, especially art historians who happened to be German. On publication, there was some surprise at the confidence of this unknown writer. In fact, ‘Lermolieff’ was the pseudonym, by way of an imprecise anagram, of a retired Italian politician called Giovanni Morelli.
Morelli wasn’t simply spoiling for a fight. Art criticism, he thought, suffered from a serious failing: no one was actually looking at the pictures. Academic art historians turned instead to archives for biographical materials or documents that would pin down authorship. Philosophers of art looked beyond the painting for the idea that preceded it, scarcely concerned with the subject depicted. And connoisseurs – critics, collectors, aesthetes – ascribed a painting to a particular artist based on its ‘general impression’, as though the essence of Botticelli rose off the surface like a scent. Morelli proposed a more robust methodology. What mattered was examining the forms within a painting, the peculiar way each artist configured human anatomy or drapery or haloes. ‘The only true record for the connoisseur is the work of art itself,’ he wrote. He described his method as ‘experimental’, but it might more properly be thought of as comparative. He paid particular attention to ears and fingers, claiming that artists always drew them the same way, whereas the eyes and mouth varied from portrait to portrait, since a sitter’s character is most legible there.
He believed that his approach enabled him to reattribute paintings and to distinguish between copies and originals, since copyists did not take care to replicate these seemingly trivial elements. Italian Painters includes sketches that make visible the differences: Antonio Pollaiuolo’s hands are all knuckles, while a thumb by Giovanni Bellini is preternaturally long; Filippo Lippi’s ears are tightly whorled, while Mantegna paints pendulous lobes.
Italian Painters was ‘deliberately designed to cause the greatest possible antagonism’, as John Pope-Hennessey put it (the second volume, published in 1891, the year of Morelli’s death, is more collegial). Morelli’s nemesis, Wilhelm von Bode, the director of the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, claimed it displayed a ‘most dangerous dilettantism’. Certainly Morelli was among the first modern connoisseurs – in his attention to the surface of the canvas, his anti-academic posture, and the charm and ease with which he navigated a decaying aristocratic milieu in order to see works of art held in private collections. His approach was taken up by Bernard Berenson: ‘In a sense,’ Berenson wrote in ‘The Rudiments of Connoisseurship’, barely bothering to paraphrase Morelli, ‘the works of art themselves are the only materials of the student of the history of art.’
Giovanni Morelli was born Johannes Morell in Verona in 1816. The city had been re-annexed to the Habsburg Empire after the fall of Napoleon two years earlier and Morelli grew up in the stifling atmosphere of military occupation. Both sides of his family were descended from Swiss Protestants who had emigrated to northern Italy in the previous century and found success in the silk trade. His father died in 1820 and five years later Morelli and his mother moved to Bergamo, her home town. It was a cosmopolitan upbringing. The family spoke Italian, but he wrote in French and was sent to a secular German-language gymnasium in Switzerland, where he soon lost his religious beliefs.
Morelli studied medicine in Munich, but spent much of his time in beer halls and writing satires of his drinking buddies. A watercolour from 1835 shows him sitting at his desk cross-legged, puffing on a hookah; skulls – goat, horse and human – are lined up on a shelf behind him. He befriended artists, declaring Buonaventura Genelli to be the ‘greatest artistic genius of our age’ – a judgment influenced, perhaps, by Genelli’s request to use Morelli as the model for a preposterously muscular Prometheus. Studying physiology and reading German Romanticism did much to influence his attitude to art history. He learned from Goethe that attention to outward form could lead to comprehension of the animating spirit. Morelli was drawn to comparative anatomy, in particular the work of Georges Cuvier, whose principle of the correlation of the parts – the theory that an organism displays such perfect unity that the whole can be inferred from a single element – led him to attempt to identify animal species from fragments of bone. After university Morelli drifted. He was rich enough not to have to work and never practised as a doctor. He tried his hand at writing plays, but quickly gave up. He travelled to Berlin, where he met Alexander von Humboldt and Bettina von Arnim, and then on to Paris, where he intended to make a study of lizards, but found himself drawn more to the Louvre than the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle.
In 1840, he returned to Lombardy. The region was growing fractious under Austrian rule and Morelli was interrogated repeatedly by the police, who suspected any Italian with connections to more liberal parts of Europe of being an insurrectionary. He decided to Italianise his name out of a newfound patriotism motivated as much by his desire for freedom of religion as for political reform. When the Austrians imposed a heavy tobacco duty, Morelli, a cigar smoker, gave up in protest.
The revolutions of 1848 proved the making of him. ‘From being a misanthropist in a villa,’ he wrote, ‘I became the leader of an army corps that distinguished itself.’ When Milan rose up in the cinque giornate, Morelli enlisted. He was sent to Frankfurt, where a national assembly had been convened, as the ambassador of the provisional government of Lombardy, but he failed to win German support for Italian claims over Trieste and the Trentino. This experience leads Morelli’s biographer, Jaynie Anderson, to wonder whether his scornful attitude towards German art historians was sharpened by this disillusionment.
Back in Italy, the Piedmontese army’s dithering advance into Lombardy was already being rolled back by the Austrians. Morelli still wanted to fight, so he headed to Venice, which had declared itself a republic and was now under siege, only to find that the Venetians were more interested in his money than his military skills. Morelli’s revolutionary year ended miserably: he joined the Piedmontese forces just in time to experience their final defeat at the battle of Novara in March 1849.
He retreated to his estate and found that country life suited him. He had an aversion to publicity, which led him to write under pseudonyms (he spoke only once during the ten years he served in the Italian parliament). The drawing room and the private gallery were his natural environment, but better still he liked the mountains. He didn’t marry, though he pursued a series of adulterous or otherwise impossible relationships: his lovers included Victoria, the dowager empress of Germany.
During the Second War of Independence in 1859, Morelli headed the National Guard of Bergamo. He was disappointed to see little action; the Austrian forces retreated in defeat. Shortly afterwards he became a deputy for Bergamo in the new Italian parliament. His art expertise was already known to his peers. In the early 1850s he had begun to collect northern Italian art – Mantegna, Solario, Lotto – and to advise collectors with fortunes greater than his own. Now, he was commissioned by Italy’s new education minister to search the monasteries of the Marche and Umbria for Old Masters (although he managed to fall out with his fellow commissar, Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle, the author of a definitive history of painting in Italy). The countryside bristled with bandits, and recalcitrant priests, suspicious of the secular authorities, were not above hiding a panel in a haystack. Morelli was able to charm them all. He understood that there were greater threats to Italian cultural patrimony: the new government’s abolition of feudal practices such as entail made it much easier for collectors and gallery directors from Britain and the US to pick off the jewels of indebted estates. Morelli advocated, unsuccessfully, for the establishment of a national museum and began a catalogue of works too important to be exported.
Anderson argues that Morelli deflected attention away from outstanding masterpieces towards tolerable losses from the national stockpile. When the heirs to the Manfrin collection in Venice put a Giorgione up for sale, Morelli’s approach was ‘Move along, nothing to see here.’ ‘Morelli and Cavalcaselle I find are both enemies to our carrying off fine pictures,’ William Boxall, the director of the National Gallery, reported. ‘I cannot tell you how impossible such acquisitions are become throughout the country.’ But Morelli didn’t always act in the national interest. When he came across misattributed masterpieces in pawnshops he preferred to give his friends the nudge rather than bring them to the attention of the state authorities. He felt let down that neither the government nor its wealthy citizens were willing to intervene when required, and sometimes thought Italy deserved to lose its heritage to those who valued it properly. He sought out paintings for English museum directors and collectors, including his friend Austen Henry Layard, the archaeologist who had excavated Nimrud and Nineveh.
Anderson has brought together for the first time in English many of the facts of Morelli’s life, though there is a surprising amount of filler for a relatively short book. Morelli was a stylish and catty letter writer; Anderson, who has edited his correspondence, is far too parsimonious in quoting it. A bigger problem is that there is little attempt to draw connections between Morelli’s political and intellectual lives. Italian Painters has a polemical purpose that draws, at least indirectly, on Morelli’s experience of revolution. Richard Wollheim argued that it was an attack on the provincialism that stood in the way of unification. ‘As long as every city felt itself to be the cradle of a school of art,’ he wrote, ‘as long as it believed that it contained in its own gallery its Titian, its Bellini, its Raphael, the cause of separatism was going to be unnaturally fostered.’ Yet Morelli continued the traditional classification of paintings by regional school (the Lombards, the Ferrarese and so on), tracing lines of descent and influence within them. His project seems to stem more from a distinctively Protestant impulse to deconsecrate relics hallowed by tradition, which he describes at one point as a ‘fungus-growth’. He hoped unification would produce a liberal government that would displace the influence of the Church, and in the same rational vein scrutinised works attributed to the sainted artists of the Renaissance (he compared his critics to obscurantist priests and his reattributions to baptism).
Morelli’s writing is often uneven, switching from satirical dialogue to scholarly history to encomium. He seems to have made a deliberate choice to avoid plodding academic prose, but his style doesn’t make for easy reading. He is inconsistent, too, in applying his method. In front of artists with whom he feels a deep affinity, he is as rapturous as any aesthete. A particular favourite is Giorgione, the object of his most acclaimed reattribution: the Sleeping Venus in Dresden, previously believed to have been a copy of a Titian. The description of the Villa Borghese in the second volume of Italian Painters ends with Morelli standing before a portrait of a woman, wondering whether it might be by Dosso Dossi or Sebastiano del Piombo, when suddenly the picture speaks to him. ‘The spirit of the master met mine, and the truth flashed upon me. “Giorgione, thou alone,” I cried in my excitement; and the picture answered: “Even so.”’ Only then does Morelli note that the modelling of the eyes, mouth and forehead resembles another of Giorgione’s paintings.
Morelli was never the reductive formalist his critics accuse him of being (although he was conscious that his analyses could come across as ‘hair-splitting’). Freud saw in him a kindred spirit, who divined ‘secret and concealed things from despised or unnoticed features, from the rubbish heap, as it were, of our observations’. Morelli believed that to appreciate a work of art you needed to understand not only its historical context, but the environment in which it was made – to ‘tread the same soil and breathe the same air where they were produced and developed’. Failure to do so explained all the misattributions he corrected. There was certainly a place for meaning and value and ideas, but first it helped to know exactly which artist you were talking about.