How to attribute a painting: Adolfo Venturi and the science of connoisseurship

How to attribute a painting: Adolfo Venturi and the science of connoisseurship

In his talk at the conference on the great scholar Adolfo Venturi (Modena, 1856 - Santa Margherita Ligure, 1941), held in 1992, art historian Claudio Strinati recalled how one day Venturi was in Milan visiting the home of Giovanni Morelli, who wanted to show his young colleague his art collection. Strinati recounted how Morelli showed Venturi anAnnunciation (it was actually a Presentation in the Temple), asking him to name the artist who had painted it. Faced with Venturi’s uncertainty, Morelli reportedly responded by teasing him, "But how? It is the work of a Modenese and you don’t recognize it! It is Francesco Bianchi Ferrari." Strinati also recounted how Venturi had tried to redeem himself. He therefore took to analyzing the work in depth, and with an article in which, Strinati said, Venturi destroyed Morelli, he decided to change the attribution of the painting: no longer Francesco Bianchi Ferrari, but a lesser artist, Michele Coltellini. “Certainly one could not confuse the melodious Ferrarese painter with the gnetile master of Correggio,” Venturi wrote. When Morelli, in his will, expressed his wish to leave the works in his collection to theCarrara Academy of Bergamo, he “wrote in his own hand,” next to the subject of the painting, “the name of Michele Coltellini.” And the attribution to Coltellini has remained unchanged to this day.

Michele Coltellini, Presentazione al tempio
Michele Coltellini, Presentation in the Temple (ca. 1500; oil on panel, 82.9 x 60.5 cm; Bergamo, Accademia Carrara)

The anecdote was taken from Adolfo Venturi’s Autobiographical Memoirs, and it is as interesting as ever, because it gives us a way to shed light on how in those years (we are at the end of the 19th century) the foundations were being laid for the birth of a method destined to radically change the discipline of art history in Italy. In order to refute Morelli’s attribution, Venturi had performed acareful analysis of the painting, coming to the conclusion that certain motifs, such as the bony figures, the elongated hands, the particular shade of red used for the robes, and the ways of tucking in the drapery, were characteristic of Michele Coltellini’s solutions. An attribution formulated, as Venturi himself would have written, “by dint of stylistic findings.” However, it is necessary to point out how, in order to give support to his theses, Venturi had in any case conducted research on historical documentation: this research was fruitless, because the then young scholar had not been able to find any documents on the painting, but it was nevertheless an indication that, with Venturi, the method for advancing hypotheses on attributions was changing in Italy.

Adolfo Venturi
Adolfo Venturi. Photo from Memofonte
Although Venturi had recalled how many people joked with Giovanni Morelli’s “orecchiuta criticism,” at the same time he pointed out that some merits should be attributed to the senator, first and foremost that of having fostered an increase in art history studies thanks to a method that, although marked by a high margin of error, had produced good results. Venturi therefore, albeit veiledly, acknowledged that attributional techniques, with Morelli, had known a certain degree of refinement. Pietro Toesca (Pietra Ligure, 1877 - Rome, 1962), a pupil of Venturi’s as well as his great admirer, in his master’s funeral commemoration, going over the names of those who had contributed to the formation of his method, recalled that the Morellian method had one essential quality, that of “obliging one to observe strictly the work of art in its form.” In-depth observation of the original work, borrowed from the Morellian method, is central to Venturi’s method: his favorite motto was “see and see again,” and we also find it stamped on the medal his students gave him when he retired from teaching in 1931. However, the relative affinity of view that the scholar had with Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle, who compared to Morelli could boast of having the ability to frame an artist’s work in a broad context, led Adolfo Venturi to consider the work of art as an expression of a complex to which it was inextricably linked. To the stylistic analysis it was necessary, therefore, to add ahistorical analysis that had a single and precise purpose: to use the words of Pietro Toesca, “to reconstruct, with a historian’s spirit, what was properly the artistic culture whence the works of art had arisen, and within which the appearance of the great masters might seem less sudden.”

Venturi is credited with having founded a science of the connoisseur that placed the in-depth observation of the original at the center of its method: however, the Emilian connoisseur should not have been refractory to the suggestions coming from the contemporary School of Vienna, which, however, will find a more organic and in-depth application in Pietro Toesca, who will be able to combine the influence of Venturi’s theories with the philological method of the art historians of the Germanic area. Also not insignificant (indeed, fundamental) is the role that Venturi attributed to the journals, considered an important instrument of research, updating and also popularization, as well as of discussion on methods, attributions and issues related to art history. The journals founded by him, or born under his impulse(Archivio storico dell’arte, L’arte, Gallerie nazionali italiane), welcomed important essays by the greatest scholars of the time around works of art, historical documents, even contemporary art. We can say that the art review in Italy was born thanks to the work of Adolfo Venturi: until before, pieces of art criticism were in fact the prerogative of literary journals (and theArchivio storico dell’arte, founded in 1889, was the first scientific art review to arise in Italy).

There are countless attributions that Adolfo Venturi formulated throughout his career, and some of them are still considered valid today by the vast majority of critics: and it must be said that the scholar did not limit himself only to confirming hypotheses already advanced by others, because very often he first proposed the name of an artist who was later recognized by most as the true author of the painting that the Modenese scholar had analyzed. It is worth mentioning some exemplary cases, such as the canvas with Nymph and Satyr preserved in Florence’s Palazzo Pitti, which Venturi first assigned to Dosso Dossi in 1885: the painting, which until then had been recognized as a Giorgionesque work, was traced back to Dosso Dossi on the basis of particular features (the nymph’s facial expression, the conformation of her hand) and general ones (the typically Ferrara manner of coloring), as well as on the basis of a document that, according to the scholar, testified to the presence of the work in the collections of Emperor Rudolph II (although, in reality, it had been in the Uffizi since at least 1675).

Dosso Dossi, Ninfa e satiro
Dosso Dossi, Nymph and Satyr (c. 1508-1520; oil on canvas, 57.8 x 83.2 cm; Florence, Palatine Gallery, Palazzo Pitti)

Among the singular critical events in which Adolfo Venturi was a protagonist, mention should also be made of the rediscovery of Correggio ’s youthful tondi (of which Venturi was an exalted specialist), which the Emilian painter had painted in the atrium of the Basilica of Sant’Andrea in Mantua and which were first assigned to him in 1612 by a Mantuan historian of the time, Ippolito Donesmondi, author of an Istoria ecclesiastica di Mantova. In the centuries that followed, the Correggio frescoes went through severe deterioration and underwent heavy repainting, so much so that no one gave any more credence to the attribution to Correggio, which, indeed, was practically forgotten. Venturi guessed that the repainting integrated leftovers of the ancient frescoes. At the beginning of the twentieth century, therefore, the later additions were removed, and in the eyes of Venturi, and of the other scholars who had followed the affair, paintings had appeared in a very poor state of preservation, but which nevertheless retained the echo of Correggio’s beginnings, which took place under the sign of Andrea Mantegna’s harsh and robust painting. Needless to point out how Venturi, after the discovery, had conducted a thorough analysis of the works explaining why they could be considered works by Correggio.

Correggio, Sacra Famiglia e Deposizione
Correggio, Holy Family with St. Elizabeth and St. John and Deposition (c. 1510; detached frescoes, diameter 150 cm; Mantua, Museo Diocesano Francesco Gonzaga)

I tondi del Correggio dopo le rimozioni delle ridipinture
What Correggio’s roundels looked like after the removal of the repainting

But Adolfo Venturi was not only an eminent art historian and important connoisseur. He was among the first specialists in the field to take an interest in the good practices of heritage protection (even working on the front lines as an official of the Ministry of Education, which at the time was entrusted with the care of heritage), and he was also among the first to recognize heritage as having a central role in culture (and consequently, to recognize the importance of popularization): he was, in short, among those who also began to consider the civic role of art-historical heritage. He was, in essence, a complex figure, impossible to cover in detail in a single article: suffice it for us to know that he still constitutes one of the landmarks not only of art-historical research, but also of the battles in support of heritage.

Reference bibliography

  • Antonella Battilani (ed.), Actuality and memory in Adolfo Venturi, proceedings of the conference 150th anniversary of his birth (Modena, October 20, 2006), Artestampa, 2008
  • Mario D’Onofrio (ed.), Adolfo Venturi and art history today, proceedings of the conference (Rome, October 25 - 28, 2006), Panini, 2008
  • Stefano Valeri, Adolfo Venturi and art studies, Bagatto Libri, 2006
  • Gianni Carlo Sciolla, Franco Varallo (eds.), The “Art Historical Archives” and the origins of “Kunstwissenschaft” in Italy, Edizioni dell’Orso, 1999
  • Andrea Bayer (ed.), Dosso Dossi: court painter in Ferrara in the Renaissance, exhibition catalog (Ferrara, Civiche Gallerie d’Arte Moderna, September 26-December 14, 1998), Ferrara Arte, 1998
  • Giovanni Agosti, The Birth of Art History in Italy. Adolfo Venturi from museum to university (1880-1940), Marsilio, 1996
  • Stefano Valeri (ed.), Adolfo Venturi and the teaching of art history, proceedings of the Conference (Rome, December 14 - 15, 1992), Lithos, 1996
  • Adolfo Venturi, Notes on Correggio, in L’Arte, XVIII, 1915, pp. 411-415
  • Adolfo Venturi, Il maestro del Correggio, in L’Arte, I, 1898, pp. 279-303
  • Adolfo Venturi, Zur Geschichte der Kunstsammlungen Kaiser Rudolf II, in Repertorium fur Kunstwissenschaft, VIII, 1885, pp. 1 - 23