Some Thoughts on the Chair (of Art History)

A valedictory post by Craig Clunas, Professor Emeritus of the History of Art


The Professorship of Art History at Oxford comes attached to a fellowship at Trinity College, but Trinity is a small college and cannot provide accommodation for its professorial fellows, so in the eleven years I have held this role my place of work has been Littlegate House. Certainly not the most beautiful building in the collegiate university, but it is serviceable and practical and the allocation of space to the professor is very generous, with its two sunny rooms far exceeding anything I’ve been given in either of the two other chairs of art history I’ve held in UK universities. I began my working life as a museum curator, when I was expected to be ‘in the office’ as a regular part of my working day, and although timekeeping in the V&A in the 1980s could be a bit relaxed, I’ve still always felt that ‘at work’ and ‘in the office’ were pretty much synonymous; most of my books have been written in space provided by my employers, rather than at home. So as I come to retire from this position I have a definite sense of saying goodbye to an environment where I have spent a sizeable part of the last decade.

The History of Art Department is, by Oxford standards, very new. You can debate when it actually came into being, but certainly the appointment of the first Professor, Edgar Wind, is an important milestone (you can read about that history, and about previous professors here. There are hence only a few reminders around Littlegate House of the Department’s past, including the brass plaque that adorned the first offices in Beaumont Street, and a black leather briefcase which might have belonged to Francis Haskell. But in among the functional furniture supplied by Estate Services there are a couple of pieces which speak of earlier eras, and two of them are the chairs which sit in the Professor’s second room, rather grandly titled a ‘library.’ They are of the design often called a ‘captain’s chair’, with a curving back and arms. And one of these has definitely been ‘my chair’ (it’s in better nick, and has a leather cushion in a pleasing shade of red).

360_CC_office_3_crop© Richard Watts

Furniture (Chinese furniture, admittedly) was a special area of mine in the museum, my second book was on the subject, and I’ve always been appreciative of good woodworking, though these two are nothing special, just ordinary and pleasingly solid chairs. But I shall miss the chair. I like having the extra space because it means that the PC is not always present in any form of human interaction (showing my age there). When I’ve sat in the chair I can see the person I’m talking to unimpeded by a distracting screen. I shall miss it not so much for itself as for the environment and relationships it represents. I’ve sat in it to talk with colleagues, to hear and give good news and bad news, to celebrate and to laugh as well as to listen and sympathise. I’ve interviewed and reviewed and assessed in it. I’ve sat in it to supervise DPhil students and MSt students, savouring that moment when someone realises that they can do this for themselves, when the training wheels come off and the supervisor becomes superfluous. I’ve sat in it to conduct vivas, as the student magically becomes the teacher. I’ve sat in it for hours and hours of undergraduate tutorials, privileged to be there for that lovely moment when the penny drops and someone grasps and enjoys the new knowledge they now command. I’ve marked essays and exams and theses in it. I hope I have sympathised and encouraged and supported in it, as it and students and colleagues have supported me.

Now it is time for it to be someone else’s chair, not ‘my chair’ any more. Time too for a fifth Professor of Art History; not someone just like those who went before, perhaps (we’ve not exactly been a strikingly diverse foursome). But I hope and trust they will take forward the project of an inclusive and imaginative art history at Oxford, through their commitment to the love of learning and teaching in the discipline. The chair is theirs.

Craig Clunas


Further information on Craig Clunas’s ongoing research and publications can be found here.

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WORDS/WORKS/WALLS: Conceptual Architectures in Visual Culture

By Emily Cox and Meredith Miller (MSt History of Art and Visual Culture 2018)

Emily and Meredith share their experience of organising a conference whilst studying in the History of Art Department.


Walls shape space and define place. They work by structuring human movement, understanding, and history. Walls exist in multiple dimensions, as the building blocks of architectural structures, in the mind as conceptual metaphors, and even on paper, as two-dimensional diagrams. They are a key part of what Hubert Damisch refers to as the ‘truly architectonic dimension of the workings of thought,’ and indeed, their presence in the genealogy of philosophy is impressive: Cicero, Descartes, Leibniz, Bachelard, Derrida—the list goes on. What architecture, and the wall in particular, seems to offer these thinkers is a framework for understanding the relationship between body and mind; between our physical presence and our mental one. In more modern conceptions, the wall serves as the essential block on which theoretical structures are not only raised but also deconstructed.

The complexity of architecture’s relationship with thought was introduced to us in Professor Hanneke Grootenboer’s MSt special option course, Image and Thought. Such questions and issues inspired us to plan a cross-temporal conference during which academics would speak on relationships between physical architectural structures and their conceptual counterparts. The Ertegun House for the Humanities was fascinated by our thematic and interdisciplinary approach to the conference and provided us with a grant to make our plans into reality. Grants from Trinity College and The History of Art Department cemented the resources we needed to put on a robust one-day international conference.

We had read Mary Carruthers’s book, The Craft of Thought, for our option course and decided to ask her to speak on the relationship between memory and architecture in Medieval Europe for the keynote address. We were beyond excited when she quickly responded that she would love to present new material analyzing the geometry of creative thinking predicated on architectural diagrams. From there, we curated different panels of speakers so that each set would refer to this theme of thought, gradually moving from the medieval period to the present day as the program progressed. Museum director Bruce Boucher, academics Anthony Geraghty, Leslie Topp, Leo Schmidt, and artist Do Ho Suh, all agreed to take part in the conference, probing the discourse surrounding the wall as a concept. Talks addressed the relationship between ontological, psychological, and metaphorical walls, each speaker addressing the central question through his or her area of expertise.

carruthers hanneke photo WWWProfessor Hanneke Grootenboer moderates Mary Carruther’s talk ‘The Geometry of Creativity: Using Diagrams in the Middle Ages’. © Julia Peck

We divided this conference into four key themes in which the wall plays an integral component: thought, spectacle, authority, and memory. Throughout, the talks continually referred back to the central paradigm established in Umberto Eco’s Semiotics of Architecture: How does architecture function as a structure (its primary function), and how does it communicate (its secondary function)? More significantly, how does it oscillate between these two poles?

To begin the day, Hanneke gracefully moderated Mary Carruthers’s gripping keynote address that taught us how thinking is itself a kind of moving through space. The first panel, which commenced after a brief tea break, interrogated the architecture of spectacle in the 18th and 19th-centuries and was moderated by our fellow MSt student Anna Espínola Lynn. The talks considered the owning of memories in Sir John Soane’s museum by its director, Bruce Boucher, and the self-reflexive skin of the masonry on Castle Howard by Anthony Geraghty.

After a lunch filled with intellectual conversation, the second panel, moderated by Ertegun Scholar Conor Brennan, examined the architecture of authority, looking to two examples from the 20th-century, German-speaking world. Leslie Topp spoke on living foliage fences and the performance of the dissolution of barriers in relation to asylum architecture in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Leo Schmidt gave an insightful and humorous address on the recontextualization of the two ‘Berlin Walls,’ physical and psychological, before and after the GDR, and the East and West sides.

geraghty photo WWW.jpgAnthony Geraghty presents ‘ “The Beauty and Strength of the Building”: The Representation of the Masonry Wall at Castle Howard’. © Julia Peck

The day culminated with Craig Clunas moderating an artist talk by Do Ho Suh, who is currently working with the V&A on this year’s architecture pavilion at the Venice Biennale and has work represented in major collections such as MoMA and Tate. His work—surreal polyester installations that mirror structures of the home—questions the mobility of space and demonstrated how the architecture of our home is a clothing that, even when not physically present, we carry with us through life.

Our favorite part of the day was meeting some of our most admired academics and a world-renowned artist, getting to ask them questions about their scholarship and sharing with them our own work that had been developing throughout the MSt year. Over lunch, Meredith spoke with Mary Carruthers about the role of smeared ink in the interpretation of medieval diagrams, a concept she too had been pondering in reference to the photography of Alejandro Guijarro for one of her option papers. The speakers were inspired by each other’s work; some of them had read each other’s articles but never had the opportunity to meet because their work did not fall into the same geographic or temporal category on which most conferences are based. Lively discussion ensued during the breaks, relating Castle Howard to Dutch still lifes and comparing the flattened architecture in medieval books to rubbings of a contemporary artist. After the conference, participants were able to directly engage with each other and with speakers over a wine reception. Dinner at Branca gave everyone a chance to share a few stories and laughs, a much-needed break after such an intense and intellectually fruitful day.

The conference intersected quite nicely with our course work in both Theory and Methods and in Image and Thought. Ultimately, we had a chance to see theory applied to specific works of art or eras—a skill that we developed throughout our readings and seminars. The opportunity to hold a conference helped us develop tangible administrative and organizational skills—the kind of things you don’t usually learn through academic coursework—and will surely carry over into our future professional careers in in museum work. We are supremely grateful to the Ertegun Graduate Scholarship Programme in the Humanities for providing both the generous support and space for our interdisciplinary conference. We are also immensely appreciative of the support of several History of Art Department members, who helped mentor us through the process of putting on the conference: Geraldine Johnson, Hanneke Grootenboer, and Craig Clunas.  ‘Words/Works/Walls’ was an excellent opportunity for us to develop our art historical skills and knowledge, meet exciting academics and curators, and create a space in which we could more deeply explore interests outside of the classroom.


Further information about the Master’s Degree in History of Art and Visual Culture can be found here.

The Ertegun Graduate Scholarship Programme in the Humanities provides full funding and other benefits to support exceptional graduate students studying across the Humanities at the University of Oxford. Ertegun Graduate Scholars become part of a community of researchers who are encouraged to expand their knowledge and to exchange ideas across disciplines.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Banner image: Copy after the original of the Hortus Deliciarum before its destruction, made by A. Straub – Coll. Bibliothèque du Grand Séminaire de Strasbourg © Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons

Accessing Art History at Oxford

By Craig Clunas, Professor Emeritus of the History of Art and Gervase Rosser, Professor of the History of Art


What would it be like to study art history at university? This is a difficult question for most students at school and their teachers to answer: the subject is not taught at most schools, and if it has been heard of at all, this tends to have been in contexts which are quite misleading. The History of Art Department at Oxford continues to be active in encouraging interest in a university subject which offers a training in core skills for employment in the modern world: the means to understand and to critique images of every kind.

This year the Department ran a variety of programmes providing insight into art history and the BA course in Oxford. The first of these was under the banner of the Oxford Pathways series, in which Year 12 pupils are invited to spend a day in Oxford and to experience taster sessions in two academic subjects. They are also mentored for the day by a current undergraduate. A dozen participants came to a session on art history run by Gervase Rosser, who got the group talking with a short series of diverse images. The themes of political art and idealised feminine beauty generated animated debate, and led to expressed interest in the subject among participants who had signed up without quite knowing what they were in for.

The UNIQ programme for History of Art, which has been run for nine years, has the joint aims of inspiring interest in the subject, of encouraging aspiration to study at university level, and of introducing students at lower-sixth-form level to the academic and wider cultural environment of Oxford. Fourteen participants, arriving from all parts of the United Kingdom, stayed for a week in Worcester College, where they were mentored and befriended by two undergraduate ambassadors, Evelyn and Ani, both students of History of Art.

DSC_1129_crop.jpg © Department of History of Art

The academic programme, led by Gervase, mimicked in concentrated form one of the core elements of the first-year BA programme, which involves choosing an object or building in Oxford, about which the undergraduate – with the supervision of a curator – writes an extended essay. In groups of two or three, the UNIQ participants were allocated an object in the Pitt Rivers Museum or in the Ashmolean Museum, and in the course of the week they studied it in the Bodleian Library, participated in a tutorial on the subject, and finally gave a presentation to the group as a whole. The quality of these final presentations was tremendously good. As the student ambassadors generously admitted, they were of undergraduate standard. But this was on the fourth day: at the outset, everyone was a little daunted.

Participants came with diverse experience and expectations. One had never visited a museum before. Even for those who had done so, the initial encounter with the Pitt Rivers was eye-opening. The astonishing richness and strangeness of that global ethnographic collection, still in its nineteenth-century display cases, never fails to amaze the first-time visitor.

Later in the week the group extended its exploration of Oxford galleries by visiting an exhibition at Modern Art Oxford, the permanent collection of Old Master paintings in the Christ Church Picture Gallery, and the newly opened gallery housing the Pembroke College Undergraduate Collection of twentieth-century British paintings. Gervase also took them to the Divinity School, the architectural heart of the late medieval University.

Divinity_School_Evelyn_Earl_2018© Evelyn Earl

Criss-crossing the city on foot over the course of the week, participants had the chance to compare the architectural styles of the diverse colleges which offer places in History of Art, from the medieval core of Worcester and the Tudor great hall of Christ Church, to the seventeenth-century buildings of Wadham and St John’s, to more modern structures at St Peter’s and the Scandinavian Modernist design of St Catherine’s. There were jokes about the epic distances covered by the group – and some good times just sitting in college gardens with sandwich lunches and the opportunity to chat.

To judge from some of the comments volunteered by participants as they left at the end of the week, the UNIQ programme had been worthwhile:

I was so nervous to come, but I had the most amazing experience and you all made me fall in love with History of Art.

You are the loveliest people I’ve ever met! Definitely made my first academic experience of history of art very interesting and engaging.

I will remember this experience for the rest of my life. Thank you for being the loveliest, most understanding and down-to-earth ambassadors and tutors.

In addition to the UNIQ Summer School this year History of Art took part in two other initiatives designed to broaden and diversify the pool of applicants to Oxford. The first was a contribution to the Humanities strand of the UNIQ Spring weekend, again open to Year 12 students, and was run jointly with colleagues in History. Craig Clunas took the fourteen students who had expressed an interest in these areas to the Ashmolean.

UNIQbyIanWallman-8691 (1).jpg© Ian Wallman

Getting the students to think about the ways in which a museum frames the past, and the questions we ask about it, Craig started in the ‘West Meets East’ Orientation Gallery, asking students to pick an object in pairs, think up a question about it to share with the whole group, and then together consider the question, ‘Are objects evidence?’.

In the afternoon the group met for a class in the History of Art Department, on the theme of ‘Global Encounters’; this was run jointly with Alexander Morrison of the History Faculty, a specialist on the Russian empire in Central Asia. Alexander took the class through a range of documents giving the differing perspectives of participants in a seventeenth-century treaty between the Tsars and the Manchu emperors of the Qing dynasty, which set the boundaries between these two Eurasian superpowers for centuries. Craig then took up the theme of ‘Encounters’ by encouraging the class to discuss images produced for the Qing emperors by the Italian artists who worked for them in the eighteenth century. Both these sessions got students to focus on how it might be possible to write a global history that doesn’t assume Europe as its natural centre.

The_Qianlong_Emperor_in_Ceremonial_Armour_on_Horseback.jpgGiuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), Portrait of the Qianlong Emperor on Horseback. Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum

Craig touched on some of these same themes when he had a chance to run one of the academic sessions for the Sutton Trust Teacher Summer School this July, on ‘Art, History, Art History’. Although there are important initiatives to get art history teaching into state schools (Art History in Schools being one), and make qualifications in it available to state school pupils, realistically it is the chance to explain the subject to teachers in other subjects which is going to make a difference. But it would be foolish to try and tell a group of classroom-hardened teachers stuff that does not connect with their working experience. So it was great to welcome fifteen teachers from history, politics, geography, psychology and a range of other subjects to hear Craig discuss with them the ways in which thinking about a broad range of visual culture can appeal to pupils who might be put off by too narrow a definition of ‘art history’.

Using two paintings which raise the theme of ‘viewing’ as a historical practice (one from nineteenth-century France, one from Ming China), Craig tried to show how critical skills join with historical information to make interpretation possible. He also learned that the new A-level Geography syllabus requires students to consider the representation of place and space in art – one teacher present talked about taking a class to The Lowry in Manchester as a way of thinking about representations of the urban environment. Another way to get young people engaged is always good to hear about.

Both these activities were highly worthwhile, but the opportunity in particular to show teachers, who may go on influencing students’ application choices for decades, that Oxford is there for all who can benefit from it, and that art history is as challenging and rigorous, was a special privilege, and one the Department looks forward to taking up again in future years. We remain committed to using every avenue open to us, doing as much as we can to widen access to Oxford University as a whole and to broadening interest in the discipline of art history.


For more information about the BA degree, please see the Department’s Undergraduate Admissions page.

To attend our next Open Day on Friday 14th September 2018 please see the Department’s Open Days and Access Events page for details on how to book a place. 

A Year in the Life of the Terra Visiting Professor

By Miguel de Baca, Terra Foundation Visiting Professor of American Art, 2017-18

The Terra Foundation Visiting Professorships at the University of Oxford enable a respected scholar of American art to spend a year in Oxford teaching and carrying out their own personal research. It is also an opportunity to make connections throughout the University and the wider academic community.


The Terra Foundation Visiting Professorship in American Art at Oxford has been a wonderfully enriching experience and a milestone in my professional life. Oxford is uniquely influential within higher education, and I feel privileged to have come to know it as a teacher and a colleague within the History of Art Department.

My Masters’ course, “Transnational Memory in American Art History,” taught over the 16 weeks of Michaelmas and Hilary terms, was an exciting opportunity. I teach a similar course at my home institution, but without the transnational focus, so I retooled the syllabus to allow for new conversations to emerge. Fortunately, the composition of the seminar, which included students from Britain, America, France, Australia, and Israel, ensured that we would enjoy a diverse dialogue over the course. These students were a joy to work with, bringing energy and life to historical and theoretical texts from week to week. Interestingly, I have noticed that, in any class, the first readings are the ones that stick with students and come up again and again in their papers. Some of our first texts in “Transnational Memory” included seminal works in the fields of memory studies and American studies, and it was instructive to me to observe students relate them in rich and unexpected ways to a range of artists and artworks within and beyond the United States.

IMG_6083History of Art Research Seminar © Department of History of Art

I learned so much pedagogically from the advantages of the Oxford tutorial system. In essence, a tutorial is something like a personalized seminar in which students discuss ideas and essay drafts in a one-on-one (or very small group) setting with the professor—and this comes in addition to classroom-based learning. I come from a strong ‘liberal arts college’ context in the United States, so I am to some extent familiar with this type of teaching. However, the Oxford tutorial is a philosophy that foregrounds each student as an individual with their own capabilities, energies, and strengths. Thus, my approach to teaching the tutorial was less scripted than it might otherwise be; I outlined various suggested topics in advance, but generally allowed students to follow their interests in the space of the tutorial hour.

In addition to spending time in the Department, it was a great pleasure to be a Visiting Fellow of Worcester College. Colleges are the soul of university life at Oxford. You never know who might be sitting next to you at lunch or dinner in the dining hall, or with whom you might strike up a conversation in the Senior Common Room for a postprandial coffee (despite British peer pressure, I still won’t drink tea). I met a wonderful range of scholars from diverse fields, each contributing to the whole picture of collegiality. In this way, I would describe Oxford as a consummately hospitable place, where knowledge is nurtured generously by good conversation, food, and drink.

MdB_with_Terra_President_CEO_Elizabeth_Glassman_GJMiguel de Baca with Terra Foundation President and CEO Elizabeth Glassman, Worcester College Main Quad © Department of History of Art

A home base in Europe allowed frequent chances to study artworks and collections I would not have such occasion to see at home. Tate Britain, Tate Modern, and Tate Liverpool all had excellent openings during my time. The Irish Museum of Modern Art had an unusual show on the Aspen 5+6 group, which was packed with really interesting information about Irish, continental, and American connections in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is not to mention the contemporary art fairs I was able to visit—Frieze, the Venice Biennale, and the Berlin Biennale—in order to sharpen my focus on modern curatorial practices as well as American artists’ place within the exponential growth of biennial culture worldwide. I am absolutely confident that these experiences will lead to more engaging and effective teaching of contemporary art to my students back in the United States.

Lastly, as the Terra Professor I was able to share my own research and interests with communities of scholars in the form of many talks and lectures. I tested out a new project on video art with the History of Art Department in the research seminar series, a paper on Washington Color School at the conference In and Out of American Art: Between Provincialism and Transnationalism, 1940-1980 at the University of St. Andrews, an in-depth conversation about the influential curator Walter Hopps with the author Deborah Treisman at the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford, and a conversation with the inimitable art historian Jo Applin on the multiple expressions of feminism in modernist sculpture at the Terra Foundation campus in Paris. I shared the edited-out portions of my book, Memory Work: Anne Truitt and Sculpture (2015), with an audience at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, which was a great occasion to revisit and advance my thinking on an earlier project.

Terra_18_12Terra Foundation Lecture at Worcester College © Department of History of Art

This spring, I delivered the Terra Foundation Lectures in American Art at the Sultan Nazrin Shah Centre at Worcester College: four lectures, one per week in May, on different topics under the heading “The Body of a Nation”. I also shared some thoughts on the painter Ed Ruscha at History of Art colleague Craig Clunas’s retirement celebration, and a lecture on 1970s Polaroids at the Maison Française d’Oxford. It was a very full and rewarding agenda, to be sure! Many of these kernels have led to publishing opportunities that will keep me occupied for the months and, indeed, years to come.

The capstone to this wonderful academic work was a study day on video art at LUX, the premier European video and film arts agency, based in London. I assembled an international group of scholars at LUX to discuss the subject of video art and activism, and learned a great deal from our conversation. This collaboration was the first of its kind between Oxford and LUX, which I hope will continue to grow as scholarship on moving image practices of the late 20th and 21st centuries expands both at Oxford and in the field at large. There is so much more to know!

LUX study day.jpgLUX study day © Miguel de Baca

In short, I cannot imagine a more fruitful or rewarding year. Oxford is an institution I can now think of as a home and a habit of mind—a place of collective purpose and shared belief in the real potential for research and knowledge to train future leaders. And my colleagues and students in the History of Art have refreshed my belief in the vitality, even the centrality, of visual culture to a circumspect and well-examined life.


Miguel de Baca was the Terra Visiting Professor of American Art 2017-18. He is the chair of the Department of Art and Art History at Lake Forest College. The 2018-19 Terra Visiting Professor of American Art is John R. Blakinger.

Podcasts of the 2018 Terra Foundation Lectures in American Art are available to listen to.

Further information about the Terra Foundation Visiting Professorships at the University of Oxford.

Further information about the Master’s Degree in History of Art and Visual Culture.

Visiting and Revisiting Beloved Spaces: The Photographic Reproductions of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Frescoes in the Visual Resources Centre

By Sofia Garré and Irene Wang, MSt History of Art and Visual Culture

This year’s Slade Professor David Ekserdjian kindly offered to hold a workshop for History of Art students in the Department’s Visual Resources Centre. The topic of this event coincided with his Slade Lecture on Michaelangelo: The Sistine Chapel Ceiling. Students had the opportunity to discuss with Professor Ekserdjian the visual historiography of art history since the invention of photography, using examples from the Department’s photographic collections.


The Sistine Chapel, accessed only by a handful of people in its original context, is now open to all visitors who can afford a ticket. Since Michelangelo completed the vault’s decorations in 1512 it has been represented in different mediums, which have enabled this once socially enclosed space to be known to the wider public. Sketches and prints of the chapel initiated this process as early as the Renaissance, but it is only in the late nineteenth century that more reliable and less expensive photographic reproductions grew increasingly popular. In the History of Art Department’s Visual Resources Centre copies from nineteenth century campaigns are held alongside contemporary reproductions.

Professor David Ekserdjian, this year’s Slade Professor at Oxford, explored their historical and documentary importance in a workshop tailored to students. As graduates specialising in Italian Renaissance Art, we felt especially eager to take part. Professor Ekserdjian looked specifically at photographs of Michelangelo’s frescoes, considering how they have been used by scholars and conservators before and after the chapel’s restoration, completed in 1999. Adding an interesting layer to his discussion, he also encouraged us to reflect on changes in accessibility to images and how they have affected the practice and study of the history of art.

DSC_0849_crop.jpg© Department of History of Art

The workshop started off with Adolphe Braun’s large photographic prints of the Sistine Chapel, the first photographic survey of this space ever attempted in 1868. Housed in large leather-bound volumes, these prints are themselves works of art, showing beautiful views of Michelangelo’s frescoes. Although objects of clear aesthetic interest, Braun’s photographs failed to capture some of the details due to their low contrast and wide perspective.

This is no fault of Braun’s studio of photographers but of the technology and aesthetic preferences of the period. The prints are large (37x47cm) because they are contact prints and reflect the size of the glass plates used to take the photographs. Photographic technology at the time relied on the collodion wet plate process, which had a slow exposure time, up to several minutes in low light conditions indoors such as the Sistine Chapel. Photographers had to work quickly to coat, sensitize and expose the plate within a time frame of 15 minutes before the collodion set. It was necessary for a portable darkroom to be employed when working in the field. Considering Braun had large scaffolding constructed in order to photograph the ceiling at height, it becomes clear what a huge feat this first photographic survey of the Sistine Chapel was.

DSC_0846.JPG© Department of History of Art

The Braun photographs are carbon prints which gives them their matte brown tone. Carbon prints can be produced with a variety of colour pigments including reds, browns and cool blues and greys. They are resistant to fading and were commonly used from the 1860s onwards for commercial prints. The matte quality, soft focus and colouring of the photographs give them the look of a painting or drawing. Indeed they are treated as such in their presentation, they are housed in grand portfolio boxes as if they are Renaissance drawings themselves.

As Professor Ekserdjian remarked, Braun’s series, initially released in 1869, constituted a first attempt to replace previously circulating prints and sketches. However, the reach of prints of this size and quality was still relatively limited because of their high cost. The smaller prints distributed by the commercial publishers Alinari and James Anderson later in the nineteenth century, were a partial solution to this problem. At once more affordable these images record more effectively the status of the Chapel before its restoration. Indeed, thanks to their sharper printing, these photographs allow us to see more of the minute features in Michelangelo’s frescoes while, at the same time, showing the extent of their damage.

Reflecting on the documentary quality of these photographs we were made aware of how key aspects of the frescoes, still visible on the ceiling when Braun’s and Alinari and Anderson’s pictures were taken, have either irreversibly disappeared or reappeared in the process of restoration. The lines dividing different sections of the frescoes, easily discernible prior to the conservation intervention, are now impossible to decipher. Similarly, the finishing touches on the frescoes, also known as tracce a secco, were removed during the cleaning of the ceiling.

DSC_0876.JPGLantern slides © Department of History of Art

Looking at the photographs gave Professor Ekserdjian an opportunity to discuss with us how this ambitious restoration altered scholars’ understanding of the cycle by bringing the frescoes’ original colours back to light. In particular, the symbolic value of one of the Chapel’s lunette had to be re-evaluated when its dark tones, which had been interpreted as a metaphor of the obscure ages preceding Christianity in pre-restoration literature, disappeared in the cleaning process, revealing the lunette’s original bright colours.

Colour, an especially striking feature of the Sistine Chapel and a traditionally important category of analysis for art history, was also central to our discussions as a group. As we moved from black and white prints to slides in colour, we were invited to think about the limitations of the photographic medium in capturing and faithfully reproducing shades of colour in the artwork. Precisely because of these inevitable limitations, we were encouraged to be cautious when using photographic reproductions in our academic work. However, Professor Ekserdjian did not fail to place emphasis on the immense contribution that colour photography, and photographic slides in particular, have made to the study of the history of art. The crucial didactic value of this medium was that it finally allowed professors to incorporate images of faraway artworks like the Sistine Chapel into their teaching practice.

DSC_087535mm slides © Department of History of Art

No physical resource, however, has been able to compete with the internet in terms of widening accessibility to artworks’ reproductions. Thus, as the workshop came to an end we touched upon free digital collections of images, undoubtedly the most democratic source available at this stage. We were introduced to a range of key databases, including the Fondazione Zeri online catalogue, which collects 290,000 digital images of Italian art and architecture. Making digital photographs accessible to the general public, these platforms also indirectly transformed slides themselves into aesthetic objects, collected as such in the Visual Resources Centre alongside valuable printed photographs. As a final note, students were encouraged to reflect not only on what is gained but also on what is lost in this change of medium and accessibility. Platforms that provide easily accessible digital photographs should not fully replace the exercise of memory, crucial in allowing art historians to recollect the details of an artwork.

Ultimately, Professor Ekserdjian turned a workshop on photographic reproductions of Michelangelo’s frescoes into an opportunity to raise much broader questions around the history of art. Professor Ekserdjian certainly did provide us with an interesting overview of the resources on the Sistine Chapel available in the Department. What is more, he reminded us of the need to constantly question not only our views, but also the availability and reliability of the primary sources we employ.


Sofia and Irene are both MSt History of Art and Visual Culture students and take the MSt Women and Art option with Professor Geraldine Johnson.

To listen again to Professor Ekserdjian’s lecture on Michelangelo watch the podcast.

The Department of History of Art holds several large photography collections, for more information about the Adolphe Braun Sistine Chapel prints and our other photographic material please see the Visual Resources Centre page.