‘Hidden in Plain Sight: Tracing the Oxonian History of Adolphe Braun’s Sistine Chapel Series

By Sofia Garré, (MSt History of Art and Visual Culture 2018)

This research project was made possible by generous funding awarded by the Edgar Wind Benefactors Committee and the John Fell Fund. It concerned the provenance of a set of photographs by Adolphe Braun of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, housed in the Visual Resources Centre. Also of interest was the possibility of a connection with Professor Edgar Wind, first Professor of History of Art at Oxford, who specialised in the work of Michelangelo.


Last year, like many fellow Master’s students, I was busy writing my dissertation, preparing for exams and sending out job applications. However, when the opportunity to investigate Adolphe Braun’s 1869 photographic reproductions of the Sistine Chapel came up, I happily embraced the possibility of making the term a little busier. Currently held at the Visual Resources Centre in the Department of History of Art these 125 carbon-print photographs have been digitised and are now available to view online on the Digital Bodleian site.

The prints were initially released in 1869 by the French photographer Adolphe Braun, whose company was among the earliest to make photographs of artworks available to a wider public. In fact, at the time of their release, Braun’s prints constituted the first photographic survey of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, making the images interesting not only from an aesthetic perspective but also from an historiographical one. Given this premise, it is not surprising that the department should want to find out more about the acquisition and subsequent uses of Braun’s series. It is precisely with this intention in mind that I first approached the photographs, though – this time, quite surprisingly – I soon realised that very little information existed on Braun’s series, its acquisition and its movements within the University.

Part of my surprise in this lack of documentation stemmed from a very practical consideration: Braun’s photographs, mounted on boards that are nearly half a metre tall, are hard to miss, particularly as they are housed in six, equally large, book-shaped cases. The cases themselves are covered in red leather bearing the crest of the Earl of Eldon, which provided me with a crucial piece of information on the origin of the series.

0002.jpgAdolphe Braun, View of the Sistine Chapel, box 1,  © Department of History of Art

The Eldon family made important contributions to the study of the Italian Renaissance at the University of Oxford. In 1845, the Second Earl of Eldon contributed £4000 towards the acquisition of drawings by Italian masters, and most notably by Michelangelo and Raphael. Twenty-three years later, in 1868, his son donated an additional £1200 to guarantee the maintenance of the drawings and the University’s continuing dedication to the illustration of Italian art.[1] Thus, it seems reasonable that the Eldon fund would have been used by the curators of the University Galleries, founded in 1855 and indicated as recipient of the second donation, to purchase Braun’s photographs.

Placing this reasonable hypothesis on firmer foundations, however, was a less straightforward endeavour than I had foreseen. The prints are unaccounted for in University publications such as the University Calendar, which limits itself to a laconic mention of the donations made by the Earls of Eldon in the issues published between 1855 and 1871.[2] Equally, I have not been able to uncover any definitive reference attesting to the precise moment of the prints’ acquisition. There are no comprehensive accounts of the University acquisitions in the nineteenth century and no extensive list of the artworks purchased using the Eldon Fund currently exists in the Ashmolean Museum or in other University archives.

Only the issue of University Gazette published on the 14th of June 1870 suggests, however vaguely, the presence of Braun’s photographic series, situating it at the north end of the Great Gallery in the University Galleries. There, the document claims, were ‘cases containing prints, with illustrations of the works of Michelangelo and Raphael, provided out of the funds placed at the disposal of the curators by the present Lord Eldon.’[3] The reference to the prints was intriguing, but far from unmistakable. The date of the account – June 1870 – struck me as especially problematic: could all the photographs, taken in Rome in 1869, have been printed and placed in personalized cases at such an early date?

In my attempt to answer the question, I relied on one of the few scholarly texts engaging directly with Braun’s Sistine Chapel series, Philippe Jarjat’s ‘Michelangelo’s Frescoes through the Camera’s Lens: The Photographic Album and Visual Identity,’ published in 2011. Jarjat’s discussion is centered on a series of images released in Paris, which resemble those in the collection of the Visual Resources Centre in both size and number. Furthermore, like their Oxonian counterparts, the Parisian prints are housed in book-shaped cases whose spines are covered in red leather (although, it should be noted, the French series only comprises two cases). [4]

Adolphe Braun, Delphic Sibyl and Daniel, box 4,  © Department of History of Art

According to Jarjat, such images would have been available individually and as part of a series from 1870 – a possibility that partly undermined my hypothesis, which located the images in the University Galleries as early as June 1870. However, while navigating the records of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, I stumbled upon a catalogue of Braun’s Sistine Chapel photographs dating back to 1869, listing in their present order all the images included in the Oxonian series with the exception of four prints capturing works by Perugino, Rosselli, Signorelli and Botticelli.[5] Jarjat’s article does not account for this document, and, in fact, claims that the earliest printed catalogue was released in 1876.[6]

The existence of the 1869 list conferred a renewed credibility onto the possibility that the cases mentioned in the 1870 University Gazette actually included those containing Braun’s prints by indicating that the images themselves may have been available before 1870. The prominence of the Eldon crest on the cases also sustains the hypothesis that the acquisition of Braun’s prints may have shortly followed the 1868 donation made by the Third Earl of Eldon. Assuming that the prints were actually acquired between late 1869 and early 1870, the University of Oxford would have been among the first to acquire Braun’s photographic reproductions of the Sistine Chapel: a gesture demonstrating the appeal of the images as well as the University’s interest in illustrating the Renaissance through a variety of media.

But how were the prints used between 1869 and their reappearance in the Visual Resources Centre in 2003 remains somewhat of a mystery. Braun’s photographs were moved to the Department of History of Art following the transfer of the Western Art Department Library from the Ashmolean Museum to the Sackler Library in 2001. This relocation was consistent with the different functions of the two institutions, the Visual Resources Centre constituting a more suitable home for the prints than the Sackler, which does not collect images.

However, very little information exists in the University’s records concerning the status of the images prior to the transfer. Considering the interest of Edgar Wind – the first Professor of the History of Art in Oxford – in Michelangelo’s work and his extensive research on the Sistine Chapel, looking for references to Braun’s prints in Wind’s scholarly work, personal and academic correspondence, and slides seemed appropriate. Unfortunately, though, these sources suggest that he may have not been aware of the existence of these images. For example, in 1958, three years after his appointment, Wind complained in a letter to Henry Allen Moe that ‘as for slides and photographs, there were none at all when I arrived.’[7]

0012Adolphe Braun, Ceiling of the Chapel in Four Parts, No. 2, box 1,  © Department of History of Art

The same lack of awareness (or interest) pervades other accounts, including the records of the Keeper of Fine Arts of the Ashmolean Museum, published from 1885. Such sources invariably mention the precious drawings and sketches held by the University, but they fail to place emphasis on the didactic and aesthetic value of Braun’s series or later photographic reproductions of artworks, such as those by Alinari and Anderson.

This probably tells us more about the perceived value of photography in nineteenth and early twentieth-century art historical practice than they do about the actual potential of Braun’s images. Indeed, it makes sense that University records and publications would disregard photographs in favour of originals at a time when photographic images were widely treated as ‘mere reproductions.’ By looking at the prints themselves, however, Braun’s ambition that his images be viewed as something more than simple reproductions emerges clearly. Not only do the quality and size of the photographs bear witness to their value: the variety of images of the Sistine Chapel ceiling – a curved and therefore uneasy surface to photograph – illustrate the technical skills of the photographers just as eloquently as they capture Michelangelo’s mastery.

Braun’s series is therefore endowed with multiple layers of significance. The early acquisition of the Oxonian set bespeaks the University’s openness to new forms of art historical illustration, while its general neglect in subsequent accounts testifies to the stature of photography among other forms of documentation and artistic practices. Maybe, had my final term in Oxford been a little quieter, I would have also been able to unravel the mystery of the photographs’ use in their 150 year-long sojourn at the University. As of now, though, I can only hope that another student will re-embark on this promising investigation.


Bibliography

Jarjat, Philippe. ‘Michelangelo’s Frescoes through the Camera’s Lens: The Photographic album and visual Identity.’ Art and the Early Photographic Album. Edited by Stephen Bann, 151-172. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

Moltedo, Alida. La Sistina Riprodotta: gli Affreschi di Michelangelo dalle Stampe del Cinquecento alle Campagne Fotografiche Anderson Calcografia. Roma: Fratelli Palombi Editori, 1991.

O’Brien, Maureen. Image and Enterprise. The Photographs of Adolphe Braun. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.

Wind, Edgar. The Religious Simbolism of Michelangelo: the Sistine Ceiling. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

 

[1] ‘Eldon Fund,’ Council Regulations 25 of 2002, 2. http://www.admin.ox.ac.uk/statutes/regulations/councilregs25/Ashmolean%20Museum%20of%20Art%20and%20Archaeology.pdf

[2] In each issue, the Eldon donation is mentioned in the section devoted to the University Galleries. See The Oxford University Calendar, issues from 1855 to 1871.

[3] Henry W. Acland, ‘University Galleries,’ University Gazette Vol.1 No.19 (June 14, 1870), 9.

[4] Philippe Jarjat, ‘Michelangelo’s Frescoes through the Camera’s Lens: The Photographic album and visual Identity,’ Art and the Early Photographic Album, edited by Stephen Bann, 151-172 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).

[5] Rome. Palais du Vatican, Chapelle Sixtine. Fresques de Michel-Ange reproduites par Adolphe Braun. Mulhouse: L.L. Bader, 1869.

[6] Ibid, 156

[7] Correspondence between Edgar Wind and Henry Allan Moe, 1st July 1958, MS. Wind 13, Box 1, Folder 1. Edgar Wind Papers, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.