Slade

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.

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2018 Oxford Slade Lectures ‘From Drawing to Painting in the Italian Renaissance’

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


In March 2018, people visiting the Ashmolean Museum had the rare opportunity to see a remarkable group of drawings by Michelangelo. This temporary exhibition offered a unique insight into the artist’s draftsmanship while hinting at the role played by drawings in the creation of artworks that are now considered among the most representative of the Italian Renaissance. But the Ashmolean Museum was not alone in raising questions on the wider significance of Renaissance drawings. This year’s Slade Lectures, given by Professor David Ekserdjian (University of Leicester), considered how drawings by some of the most famous Italian artists from the period honed the form and content of their major works. Starting with Michelangelo and ending with the Carracci brothers, Prof Ekserdjian surveyed nearly a century of Italian art, discussing ‘la crème de la crème’ of Renaissance draftsmanship. Each lecture focused on a single pictorial project, endeavouring to reconstruct its evolution through a close examination of the artist’s preparatory drawings.

The lectures were framed by a preliminary discussion on the history of drawings’ use in the process of art production, demonstrating that such an investigation would hardly be possible in Europe prior to the sixteenth century. For the second lecture focus was turned to some of the sketches and drawings created by Michelangelo for the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, examining a number of examples from the Ashmolean’s own collection. This lecture was especially interesting in its reconstruction of Michelangelo’s creative process. In fact, the sketches and letters considered by Prof Ekserdjian encouraged an understanding of the Chapel as the product of a collaboration between the artist and his patrons. This perhaps unsurprising conclusion was nevertheless intriguing in light of Michelangelo’s notorious ambition to be acknowledged as the sole author of his work.

FI photo 1© Department of History of Art

The significance of drawings in the professional relationship among artists and their patrons was not limited to Michelangelo. This is certainly the case for Correggio’s drawings of The Assumption of the Virgin, the fresco decorating the dome of the Cathedral of Parma. The preparatory sheets suggest that the dome had already been sketched by Correggio before he signed the contract, pointing to the crucial role played by drawings themselves in the dynamics of the artist’s recruitment. Parmigianino’s studies for his unfinished Madonna with the Long Neck, the subject of the fifth lecture, were equally informative in highlighting otherwise elusive details in the history of the work’s commission. Reflecting on the quality of the finish of Parmigianino’s preliminary drawings, Prof Ekserdjian compellingly suggested that the artist must have used them to illustrate the project to his patrons.

Despite placing emphasis on the collaborative nature of these artworks, Prof Ekserdjian did not undermine the importance of the individual artist, whose direct engagement was often seen as essential by the patrons themselves. Correggio’s contract for the Assumption of the Virgin, for example, specifies that all the figures included in the fresco had to be made exclusively by the artist. This attests to the perceived superiority of the artist in Renaissance Italy, but it also testifies to the technical difficulty of the project, which required an experienced artist to tackle. Correggio had to conduct extensive studies before assembling the composition of the fresco, which was to include numerous figures viewed from below.

FI photo 6© Department of History of Art

These studies lend themselves particularly well to illustrating how artists in general used sketches to negotiate the difficulty of engaging with curved surfaces, large scale or unusual viewing perspectives. A similar challenge was also faced by Annibale and Agostino Carracci in planning their monumental cycle for the curved ceiling of the Farnese Gallery, The Loves of the Gods. As Prof Ekserdjian argued in his final lecture, the Carracci brothers’ exploratory sketches show that they were well aware of the difficulties of transposing the pictorial composition onto the ceiling of one of the rooms in the Farnese Gallery. To solve the problem, they designed an architectural and sculptural grid framing the pictorial scenes of the fresco that would transpose well onto the curved ceiling.

The fact that artists were facing complex practical challenges is demonstrated not only by their studies on how to transpose drawings onto unusual surfaces, but also by the representational strategies they adopted while completing the drawings themselves. The sheets examined in the lectures often reflect the hierarchy of mediums used by artists in their drawings to distinguish final ideas from exploratory studies. Michelangelo, for example, relied on colour to draw such distinctions, using red chalk for finished works and black pen for initial sketches. Florentine artist Bronzino also adopted a somewhat hierarchical approach to mediums in his studies for the decoration of the private chapel of Duchess Eleonora of Toledo. Looking at the relatively few surviving sketches for this project alongside those made in preparation for other frescoes, Prof Ekserdjian observed that Bronzino used chalk for his finished drawings, while pen was used when the artist was ‘thinking out loud.’

All the aforementioned aspects of Renaissance drawing practices seem to point in a single direction. That is, they all bear eloquent witness to the assiduous studies, often impossible to detect in the final work, that lie at the root of these artworks’ creation. This is perhaps most evident in Raphael’s sketches for the Stanza della Segnatura, examined early in the series. Indeed, Raphael’s frantic drawings, in which numerous poses and combinations are considered by the artist before settling on a final arrangement, betray the amount of work behind his seemingly effortless frescoes. Using drawings as his starting point, Prof Ekserdjian proved that Raphael was so meticulous in his formal investigation that he even sketched the reliefs decorating the architectural setting of the School of Athens. Not unlike Raphael, the lesser known Federico Barocci also completed punctilious preparatory studies for his altarpiece of the Madonna del Popolo, now on display at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Over one-hundred sheets tracing the gestation of the altarpiece survive, mirroring the artist’s diligence in studying both the poses of the individual figures and the composition’s overall appearance.

slide53© Ashmolean Museum

The reasons behind artists’ alterations of their original plans were varied, ranging from purely aesthetic and formal motivations to changes endowed with deeper symbolic and political significance. Correggio’s changes to his depiction of the Virgin belong, at least in part, to the latter category. The artist’s studies for the Assumption reveal that the Virgin’s pose, which originally envisioned the Madonna with her legs spread and visible, had to be changed to avoid causing a scandal. Similarly, Raphael’s Poetry in the Parnassus fresco, originally drawn nude, was partially clothed in the fresco to elude the risk of seeming inappropriate to his contemporaries. Drawings thus give us information about how the artist modified his design in order to comply with contemporary norms of decorum regulating artistic representation.

In our opinion, the enormous potential of Prof Ekserdjian’s minute analysis of Renaissance drawings lies precisely in its ability to detect such differences and to hint at their politically and culturally charged nature. His largely formal investigation of the relation among the final piece and the artist’s preparatory sheets constitutes an intriguing counterpart to our own research, which pays greater attention to questions of gender, class and race in connection with Renaissance art. Nevertheless, this year’s Slade Lectures consistently raised points that may be interpreted under the lens of cultural studies. By way of example, the fact that the Carraccis first sketched a female model while developing a male character of the fresco may open up interesting questions related to the politics of gender inversion in art.

All in all, this year’s Slade Lectures offered interesting insights to an audience of students and experts in the field as well as Art History enthusiasts. Prof Ekserdjian can be sure to have passed on to the public very thorough yet accessible information on the making of some of the most iconic artworks of the Italian Renaissance, ultimately furthering our understanding of this complex historical period. He is to be truly congratulated for his fascinating analysis.


Professor David Ekserdjian is the Slade Professor 2017-18 at Oxford. He is Professor of Art and Film History at the University of Leicester. 

Please look out for a follow-up blog by Irene and Sofia on a student workshop held by Professor Ekserdjian in the Department of History of Art.

2017 Oxford Slade Lectures, The Material Presence of Absent Antiquities: Collecting Excessive Objects and the Revival of the Past

By Aidan Mehigan, Current Graduate MSt History of Art and Visual Culture


Caroline van Eck’s 2017 Oxford Slade Lectures, The Material Presence of Absent Antiquities: Collecting Excessive Objects and the Revival of the Past, were announced by a flyer bearing an image of an ornate candelabrum sculpted under the supervision of Giambattista Piranesi and now housed in the Louvre. In just the small part of the object captured by the photo, we can see several tiers of stonework, a lion’s head, acanthus leaves, foliated strigilations, clusters of berries, and much more. Van Eck’s idea of the “excessive object” is immediately clear.

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Close-up of the Louvre Candelabrum, © Hende Bauer

But what made me (and I’m sure many others) particularly excited for these lectures—even though, as the Slade Lectures, they really need no further advertising—is the fact that this object has two siblings in Oxford. The Ashmolean Museum houses two such candelabra, purchased from Piranesi’s workshop in the mid-eighteenth century by Roger Newdigate, who donated them to the University in 1775. They spent a few decades in the Radcliffe Camera before moving to the Greek and Roman sculpture collection at the Ashmolean in 1846.

The first few Slade Lectures this year, then, stayed very close to home, and I think we all relished the opportunity to learn more about a set of objects with which we already had some passing familiarity. Prof. van Eck spent several sessions walking us through the controversial provenance of these complicated works and explored their ancient precedents, initial reception after their supposed “discovery,” and relationship to Piranesi’s other design work and drawings.

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Candelabras in the Ashmolean, © Aidan Mehigan

Despite their imposing form, the Ashmolean candelabra are easy to overlook—because they are placed against a wall, it’s impossible to get a full view of them, and since they flank a doorway, the natural impulse is to keep on moving. The chance to be forced to spend some significant time really looking at them in detail, to see them close read again and again from a variety of angles, was most welcome.

But it soon became apparent that, despite her intensive initial focus on them, the candelabra themselves are not the real focus of Prof. van Eck’s project. Putting on a display of the trademark scholarly versatility and appetite for wide-ranging argumentation that have made her reputation over the years, Prof. van Eck has, in her last few talks, pivoted to an in-depth exploration not of any particular objects but to the birth and intellectual roots of Neoclassicism itself.

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Candelabra in the Ashmolean, © Aidan Mehigan

Patrons, artists, viewers, collectors, and their habits have all had their part to play as Prof. van Eck has probed into the origins of the eighteenth-century impulse to make present an ancient past. Characters as diverse as Wolfgang van Goethe, Caroline van Humboldt, and Aby Warburg have all made appearances. Objects themselves have wielded considerable agency as well, particularly given that, as Prof. van Eck has pointed out, certain works (such as Canova’s Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix) were perceived by their contemporaries to be truly alive, and were treated as such.

Other topics that have been incorporated into the series include the profusion of animal-related imagery, especially in tableware, and its links to ideas of domestication, totem poles and Rorschach inkblots, the eclectic interiors of the Hôtel de Beauharnais in Paris, and the emergence of the tableau vivant—all of which, Prof. van Eck is careful to repeatedly point out, were conceived, created, and experienced in contexts that predate the museum.

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© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

In a conversation with the History of Art Department’s own architectural historian, Dr. Matthew Walker, as part of a reception held at St. Peter’s College on February 21, Prof. van Eck made explicit for the first time just what she’s driving at with this impressively large cast of objects and moments. As one might have suspected, the book project she envisions developing out of this lecture series will not be about the Piranesi candelabra in the Ashmolean or elsewhere, but rather more generally about the formation and emergence of the Empire Style in early nineteenth century France.

The candelabra, fascinating objects though they may be, are, for Prof. van Eck, most useful as summary objects around which to organize both the initial questions she’s interested in asking and the later-emerging concepts her analysis engages with. That they are so striking certainly makes this organizational role a vivid and memorable one, but Prof. van Eck has made clear that her interests here are in higher-order phenomena themselves rather than any particular manifestations thereof.

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© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

The final two lectures of the series elaborated on the ideas previewed at the St. Peter’s reception. The whole audience was especially intrigued by lecture seven, in which Prof. van Eck surveyed a great deal of literature in cognitive neuroscience and behavioral anthropology to familiarize us with the essentially universal human tendency to assign animacy and intentionality to even the most abstract movements and visual stimuli.

Though it took some time to get an audience of art historians and art enthusiasts up to speed on some occasionally quite technical material, this foray into the sciences proved crucial to substantiating Prof. van Eck’s point that the defining feature of the Empire Style is its immersiveness: uncanny animal forms invite us to grasp and control the world of objects. For Prof. van Eck, the Empire Style profoundly entangles humans with things.

Prof. van Eck, at the opening of her final lecture, urged us to consider a line from an essay by Novalis on Goethe: “antiquity is only now coming into being.” In this moment, one of her larger implicit arguments of this series immediately became clear: Piranesi and his fellow antiquarians were not restoring, recovering, or reimagining antiquity—they were creating it. The artistic and intellectual situation in Napoleon’s Paris around 1800 prefigured, she asserts, the material turn currently taking place in the academy—where the obsession is not with ideas or texts but overwhelmingly with things and their thing-ness.

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© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

In this final lecture, Prof. van Eck wonderfully demonstrated the need for scholars to bring together anthropological ideas about agency attribution and art historical ideas of style formation. Anthropology, archaeology, and art history all have claims on the object, and it is only by uniting them, Prof. van Eck concluded, that we can begin tackling the problems of materiality.

I can’t be alone when I say that I was wowed by the breadth and depth of Prof. van Eck’s lectures and that I left them unsettled and inspired in equal parts. I’m sure our memories and notes from this term will serve us all well for years to come. We’ll certainly need something to tide us over until the book arrives, and I believe I speak for everyone when I say I am incredibly excited for that day to come.


Professor Caroline van Eck was appointed in October 2016 as Professor of History of Art at the University of Cambridge.