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GIOVANNI MORELLI (1816-1891)

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Originally appearing in Volume V18, Page 830 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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GIOVANNI MORELLI (1816-1891), Italian patriot and art critic, was born at Verona on the 16th of February 1816. He was educated first at Bergamo, the home of his mother, who had removed thither on the death of her husband; and then at Aarau in Switzerland. At the age of eighteen he commenced his university career at Munich, being debarred as a Protestant from entering any Italian college, and became the pupil of Ignatius Dellinger, the celebrated professor' of anatomy and physiology. Natural philosophy and medicine were the studies to which he specially devoted himself, but he was also keenly interested in all scientific and literary pursuits. At Munich, and later at Erlangen, Berlin and Paris, his brilliant gifts and independence of thought and judgment attracted the attention of the most distinguished men of the day. In Paris he became intimate with Otto Miindler, and his intercourse with that eminent art critic was not without its effect in deter-mining the direction of his future studies; and, during a summer spent in Switzerland, he formed a friendship with Louis Agassiz; whose teaching made a deep and lasting impression upon him. On his return to Italy in 184o he became associated in Florence with that band of patriots who were strenuously labouring for the deliverance of their country from the oppressive Austrian rule. He took an active part in the war of 1848, and was subsequently chosen by the provisional Lombard government to plead the cause of Italian unity before the German parliament assembled at Frankfort. In 186o, in recognition of the great services rendered to his country by Morelli, Victor Emmanuel named him a citizen of the Sardinian kingdom, and in the following year he was elected deputy for Bergamo to the first free Italian parliament. He was a staunch supporter of Cavour, and, though never a leading politician, exercised a considerable influence over the most prominent statesmen of the Right, who valued his sound judgment, integrity, moderation and foresight. One of his first acts after his election was to draw the attention of parliament to the urgent need of reform in the administration of matters relating to the fine arts. In con-sequence of his representations, a commission was appointed with the object of bringing under government control all works of art which could be considered public property. The commission, of which Morelli was named president, began its work in Umbria and the Marches, and he appointed as his secretary G. B. Cavalcaselle', who was then engaged in collecting materials for a work on Italian art. According to one who knew Morelli well, much that Cavalcaselle then learned from his chief was embodied in the well-known History of Painting, which was published in 1864 in conjunction with Sir Joseph Crowe. The immediate result of Morelli's first labours in the Marches was the passing of the law, which bears his name, strictly prohibiting the sale of works of art from public and religious institutions. In 1873 he was named a senator of the kingdom of Italy, having voluntarily resigned his seat in the Lower House owing' to the increasingly democratic tendencies of the Chamber. In Rome, the seat of the government since 187o, he spent several months of each year; but his settled home was Milan, whither he had removed from Bergamo in 1874. Here he published some of his researches into the history of Italian art. In order to be free to speak his mind unreservedly, he determined to adopt 'a pseudonym and to write in German. His first contributions, a series of articles on the Borghese Gallery, were published in Lutzow's Zeitschrilt fur bildende Kunst between the years 1874 and 1876. Posing as an art-loving Russian, who puts forth his opinions with the utmost diffidence, he adopted the pseudonym of Ivan Lermolieff—an anagram of his own name with a Russian termination—and described his essays as Fin kritischer Versuch, translated from the Russian by Johannes Schwarze, this time a Germanized form of Morelli. The originality of the method recommended by the author for studying art, the general soundness of his critical opinions, and the many new (and apparently correct) attributions suggested for pictures in the Borghese Gallery and elsewhere, attracted the attention of all students of art; but failure attended every attempt to discover the identity of the Russian critic. In 188o Morelli published a small book under the same pseudonym, entitled, Die Werke italienischer Meister in den Galerien von Munchen, Dresden and Berlin. The appearance of this volume, which was cast in so original a form that it was altogether unlike anything which had preceded it in the realm of art scholarship, created an extraordinary sensation. The daring opinions expressed by the author struck at the roots of all existing art criticism, and were often diametrically opposed to the views of the most renowned art historians of the day. The importance of the work could not be denied, and in spite of determined opposition and searching and bitter attacks, it gained general recognition as a standard work which no serious student of art could ignore. It inaugurated a new and more scientific method of criticism, and marks an epoch in the art studies of the 19th century. The book was translated into English in 1883, with Morelli's own name upon the title-page, and a few years later into Italian. In the decade between 188o and 1890 he contributed three articles to German periodicals : Perugino oder Raffael, Raffaels Jugendentwickelung, Nock einmal das venezianische Skizzenbuch. Being addressed to critics who had challenged his opinions, they are somewhat polemical in character, but contain a mass of information, more especially about drawings. He also wrote a skit on art connoisseurship in Europe, intending to publish it in English as the reflections of an American on the follies of art critics in the Old World; but he never carried out his intention, though some portion of the MS. was embodied in the first part of his Critical Studies. This volume, the first of a series of three which, under the title of Kunstkritische Studien, was to contain all Morelli's contributions to art literature, was published in ago. The first part, cast in dialogue form, contains a detailed exposition of his method. Then follow The Borghese Gallery, a reissue of his former articles with many important additions, and The Doria Gallery, an entirely new contribution. The second volume deals with the galleries of Munich and Dresden, and is a revised edition of the first two parts of the original book of i88o; but here again copious additions rendered it practically a new book. The third volume was to treat of the Berlin Gallery, and was also to contain an exhaustive account of the drawings of Italian masters, but it was destined never to be carried out. Morelli was taken seriously ill towards the middle of February 189r, and was found to be suffering from heart disease and other complications; a fortnight later he died at Milan, on the 28th of February. His collection of drawings by the old masters he bequeathed to his pupil, Dr Frizzoni, and his pictures, over too in number, to the city of Bergamo, where they are now exhibited as the Galleria Morelli in two rooms of the Accademia Carrara. A striking half-length portrait by Lenbach, who presented it to his friend in 1886, forms part of the collection. In memory of Morelli a bronze bust of him by a Milanese artist has been placed in the Brera; but his features are more worthily presented in a second portrait by Lenbach and in a life-like pastel sketch executed by the Empress Frederick in 1884, when he was her guest at Baveno. After the death of Morelli the first two volumes of his Critical Studies were published in English, Sir Henry Layard, one of his most intimate friends, contributing to the first a biographical sketch of the author; and the fragmentary MS. of the third volume was published in German by Dr Frizzoni, under whose editorship an Italian translation of the first volume has also been issued. Morelli found art criticism uninspired, unscientific and practically worthless. To be of any real value he held that historical, documentary and traditional knowledge respecting works of art was only of secondary importance as compared with the evidence to be derived from the study of the pictures themselves. He contended that art criticism must be conductedon scientific principles and follow a strict course of inductive reasoning. A painting should be subjected to a searching analysis, and its component parts and minutest details submitted to methodical and exact investigation. The study of the individual parts and forms was, in his estimation, of the highest importance, for they were not mere incidents, but the outward and visible seal of an artist's character stamped upon his work, and obvious to all who had eyes to see. By diligent observation of the forms the rudiments of the language of art might be mastered, and the first step taken towards initiating a methodized system of study. The education of a critic consists chiefly in learning to compare, and Morelli soon recognized the value of systematic comparison in the study of art. By the combined methods of critical analysis and comparative observation he found the clue he had so long been seeking. Studying one day in the Ufliizi, it suddenly struck him that in a picture by Botticelli containing several figures the drawing of the hands was remarkably similar in all; that the same characteristic but plebeian type, with bony fingers, broad square nails, and dark outlines, was repeated in every figure. Turning to the ears, he observed that they also were drawn in an individual manner, and that in the numerous figures in which the ear was visible the same typical form recurred. Having noted these fundamental forms, he proceeded to an examination of other works by this painter, and found that the same forms were exactly repeated, together with other individual traits which seemed distinctive of the master: the characteristic type of head and expression, the drawing of the nostrils, the vitality of movement, the disposition of drapery, harmony of colour (where it had not been tampered with by the restorer), and quality of landscape. In all Botticelli's true works the presence of these and other characteristics proclaimed their genuineness. In paintings where the forms and types were those of the painter, but where vitality, movement, and all deeper qualities were absent, Morelli recognized works executed from the master's cartoons; while in pictures where neither types nor forms responded to the test, and where only a general family likeness connected them with Botticelli, he discerned the productions of pupils and imitators. After applying his method to the works of Botticelli, he proceeded to examine those of other Florentine masters, and afterwards of painters of other Italian schools, everywhere meeting with results to him not less convincing. If the drawing of the hand and ear were not always conspicuous, there were other peculiarities of this language of form to aid in the identification of a master: the treatment of the hair, as in Piero dei Franceschi; the indication of the sinews, as in Foppa; the drawing of the eye, as in Liberale da Verona; the modelling of the eyelid and upper lip, as in Ambrogio de Predis; the form of the feet, as in Luini. In short, all apparently insignificant details were of importance in his plan of study, for to him they were like the signature of the master. (C. J. F.*)
End of Article: GIOVANNI MORELLI (1816-1891)
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