Maurizio Calvesi


Balzan Preis 2008 für Die Bildenden Künste ab 1700

Interdisziplinäres Forum der Balzan Preisträger 2008
Rom, 21. November 2008 - Accademia dei Lincei

60 Years of Studies: a Synthesis

My studies in art history take up sixty years, from the time of my thesis in 1949 at the Sapienza in Rome with Lionello Venturi. It was on Simone Peterzano, Caravaggio’s master, while my first publication on another Lombard Mannerist, Gian Paolo Lomazzo, was in 1951. As a consequence, the list of themes I have dealt with is very long and I can only limit myself to recalling the arguments that I think I have made the most interesting contributions to.

For Simone Peterzano, I found some new things, including a self-portrait that made it possible to identify the face of the master of Caravaggio, who said he was “Titiani alumnus” in his signature. From that thesis on, I have always continued to study Caravaggio, to whom I dedicated a long paper in 1971, a monograph in 1990 and various studies after that, too. I will briefly refer to the new things I introduced into Caravaggio studies, in a radical revision of his poetics and his personality. It was long opposed, but is now largely accepted. In the meantime, I was able to establish the birthplace of the painter in Milan and not in the little town from which the name comes, and I showed he was born on 29 September 1571, and not as previously thought, on 28 September 1573. A lot of noise was made by opponents, especially by fans of his origins in Caravaggio, but date and place were confirmed by the later discovery of his baptismal certificate.

The readings I put forward on Caravaggio (no longer seen as the “pittore maledetto” but rather as the exponent of a deeply felt Borromeo type of religiousness, and these proposals were shared and taken into greater depth by my students who now hold university positions, like Alessandro Zuccari, Stefania Macioce and Caterina Volpi) fall into three categories: an indication of the iconological content and symbolism (starting with light) in the artist’s works, including the early ones, and identification of a high cultural level that was anything but unrefined, popular or spontaneous; pointing out his affinity to the oratory milieu (as already put forward by Friedländer), and the explanation of access to this milieu thanks to an original adherence to the religiosity of Charles Borromeo, not to mention to Federico Borromeo’s presence in Rome, also as a relative of the Marchioness of Caravaggio and close to her; the constant protection the painter enjoyed from the Marchioness (also confirmed by documents) as well as from her brothers and nephews; the relation of Caravaggio’s pauperism with very precise inclinations and ideals or orientations from the connections (also of a socio-political nature) that connected a certain Francophile side of the Italian nobility, the “leftist” alignment of the Counter-Reformation and the same circuit of the mendicant orders; and finally the centrality, in this framework, of the oratory milieu, and demonstration that all or almost all of Caravaggio’s collectors and patrons gravitated around it, from Vittrice to the Crescenzi, from the Massimo, to the Medici and to Federico Borromeo himself, not to mention the Mattei and the Giustiniani. An example of the iconological analysis of Caravaggio’s paintings might concern the famous Calling of St. Matthew in the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi de’ Francesi in Rome.

Most of my studies have been dedicated to Renaissance painting and I think that the ones dedicated to the Sistine Chapel have been especially relevant. I have explored these frescoes from an iconological point of view, succeeding in shedding light, through the commentary of St. Augustine and the Patristics, on the links that connect the fifteenth century scenes, compared among themselves, of the life of Jesus and the life of Moses. Through the heads of the Church Fathers, I then identified the precise relations that link the pairs of fifteenth century scenes with the scenes in the vault above them by Michelangelo, so that the whole decorative scheme turned out to be a whole that was well-connected in its themes – previously, the fifteenth century parts had not been well-understood and hence judged as being entirely devoid of any sort of connection with Michelangelo’s frescoes of thirty years later.  

I have also been actively interested in the antiquarian culture of Rome, from the fifteenth century to Piranesi, and I have put forward a radically innovative study on the most important among fifteenth century antiquity studies, or the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili or the Strife of love in a dream. This is the most beautiful illustrated book of the Renaissance, published in Venice by Aldus Manutius in December 1499. It is full of references to the history of art not only through the splendid woodcuts that illustrate this singular romance, but also through the continuous references to monuments and sculpture, as well as the frequent allegories that make it a fundamental text for delving into the iconology Renaissance art. The initials of the chapters, read one after the other, form the following acrostic: Poliam frater Franciscus Columna peramavit, that is, friar Francesco Colonna loves Polia immensely. On the indication in a note by Apostolo Zeno that I showed was false, the book was attributed to friar Francesco Colonna of the Venetian convent Santi Giovanni e Paolo. I instead was able to give it back to its true author, the noble Roman Francesco Colonna, Lord of Palestrina, recognising in the temple described in the Hypnerotomachia, the Temple of Fortuna Primigenia in Palestrina, even though transfigured in the imagination. Francesco Colonna himself had restored this temple and he built his own residence at the top in 1493. I then identified different references to monuments and Roman sculptural complexes and deciphered the allegories that the romance abounds in, just as it also abounds in pseudo-Egyptian hieroglyphs. From the context, it appears that the noble Colonna was a member of the famous Accademia Romana of Pomponio Leto, all traces of which were lost later after pontifical persecution, and from that context it was also possible to discover suggestions on what the doctrine – fervently devoted to Antiquity – of Pomponio’s Accademia must have been.

One of the hardest-fought battles of my career as a scholar (and from this a recent, very successful American novel has been inspired, Il codice del Quattro, in which I am remembered as the “well-known Renaissance scholar” who discovered the true identity of Francesco Colonna, while being the victim of all sorts of attacks from his academic rival). In effect the advocates of the Venetian paternity long persevered in attributing the precious book to the Venetian friar. But he was an unknown personality, while for the noble Roman Francesco Colonna there are laudatory epigrams that compare him to no less than Cicero and Virgil. Today, all of the major scholars in the field (from Salvatore Battaglia and Eugenio Garin to Carlo Ossola, from Antonio Maria Adorisio to Phillis Pray Bober, from Lamberto Donati to Silvia Danesi Squarzina, from Francesco Barbieri to Stefano Borsi, from Stefano Colonna to Armando Petrucci) have all long accepted my attribution and my interpretation of the romance, as well as the connections with Roman antiquarian culture. Among the many controversies that have been resolved in my favour, I recall one related to the famous mosaic of the Nile, that was found and is in fact still there in the sanctuary of Palestrina which Francesco Colonna the Roman owned, and that is mentioned in the romance. Supporters of the Venetian thesis maintain that this citation simply depended on an excerpt from Pliny, in which the mosaic was recalled, and not from an impossible knowledge of the mosaic itself, which was discovered only later, in the seventeenth century. However, I tracked down sixteenth century citations of the mosaic and my student Claudia La Malfa showed documentary evidence that the mosaic was already known in Francesco Colonna’s time, and was certainly well-known to him. The title frater recalled in the acrostic, which has caused so many misinterpretations, depended on the fact that the noble Roman was apostolic protonotary and canon of St. Peter and St. John Lateran, while at the same time alluding to his membership in the fraternitas of the Accademia romana.

I will also mention my studies on Giorgione, whose poetics I have shown to be influenced by the Dialoghi d’Amore of Leone Ebreo, who was in Venice at the beginning of the sixteenth century. From that point my research was driven by the desire to acknowledge Giorgione’s connections with Judaism. Giorgione must have been Jewish, in fact, or perhaps a convert, or in any event very close to Jewish culture. This thesis, too, was not initially well-received, but has in recent years found widespread acceptance and confirmation. Giorgione’s Judaism enables us to put into better focus the singular figure of this great painter, whose production is relatively limited, and mainly constituted of paintings that illustrate scenes from the Old Testament, or of secular subjects that are not easily interpreted.

Piero della Francesca has been the subject of a few papers and a large monograph (1998, second edition 2001). I organised his production from a stylistic point of view, while going into great depth in examining his work mainly from an iconological point of view. Since I cannot go into great detail about it, in this case, too, I will illustrate with a fascinating work like the Madonna del Parto in Monterchi.

I have also dedicated various studies to Titian, Raphael, Botticelli, Correggio, Bronzino and Annibale Carracci, almost all of which are centred on iconological analysis, and I am about to publish a collection of over fifty papers on the art of the Italian Renaissance.

One of my initial studies, on the Sacro Bosco, or sacred grove, of Bomarzo, the so-called Bosco dei Mostri, was treated in greater depth in a book that came out in 2001. Portrayed in the rock with results that in some cases have an extraordinary force, the sculptures in Vicino Orsini’s garden were considered as the caprice of a nobleman who, in the second half of the sixteenth century, had peopled his park with figures of various types. The supposedly had no connection to each other, and are commented upon in more than once case with verses sculpted into the rock – verses that were considered amusing but vulgar. Through my analysis, I put Bomarzo in the framework of chivalric poems, above all Bernardo Tasso’s (L’Aminta) and his son Torquato’s, reading the whole in a key of the enchanted wood of the Gerusalemme Liberata, where Lucifer moved with his demons in order to defeat the Christian army, and I compared this analysis with the discovery of sources of almost all of the inscriptions in verse in the garden. Far from being vulgar, they take up verses by Petrarch, Bembo, Ariosto and Bernardo Tasso.

A special branch of my studies is dedicated to the relationship between art and alchemy, a new subject not only in Italy. As is well-known, Gustav Jung had recognised various figures from the alchemical repertory in the dreams of his patients, figures which had emerged in the dreams as forms of the collective unconscious. I extended this comparison to art, not in the key of the unconscious, but rather with an awareness of alchemical culture, tracking down unmistakeable traces in a span of art that goes from the Renaissance to the twentieth century, from Dürer, mainly, to Marcel Duchamp. I was thus able to decipher the famous Dürer engraving Melancholia I an alchemical key, recognising different instruments and images from the alchemical opus and demonstrating that the word Melancholy, in alchemical jargon, is equivalent to Melanosis, or Nigredo, which means the first phase of the process. (Melancholia I).

In Duchamp’s writings and in the volume that I dedicated to the French master in 1975, I was able to explain his art and his presumed nonsense in light of alchemical doctrine, revisited with subtle irony by the painter: the title of Duchamp’s main work (The Large Glass) is: La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même, or the bride stripped bare by her bachelors, idem. I realised that this title lent itself to a second reading, according to the techniques in vogue in Dadaist milieus of the period. The second title is: La Marie est mise à nue par ses celibatteurs, followed by même, which invites repetition. Both the stripped spouse on the wedding night, and the Virgin Mary when assumed bodily into heaven (or put on a cloud) by her celestial beaters and threshers, are figures of the philosopher’s stone. Both stripping and threshing are in fact processes of purification, and are adopted as metaphors in alchemical treatises. All of Duchamp’s work can be explained on the basis of linguistic games of this sort.

With this, we are at the part of my scholarly production that is concerned with the subject matter of the Prize (The Visual Arts since 1700). As regards the eighteenth century, I mention above all my numerous studies on Giovan Battista Piranesi. As director of the Calcografia Nazionale, the graphics institute, in 1967, I discovered and published a stupendous engraving by Piranesi, which he had rejected because of defects in the bite, and abandoned, on the backs of two plates that had been used instead. In a revision of the backs of all of the plates, I discovered a beautiful Fall of Phaeton that belonged to the happiest and most famous moments of Piranesi the visionary, that is, the Prisons and Caprices, not to mention several new upheavals concerning Giovan Battista’s son, Francesco. I then put forward, in my writings on the engraver, radically innovative theses, no longer putting his vision in a setting of a raving forerunner of Romanticism, but rather in the antiquarian tradition (the Prisons as an imaginary re-evocation of the Mamertino prison and the fatal Scalae Gemoniae) and in the Enlightenment culture of Vico and Montesquieu, imbued with Jansenist and Masonic feeling. The thesis of Piranesi’s being a Mason or having Masonic inclinations was obviously hotly debated, but it was then recognised and accepted without objections, and the discovery became res nullius, but I am equally satisfied.
Many architects and archaeologists or sculptors between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were Masons, including the Sicilian Valerio Villareale, who died in 1854. I entrusted a research project to two of my students from Palermo, Diana Malignaggi and Dora Favatello, who found documents proving Villareale’s belonging to the Masonry, and they published their findings in a book, with an introduction by me. Other nineteenth century Sicilian artists whom I have promoted studies on and introduced related monographic publications are Michele Catti and Antonio Sciuti. For that matter, I have discovered a beautiful face frescoed by Sciuti in a noble residence in Arpino, publication of which is in progress. Other fresco of a certain importance that I have discovered are in the Oratorio della Concezione in Ferrara, by Baldassarre d’Este and collaborators, which came to light during restoration work I directed in 1957, and the frescoes by Galileo Chini of 1911 which I discovered, brought to light and restored under a false dome covering the cupola in the central pavilion of the Venice Biennale, which I was director of in 1984 and in 1986.

Besides articles on Cézanne and Antonio Mancini, another nineteenth century argument I have dealt with recently has been Costantino Simonidis, the well-known forger of ancient texts, to whom Luciano Canfora has restored the attribution of the presumed papyrus of Artemidorus recently exhibited in Turin. This papyrus, which supposedly handed down the geographical work of the Greek Artemidorus (I century B. C.), contains a preface in which I was able to find a very clear trace from a nineteenth century volume of the great German geographer Carl Ritter, and thus contribute to confirming the sensational discovery of Luciano Canfora.

Among the numerous studies I have dedicated to the XXth century, I mention here, besides the abovementioned ones on Marcel Duchamp, the monograph on Roberto Melli of 1954 and in particular, the studies on Futurism.

From the 1950s onwards, I embarked on a series of publications aimed towards a re-evaluation of Futurism, obtaining positive results both in Italy as well as outside Italy, although with a great deal of effort in the first years.

In 1953 I organised on behalf of G .C. Argan a big exhibit on Umberto Boccioni in the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome, and I was curator of the illustrative and philological parts of the monograph by G.C. Argan and M. Calvesi on Umberto Boccioni in 1953, publishing a large quantity of unpublished material, re-establishing the dates of his paintings on the basis of documents found in his sister’s possession in Verona. Up to that time most of the dates had been erroneous, thus this work delineated the first complete biography, as well as an anthology of his writings. This is where my re-evaluation of Futurism began, with books and papers on the whole of the movement, on Marinetti, Boccioni, Balla, Carrà, Severini and the relationships with Russian Futurism and with European avant-garde movements.

My book Le due avanguardie. Dal Futurismo alla Pop Art published in Milan by Lerici in 1966 and reprinted by Laterza (Bari) in 1971, in 1981, in 1991, in 2001 and in 2008 contains the writings I published on Boccioni and other masters and on aspects of Futurism, from 1958 to 1966.

My contributions to the study of Futurism were then continued with other papers, volumes and exhibits, in a vast scholarly bibliography.

I tackled various aspects of the poetics of Futurism, although privileging the powerful figure of Umberto Boccioni. Among other things, I radically rebutted the thesis that linked him to Fascism – Fascism was definitely later than the flowering of the movement, whose fundamental contribution does fit in with nationalist colourings, but it also fits in with anarchic-socialist and radicalising ones in the second decade of the XXth century as well, thus finding later in Marinetti, an inflamed nationalist, interventionist (as however were many other intellectuals) and undoubtedly an “aesthete of war” (which he felt was an equivalent to revolution), nevertheless an autonomous and problematic adept of Fascism (I also revisited the political manifesto of Futurism, which clearly showed “radical” thought. Marinetti was in any event the only Italian intellectual to protest fiercely in the press against the racial provisions against the Jews). Moreover, I brought to light, through a careful analysis of the “Manifestos”, the undoubted contributions of Marinetti’s manifestoes to the Dadaism of the Cabaret Voltaire, to the automatic writing of Surrealism, to the use of extra-pictorial material through Boccioni’s and Prampolini’s “polimaterismo” and on a series of phenomena looking ahead to Burri, and in my opinion, to Pop Art. The descent of this last movement was confirmed in a statement by George Segal.

Essentially, Italian Futurism was radically revisited by me, taken into greater depth in terms of its motivations and poetics, elucidated in terms of its dates, in what it gave and what it took, and thus it was delivered, totally remodelled critically speaking, to the great exhibit Futurismo e Futurismi with Pontus Hulten as curator in 1986 at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, which marked a definite abatement of the hostile obstinacy to Futurism in Italian culture.

I extensively re-evaluated and investigated the personalities of De Chirico and the rapport between De Chirico and Carrà within the “Metaphysical” movement, bringing new contributions with the book La Metafisica schiarita. Da De Chirico a Carrà, da Morandi a Savinio, of 1982. A third block of my bibliography related to the avant-garde of the first half of the XXth century is the abovementioned book on Duchamp, which also contained many other writings.

The art of the second half of the XXth century has been duly accompanied by my participation as critic, with indications that were often ahead of their time, from the Abstraction of the post-WWII period to art informel to American Pop Art, to the 1960s in Italy and arte povera, to conceptual art and the extra-pictorial movements of the 1970s, to the return to painting that started in the early 1980s.

On the other hand, I am the scholar who can boast of the longest, most assiduous relationship of collaboration with the Visual Arts sector of the Venice Biennale, from 1954 to 1997, as critic, member of the awards juries, and invitations committees, member of the Board of Directors as well as the director of the Visual Arts sector.

I have been among the first to record the importance of Alberto Burri, ever since 1956, and of Pop Art, ever since 1963. At present, I preside over the Foundation named after Burri in Città di Castello, while I direct the Foundation named after Umberto Mastroianni in Arpino. Moreover, I have also been the first or among the first to draw attention to artists like Schifano, Ceroli, Festa, Pascali, Kounellis, De Dominicis, Vittor Pisani, Di Stasio and Mariani. Recently (the year 2000), I was curator for the great exhibit Novecento. Arte e Storia in Italia in the Scuderie Papali at the Quirinale.