Department of Art History

Connoisseurial Intimacies: 1870-1930

Connoisseurial Intimacies: 1870-1930 – Dr Francesco Ventrella

Funder: This research has been funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

This interdisciplinary project investigates the import of empathy theories in the experimental practice of connoisseurship (1870-1930), and analyses the foundations of modern art history by focusing on the material culture that has informed its methods. In fact, connoisseurs used physical objects, and not abstract ideas, as a target to produce embodied identifications with the past. To acknowledge the reliance of connoisseurs on empathy theories and physiological aesthetics is extremely important to understand the shifting priorities of modern art history.

Firstly, these new scientific theories gave the connoisseurs a scientific back up to make their methods more credible to the modern audiences of art. There is evidence in the work of Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) and Vernon Lee (1856-1935) to suggest that connoisseurs perceived their bodies as perfectible instruments for measuring the quality of an art object. At the same time, middle-class vision started to be defined according to gender. The research considers a wide range of objects, including physiology and ophthalmology manuals, paintings, interior design, prints, and literary works which presented forms of embodied vision that were technologically mediated, but also biologically determined.

Secondly, while exploring such embodied aesthetic experiences, connoisseurs also shaped a historical world in which they could project issues of identity and desire onto the objects of their appreciation. Thus, this research will also examine the life of these connoisseurial objects, the way in which they triggered a nineteenth-century imagination of distant times and places, and the role they played in the formation of modern racial and sexual stereotypes.

Finally, though scholars usually see a break between nineteenth and twentieth-century aesthetic experiences, especially by contrasting the nostalgia of the Victorian revivals with the progressive narratives of the later avant-garde, this study invites a reflection on the continuities between Victorian art writing and the modernist fascination with form and abstraction. This continuity, substantiated by the vocabulary of empathy and physiological aesthetics, becomes particularly relevant when we shift our attention from theoretical debates onto objects, thus overcoming the divide between the world of fine arts and that of sensational entertainment.

Outcomes: the outcomes of this research project will be published in a single authored book.