A Visit to Rome & Some Thoughts About the Art History Survey

Beth is in Rome (and I am quite jealous). Despite many years of study in Europe, this is her first visit. We have been discussing how beautiful and overwhelming the city is and the delirious shock of seeing, for the first time, art you have studied and taught in reproduction for many years. This is an experience I remember very clearly and we have been prompted to think about the responsibilities we have to our students and the failure of our discipline to prepare us for what we see and feel when we look at canonical works of art in situ.

Here is her most recent dispatch:

Nothing I learned in graduate school or during years of study and teaching prepared me for Santa Maria del Popolo and the Caravaggios in the Cerasi Chapel. Nothing prepared me for the way the church is situated in an inconspicuous corner of the enormous Piazza del Popolo, or the woman begging on the steps, or the swirling frisbee-like souvenirs that light up when they are tossed high in the air that are being sold in the Piazza, or the traffic that streams by the church and its very worn steps and narrow door, or the people praying close to the altar, or the lights that go on and off in the chapel as tourists contribute Euros, or the way each chapel in the church looks so very different, or the way this particular chapel is just beside the altar, or how works of art from different periods combine in this one church, or the colors of the marble surrounding the paintings, or the way the paintings’ meaning is affected because they face each other in a narrow chapel—Paul blinded and chosen, Peter crucified.

Nothing I have seen in Rome has looked or felt the way I imagined it would. Flickr images of the church and Square and YouTube videos of the interior of the church help, sure—but not a lot. I’m a well-trained art historian. I understand the importance of looking at objects in the location they were made for. I value historical context. I appreciate the tools of visual analysis art history has given me. But Steven and I wonder if there is a way to teach these objects while still allowing them to be living objects in the world.

The following was co-written by us both:

Should we have been better prepared for Santa Maria del Popolo or the numerous other similar encounters throughout the city? What is art history’s responsibility to us and to its students in this regard? Should our discipline offer a more comprehensive and current context for the objects we study? In class, we often show paintings such as Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of Saint Peter—isolated, against a black background, as an object of empirical analysis—and too often as an example of a “style.” The caption in the book, or the entry on an image list we hand to our students does little or nothing to even suggest the range of factors that will affect our viewing experience in person.

Edward Said argued that the West depicted the “Orient” removed from history thus creating a timeless world—and by so doing, creating the comforting distance the West needed to compare itself and feel superior and justified. Perhaps it’s time to ask what it is that we that gain when we photograph frescoes from impossible angles, and without the worshipers, tourists, lights and noise that embed the work of art in a living city.

Art history’s form and methods were largely established in response to 18th and 19th century needs and interests. Many of these driving forces remain of course; there is still a thriving art market hungry for authenticity and other narratives that create value. As in centuries past, art’s history is still prized as an extraordinarily rich cultural strand and perhaps most importantly, our discipline has created a language and experience of seeing that is deeply enriching. However, our success has also lead to our failure. The nineteenth century empiricism that structured the discipline removes the experience—the emotion of the tourist and art history student (not to mention the pious then and now) and the sensual environment of many of these objects. As we all know, the discipline is no longer the sanctuary of an elite minority. Twenty-first century art history is taught to secondary and college students as a matter of course. It is no longer unusual for community college students to be asked to differentiate the work of Ambrogio and Pietro Lorenzetti, ambitious high school students regularly enroll in advance placement art history classes, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the most-visited tourist attraction in New York. All of this suggests to us that perhaps it is time to re-examine the assumptions and conceits built into the art history survey and its methods of instruction. We know that thousands throng to visit works of art in situ the way the pious once made pilgrimage—so why not acknowledge this reality more openly in our survey classes and texts?

The ideological battles of the 1970s and 80s opened our discipline to numerous theoretical models and far broader historical contexts but our experience tells us that we have not gone far enough—especially in the classroom. We teach taxonomies infused with study of the period in which the artist created and rarely (if the circumstances are dramatic enough) we may discuss the later life of the object. For example, when the painting by Caravaggio, The Conversion of Paul is taught, its formal elements, available biographical information about the artist, patronage, and the broader context of Counter-Reformation Rome are all treated. In essence, we teach what we can of the meanings we believe this painting had at the start of the seventeenth century when it was produced. But what we don’t do is explicitly acknowledge to our students that the painting continues to accrue meaning and in fact exists in our present not simply as a canonical support of our construction of the Early Italian Baroque but as a real object, deeply embedded in the fabric of a living city and tourist industry now.

Can we develop a survey that treats art in its historical context while also situating it in our contemporary experience? What would that look like for the Caravaggio? In addition to primary source materials and art historical analysis, perhaps we should make room for urban historians and environmental psychologists, for those who regularly worship in Santa Maria del Popolo, and the tourists who visit. We might include curated Flickr photos, YouTube videos, and details from Google Earth. Understanding the ways a painting is understood now, wouldn’t diminish Caravaggio’s achievement, but might provide a means for students and visitors to engage the art more deeply and personally. We understand the enormous importance of seeing works of art first-hand, but some of our students may never have that opportunity, can we give them some sense of the reality of the current life of the work we ask them to study?

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  1. This is another great post.
    I agree with you. It would be great to have a collection of people’s experience while appreciating art.
    I have already publish a post about this site and I think that this post is great and has to do with something I wrote about art history.
    Happy NEW YEAR!


  2. I have been to the see te Carravaggios mentioned in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, and I had the same experience.

    I think, though, that a large percentage of the magic or discovery that lies in art history is in seeing them in real life, in its real place, and in a certain context, if possible. I teach AP Art History, and I am always trying to teach the students (when possible) how it FEELS when you see a piece, stand in a temple/cathedral, and how the work makes one feel.

    In short, I dont think art history fails to prepare us in any way in this sense. I think we as viewers/scholars/historians fail art history, if we do not go to them. These works were not meant to be shown to people on the other side of the world in a book. They were meant for veneration, contemplation, and to be seen with the naked eye.

    Keep up the good work, everyone, I always point my students in this direction.


    1. Thanks for the comment J.M. – I’m writing now from Florence – the last time I was here was more than 25 years ago. Seeing Masaccio’s Holy Trinity in person in Santa Maria Novella – alongside Lippi and Ghirlandaio and Giotto, well – what can I say? You’re right – these works were meant for veneration and contemplation and to be seen in person. Thing is though, we show them in reproduction in a darkened room, often in isolation, far from their locations. And most slide libraries, or now digital image libraries like ARTstor, don’t contain images of Piazza del Popolo or the tourists, or the traffic, or the church, or the Cerasi Chapel as a whole. We strip these things away or make the images difficult to obtain. I’ve been teaching for close to 20 years, and just now had the chance to visit Rome. It would have been impossible to explain these things to my students without the first-hand visit. So, I suppose the question is – how do we reconcile the need to teach these beautiful and important objects with the just as urgent need to convey the context they exist in – when visiting isn’t possible? Most guide books now recommend even relatively obscure sites like, for example, Santa Apollonia – to see Castagno’s Last Supper. Churches and chapels that I remember walking in to in Florence now charge entrance fees – and there are lines to enter. I have no problem with that. But we are, in part, responsible for creating this tourist culture – and do little to prepare our students for it.


  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Steven Zucker, Tate Strickland. Tate Strickland said: Reminds me of my experience in Rome and the Cerasi Chapel. http://bit.ly/7ilMPE @tweeroden #smarthistory […]


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