Giovanni Morelli


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(b Verona, 25 Feb. 1816; d Bergamo, 28 Feb. 1891).

Italian critic. He trained as a physician and spent most of his career as a politician, but from 1873 he began to write articles on Italian art. These were written in German (he was educated in Switzerland and Germany), and at first he published them as supposed translations from the Russian of Ivan Lermolieff (an anagram of his surname with a Russian termination). They appeared in English in various books, beginning with Italian Masters in German Galleries (1883). Morelli concentrated mainly on the problems of attribution and claimed to have reduced the matter to scientific principles. He maintained that an artist's method of dealing with subordinate details, such as fingernails or ears (here his anatomical training was useful), is tantamount to a signature and that by systematic study of such details attribution can be put beyond doubt. This method, still sometimes referred to as ‘Morellian criticism’, was influential on connoisseurs such as Berenson, but it has proved much less productive of scientific certainty than Morelli hoped: it is now felt that we recognize the work of individual artists more by general effect than by details, and that the details rather than the general effect are what an imitator will be able to reproduce most convincingly. Morelli himself made some brilliant attributions, but also some noteworthy blunders. A devoted patriot, he declined the directorship of the Uffizi because he did not want to be distracted from his political duties, and he helped to secure legislation restricting the export of works from Italy. His own collection of pictures was left to the Pinacoteca of his adopted city of Bergamo.

Subjects: Art.

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