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James Dennistoun

(1803—1855) antiquary and art collector


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(1803–55). Scottish antiquarian of Jacobite sympathies, and best known as author of a seminal book Memoirs of the Dukes of Urbino (1851). Dennistoun's decision to write a book on the dukes of Urbino and Federigo da Montefeltro's patronage of the Umbrian artists who had preceded Raphael of Urbino was inspired by his encounters c. 1838 with the German Nazarene circle in Rome, particularly Overbeck; and by J. D. Passavant's Rafael von Urbino, a monograph which combined Nazarene aesthetic sensibility with an academic reliance on original documentation and objective connoisseurship. Eastlake, reviewing Passavant in the Quarterly Review (June 1840), had observed that ‘we find treated here with the attention it deserves for the first time…the importance of Urbino both in a political and social point of view at the period when Raphael began his career’; and this prompted Dennistoun to attempt a book on the princely house of Urbino which would blend ‘into one continuous narrative the incidents of war and politics, the development of letters and arts, with their influence on civilisation and national character’. This involved a substantial excursus into the development of Umbrian art before the time of Raphael in which Dennistoun reflects the further influence of Rio's De la poésie chrétienne and his concept of the école mystique. Dennistoun endorses the ideal of Christian art and suggests that ‘in the mountains of Umbria that mystic school long maintained its chief seat; because there its types sank deepest into the popular mind; and because it reached its culminating point of perfection and glory in Raffaelle of Urbino’. He goes on to trace an artistic chain of influence from Oderisio da Gubbio d. 1299 to Giovanni Santi and Raphael via Benedetto Bonfigli, Perugino, and others. He also embraces artists originating from outside the duchy, but who were invited to work at Urbino by Federigo da Montefeltro who built the ducal palace, especially Gentile da Fabriano and Piero della Francesca whose commissions included the Flagellation (Urbino, Palazzo Ducale), the S. Bernardino altar (Milan, Brera) and the double portrait of Battista Sforza and Federico da Montefeltro (Florence, Uffizi). Although Dennistoun's concept of an Umbrian school of painting that could draw strength from patronage in Urbino was flawed, his book played its part in propagating a taste for early Italian art in Britain. And while he regarded later artistic patronage in Urbino, under the della Rovere dukes, as a period of decline that embraced artists from Titian to Barocci, his friend and Scottish contemporary Sir William Stirling, in an influential review (Fraser's Magazine, June 1855), singled out the last duke of Urbino, Francesco Maria II, as the most admirable of all. ‘He had fought at Lepanto a greater battle than had fallen within the military experience of Duke Federigo; he was as good a scholar as Guidobaldo I; and in his stud and forests, his palaces, villas, theatres, his galleries, his libraries, and his patronage of arts and learning, emulated the tastes, enriched the collections and surpassed the magnificence of all his predecessors.’

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From The Oxford Companion to Western Art in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Art.


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