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Art History and the Invention of Botticelli

  • Author(s): Melius, Jeremy Norman
  • Advisor(s): Clark, Timothy J.
  • et al.

This dissertation investigates the construction of the figure of Botticelli in European culture, c. 1860-1915, and its unexpected impact on understandings of art as historical. Botticelli's "rediscovery" by John Ruskin, Walter Pater, and the Aesthetes has become a notorious episode in the history of taste. Yet why those engagements occurred; what it was, exactly, that these and other figures saw in his paintings; and how the specific texture of the phenomenon became the crucial testing ground for the emergent discipline of art history--these questions remain unanswered. In addressing them, the dissertation argues for the special importance of the heterogeneous body of writing and art-making that accrued around the figure of Botticelli in the second half of the nineteenth century, in any attempt to come to grips with modernity's fraught sense of the historicity of art.

"Art History and the Invention of Botticelli" is a study in the emergence of art history from a complex of writings about art, and about the past, that included modes of "criticism," "connoisseurship," philosophical meditation, an "iconography" not yet claiming the name, imaginative recreation, rhapsodic free-association, and, as constant ground-bass, the invention of further "Botticellis" by artists of the time. It is, in the main, about two things. The dissertation tells the story of the rediscovery of Botticelli itself, the work of English painters like Simeon Solomon, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, and Walter Crane and, in their wake, of a string of strong writers about art: Walter Pater, John Ruskin, Giovanni Morelli, Bernard Berenson, Herbert Horne, Aby Warburg. Moreover, it reveals that in and through this rediscovery, a great battle was waged about the nature of writing on the visual arts. A mode of writing with an orientation towards description, ethics, and the affective impact of works of art faced off against an ascendant mode that valued the stabilization of the artist's oeuvre via "scientific" criticism and the patient, scholarly reconstruction of his life-world. Artwriting increasingly made a claim to the grander status of Kunstwissenschaft. In this paradigmatic contest, the paintings of Botticelli--in particular, the strangeness of their historical position--proved crucial. The result was a set of exaggerated, self-reflexive interactions between the verbal and the visual that gives special insight into the treatment of art as an embodiment of the past.

Chapter one concerns the strategies of pictorial reference and reconfiguration by which late Pre-Raphaelite painters first constructed the figure of "Botticelli." Chapter two centers on the peculiar sense of art's history as it develops in the writings of Walter Pater and John Ruskin on Botticelli. It argues for the centrality of these accounts: positively or negatively, they would orient all those that followed. Chapter three turns to the so-called "scientific" connoisseurship of Giovanni Morelli and Bernard Berenson, focusing in particular on the impact of their attempts to stabilize Botticelli's oeuvre through the figure of the artistic follower. Chapter four discusses the writings of Aby Warburg and Herbert Horne in relation to the tradition out of which they emerged, attempting to situate their phobic refusal of the "cult of Botticelli."

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