1010 Boston Field Trip

  • Crivelli, Boston MFA
  • Crivelli 1
  • Porto San Giorgio
  • Restoration Lab 2
  • Restoration Lab 1
  • Restoration Lab
Crivelli, Boston MFA

Figure 1. Carlo Crivelli, Deposition. Ca. 1485. Boston, MFA. 


1010 Boston Field Trip

Boston report


Now that the semester has finally come to an end, I’ve had a chance to recover and wanted to bring you all up to speed on the special opportunity that I had with my 1010. The course was titled Venetian Renaissance Art: Local Histories, Global Stakes. One major theme that I tried to highlight in the class was the issue of mobility – how artists traveled through the Venetian empire, and even beyond it into the Ottoman world. One artist that I had planned to use to highlight this point was Carlo Crivelli. He is an amazing painter from the fifteenth century. The quick description that makes him intelligible to smart people outside of the field of Med/Ren art history is to say that he straddles the border between what we generally recognizes as “medieval” (gold ground, lots of pastiglia, etc.) and “Renaissance” painting (perspective, sophisticated tonal modulation, the use of some oil binders, etc.). He’s an interesting fellow (read the footnote if you want some details).[i]


In October the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum opened the first-ever exhibition of Crivelli’s work in the United States. The exhibition promised to be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see his paintings together, and since the exhibition aligned so well with the objectives of my class, I petitioned Dean Twyning for funding to take my seminar to Boston. The Dean’s office generously supported my proposal, and I organized what I hope will be a memorable trip for my students.


We departed for Boston on 19 November and stayed through the evening of the 21st. We arrived late on Thursday night and stayed in a hotel near the Gardner. Our “work” began on Friday morning when we met Nat Silver, who is an Assistant Curator at the ISGM. He was responsible for the installation of the show. Nat was great – not only did he let us into the exhibition before the museum opened to the public, but he spent nearly three hours with my class walking us through the exhibition. Crivelli’s paintings are amazing, but they can often be very “dense,” and it was wonderful to have someone help my students see the myriad techniques that Crivelli used in each painting. I particularly remember the conversation that took place in front of this painting, which is from the Boston MFA (figure 1). Nat was a great interlocutor, and pushed the students to identify the many ways that Crivelli deploys gold: in his hands gold isn’t merely the ground onto which figures are applied, but it is also used almost as though it were a pigment to construct the volume and give form. Nat was able to help us see at least five different ways in which Crivelli deploys gold leaf in this painting: the gold ground is exquisitely worked with punch tools; gold is spread throughout the Magdalene’s hair (Christ’s as well, though to a lesser extent); the pastiglia of the Magdalene’s sleeve is gold leaf laid on top of plaster; the cloth of honor in back is gold leaf that has been painted over with black pigment to make it seem like a rich brocade; the red cloth of honor in the foreground is similar in effect but different in technique, as is the fictive marble parapet, which is accented with gold leaf.


With Crivelli, the sheer physicality of painting comes into sharp focus. I’d prepared the students by taking them to the Renaissance gallery of the CMOA where we looked at the painting by an artistic “cousin” of Crivelli. In the CMOA I shared two secrets with the students: 1) paintings don’t bite, and 2) you’ll always look smart if you crouch in front of a painting. I was very happy that Nat and I were on the same page. He had the students standing, kneeling squatting… adopting every posture imaginable in order to better understand the paintings (figure 2). How light glints off the gold leaf can tell you a lot about the technique that Crivelli used. As Nat repeatedly made clear, Crivelli demands an active beholder.


Nat was also able to talk to our students about the practical aspects of organizing an exhibition like this. One of the major “gets” of the exhibition was to reunite all of the panels of the Porto San Giorgio altarpiece in one place. However, the curators decided not to reconstruct the altarpiece. Had they reconstructed the polyptych, the top panel of the painting would have been about 10 feet off the ground, making it almost impossible to examine in a detailed way. So they elected to show the painting individually and offered a photographic reconstruction of the polyptych on the adjacent wall (figure 3). Nat is a young but very experienced curator, so it was very heartening to have him talk to the students. He was able to offer some insight and encouragement to the many students who want to pursue a career in museums.


After a quick trip through the permanent collection of the ISGM, we broke for lunch. We then reconvened across the street at the Museum of Fine Arts. We were met by Frederick Ilchman who is the Chair of the Art of Europe at the MFA. Frederick had arranged an incredible visit for my students. First we went to the MFA’s “Conservation in Action” lab – this is a sort of fishbowl conservation lab, where the public can get a look at what the MFA is working on. We were fortunate to be able to go into the laboratory, where we met Caitlin Breare, the conservator in charge of the Monopoli Altarpiece Project. The project centers on a fifteenth-century polyptych produced in Crete, which was then a Venetian colony, for export to Southern Italy. It is a truly “Mediterranean” painting. Caitlin offered us an incredible look at the work that a conservator does, from evaluating the stability of the object to making decisions (in consultation with curators) about what to fix, etc. She walked us through all of the evidence that they have gathered, explaining how one interprets different kinds of visual evidence, like UV scans, IRR, and x-rays (figures 4 & 5). This was a wonderful experience for the students who hope to pursue careers in museums.


I must say that our time in the lab was also a bit strange, since the entire time we were in the conservation lab one couldn’t help but notice the enormous painting by Benjamin West, Devout Men Taking the Body of St. Stephen, which loomed in the background (figure 6). That painting is enormous – almost 20 feet tall. In order to work on it, they’ve laid it on its side and it is definitely disconcerting to see a painting of that size laying on its side. It was useful for the students to see this alienating perspective on a painting – occasionally priceless works of art get treated like any other object.


The day concluded with a visit to the MFA’s Renaissance galleries with the chief curator of European art (figure 7). Frederick shared with us some of his favorite works in the collection, and was able to walk us through the process of develop an international loan exhibition (of which he has done many) from start to finish. This was an illuminating conversation, and it was a nice way to conclude the day. By the end of the day the students were very tired – we’d started at 10am and didn’t finish with Frederick until almost 7pm. But it was absolutely worth it. They were then free to go explore Boston and fill themselves on lobster rolls. The students were very well behaved… at least as far as I know!


The next day the students had time to return to the MFA and the ISGM and to visit them on their own. I gave them one assignment, which was to engage in a “slow looking” exercise with an object of their choice (from any period, any medium). This meant picking an object and dwelling with it for thirty minutes. Once back in Pittsburgh, they had to write a brief paper in response to that experience. Those papers were perhaps the most gratifying assignments I’ve ever read.


The trip required a lot of organization, but the payoff was immense. The students had a chance to look at art in person. Throughout the weekend I tried to spend at least a few minutes with each student looking at a work of art, and those moments were unforgettable. It was fantastic to see the students drawing on the reservoir of knowledge that we’d been building throughout the semester. I’ll certainly never forget this trip, and I hope that it will stay with my students as well.


I must extend a special thanks to Nat and Frederick for their exceptional generosity. The trip would simply not have been possible without the financial support of Dean Twyning, to whom my students and me owe our most sincere gratitude.




[i] Crivelli was born in Venice and learned to paint there and in Padua (he was probably a “classmate” of Andrea Mantegna in the “school of Squarcione”). He then went back to Venice and began painting. He was a colorful character, and in 1457 he was sentenced to six months in jail for having had an affair with a married woman (the legal documents state that he “abducted her from the house of her brother-in-law and kept her hidden for many months, having carnal relations with her in utter disregard of God and the sacred bonds of marriage”). After that he traveled around quite a bit and spent a few years in Croatia. Around the end of the 1460s he set up for good in the Marche, a completely “provincial” part of Italy, somewhere around the Achilles tendon of the boot. His choice to work there really took him out of the “mainstream” of Italian art – Vasari and all of the early historians of art essentially ignored him. His career was only reconstructed through documents in the 19th century. But essentially all of the paintings he made are signed, and most of them are signed Karoli Crivelli Veneti, meaning that he was really insistent upon being identified as a Venetian artists even though he was nowhere near Venice.


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