Four years ago (19-21 June 2007), the American Academy in Rome hosted a conference co-organized by the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles and the Bibliotheca Hertziana—Max Planck Institute for Art History that explored the collecting of religious art in and of Italy. On Tuesday 28 June 2011 at 5 PM the Academy hosts the presentation of a new volume based on this conference: Sacred Possessions: Collecting Italian Religious Art 1500-1900, edited by Gail Feigenbaum FAAR ’78, and Sybille Ebert-Schifferer and published by the Getty Research Institute.
At the event a panel of distinguished scholars will offer their perspectives on the general topic and on the fourteen essays included in the book. Speakers include Francesca Cappelletti, Professor at the University of Ferrara and Director of the Fondazione Ermitage Italia; Giovanna Perini, Professor at the University of Urbino; and Rossella Vodret, Soprintendenza Speciale per il Patrimonio Storico, Artistico ed Etnoantropologico e per il Polo Museale della Città di Roma. A reception follows the book presentation.
As the essays in the volume Sacred Possessions demonstrate, collecting is the primary mechanism by which sacred art survives when it is alienated from its original context, either through the passage of time or by change of location. The process exerts a powerful force of change in the reception, physical alteration and radical recontextualization of objects, and a recalibration of the commingling of aesthetic and religious meaning. A famous example is the eagerness with which celebrated altarpieces by Caravaggio and Rubens were bought by private collectors when those same paintings were deemed unsuitable for their intended settings in churches, raising questions of decorum and exposing the allure of sacred possessions. Counter-reformation aesthetics brought a new recognition that a beholder could appreciate the beauty of an image while remaining indifferent to its sacred dimension.
Some of the authors in the volume consider the instrumentalization of collections for religious, political or diplomatic ends, as in an amazing and virtually unknown Holy Tower in southern Germany, or John Talman’s vast albums of drawings. Others look at the charged reciprocal interaction between sacred objects and their owners in cases of both real and fictional collections. These could be devotional, but also erotic, as in the case of the steamy Magdalens in bedrooms of heads of state, or the surprising displays of religious art in the bedrooms in novels by Oscar Wilde and Gabriele D’Annunzio. And they chart how the sacred aura of a painting can be displaced by an aesthetic aura, for example how in a museum setting the spark of the divine came to dwell in Raphael’s painting itself rather than in the Madonna he depicts.
For more on the book, click here and (especially) here. Gail Feigenbaum is associate director, Getty Research Institute, and Sybille Ebert-Schifferer is director Bibliotheca Hertziana, Max Planck-Institut fur Kunstgeschichte, Rome.