My career as an art historian began between high school and college in Florence, where I was employed as Dr. Klara Steinweg’s assistant, working on a volume of The Corpus of Florentine Painting under the auspices of the Institute of Fine Arts. Dr. Steinweg’s exacting erudition, meticulous scholarship, and profound understanding of every detail of her subject made a deep impression on me. Under her guidance I was put in direct contact with the great traditions of art historical scholarship, understood as necessarily combining a command of the object of study, materially, technically, formally, and iconographically, with knowledge of its transformation over time, a search for primary sources, and a command of the secondary literature. In sum Kunstgeschichte als Kunstwissenschaft. No less important was the fact that this initiation took place in Florence, which eventually (though not automatically) became one of the focal points of my research and teaching.
I was a student at Yale (BA) and Harvard (PhD) at a time when the relation between their museum collections and departmental teaching was interactive and porous. My practice as a teacher and researcher has been grounded in that experience, greatly enriched by my years in London, which happily escaped the “two worlds” rift. I define myself as an art historian by those terms: I work historically on the matter and material of art. That history, for me, is physical, social, and cultural. It is inherently interdisciplinary and not hierarchical with regard to media or modes of communication. One motivating force for my work is a desire to understand the sources of my studies – visual and textual, both as products of a certain time and of the operation of time.
That said, my research has been eclectically motivated: it has been inspired by a love of great writing and grand narratives, prompted by courses I have offered, by the attraction of a given work of art, by seeming anomalies, or by being asked a question that has no immediate answer. I have written on the history of collecting, on drawings, Raphael, altarpieces, and on modes of seeing. My first book, Giorgio Vasari: Art and History (Yale University Press, 1995; awarded the Eric Mitchell Prize), originated in my dissertation. In addition to essays and articles on the Lives (including one, “’Not … what I would fain offer, but … what I am able to present’: Mrs. Jonathan Foster’s translation of Vasari’s Lives,” in Le Vite del Vasari: Genesi, Topoi, Ricezione, 2010), work on the Lives resulted in publications on rhetoric, invention, and the meaning of history. An interest in exploring the Florentine archives and exploiting a generation of new work by historians of the city led me to produce a socially-grounded history of its art (Images and Identity in Fifteenth-Century Florence, Yale University Press, 2007). Spin-offs from that included an invitation to co-curate an exhibition at the National Gallery London (Renaissance Florence: the Art of the 1470s, with Alison Wright, 1999) and an international conference and book of essays, Art, Memory, and Family in Renaissance Florence (with Giovanni Ciappelli, Cambridge University Press, 2000). A seminar series that I organized on “Naming Names” led to an article on artists’ signatures (Art History, 2000) and a working group that I founded at the Courtauld Institute – the Courtauld Women Teachers – resulted in a contribution to the group’s edited volume, Manifestations of Venus: Art and Sexuality (“The seductions of antiquity”; Manchester University Press, 2000). Another working group that I created at the Courtauld – the Writing Art History project – gave me a chance to read novels for work, leading to an essay on Henry James and portraiture in the special issue of Art History edited by the group (“’The Liar’: Fictions of the Person,” 2011). Paradoxically perhaps, since I am never quite sure what can be said about portraiture, I have tried more than once, including an essay Portraits by the Artist as a Young Man: Parmigianino ca. 1524 (2007) and one on “Understanding Renaissance Portraiture,” for the catalog of the exhibitions held in Berlin and New York (The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini, 2011). To balance out all of that facing up to faces, I have been studiously examining the other end of the body, particularly the male bottom, with articles on the subject in Art History (2009, 2013) and a book in preparation for Yale University Press.
I have an abiding belief in conversation and community as instruments of knowledge and have organized or co-organized 13 international conferences, a number of seminars, panels, and working groups, and given more lectures and conference presentations than I can count – including named lectures in the U.K., Germany, Italy, and the U.S. and keynote lectures to major professional organizations (such as the Association of Art Historians and the Renaissance Society of America). That communitarian conviction made me the logical choice to be the founding Head of the Courtauld Institute of Art Research Forum in 2004, defining its mission, deciding its programmatic and administrative structures, and even designing its space. Having left the Courtauld and the Forum in 2009, one of my greatest pleasures it to know that it is a flourishing enterprise and so well embedded in the Courtauld’s research culture that it is taken for granted that the Institute’s research life is based in its Forum.
I am currently on the editorial boards of Art History and Studiolo (the research journal of the Académie de France à Rome), and have previously served on the editorial boards of the Oxford Art Journal and Renaissance Studies (also acting as the exhibition reviews editor). I have had the opportunity to be a Visiting Professor twice at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence (2007, 2009) and Harvard University’s Center for Renaissance Studies, Villa I Tatti (1992, 2004), where I was the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow in 1986-87 and Acting Director in 1997. Before having the honor to become the director of the Institute of Fine Arts in 2009, I was Deputy Director of the Courtauld Institute. My committee and administrative service includes: membership of the UK Higher Education Funding Council Research Assessment Exercise 2001 and 2008 panels; UK Arts and Humanities Research Council Peer Review College; Leverhulme Foundation Fellowship Committee; Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute Advisory Council; ARTstor Council; Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship Committee, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts; Director, The Burlington Magazine Foundation Inc.; Metropolitan Museum of Art Education Committee; Metropolitan Museum of Art European Paintings Department Visiting Committee, the Morgan Library Drawing Institute Advisory Board, and Vice-President of the Kunshistorisches Institut in Florenz/Max-Planck-Institut Scientific Advisory Board.
I have been a teacher since 1979, with the fortune to work at specialist institutes in resource-rich cities with very specially talent students. I have supervised well over 100 MA theses, a number of them published, and 24 completed dissertations, with three currently underway at the Institute. Probably the greatest surprise and most meaningful honor I have ever received is the book of essays edited by my former students at the Courtauld, ‘Una insalata di più erbe’: Festschrift for Patricia Lee Rubin (2011).