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Institute of Advanced Study

Professor John Brewer

IAS Fellow at Ustinov College, Durham University (January - March 2016)

John Brewer is the Eli and Eyde Broad professor of Humanities and Social Science at the California Institute of Technology. Educated at Cambridge University, where he received his Ph.D., he has held faculty positions there, at Yale, Harvard (where he was Chair of the History and Literature Program), UCLA (where he was Director of the Clark Library and the Centre for C17 and C18 Studies), the European University Institute in Florence, the University of Chicago and, since 2001, at Caltech. He has been awarded research grants and fellowships from the UK Social Science Research Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and from the Guggenheim, Getty, Humboldt and Mellon Foundations. He was the Ford Lecturer at Oxford University in 2009, and has been a visiting Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Munich and a visiting Professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Science Sociale in Paris. He has acted as a consultant at the Tate Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Institute for the Arts in Detroit, Bard Graduate Center in the Decorative Arts, and at Colonial Williamsburg. He is the author or editor of fifteen books, translated into seven different languages, including The Sinews of Power. War Money and the English State (1989), and Pleasures of the Imagination. English Culture in the 18th Century (1996; re-issued 2013) which won the Wolfson History Prize and was short-listed for the US National Book Awards in the category of criticism. His published work is wide-ranging, dealing with politics and culture, state formation, finance and bureaucracy, the history of consumption, art markets, institutions and aesthetic value, the culture industries, and, most recently, with historiographic issues around notions of temporal and spatial scale.

He is currently engaged in two research projects. The first, focused on Vesuvius, the buried cities and Naples in the 19th Century, uses this test case to examine the processes – economic, political, cultural and symbolic - by which places acquire particular identities. Using a wide range of materials – visitors books, travel accounts, scientific publications, images and simulacra and including a wide range of actors – politicians, merchants and diplomats, scientists, poets and novelists, indigenous peoples as well as visitors - it looks at the many versions of a place, how they fitted or clashed with one another and what was at stake in these characterizations. The second project, on which he will be working at the Institute, is about art and value in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. How does art acquire value? What is it that we value about art? He is especially interested in issues of art criticism and attribution, and how these played out from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. His concern is not just with what might constitute value – how the art object was seen, but also with who conferred value, and had the authority to do so. At present his work is concerned with Giovanni Morelli, the Italian expert who is often deemed to be the founder of what was called scientific connoisseurship, and whose morphological method has been praised by Freud and by Carlo Ginsburg.

Public Lecture - Sublime tourism, Enlightened science, and counter-revolution: three versions of Vesuvius and Pompeii in the age of Romanticism

25th February 2016, 17:30 to 18:30, Fisher House, Ustinov College

Why was there such a fascination with Vesuvius and Pompeii in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? This lecture examines the fraught struggles between religion and science, Revolutionary and counter-Revolutionary ideologies that shaped perceptions of and reactions to Vesuvian violence and the slow uncovering of the cities buried in the famous volcanic eruption of AD 79

Listen to the lecture in full

IAS Insights Paper


What sort of evidential procedure can enable us to identify the creator of a particular work of art? In the nineteenth century, Giovanni Morelli, an Italian doctor and connoisseur, claimed to have developed a new ‘science’ of connoisseurship, that relied not on visual intuition or documentary research but on empirical, comparative morphological analysis of forms in paintings. Such a procedure, based on ‘facts’, was compared to the techniques of the natural sciences. This essay examines Morelli’s claims. It argues that what Morelli developed was less a scientific practice than an ideology. Morelli’s own use of his method was sporadic and infrequent, and he often had recourse to less scientific methods that he himself had attacked. The status of the method, even among Morellians, was ambiguous: was it a method tout court or a supplement to other techniques? And claims for the novelty of ‘scientific connoisseurship’ tended to ignore the already established technique of detailed morphological analysis both in art history and archaeology. If they were not systematically used, were viewed ambivalently and were not novel to art history, why did Morelli’s claims prove so controversial? One answer stresses Morelli’s credentials as an Italian nationalist, engaged in a patriotic struggle to preserve the nation’s cultural heritage, connecting his approach to quarrels with foreign (especially German) museum officials bent on acquiring Italian national treasures. Though persuasive, this view fails, I argue, to appreciate the nature of Morelli’s criticism of the entire modern art system, both in Italy and abroad. Morellianism was not the ideology of a scientific moderniser but of a cultural conservative.

‘If you want to understand what a science is, you should look in the first instance not at its theories and findings, and certainly not at what its apologists say about it; you should look at what practitioners of it do’ (Geertz, 1973, p. 5).

Insights Paper