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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Art and the Evidence of Attribution, Giovannis Morelli, Morellians and Morellianism: Thoughts on 'Scientific Connoisseurship'


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