Giovanni Morelli (Verona 1816-1891 Milan)

A Doctor, Senator, and Art Historian

A doctor, senator of the Kingdom of Italy, and art historian, Morelli was a Renaissance man with interests in a variety of fields.

A sound scientific education from the University of Munich was the basis for his method of attributing paintings. His intellectual and artistic education was completed with many travels to European capitals and around Italy, where he visited private collections and museums and came into contact with the greatest intellectuals of his age. A firm believer in the Unification of Italy, he took part in the insurrectionary uprisings in Milan in 1848, and in 1860 he was appointed senator for his patriotic merits.

 

Morelli’s Method

When studying the works of Botticelli, Morelli had noticed that the ears and hands of the figures were painted in a similar way. These observations, which he first extended to Botticelli’s pupil, Filippino Lippi, and then to other Florentine masters, always led to the same result: each painter approached the form of the ears, hands, fingernails and eyes in a way that was almost identical, and yet also highly personal and different from that of other artists. This method, based on a comparison of forms, meant that the works could be attributed to a particular artist and originals could be distinguished from copies.

 

The Success of the Morelli Method

The revolution that Morelli brought about in the history of art had echoes across Europe. One need only line up the various editions of his writings (published between 1874 and 1891) to see how his ideas spread rapidly to Germany and then England, before returning to Italy. His great antagonist, the art historian Wilhelm von Bode, even spoke of the spread of an epidemic of “Lermolieffmania”, after the mysterious Russian scholar “Ivan Lermolieff”, the pseudonym under which Morelli published his writings, in the German translation by an equally non-existent Johannes Schwarze, a resident of the imaginary Gorlaw, which is to say Gorle, near Bergamo.

 

The Collection of an Art Historian

When building up his collection, Giovanni Morelli followed his own tastes and scholarly interests, but without a particular plan. He made his earliest acquisitions in the mid-1850s, with the Portrait of a Young Man by Ambrogio de Predis and the Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Martha by Bergognone. It was mainly in the 1860s and early ’70s that the collection began to expand, however, partly thanks to the help of his cousin Giovanni Melli, who purchased several paintings for Morelli, which then came back to him by inheritance. Works from Florence, Siena, and Umbria arrived from ancient Tuscan families, and paintings from Emilia and Ferrara came from the sale of the prestigious Costabili Collection. The real gems were The Young Smoker by Molenaer, Botticelli’s The Stories of Virginia, both of which were purchased at the Monte di Pietà auction in Rome, and Pisanello’s Portrait of Leonello d’Este, bought in London.

 

The Morelli Bequest to the Accademia Carrara

The collection, which was completed in about 1874, decorated the rooms of the residence in Via Pontaccio 14 in Milan, where it remained until Morelli’s death in 1891. The following year, it arrived as a bequest at the Accademia Carrara, which thus acquired the collection of one of the greatest art historians of the nineteenth century. In 1892, Gustavo Frizzoni, a friend and faithful follower of Morelli and his method, arranged the 117 paintings and 3 sculptures in two galleries of the museum named after the senator, which later appeared in a printed catalogue.