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The Sydney J. Freedberg Lecture on Italian Art 2020: Telling the Past Differently: Italian Renaissance Art in the Hands of the Beholder

In this lecture, released on October 30, 2020, Megan Holmes of the University of Michigan discusses the handled surfaces of panel paintings. Collections of Italian Renaissance panel paintings were in many cases assembled through a process of connoisseurial evaluation. The National Gallery of Art collection is no exception: a number of the paintings passed that evaluative scrutiny in spite of surface damage in the form of intentional scratches—noted in later conservation reports as “vandalism.” Defacement and disfiguration are, in fact, fairly common features of panel paintings, but they are rarely mentioned in art-historical accounts. The paintings, once installed in religious, domestic, and civic spaces in Renaissance Italy, were acted upon and transformed by the people who encountered and used them in their daily lives. The recovery of representational scratches provides a timely opportunity to tell the history of Italian Renaissance art differently, revealing the complex earlier “lives” of paintings in the hands of beholders.