Skip to Content

Members' Research Report Archive

An Annotated Bilingual Edition of Giovan Pietro Bellori's Le vite de’ pittori, scultori et architetti moderni

Elisabeth Oy-Marra, Institut für Kunstgeschichte, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Visiting Senior Fellow, June 1–July 31, 2011

Giovan Pietro Bellori’s biographies of painters, sculptors, and architects, the first twelve published in Rome in 1672 with three later additions, constitute one of the most important works on the history of art after Vasari — one regarded also as a manifesto of classicism. The piece that prefaces the Vite, Bellori’s discourse titled L’idea del pittore, dello scultore e dell’architetto, has received more study in the German tradition than the biographies. Thanks to material gathered, principally for the major exhibition and catalogue L’idea del bello: Viaggio per Roma nel Seicento con Giovan Pietro Bellori (2000, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome), new questions arise today, especially with regard to the Vite, on which no new commentary has been published since the first critical edition in 1976.

To emphasize the importance of this source for a modern audience, four years ago I assembled a group of ten researchers to prepare a translation of the Vite into German with a new commentary. My principal tasks for this project are the scholarly coordination of the entire work and the writing of the introduction; I am also responsible for the translation of and commentary on the lives of Giovanni Lanfranco (completed during my residence at CASVA) and Andrea Sacchi. While our German translation tries to establish an understanding of the Vite based on an examination of Bellori’s critical language, the introduction is intended both to summarize the state of research on Bellori and our own results and to focus on the Vite as reflecting the development of Bellori’s thinking and his life circumstances, rather than as a hermetic system.

During my time at CASVA, I was able to outline the content of the introduction and to deepen my understanding of two important topics in particular: the relationship of the 1672 edition of the Vite to the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, of which Bellori held the post of secretary for many years; and Bellori’s role as a collector of drawings as well as the function of drawing as a concept and medium in the Vite. I am indebted to my discussions with Elizabeth Cropper and her collaborators Lorenzo Pericolo and Jessica N. Richardson concerning the critical edition and annotated English translation of Carlo Cesare Malvasia’s Felsina pittrice; with Peter Lukehart, who explained his Accademia di San Luca project; with Carmen Bambach on collections of drawings in seventeenth-century Italy; and with Frances Gage on Giulio Mancini’s writings.

One of my chief concerns is the relationship between the 1672 edition of the Vite and Bellori’s position in the Accademia di San Luca, which has been studied only in terms of the didactic function of the Vite. Various aspects suggest a closer relationship to the reform of the Accademia that had been taking place since the 1660s. Because Bellori wrote about his Vite in letters to Girolamo Bonini (1660) and Carlo Dati (1668) as being exclusively lives of painters and not including the sculptors and architects encompassed in the title of the 1672 edition, it seems reasonable to suppose that he changed his conception of the book just a few years before its publication, close in time to the revision of the program at the Accademia, which included the introduction of architecture into the curriculum. In proceedings of the Accademia published by Angela Cipriani and Enrico Valeriani in I disegni di figura nell’Archivio storico dell’Accademia di San Luca (1988) but never previously taken into consideration, the need for reform is explicitly mentioned. As an initial measure, the Accademia established exhibitions of pupils’ drawings, the first held in May 1664. As another document shows, two weeks before the event, Bellori was asked to deliver a speech for the exhibition, for which the then elderly Gian Lorenzo Bernini was asked to participate in the prize committee. Because of the coincidence of date, this speech must have been the Idea, the date of which is given as May 1664 in the text published with the Vite.

Drawings also seem to have been crucial for Bellori, who was an important collector, as emphasized by Simonetta Prosperi Valenti Rodinò in a contribution to the catalogue for the exhibition L’Idea del bello. I focused on Bellori’s affinity for drawings in order to reconstruct the visual material from which he developed his methods and judgments. Indeed, his collection of drawings represents not only his sensibility for the medium and his personal taste, but also his activity as a connoisseur, to which his contemporary Sebastiano Resta testified. It is noteworthy that Bellori’s judgments on style in the Vite are mostly expressed with regard to drawings. In one of his important albums of drawings, the Galleria Portatile (Biblioteca Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan), of which the National Gallery of Art Library possesses a beautiful facsimile, Sebastiano Resta recalled Bellori’s assessments in remarking on his authority as a connoisseur of Bolognese drawings.

Center 32 (includes image not shown here)