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In Memoriam: Miklós Boskovits

This catalog of Italian paintings at the National Gallery of Art includes some of the earliest and most important works of art in the Gallery’s collection. Smaller in the number of entries it comprises than its companion volumes covering Italian paintings of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth / eighteenth centuries, it must nevertheless be understood to occupy a more significant place than they within its own field of study. In part this is due to an organic development in the history of collecting that led the great European national and princely collections to concentrate their acquisitive efforts elsewhere — specifically in later periods of Italian art — leaving great masterpieces of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries unclaimed on the market when American collectors entered the lists in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century. It was in turn the seemingly unquenchable appetite of American collectors that led scholarship of Dugento and Trecento painting to grow beyond the dilettante and local antiquarian interests that dominated its formative stages into the rigorously disciplined approach that defines the study today. This catalog represents the fortunate confluence of these two interrelated strands: it is an encounter between the most refined and consequential assembly of early Italian paintings in this country, ranking among the greatest collections of such material anywhere outside of Italy, and the most original and influential scholar of this material, Miklós Boskovits, a man who defined many of the canonical presumptions on which the modern study of the period is based.

Miklós’s association with the Gallery began nearly a quarter century ago, in 1990, when he was invited to catalog the bulk of the Gallery’s extensive collection of fifteenth-century Italian paintings. Having demonstrated both his command of the field and his suitability to large, demanding projects with the publication of indispensable catalogs of the early Italian paintings in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin (written between 1977 and 1980, published in 1988) and in the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection (1990), he had been recommended for the task by Sir John Pope-­Hennessy, then recently retired as consultative chairman of the department of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Gallery’s choice proved to be an inspired one. Miklós brought to his assignment in Washington a preoccupation fundamental to the best cataloging of early Renaissance art, a preoccupation perceived at the time, and even described by the scholar himself, as “antiquated” or even “futile”: 

I tried to clarify questions related to authorship and date before turning to other problems. . . . I am convinced that without first determining the coordinates of the position of a painting in the artistic geography of its time, it is impossible to evaluate correctly the meaning or study the background of the work.

Miklós was by no means the first scholar to express his priorities in these terms, but he was by any standard of measure the best qualified to achieve reliable results: the most wide-ranging in his experience and interests and the most gifted in his insights and judgment, a perfect match for the breadth and depth of the Gallery collections. Published in 2003, the result was a magisterial volume, coauthored with Gallery curator David Alan Brown and others, that was immediately embraced and will long stand as a standard reference source and as a model for similar efforts at other public institutions around the globe.

It was only logical, therefore, that Miklós should have been asked to continue what he had begun and turn his attention to the precedent material at the Gallery, the paintings from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the late Middle Ages, the period in which he first made his mark as a scholar. The equation between author and subject that had been so beautifully balanced in the fifteenth-century paintings volume promised to be equally so here, but with subtle rephrasing: due partly to the accidents of survival — the number of paintings from the fifteenth century known to us today, as well as their regional distribution, is astronomically greater than from the fourteenth century, whose numbers in turn dwarf those from the thirteenth century — and partly to the relatively late date at which American collectors entered the competition for their ownership, Washington’s extensive early Renaissance collection comprises numerous high-quality works that are representative of the greatest masters, yet certain of the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Italian paintings are arguably more significant, as they constitute prime examples in the history of Trecento painting and in some cases, in all of art history. A number of these paintings are, in fact, seminal or definitive examples of their type or even the only surviving example of a type. Furthermore, although identification of authorship and chronology are in general far more approximate and tenuous exercises in this period, only a fraction of the Gallery’s collection could be said to be of controversial or unsettled attribution — reflecting the trophy-hunting proclivities of Andrew Mellon and the Wideners and the judicious process of selection from Samuel Kress’s ecumenical holdings. 

For paintings of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, attribution and dating do not so much represent fixed geographical coordinates, speaking metaphorically, as they do in the fifteenth century. Rather, they are temporary markers of the current state of scholarship, indicators of modern trends of thought that may or may not have anything to do with the historical reality they are meant to encode. A thorough catalog of the Gallery’s Dugento and Trecento paintings might well have contented itself, therefore, with summarizing the plentiful existing bibliography and explaining historiographically its meaning. Miklós has done all this, of course, and it is not surprising that for an unusually large number of entries, references to the latest or the most in-depth study of a given problem are citations of articles or books or exhibition catalogs that he himself had written. But Miklós moved far beyond the practical limitations of this approach and in so doing has created a new type of collection catalog, one that doubles as an encyclopedia of its period. Each entry is conceived as a small artist monograph, an explanatory roadmap of a painter’s entire career rather than just a concise indication of the position of one work of art within that career. This catalog is a summation of forty or more years of thought dedicated by the author to a wide range of problems; it is a scholarly testament and a precious legacy. The editors have made it possible to consult the catalog for spot-checks of data or to retrieve specific items of information or opinion. The reader should be cautioned, however, not to overlook the value and indeed the pleasure of perusing the catalog, of walking slowly through its corridors of thought seeking not to answer any particular material question but to frame endless new questions on the foundations of its solid edifice of scholarship. In a very real sense, this is a highly personal achievement of Miklós Boskovits as much as it is a catalog of the collections of the National Gallery of Art.

While Miklós Boskovits’s position of authority within the field of Dugento and Trecento studies is unrivaled, it is not unchallenged, and it is important to understand something of the nature of these challenges in order to extract maximum value from the arguments and discussions that he crafted. The modern study of late medieval Italian painting may be said to have taken serious form only in the early years of the twentieth century with the generalizing, often insightful but sometimes superficial researches of pioneering art historians such as Bernard Berenson and his contemporary Osvald Sirén. Their work was, by and large, scattershot rather than synthetic, generated as much in response to specific problems that came to their attention (frequently by visits to little-known collections or by the appearance of interesting or significant works of art on the market) as to an urge to create a fully articulated history of the period. It was, furthermore, handicapped by an even more severely limited pool of documented historical facts than is available to historians today, a lacuna that was addressed more or less contemporaneously with the work of exploration they themselves were undertaking. By way of example only, when Berenson wrote his scintillating analysis of Duccio’s accomplishments in the first edition of his Central Italian Painters of the Renaissance (1897) — an analysis, it must be said, that has not been improved upon to this day — the artist’s life dates were calculated on the basis of sixteenth-century anecdotal evidence and the range of his activity was believed to have extended a full twenty years after he is now known to have died. Berenson, in other words, had no basis for distinguishing between the work of Duccio and that of his many pupils and imitators. He was nevertheless able to extract the key elements of Duccio’s style and translate them into English prose of memorable effectiveness, scarcely a word of which needed to be amended in preparation for the second edition of his book (1909) even though all the documentation of the artist’s life on which we now rely had in the intervening years been discovered.

The following generation of scholarship in this field was so completely dominated by one personality, Richard Offner, that his name has come to be synonymous with a distinctive analytical approach and definitive judgments of attribution. Offner, a German-born scholar who passed nearly the entirety of his professional career in the United States as a professor at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, sought to replace the approximations and generalities of Berenson’s scholarship (which he affected to despise) with a narrow-focused precision (that has in turn come to be an object of light-hearted derision) leading to such excesses of critical finesse as the division of the stylistic penumbra dependent upon the Cione brothers’ studio output of the middle decades of the fourteenth century into no fewer than fifty-six independent and fully characterized masters, a wholly improbable number of painters able to support themselves within the limited economy of post-plague Florence. Offner’s scientific, taxonomic approach to studying the fourteenth century was often criticized and reformulated by his brilliant contemporary, the Italian art historian Roberto Longhi. Longhi rarely stooped to concern himself with the minor luminaries unearthed (or fantasized) by Offner, but instead, like Berenson — whom he disparaged even more than did Offner — concerned himself primarily with the peaks of accomplishment of the major masters, reorganizing their chronologies and their genealogies of influence into a new structural outline of history or fourteenth-century art throughout the Italian peninsula. Longhi’s influence was immense, disseminated through the exhilarating imagery of his elegant prose style and by the army of his students fleshing out the hints and insights adumbrated in his copious, narratively complex footnotes. Offner’s influence was equally far-reaching but owed little to his prose style, which can best be described as impenetrable, or to his students, who were few in number, but rather to the ambitious publishing project he initiated, the multivolume Critical and Historical Corpus of Florentine Painting, to which he devoted himself until his death in 1965.

When Miklós Boskovits emigrated from Hungary to Italy in 1968, Offner’s Corpus had progressed only as far as the generation of the Cione brothers and two of their immediate followers, Giovanni del Biondo and Andrea Bonaiuti. Perceiving that the end of the fourteenth century remained as confused and poorly understood as had its beginnings before Offner began his magnum opus, the younger scholar appointed to himself the task of pushing this project forward, resulting in what probably remains his best-known, unquestionably his most often used publication: Pittura fiorentina alla vigilia del Rinascimento, 1370 – 1400 (1975). Shortly afterward he undertook, with the blessing of the Institute of Fine Arts, a comprehensive editing, revision, and completion of the entire Corpus, which, though it was never finished, substantially revised Offner’s vision of fourteenth-century Florentine history. It is Miklos’s version of Offner’s work — synthesizing Offner’s and Longhi’s divergent points of view and subjecting each to his own acutely revisionist approach — that represents, with few exceptions, the point of departure for all modern research in this field. It was, furthermore, the experience of editing the granular, even microscopic, and painstaking attention to detail that distinguished Offner’s books that led Miklós to scrutinize with equally penetrating and judicious attention the other schools of Italian painting in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries. His complete bibliography is surely greater and more original than that of any other scholar of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance in Italy, with the notable exception of Roberto Longhi, while the number and dedication of his students is comparable: together with his longtime friend and sometime rival Luciano Bellosi, Miklós trained most of the younger Italian scholars working in this field today. In a very real sense it may justifiably be said that the study of Italian thirteenth- and fourteenth-century painting belongs to Miklós Boskovits.

A key component of Miklós’s approach to the study of fourteenth-century painting was his ability to extract from the infinitesimal distinctions of difference elucidated by Offner those features or aspects of style that are truly significant or consequential and recognize these same features in groups of works that Offner had considered unrelated. In this way, he combined many of the separate masters created by Offner into successive and interrelated stages within the career of a single painter. The results were not only a more credible overall view of the artistic production of any given period or place, but also a more organic vision of the artistic personality of any given painter. Miklós understood and embraced the attendant obligation of describing the maturation process of his hybrid artistic constructs, how one proceeded from the qualities characteristic of group A through those found in group B to end at the achievements of group C without once stepping outside the confines of personality X or Y. It is a testament to the acuity of his vision that very few of these newly created hybrid personalities have ever been challenged by other scholars and that students today have access to plausible, sometimes demonstrable, reconstructions of the early career of major artists of which their forebears were entirely unaware. There is, of course, a risk to this approach, that constant attention to the links between otherwise distinct categories might obscure the lengthening differences between characteristics at either extreme of the reassembled chain. It is possible to quibble in this regard with some of Miklós’s reconstructions, but these are generally quibbles of detail, not of essential principle. It is an inescapable conclusion that his research and his approach to artistic classification — to the fundamental discernment and evaluation of similitude — have brought us closer than ever before to a reliable view of the history of artistic production during these early periods of culture in pre-­Renaissance Italy.

Miklós had completed all but the final revisions of his text for this catalog before his untimely death on December 20, 2011. He had shared his entries with me, we had exchanged correspondence concerning the small number of points on which we disagreed, and he had graciously incorporated his responses to my observations in the text or footnotes of the relevant entries. I am pleased to say that some of my objections were proven to be ill-founded by close physical observation of the paintings, when previously unnoticed technical considerations tended to support Miklós’s original conclusions (for example, Andrea di Bartolo's Madonna of Humility and Christ on the Cross; Bernardo Daddi's Crucifixion, and Simone Martini's panels of saints). In a few cases it may be said that we agreed to disagree (1949.7.1, 1937.1.1, Madonna and Child, with Saints Peter and John the Evangelist, and Man of Sorrows [entire triptych], and the Simone Martini Angel of the Annunciation).Only in one case, that of the incomparably beautiful Goldman Madonna by Giotto, has subsequent technical study undermined his carefully constructed arguments, tending to support the association of four surviving elements from a single complex as hypothesized by an earlier generation of scholars over Miklós’s contention that the four works derive from two different complexes and represent two different phases of Giotto’s career. It must, however, be recognized that technical evidence is just that: evidence, not proof. It remains possible that Miklós was correct; the evidence is certainly discouraging, but in no way does it fully disprove his arguments. In this as in every other case, therefore, the text of the catalog entry has been left precisely as the author wrote it, aside from minor editorial revisions to assure that the English translation adheres as closely as possible to the meaning and tone of his original Italian manuscript.

No collection catalog is meant to be the last word on its subject; at best it intends to be the most accurate summation or conclusion possible given the state of knowledge at the time it is written. Knowledge is not static. Miklós Boskovits’s greatest gift to posterity was the platform he created from which knowledge could more securely advance, leading inevitably to corrections and improvement over his own work. We are all tremendously fortunate to enjoy the fruits of his generosity, enabling our own work to be better than it could ever be on its own. This catalog is in some respects the highest platform he built, and from it we can see further across the terrain of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in Italy than ever was possible before. 


Thank you, Miklós.


Laurence Kanter

January 2014