Did You Know That the First Scientific Connoisseur of Art Was a Physician?

By Brenda Moore-McCann

Did you know that the first scientific connoisseur of art was a physician?

He was an Italian called Giovanni Morelli (Figure 1). Born in 1816, he studied medicine in Switzerland and Germany before returning to Italy in the 1860s. He died in 1891. He never practiced medicine but through his knowledge of comparative anatomy and art, he made a major contribution to art by developing  a method of distinguishing fakes from originals based on observation.     

Morelli’s method emphasized minute examination of paintings, (much as one would examine a patient), looking for signs in areas that might be considered less important, such as the hands, finger-nails, ears. In these areas, Morelli speculated, the artist would be more relaxed and free from painting conventions and would  thus produce forms and shapes characteristic for that artist. What differentiated his method from that of others was that he drew up an inventory of how these smaller parts of the anatomy could reveal the characteristic style of an artist (Figures 2 and 3).

Morelli’s method was largely successful and used in art until the development of technology augmented the observation of an experienced observer. It may also have influenced Freud’s development of psychoanalysis.

Learn more here.

Morelli, Giovanni · The Emma B. Andrews Diary Project
Figure. 1. Giovanni Morelli (1816-1891). Source.
Figure 2. Hands from Giovanni Morelli’s Italian Painters (1880).
Where Connoisseurship Comes From
Figure 3. Ears from Giovanni Morelli’s Italian Painters (1880).