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Visiting Scholar Interview: Julian Gardner

Posted On December 15, 2014 | 10:11 am | by jessicas | Permalink

Julian Gardner, professor emeritus at the University of Warwick, a 2014-2014 Visiting Scholar in Byzantine Studies, spent the month of October in residence at Dumbarton Oaks. Margaret Mullett interviewed Gardner, a historian of late medieval Italian art, about his experiences at Dumbarton Oaks and his post-retirement career.

Julian, you are here this month as Visiting Scholar in Byzantine Studies. Yet you are not a Byzantinist, though you’ve spent a lot of time around Byzantinists  . . . 

I work on the art of late medieval Italy, and I am interested in the artistic patronage of the Papacy and Curia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, as well as in Italian painting of the same period. Both interests have spread out in various directions, but the link with the Eastern Mediterranean has been a constant. Like many of my generation, I did a first degree in another subject (History at Balliol College, Oxford) and graduate work at the Courtauld Institute, where Robin Cormack was an exact contemporary. The Courtauld under its charismatic director Anthony Blunt was an exciting place, and there were many eminent emigré scholars who taught there and at the University of London: George Zarnecki, Nikolaus Pevsner, and, at the Warburg, Hugo Buchthal, Ernst Gombrich, and others. Younger English scholars, such as John Shearman and Michael Baxandall, were also making names for themselves.

How did you first discover Dumbarton Oaks?

Dumbarton Oaks first crossed my horizon when I was a Scholar at the British School at Rome working on my PhD. I believe it was John Ward Perkins, then the director of the British School, who first mentioned it. I had already made the acquaintance of Henry Maguire, who was frequently at the Warburg and who also spoke of it with enthusiasm.

My first visit to Dumbarton Oaks was in the early 1970s, when I visited the collection one afternoon while I was in the United States giving some lectures. Familiarity grew when I was Andrew Mellon Senior Visiting Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA) at the National Gallery of Art in 1999. Henry Maguire was then in residence. In 2011–2012, I was invited back as Kress Professor at the National Gallery of Art, and that gave me ample time to use Dumbarton Oaks’ marvelous library, to familiarize myself with its collections, and to meet colleagues.

What I really like about Dumbarton Oaks is that it is a generally welcoming environment, a lot less hierarchical and formal than many similar places. Here, younger colleagues readily come and ask questions; in places where I normally work, like Italy, they don’t tend to do that. And it has such a well-rounded library, which, rather than representing the disparate research interests of former great scholars, has been planned: gaps here seem to be purposefully filled. I’ve left Deb Brown some suggestions for books on western seals—another of my long-term interests stemming from work in the Vatican Archives—which the seals project here might use. I have always been struck by the sense that Dumbarton Oaks is at the center of a huge international network, and it is hard to think of a parallel. I suppose that CAORC does a similar thing for American institutes abroad, but CASVA is distinctly more hermetic. That internationality engenders loyalty, and of course the strengths of the place are made widely known by its excellent publications. In the United Kingdom, respectable journals are falling into the hands of publishers like Elsevier and Maney; here, you take editorial professionalism for granted.

I wonder if you’d say the same about the current state of Byzantine art history. People are always telling me that there is a crisis . . .

Byzantine art history, particularly in British universities, appears to me, as a supportive outsider, to be facing some of the same stresses and challenges as medieval studies, perhaps even in exacerbated form. There tend to be fewer medievalists now, because the ancillary requirements are so much greater than for modernists. It is partly tied up with the appearance of Byzantine art historians without Greek, unlike the generation who read Greats, or learned Latin and Greek at school as I did, or continued it at university like Robin Cormack, Henry Maguire, or Tim Barnes. But there seems to be no shortage of bright young art historians, some exceptionally well qualified, even if it has meant acquiring the necessary languages at the graduate level. I met some when I was last at CASVA. But they do need persuasion to undertake medieval studies.

In general, I would say that Byzantinists now are more open to what is happening in the western medieval world. I have a sense that there is an opportunity with the fading (or redirection) of effort on the Crusade front. Fewer students are being trained now as Crusade historians, which might, one hopes, open up more possibilities for an integrated Mediterranean history of art, a desideratum since Braudel. Historians have made some progress but art historians less so, even in the late period when settlement was so scattered in the former empire: mendicant churches in Pera and the Genoese in the Morea and the Black Sea cry out for study. What is lacking among western art historians is a serious analysis of the historiography of the East, and this is something that Byzantinists could cure: not enough of them “confront the West.” It is notable that the publication of a translation of Niketas Choniates brought a lot of western medievalists in touch with issues of this kind. It may be a matter of the survival of evidence, but it is very hard to get beyond Janin for the churches of the empire, or anything on monks or their families, or the organizational structure of the church. I have been very impressed recently by the work of Sharon Gerstel, and I’ve enjoyed reading the translation of Syropoulos and Tia Kolbaba’s take on east-west divergences.

You’ve talked about CASVA and you are obviously very much at home there. But you have great experience of another research institute: the Harvard University Center for Renaissance Studies at Villa I Tatti, where you were Visiting Professor in 2005–2006 and Berenson Lecturer in 2009. What are the similarities between Villa I Tatti and Dumbarton Oaks?

Both I Tatti and Dumbarton Oaks were donated to Harvard by amateurs and collectors. Both are places of astonishing natural beauty, and both have stupendous gardens. The gardens at Dumbarton Oaks are much more developed as a visitors’ site, though I Tatti is visited. The latter doesn’t possess the scholarly side of research on landscape, but it does have its own working farm with its own olive groves and vineyard, and a domestic bursar who has seriously developed the study of food in Italy. Its excellent red wine bears a label saying it is produced by the President and Fellows of Harvard University. It would take some ingenuity for Dumbarton Oaks to compete with that. Both have communal eating, which is very important, and both strive for the mixture of old and young scholars, which is sometimes hard to achieve. I Tatti used to be for people who had finished their first book and were coming up for tenure with a second book. Now the majority of Fellows are looking for their first jobs. The proportion of Italian Fellows and those from other European countries has greatly increased at I Tatti. Both institutions have to concentrate on the need for the young scholars to be prepared for the American recruitment process, including mock interviews and seminars on application.  

There are evident differences. Publications have much less professional support at I Tatti, which has only recently begun to produce a regular annual journal. I Tatti has no fixed balance between art historians, historians, and music historians, and they now have “readers” who are mostly promising Harvard undergraduates, similar to Dumbarton Oaks interns. Unlike Dumbarton Oaks, it also has an Italian hinterland, which has advantages and brings its own problems. I Tatti is present in the country that has produced the art and documents studied by the Fellows. One can walk from the villa or take a bus into Florence and study a medieval altarpiece in situ, go into the archives, or examine a Renaissance church in a way quite impossible in Georgetown.

For the library, which is the preeminent modern interdisciplinary library in central Italy, the implications of restricting the access of local readers are much more serious. It is a problem that other foreign institutions like the Max Planck–funded Bibliotheca Hertziana and the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence have confronted too slowly. I Tatti does have some links with other universities, but these tend to be rather scattershot and are often the dependencies of American universities in Florence. Both Dumbarton Oaks and I Tatti, it seems to me, could think more systematically about their links with neighboring universities. 

I’ve been struck by the way you have built your post-retirement career. 

I have been continually astonished that colleagues do not plan a post-retirement career. So many seem to stop doing things, though they try to keep up with their reading. Partly, it is the financial burden of attending conferences. There is very little for retirees to apply for in the shape of conference grants. I was also very fortunate in that I was asked to take over the faltering AHRB Center for Renaissance Courts and Elites at Warwick, and in recompense was able to negotiate my final year of university service as a sabbatical year. So it was possible to go to I Tatti and set up a program of work ahead, which I am still doing. But that initial impetus was extremely important.

So what are you working on this month? I know that Kitzinger is part of it, in the best of all places to recall him, but . . . 

Before I came to Washington, I was invited to give a paper on microarchitecture for a conference at INHA in Paris this month. Dumbarton Oaks has proved (with a few strategic sallies to the library at CASVA) to be an ideal place to work on this. Microarchitecture as a concept has often been used by architectural historians working on the Gothic period, roughly between ca. 1150 and 1500, to describe a variety of phenomena. These include the building of smaller spaces, like discrete chapels attached to Gothic cathedrals; the architecture of important metalwork shrines, which seem to resemble miniature buildings; the elaborate baldachins that increasingly crowned the standing statues flanking Gothic portals; and  representations of buildings in manuscripts or on panel paintings, choir stalls, and the like. But the idea is much older and more widespread. There has been important recent work done on columnar sarcophagi from this point of view, and engraved drawings have been found on architectural elements at Baalbek that show similarities to design techniques in Gothic buildings such as the cathedrals of Bourges or Clermont-Ferrand.

My interest comes from the study of thirteenth-century seal impressions, which often have exquisitely detailed Gothic frameworks, such as miniature church façades framing the figures of their owners. Seals were used by living patrons and the matrices broken at their death, so the nexus between patron and practical taste is unusually close. The enthusiasm for seals at Dumbarton Oaks is contagious—it is rare to find such a group of colleagues—even if many of the problems encountered are rather dissimilar. So that has given me a considerable push during my presence here.

My interest in Ernst Kitzinger stemmed initially from my admiration of his work, which I read as a graduate student, and then the privilege of getting to know him when, in retirement, he came to live in Oxford. Warwick was the first British university to give him an honorary degree, which he deeply appreciated, and I played a small part in that. Later, he generously gave Warwick Library a considerable collection of his offprints, which have now been properly catalogued. Contact with a great emigré scholar, whose career was very largely developed in America, was constantly enlightening. His own long-standing contacts with scholars who greatly helped me as a doctoral student in Rome, such as Richard Krautheimer, Gerhart Ladner, Leonard Boyle, and others, were also warm, and I have always felt exceptionally fortunate in being able to get to know them at a formative stage in my own career.