October 8, 2007

Context and meaning

I received an email from a man who edits this website on the Basilica of Saint Peters. He had wandered into my blog and took the time to send me a personal note. I was curious and clicked on his website where I found an interview with Elizabeth Lev, an art historian and expert Vatican guide.

She first arrived in Rome after finishing her undergraduate degree to study at the University of Bologna and learn "how Italians taught art." In her US education, she had been taught a "very formal vision of art" while in Italy she found that it was "all about the context and meaning of art, and most importantly the placement of a piece of art."

Context. There it is again. Americans have a direct communication style, so clear and direct that we can even understand art by reading books and looking at slides. Italians need context in order to achieve meaning. Both words and works of art must be interpreted in and by their context, which gives the nuance of meaning.

So Elizabeth came to Italy to stand in front the Caravaggio paintings in the Contarelli Chapel in St. Luigi dei Franchesi where she came to understand, "How the paintings worked around the altar." With this knowledge, she walked over the St. Peter's and looked at the Pieta, which was originally designed to be around an altar, and "a whole new world of meaning in art opened up for me." She couldn't go back to slides and books.

As she delved deeper into sacred art, she came to understand another level of context and, "how much the sacred and liturgical aspect affects a work art." At this point, she understood that she, "had to throw out 60 percent of what I had been taught in college, and do it all over again." She was looking at things through a very different lenses. The lenses of context.

A domani,


1 comment:

KC said...

That's so odd that Lev found American art history formalist! She must have been in a very conservative program. I did my MA and Ph.D. at two different schools and we never engaged in formalism. Thank God, too, because it's so uninteresting. (I should add my undergrad art history wasn't formalist either.)

When I did the research for my doctoral thesis, I had to read loads of Italian scholarship. It was unbearable, all of it formalist and incredibly unoriginal, a bunch of scholars recounting the biography of the artists and describing the paintings in ever more florid prose, with little or no context. My director told me to cut my review of scholarship chapter down because he couldn't bear to read at length about such uninteresting scholarship. I told him that if I had to suffer through reading all those books and articles, he'd have to suffer through the 15 I'd written about them!

I'm glad to hear that the Italians have finally started following more recent trends in art history.