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Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.2 (2005) 376-381
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New Perspectives on Drawing in the Long Eighteenth Century
Until quite recently, one could be forgiven for thinking that the study of old master drawings would remain impervious to the "new art history." Motivated by questions of authorship, authenticity and quality, scholars of drawings have often been reluctant to interpret draftsmanship, connoisseurship, or the collection of drawings as culturally, socially, or historically constructed phenomena. Three new books, however, powerfully challenge this state of affairs by offering stimulating new readings of Padre Sebastiano Resta, a famed, but much maligned, late seventeenth-century collector; of Jonathan Richardson, one of connoisseurship's most often-cited, but understudied, theorists, and of the role of drawing itself in the formation of early modern subjectivity.
Genevieve Warwick examines the practices of Sebastiano Resta, an Oratorian father in Rome who collected drawings from 1680 until his death in 1714. As a connoisseur, Resta has been disparaged; his attributions of authorship have been held to the standards of modern connoisseurship and, not surprisingly, found wanting. Viewed from a historical perspective, however, these very errors highlight the particularity of Resta's collecting and connoisseurship, and it is the historical specificity of these practices that is the subject of Warwick's book. She investigates how Catholic devotional practices, courtly traditions, social identity and emergent market forces structured the reception of drawings in the late seventeenth century. Her study of Resta's activities thus elucidates a specific moment in the history of the collection of drawings, but it is also intended as a contribution to a broader historical ethnography of collecting, one which combines historical investigation with the critical insights of anthropology and sociology to address questions of identity, social memory and the social significance of modes of exchange.
Resta's collecting was philanthropic. He acquired and assembled ca. 3500 drawings into more than 30 albums in order to raise money for charity. Resta's albums were not intended to be sold, but rather to be given in exchange for charitable donations. They were also, as Warwick makes clear, a way for Resta to establish and consolidate social bonds with the Italian gentlemen and princes whom he sought out as patrons. By placing his albums in elite Italian collections or in civic collections under noble patronage, Resta hoped to stem the plunder of Italy's artistic patrimony by foreigners and to preserve its inherited visual and cultural traditions for the future. Warwick argues that Resta conceived of his albums as a form of "cultural mnemonic" (130), as repositories both of an Italian [End Page 376] cultural heritage and of objects chosen for their ability to invoke in viewers memories of a shared Catholic and aristocratic past. He thus preferred works by such artists as Antonio Allegri da Correggio and Federico Barocci whom he believed best exemplified the affective naturalism of a Catholic maniera devota and the easy, natural and effortless facility that signified a nobility of style. The collapse, around 1700, of his restricted circle of noble patronage and of the aristocratic gift exchange economy that supported it, however, forced Resta to sell his compilations to French and English buyers. Indeed, as Warwick shows, Resta was, despite himself, instrumental in bringing drawings, once sequestered for generations by Italian artists, religious institutions or noble families, into the international marketplace.
Concurrent with the entrance of drawings into the market and their transformation into objects of financial value was the development of connoisseurial modes of viewing. Securely attributed works of art were saleable works of art, hence the importance of connoisseurship. As Resta's practice...