Art History Professor Receives NEH Fellowship, Franklin Grant, and Residency in Florence
May. 04, 2011
Photo: Michael Bodycomb
Christina Neilson, Assistant Professor of Renaissance and Baroque Art History, has been awarded two prestigious fellowships and a grant in support of her research on the mixed media works of Andrea del Verrocchio, an artist best known as Leonardo da Vinci's teacher.
Neilson received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a Franklin Research Grant from the American Philosophical Society, and a residency in Villa I Tatti, the Harvard Center for Renaissance Studies in Florence, Italy.
For an art historian, a yearlong residency at the Villa I Tatti is one of the most highly regarded fellowships in the field, as only 15 are awarded each year to scholars from all over the world who specialize in Renaissance studies. Neilson will be in residence for the 2011-2012 academic year.
Neilson will use the awards to support research for her forthcoming book, Verrocchio's Factura: Making and Meaning in an Italian Renaissance Workshop.
The NEH fellowship is widely recognized as one of the most prestigious and competitive awards in the humanities. This year, the NEH funded only 99 fellowships to college and university teachers and independent scholars from a pool of 1,405.
Neilson says the grant funding will allow her to conduct independent research at the Biblioteca Berenson and other libraries, archives, and museums in Florence and throughout Europe.
"Christina Neilson's work is not only important to scholars of the Italian Renaissance, but also to historians of science and, more broadly, historians of knowledge, who are beginning to recognize that works of art can embody and convey knowledge as successfully as any text," says Professor of Classical Archaeology Susan Kane, who is co-chair of the art department.
"Her work will bring a new perspective to the understanding of Renaissance art and cultural history. The art department is extremely proud of her groundbreaking research, which is already making a significant contribution to the field — a feat that we are pleased to see recognized by these awards."
Neilson's work examines the significance and meaning of mixed media procedures employed by Verrocchio — Leonardo da Vinci's teacher—in making his objects. It was to Verrocchio's disadvantage that he was Leonardo's master, Neilson explains, because Leonardo is generally regarded as a genius who came from obscurity; a gifted Renaissance man whose talent required no teacher.
Verrocchio is known primarily as a sculptor. His most famous works are the bronze Bartolomeo Colleoni monument in Venice and the bronze Christ and St. Thomas statue in an exterior niche of the church of Orsanmichele in Florence. But Verrocchio was also a painter, a gold- and silversmith, a draftsman, a maker of armor and bombards, and possibly an architect.
Neilson is interested in Verrocchio's extraordinary mixed media practices — the frequent transferral of tools and techniques from one medium to the context of another.
She cites the example of Verrocchio's Crucifix sculpture in the Museo del Bargello in Florence. For the figure of Christ, Verrocchio took a block of limewood, sawed it in half, and hollowed it out. Hollowing out wooden sculpture was a standard procedure to prevent changes due to climate, but Verrocchio's decision to carve out his figure to a width of 1.2 centimeters is unique in this medium and derives from his work in bronze, where a consistent width assured a sound casting (which was irrelevant in wood carving).
Verrocchio then tied together the two pieces of his sculpture with cord. Next, he modeled the figure using ever-finer layers of stucco, transferring his skills in working with stucco, terracotta and wax. The head, chest and shoulders were made from cork, which were attached to the rest of the body using a technique Verrocchio employed in creating armor.
The loincloth, made from linen, was dipped in gesso and formed into folds, as were the models Verrocchio used for his painted studies of drapery on linen. Finally, the whole sculpture was burnished and painted.
"The latter was not an uncommon procedure for finishing wooden sculpture, but Verrocchio's sophisticated methods for applying pigments to the figure to suggest light effects are exceptional," Neilson says. "The Bargello Crucifix is one example among many objects by Verrocchio for which the artist employed extraordinary mixed media techniques—in this case, carving, grafting, modeling, and painting.
"I'm interested in why Verrocchio used these unusual processes of creating, and what these practices might signify," Neislon says. "We face a great challenge in trying to answer this question because Verrocchio left no written records. My project explores how works of art can be interrogated, in terms of their technical processes, as sites for the expression of ideas by an artist, even when that artist left no written treatise."