Charles Hope

Charles Hope, a former director of the Warburg Institute, has published extensively on Italian art of the 15th and 16th centuries.

Chapels for Sale: At the Altarpiece

Charles Hope, 2 December 2021

Until​ the Reformation virtually all Western Christians permitted and even encouraged the use of religious imagery, following in this respect the example of the pagans rather than the Jews. The most famous justification for the practice appears in two letters written by Pope Gregory the Great at the end of the sixth century to Serenus, bishop of Marseille. Serenus had destroyed some...

There is no clear indication from the 16th century of the existence of a picture of the Salvator Mundi by Leonardo himself, and it is rather surprising that he should have made one given that his other works do not suggest that he would have been interested in producing something in which the principal figure is entirely static and frontal, as well as lacking any kind of characterisation.

At the National Gallery: Lorenzo Lotto

Charles Hope, 3 January 2019

For centuries​ the reputation of Venetian Renaissance painters largely depended on the comments made about them in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. Vasari was in Venice for several months in 1542, but he was evidently unaware that Lorenzo Lotto, a generation older than him, was also living there and that they had acquaintances in common. During his visit he made notes about a...

The demand for something by his hand was surely an early instance of the kind of celebrity culture with which we are now very familiar. Michelangelo’s contemporaries were certainly in awe of his personality, and this was probably not entirely unrelated to the fact that his name led to endless not entirely unserious suggestions that his work was angelic or divine. Today any sheet of paper that contains so much as a rough sketch by Michelangelo or a line of his very distinctive handwriting has acquired a cachet that makes it almost like a religious relic. Such a sheet gives, or seems to give, a direct access into his way of thinking.

Within​ a generation of Raphael’s death in 1520 it was widely recognised that his career, along with those of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, marked a turning point in the development of painting in Italy and, by implication, in the rest of Europe. As Pierre-Jean Mariette remarked in 1729, in the so-called Recueil Crozat, a lavish collection of reproductions of famous European...

The collaboration​ between Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombo, the theme of the beautiful if rather didactic exhibition now at the National Gallery, is one of the strangest episodes in the history of Renaissance art. Sebastiano was born in Venice around 1485, ten years after Michelangelo. Aged about twenty, Sebastiano became attracted by the work of another young local artist,...

At the Royal Academy: Giorgione

Charles Hope, 31 March 2016

Giorgione​ (c.1477-1510) is unique among famous European painters in that at different periods he has been credited with entirely different pictures. Even today, there is great disagreement about what he actually painted. Of the 47 exhibits listed in the catalogue of the show at the Royal Academy (not all of which were on display at the press view), 14 were described as ‘attributed...

The assessment​ of Giovanni Battista Moroni written in 1648 by Carlo Ridolfi, his first biographer, has never been seriously challenged. Ridolfi says that Moroni, a pupil of Alessandro Moretto of Brescia, had a natural gift for portraiture, and it was through his portraits rather than his religious paintings that his reputation had survived. He adds that portraits do not belong in the first...

On Saving the Warburg

Charles Hope, 4 December 2014

On 6 November​, after ten days of legal argument in the High Court, judgment was handed down in the dispute over the University of London’s obligations towards the Warburg Institute. The institute developed out of the private library of Aby Warburg (1866-1929), a wealthy art historian in Hamburg, who was supported by his four brothers, all of them bankers. Warburg had unusually wide...

Apart​ from the chance invention of Prussian blue soon after 1700, the range of colours available to artists changed very little until the 19th century, when modern chemistry came into its own. Painters, of course, were not the only or, in most cases, the main consumers of these colours. They were used, for example, in the dyeing of cloth, the production of ceramics and for the decoration...

At the National Gallery: Veronese

Charles Hope, 8 May 2014

For anyone​ wishing to organise an exhibition of his works, Veronese presents a particular challenge. He was exceedingly prolific and many of his best paintings are too large to be moved. He also employed a team of able assistants, whose contribution to individual pictures is generally hard if not impossible to assess. The Veronese show now at the National Gallery (until 15 June) is the...

At the National Gallery: Barocci

Charles Hope, 9 May 2013

Successful artists are usually attracted to major cities, where reputations are most easily made and commissions most abundant. Barocci was a conspicuous exception. Born in the 1530s in the provincial backwater of Urbino, the birthplace also of Raphael, he completed his training in Rome, but then, probably in 1563, returned to his native town, where he remained for almost the whole of his...

At Eton

Charles Hope, 7 March 2013

Henry VI had an unusually long reign, but on most counts a singularly unfortunate one. He lost the lands gained in France by his father Henry V, he became embroiled in the Wars of the Roses, his son was killed and he himself died in mysterious circumstances as a prisoner in the Tower of London. Although lacking the qualities required in an effective monarch, he proved to be an outstanding...

Like Mannequins: Luca Signorelli

Charles Hope, 20 December 2012

There used to be a widespread practice in Italy, particularly in the 1960s and in Tuscany, of removing baroque additions of all kinds from old churches, in a usually implausible attempt to restore them to something resembling their medieval appearance. This led to the destruction or dispersal of many fine works of art, and often gave the restored buildings an empty appearance they had...

The small exhibition at the National Gallery entitled Titian’s First Masterpiece: ‘The Flight into Egypt’, open until 19 August, is centred on a large canvas from the Hermitage. The picture has not been much discussed by scholars. This is partly because it has just emerged from a lengthy restoration, partly because it is known to most specialists mainly or only through...

Whose giraffe?

Charles Hope, 21 March 1985

As visitors to the recent exhibition of Dutch art at the Royal Academy will know, emblems, once the province of antiquarians, are now of great interest to historians of art. For more than a decade scholars have argued that these combinations of a motto, a picture and an explanatory poem, pointing a simple moral lesson, provide a key to the understanding of Dutch painting of the 17th century. This is not just because in many cases emblems include imagery drawn from everyday life which is strikingly similar to that employed by the painters, but also because they supposedly indicate that the public of the period was accustomed to looking for moral meanings in such imagery, wherever it might appear. In much the same way it is now often believed that the Italian counterpart of the emblem, the impresa, provides evidence about the ways in which Italian art was interpreted, especially in the later 15th and the 16th century. Unlike emblems, imprese consisted only of an image and a motto, and by convention the image was non-human. Their function, too, was rather different. Instead of providing moral instruction, they were personal devices, akin to coats-of-arms, illustrating, in a veiled manner, the aspirations or character of their owner. In Renaissance Italy the ability to interpret an impresa was an essential courtly skill, requiring something of the gifts needed for a Times crossword – a wide knowledge of out-of-the-way literary texts and a taste for the playful association of ideas.

Ostentatio Genitalium

Charles Hope, 15 November 1984

The startling claim of Leo Steinberg’s new book is that over the past four centuries the real meaning of much of the religious art of the Renaissance has been lost. He argues that in representations of Christ, both as an infant and as an adult, the genitals had a particular theological significance to which we are now oblivious because of the modern world’s ‘massive historic retreat from the mythical grounds of Christianity’. This may sound like the wilder theories about the Holy Grail or Atlantis, but Professor Steinberg is a serious scholar, and his thesis is buttressed with dozens of visual examples and with a formidable array of learned references. Whether he is right, of course, is another matter: but at least one distinguished historian of Renaissance theology, the Jesuit John O’Malley, who contributes a postscript to the book, seems to find his conclusions broadly convincing, so they deserve to be examined closely.

Naming the Graces

Charles Hope, 15 March 1984

In the last forty years Kenneth Clark did more than anyone else to create an interest in the art of Renaissance Italy, but Edgar Wind had a much greater influence on the way in which this art has been studied. Both men were outstanding lecturers and gifted writers, and both, in very different ways, were influenced by the work of Aby Warburg. Both, too, were particularly drawn to the early Renaissance in Florence and to the High Renaissance in Rome, to those masterpieces, in fact, which occupy the central place in the English and American canon of great art. But there the resemblance ends. Whereas Clark was a populariser who wore his learning lightly, Wind was exactly the opposite. His best-known work, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, was an attempt to relate the ideas of Neoplatonism to Renaissance paintings and sculptures; and his main contention was that such works could only be fully appreciated by someone deeply versed in this unusually abstruse and now unfamiliar philosophical system. Clark appeals to those who like their art easy, Wind to those who want it difficult.

Do you want the allegory?

Charles Hope, 17 March 1983

A friend of mine recently went to see Pisanello’s fresco of St George and the Princess in the Church of Sant’ Anastasia in Verona. She was soon accosted by the sacristan, who was eager to tell her the story. When he realised that she already knew it, he asked, ‘Do you want the allegory?’ and proceeded to explain that St George symbolised the Pope, the Princess was the Church, the dragon Heresy, and so on. Pisanello himself would surely have been surprised by this interpretation. After all, if he had meant to show such an allegory, he could simply have painted a Pope with the standard personifications of the Church and Heresy, rather than the familiar legend of a popular saint. It was not until the Counter-Reformation, a century later, when the historical status of St George began to be doubted, that allegorical readings of his ‘life’ were first proposed. The sacristan’s explanation, in fact, sounds like one of those fanciful elaborations which become attached to pictures over the centuries and which guides everywhere love to relate. But it also resembles the interpretations of Renaissance works of art now proposed by many scholars.

Leonardo’s Shortcomings

Charles Hope, 18 March 1982

The career of Leonardo da Vinci must be the most intimidating subject in the history of art. The paintings and preparatory drawings are a major topic in themselves, and any monograph on Leonardo the artist invites comparison with Kenneth Clark’s classic study, one of the best books of its type. Then there are the notebooks, a written legacy unparalleled in scale and range among surviving records of the Renaissance. The secondary literature is no less formidable, even excluding the many banal hagiographies and such eccentricities as the tedious claims of collectors to possess the original Mona Lisa. Simply to consult the facsimile of Leonardo’s largest manuscript, the aptly named Codex Atlanticus, in 12 vast and unwieldy volumes with an equally extensive commentary, is a major undertaking. Moreover, the recent scholarship on Leonardo, often of high quality, abounds with detailed observations and a mass of cross-references to one codex or another, but contains much less in the way of synthesis. To come to terms with this material requires not just time, but also the energy to master a whole range of subjects quite outside the bounds of conventional art history.

Made in Venice

Charles Hope, 2 April 1981

With the hyperbole typical of the guidebook writer, Francesco Sansovino asserted in 1561: ‘Take it from me, there are more pictures in Venice than in all the rest of Italy.’ This is obviously not true, but it is almost certainly the case that during the 16th century more oil paintings were produced in Venice than in any other city of Europe. Many were undistinguished, but virtually all of them, as contemporaries everywhere recognised, reflected a distinctive local tradition whose best representatives were among the outstanding artists of their day. Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese, for example, were all active when Sansovino was writing: at that time nowhere else in Italy could boast of a group of painters of comparable stature. But not only have historians of this period devoted much more attention to the art of Florence and Rome: they have also tended to regard developments in these two cities as the norm, and painting in Venice as a deviant provincial phenomenon.

Mantegna’s Classical World

Charles Hope, 19 June 1980

When the Archduchess Joanna of Austria made her official entry into Florence on 16 December 1565 as the bride of Francesco de’ Medici, one of the first things she saw, at the gate of the city, was a painting showing the famous artists of Tuscany. In the distance was Cimabue holding a small lantern, and nearby Giotto with a larger lantern, surrounded by his immediate followers; towards the foreground there were two groups of 15th-century artists, and finally, at the very front and in the full light of day, Michelangelo and his companions, the great masters of the modern period from Leonardo da Vinci to the immediate past. The basic arrangement was obviously derived from Vasari’s Lives, published in 1550, although there were some surprising differences in the detailed classification. As a scheme it reflected the conventional attitude of Italians in general to the art of their predecessors, the belief that the masters of the 14th and 15th centuries had worked to a greater or lesser degree in the dark, and that perfection had only been achieved in the High Renaissance.

Canons and Conveniences

Charles Hope, 21 February 1980

Sir Ernst Gombrich is not only one of the very few historians of art now alive whose ideas have aroused wide interest outside his immediate discipline, but he is also an astonnishingly skilful lecturer. It is therefore only appropriate that he should so often have been invited to give those formal university lectures devoted to the discussion of general cultural issues. Most of the pieces included in his latest volume of collected essays originate in lectures of this kind, although in some cases the original texts have been greatly expanded. The themes that he examines will be familiar to anyone who has read his earlier work, but his arguments gain immeasurably by being presented in a single volume, even though this inevitably involves a certain amount of repetition, notably in his remarks on the PhD industry and the dangers of specialisation.


Salvator Mundi

22 December 2019

Nicholas Penny refers to an ‘unwritten protocol’ involving the consultation of external scholars before a national institution exhibits works in private hands whose attribution might be controversial (Letters, 23 January). Regardless of the relevance of that protocol, the websites of the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum all indicate that these institutions...

Bellini or not?

20 December 2018

Loan exhibitions are often supposed to contribute to knowledge by showing side by side pictures that are not normally juxtaposed. But as reservations are almost never expressed, in the catalogue or on the labels, about the traditional attribution of works that have been loaned, the impact of such comparisons tends to be rather muted. This seems to have happened with two of the pictures supposedly by...

Does terrorism work?

8 September 2016

‘Al-Qaida thought it had some reason to believe that the US would retreat from the Middle East in response to its attacks,’ Thomas Nagel writes, adding that ‘as it turns out, the US presence in the Middle East has not been reduced’ (LRB, 8 September). Whatever al-Qaida thought, Osama bin Laden gave specific reasons for the 9/11 attacks, in particular US support for Israel, UN...

Ostentatio Genitalium

15 November 1984

SIR: I fear that I quite failed to make it clear to Mr Rykwert (Letters, 20 December 1984) exactly what I found so difficult to accept in Leo Steinberg’s thesis. In his book Steinberg principally does two things. He draws attention to a change that occurred in European, and particularly Italian, art from about the middle of the 14th century – namely, the increasing tendency of artists to...

Two Minds

15 March 1984

SIR: Jaynie Anderson is quite right to point out (Letters, 5 April) that I conflated the two Vischers, Friedrich Theodor and Robert, in my review of Edgar Wind’s volume of collected papers; and I apologise for my carelessness. But this mistake fortunately does not negate my claim that Wind’s review of Gombrich’s biography of Warburg was unduly tendentious. In his dissertation on Botticelli,...

Canons and Conveniences

21 February 1980

Charles Hope writes: It is ludicrous to assert, as Mr Emanuel does, that ‘if Hegel is important in the history of ideas it certainly must be for recognising and drawing the world’s attention to the influence of past history on present circumstances.’ This had been the practice of historians ever since the time of Thucydides. Hegel’s originality lay not in postulating ‘a...

Titian’s Mythologies

Thomas Puttfarken, 2 April 1981

If Titian’s reputation were to be assessed by the number and quality of the monographs devoted to him during this century, it would be hard to believe that he was one of the greatest...

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