History of Art and Architecture

Alison Langmead and Christopher J. Nygren Colloquium

Wednesday, November 28, 2018 - 12:00pm

Room 202, Frick Fine Arts Building

"The History of Art and Culture-Critical Computational Knowledge"

In the nineteenth century, the art historian Giovanni Morelli (b. 1816 – d. 1891) developed a mode for identifying the artistic agent responsible for having made Renaissance paintings; his method focused on recognizing details. By Morelli's account, the tedium of painting noses, ears, fingers, etc. meant that painters most revealed themselves precisely in those passages of paint that nineteenth-century beholders tended to overlook. Visiting dozens of museums throughout Europe allowed Morelli to create a catalog of noses, ears, fingers, etc. that he believed would permit him (and by extension his readers) to re-evaluate and correct attributions of thousands of Renaissance paintings. Morelli's project can fairly be described as developing a "database" of forms (fingers, noses, etc.) against which individual paintings could be checked (almost) computationally. Insofar as it involves connecting the fields of a database with external objects to arrive at conclusions, Morelli's method is computational or algorithmic. Our project proposes to use contemporary techniques in computer vision (such as it is) to apply Morelli’s method to a large set of painting. The ultimate goal of this exercise is not to “prove” whether Morelli was right or wrong, but to reveal and to articulate new knowledge about a number of aspects of contemporary art historical practice.