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Doctoral Studentship Details

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Aims and Objectives
Research Questions
Training and Support
Dissemination Plans

Aims and Objectives
Despite the impressive scholarly attention that the Venice of the Renaissance has commanded, there is as yet no overarching study devoted to the challenges posed by the city’s unique physical and geographical environment on the manufacture and delivery of paintings, particularly large scale, in the lagoon city. This doctoral project investigates two aspects of this problem: the handling and transport of paintings from the painter’s workshop to their intended destination, and how their supports were made across time, and whether innovations were made in response to Venice’s challenging physical environment.

The research will concentrate on Venetian paintings from the fifteenth & sixteenth centuries in order to plot changes over time as the binding agent in painting evolved from egg to oil and the paintings’ supports shifted from wood to canvas. This chronological scope also corresponds with Venice’s expansion into the mainland, and the growth of new, distant markets. It will therefore enable discussion of environmental impact on the transport beyond the lagoon, from water to land, over plains and mountains.

The project aims to address two neglected areas and add to our comprehension of Venice as a unique centre of artistic production. It will advance our knowledge of transport and handling of Venetian Renaissance paintings by assembling and merging published findings with new evidence from the archives of the numerous magistracies who regulated all standards of artistic production, manufacture, commerce and transport in Venice and from other repositories. Another objective is to create a database of documentary evidence regarding the aspects of transport and painting support noted above and make it available online, providing an invaluable resource for future research. This evidence will be linked to an interactive digital map of Venice on which will be plotted sites relevant to the National Gallery’s Venetian paintings. A second aim is to mine untapped archives with the potential to shed light on the subsequent journeys of the National Gallery’s Venetian paintings, from Venice or the Veneto to their current known provenance. The Gallery’s paintings as physical objects, capable of revealing whether aspects of their condition might relate to transport and how their support was constructed, will provide test cases for any documentary discoveries.

Visitors to the National Gallery admire and recognize Venetian Renaissance paintings for their colour, effects of light and bold brushwork. Rarely do they consider how painters working in Venice faced additional challenges posed by the lagoon’s unique environment. Painters’ studios were located on canals in a city where humidity is constantly high, and where every route on foot is interrupted by dozens of bridges that can only be crossed via steps. From the point of view of transport alone, each painting created in Venice has undergone what might be considered an epic journey from workshop to intended destination, whether a church or a house, a palace or the hall of a scuola, within the lagoon islands or beyond.

The subsequent history of Venetian Renaissance paintings (and other Italian works), certainly involved further journeys before they came to rest in the Gallery. These later travels owed much to accidents of fashion or conquest. Outmoded and replaced by baroque or eighteenth-century masterpieces, altarpieces were often moved to lesser chapels or conventual spaces, occasionally necessitating dismemberment and recomposition. The largest disruptions and subsequent dispersal of Venetian paintings stemmed from Napoleon’s suppression of religious communities. Recent studies of Napoleon’s rule in Venice (1797 and 1806-14), reveal a complex art business, involving closure and sealing of buildings, followed by careful appraisal and selection of paintings (and other artifacts) for the crown, based on contemporary art historical canons and a policy of appropriation of paintings and objects laden with symbolic meaning. As is well known, the best paintings were claimed by the regime and sent either to the Louvre or Milan, the new capital of the Regno d’Italia, but through local efforts many more remained in Venice in the newly founded Accademia di Belle Arti. The Demanio repositories in the Italian state archives record in minute detail the removal and transport of individual works, shipments over water and land and disputes occurring when crates of paintings failed to arrive or when water damage was revealed upon opening.

The history of the movement and displacement of Venetian paintings, particularly large ones, from their creation and during their longue durée has never been considered systematically. The project aims to recover lost processes, peregrinations and alterations to the paintings’ supports though a combined study of historical records and technical evidence from the paintings themselves, framed by new research questions.

Research Questions
Records published in the nineteenth century testify to the importance of shipping and travel when considering the commission and making of a painting. In 1440, the commune of San Daniele in Friuli provided the crate and the cotton wool for Michele Giambono and Paolo Amedei’s carved and painted altarpiece for the high altar of the church of St Michael. Yet, it is clear from the surviving contract that the two were to be responsible for shipping and installing the structure at their own risk. A century later, even though canvas had displaced panel as the painting support in Venice, Titian’s paintings did not always reach their destination in perfect condition. In Venice itself, his Pentecost for Santo Spirito had to be reworked in situ to make up for the falling of paint that occurred right after its installation on the altar. Commissions from abroad frequently led to complaints, disputes and even intimidation from no less than the King of Spain exhorting the painter to take more care in shipping. Was this on account of the paintings been rolled up? The NG’s Technical Bulletin of 1978 drew attention to the need to roll up canvas for transport in Venice and the consequences this could have on the paint surface. But were all paintings necessarily rolled up for transport during their initial transit from workshop to church or palace? Were other mechanisms of handling adopted? After all, paintings were not the only luxury goods handled and transported over Venice’s waterways and the role of porters and boatmen still awaits exploration. Did Venetian painters or specialist handlers invent new methods to minimize the consequences of potential damage caused by transport? Was damage a key factor in the shift of support from wood to panel, and did size matter? How often did the painter travel or indeed accompany the painting? And who was responsible for packing and shipping when the Serenissima shipped paintings as diplomatic gifts?

Antiquarians and local historians in the 19th century began questioning the impact that transport might have on paintings by publishing accounts of crating and shipping, in addition to disputes arising between clients and artists when works of art underwent damage during transit. These notices are far and few and rather scattered. The interest in such questions more or less disappeared from histories of Venetian art until more recently, when the rise of ‘technical’ art history touched indirectly on some of these aspects, such as the shift of painting support from panel to canvas, the advantages of rolling up canvas for transport in Venice and the drastic consequences this could have on the paint surface. Provenance research deals in a certain sense with a painting’s subsequent journeys, but without focusing on the minutiae associated with the actual movement of works from, say the portego or ceiling of a canal house to a collector’s palace, or from a religious community (church or convent) to storage following Napoleon’s suppression, and eventually to a national collection.

As for how the supports of sixteenth-century Venetian paintings were made, recent technical evidence has enabled NG scientists and scholars to pay attention to the peculiarities of Venice’s canvas, the different types of weave, their discriminate or indiscriminate use (say between Carpaccio and Titian), and what effects the limitations of the width of a hand woven canvas could have on the creation of large Venetian paintings. But many questions have yet to be considered. For instance, we know that Tintoretto’s canvasses were made of variable lengths of different weaves sewn together, but who stitched them - the specialist merchant or labour in the workshop? We assume the painter purchased the support from specialist merchants who sold tarpaulins and sails, since canvas does not feature in shopping lists from apothecaries or color sellers, but can more be discovered on this matter? Was it new or old sail? Could it have been recycled like timber, sold or donated by religious congregations following demolition of derelict buildings as recorded in Lorenzo Lotto’s Libro di Spese Diverse, noting how 200 tavole of pine were picked up by the captain of a large ship near Santi Giovanni and Paolo and given to the painter by the friars as part of the deal for the San Antonino altarpiece.

The project will start by gathering the vast amount of published documentary evidence relating to transport, handling and painting support. This published evidence is scattered in Venetian guidebooks (beginning with Francesco Sansovino 1581), artistic and historical records including Marin Sanudo’s fifty-eight volume Diaries of Venice (spanning the years 1495-1533), Vasari, Ridolfi, Boschini and Zanetti’s accounts, nineteenth-century compilations of documents, antiquarian journals and monographic studies of painters’ lives and practice. The Gallery’s fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Venetian paintings will be selected initially for their potential for further research in the archives particularly in the Demanio repositories (Napoleonic suppression records) of the Venetian/Veneto state archives. New evidence regarding their provenance, transport/handling history, and alterations to their support may surface. The second stage will involve research in the Venetian archives. Sources seldom consulted by art historians will be mined including those of the textile industry, ambassadorial reports (papal court, Spanish, French, English, German monarchs), and the records of the magistracies that regulated all standards of artistic production, manufacture, commerce and transport in Venice. A third stage will be to return to the paintings of the Gallery to test whether there is anything in their physical make-up that relate to new discoveries.

The doctoral project will contribute to the strategic objective of the National Gallery to develop broad collaborative approaches to the study of its collection of Venetian painting. As a result, our knowledge of handling and transporting Venetian Renaissance paintings from the painter’s workshop to their original destination will be increased. Our understanding of the involvement of numerous magistracies in the regulatory aspects of manufacture, commerce and transport will be deepened. The potential impact of Venice’s challenging physical environment on the creation of a variety of supports over times will be examined and tested. The intricacies regarding who made canvas supports will be unraveled. In addition, scholars and the wider public will gain access to historical data and documentary evidence through publically accessible webpages and interactive digital maps.

The PhD studentship will be based at the University of Warwick and will be co-supervised by Dr Louise Bourdua (Warwick) and Dr Matthias Wivel (National Gallery) supported by Dr Giorgio Tagliaferro (Warwick) and Dr Susan Foister (National Gallery).

Applications are welcome from Students from the UK and the EU.

The studentship will cover home fees (full time) and a stipend for UK students or EU students who have lived in the UK for three years prior to the award. Overseas students may also be eligible if they fulfil a range of residency requirements stipulated on the AHRC guidelines.

EU students who have not lived in the UK for three years prior to the award are currently only eligible for full EU fees at RCUK rates, and no maintenance grant. International fee status students are not eligible for this award.

In addition the student is eligible to receive up to £1,000 a year from the National Gallery towards research expenses. The research will require periods of fieldwork in Venice and the Veneto for which some further support is also available.

Candidates ideally should have a First Class Honours degree in History of Art or a related discipline and a distinction-level Masters degree in History of Art or a related discipline.

Applications should include a statement of not more than 1,000 words indicating what skills and experience they will bring to the project, a current CV, a transcript of qualifications to date (and anticipated results if you are still studying for your MA), two letters of recommendation plus a writing sample (either a full essay or MA dissertation).

The deadline for applications is 1 May 2015 with interviews to be held in 29 May 2015.

Applications should be made via the University of Warwick online application form.
Please make clear in your online application that you are applying for the National Gallery studentship.

If you wish to discuss the project in more details please email

Training and Support
Training needs will be assessed immediately after appointment as the level and type of training required will depend on the focus of the research proposal and the skills that the student brings to the discipline. These skills will be provided by the Classics and Modern Languages departments and Warwick’s Centre for the Study of the Renaissance, with tailored one to one training in the Venetian archives by the Warwick supervisors. The student will also be able to participate in the following training activities:
  • Three-day specialist doctoral training course jointly organised and run by the Warburg Institute & Warwick
  • Annual fall school in Digital Humanities (Venice Time Machine) run by the Venice State Archives and the University of Venice Ca’ Foscari, thanks to our partnership with the latter
  • Other generic workshops offered by Warwick’s Centre for Advanced Doctoral Research Excellent (CADRE), such as organising humanities data digitally
  • Additional courses in information technology provided by Warwick’s IT services.
Specialist training will be offered by the National Gallery onsite by the supervisor(s) such as technical examination and the interpretation of technical images and materials in the conservation and scientific dossiers.

At the beginning of year 2 and 3 a review of training needs will be undertaken by the joint supervisors, and the regular supervision meetings will monitor this and identify any additional requirements.

Dissemination Plans
The research findings will be disseminated via a 80,000 word doctoral thesis, conference papers, gallery talks and lectures at the National Gallery, and future publications such as articles, to be submitted beyond the completion date of the project. The publically available database and interactive maps will serve as further tools of propagation.