Bill Long 9/10/11
At the Hallie Ford Museum in Salem OR
On display at this Willamette University-based museum are 74 drawings from the collection of Alessandro Maggiori, 1764-1834, an Italian collector, art connoisseur and cultural writer from the area around San Giusto in the Italian Marche. Accompanying the exhibit is a 120-page guide, with an impressive and almost book-length introductory essay by the eloquent and charismatic professor Roberto de Mambro Santos, as well as a series of interpretive events and celebrations over the next few months. All of these well-orchestrated events are an attempt to put this new gallery "on the map," so to speak, as well as to provide the context for a scholarly conference to be held in about two weeks on art collecting, art schools and traditions of Italian art in the 17th-19th centuries. In addition, the benefit of such an exhibit is that it provides an incomparable opportunity for nearly two dozen students to immerse themselves in the creative and practical work of a signficant field of unexplored artistic terrain.
I was pleased to be part of the opening lecture/gathering last evening in Salem, and I visited the collection again today to get a first-hand view of what it had to offer. Though I am supportive of almost everything connected with it, I want to devote this essay to what I consider to be the root problem with the event as conceived and effected. In a word, the numbers don't add up. As a result of the numbers never really adding up, and the fact that the numbers aren't really considered that important, I cannot go to the next step and embrace any interpretive moves made in the entertaining, yet jargon-laden essay of Professor De Mambro Santos. Let me devote the rest of the essay to this simple point about numbers.
Starting with the Basics
You become a useful thinker in the world by making sure that every statement you make is linked as with a solid chain to some aspect of reality, and that the links between sentences are as firm as those between each statement and the reality to which it points. One must begin with statements rooted in reality. So, let's try to do that...
Let's begin with how many drawings are on display. 74. Everyone agrees. These were collected by Maggiori between the years of 1788-1817. Let's move to the question of whether this constitutes the entire collection. Apparently not. But here we run into all kinds of problems.*
[*The Professor explains that he isn't interested in doing a detailed examination of the collection--rather his interest is in the intellectual agenda of Maggiori (p. 13)--and that is fine, as long as the actual stuff of the exhibit is explained in at least consistent terms. In fact, since most of his essay tries to "locate" Maggiori within several currents of Italian artistic expression from the 16th-18th centuries, care should have been taken to describe what we actually have here on display. Especially since the Professor tried to advance a thesis regarding the agenda of the collection (possibly a response to Napoleonic invasion), it is utterly essential to look to the details...]
So, we have more than 74 pieces in the total collection, but here is where we enter into a fog. We have a series of numbers on p. 15, when the Professor explains a little of the preservation/lack of preservation of the collection since 1925, but what we learn is that the drawings (number unspecified) were preserved in eight large frames. He talks about "149 prints still remaining from the collection assembled by Alessandro Maggiori" that were listed by Di Pietro in his 1925 article. But these works seem to be only those "dismissively qualified" works..in other words, there were more than this.
Then, at the bottom of the page he mentions that there are "other side of the 66 sheets" that have gone lost in the years with "23 of the 109 suriviving sheets" have revealed drawings on their back side.
Oops. We are entering into the deep folds of confusion. I ought to have stopped reading at this point, since lack of care in even a brief description can show that the agenda of the writer is not really to describe the actual facts of things--and I am committed to the notion that clarity about facts is the thing that begins the scholarly endeavor...but I read on.
All, right, so we have vague numbers at the beginning--not a good sign. We are also told that various of the drawings are owned by other museums, but we don't know if this number is to be subtracted from the vague and inconsistent numbers already given or not. The only other places in the book that describe the actual numbers add to the confusion. On page 56 it looks like the Professor is actually going to tell us about the collection. He talks about various periods of purchase and gives us numbers. Here is what he says:
1788-1796--forty drawns purchased by Maggiori
1796-1801--None, due to Napoleonic problems.
1802-1809, thirty-five new sheets were purchased.
1809-1817, three were purchased.
Adding this up, we have a grand total of 78. This can't be right, since earlier in the book we have reference to more than 100. Yikes. Then, the one other reference we have is when he begins with a statement about "the collection and its historical context" (p. 68). He says, "In the years between 1802 and 1814--when Alessandro Maggiori was buying the largest part of his collection..." But, how can this be? He bought only 37 during that period (since one was bought in 1817); even under his own math that is less than 40.
Adding to the Confusion
So, I tried to search farther afield, and I found a long article in our local newspaper, derived from an interview with him, and published a few weeks ago. Here is the link. First, it mentions that after Maggiori's death in 1834, his collection was divided among his younger brothers and some pieces were sold and wound up in four different famous museums around the world. How many pieces? No information. But then, this bombshell drops in. "In 1925, Filippp De Petri prepared an inventory of the 327 drawings that remained." Huh? I am not going to try to take this any further, since we have a mass of confusion that probably fairly easily could be removed, if someone had taken the effort to do so--either initial writer or editors along the way.
The Reason the Numbers are Important
Numbers are important for two reasons. First, they are the great test of the patience of a scholar. They demand to be recognized, accounted for, and clearly presented. Second, they are important because they form the basis of a thesis that really is being argued throughout the rest of the Professor's elegant essay. He wants to locate Maggiori in a number of overlapping contexts in the 16th-early 19th centuries in Italy, and it has to be crucial, in so locating him, to be precise on numbers.
By not being precise on numbers, we allow other kinds of slippage, such as the Professor's positing of a great, and even intimate influence of Corvi in Rome on Maggiori. But, in fact, as he tells us, we only have some evidence that Maggiori was in Rome for some of the time in 1801-03. Corvi was already 80 in 1801 and he died in 1803, and so the first question I would have is whether the men ever met, whether Corvi was active or infirm, etc. etc. I don't think we know. Of course, Maggiori could have been influenced by his "aura" or "school," but care needs to be taken to spell all this out...That is, when you allow yourself to be lax on numbers, you don't have the discipline to ask the questions or consider the limitations of other facts that are the inescapable building blocks of good theories--if, indeed, the theories are historically based.
Thus, even though the rest of the book is an eloquent exposition of ten topics, explaining an astounding number of things, I never had the sense that the book is "rooted" in exactly the way that the Professor wanted to root things. It all must begin, after all, with accurate and coherent numbers.