Ancient Lives, New Discoveries (British Museum)

Mummy undergoing CT scan at Royal Brompton Hospital (c)Trustees of the British Museum

Mummy undergoing CT scan at Royal Brompton Hospital (c)Trustees of the British Museum

This new exhibition gives visitors an insight into the latest scientific research methods in the field of physical and cultural anthropology. But at the same time, the exhibition is also of interest for art historians since it changes our understanding of the human body. Ever since we have been capable of drawing and painting, we have visually recreated our own faces, body postures and body movements; and the emergence of new media, such as photography and technical animation has simply expanded our physical possibilities. Hence, the current high-tech exhibition at the British Museum juxtaposes the standard representation of the human body as it raises awareness to the decaying process of a human body instead of highlighting its genesis and the artistic recreation process of human faces and bodies – what art historians usually do. It is outstanding as it draws a compelling link between technology and mortality, and conveys the idea that a mummy is little but the residue of a human being preserved over several centuries.

Technology: CT scan 3D visualisation of the residue of Tamut (©Trustees of the British Museum)

Technology: CT scan 3D visualisation of the residue of Tamut (©Trustees of the British Museum)

While anthropologists have long studied the conditions of mummies’ teeth to determine the age at which the person died as well as to shed light on their diet and social class, this exhibition is unique that it provides more information about the general physical the condition of the human bodies. Anthropologists and art historians have more in common than you might think: both study the object itself before drawing on its visual representation to explain the reasoning of their thesis to others. For example, the penetration of the mummies with invisible light in CT has resulted in several x-ray images, in which invisible light appears white since the heavy materials of the bones have absorbed it. They are joined together to a cohesive image on a computer screen, and are used to create short 3-D animations to make the decaying process of the skeletons more easily accessible for non-experts.

The CT scan of the mummy of an adult male (name unknown). © Trustees of the British Museum

The CT scan of the mummy of an adult male (name unknown). © Trustees of the British Museum

Studying the physical anthropology of mummies may give us some time to rethink how we use and fuel our own mental and physical machine. Hence, the exhibition’s memento mori effect demonstrates that the Deleuzian “body without organs” is only a skeleton, coated with muscles to uphold our upright standing position, covered with a layer of vulnerable flesh. Without keeping our organic engine running our body is not very different to the skeleton of a mummy since our “coating” depends on it. The same observation, but the other way around, can be made when studying the artistic renditions of bodies. At first artists need to study the anatomy of a human body, and at the same time understand the possibilities and limitations of the media they are using to visualise it, just as in science. In light of this, the British Museum exhibition is highly significant for anthropologists and art historians as it promotes the closure of the gap between social science and the field of art history by strengthen cross-disciplinary approaches.


Lisa Moravec is a Graduate Diploma student at the Courtauld.

Ancient lives, New discoveries is at the British Museum til the 30th November 2014.

Architecture and Music in Renaissance Venice (Thursday 21st November)

Howard1They say architecture is “frozen music”, but this week has been a particularly noisy one for this art historian. First there was the Liturgy in History study day at Queen Mary University, where both the seminar room in Whitechapel and then St. Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield were filled with beautiful singing, including us lay people lending our voices to provide the drone of Perotin’s thirteenth-century Viderunt Omnes. Then at Mellon Centre on Wednesday, the rector of Ranworth provided those gathered with a rendition of the Gloria attached to his church’s medieval lectern in a round table seminar about the great rood screen.

This means that the Art History and Sound series, organised in the Courtauld Research Forum by Ph.D. students Michaela Zöschg and Irene Noy, is in very good company of a consideration of the sonic environment of the visual arts. This Thursday marked the second of three autumn lectures after a successful series of workshops last year.

Deborah Howard, the co-author of Sound and Space in Renaissance Venice, came to the Courtauld to demonstrate the methodology behind the book. Did the great architects, Sansovino and Palladio, while designing their temples to Counter-Reformation piety, allow provision for the Gabrielis and Monteverdi to achieve the same with their ground-breakingly sophisticated polyphonies?

Howard3Although audience surveys were used in the project, rather than this subjective evidence, much attention was given to presenting the results of computer modelling simulations to actually show what was happening to the sound in these churches. There was little problem in a shoe-box like the Ospedaletto – the sound quickly reverberated from off the roof to seem like it was raining down to the audience without any dissonance.

The monumental Il Redentore however proved more of a problem. It was fine for the daily offices of the Capuchin friars in the enclosed choir. However, for the great festival day when the choir were stationed under the mighty dome, the simulation showed how it would reverberate the sound waves like “a giant food processor”, throwing down the carefully orchestrated polyphony that had been composed specially for the day as an utter muddle of sonic hummus. But it was shown how on such days, the church would be covered in tapestries, draped in hangings and filled with robed bodies, to give a much more promising situation, and that the composition would not be destroyed by the architectural setting. The same was demonstrated in a festally adorned San Marco, the sound given a clarity and vibrancy when the harmonies would have been all but obscured in an empty church. All well and good for Renaissance polyphony, but was this a happy accident rather than design? Did Palladio really reassure a frustrated Gabrieli at rehearsals it’d be alright on the night?

Howard2Deborah did admit that the results of the project merely reinforced their expectations. But the real achievement of this lecture was to make people aware of the methodology behind it. An architectural historian may wish for a silent, empty church when wielding a tripod, but now a building resonating with “molten architecture” should also prove equally rewarding for interrogation.

For more information and music tracks related to the project, visit

The Beholder’s Gaze: What do our eyes see when we look at pictures? (5th November 2013)


Does pictorial composition lead the beholder’s gaze when looking at pictures? Is abstract art a universal language? Is artistic perception culturally-based? Issues of art reception are central to the research of Professor Raphael Rosenberg, invited to speak at the third Frank Davis lecture on Art and Vision. Within the Institut für Kunstgeschichte of the University of Vienna, Professor Rosenberg leads the Laboratory for Cognitive Research in Art History, where quantitative methods are applied to the study of ‘the beholding of aesthetic objects.’

By employing eye-tracker instruments, Professor Rosenberg conducts cognitive surveys on the way in which eye pupils move on paintings’ surface. Thus, the main object of his research is composition, or the reception of the arrangement and organization of the pictorial surface, which had also been the subject of the first lecture in the Frank Davis series in October. Works in progress at the Laboratory include “The cultural eye”, a paper comparing how Japanese and Austrian individuals look at paintings (the former focus on nudes, the latter on landscape!) and “Is abstract art a universal language?”, an article tracing the difference in the way experts and non-experts look at abstract paintings, namely Karl Otto Götz’s Bild vom 5.2.1953.

In his presentation Professor Rosenberg claimed that the results of such experiments could support art historians by adding scientific elements to the troubled history of art criticism, concerned with the account of the beholder’s gaze in the exercise of ekphrasis and in the account of aesthetic experiences (from Procopius of Caesarea to Diderot). Although the eye-tracking system will soon be used on museum visitors, at the moment paintings are shown on the computer screen, altering greatly the results of the paintings’ appreciation. In the case of abstract painting or architecture for instance, the “materiality” of the work is a most prominent feature of the aesthetic experience.

Cognitive studies have been interested in art theory for some time now, as the Courtauld’s Frank Davis series demonstrates in gathering several scholars from different areas. Germany and the United States have founded (and funded) a good number of similar projects, stemming out of the possibilities first envisaged by Semir Zeki and John Onians. In 1994, the latter was the editor of a series of essays offered to E. H. Gombrich for his 85th birthday and dealing precisely with the problem of reception in a wide range of contexts. Included in the volume, an essay by Michael Baxandall was mentioned by Professor Rosenberg as a pioneering application of some studies in cognitive psychology and vision carried out since the 1970s.

But in that essay, Michael Baxandall had revealed his scepticism for such methodologies: “Records of scanpaths [what is now called eye-tracking] can often seem disappointingly uninformative. Features fixated are mainly those one might expect” (p. 409). Baxandall also distinguished between levels of analysis, and wrote that cognitive science deals with low level of the visual process, that is, the first phases of observation: “Higher levels of the attentive visual process introduce different kinds of problems, particularly when the attention is to complex paintings, and for various reasons I do not feel the cognitive sciences invoked here offer art criticism as much broadening suggestion for dealing with those higher levels: for that one must go elsewhere” (p. 413).

Similarly, my main concern regards the focus on physiological rather than cultural aspects of reception. In fact, art has methodologies that are proper to its historiography, and deals with complexity. Conversely, by isolating the issue of the eye movement on a flat (virtual) surface, and focusing on one element in artistic reception, this type of research (as yet) cannot seem to take into account the complexity of artworks and the cultural discourse surrounding their ideation, creation, and display.

Giotto’s Circle and Medieval Work in Progress: ‘Illuminated Manuscripts: Art and Science’

The new research presented by Dr Stella Panayotova (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) at the Research Forum on 24 April 2013 is a perfect summation of the huge advances being made in the field of manuscript studies thanks to exponentially rapid developments in science and technology. Already relatively well-known works of medieval art were shown in a new light, as Dr Panayotova explained how the use of digital reconstruction can debunk certain myths surrounding medieval manuscript production that have been readily spread through literature. Such myths were based on the conclusions of a small selection of academics in an age before such impressive technologies were readily available and have been accepted largely without question by a majority of medievalists. However, the work of Dr Panayotova and the MINIARE project (Manuscript Illumination: Non-Invasive Analysis, Research and Expertise) highlights just how much more research there is to be done in the area.

In collaboration with the Getty, several manuscripts were subject to a variety of intense analytical processes in order to map out more accurately than ever the exact make-up of the manuscripts’ pigmentation. Here, the focus was on the work of Pacino di Bonaguida, a fourteenth century Italian artist whose oeuvre included not only illuminated manuscripts, but also altarpieces. The work for which he is perhaps most well-known, the Chiarito Tabernacle, also went under the microscope.

One of the most useful ways to use this new technology is to distinguish between different artistic hands, not just in manuscripts but in other art objects also. Indeed, it was amazing to see how delicate and subtle some of the stylistic differences between hands were – brushstrokes, for example, can vary greatly in a way that would have otherwise been imperceptible to the naked eye, such as the use of linear, parallel strokes as opposed to cross hatching. It also highlights similarities in the treatment of shadows – particularly noticeable in paintings of flesh and skin – thereby allowing us to draw links that would have perhaps been too anachronistic before. Viewing the manuscripts under UV lights allows for an analysis of the organic make-up of the pigments, what materials have been used and, therefore, which paints were likely to have been mixed in the same workshop or by the same artist and which were done separately. This may initially seem highly technical, but what Dr Panatoyova has shown is that using science in this way can allow us to give a lot more weight to arguments around the provenance of medieval artworks.

It was especially fascinating to hear Dr Panatoyova’s theories on the knowledge and use of colour optic theories in the medieval period, and how our ability to see the subtle techniques utilised by artists gives us much greater insight into how they were thinking about shadow and light. But this is only the beginning – the most exciting thing is speculating on how exactly these technologies might advance our research in the future.

Modern Science and the Avant-Garde: Rethinking Alexander Calder

Vanja Malloy

I’ve always secretly wished I was really good at science and could do physics. My dad tried particularly hard to get me interested having studied it himself at university, but the truth is I never had teacher at school that could get me engaged unless it was art or drama. Now having found my ‘calling’ (at least for now!) in art history, I always admire scholarship that finds new ways of fusing the two together.

Fig 1: Alexander Calder, Constellation with Orange Anvil, 1960

Fig 1: Alexander Calder, Constellation with Orange Anvil, 1960

Bringing astrophysics into the study of Alexander Calder’s Constellation series (figs. 1 & 2) proved the ways in which an understanding of science and its role within the contextual climate can open whole new realms of meaning. The prospect can often seem daunting for those less scientifically inclined. I won’t lie about the fact that when the speaker began discussing cosmic nuclear gasses, interstellar matter, and the 4th dimension of space time, my heart sunk a little with the feeling my scientific ignorance would cost me a full understanding of the debate. However it is not just that these ideas explain the artwork, but it was argued that the artworks themselves are creative explanatory models for what were new theories about the cosmos, an explanation that certainly helped me!

In terms of art historical context, I was particularly taken with the discussion of the Dimensionist Manifesto (1936), created by Charles Sirato and signed not only by Calder, but Arp, Picabia, Miró, Kandinsky, Delaunay, Duchamp and Nicholson to name but a few. Clearly Calder’s astrological endeavours speak to a wider contemporary artistic phenomenon, and focusing on his particularly astute intellectual response in relation to this elevate him from his usually marginalised status. Indeed Calder had trained for four years as an engineer, and so his technical understanding most likely surpassed some of his contemporaries. The manifesto states:

“It is, on the one hand, the modern spirit’s completely new conception of space and time (the development of which, in geometry, mathematics and physics – from Bólyai through Einstein – is on going in our days), and on the other, the technical givens of our age, that have called Dimensionism to life.”[1]

It was suggested that every element of the Constellations colour, line, and shape are representative of specific scientific language and diagrams. As you may have noticed from my first blog post, I like unusual formal connections. Therefore I was fascinated by the comparison of the ‘hourglass’ shapes in Constellation with Two Pins (fig. 2), to the diagram of a light cone (fig. 3). It seems that in coming together within the artwork, these complex theories help to explain each other.

As with any Research Forum event, the depth of analysis was such that I could not fathom to cover it here. But I would like to end by reflecting on a phrase I can’t get out of my head, about making the connection. Calder’s works literally connect stellar forms with spindly stems, making connections between the shapes, which can be seen to represent scientific theories, and at the same time reminding us that the connection between art and science is often a lot closer than we imagine. Unfortunately I think it is the cultural heritage of Enlightenment reason vs. Romantic emotion (i.e. Science vs. Art) that tell us they are not, a barrier still often hard to break down.

Fig 2: Alexander Calder, Constellation with Two Pins, 1943 (Photo:

Fig 2: Alexander Calder, Constellation with Two Pins, 1943

Fig 3: Diagram illustrating a ‘Light Cone’ (Source:

Fig 3: Diagram illustrating a ‘Light Cone’