On Latin mottos in art, and the origins of 'connoisseurship'

August 29 2012

Image of On Latin mottos in art, and the origins of 'connoisseurship'

Picture: National Gallery

I mentioned in my post 'When Art History Goes Wrong' that connoisseurship derives from the Latin 'cognoscere', which means 'to get to know'. A reader sends in this fascinating use of the word:

It appears in that famous verse from Vergil's Georgics II. 490 Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas - 'happy the man who figures out the causes of stuff,' in the context - being a good farmer means understanding the land and the seasons.

It's taken up as a motto for deductive science, but it's equally applicable to connoisseurship. 

The only thing that stops art history from being as much as science as anything else worthy of the name is periodic outbursts of inverted snobbery like the one you quote from that appalling-sounding book. 

Parallel cases are a good test of absurdity. We could sideswipe the pretentious physicist with their elitist 'quarks' and 'neutrinos.'

Quite. Some people are so hung up on the apparently elitist connotations of the word 'connoisseurship' that they want to abolish use of it altogether. But we can no more do that than cease using other antiquarian words like 'Renaissance', or 'sfumato'. They are just part of the vocabulary of art history.

The line from Virgil is, incidentally, a splendid one, and if AHN is ever granted a coat of arms, that will be its motto.

Another favourite Latin line of mine appears in a painting by Titian called An Allegory of Prudence, above, and is the perfect rejoinder to people who ask, 'what's the point of studying history?' The inscription above the three heads reads:




Which means something like, 'It is wise to take heed of the past, lest future actions go astray'. The painting is catalogued on the National Gallery's website as 'Titian and Workshop', but is surely a case of where a painting's compromised condition has interfered with the attribution. There are some excellent passages in it, and it seems unfair to demote it. 

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.