case western reserve university


Three new faculty members in Arts and Sciences have been appointed as department chairs: Merlin Donald in cognitive science, Charles Burroughs in art history and art, and Per Aage Brandt in modern languages and literatures. The previous issue of art/sci led off with the news of Professor Donald’s appointment. For this issue, Charles Burroughs, the Elsie B. Smith Professor of Liberal Arts, has written about his career, his research interests, and his hopes for his department. A story on Professor Brandt will appear in the next issue of art/sci.
Charles Burroughs

I am an art and architectural historian with broad scholarly interests, though my major area of specialization has been Italy between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries. I have published a range of studies on well-known protagonists of cultural transformation, including Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, Alberti, Palladio, Botticelli, and some of the most important papal patrons of the period. But I have a particular interest in the anonymous or vernacular practices that shape both urban and rural environments. My first book, From Signs to Design: Environmental Process and Reform in Early Renaissance Rome (MIT Press, 1990), explored the emergence of new forms of urban living and models of urban space—forms that inspired, but did not depend on, conscious planning.

In some studies, I have concentrated on architecture; in others, on the production of images. I sought to integrate these interests, as well as my reading of late-medieval Florentine literature, in a recent book, The Italian Renaissance Palace Fašade: Structures of Authority, Surfaces of Sense (Cambridge University Press, 2002). In this project I explore the “fašade” as a central notion in understanding the cultural world as well as the key architectural conceptions of late medieval and early modern Italy (and by extension Europe). For example, I explore the relationship between fašade design and the well-known contemporary interest in reading a person’s character from the exterior, e.g., through physiognomy, and conversely in resisting such legibility, through dissimulation.

My current projects include a study of the idea of origin (i.e., of architecture, society, the city, etc.) in early Renaissance Florence, and a related exploration of neglected dimensions of Botticelli’s famous mythological painting the Primavera. In addition, I am part of an international team of scholars, including experts in labor and environmental history, that recently won a Getty Foundation Collaborative Award for a study of plantation landscapes and architecture, and the representation of these in a range of media and contexts, in the Atlantic world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

My interest in and experience of cross-disciplinary research and pedagogy, not least across the traditional boundary between the humanities and sciences, resonate with current concerns here. I am excited to work in an institutional milieu in which the questioning of existing pedagogical patterns and practices is the order of the day. And it is invigorating for me to be back, once again, in a major city, one engaged, with whatever prospects of success, in an ambitious program of redefinition in which cultural institutions and the visual and other arts already play a crucial role.

Many people I have met clearly wonder why anyone would accept a position in this department just as the Cleveland Museum of Art is about to close for several years. This is undoubtedly a major blow to the department, but it also creates an opportunity for us to consider the nature of our links with the Museum, and indeed to think about the actual and potential place in contemporary society of museums and the artworks they harbor. The department also includes a lively studio program with a particular commitment to multicultural art and design teaching and a close relationship with the Cleveland Institute of Art. It is therefore an excellent platform from which to consider a wide range of ways to make art and to study artistic making as well as ways of writing about and responding to the visual arts.

I am honored to find myself a member of, and to have the opportunity to lead, an extremely distinguished and highly visible group of art historians, and to do so within the larger, ambitiously conceived interdisciplinary environment of the College of Arts and Sciences, indeed of the University as a whole.