May 15, 1997

Sydney J. Freedberg (1914-1997)


Sydney J. Freedberg, Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor emeritus of Harvard University, chief curator emeritus at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, died at his home in Washington, D.C. on May 6, 1997. He was 82. Professor Freedberg, a legendary figure in his field, High Renaissance art, was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1988 by the President of the United States, the only scholar ever to have been so decorated. 

Professor Freedberg graduated from Boston Latin School in 1932. He held an A.B. summa cum laude '36 Phi Beta Kappa, A.M. '39, and Ph.D. '40, from Harvard University. He taught at Harvard from 1954-1983. He served as chairman of the Department of Fine Arts at Harvard from 1959 to 1963, acting chairman in 1958 and 1972-73. He was acting director of the Fogg Art Museum in 1978-79. He was also a member of the Lauro de Bosis Committee for Italian Civilization and the Advisory Committee of Harvard's Center for Renaissance Studies at the Villa I Tatti outside Florence, where in 1973-74 and 1980-81 he was professor in residence. He became chief curator of the National Gallery in 1983 upon retiring from Harvard University.
"Sydney J. Freedberg was by any account one of the towering figures among Renaissance art historians of this century," Neil Rudenstine, president of Harvard University, said in a statement. "But he was also much more than that. He had a masterful command of the entire corpus of the vast field that he claimed as his own. And that command left him free to concentrate all his efforts on developing a way of looking at Renaissance (and Mannerist and Baroque) Italian art that was literally sui generis. 

"His ability to describe the nuances, the significant turning points, and the broad unfolding developments in style; his creation of a personal critical vocabulary that allowed him to express changing conceptions of Renaissance values in terms of their effect on works of art; his insistence on making judgments based on his sure instinct for aesthetic quality; and his intuitive understanding of the sensibility as well as the underlying energy and motivating visionof particular artists: these (and other) characteristics made Sydney Freedberg a unique presence at Harvard and far beyond. "He had the large-scale ambition and individuality that we are likely to associate more with nineteenth-century scholars. He wrote big books that followed one another as if they were part of a marvelous self-created continuum. He was therefore always at some risk, since there was ample materialof great scope as well as richness of detailfor others to criticize. 

"But that did not matter, because Freedberg always had the utterly essential instruments at hand to do his work: powerful and penetrating visual and interpretive capacities, and an equally potent aesthetic and conceptual vision of his chosen terrain. 

"As a person, scholar and connoisseur, he was all of a piece: formidable but affectionate, exacting but generous, humane, and very deep. We have lost someone who cared greatly about art because he cared about life. The authenticity and uniqueness of his care were as evident in how he lived, as in how he wrote."
"Sydney will be deeply missed," James Cuno, director of the Harvard University Art Museums, remarked, "not only for what he knew about the art of Renaissance Italy but for the set of unique and refined sensibilities he brought to his subject. He was unique as a scholar and teacher. His lectures cannot be forgotten: they were so perceptive, so intelligent, and so finely crafted. Above all, he defined the aesthetic achievement of the High Renaissance and the Maniera for his generation and for many generations still to come. We have lost a great mentor and a dear friend." 

During the Second World War, while serving as an American army officer, attached to a British naval intelligence unit involved with the Normandy invasion, Professor Freedberg risked disciplinary action by refusing as a matter of conscience to work on intelligence about Rome. Later he would say that "I was worried that the information I might gather might be used in a military operation against that city," and thus lead to irreparable damage to works of art there. Despite his decision, and for his numerous contributions to the war effort, he was made an Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire (Military Division). 

Twenty years later Italian art was again gravely threatened. In November 1966, news broke of disastrous floods in Italy. Art historians of the American academic and museum worlds responded instantaneously and formed the Committee to Rescue Italian Art, of which Professor Freedberg served as National Vice Chairman from 1966 through 1974. Under these auspices he, and others, raised money to offset the extraordinary cost of conserving the works damaged by the rising waters. In 1970, Professor Freedberg began service on the Board of Directors of Save Venice, of which he was a founding member. He continued on the Board until 1990, and continued to serve that organization until his death. 

For all of these distinguished contributions to the preservation and greater understanding of Italian art and culture, Professor Freedberg was made a Grand Officer in the Order of the Star of Solidarity (Italy) in 1968 and a Grand Officer of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in 1982, the highest honor Italy awards a non-National. He was also awarded honors in 1986 by the Socio del Ateneo Veneto and the Academia Clementina Bologna. A year later he began service on the Advisory Council to the Vatican Museums for the Sistine Chapel Restoration (serving as President from 1990 to 1993). And in 1988 he began a term on the I Tatti Council, serving as chairman of that organization from 1989 to 1994. From 1971-90, he served on the Advisory Committee, Harvard University Center for Renaissance Studies (Villa I Tatti). In 1995, he was awarded the International Galileo Galilei Prize. 

"Professor Freedberg trained many people prominent in the field today," Everett Fahy, chairman of the Department of European Paintings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, said in a statement. "He was the great continuer of the Berenson tradition." 

Philippe de Montebello, director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, said in a statement: "It is a pity there are no more Sydney Freedbergs to enrich today's arid field of art history as it is taught. He was a true inspiration, believed in quality and communicated it convincingly." 

"One of my proudest accomplishments was participating in bringing Sydney J. Freedberg to the National Gallery as chief curator, a position he came to upon retiring from Harvard," John Wilmerding, chair, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University, and former deputy director, National Gallery of Art, said in a statement. "It proved to be a crowning accomplishment of his distinguished career. With the combination of his authoritative scholarly standards and acute visual sensitivity, he brought a new level of luster to that institution. He was a titan in our field, who has left us a rare legacy of eloquent critical expression and deepest feeling for great works of art." 

Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art, said in an a statement: "Sydney was one of the century's great connoisseurs of Italian painting. His knowledge and engaging personality made him a legend in his time. He was wonderful to work with and I greatly valued his encouragement and counsel as advisor on my thesis. He will be sorely missed." 

Professor Freedberg's love of Italian art was deep and profound, but his love of the Villa I Tatti was even greater and more deeply personal. It was there, as a student of Bernard Berenson, that he felt most at home in the intellectual universe that comprised his professional identity and the sensuous surroundings that confirmed the rightness of his choice of academic specialty. 

Walter Kaiser, director of the Villa I Tatti, wrote of Professor Freedberg: "For almost four decades, Sydney Freedberg was intimately involved in the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies at Villa I Tatti. In both his person and his scholarship, he exemplified precisely those humanistic values to which I Tatti is dedicated; and from its inception he was one of the chief scholars who helped define its mission, shape its policies, advise its directors, and choose its Fellows. But there was also, beyond that, an intense love-affair between Sydney and I Tatti, which extended back to the days of his mentor, Bernard Berenson. I Tatti was Sydney's Italian home, and the boundless affection he felt for it was reciprocated in equal measure by the members of its staff, all of whom revered him. With his death, I Tatti has lost one of the most beloved members of its family, and I have lost one of my dearest friends." 

Professor Freedberg wrote numerous books and articles on Italian art, including: Circa 1600: A Revolution of Style in Italian Painting (1983; in Italian, 1984; in French 1993); Painting in Italy, 1500-1600 (1971; rev. eds. 1975, 1978, 1990, 1993; in Spanish, 1978; in Italian, 1988), part of the Pelican Series in the History of Art; Paintings of the High Renaissance in Rome and Florence (2 vols., 1961; rev. ed. 1972, 1985); a two-volume study with catalogue raisonné of the Florentine High Renaissance painter Andrea del Sarto (1963); and Parmigianino: His Works in Painting (1950).