Paola Barocchi (1927–2016)

By Donata Levi

PAOLA BAROCCHI died on 25th May 2016 in Florence in the house near Ponte S. Trinita in which she was born on 2nd April 1927. A pupil of Mario Salmi, she graduated in 1949 with a dissertation on Rosso Fiorentino, who at that time was a neglected artist. The dissertation was based on careful stylistic analysis and for the first time integrated the artist’s Italian oeuvre with his activity at Fontainebleau. Published as a book the following year, it criticised the concept of Mannerism and the classification of Rosso as a Mannerist. Barocchi’s distaste for labels, accepted classifications and a priori categories, as noticed by Frederick Hartt in his review (Art Bulletin, March 1952), was a distinctive feature of her intellectual approach, which, coupled with her indefatigable industry, led to innovative work in art criticism.

Salmi soon encouraged Barocchi to contemplate working on a new edition of Vasari’s Lives, an endeavour that was to be influenced by the work of Roberto Longhi, who in 1951 had just been appointed professor of art history at the University of Florence. She attended his course given that year on the literature on Caravaggio, and these lectures hugely influenced the young scholar: the history of art criticism was not to be considered as a sequence of aesthetic ideas, but rather as the history of the reception of an artist, a history that can only be constructed by gathering together all available critical commentaries for analysis, and by paying careful attention to the language employed within them.

During the 1950s and early 1960s Paola Barocchi focused mainly on sixteenth-century artists, notably Michelangelo and Vasari. The catalogues (1962–64) of the former’s drawings in the Casa Buonarroti, the Uffizi and the Archivio Buonarroti were outstanding models of order, care and thoroughness that offered new and valuable research tools. Her writings of that time on Vasari as a painter, draughtsman and architect filled a gap in the literature and shed new light on the thorny issue of Vasari’s relationships with members of his circle (Gherardi, Stradanus, etc.). However, she did not limit herself to visual analyses of these artists’ works but integrated them with a growing awareness of the role of the history of art criticism. Her enquiries into the value of antiquity (1956) and into the meaning of ‘finito – non finito’ in Vasari’s Lives (1958) as well as her analysis of the sixteenth-century reception of the Sistine Chapel (1956) opened the path to her great enterprises of the early 1960s: the publication of the Trattati d’arte del Cinquecento (1960–62) and the monumental commentary on Vasari’s two lives of Michelangelo of 1550 and 1568 (1962). She brought the treatises together as a coherent corpus rather than treating them in isolation, as had been the case hitherto, and supplied evidence for the internal correspondences between them as well as showing their debts to earlier sources. Her five-volume edition of Vasari’s lives of Michelangelo (1964) – the result of eleven years of research – was impressive both for the effort that had gone into it and for the novelty of its overall structure. The commentary was obliged to rely on the tested method of enlarging on works and events mentioned by Vasari, but there are also very substantial discussions concerning the Michelangelo literature from his own day through to the twentieth century as well as on Vasari’s relationship with his sources, on his own art concepts and on his vocabulary. The vast analytical index (almost 500 pages) with its detailed subdivisions and cross-references was intended as an introduction not just to the rich materials included in the commentary but also to a new view, through the history of Michelangelo’s reception, of the entire field of modern art criticism.

These contributions were followed by Barocchi’s long awaited publication, in collaboration with Renzo Ristori, of Michelangelo’s Carteggio (1965–83) and, soon afterwards, by a new edition of Vasari’s Lives (1966–87) in collaboration with Rosanna Bettarini. This new edition also provided the first comparative consideration of the Torrentiniana and the Giuntina editions, as well as the place of life-writing in Vasari’s career. It was supplemented by a comprehensive historical survey of ‘commento secolare’ running from the mid-eighteenth century with Giovanni Gaetano Bottari until the First World War and by an analytical index that stressed the complexity of Vasari’s concepts and language. Her decision to exclude all twentieth-century commentators and to avoid a positivist updating of the information fostered a fresh approach towards the practice of art criticism. Here, as in the Scritti d’arte del Cinquecento (1971–77), Barocchi’s distinctive touch can be recognised from the less explicit, but essential criteria of the choice of texts and of the internal arrangement of the volumes. The Scritti are organised by theme and topic (such as the artist’s role, art collecting, imprese, etc.) and offer a wider and more complex perspective than the Trattati; as such they attracted Structuralists and encouraged careful reconsideration of the interactions between critical responses and contemporary art.

From 1960 to 1968 Paola Barocchi taught art history at the University of Lecce. There she opened a new field of research, focusing on the then neglected Italian art criticism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She said that she wanted to give students of the relatively remote university access to materials not easily available. The result was a pathbreaking collection of texts published in 1972 and in 1974, and again (in a revised and greatly enlarged edition) between 1990 and 2009. Here she adopted the same philological rigour and critical approach that she had used in her commentaries on sixteenth-century texts; in Italy this was a novelty, especially for the period 1945–90, which is covered by the last volume in the series (1992).

In 1974 Barocchi established her own publishing house, SPES (Studio per edizioni scelte). It published a host of titles, including treatises on the decorative arts, such as the Bichierografia by Giovanni Maggi and the Istoria delle pietre dure by Agostino del Riccio; historical source material, such as Baldinucci’s Notizie; writings on art available in G.P. Vieusseux’s early nineteenth-century journal Antologia; Futurist manifestos and exhibition catalogues; and a facsimile of Mino Maccari’s famous periodical Il Selvaggio.

In 1968 Barocchi was appointed to the first chair of History of Art Criticism instituted in Italy at the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa – the first woman to become a professor there. Bernard Berenson’s one-time prediction had not come true. It was while working in the Library at I Tatti after the end of the Second World War that the strikingly beautiful Paola Barocchi had first met Berenson, who had asked her what she wanted to do in life. On her telling him that she wanted to be an art historian, Berenson had remarked ‘there will be many pantaloni blocking your way’.

At the Scuola Normale she taught until her retirement in 2002, and, with her usual energy, extended her researches to art collecting in both the seventeenth century (Cardinal Leopoldo de’ Medici) and the nineteenth, and additionally to the history of the Uffizi. Some of her projects resulted in influential exhibitions in Florence, such as those on the Palazzo Vecchio (1980) during the Medici anniversary, on Donatello and his reception (1985) and on the Carrands (1989). The first proposed a new reading of the internal decoration of the palace and of the function of the building. The other two were strictly linked to the continuing renovation of the Museo Nazionale del Bargello. With the Bargello’s director, Giovanna Gaeta Bertelà, Barocchi established a fruitful collaboration that led to the publication of the Archivio del collezionismo mediceo (1987–2005).

All these undertakings strengthened and enriched Barocchi’s approach to art-historical sources: in her view their value resided in their relationship to art collecting, to the organisation of museums, to the activities of the art market and to issues of conservation and the promotion of art as cultural heritage. She took into consideration and re-evaluated a wider range of sources, such as inventories and reports, which supplied not just facts but also valuable lexicons of technical terms. Throughout her career, Barocchi was keenly interested in the language of art criticism, the tool that makes it possible to translate visual perception into textual criticism. This connection was at the core of her approach and accounted for her lifelong relationship with the Accademia della Crusca.

At Pisa, Barocchi organised the Seminario di Storia della Critica d’Arte, one of the most lively research centres in Italy, and helped make the Scuola a world-renowned institution. Indeed, in the field of information and communication technology as applied to art heritage, she can rightly be considered a pioneer. In 1978, for example, she arranged an epoch-making international conference on ‘Automatic Processing of Art Historical Data and Documents’ and soon afterwards founded a research centre at the Scuola that would become the Centro di Ricerche Informatiche per i Beni Culturali – CRIBECU). It was arguably her philological approach, her attitude to collecting and connecting sources and her specialist interest in the language of art criticism that encouraged a precocious engagement with the new technologies. Her scientific interest in the treatment of sources found a natural continuation in the issues related to the automatic cataloguing of art works and to art-heritage management. The CRIBECU soon became the place where specific new softwares could be tested and where other institutions (museums, soprintendenze, etc.) could find help in solving their problems. The Bollettino issued between 1980 and 2002 bears witness to this wide-ranging activity.

After her retirement Barocchi founded the Associazione (now Fondazione) Memofonte with the aim of disseminating art-historical source material, including obscure documents. On the website of the Fondazione ( she uploaded in open access both the texts and documents she had amassed during her career and the results of more recent projects, for example on Gabburri, on Diego Martelli and on the ‘Archivi del 900: da Cavalcaselle ad Argan’. She also added an online index of the art terms to be found in her monumental joint edition of Vasari’s Lives ( In 2008 she started an online journal, ‘Studi di Memofonte’, where some of this new research was published.

Paola Barocchi was always intolerant of academic formality. She had transformed her office at the Scuola into a ‘hard-working room [. . .] with coming and going that doesn’t cause confusion, rather like a busy beehive’ (letter from Carlo Dionisotti to Barocchi, 28th March 1982), and was always ready to see students looking for advice and help as well as respected scholars who had been invited to lecture. All were welcome and indeed could fit around her huge desk, crammed with books and papers, where seminars were held and informal discussions flowered. She recreated the same atmosphere at the Memofonte premises, in the magnificent, if sober, ground floor of her little palace. She regarded Memofonte as another workshop open to young scholars – a laboratory stimulating collaborative research as well as intellectual and personal growth. For Paola Barocchi art history was not an abstract academic discipline; she was fully aware of the importance of art heritage and worked tirelessly for its protection and enhancement.