Posted on Feb 25, 2000

Matthew spent most of three months in Venice last fall trying to find a

From the Renaissance, that is.

It seems that pharmacists – known as apothecaries in
their time – served as art supply dealers for Venetian painters and
other artists, carrying everything from pigments and paint binders to
paintbrushes and turpentine.

Matthew, an associate professor of art history, spent
her sabbatical sifting through dusty archives of documents written in
archaic Italian, mostly in nearly illegible handwriting. Account books,
wills, letters, manuals with paint recipes, inventories, shipping
manifestos – all would yield clues to what Matthew calls “the
business of art” in Renaissance Venice.

Matthew will discuss her research in a faculty
colloquium – “Pigments, Paint and Painters in Renaissance
Venice” – on Tuesday, Feb. 29, at 11:30 a.m. in the Olin

Renaissance Venice, an art capital and busy trading
emporium, has one of the most extensive document archives in Western
Europe, Matthew said. But there are a number of challenges for a
researcher like Matthew: whole sections have not been indexed, few people
used surnames (indeed, most people she is researching are anonymous), and
it is hard to know what types of documents will yield important

Luckily for Matthew, a few people adopted last names
based on profession. While she was researching notary records, one name
jumped off the page: Francesco dei Colori (Frances of the Colors), who
turned out to be an apothecary who sold pigments. Eventually, Matthew
found eight others who used the dei Colori surname including one who sold
only art supplies, not the stock of a medicinal apothecary.

“We knew that apothecaries sold art supplies,”
she said, “but we had no idea that they constituted a specialized
profession in their own right.”

She is also interested in finding out more about the
painting profession as a whole. The split between the “fine
arts” and “crafts” had its start in the Italian
Renaissance, Matthew explains. While a few well-known artists like Bellini,
Titian and Giorgione became the elite by elevating their art to a more
intellectual level, a large number of others labored in relative
obscurity, their works now largely lost or forgotten.

“We know very little about those who stayed at the
craft level, the 'blue-collar artisans,' if you will,” says
Matthew. “If you want a view of the whole profession, you have to
look at all the little guys too. For every one “figure painter”
as they were called — the ones we go to see at museums — there were
several 'craftsmen' or 'artisans' who painted such things as
leather, cards and furniture. Their story has yet to be told.

“I want to give my colleagues an idea of what an
art historian really does,” Matthew said of her upcoming talk.
“Aesthetics, appreciation and analysis … that stuff is not all of
art history. It's a very interdisciplinary field that delves into
economic, social and political history, chemistry, the history of science,
even environmental science (Pollution from the art industry was a problem
in Renaissance Venice.)

“It's also interesting to see how teaching and
research are completely intertwined,” she said. “For this
project, I started with a broad idea. I tend at first to go in a lot of
trajectories in all sorts of directions. As I tell my students when they
start their research, it's very confusing and you have to be very
organized. But you also have to be adaptable and curious.

“In my teaching, I've always been interested in
conveying the process of art,” Matthew says. “How did people do
these things? Of course, we're dealing with processes.”