John Pope-Hennessy

A high priest of Renaissance art history

Deirdre Pirro
January 30, 2014

A plaque affixed to the wall outside via dei Bardi 28 simply states that there, ‘in palazzo Canigiani, the English art historian and honorary citizen of Florence, Sir John Pope-Hennessy (1913–94), lived and died.’  There is so much more to his story than that brief epitaph suggests.

 

A man who once said that ‘objects mean more to me than people,’ John Wyndham Pope-Hennessy, a museum curator and art historian, was a prolific and revered authority on Italian painters and sculptors from the early Renaissance to the baroque.

 

He wrote such groundbreaking works as his three-volume Introduction to Italian Sculpture (1955), Italian Renaissance Sculpture (1958), and three-volume Italian High Renaissance and Baroque Sculpture (1963), as well as books on individual artists, including an edition of Cellini’s Autobiography (1949), Giovanni di Paolo (1937), Sassetta (1939), Uccello (1950), Fra Angelico (1952), Raphael (1970), Luca della Robbia (1980), Cellini (1985) and, just before his death, Donatello (1993). Many of his works were subsequently updated and revised. In his autobiography, Learning to Look, My Life in Art (1991), he describes his journey through the art world, and delights in caustic (and indiscreet) revelations about museum administration.

 

The privileged son of a soldier who, for a time, was military attaché at the British Embassy in Washington, DC, and a noted writer, Pope-Hennessy was born in London on December 13, 1913. He was educated at Downside Abbey, a Benedictine school in Somerset and then read political and intellectual history at Balliol College, Oxford. Although passionate about art from his teens, strangely enough he never had any formal training in art history. When he graduated from university in 1935, he sold some islands off Borneo, which an uncle had left to him, and used the funds to support a two-year private study trip throughout Europe to visit great art collections and museums. Throughout his life, he continued to travel extensively.

 

On his return from the Continent in 1938, Pope-Hennessy joined the Engraving, Illustration and Design Department at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. During World War II, he served in air-force intelligence. After the war, he resumed his old job, and then requested a transfer to the Department of Architecture and Sculpture, where he served as keeper from 1954 to 1966. Having daily access to the museum’s vast and unique European sculpture and plaster cast collections, he focused his research on understanding and interpreting Italian sculpture as a three-dimensional discipline in its own right, quite distinct from painting. This perspective may seem obvious today, but, at the time Pope-Hennessy began writing about it in the 1950s, it was not.

 

When the flood struck Florence in 1966, Pope-Hennessy was one of the first international experts to arrive in the city and describe the devastation of Florence’s artistic patrimony to the world. A year later, he was appointed director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. He was knighted in 1971. From 1974 to 1976, he was director of the British Museum, the only person to hold this prestigious position at both museums. Shocked by the brutal murder in January 1974 of his younger brother, James (b.1916), a writer and biographer, by three young men, including James’s lover, Pope-Hennessy decided to leave England. The right opportunity came in 1977, when he was made consultative chairman to the Department of European Painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and a professor at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, one of the many universities where he would teach or guest lecture. Upon retiring from the Met in 1986, Pope-Hennessy settled permanently in Florence, the city where he had spent every summer for the previous 40 years, although he continued to teach at the Institute for Fine Arts for two months each spring until 1992.

 

A hard taskmaster simply called ‘the Pope’ by his collaborators, he could be contemptuous of those he believed lacked merit, but he was always loyal to those who showed promise. A very private man who never married, he was a compelling conversationalist and enjoyed stimulating company, often entertaining at his large, antique-filled apartment. Although never very wealthy, he consolidated his financial position in the 1980s, when he sold Domenichino’s Christ Carrying the Cross to the Getty Museum for $750,000, a painting he had originally bought in 1946 for £38; and Annibale Carraci’s Vision of St. Francis, for which he had paid £28, to the National Gallery of Canada for £100,000. Some controversy now surrounds these sales: recently released documents show that, in 1976, to obtain an export licence to take these paintings (and several others) out of Britain, he may have influenced and probably misled the then director of the National Gallery and expert adviser to the committee responsible for allowing artworks to leave the country. Two years after his death, the remainder of the art collection from his Florence home was sold for £1.03 million at Christie’s, New York.

 

At age 80, on October 31, 1994, Pope-Hennessy died of complications from a liver ailment. After a funeral service at the small church of San Francesco Poverino in piazza Santissima Annunziata, he was buried at the Cimitero degli Allori, just outside Florence.

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