‘The frigid and the torrid intertwined’
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‘The frigid and the torrid intertwined’

There are plenty of Italophile Englishmen to study, but, if you find yourself passionately craving information about the Arts and Crafts movement, historic-house museums or early twentieth-century men's moustaches (all of which are perfectly reasonable), you might very well turn to Herbert Percy Horne (1864-1916) to

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Thu 27 Sep 2012 12:00 AM

There
are plenty of Italophile Englishmen to study, but, if you find yourself
passionately craving information about the Arts and Crafts movement,
historic-house museums or early twentieth-century men’s moustaches (all of
which are perfectly reasonable), you might very well turn to Herbert Percy Horne (1864-1916) to help
satiate your interests. There’s something about the
Victorian-Modern-Renaissance man in Horne that invites a long view, a
relationship that continues to unfold with new discoveries and reassessment,
even now, almost 100 years after his death.

 

 

MUSEO HORNE

via de’ Benci 6, Florence

Monday
through Saturday, 9am to 1pm

Tel.
055/244661; www.museohorne.it

 

 

Horne’s
perfectly restored and decorated house, which became Florence’s first
historic-house museum, was the Palazzo Corsi. Now the Museo Horne, it has been
open to visitors since Horne’s death. In art history circles, Horne is, above
all, known for writing what has been considered the best English-language book
on an Italian painter (on Sandro Botticelli, published in 1908), but he also
wrote studies of Luca della Robbia, Alessio Baldovinetti and Andrea del
Castagno. Although this Londoner-turned-Florentine affected the city’s
landscape both physically and intellectually, his cultured and wide-ranging
interests led him, in the course of his short life, to make important
contributions through many other projects.

 

Not
surprisingly, Horne was and is still of interest to academics, who continue to
delve into his letters, diaries and work of art and history, and today the
physical manifestations of his design skills and artistic sensibilities are
spread far and wide. In addition to Museo Horne, examples of his wallpaper,
textile and furniture design collaborations are in the Victoria and Albert
Museum in London; his surprisingly frank letters written to the object of a
failed seduction are housed in the Warburg Institute Archives, also in London;
other letters are housed at Stanford University Library in California; and an
example of his illustration is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of
Art in New York. Indeed, if someone were to piece together examples of the
evidence of his brilliance into a large-format picture book, it would convey a
unique curatorial eye that blended Florentine and British sensibilities.

 

How
does one evaluate someone like Horne? Is it through his circle of illustrious
friends and colleagues? Maybe not: Horne had acrimonious relationships with his
cultural counterparts A.H. Mackmurdo, Roger Fry and Bernard Berenson. Through
the string of beautiful women Horne is reported always to have had on his arm?
Certainly not that either, though the fictions would be fun reading. Art
historian Caroline Elam’s suggestion that Horne’s life is traditionally
characterized as two distinct halves, one in London and the other in Florence,
with their respective products and relationships, does him no service, although
this division may have been designed by Horne himself, as he wrote in one
letter that he was ‘the frigid and the torrid intertwined.’

 

Horne
may have had limited means, but he certainly had unlimited talent. The
economics of how he made things happen (the inception and publication of the
Burlington Magazine, for example) would make for a fascinating study. He was
directly involved with endeavors that contributed to the creation of the field
and market for art history, and his own wide-ranging artistic interests and
work (music, typography, poetry, archival research, collecting and connoisseurship)
moved along a continuum from the private to the public and back again. Horne’s
failing health seems to have been the impetus for the transitional moments in
his life: his move to Italy (apparently after coughing up blood, a symptom of a
weak chest) and his later purchase, conservation and decoration of the Palazzo
Corsi. As he grew weaker, Horne needed a place to display the objects he had
been collecting and storing for years in his small apartments.

 

This
very last project, an intact fifteenth-century space that needed attention,
enabled Horne to present early Renaissance art history as he saw it: as a
whole, where furniture, paintings, sculpture and the decorative arts relate to
each other within a specific architectural space. This contextual approach is
now common curatorial practice, but a century ago it was innovative.

 

The
problem of the historic house and its collections is always about understanding
what was, what is, and what happened in between. In the case of Herbert Percy
Horne, peeling the layers of this man’s exceptional life makes for rewarding
work. 

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