Creighton Gilbert, the author of many fascinating works of art history, has died.
I entered Yale’s graduate program in art history with the idea of studying under Creighton. Although my evolving interests eventually drew me toward a specialization in Northern Renaissance and Baroque, I enjoyed several seminars and many illuminating conversations with him. I’ll leave it to the obituaries to provide a proper overview of his life and works. This is a personal remembrance.
On the heels of his rich and controversial work Caravaggio and His Two Cardinals, Creighton offered a seminar on the origins of Caravaggio’s art. Northern Italian painting before Caravaggio had long held Creighton’s attention; his 1955 dissertation under Friedlaender (who was then working on Caravaggio Studies) was a monograph on Girolamo Savoldo. Being somewhat taken with Caravaggio and his followers, and being so accustomed to thinking of him as revolutionary, I was quite eager to do the reverse engineering that Prof. Gilbert proposed. So Creighton guided me into a study of il Moretto da Brescia and helped me to see what was, and what was not, a good argument in relation to questions of influence.
During this time, I went often to Creighton’s office hours and pelted him with questions, these often pertaining to the history of art history. I asked him about his favorite instructors and educational experiences, for example, and with a gleam in his eye he recalled, as if he had felt it that very morning, the excitement and hunger with which he and his fellow students used to travel across town (to a competing institution) to hear Meyer Schapiro.
His office over High Street in the Old Art Gallery was crammed with books and papers, of course, as well as an old manual typewriter which he insisted on using right up to his retirement. To conserve paper, he would save all his scraps and type on the back of whatever happened to be in that stack. Because editors had begun requesting digital submissions by this time, I word processed a number of typescripts for him, and the backs of the pages (often inside pool from the department) were sometimes as interesting as the fronts! The edges of his world seemed blurry and disorganized, but the center was tightly focused. His work was everything.
Creighton was scrupulous about sources, and nothing pleased him more than to trace a footnote through multiple generations of citation and to discover at the origin a misinterpretation or some indisputable evidence of neglect that he could wield against an adversary farther down the citation chain. “Scholars tend to be lazy,” he often observed with charming smugness, knowing that we knew that he took pride in being an exception.
Pride of place on his rack of shelves was given to the Great Commentary of Cornelius a Lapide. Once, as he was recounting how he had hunted down the various volumes of this enormous commentary of commentaries, I remarked “It’s a good thing you decided to pick up Latin along the way!” Laughing, he replied, “In the public schools in North Carolina in the 30s, we had to!”
It was a fault of Creighton’s that he would sometimes hear the question he expected a student to ask rather than the question that a student had actually posed. Offsetting this quirk was his fairness in matters of detail. When questioned in class, he would stand his ground; however, he would always follow up in the next session, and he seemed to feel duty bound to admit error where he recognized it. Though ego may have prevailed in some of his academic adventures, logic governed his pedagogy. For example, we once sparred in class over whether the hand in Parmigianino’s convex self-portrait was a right or left. Another time, he presented a somewhat amazing solution to the famous Donatello altar problem. However, the numbers were off in his reconstruction and I told him so. These were trivia, to be sure, but in each of these instances, he received correction graciously. First, however, he took time to ponder and check. That was his way.
One area in which he would brook no dissent was methodology. His aggressive positivism and evidential orientation left no space for postmodern modes of critical inquiry, and he found Derridean deconstruction particularly loathsome and nonsensical. (He was not interested in hearing rebuttals or subtleties in this domain!) So it was fascinating in a way to watch him haze one or another student who offered an interpretation constructed out of some anathematized manner of inquiry. Cheerful sarcasm can be biting! Likewise, occasionally something in the news would set him off and he would begin class by railing entertainingly against the blindness or folly of some regrettable specimen of pop or professional art history. The so-called Manhattan Michelangelo, for example, provided such a spark.
Creighton had a gift for asking seemingly simple questions that he would then unfold into complex assessments of iconography and meaning. In one seminar, we went painstakingly through every detail of the Scrovegni chapel. In the midst of a discussion of the angels in one scene, Creighton offered a deceptively stark observation with profound methodological implications: “People always look for what’s different or abnormal or surprising and then ask ‘Why is it that way?’ I like to look at what’s ordinary and ask ‘Why is that that way?’” He was compellingly interested in what it was possible to know or think in a given cultural context, and he often cited fine details from primary sources (such as those gathered in his Italian Art 1400-1500: Sources and Documents) to demonstrate some epistemic or doxastic possibility. The Great Commentary served him well in this regard, and he often turned to Shakespeare as well for this purpose.
In another, we gave the San Brizio chapel in the cathedral at Orvieto a thorough going over (in connection with Creighton’s work on How Fra Angelico and Signorelli Saw the End of the World). Here, he partook of the Purgatorio like a true Dantista (“I have no opinion on the translations; I’ve never read one.”) and rallied sources ancient and recent to his cause. While discussing Michelangelo (whose poems he beautifully translated) shortly after the publication of Michelangelo: On and Off the Sistine Ceiling, he came up with this Socratic gem: “Why did Michelangelo choose to present twelve prophets and sibyls” in his grand exploration of Old Testament theology? Bearing in mind the nuaces of reasoning in essays such as his “The proportion of women” in that volume, we scrambled to come up with sophisticated, erudite responses to his question. Finally, with that familiar gleam in the eye, he explained: “He did it because he had twelve slots to fill.” Another typical lesson: sometimes, the easy or obvious answer is good enough, and right. Apostles come in dozens. Gospels come in sets of four. Prophets and sibyls? Fungible.
Eccentric in dress and manner, but rigorously logical in practice and prescription, Creighton Gilbert was a singular scholar. His long and storied career included no shortage of wrangling and rankling, but his work ethic made him enormously productive and his voluminous writings continue to make an impact. I found him generous and illuminating, and I’m glad to have had the chance to watch him at work.