HARVARD GAZETTE ARCHIVES
Sydney J. Freedberg, Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor Emeritus and chief curator emeritus at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., died at his home in Washington, D.C., on May 6. He was 82.
Freedberg, a legendary figure in his field, High Renaissance art, was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1988 by the president of the United States, the only scholar ever to have been so decorated.
Freedberg graduated from Boston Latin School in 1932. He held an A.B. summa cum laude '36 Phi Beta Kappa, A.M. '39, and Ph.D. '40, from Harvard. He taught at Harvard from 1954 to 1983. He served as chairman of the Department of Fine Arts at Harvard from 1959 to 1963, acting chairman in 1958 and 1972-73. He was acting director of the Fogg Art Museum in 1978-79. He was also a member of the Lauro de Bosis Committee for Italian Civilization and the Advisory Committee of Harvard's Center for Renaissance Studies at the Villa I Tatti outside Florence, where in 1973-74 and 1980-81 he was professor in residence. He became chief curator of the National Gallery in 1983 upon retiring from Harvard.
"Sydney J. Freedberg was by any account one of the towering figures among Renaissance art historians of this century," President Neil L. Rudenstine said in a statement. "But he was also much more than that. He had a masterful command of the entire corpus of the vast field that he claimed as his own. And that command left him free to concentrate all his efforts on developing a way of looking at Renaissance (and Mannerist and Baroque) Italian art that was literally sui generis.
"His ability to describe the nuances, the significant turning points, and the broad unfolding developments in style; his creation of a personal critical vocabulary that allowed him to express changing conceptions of Renaissance values in terms of their effect on works of art; his insistence on making judgments based on his sure instinct for aesthetic quality; and his intuitive understanding of the sensibility -- as well as the underlying energy and motivating vision -- of particular artists: these (and
other) characteristics made Sydney Freedberg a unique presence at Harvard and far beyond.
"He had the large-scale ambition and individuality that we are likely to associate more with nineteenth-century scholars. He wrote big books that followed one another as if they were part of a marvelous self-created continuum. He was therefore always at some risk, since there was ample material -- of great scope as well as richness of detail -- for others to criticize.
"But that did not matter, because Freedberg always had the utterly essential instruments at hand to do his work: powerful and penetrating visual and interpretive capacities, and an equally potent aesthetic and conceptual vision of his chosen terrain.
"As a person, scholar, and connoisseur, he was all of a piece: formidable but affectionate, exacting but generous, humane, and very deep. We have lost someone who cared greatly about art because he cared about life. The authenticity and uniqueness of his care were as evident in how he lived, as in how he wrote."
"Sydney will be deeply missed," James Cuno, director of the University Art Museums, remarked, "not only for what he knew about the art of Renaissance Italy but for the set of unique and refined sensibilities he brought to his subject. He was unique as a scholar and teacher. His lectures cannot be forgotten: they were so perceptive, so intelligent, and so finely crafted. Above all, he defined the aesthetic achievement of the High Renaissance and the Maniera for his generation and for many
generations still to come. We have lost a great mentor and a dear friend."
During the Second World War, Freedberg risked disciplinary action by refusing as a matter of conscience to work on intelligence about Rome. Later he would say that "I was worried that the information I might gather might be used in a military operation against that city," and thus lead to irreparable damage to works of art there. Despite his decision, he was made an Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire (Military Division) for his contributions to the war effort.
Twenty years later, in November 1966, news broke of disastrous floods in Italy. Art historians of the American academic and museum worlds responded by forming the Committee to Rescue Italian Art, for which Freedberg served as National Vice Chairman from 1966 through 1974. He, and others, raised money to offset the great cost of conserving the works damaged by the floods. In 1970, Freedberg began service on the board of directors of Save Venice, of which he was a founding member. He continued to serve that organization until his death.
For these many contributions to the preservation and greater understanding of Italian art and culture, Freedberg was made a Grand Officer in the Order of the Star of Solidarity (Italy) in 1968 and a Grand Officer of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in 1982, the highest honor Italy awards a non-national. He was also awarded honors in 1986 by the Socio del Ateneo Veneto and the Academia Clementina Bologna. A year later he began service on the Advisory Council to the Vatican Museums for the Sistine Chapel Restoration (serving as president from 1990 to 1993). And in 1988 he began a term on the I Tatti Council, serving as chairman of that organization from 1989 to 1994. From 1971 to 1990, he served on the Advisory Committee, Harvard University Center for Renaissance Studies (Villa I Tatti). In 1995, he was awarded the International Galileo Galilei Prize.
Freedberg's love of Italian art was deep and profound, but his love of the Villa I Tatti was even greater and more deeply personal. It was there, as a student of Bernard Berenson, that he felt most at home in the intellectual universe that comprised his professional identity and the sensuous surroundings that confirmed the rightness of his choice of academic specialty.
Walter Kaiser, director of the Villa I Tatti, wrote of Freedberg: "For almost four decades, Sydney Freedberg was intimately involved in the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies at Villa I Tatti. In both his person and his scholarship, he exemplified precisely those humanistic values to which I Tatti is dedicated; and from its inception he was one of the chief scholars who helped define its mission, shape its policies, advise its directors, and choose its Fellows. But there was also, beyond that, an intense love affair between Sydney and I Tatti, which extended back to the days of his mentor, Bernard Berenson. I Tatti was Sydney's Italian home, and the boundless affection he felt for it was reciprocated in equal measure by the members of its staff, all of whom revered him. With his death, I Tatti has lost one of the most beloved members of its family, and I have lost one of my dearest friends."
Freedberg wrote numerous books and articles on Italian art, including: Circa 1600: A Revolution of Style in Italian Painting (1983; in Italian, 1984; in French 1993); Painting in Italy, 1500-1600 (1971; rev. eds. 1975, 1978, 1990, 1993; in Spanish, 1978; in Italian, 1988), part of the Pelican Series in the History of Art; Paintings of the High Renaissance in Rome and Florence (2 vols., 1961; rev. ed. 1972, 1985); a two-volume study with catalogue raisonné of the Florentine High Renaissance painter Andrea del Sarto (1963); and Parmigianino: His Works in Painting (1950).
Freedberg is survived by his third wife, Catherine (Harvard AM '65, PhD '81); four children, William (Harvard AB '64) of Longmeadow, Mass., Kate, of Boston; Nathaniel of Boston; and Sydney Jr. (Harvard AB '95, summa cum laude), of Washington D.C.; three granddaughters; and a brother Charles, of Long Island.
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Sydney J. Freedberg Fund shared by the Harvard University Art Museums and the Villa I Tatti, c/o Director's Office, Harvard University Art Museums, 32 Quincy St., Cambridge, MA 02138.
Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College