Vilcek Prize for Excellence in Art History
Carmen C. Bambach
Carmen C. Bambach is among today’s most distinguished museum curators and an internationally recognized expert on Old Master drawings. Like many art historians, however, Bambach came to the field indirectly, through another discipline.
Both sides of Bambach’s family have lived in Chile since the 17th century. The one exception is her great-great-grandfather Bambach, who immigrated to Santiago from Danzig and thus gave a German surname to an entirely Chilean/Spanish family. Her immediate family, parents and four children, came to the United States from Santiago soon after the violent military coup d’état of 1973. In Bambach's estimation, “our immigration to the United States is the greatest gift my parents have given me.” The great benefits, she says, have been her education, intellectual courage, and the strength to pursue her goals against all odds.
Bambach enrolled at Yale University to study architecture, where she progressed from undergraduate architect to professional art historian. In 1988 she earned a Ph.D. under the guidance of her Doktorvater (or doctoral advisor), Creighton Gilbert, with a dissertation that explained the use of a certain kind of drawing in the complex technical processes of producing panel paintings and frescoes in the Italian Renaissance.
Hers was an original approach, supported by a rigorous method, and especially remarkable for a scholar barely at the beginning of her career. Subsequently, Bambach’s work, especially on Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, has illumined our understanding of how Renaissance drawings functioned as vehicles for getting an idea out of an artist’s head and onto the surface of a painting.
In 1979, five years after Bambach immigrated to the United States, officials at the Vatican Museums decided to undertake the extraordinary project of cleaning and restoring Michelangelo’s frescoes on the vault of the Sistine Chapel. By the time the campaign was completed in 1994, 500 years of dirt, old varnish, grime, and candle smoke had been removed and had revealed a painting whose optical effects had never been accurately understood, not even in the 16th century when the painting was fresh. It’s safe to say that the restored ceiling caused many traditional views of 16th-century Italian painting to be either rewritten or even discarded.
It was the perfect moment for the products of Bambach’s creativity to enter our understanding of one of the world’s greatest monuments of art. In the findings of the Sistine restoration team, Bambach’s research on the crucial use of pounced drawings found both confirmation and further opportunities for investigation. As her groundbreaking articles appeared, it became clear that hers was a new and significant talent. The basic principles of her method inform her first book, Drawing and Painting in the Italian Renaissance Workshop (Cambridge, 1999), a title that now appears as required reading for university students wherever the history of Italian Renaissance art is taught.
Bambach has continued to work with the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance. She has organized and co-organized exhibitions of the drawings of Bronzino, Correggio, Filippino Lippi, Parmigianino, and Raphael. At the Metropolitan Museum in 2003 she organized and wrote most of the catalogue for Leonardo da Vinci: Master Draftsman. The four-volume monograph on da Vinci that was the fruit of that exhibition will shortly be published by Yale University Press. More recently Bambach’s exhibition Michelangelo Divine Draftsman and Designer (November 13, 2017–February 12, 2018) was a watershed in the vast field of Michelangelo studies: No future work on the master will fail to acknowledge her painstaking, visually acute scholarship. Likewise, the da Vinci volumes will become a fundamental element of future research on the artist.
Someone who has never enjoyed the company of Bambach will already have imagined a woman of incisive brilliance with a discerning eye, refined taste, and vast knowledge. But they’ll have missed what may be Bambach’s secret weapon, which is her warm, open, and guileless personality. While she has met challenges as a woman in a field largely dominated by men, she remains a profoundly kind person, tireless in her efforts to open the riches of her knowledge to inquirers of all kinds. She listens with intensity and responds with wisdom. It’s her character and personality as much as her expertise that has assured museum curators to lend priceless drawings for her exhibitions. The loans of Michelangelo drawings, for example, was the art historical equivalent of borrowing the crown jewels of every monarchy in Europe, all at once and for an extended period. Only a rare person could accomplish that.
It will come as no surprise to learn that Bambach has been awarded some of the highest honors in American letters. She has received a coveted Guggenheim Fellowship and been invited to be the Andrew W. Mellon Professor at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. She’s been a fellow of the American Academy in Rome and of Villa I Tatti, the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence. Italy’s prestigious society for the study of Leonardo da Vinci, the Raccolta Vinciana, has elected her to a life membership, as has the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She delivered the Sydney J. Freedberg Lecture at the National Gallery of Art, the Teetzel Lecture and Seminar at the University of Toronto, and the 47th annual Lettura Vinciana of the Biblioteca Leonardiana. The list goes on and on and on.
By its nature, art history is an international discipline. For art historians in the United States, this is particularly so because a host of distinguished immigrants made it possible for this country to establish world-class museums of art, research centers, and graduate schools of art history. The list of those immigrants includes the most famous names in the field. Bambach in herself is a gift to this country, a stellar member of the company of women and men from abroad who enliven the history of art on these shores with their erudition, professional accomplishments, and their intellectual and personal distinction.
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