Homeless Paintings of the Italian Renaissance

How do we know about, and how do we study, works of art that have disappeared from view?

Details of mythological sceneA particularly important nucleus of the Photograph Archive's collection consists of a group of images of Renaissance Italian paintings that Berenson famously classified as “homeless,” that is, works that were documented by a photograph but whose current location was unknown to him. In a series of articles that appeared between 1929 and 1932 in the journals International Studio and Dedalo (posthumously collected, updated, and translated from the Italian as Homeless Paintings of the Renaissance, 1969), Berenson published some of his photographs of artworks “without homes” with the express invitation and hope that their owners, public or private, might come forward and claim them as their own. 

He intended to use the information offered to bring up to date his continuously revised “Lists” of the works of Italian painters of the Renaissance, those indispensable manuals used by generations of students and art historians.Through these articles Berenson made available to a broad public of art lovers, collectors, and scholars a body of images that were on the whole unfamiliar. In his unusual call for cooperation in furnishing information, he also became something of a precursor of forms of social networking and tagging common to the world of Web 2.0.

It is in this spirit of making lesser-known resources widely accessible to the scholarly community and of inviting collaboration to study them--almost as a natural extension of Berenson’s original idea--that we have developed the project to catalog, digitize and make available online the Photograph Archive’s images of "homeless" paintings by Italian artists between the thirteenth and the sixteenth centuries. 

We have now published on the Internet records and images, often rare or unique, of around eleven thousand pictures, which are documented in over sixteen thousand photographs. Many of these works are unknown or obscure, no matter how fine their quality or how famous the master that painted them. Since they were immortalized in these photos, many of the artworks have subsequently been damaged or destroyed in wars, fires, floods, earthquakes or other disasters, or have disappeared from view through theft or after a sale into the hands of unknown collectors. 

The “homeless” project therefore makes a substantial corpus of largely new information and unfamiliar images of Renaissance Italian paintings available to students, art historians, and collectors, and does so in a more accessible form than Berenson could have possibly imagined, thanks to modern technology. We hope and expect that it will make a significant contribution to art historical scholarship. 

To access the Homeless Paintings collection in VIA, search for "unknown" in the field "Repository" (use the pull-down menu in the top search boxes), and in the field "Limit repository to," select Biblioteca Berenson from the pull-down menu.  

Please notify us if you have any information regarding the current location or other aspects of the artwork you've seen in the catalog.  Write to the Photograph Archive using this form.   

"Homeless Paintings of the Italian Renaissance" has been generously supported by grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.