Da Vinci Expert Joins Faculty

Seminal scholar in Renaissance art to leave Barnard for Harvard

While “The Da Vinci Code” depicted a fictional Harvard symbologist, students will be able to take classes next year with an actual da Vinci scholar—Frank M. Fehrenbach, who will join the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on July 1 as a professor in the Department of History of Art and Architecture.

Fehrenbach, a seminal scholar in Italian Renaissance and Baroque art with a focus on Leonardo da Vinci, is one of two new additions to the department. Benjamin Buchloh, a specialist in contemporary art at Barnard, will also come to Harvard next year.

Currently in Florence, Fehrenbach will arrive with teaching experience gained at famous European institutions such as Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence, Humboldt University in Berlin, and Schiller University in Jena, Germany. He has also penned several books in his field.

This will not be Fehrenbach’s first time teaching at Harvard—he was a visiting professor this past fall. He praised the department, especially its proximity to resources.

“[It’s] a terrific department with leading art historians from all over the world, covering a variety of topics and epochs other universities (even the biggest in Europe) can only dream of,” Fehrenbach wrote in an e-mail. “One of the major advantages is the presence of wonderful collections—in my case, of course, first of all the Fogg Museum, an excellent educational tool.”

A focus on Italian Renaissance art has been missing in Harvard’s Department of History of Art and Architecture, especially with the retirement in 2002 of the late John Shearman, the former Adams University professor.

“Although the field of Renaissance art has lost the domineering position it had in our discipline two decades ago, it is crucial that this field be part of the curriculum,” said Pulitzer Professor of Modern Art Yve-Alain Bois, the department’s chair.

At Harvard, Fehrenbach said his field will be Southern European Renaissance art. With a focus on sensory artistic experience, Fehrenbach said he hopes to bring to Harvard his interest in the links between science, natural philosophy, and art.

“His arrival will consolidate the links already existing between the Department of History of Art and Architecture and other departments in the University, but also create new links,” Bois said. “He is a very dynamic scholar.”

Among Fehrenbach’s range of interests are Italian Renaissance and Baroque painting, sculpture, art theory, and the relationship between art, science, and technology—especially in da Vinci’s work.

“He has a very wide range of interests and expertises and his work is truly interdisciplinary,” Bois said. “He connects history of art, history of science, and history of philosophy.”

Bois added that since the influx of art historians fleeing Hitler’s Germany, there has been a lull in the flow of German-Austrian art scholars, and Fehrenbach will help to rejuvenate this tradition.

“It’s very important, very good, that we bring back someone from that tradition, a tradition with which we had somewhat lost contact and in whose context Fehrenbach’s work represents a brand new development,” he said.

Fehrenbach said it will be hard for him to bid “Ciao” to Italy’s art, landscape, and culinary specialties.

But he said that he is looking forward to “discussions with colleagues and students within and beyond the art history department, the relatively big amount of academic freedom (research), motivated and smart students, the fantastic libraries and collections.”

As a da Vinci scholar, Fehrenbach added that he was not impressed by Dan Brown’s best-selling book.

“[“The Da Vinci Code”] is a disappointingly bad, boring and astonishingly uptight book, without any humor—and also a misleading one, since Leonardo felt disgust about anything related to occultism, esoteric ‘wisdom,’” Fehrenbach wrote.

—Staff writer Lulu Zhou can be reached at luluzhou@fas.harvard.edu.