Irving Lavin

Irving Lavin (1927–2019) began his career studying philosophy, first at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, then as a student of Horst W. Janson at Washington University, St. Louis, where he graduated with a B.A. in 1949. At the invitation of Bertrand Russell, Lavin went to Cambridge University to become his tutee. The following year, as he often joked, he turned to a more practical field, namely art history. At the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, he studied with, and was the assistant to, Walter Friedländer, Richard Offner, and Erwin Panofsky. With Horst W. Janson he wrote his master’s thesis, “The Sources of Donatello’s Bronze Pulpits in San Lorenzo” (1951), and received his M.A. in 1952. At Harvard University he received a second M.A. in 1953, working with Ernst Kitzinger and John Coolidge. Under the latter, he wrote his doctoral thesis on “The Bozzetti of Gianlorenzo Bernini,” and received his Ph.D. in 1955. Lavin was a Senior Fellow at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Center in Washington, DC (1957–59), where he wrote a major study of “The Hunting Mosaics of Antioch and Their Sources: A Study of Compositional Principles in the Development of Early Mediaeval Style” (1963).

Lavin’s publications won the College Art Association’s prestigious Arthur Kingsley Porter Prize for Scholars under 40 on three occasions (1959, 1962, and 1968). After teaching art history at Vassar College (1959–61), Lavin began a period of over twenty years in which he alternated teaching at New York University— first at Washington Square College, then in 1967 at the Institute of Fine Arts graduate school — and doing intensive research in Rome, Italy. His work was supported there by various grants, including a Senior Fulbright Scholarship, Italy, 1961–63; a Senior Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, 1965–66; and a Guggenheim Fellowship, 1968–69. Circa 1966, he made a historic discovery of the previously unknown earliest portrait bust (1612, Antonio Coppola) by the young prodigy Gianlorenzo Bernini, along with another equally remarkable unknown bust of Antonio Cepparelli dated 1622. These revelations were the first of many such Bernini discoveries Lavin made throughout his career, the last of which is a black-and-white marble sculpture of the famous Roman lawyer Prospero Farinacci, published in spring 2018.

Lavin was appointed in 1973 as Professor in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ. From that position, Lavin contributed to many aspects of art history’s position in America. He broadened the emphasis of scholarship from its long-held tightly Eurocentric attention, to include for the first time in the memberships at the Institute, on the board of the Comité International d'Histoire de l’Art, and in the programs of meetings of the College Art Association, specialists in the fields of African art, the art of Mexico and South America, India, and the Far East. As a founding committee member, he played a major role in the creation of three new research institutes in North America: the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles; the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; and the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal, Canada.

Lavin’s deep knowledge of Italian art and culture was the result of over fifty years of study, particularly in Rome, where he embraced the city, created enduring academic colleagues and friends, and encouraged Italian art history to expand from its traditional emphasis on national and stylistic concerns into a broader world of intellectual creativity. For this gift, the city offered him many honors, including the Tercentennial Medal, commemorating the death of Bernini (1980), the Premio Daria Borghese (1981), and his appointments as Honorary Member of the Corporation of Sculptors and Marble Workers of Rome, as well as Membro Straniero della Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei. He also received the Premio Internazionale “Galileo Galilei” from the University of Pisa (2005); the Sescentennial Medal, commemorating the birth of Donatello, from L’Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, Florence (1986); and Accademico d’Onore by Accademia Clementina, Bologna (1986). In 2019, Lavin was posthumously named Grand’Ufficiale dell’Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana.

Lavin’s publications show his wide-ranging intellectual interests: from late antique architecture (Triclinia) to North African, particularly Tunisian, floor mosaics; the Renaissance (Donatello, Michelangelo, Pontormo; the Baroque (Caravaggio and Gian Lorenzo Bernini); to the twentieth century, with essays on Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock. He also communicated easily with practicing artists and was close friends with George Segal, Mel Bochner, and Frank Stella, and traveled with and wrote about Frank O. Gehry.

Lavin was a celebrated lecturer: he gave the Franklin Jasper Walls Lecture at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York (1975); the Slade Lectures at Oxford University (1985); the Thomas Spencer Jerome Lectures at the University of Michigan and the American Academy in Rome (1985–86); the Una’s Lectures in the Humanities, University of California, Berkeley (1987); and the Andrew W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (2004).

His books include books include Bernini and the Crossing of St. Peter’s (1968); Bernini and the Unity of the Visual Arts (1980); Past–Present: Essays on Historicism in Art from Donatello to Picasso (1993); Santa Maria del Fiore: Il Duomo di Firenze e la Vergine Incinta (1999); and Caravaggio e La Tour: La Luce Occulta di Dio (2000). The first two volumes of a projected six-volume edition of his collected works have been published as Visible Spirit: The Art of Gianlorenzo Bernini (2007–9), while the third volume has appeared as Bernini at St. Peter’s: The Pilgrimage (2012). A gathering of his essays on modern and contemporary art, The Art of Art History, has also appeared in Italian as L’Arte della storia dell’arte (2008). 

His postumous publications include an article on “The Silence of David by Gianlorenzo Bernini” in the periodical Artibus et Historiae  (Spring 2019); his The Art of Commemoration in the Renaissance: The Slade Lectures, edited by Marilyn Aronberg Lavin (Italica Press, 2020); and More than Meets the Eye: Irony, Paradox, and Metaphor in the History of Art. The Mellon Lectures, also edited by Marilyn Aronberg Lavin (Italica Press, 2022).

Lavin retired in 2001 and continued to live and work at the Institute for Advanced Study with his wife of sixty-six years, the art historian Marilyn Aronberg Lavin. Although there is no teaching at the Institute for Advanced Study, Lavin continued to do so at New York University and Princeton University.

A Festschrift in his honor: Rome Italy Renaissance: Essays Honoring Irving Lavin on His 60th Birthday (IL60), edited by Marilyn Aronberg Lavin, was published by Italica Press in 1990.

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