John Cunnally

Some Autobiographical Sketches

I was born in South Boston in 1948, and moved to Philadelphia at the age of twenty (Ben Franklin made the same move 200 years earlier). Always fond of books and the written word (skill at story-telling being highly prized in my Irish-American family), I majored in English at Temple University. BA in hand, I found employment as a clerk in the slide library of the University of Pennsylvania while studying for a Masterís Degree in Library Science at Drexel.

At Penn I had the pleasure of getting to know the faculty of the Art History department who could often be found preparing their lectures in the slide room, including David Robb, Paul Watson, John McCoubrey, Renata Holod, Cecil Striker, Malcolm Campbell, and Leo Steinberg. David Van Zanten (now at Northwestern) and Irene Winter (now at Harvard) were also among the Penn faculty during those years. They encouraged me to set my sights for a Ph.D. in art history and an academic career.

Along with a teaching fellowship at Penn I had the good fortune to work with Steinberg for several years as his research assistant. He graciously mentions my name along with the other "veterans" of this demanding but incomparably enjoyable assistantship, Jack Greenstein and Kevin Salatino, in the preface to his 1983 Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion.

In choosing a course of study I was attracted to the art of the Italian Renaissance (influenced probably by childhood visits to the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston, in the firm hand of my elderly Aunt Catherine who was determined to instill in me some culture), and it occurred to me that very little was known about the collecting and study of ancient Greek and Roman coins during this period, and how these small objects might have influenced the artists in their selection of classical themes and motifs.

My library experience and training, including a Drexel course on rare books taught by Lowell Heaney at the Philadelphia Free Library, made it easy for me to locate and navigate among the sixteenth century printed literature on ancient coins, and I was lucky to be accepted into the famous summer seminar for graduate students hosted by the American Numismatic Society in New York. A Kress Foundation travel grant and a University of Pennsylvania Pennfield Fellowship allowed me to spend ten months in Italy haunting the museums and libraries.

The result was my 1984 dissertation, a somewhat undigested mixture of art history, numismatics, and librarianship, titled "The Role of Ancient Coins in the Art of the Italian Renaissance," supervised by Paul Watson and the late Phyllis Bober of Bryn Mawr, the countryís leading expert on the influence of classical antiquities during the Renaissance.

While working on the dissertation I enjoyed the usual ABDís spotty apprenticeship in the teaching arts, including two years of teaching assistantships at Penn and some gypsy one-semester appointments at Lafayette College and Templeís Tyler School of Art. At this time I had my baptism in ink, my very first publication, a review of a show of paintings by Ed Kerns at the Rosa Esman gallery in New York, in the now-defunct monthly Arts magazine (December, 1977).

A valuable experience during these grad student years was my occasional employment at the Philadelphia Museum of Art as a conductor of "gallery walks" for the public. Thanks to these tours I had the opportunity to study and present the modern as well as the Renaissance treasures of PMA, including the Arensberg Collection with its innumerable masterpieces of Duchamp, Kandinsky and Brancusi. This experience later served me well in my search for full-time teaching jobs, which often require the new hire to teach courses involving modern and contemporary art as well as his or her own specialized area. It would be well if all art history grad students had similar opportunities to diversify their teaching portfolio.

My first tenure-track position after receiving the Ph.D. was in the Art Department at Arkansas State University at Jonesboro, located in the Mississippi delta region of the state, not far from Memphis, Tennessee. Like most East Coast city people I had grown up hopelessly provincial, with little knowledge and less interest in other regions of the country. The ASU job raised my consciousness about the people, landscapes, institutions and opportunities of the South and Mid-West, and I am glad that I will never make the mistake of saying, like some speaker I heard at a CAA panel in New York, that the folks in Iowa will never understand Duchamp.

At ASU the teaching load was heavy, comprising five classes per semester, including three sections of the general-ed art appreciation course with about a hundred students per section. I had no teaching assistant and was forced to learn quickly how to organize my time, prepare lectures, and evaluate papers and exams as efficiently as possible. During this period I managed to continue publishing reviews of contemporary art shows and also my first scholarly article, a short notice titled "Nero, Seneca, and the Medalist of the Roman Emperors" in the Art Bulletin (1986).

Fortunately my colleagues at ASU were congenial and sympathetic, including the head of the Art Department in those days, William J. Allen. Dr. Allen specialized in the history of photography and when he was on leave I had the opportunity to teach his course on that fascinating subject. Later when I came to Iowa State I developed and introduced a course on the History of Photography and had the pleasure of teaching it for many years until we finally hired a "real" historian of photography, Emily Godbey.

After four years at Arkansas State I was offered a position as Assistant Professor at Iowa State University in Ames, which promised a lighter teaching load and (as a prestigious "Research I" institution) more encouragement and opportunity for research. At Iowa State I was expected to manage the two-semester Art History survey course as well as classes on Renaissance Art, Greek and Roman Art, and Modernism.

In addition to the History of Photography course the Iowa State Art & Design department also allowed and encouraged me to develop and teach new courses on the Art of Islam (a subject which Renata Holod at Penn had introduced me to) and a history of Comic Strips, Comic Books, and Graphic Novels. The latter reflects my own childhood addiction to comic books (I was a great devourer of Classics comics, the early Mad Magazine, and the Marvel superheroes of the Silver Age), but also makes sense for a department where the majority of students choose Graphic Design as their major.

When I arrived at Iowa State (1989) the chair of the Art & Design department was the historian Evan Firestone, who taught a course called Art 501 which all graduate students in the department were required to take. This was an introduction to art theory and research methods, and when Dr. Firestone left Iowa for the University of Georgia I took over the teaching of this course.

Art 501 proved of great value in acquainting me with the major authors of twentieth century theory, from Walter Benjamin and Clement Greenberg to Jean Baudrillard, Lucy Lippard, and Fredric Jameson. Amazingly my training at Penn included no courses on theory and I arrived at Iowa State totally innocent of most of these names. Too often art historians who avoid the twentieth century have little acquaintance with modern critical theory, even though their own research may be influenced by the ideas of these Marxist, formalist, feminist and post-structuralist writers, picked up unconsciously or through second-hand sources.

Another experience that educated me as much as my students was the teaching of a freshman-level course originally developed by Gary Tartakov called History of Design (Dsn S 181), an art history class like none I ever experienced at Temple or Penn. Instead of the usual canon of painting, sculpture and architecture (which now seems absurdly snobbish and restrictive to me), Dsn S 181 encompasses a vast range of design media, including fashion, industrial technology, typography, advertising and other artifacts of modern mass production.

The diversity of material offered by Dsn S 181 reflects the interdisciplinary spirit of the ISU College of Design, where the faculty of the four departments (Art & Design, Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Community and Regional Planning) are encouraged to collaborate in projects and teaching assignments, or at least remain aware of each otherís activities. The architecture of the Design Building, constructed in 1978 soon after the College was founded, is dominated by a large central atrium which is always abuzz with displays and critiques of student works from all four departments.

Iowa State also offered me the chance to increase my acquaintance with Italy and its artistic and scholarly treasures. Around 1995 the ISU College of Design had the good fortune to acquire a suite of rooms in a Baroque palazzo not far from the Pantheon in Rome, which became the "campus" for our Collegeís study-abroad program.

Under the direction of Patricia Osmond, an American scholar who became an Italian citizen via marriage, the College of Designís Rome Program sends approximately 150 students from Iowa to Rome every year, as well as a dozen or so of our faculty to live and teach there for several months at a time. In 2005 the program moved to a more picturesque and historically significant location, the Palazzo Cenci on the edge of the old Ghetto of Rome, where our students work at their drafting tables and laptops amid the frescoes, stucco carvings, and black marble doorframes of this massive four-hundred-year old palace.

For the Rome Program I devised an undergraduate summer course called "Popes and Caesars: 2000 Years of Art History in Rome." This three-week course has been offered every June since 2001, and is great fun to teach, even in spite of the heat and oppressive crowds of a Roman summer. Our normal routine is to have a one-hour lecture early in the morning at the Palazzo Cenci studio, then off we go to a museum, archaeological site, church, or a tour of a Roman neighborhood, usually ending around noon. The course also includes two hectic day trips, one to Pompeii and the other to Florence.

"Popes and Caesars" covers the history of art and architecture in Italy from the Etruscans to Bernini, which is a vast territory to conquer in three weeks or fifteen days. The pace is strenuous with a great deal of hiking and climbing among the seven hills of Rome, and the students experience all the joys of public transportation in a noisy and over-populated metropolis. I often think the course should be promoted as a weight-reduction camp, or offered along with the rock-climbing, white-water rafting, and wilderness survival excursions of the Outward Bound program.

In 1996 I was given tenure and promoted to Associate Professor, and soon afterwards had the great satisfaction of holding my first book in my hands, titled Images of the Illustrious: The Numismatic Presence in the Renaissance. This was very handsomely printed by the Princeton University Press, and I was able to avoid the complaints often heard from scholarly authors about the poor handling of their illustrations, typography, binding or the like.

I especially enjoyed the design of the bookís dust jacket, a close-up of a woodcut portrait of Cleopatra from the 1517 Illustrium imagines, tinted a lovely shade of reddish brown, like a vintage wine-barrel. How many writers have been lucky enough to have the most alluring woman in history smiling above their name on the cover of their book? This surely puts me in the same league as Dan Brown, who places the Mona Lisa on the cover of the paperback edition of his Da Vinci Code.

Since the publication of Images I have been engaged in a second book on Renaissance antiquarianism, focusing on a very interesting sixteenth-century manuscript in the Houghton Library at Harvard (Ms. Typ 411). This is a volume of 171 sheets of drawings of about 1200 ancient coins, mostly Greek and Roman but a few Hebrew and Muslim coins as well. The collector and scholar Jonathan Kagan, a Harvard alumnus, was kind enough to send me a photocopy of this document, allowing me to study it long before I had the chance to go to Cambridge to see it for myself.

The Houghton manuscript is attributed in the libraryís catalog to the 16th century artist and antiquarian Jacopo Strada, but the drawings are not at all in his style and the actual artist may never be positively identified. It is clear, though, from the bookbinding and the contents of the volume that it was made in Venice around 1560, and records the coin cabinet of a prominent collector of that city, Andrea Loredan.

In 2004 I was fortunate to receive an Eleanor Garvey Fellowship at the Houghton Library, which allowed me to spend much of the summer at Harvard studying the drawings at length. Among the highlights of this trip was a meeting with Ms. Garvey herself, who had worked as a curator at the Houghton and was well acquainted with her predecessor the bibliophile Philip Hofer, who purchased the numismatic manuscript for Harvard fifty years ago.

I will not weary the reader with more accounts of works in progress (the time spent describing them might be better spent writing them) except to give him or her a fine piece of advice I received from the chemist Milton Glick, who was provost at Iowa State when I arrived in 1989: "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly."

If it were the custom today to adopt a personal emblem and motto, as the intellectuals of the Renaissance did, I think I would choose the one devised by Johann Huttich, a German humanist of the early sixteenth century: a picture of a snail crawling across a writing desk, with the caption Ut possum quoniam ut volo non licet, "I do what I can when I canít do what I want."


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