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Most accounts of the history of graffiti have the art form really taking off in the 1970s, but art historian Charlotte Guichard dates its emergence to slightly earlier — the 16th century. Her book Graffitis: Inscrire son nom à Rome (XVIe–XIXe siècle) (or Graffiti: Tagging Your Name in Rome, 16th–19th Century), published last month by Editions du Seuil, chronicles her findings during time spent deciphering and dating the innumerable tags left on masterpieces by Raphael, Michelangelo, and others in the academies and palaces of Rome.
Guichard spoke to Hyperallergic about finding Nicholas Poussin’s signature scratched into a mantlepiece at the Vatican, the attitudes of conservators and art historians to these types of historic graffiti, and how they testify to a time when artists and lovers of art had a more dynamic and tactile relationship to masterpieces.
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Benjamin Sutton: Where did the idea to investigate the graffiti in Rome’s art-filled palaces come from?
Charlotte Guichard: Such an idea can seem curious since our outlook nowadays is very conditioned by the weight of the masterpiece. In reality, when we are in the presence of the works themselves, for example, Raphael’s frescoes at the Vatican, and that we get up close to inspect not just the images but the materials, we’re struck by the density of this graffiti — names, dates, idioms, small drawings — that mark and streak these works at about eye level. As an art historian, I am very interested in the “biographies” of artworks, their metamorphoses through history, and the conditions of their visibility. These graffiti are indices, minute traces testifying that our relationship with masterpieces, between the 15th and 19th centuries, was very different from what it is today. Our time is marked by a heritage conscience: It advocates for a contemplative relationship to masterpieces — always kept at a distance, protected behind glass or barriers. On the contrary, these graffiti that cover a vast period since the 15th century show a more familiar, tactile, and sensitive relationship to the artworks marked by intimacy and appropriation. They put us on track toward an archaeology of the relationship to art that privileges tactile gestures rather than reliance solely on sight.
BS: How did art historians in Italy respond to your research? Were they enthused, or did you need to explain and defend the subject of your studies?
CG: Art historians, Italian and otherwise, have been relatively responsive, even if it’s clear that my approach seems to them rather anecdotal: Why take interest in graffiti when the work on which they are engraved is by Raphael, Annibale Carracci, or Michelangelo? Graffiti is of no interest to either the most classical of art historians (because it is not by the hand of the great master), or the theorists of the image and visual culture (because it is too material). I often defend the idea that graffiti cannot be reduced to the gesture of a “cretin or imbecile,” as Gustave Flaubert wrote in the 19th century. It is an integral part of the work; indeed, often restoration projects fail to remove these supposedly degrading marks.
In my view, graffiti has anthropological significance because it says something about man’s relationship to aesthetic judgment, to what is considered great in art. But it’s true that my interest in these gestures has no legitimacy for art historians — in Rome more than elsewhere — who remain obsessed with the idea of beauty, which remains very intellectualizing and aestheticizing, while I insist to the contrary on a material, tactile, and anthropological approach to masterpieces.
BS: What is the attitude among conservationists with regards to this historic graffiti? Is there a tendency to erase them in order to restore paintings and frescoes to their original states, or is the significance of these marks generally acknowledged?
CG: The position of conservationists and restorers is tricky. To summarize it, you could say that the tendency today is toward much greater prudence: They no longer erase graffiti as before and every decision is made on a case-per-case basis. What constitutes historic graffiti? You’ll have a hard time reaching consensus on that one. It’s clear that the fall and destruction of the Berlin wall in 1989, covered in graffiti, made people aware of the historic character of some graffiti.
Some graffiti is considered historic today whereas it used to be deemed vandalism. It has become integrated into the tourist circuit in Rome, like the graffiti left by one of Charles Quint’s protestant soldiers bragging about sacking the city in 1527 and causing the pope to flee. That graffiti has been preserved, integrated into the cultural heritage, and is even sold as a postcard. This type of graffiti shows to what extent our idea of patrimony is malleable, ideologically determined, and fluid through the centuries.
BS: What was your most unexpected discovery during your research in Rome?
CG: Under Raphael’s “The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple” fresco at the Vatican, there is a period fireplace made from a very hard type of marble. The entire mantlepiece is engraved with the names of artists from the 17th century to the 19th century. This mantlepiece has been transformed through the centuries into an incredible monument of signatures. It’s like a monument to classicism created by artists across centuries. The earliest signature is by the painter Nicholas Poussin, dated 1627. Pensioners at the French Academy in Rome (founded in 1666) rediscovered his signature about a century later, when they were sent by the king of France to trace Raphael’s fresco and send the copy back to Versailles for the royal collection. The tracing process implies a direct contact with the original work. During this process, the academicians discovered Poussin’s century-old signature. Louis Michel Van Loo, a member of an important dynasty of painters, leaves his name there in 1729, and other artists will follow suit throughout the 18th century.
These signatures tell us two things. The artists, often French, lined up to record their connection with Raphael and Poussin, and to express their reverence for classicism. These are partisan signatures that express the fascination with the classical Roman model in Paris, which by then is the new Rome.
These signatures also tell us that these artists have a tactile relationship — both through the tracing process and the direct contact — with these original artworks, not simply an intellectual appreciation of the ideal of Beauty. This is very modern, and dovetails with current ideas about art as a gesture, as a singular performance.
BS: Did you find any similarities between graffiti dating from the 16th to 19th centuries and the graffiti we encounter in cities today, whether in terms of technique or the types of messages that are inscribed?
CG: There are similarities. Graffiti rarely appears in isolation. It exists in the plural; one piece of graffiti calls for more. It demands an answer. It’s a way of marking territory and community. This holds true for artists and travelers in the 16th to 19th centuries, as well as for street artists and the inhabitants of our cities today. But it is important to historicize the graffiti gesture.
Today, most notably with the “graphic revolution” of the Arab Spring, we have a tendency to see graffiti as a transgressive and disruptive gesture, both politically and aesthetically. This may be true for the 20th and 21st centuries, which belong to the era of museums and art galleries, of the opposition between the voices of the street and the institutions of power. But this is not the case with the period spanning the 16th century to the 19th century, when ancient art, even the most canonical, was being updated by living artists, when the relation between ancient and contemporary art was alive and active, and when urban territory was open to more adaptable and unregulated uses. The graffiti etched onto Raphael’s frescoes at the Vatican proclaiming the glory of new popes, for instance, would be unthinkable today!
Graffiti used to be an accepted mode of relating to artworks and places, which changed at the turn of the 18th century with the dawning of the consciousness of heritage. However, the techniques remain fluid and adaptable; they are made up on the spot, for non-academic purposes. Today we mark our names with cans of spray paint; in the 16th century, we marked it by flame when we descended into caves covert in ancient paintings, torch in hand. Nowadays we make stencils on walls, like Shepard Fairey; in the 18th century, we traced Raphael frescoes on the walls of the Vatican, before leaving our name.
Charlotte Guichard’s Graffitis: Inscrire son nom à Rome (XVIe-XIXe siècle) is available from Editions du Seuil.