Bodhisattva, Qi Dynasty, 6th century, donated by Osvald Sirén to the National Museum of Oriental Art in Rome. Museo di Arte Orientale di Roma Photo: Museo di Arte Orientale di Roma

Peer-Reviewed Article: ‘A Satisfaction to the Heart and to the Intellect’

A Note on Osvald Sirén’s Connections with Italy through his Epistolary

Antonella Perna, PhD Candidate, University of Turku

A few years ago, I was visiting the Sirén Archive in Stockholm (Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities) researching the letters Osvald Sirén (1879–1966) had written to the Italian art historian Lionello Venturi (1885–1961).[1] Sirén was a Finnish-born art historian who lived for most of his life in Sweden. However, he worked for some time as the art advisor to the Finnish entrepreneur and collector Paul Sinebrychoff (1859–1917). His expertise covered 18th-century Swedish art and Old Masters and thus he could secure some extremely fine examples that found their way into the Finnish collection. Today the works are part of the Finnish National Gallery Collection and can be visited at the Sinebrychoff Art Museum in Helsinki.[2] With this article I aim to shed new light on Sirén’s international career and the impact of his professional networking on the Italian art history scene.

Sirén and Venturi had shared an interest in Italian art history, and in particular the Italian Primitives. Among the letters I read, there was one that caught my attention, although it was not especially pertinent to my primary interest. It was addressed by Sirén to his Italian colleague.[3] In it a rather moved Sirén wrote to Venturi, both an old friend[4] and the spokesman of the Faculty, expressing his gratitude for the degree of Doctor Honoris Causa he had received from the University of Rome La Sapienza.[5] Sirén explained to Venturi that he was glad that his ‘contributions in the fields of Oriental and Italian art’ had been acknowledged as important. He also added he especially appreciated such recognition because of his personal ‘intellectual connection and artistic devotion to Italy’.[6] The official motivation for awarding the honorary degree, granted by the Faculty of Letters and Philosophy[7], emerges in another letter sent by the dean Angelo Monteverde: it was granted for the ‘high merits reached in the field of art-historical research’.[8] These facts alone, however, do not explain the reasons and the events leading to the award. I thus became interested in understanding the circumstances surrounding such recognition in a country where Sirén had neither maintained any institutional position nor any official role.

[1] The research was connected to my doctoral thesis which deals with the relationship between Sirén and Venturi in the 1920s and will be examined in 2019.

[2] The collection was donated and belongs to the Finnish State.

[3] Copy of the letter from Osvald Sirén to Lionello Venturi, 26 February 1959. Collection of Sirén’s letters. Sirén Archive. Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm.

[4] The circumstance of their first encounter is uncertain. However, the two scholars were part of the same network of intellectuals involved with Italian Primitive Art, including Bernard Berenson and Adolfo Venturi. Antonella Perna, ‘Osvald Sirénin matka Italian taidehistoriaan.’ In Teppo Jokinen & Hanne Selkokari (eds.), Italiassa ja Saksanmaalla. Taiteilijoiden ja taiteentuntijoiden matkassa 18401930. (Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, 2011), 267–75.

[5] Copy of the letter from Osvald Sirén to Lionello Venturi, 26 February 1959. Collection of Sirén’s letters. Sirén Archive. Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm.

[6] Copy of the letter from Osvald Sirén to Lionello Venturi, 26 February 1959. Collection of Sirén’s letters. Sirén Archive. Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm.

[7] Both the departments of Art history and Eastern studies are still part of the Faculty of Letters and Philosophy at the University of Rome La Sapienza. While it had been possible to study art history from 1896 onwards, the curriculum of Eastern studies (Eastern Religions and philosophies) was inaugurated only in 1932. More specifically teaching on Eastern art history was available starting from 1953. https://web.uniroma1.it/diso/chi-siamo (accessed 4 September 2017).

[8] Letter from Angelo Monteverdi to Sirén, 20 March1959. Collection of Sirén’s letters. Sirén Archive. Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm.

Featured image: Bodhisattva, Qi Dynasty, 6th century, donated by Osvald Sirén to the National Museum of Oriental Art in Rome. Museo di Arte Orientale di Roma
Photo: Museo di Arte Orientale di Roma

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