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From Botticelli to Bletchley Park

Part 3: Recognising the signs

I had the honour recently of giving the keynote lecture in a Symposium in the USA organised by the Newport (Rhode Island) Preservation Society. For three days over 200 scholars, collectors, students, curators and many others interested in the arts came together to discuss works of art, their interpretation, status and place in history. To start the proceedings, I asked the Conference to ‘crypt-analyse’ Botticelli’s Primavera and then in the manner of High Command to interpret the bigger picture presented by Renaissance mythologies at the time of this seminal work, around 1500. My analogy with Bletchley Park seemed to strike a chord with the conference, as did the following caution.

Every Enigma message had a call sign preceding the body of the message. The call sign identified the geographical origin of the message, the identity of the sender, and the time and date when sent. Recognising these call signs was one of the ways in which the crypt-analysts at Bletchley Park were able to crack the code. They also learnt to recognise individual hands on the Morse code lever when the encrypted messages were tapped out over the airwaves. Works of art have similar call signs. Art historians learn to recognise styles and even the brushstrokes of each artist and these enable them to say when and where a work of art was made, often by whom, and so interpret them properly. For example, the call signs, the style and brushstrokes in a Venetian Renaissance painting are quite different to those of a Renaissance Florentine painting, and Botticelli’s call sign is quite different to those of other Florentine contemporaries. Many art historical speculations have come adrift by a failure to recognise the correct call sign, or by the scholar’s failure to put his interpretive cogwheels on the same setting as that of the artist.

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