Misreading Arnolfini; Panofsky was both clever and wrong

Panofsky argued, very persuasively, that this portrait was not just a work of art, it was also a legal document – the wedding certificate, as it were, of the couple in the painting: Italian cloth merchant, Giovanni Arnolfini, and his wife Giovanna Cenami. Panofsky then showed how every detail of the painting supported his thesis: the small round mirror (God’s all-seeing eye); the small dog at the couple’s feet (“fido” for “fidelity”); the shoes that the couple have taken off (indicating they are in a sacred space and God had just mop-eth the floor); the oranges on the windowsill (you can’t get pregnant if you have scurvy).

Panofsky did such a thorough job and with it he ushered in a new era of art history. He suggested the world was both knowable and solvable. But here’s the snag: in 1990 a document came to light that certified the wedding of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami occurred in 1447, 13 years after the portrait was painted and six years after the artist had died. [link]


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