The Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester has a small but impressive collection, and one that, judging from the volume of visitors when I visited it in late 2011, is clearly held in affection by the town's citizens. Amongst the medieval holdings is - I believe - the museum’s single piece of early medieval art currently on public display: a roughly 10” x 10” painting of the head and upper torso of a saint, clearly detached at some point from a larger fresco. The present catalogue lists it as ‘Sicilian painting...on plaster', leaving any visitor with an interest in early medieval art wishing to know more, and wondering in what wider company Rochester's holy man was once counted, and where. The current online catalogue - viewable here - takes the saint’s provenance no further back than the sale of Joseph Brummer’s collection by Parke-Bernet in New York on May 11-14, 1949. The actual entry in the Parke-Bernet sale catalogue is, however, at least a little more forthcoming:
331. Siculo-Byzantine Painted Fresco Panel IX Century
Head and shoulders of a lightly bearded saint with brown hair and sky blue robe, outlined against an ochre and red halo. Frame. From the Cathedral of Messina. Note: An extract from a letter of Dr. Raimond von Marle to the former owner, dated May 21 1927, reads as follows: “I like your fresco fragment very much; it certainly dates from the 9th century. As you have my books you might compare it to fig. 51 of Vol. I, the fresco of Martino di Monti, Rome, of the year 844- 847, especially with the figure most to the right.”. Collection of Mrs. Caroline R. Hill. [It is not wholly clear, by the way, that this letter is addressed to her.]
The buyers for the museum were the Herdle sisters, the daughters of George L. Hurdle the initial director of the Memorial Art Gallery. In 1922 he was succeeded by his 25 year old daughter, Gertrude, who became the youngest art museum director in the US at that time (perhaps ever?) who would oversee its fortunes until her retirement in 1962. According to Betsy Brayer, in a 1981 article on the Herdles in the University of Rochester’: ‘For the more important object of augmenting her on-the-job training, and for authenticating works of art up for consideration ... the youthful new director relied heavily on the noted art dealer and scholar Joseph Brummer.’ Tutor and trader both, Brummer was, in Brayer’s words ‘...a friend of the Gallery for many years before his sudden death in 1949 [recte: 1947] catapulted the last such notable and wide-ranging art collection onto the market.’
Joseph Brummer (1883-1947) was one of three brothers with interests in art and antiquities. As a young man he studied with Rodin and Matisse before turning towards dealing. Frères Brummer opened their first gallery in Paris in 1906. Through it they made numerous contacts with the contemporary art world, and with artists. Henri Rousseau painted Joseph’s much-reproduced portrait in 1909. He introduced Guillaume Apollinaire to art collecting, sold Robert Bliss of Dumbarton Oaks his first Olmec figure, and was instrumental in introducing the Parisian avant-garde, including Picasso, to the ‘tribal’ arts of the non-western world. Following the First World War the Brummers moved their business interests to New York, opening a gallery (‘Joseph Brummer, Ancient Art’) and expanded into both ancient and medieval art. They seem to have become rapidly established as taste brokers and suppliers of art and antiquities to major private collectors and established galleries all over the U.S., supplying, amongst others, the Walters and the Metropolitan Museum of Art with pieces for their collections, and playing a role in the assembly of the pieces for ‘The Cloisters’ prior to its opening in 1928. Joseph Brummer was also the dealer who supplied the Walters with the so-called ‘Abucasem’ (after Tawfic Abucasem, its early owner) or Hama collection of liturgical silver in 1929. This collection, by the way, is now thought by some to have been made for the church of Sant Sergios, Kaper Koraon southeast of Antioch, now in northern Syria and discovered in the same hoard that contained the so-called ‘Antioch Chalice’ now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Unfortunately establishing the origins of pieces from the Brummer collections has proven difficult. ‘‘The laconic records from Joseph and Ernest Brummer’s galleries’, writes Jill Meredith, ‘galleries do not always supply the names of the European dealers from whom the works were purchased, and rarely do they mention a site of origin.’ Meredith was writing of items sold not in 1949 but 1976, as part of the sale of Ernest Brummer’s collection, but the sentiment would seem to hold good for our saint and for the earlier collection. The sale of Brummer’s collection was in three parts, each conducted over several days. The copy of the catalogue before me has ‘950 -’ ( $950?) written in the left hand margin. Rousseau’s portrait of Brummer himself, incidentally, would sell in 1993 for £2,971,500 ($4,421,592). More on Raimond von Marle's career as an art historian can be found here.
Adding further puzzlement is the fact that the Cathedral at Messina was built in the twelfth century. (Evidence of what went before is proving hard to track down ...). It was extensively rebuilt in the wake of the 1908 earthquake, and underwent comparable rebuilding after Allied bombing in 1943. Messina itself was under Byzantine control until it was captured by Muslim armies already active elsewhere on the island in summer 842 - an episode in the longer narrative of expansion and conquest by forces from Aghlabid North Africa, sometimes working in tandem with groups from Umayyad Spain and, later, semi-independent groups in southern Italy. In certain respects (the bagging beneath the chestnut-brown gimlet eye, the lighter brown arc denoting the curve of the eyelid beneath the brow, the bow shaped mouth) there are - at least to a non-specialist - parallels with the frescoes from San Vincenzo Al Volturno, some 500 km or so north, as the crow (or sea gull) flies.
On the Brummers and their medieval collections see W.R. Johnson, William and Henry Walters: the Reticent Collectors (Baltimore, 1999), pp. 213-4; Jill Meredith, ‘Romancing the Stone: Resolving Some Provenance Mysteries of the Brummer Collection at Duke University’, Gesta 33.1 (1994), pp. 38-46. For the Herdles, B. Brayer, ‘The Herdles Go A-Hunting" Rochester Review (1981), pp. 16-19, available here.