“Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method” by Carlo Ginzburg


This article by Carlo Ginzberg seems to touch on the process of Object Retrieval in many ways. In the article, Ginzberg makes a comparison between Morelli, who tried to discover false art masterpieces by paying attention to the smallest details, with Freud's work with dreams and Sherlock Holmes sleuthing. Ginzburg suggests that informal, intuitive knowledge, allows us to understand much much more than can be directly seen. In Object Retrieval, both scientific and conjectural approaches to detection/knowledge gathering/classification collide, encouraging a cross-fertilization which allows for a richer dialogue to emerge.

“Ginzburg is centrally concerned with how people see the world, how knowledge is acquired and organised, the frameworks into which they fit information, beliefs, or observations, and the social structure which contains, influences and is influenced by these aspects of knowledge. He examines the relationship between formal' and 'informal' knowledge, 'high' and 'low', lore and science. His concern, in short, is historical epistemology -the history and theory of the construction of knowledge.”
“He characterises (informal knowledge) as 'conjectural' or 'divinatory' knowledge. However, in our society the status of science is higher than that of conjecture. Without abandoning or denigrating the scientific approach, Ginzburg shows that there is an alternative, with its own history and validity, deeply rooted in popular experience even if sometimes misappropriated, complementing and extending the knowledge obtained through science.” (Introduction by Anna Davin)

Morelli was an Italian art historian who between 1874 and 1876 published a series of articles on Italian painting in the German art history journal Zeitschrift fiir bildende Kunst. The articles proposed a new method for the correct attribution of old masters, that one should concentrate on minor details, especially those least significant in the style typical of the painter's own school: earlobes, fingernails, shapes of fingers and toes.

Ginzburg draws a parallel between Morelli's methods of classification and those attributed by Arthur Conan Doyle only a few years later to his fictional creation, Sherlock Holmes. The art connoisseur and the detective may well be compared, each discovering, from clues unnoticed by others, the author in one case of a crime, in the other of a painting.

Freud , writing about Morelli, says:
“It seems to me that his method of inquiry is closely related to the technique of psychoanalysis. It, too, is accustomed to divine secret and concealed things from despised or unnoticed features, from the rubbish-heap, as it were, of our observations.”

Freud uses Morellis ideas to develop his proposal of an interpretative method based on taking marginal and irrelevant details as revealing clues. Here details generally considered trivial and unimportant, 'beneath notice', furnish the key to the highest achievements of human genius.

“In all three cases tiny details provide the key to a deeper reality, inaccessible by other methods These details may be symptoms, for Freud, or clues, for Holmes, or features of paintings, for Morelli. How do we explain the triple analogy? There is an obvious answer. Freud was a doctor; Morelli had a degree in medicine; Conan Doyle had been a doctor before settling down to write. In all three cases we can invoke the model of medical semiotics,or symptomatology-the discipline which permits diagnosis, though the disease cannot be directly observed, on the basis of superficial symptoms or signs, often irrelevant to the eye of the layman, or even of Dr Watson.”

Link to full text of article: