Full Name: Hess, Jacob
Date Born: 1885
Date Died: 1969
Place Born: Munich, Bavaria, Germany
Place Died: Rome, Lazio, Italy
Home Country/ies: Germany
Subject Area(s): Baroque, biography (general genre), Italian (culture or style), Italian Renaissance-Baroque styles, and Renaissance
Scholar of Italian Renaissance and Baroque art, particularly interested in artist biographies. Hess came to art history late in life, studying the discipline beginning only in 1919 at age 34. He studied under Heinrich Wölfflin in Munich and in Vienna under literary historian Karl Vossler (1872-1949) and Vienna School art historians Max Dvořák and Julius Alwin von Schlosser. Though Hess wrote his dissertation under Wölfflin in Munich, it was Schlosser who ignited Hess’ interest in Schlosser’s field of the literary sources of art history. Hess’ thesis, a study of biographies of Giovanni Battista Passeri, was accepted in 1926 and published in 1928. He remained in Munich, working on a scholarly facsimile edition of Passeri’s Vite, Die künstlerbiographien von Giovanni Battista Passeri, financed through a grant, which he published in 1934. The result of collating various manuscripts into a magisterial commentary, it is still unsurpassed. The vast anti-Semitism associated with the Nazi’s rise to power forced Hess to leave Germany, moving to Rome the same year. Making use of a small grant from the Vatican Library, he began work on an edition of the Vite of Giovanni Baglione. The following year, 1935, he privately issued his monograph on Agostino Tassi. When World War II erupted and Italy was no longer safe, Hess fled to London in 1939, supported at the Warburg Institute and financially assisted by Ellis K. Waterhouse and Richard Krautheimer. He was interned as a German in 1940. After the war he returned to Rome in 1948, supported be grants from the Vatican Library. He was awarded compensation for persecution in 1950 by the German government. Beginning in 1953 he secured a Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft grant which allowed him to research independently. His house in Italy, Villa Ostia, became a meeting point for continental scholars of Italian art. A dedicated historiographer, he intended to have stucco portraits of his mentors painted on the walls of his dining room. Hess set about for his final life’s project to write the authoritative commentary to the Vite of Giovanni Baglione. He got through the first three and a half giornate, in which the work was divided before he died at age 84. His research was brought to publication by Erwarth Röttgen. In 1967 his collected studies, brought up to date by Hess himself, were published as Though Hess was a “sources” scholar, he was not particularly interested in unearthing primary documents. Rather he focused on mastering the printed literature around the events of a creation of a work of art. “The method adopted by Hess consisted of taking into account every conceivable historical circumstance, great or small, and assimilating all that could be discovered about a work of art and the literature that surrounded it.” (Salerno). An extremely modest man, a higher professional profile escaped him through an unwillingness to use his success to bolster his career. Completely devoted to research, he once wrote that cooking and shopping took him away from hours which could be devoted in the library.
[collected essays:] Kunstgeschichtliche Studien zu Renaissance und Barock. 2 vols. Rome: Edizioni di storia e letteratura, 1967; [dissertation:] Die künstlerbiographien von Giovanni Battista Passeri: Eine quellenkritische Untersuchung zum römischen Barock. Munich, 1926, published 1928 in Wiener Jahrbuch 5; Die künstlerbiographien von Giovanni Battista Passeri: nach den handschriften des Autors. Vienna: H. Keller, 1934; Agostino Tassi, der lehrer des Claude Lorrain: Ein beitrag zur geschichte der barockmalerei in Rom. Munich: Im selbstverlag des autors, 1935; “On Raphael and Giulio Romano.” Gazette des Beaux-Arts 32 (September 1947): 73-106; edited and commentary, with Röttgen, Herwarth. Baglione, Giovanni. Le vite de’ pittori, scultori et architetti dal pontificato di Gregorio XIII del 1572 in fino a’ tempi di Papa Urbano Ottavo nel 1642. Vatican City: Biblioteca apostolica vaticana, 1995.
Wendland, Ulrike. Biographisches Handbuch deutschsprachiger Kunsthistoriker im Exil: Leben und Werk der unter dem Nationalsozialismus verfolgten und vertriebenen Wissenschaftler. Munich: Saur, 1999, vol. 1, pp. 296-298; [obituary:] Salerno, Luigi. “Jacob Hess.” Burlington Magazine 112, no. 808 (July 1970): 468-468.