Scholar of Italian baroque art. Seminal figure for the generation of art historians who matured during the second half of the 20th century. Because Wittkower's father, Henry Wittkower (1865-1942), was British, the younger Wittkower held British citizenship his whole life despite having been born and raised in Germany. His mother was a German, Gertrude Ansbach (Wittkower) (1876-1965). After graduating from the humanistic Friedrichs Gymnasium in Berlin, Wittkower studied (practicing) architecture for a year in Berlin before deciding to changed to art history under Henrich Wölfflin in Munich. Wölfflin proved to be a very detached professor, and, unhappy with his teaching, Wittkower returned to Berlin to study under Adolph Goldschmidt. He completed his dissertation there on the subject of Domenico Morone. In 1923 he moved to Rome to assist Ernst Steinmann, director of the Herziana, with completion of the Michelangelo-Bibliographie 1510-1926. The same year he married Margot Holzmann (Margot Wittkower) who was to assist him with some of his later scholarship. In between, Wittkower contributed many entries for artists in the Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler (the so-called "Thieme-Becker"). He was elevated at the Biblioteca Herziana to a research fellow, remaining there until 1927. Wittkower returned to Berlin but continued his association with the Herziana, publishing in 1931 with Heinrich Friedrich Ferdinand Brauer a survey of drawings by Bernini. The publication put him at the fore of an ideological battle (both esthetically and politically) with the major Austrian art historian, Hans Sedlmayr. Sedlmayr criticized Wittkower in a published review, for belonging to neither of the two genres of art history that Sedlmayr found acceptable. The public exchange drew a distinction between Sedlmayer's Gestaltungsprinzipien [abstract principles] approach to art history (as well as his anti-Jewish Nazi sympathies) and Wittkower's approach. After briefly teaching as a Privatdozent at the Univeristy in Cologne in 1932-1933, Wittkower was forced to leave Germany--now fully under the control of the Nazis, whose laws forbade university positions to Jews--abandoning any habilitationschrift for the London and the Warburg Institute. In London he was founding co-editor of the Journal of the Warburg Institute (renamed in 1940 to The Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes) in 1937, remaining at the Institute between 1934-1956. His position at the Institute allowed outside lecturing, such as his 1946 Courtauld Institute talks on the architecture of Vittone. Proof of his broad interests, when he first proposed the lectures to his host, Anthony Blunt, Blunt believed Wittkower joking and had invented the architect's name. In 1948 the young Italian scholar Luigi Salerno studied with Wittkower on a Warburg fellowship. Wittkower began publishing his research, first begun as his intended habilitation in the 1930s, on Palladio and Alberti, in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. These studies, expanded and broadened, were published in 1949 as his most significant book, Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism. Formal pedagogical duties also began that year when he was appointed to be Durning Lawrence professor at the Slade School of Art, although these were limited largely to advising dissertations. Wittkower's dedication to drawings as a scholarly tool continued. He collaborated with several other eminent art historians to produce books on Sir Robert Mond's collection (with Tancred Borenius), drawings of Poussin (with Anthony Blunt, from a manuscript of Walter Friedlaender). In 1952 he published a catalog of Carracci drawings from Windsor Castle. Wittkower was visiting professor of art history at Harvard University in 1954. This solidified a move to the United States, where he became chair of the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University in 1956. In addition to lecturing at Columbia, Wittkower reorganized the Department, adding, among appointments, the first lecturer in Near Eastern art. Here, too, he wrote two of his most popular books, Art and Architecture in Italy: 1600-1750 (1958) and, in collaboration with his wife, Born Under Saturn (1963). Art and Architecture in Italy, volume 16 of the "Pelican History of Art" was (and remains) the publisher's best-selling volume of the series. A magisterial synthesis of a period of vast artistic output, Wittkower updated it three times. It received the Bannister Fletcher Prize for architectural writing. Wittkower retired from Columbia in 1969 as Avalon Foundation Professor Emeritus of Art History. During his final years, he held the Kress Professorship at the National Gallery of Art and Slade Professor at Cambridge. He delivered the Charles T. Mathews lectures for 1971-1972 which appeared as the book Gothic vs. Classic: Architectural Projects in Seventeenth-century Italy. After his death he received Alice Davis Hitchcock Award in 1975.
He supervised many Ph.D. dissertations including Eduard F. Sekler (at the Warburg), D. Stephen Pepper and Colin Rowe. Another student also became a colleague of his at Columbia university, Howard Hibbard, whose methodology Hibbard closely reflected. His scholarly tradition was most clearly continued in the work of Joseph Connors. In terms of method, Wittkower certainly differed from Sedlmayr. Compared to Sedlmayr's psychological-theoretic approach of the same material, Wittkower, in the words of Kenneth Clark, disposed of, "the hedonist, or purely aesthetic, theory of Renaissance architecture." Not that Wittkower eschewed psychology (two of his books used this approach principally) rather, he preferred to allow documents to connect psychological patterns he used rather than vice versa. Like Goldschmidt, he discounted the Hegelian view of art history so common among German art historians of his and previous generations. Richard Krautheimer described Wittkower's art history as one blending mathematics and philosophy, the religious and cultural climate with the interrelations of patron and artist. Even the Warburg scholar Fritz Saxl, who admitted in a 1934 letter that Wittkower's ideas on the history of art were much different from his own, concluded that Wittkower's "struggle for clear-shaped logical notions in art history has undoubted merits." Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism remains his most influential writing, having immediately influenced works as disparate as Die Kunst der Renaissance in Italien (1953) by Walter Paatz, Ezra Ehrenkrantz's The Modular Number Pattern (1956) and P. H. Scholfield's The Theory of Proportion in Architecture (1958). The book, however caught the scorn of Roberto Pane who attacked Wittkower's ideas at the Eighteenth International Congress of the History of Art (Venice) in 1956 (Wittkower, 1973). In 1961 Wittkower presented a paper at Winterthur, Delaware, on "Art History as a Discipline" which demonstrated his affinity for the work of Erwin Panofsky and decrying the extreme connoisseurship of Roger Fry. The esthetician Joseph Masheck insightfully contrasted Panofsky with Wittkower, both fellow Warburg Institute scholars: "Panofsky mainly pursued a history of illustrated concepts...that have taken roost...[in] datable objects." Wittkower, on the other hand, he contended, is the "ultra-Warburgian," not limited to the classical tradition but employing a cosmopolitan view of art.