Towards a History of the Curator

Julia Vázquez, Ph.D.

The history of collecting predates the modern-day art museum by several centuries, with its origins in the early modern period; and yet, art history has yet to contend with the equally long history of collections’ care, and collections’ caretakers. The term “curator,” the use of which is first recorded in fourteenth-century Italian sources, derives from the Latin “curare,” indicating that at its heart is some conception of care. Who was responsible for collections’ care in advance of the invention and professionalization of the figure of the curator, as we know it now? What did collections’ care look like or consist of before the art museum and institutionally sanctioned care practices? This research project considers these questions from within the context of what was once the richest collection of paintings, sculptures, and other art objects in the Western world: the collection of the Spanish Hapsburgs, begun in the Spanish Renaissance with Charles V of Spain and housed in the Alcázar Palace of Philip IV until its destruction by fire in 1734. It focuses on the work of Diego Velázquez, who, although better known as the king’s favorite painter, was effectively the curator of this collection, the site where and circumstance within which his career as a painter unfolded. Contending with the hang, among the most ephemeral of phenomena in the history of art, this project traces a figure of increasing present-day fascination but as of yet without a history: the curator.

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