Rona Goffen, Board of Governors Professor of Art History at Rutgers University, died on September 8, 2004, at the age of sixty. Even through her final illness, she continued to work, writing and lecturing, and to affirm the values of her life--especially through attendance at the opera.
Professor Goffen was among the most distinguished art historians of the Italian Renaissance; her innovative scholarship opened new critical prospects on major art and artists. Her first publication, “Icon and Vision: Giovanni Bellini’s Half-Length Madonnas” (Art Bulletin 1975), which was based on her Ph.D. dissertation (Columbia, 1974), transformed our understanding of those much beloved yet then superficially appreciated images, demonstrating the profundity and subtlety of their creator’s pictorial intelligence. Her subsequent monograph on Bellini (1989) stands as the definitive study of the painter; typical of Professor Goffen’s approach, it is ambitious in its methodological scope and vision, articulating issues of technique and formal structure, of social and historical context, of interpretation and meaning, in a prose marked by a rare combination of verbal precision, critical enthusiasm, and wit.
That initial engagement with the art of Bellini mapped essential paths in the evolving course of Professor Goffen’s scholarship, her dedication to Venice and to the Madonna. These concerns came together in first book, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice: Bellini, Titian, and the Franciscans (1986), in which a focus upon the pictorial monuments in a single church, Santa Maria dei Frari, expanded to offer a remarkably rich image of the religious, civic, and family culture of Venice. Interest in the Franciscans in turn led to the next book, Spirituality in Conflict: Saint Francis and Giotto’s Bardi Chapel (1988), taking its author beyond Renaissance Venice to late medieval Florence and its greatest master.
In many ways, Professor Goffen’s interests reflected the inspiration of her most revered graduate teacher at Columbia, Howard McP. Davis. She came to Columbia following graduation from Mount Holyoke College, where she received her A.B. cum laude in 1966. Professor Goffen often acknowledged that it was the example of Davis that served as the foundation of her own critical approach, his attentive viewing and close attention to detail, both formal and iconographic, and his profound respect for the intelligence and imagination of the artist. She, in turn, developed that model of visual analysis and made it very much her own.
Having begun her career with the study of images of the Virgin Mary, the turn to the representation of women in the Renaissance seemed a natural direction. Professor Goffen’s research into the gynecological lore of the early Renaissance yielded a fuller understanding of the motif of the Giorgione/Titian Sleeping Venus, and her exploration of the patronage of Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love set that classic picture into a significantly richer social and historical context. Her studies culminated in Titian’s Women (1997), a book that significantly reoriented feminist scholarship. Recognizing in Titian’s “reinvention of womankind” the painter’s generous response to women as individuals, she insisted on the fuller humanity of his images. A different sense of humanity informs the last book she published, Renaissance Rivals: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian (2002), in which she explored the competitive vitality of the artists’ world with her own blend of firmly based scholarship and historical imagination.
Professor Goffen’s teaching career began at Indiana University (1971-73) and continued at Princeton (1973-78) and Duke (1978-88). She joined the faculty of Rutgers in 1988, where she served as departmental chair (1990-96) and was honored by appointment as Board of Governors Professor of Art History in 1998. In 1997 she was Robert Sterling Clark Visiting Professor of Art History at Williams College and, in 2002, visiting professor at the Ècole des Hautes Ètudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris.
Professor Goffen served on the executive board of the Renaissance Society of America (1988-2000) and was co-editor of Renaissance Quarterly (1988-94), continuing as associate editor (1994-2000). She was a member of the board of advisors of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art (1998-2001). Following the floods in Florence and Venice in 1966, she became active in the Committee to Rescue Italian Art, and in 1970-71, on a Ford Foundation-CRIA Fellowship, she began her close association with the Soprintendenza ai Beni Artistici e Storici in Venice. She was the recipient of numerous fellowships from, inter alia, the American Academy in Rome, I Tatti, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Guggenheim Foundation.
At the time of her death Professor Goffen was well into a new book, Renaissance Women: Art and Life in Italy, 1300-1600, and was preparing Fathers of Invention: The Last Judgment, from Giotto to Michelangelo, the Rand Lectures in Art History she was to deliver at the University of North Carolina.