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Art really does work on the radio – especially if it’s cast as true crime

22 March 2021

How do you communicate the history of art without pictures? This is the question facing scholars who venture into radio, but it isn’t a new problem. Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, the first edition of which was published in 1550, is often considered the first work of art history – yet besides engraved portraits of his subjects, there were originally no pictures in his book at all. While nowadays artworks are easily illustrated (copyright permitting) in print or on screen, the solutions that Vasari found for translating the visual into words are still in use, as anyone who listens to art podcasts or radio shows will know.

Take Jerry Brotton’s ten-part series Blood and Bronze, the latest offering from Radio 3’s The Essay (22 March to 2 April, afterwards available on BBC Sounds). Brotton is Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University in London, and his series traces the life of Benvenuto Cellini, an Italian Renaissance goldsmith, sculptor, musician, and murderer, who in his sensational autobiography traversed artistic creation, violent death and the arts of necromancy. In following Cellini’s story, Brotton treads the same path as Vasari, bringing artworks to life by focusing on the lives of those who made and interacted with them.

But Blood and Bronze is much more than a straightforward biography. Taking a cue from wildly successful true-crime podcasts such as Serial, Brotton investigates the recent discovery of a purported self-portrait by Cellini. The saga abounds with colourful characters, from the Russian cosmetics manufacturer who bought the portrait in a French junk shop for €3,200 to the entrepreneurs who tried (and failed) to sell the picture to the National Museum of Saudi Arabia for precisely €56,487,902. It is a story filled with bizarre twists, offering a compelling insight into the intrigues of the global art market.

This is one way to put art on the radio: exploring the narratives woven around objects both in the past and in the present. But what about the artworks themselves? How do you make a painting intelligible to someone who can only look with their mind’s eye? The rhetorical device of ekphrasis, a detailed verbal description of a scene or, more specifically, a work of art, has been in use since classical times. Vasari employed it frequently, both as an aid to readers and as a means of making his arguments persuasive, describing images to fit his narrative of Renaissance art as developing towards ever more accurate realism.

Ekphrasis sits at the heart of the BBC Radio 4 series Moving Pictures. Since 2016 there have been 12 half-hour episodes, each exploring a single artwork. High-resolution images are available online, but the programme also works as a purely aural experience. Listeners are invited to stroll through a Breugel landscape, or Seurat’s Sunday on La Grand Jatte (1884), guided by a range of expert voices. Strikingly, the narration controls the speed at which the mind’s eye travels, encouraging listeners to linger on a single artwork for longer than they might otherwise.

It is a commonplace to say that when one sense is removed others are heightened, but radio can promote new ways of thinking about art. In Moving Pictures, sound effects such as splashing water and glugging beer bring the world of Breugel the Elder’s Harvesters to life. In Blood and Bronze, church bells mingle with ‘the voice of Cellini’, played by Marco Gambino, to create a lively collage of sound, transporting us to Renaissance Italy. But as well as the sounds within the painting, radio attunes us to the sounds around the painting. How we look is affected by what we can hear.

This is just one revelation of the Paul Mellon Centre’s podcast series Sculpting Lives: Women & Sculpture, which layers archive tapes, interviews and on-site recordings to build what the producers Sarah Victoria Turner and Jo Baring call ‘intimate soundscapes’. In the episode on Barbara Hepworth, for example, the difference between the open-air, seaside setting of the Hepworth Sculpture Garden in St Ives and the echoing galleries of the Hepworth Wakefield is audible. Such incidental noise helps us to imagine the locations, but also highlights the different mindsets encouraged by each place: whether it’s the relaxed setting of a garden, or the contemplative, quasi-religious atmosphere of an art gallery. Research in the field of sound studies has shown how auditory stimuli can alter an audience’s engagement with artworks, suggesting that ‘soundscapes’ may be a useful tool both within and beyond the gallery.

Blindfolded though it may be, art on the radio still offers many insights. Knowing how to make a picture appear in the mind’s eye, or ear, without visual aids is a valuable skill: one that – as Vasari knew – is as much persuasive as practical. At a time when the reproduction of images (even historic ones in national collections) can be prohibitively expensive, this skill may be more valuable than ever.

Blood and Bronze will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 from 22 March.