The Humanists: John Brewer

Brewer was educated at Cambridge University with a specialization in 18th-century British history. He has been educating others ever since, in locations ranging from Los Angeles to Chicago, Florence to Paris. He came to Caltech in 2002. In his research, Brewer takes provocative themes—the interaction of culture and money in the art world, for instance, or the origins of tourism—and investigates them across cultures and down through time. Brewer’s most recent book is The American Leonardo: A Tale of Obsession, Art and Money (Oxford University Press, 2009). An earlier volume, The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won the Wolfson History Prize.

Caltech offers unique advantages: an academic structure that not only permits but encourages cross-disciplinary research, an intimacy that stems from its small size, an unswerving commitment to the creation of an environment conducive to high-quality research, and undergraduates who may not know a lot about the humanities, but whose smarts are second to none. The mechanics of research in the humanities is both similar to and very different from work in the sciences. I don’t have a lab on campus; instead, I use libraries and archives dispersed in different countries—the United States, Britain, Germany, France, and Italy.

In this sense, my working habits are probably closer to those of a geologist; I spend lots of time in the field. But I focus my attention on writing books, not papers. Words—lots of them— rather than numbers are the tools of my trade. My last book used the history of a forged painting to investigate how the old-master art world worked; my current project examines the region around Naples in the 19th century. This project involves the history of archaeology and geology, art history, the history of migration and exile, politics, and economics in order to understand how the area around Naples acquired a specific identity.

During my time at Caltech I’ve taught and run research projects with colleagues in related disciplines such as the history of science, art history, and literature. I’ve also made use of the expertise of Caltech scientists—with biologists for a project on modeling in the sciences and the arts; with George Rossman and Provost Ed Stolper for information on Vesuvius and volcanology. I am currently organizing a conference that will bring together humanists and social scientists with technical experts at the Resnick Sustainability Institute.

What I value most about Caltech is its commitment to intellectual freedom and its trust in its faculty to fulfill the Institute’s purpose, which is to produce outstanding research. Such confidence, which is in rapid decline in many educational institutions, is what makes for good scholarship.