Carmen C. Bambach was born in Santiago, Chile. After witnessing the violence of Augusto Pinochet’s bloody coup d’état in 1973, her family came to the United States when she was 14, settling in Greenwich, Connecticut. Feeling like an outcast because she didn’t know much English, Bambach “studied like crazy” and seized new educational opportunities. Even though it was initially difficult, “our immigration to the United States is the greatest gift my parents have given me,” Bambach has said.
Passionate about Renaissance art since she was a girl, Bambach enrolled at Yale University, where she double-majored in art history and architecture, going on to complete her PhD in art history at Yale. While doing research for her undergraduate thesis, Bambach came upon a drawing by the Italian sculptor and painter Michelangelo. Cataloged as the drawing of an armpit, it had been executed by the artist in preparation for his frescoes at the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. Turning the drawing around, Bambach realized that it actually represented the foreshortened head of Haman, a biblical character depicted in the Sistine Chapel. Bambach’s discovery of the optical effects that Michelangelo used to paint the human body at large scale ultimately transformed scholars’ understanding of how preliminary drawings were used by artists in the creation of frescoes and panel paintings.
Today, Bambach is one of the world’s foremost scholars of Italian Renaissance art. Since 1995, she has held a number of positions at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where she is currently the Marica F. and Jan T. Vilcek Curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints. At The Met, Bambach has organized exhibitions on the drawings of such Italian masters as Filippino Lippi, Agnolo Bronzino, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo. She has sought to humanize the Old Masters, providing a holistic understanding of their work and making their art more accessible to the general public. Her exhibitions at The Met include Leonardo da Vinci: Master Draftsman (2003) and Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer (2017–18), both of which earned critical acclaim and drew blockbuster crowds. In addition to her responsibilities at The Met, she has taught at Yale University, Fordham University, the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, and Columbia University. Bambach’s many honors include the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Vilcek Prize for Excellence in Art History. She was elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2013.
In 2019, Bambach topped her extensive list of publications with a work that took her some 24 years to complete: the four-volume Leonardo da Vinci Rediscovered, commemorating the 500th anniversary of the master’s death. This groundbreaking study, which includes 1,500 illustrations and Bambach’s analysis of the more than 4,000 surviving sheets of Leonardo’s notes and drawings, won the 2020 R.R. Hawkins Award, the highest honor given by the Association of American Publishers.