Librarians, weep: the abuses of books in art
On my travels, my eye has often been caught by the presence of books in art. They are a fashion accessory for many a Virgin Mary surprised in her prayers at the point of the Annunciation, or they can be an accoutrement intended to show off the sitter’s learning in a Renaissance portrait. They are often an ally of or an object for veneration. But I am struck how often this thing to be venerated is made vulnerable to all sorts of damage by the disrespect shown to them in a significant number of depictions. In short, artists use and abuse books in ways which would incite palpitations in the breast of their custodians, the noble profession of librarians.
Even when books are present in a work of art in order to signify intelligence or virtue, they can be presented in a state that could cause them irreparable damage. Take, for instance, the remaining segment of the late-fifteenth-century funerary monument to a canon of San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome. His name was Alessandro de Peruccianis and he loved books so much, this monument tells us, that he could not be without them, even in death. And so, in this case, the recumbent figure is depicted his head on a pillow, beneath which lies, we can see, a clutter of books. Never mind the fact that it may be uncomfortable for Peruccianis — after all, he is dead — think of the weight that would place upon the bindings.
We do not have to go far to realise that such abuse was not an affectation of a single Renaissance sculptor. Such misuse has a long and continuing history: in the same church, there is the monument to Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, who died in 1934. He was known, in part, for his diplomatic work — he signed the 1929 Lateran Agreement with Mussolini securing the Vatican City’s independence, an Agreement still celebrated each year in Europe’s smallest state — but all the more for his scholarship in canon law. So it is appropriate that he showed be depicted, in death, in association with books, but one wishes they had been shown more care. The scuplted volumes are in a shocking state: stuffed to one side, piled on top of each other, with fragile bindings.
And it is not just scupltors who will subject books to indignities. Let us travel to Vienna and take in two paintings. The first is a real insult to the care of books. It is Parmigianino’s image of Cupid carving a bow — carving it on top of a volume. And, as if that was not bad enough, that volume lies on top of another, open book. How its spine must suffer caught eternally in that awkward pose.
You might rationalise this and say that the artist’s moralistic intention was to signify how the passions can crush learning beneath their feet. But even the good can damage books, as does Mary Magdalen in the depiction painted by Orazio Gentileschi. She gazes up to heaven, not caring for the fact her dress has dropped off her breasts — or for the fact that her body reclines on top of a large open volume. Penitent she may be but, in this account, she has very good reason to be.