This morning I was to be found in Florence’s Palazzo Pitti. The purpose was primarily to take in the exhibition ‘Il Sogno nel Rinascimento, one of three important Renaissance-related mostre presently on in the city this summer. ‘Il Sogno’ is intellectually ambitious, musing on the potential associations of dreams with art by considering how painters depicted sleep and its impact on the mind. Perhaps inevitably, the show falls short of the aspirations its originators must have had for it.
But visiting the exhibition also allowed an opportunity to re-visit the riches of the Palazzo’s permanent display. And so, walking through the elegant rooms with their oversupply of paintings, I came face to face with Justus Lipsius:
I cannot claim to have acheived neo-stoic calm in my life, or to be an aficionado of Rubens, yet the painting held my attention today, not because of the artist’s self-portrait or the bust of Seneca above Lipsius, but for the books, specifically those at the front of the table — so close to the front, indeed, that they look as if they should topple off it. That, though, was not what struck me first; rather, it was the combination of books on display. You can clearly see that the bottom one is in a white leather binding, the sort of limp cover we often find today on early modern books. The volume above it is rather different, with brown leather wrapped over thick wooden boards, with the corners finished with pieces of metal. It also has two prominent straps and, less distinctly, a lunette in which the book’s title would have been provided. Incidentally, the arrangement is curious: usually, a lunette sits at the top centre of the lower board, and the straps or clasps also attach to that, rather than the front, but the layout suggested in this picture mean that the board on view must be the upper one. Now, that is not unheard-of in this period — indeed, in Florence itself, many of the Medici volumes in the Laurenziana have such an arrangement — but it is not the norm.
Whatever the implications of that, the main point that caught my eye was the contrast between these two books. Rubens depicts this in the pages of each volume: the lower one has a uniform edge, suggesting efficient cropping, but the pages of the book above are depicted in some detail as being uneven, with some corners curling. What this all suggested to me was that Rubens may not have been portraying just two books but two volumes of markedly different age, one recently printed, the other older and probably a manuscript. If that were his intention it would fit with the composition of the piece and, indeed, enhance its message: notice how the rug placed on the table at front left creates a diagonal line: if you extrapolate that line across the canvas it moves upwards and backwards through the manuscript and on through Lipsius himself ending with the bust of Seneca that sits behind him. The three elements are united in symbolising venerable learning.
But perhaps as well as enhancing the message, it gives it in a more critical edge. I mentioned how the books sit at the very edge of the table, the lower, modern volume jutting out precariously: is the message that old learning when placed on top of new knowledge has uncertain foundations? And, if so, is the unusual arrangement of the binding’s furniture itself a verbal clue to the viewer to think more deeply about the painting’s implications? We can at least be sure that a message that is not fully spoken and which is not uncritical of modern living would not be out of place at the table with neo-stoicism’s founder.
The Silk Road exhibition — Sulla Via della Seta — at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome is one of those shows that make a few items go a long way. It uses its space to place those ceramics and cloths in a context, conjuring for the visitor an evocation of Xi’an, Samarkand and Baghdad through image, replica, sound and smell. In other words, it belies its American origins, for it seems to me that a characteristic of the great museums in the States — in contrast with most in Europe, excepting (tellingly) the V&A — is that they wish not just to present objects but to capture a whole civilisation. That principle of display is combined, in this exhibition, with elements created especially for its Italian manifestation, and it is, to my mind, at its strongest when, in the first room, it gives a summary sense of the Italian merchants who travelled the extended trade route and, in the last room, it places specific ‘tartar’ silks beside late medieval Italian devotional paintings, making us look at familiar images with new eyes thinking how incongruous it is that, say, St Bartholomew should be wrapped in a cloak with Chinese decoration.
What, though, most caught my attention was one artefact from the section on Baghdad, there to represent the learned and technical success of that city. It was an example of the water-clock designed in the late twelfth century by Abu’ al Izz ibn Ismail al-Jazari. It works as an hour glass does with sand, though this measures a whole day, by the water dripping into the bottom basin and its movement turning the top of the clock which acts like its face. What struck me was that on the ‘face’ sat a turbaned scribe, a preternaturally long pen stretching before him, and it is the movement of his pen which marks the passage of time. What an association between time and writing! How alien from European mores, where a scribe can be the preserver of the divine or the royal — the essential workman of history itself — but where those activities rarely have a heightened temporal consciousness. Palaeographers look for the dated manuscripts in the hope that the can map for us the development of script but, even in the Renaissance where such specificity was more fashionable, only a small minority carry a year, let alone a day, of production. Even rarer are those books that record the passage of time incurred in their preparation — leaving us to guess how long it took a scribe to complete a folio. And these concerns hardly touch what al-Jazari’s turbaned scribe can represent. I wonder what he would say if he could speak to us:
Cursed be those who claim that because I sit cross-legged I am lesser than those men who stand tall. Can they trace the arc of time as I do with a pen that sits like an extension of my finger? Without my profession, there would be no certainty of law or memory; even the Holy Word would be intangible. The words I write entertain you, teach you, direct you — and define you. But more than any of those achievements is my mastery of time. Without the movement of my pen, you could not measure the parameters within which you live. You would be left squinting at the sun. You come to me and say ‘write down my words so they will last, so after I am dead I will be remembered’. You should also come to me to learn about the passing of the days — for with the movement of my pen so passes the time you have left alive.
Yet, of course, when this scribe is the recorder of time, he is least like an expert in script. For, in Baghdad, the round city, he denotates the passing hours by drawing a circle. This, it could be said, is beyond the expression of words: the circle holds the mystery of infinity. When I was a schoolboy, I was taught that only a madman or a genius (is there a difference?) can draw a perfect circle; it was, I was told, Leonardo da Vinci’s calling-card to chalk on a friend’s wall a circle to show that he had visited when his would-be host was not at home. The seated, unmoving scribe does this every day, and every day is defined by the fact the scribe does this. Thought of in this way, al-Jazari’s clock could stand as the victory of Plato over Heraclitus, the movement of the water becoming the servant to the sublime perfection of the circle.
Give me, though, the imperfection of words over this higher skill. However ephemerally words are recorded — on flimsy paper or even less tangibly on screen — they speak of a person. And the scribe who sits each day drawing that sublime circle is denying that which makes his work most intriguing: the individuality of the script. The drawing of the essential circle may be an essential task but, if you ask me, it is wasting time which could be better spent on the delights of the non-essential.
A work of art is growing on-line: the Tate’s Gallery of Lost Art. It catalogues pieces of modern art from Duchamp to Emin that no longer exist — or, in some cases, never did exist. Each piece is provided with images and a full essay (the text alone can be downloaded as pdfs), building an on-line space that provides the delight of discovery less like a stroll through a gallery than a delving in drawers. The curators talk of their collection being populated by ghosts who can have only a virtual existence, an art museum, as it were, which is open only after hours. These spectral presences makes us think about the processes of loss, about the art of absence and about memory (the mind’s backward eye) as a viewing-point.
On my brief visits to date I have been struck by what might be called the morality of loss. In the essay on Tracey Emin’s ‘Everyone I have ever slept with’, which was destroyed by the 2004 fire at the Momart warehouse, there is a quotation from the daughter of another artist, the late Patrick Heron, whose art was also lost in the same event:
Even at the worst stage of people burning books, actually, somewhere, the manuscript or the idea or the story stayed, and even if you lost the score of a piece of music, or if you lost a choreography, they can be recreated, because they exist by being reproduced. The thing about something like a painting or a sculpture or any other artefact-based art form is, once it’s gone, it has gone. It’s so absolutely final.
Though this might ignore the uniqueness of individual volumes, there is a legitimate distinction here, but it is one that this Gallery — which, it appears, will not feature Heron’s abstract art — undermines: it is a demonstration of how the death of art does not need to be final and how it can have only a limited sting. As someone who studies the history of the destruction of books, I am particularly interested in the wording in the quotation above: note the perfect tense for book-burnings, a sense of it as an activity whose existence is ended. That, of course, is not the case even though (or, perhaps, because), as I have written elsewhere, our society is culturally conditioned against this particular process of destruction. At the same time, another theme of the Gallery is that possibility that destruction itself can be artistic, vital and creative — that, to transfer it to the tradition of biblioclasm, there could be beautiful book-burnings.
Destruction as creation is the theme of one exhibit already on display in this virtual museum: Willem de Kooning’s untitled drawing which he gave to Robert Rauschenberg presicely so, in 1953, he could destroy the art through erasure. He uncreated de Kooning’s work to provide a sort of palimpsest where the upper layer is as blank as that it replaces. As the Gallery has very clear limits, it does not mention parallel cases in modern art like the Chapman brothers’ exuberant vandalism (I use the term neutrally) of a copy of Goya’s ‘Disaster of War’. But the possibility is clearly there to consider whether the process of loss is as completely negative as our perceptions of the creative would usually assume.
Perhaps it was with that in mind that the originators of this project thought it appropriate that their work should itself be transient. The clear-headed strategy is that, over the course of a year, the Gallery will be augmented each week with a further piece of art — it will expand and then collapse, disappearing from view at a pre-ordained moment in time. At the foot of the website, a countdown (like that to the Paralympics in Trafalgar Square) helpfully records the passing minutes until its death-date. Presumably at the design stage the creators also game-planned how they would respond if their decision was challenged. I want to give them the opportunity to put that plan into action because, since their work is so valuable and stimulating, I would contend they should not be allowed to make it self-destruct.
If, as I have done in opening this discussion, we take the Gallery to be an art-work mediating on the death of art, its own demise might seem to provide an elegant and ironic fulfilment of itself. But must we let it die? Or, indeed, as it so untactile, can it really die? If, instead, we term the Tate’s project to be an educational resource, then the closure of it would be all the more criminal: it would provide a deletion of knowledge which could not be re-described as creative vandalism.
Are you ready to petition the Tate? And how will they respond? Will they be ready to be counted alongside those councillors who voted send the bulldozers in and not to reprieve Rachel Whiteread’s ‘House’?
This a brief plea to exhibition curators. I am spurred to it by having experienced the impressive temporary display at the Prado, El Último Rafael. It could, equally, have been called ‘Early Giulio’ because its second half is dedicated to Raphael’s protégés, particularly Giulio Romano showing a restraint that abandoned him when he had licence — and licentiousness — at the court of the Gonzagas. The exhibition begins, in contrast, with a series of imposing altarpieces by Raphael and his workshop and it is those that are the focus of my comment.
It is certainly a privilege to be able to stand in front of, say, Lo Spasimo, fresh for restoration. However, that is also my quibble: we, the viewers, stand immediately before the painting, looking the tortured Christ, as it were, in the eye. But this surely is not how the work is intended to be seen: Raphael did not imagine its viewers would dare to look straight-on at the action but would rather approach it in humble devotion, an adoration inspired not so much by his skill but by the work’s original purpose. This work — and, indeed, other altarpieces here, like the St Michael painted for Francois Ier — are simply too low on the wall. And what we have lost is not just a sense of reverence.
The captions to the paintings are keen to discern the hand of the master in details and in the design of the work. But what is lost by the fashionable low-hanging style is actually the full impact of the perspective of the image. By lowering St Michael to the viewer’s level, the power of movement, the sense of action as the figure protrudes from the picture, disappears. Equally, I would contend, with Lo Spasimo, the religious message of the art is weakened by the present display: viewed straight-on, we see a mass of people cluster around the tripped Christ but viewed from below, the impact is so much greater: we look up to Jesus as the most immediate point, and share with him in his suffering and, then, raising our eyes further, we can see the suffering lifted for Christ by the intervention of Simon of Cyrene — a metaphor for how the Crucifixion itself will lift the burden of certain death from our own shoulders.
My request, then, is simple: raise these artworks on the wall, hang them high. And, until that happens, I have advice to the visitor: be not afraid to kneel in front of one of these altarpieces. I suspect the local aficionados, born to a culture traditionally as hot in its religious fervour as in its weather, consider the curious sight of a mild-mannered Anglican on his knee before Lo Spasimo with curiosity and amusement. But don’t worry about how it looks to others: the reward for those who do approach these paintings from a position of reverence is a revelation of the genius of the late Raphael.
A few weeks back, following the close of the Warburg conference in honour of Tilly de la Mare and waiting to meet the ever-vivacious Sue Russell (whose laughter lights so many lives), I had a moment to step into the National Gallery and commune — along with the thousands others there — with art. Instead of entering, as I usually do, through the Sainsbury Wing, I went up the main stairs and, in the first room, was struck by Lorenzo Lotto’s portrait of Giovanni Agostino della Torre.
I have an interest — I might have mentioned — in the depiction of books in painting and, indeed, the abuses of those parchment or paper repositories of knowledge in art. A plentiful number of books are on display in this portrait, on the desk and, all the more prominently, in the sitter’s hand. It is this in particular that caught my attention. A sitter holding a book is not unusual, not even a book held upright, as here. Nor is it uncommon to have a binding meticulously presented with a lunette on the back cover, here giving the title Galen, to represent della Torre’s medical interests. But this book is not just held — it is held slightly open, sitting on the palm of Giovanni’s hand, in a position which appears ungainly. Why do this? Surely it is to allow the edge of the pages of the volume to be seen, and what we see there is not pristine white paper but, instead, frequent handwritten annotations (but, sadly, no maniculae) presumably by the sitter himself. In other words, della Torre’s learning is suggested not just by the book he holds but by the fact that we can glimpse — no more than, just a teasing taster — his erudition in the margins. The presentation might act as a metaphor for the relevatory nature of the portrait itself, which can hint but not fully encapsulate the person depicted. Equally, it can be a metaphor for marginalia which itself can hint but can rarely provide complete insight into their author.
Are there — I ask you to tell me — other paintings that similarly play with the possibilities of marginalia?
When is a manuscript royal? Is it solely when it was commissioned by a monarch? Or – a slightly broader definition – when it is called into existence by the will of a member of the royal family? Is it one which was made with the intention of entering a royal collection? Or one which, whatever its creator’s plan, did end up there in the Middle Ages? Or, indeed, one which reached the British Royal Library after the medieval period? It is a question worth asking because examples of all of these types of books are on display in the ‘Royal Manuscripts: the Genius of Illumination’ exhibition at the British Library.
On one level, the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition answers the question: John Lowden begins the introductory essays by stating that the definition used includes ‘any manuscript for which there is evidence of a royal connection at any point in its history’ (p. 19). It is a definition so capacious that it invites sub-division, a process that Prof. Lowden himself undertakes in the pages that follow. But it is also a definition not immediately on display to those who visit the exhibition, relying on the brochure, captions or audio-guide to help lead them through the more than 150 manuscripts laid out in the cabinets. They are told, instead, that manuscripts ‘associated with successive kings and queens of England … include some of the most outstanding examples of decorative and figurative painting that survive in Britain from between the 8th and 16th centuries’. A set of associations are implied, linking ‘royal’ with ‘manuscript’– associations which the visitor without a catalogue can (like Miss Lavish wandering Florence without her Baedeker) have the thrill of discovering for themselves.
The visitor may find it is easiest to define ‘Royal Manuscripts’ by what it is not: in the first place, the exhibition does not attempt to provide a detailed history of the library of the English monarchs. It is the case that, after a useful brief section on the creation of a manuscript (where parchment and vellum are bravely distinguished), the exhibition proper opens with a section on Edward IV as founder of the royal library, showing samples of the outsize Burgundian manuscripts that he bought. Beyond that, though, there is little here to hint at the difference between the Plantagenets and their French counter-parts: the development of the library of the Louvre from at least the reign of Charles V had a sense of books as part of the royal patrimony, whereas in England, until the late fifteenth century, manuscripts were as likely to leave the king’s ownership as to enter them, the books he came to own being seen as appropriate diplomatic gifts, ripe to be alienated from his property. Nor is there any mention in the captions of the purchase of the residue of the French royal library by John, duke of Bedford in the earl 1420s and its likely transfer across the Channel. This is simply not a tale the exhibition wishes to tell.
Similarly, the exhibition is not about the physical allure of the written word captured on parchment. The display includes some rolls – of prayers and genealogies – and, in one instance, presents an indenture of Henry VII (a manuscript made for the king to give away to Westminster Abbey: BL, MS. Harl. 1498) bound as a book within its binding and chemise, with heavily-encased seals hanging from it. These, understandably, are the exceptions: after all, the royal collection has suffered the sort of solicitous attention that results in the original bindings being removed and thrown away, though they (as many a presentation miniature reminds us) would have been the most noticeable element of a book to its early owners. Nor is there a discussion of the development of script in these volumes, nor a sense of what import different textual presentations may have been intended to carry. The sub-title for this show tells us where its main interest lies: in that element of a book’s construction that was its illuminations.
But the openings presented belong not only to manuscripts made for kings or queens. The second section of the exhibition, entitled ‘The Christian Monarch’ describes, through the medium of illuminations, the long association of kingship with religious devotion, from Athelstan to Henry VIII. Some of these books were created as instruments of royal worship, while others entered princely hands only a few generations after their first construction – a distinction neatly summed up by the juxtaposition of two Psalters, both owned by Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, with one made for his private worship (BL, MS. Royal 2. B i, noting that the presence of the duke’s notes in the calendar at fol. 4v works against the exhibition’s hypothesis that he intended the book for his nephew’s edification) and the other, the so-called St Omer Psalter, owned by him but produced in Norfolk nearly a century before it reached his hands (BL, MS. Yates Thompson 14). Yet others are included for their depictions of kings rather than being definitely royal in ownership – an example is the eleventh-century Rule of St Benedict from Christ Church, Canterbury with its fine miniature of three Anglo-Saxon kings joined by a swirling scroll that also lifts up the monk who reverently lies beneath them (BL, MS. Cotton Tiberius A iii). The section gives a sense of the habits of devotion and the duties they placed upon royalty but it also raises a question that lies at the heart of the rationale for this exhibition: was there a particularly royal type of illumination?
In some cases, the exhibition strains to associate a book with a royal patron. This is the case with the poster-boy for the show – God creating the world, as depicted in a Bible historiale (BL, MS. Royal 19 D. iii). It is a magnificent piece of work, its blues and reds a mass of delicately realised sets of wings – angels depicted à la Fouquet, if a few decades earlier. The audio-guide at this point echoes the catalogue in suggesting ‘it would not be a surprise if [the manuscript] were made for a royal owner’ but it goes further in suggesting the identity of that prince was likely to be Jean, duc de Berry. What interests me is the reasoning for this suggestion which, on the audio-guide, stresses the lavish nature of the illustration and implies that this would be most likely to be paid for by a member of a royal family. And yet, there are enough examples of resplendent manuscripts on display in this exhibition that were not commissioned by princes – from monastic and ecclesiastical establishments or from aristocratic families and (in the last century or so of the period) confraternities. The fact that some of the products made for such institutions or individuals later entered royal hands reminds us not only that princely collections were often inhabited by the second-hand but also that those same princes did not disdain handling manuscripts illuminated for the lesser-born. In other words, we would be best to avoid assuming that richness of decoration had particularly royal connotations at any point in the period covered by the exhibition.
The implication of this is that in their ownership and use of manuscripts, kings and queens were participating in a wider bookish culture. Rarely was it one of the factors that set them apart from their subjects but, instead, showed them sharing others’ interests. If this is so, we might wonder how far royal patronage defined what was new or what was best in manuscript production, rather than simply partaking of those fashions. Did princes earmark a larger proportion of their wealth on manuscripts than did other book-owners? Or did they reserve their cash for more ostentatious methods of conspicuous consumption? And, when they looked at a book, what drew their attention: did they turn to the illumination, seeing it as light relief from the over-supply of words that they were expected to decipher? Or did they let the volumes rest closed, so that the rich bindings were on show, at the expense of the masterful painting hidden inside? How did they hold these books and turn their pages? It is in the nature of a block-buster exhibition like ‘Royal Manuscripts’ that the objects are static, held open at a single folio for the duration of the display – no equivalent here to the daily turning of the pages in the Piccolomini Library of Siena’s Cathedral. What we are offered, in effect, is a snippet view rather than the whole book. The images can be enthralling, but the books in which they sit are not mere containers for artistic genius – each of these manuscript has a dynamism, an incorrigible plurality of its own, that can only be imagined when it sits under glass. We should savour the exhibition, with its juxtapositions and its insights, while we can; we should relish all the more the day these manuscripts are again available for consultation, folio by folio, opening by opening, in the Reading Room upstairs.
For all the acreage of frescoes on the walls of the Vatican Palace, it is surely the case that what has been lost over time is more substantial than what we can see now. Much of the fifteenth-century art, let alone that of earlier generations, has been destroyed or covered over by later generations. We can reconstruct some of what was there and we know of particular moments of frenetic activity, the pontificate of Nicholas V (1447 – 55) being one.
Yesterday, I came across a reference to decorations in the Vatican during his pontificate; a quick look in the obvious secondary material provides no mention of this passage or corroboration of it. So, loyal reader, this is for you to consider, to research further or to advise me on where it is discussed.
The brief passage comes from an unpublished humanist text, a commentary on Juvenal by Gaspare da Verona, now better known for his later biography of another pope, more controversial but no less corpulent than Nicholas, that is Paul II. Gaspare’s commentary, which must have been written in 1449, was intended for presentation to Nicholas V, and the author makes no secret of his desire for pecuniary recompense for his efforts. It was a hope that seems to have been little rewarded — or maybe not at all — by the learned pope. However that may be, in the commentary, Gaspare takes a mention of Hercules in Juvenal as reason to outline the mythical hero’s twelve labours. At the end of his discussion, he adds a characteristically contemporary comment:
…quae nisi fallor et ficte sunt ab egregio pictore in palatio longe pulcherrime sancti petri iussu quidem glorissimi et maximi pontificis summique domini nicolae quinti qui ita decora palatium curavit ut iam non teneat italia immo nec ulla transaplina regio magnificentius quantum memini me videre in gallia hispania germania…
So, it is Gaspare’s assertion that in some part of the palace, Nicholas had commissioned, early in his pontificate, a set of frescoes of Hercules’ Labours, from a ‘famous’ artist. Who this was and exactly where they were it seems we do not know. And, indeed, it may be that Gaspare himself was not that certain. He crowds his text with repeated praise of the pope but he also says at one point that he sees him rarely; it is likely that he was equally no habitué of the Vatican Palace. Perhaps, then, he was speaking from hearsay, and gives us a sign of what was talked about in Rome in the late 1440s. Of course, we could go further and say that he might have been mistaken and there was no such fresco — at which point the paintings revealed in prose would disappear again, to be as lost as so many others that once adorned the Vatican. Let us hope that we can stop short of that and that some learned scholar can tell us more about them.
Of all the forms of art, painting has perhaps suffered most from the success of photography. By suffered, I mean that it can seem to have lost its mystery, its need to be seen in situ, as the quality of reproduction has become so precise it appears to evoke the object, or even to improve on it. The clever workings of the camera can now recreate a canvas or a fresco, giving more space or size than when one stands before the original. The photographical art might not be able to mimic the play of light on the tesserae of Byzantine mosaics or the three-dimensional solidity of sculpture but it can transport to you to the presence of a painting, uncompromised by the need to stand a certain distance or to see over the shoulders of others or even to travel to its home in the first place – it can provide an art gallery in your own home. This sapping of painting’s power is even more apparent in the age of the full-colour guide: we have all watched in a museum while others near us hold the glossy volume and look from page to painting and back again, checking that what it is there on the wall before them accords with what the book they own has instructed them to see. But the magic is not entirely drained. Painting can still provide moments when you stand before a picture and are struck insensibly by its immediacy – when all else seems to fade into the background as you are drawn into the image itself. I can witness that those moments happen: they have occurred twice to me in the last week. This is the story of the first time.
I have been brought up a non-believer when it comes to Parmigianino – all those over-extended body parts seemingly to no significant effect. Now I must repent; the Capodimonte of Naples has converted me. I was gazing around yet another of its rooms given over to Italian art of the early sixteenth century, comfortable in my scepticism about its quality and taste. But then Antea caught my eye and I was dumbstruck. She stands not so much dressed so over-dressed the artist has undressed her. All the heavy, rich embroidery and the outsize fur slung over the shoulder – its weight and depth serve to accentuate how small her body is beneath these clothes. Your eye is directed to the inches of naked flesh, the outline of the collar bone, the suggestion of the cleavage (is she not too young to be showing that?). And then you notice the hands, the right gloved and resting beneath the heavy head of her fur, holding the other glove, leaving the left hand bare, with its provocatively thin fingers.
You cannot move away: you are enthralled. And then the miracle performs a disappearing trick. You fix your study on the fingers and you sense that they are preternaturally long. You lose sight of the beauty and look at the artifice but, at that moment, your understanding grows: you realise that Parmigianino’s art is to intimate the possible by a conscious construction of the unreal, an eschewing of the limits of nature in order to show us not what we objectively see but what we might more deeply perceive.
It was with difficulty that I turned away from Antea and looked at another of Parmigianino’s canvases, his Lucretia at the moment of suicide – an image I know well. I had used it in the Hutchinson Encyclopedia of the Renaissance to exemplify one tradition of depicting the Roman tragic heroine, in which the emphasis is on her as monument. But I saw it now with new eyes: like Antea, she too has a fresh rosiness to her cheeks, which both contrasts with the cold colour of her torso and highlights the white of her uplifted eyes. You can feel her anguish, her shame and her pain as an all-too-real knife is determinedly inserted into her own breast. This image is undeniably monumental, but it is also momentary: it is catching the act of suicide as it happens, the life draining from this half-bare woman who cannot bear to live a second longer. Once again, of course, it is an impossible moment – the knife is too clean, the construction too still, too silent – but impossible to a purpose: it is capturing the process of a person becoming a legend. What genius.
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.
I arrived in Rome last night for a period of research. So this morning was my first chance on this trip to see the city in daylight. Rome had prepared itself for me: it woke up and put on its blue sky (gently streaked with plumes of high white cloud); it met me not in any fancy dress, but (as I like it) wearing in its lived-in statuesque beauty; it felt fresh as it closed in and breathed on my cheek. You may tell that I am ecstatic with the splendour of it all.
An added, perhaps meaner, joy of my walk was relishing how little of the morning could be caught in photographs. No camera could capture the dappled delight of the sunlight speckling the water streaming from the fountains above the Galleria d’Arte Moderna; it could not comprehend the haze that veils the morning panorama of the city from the Pincio; it could not record faithfully the quality of the light giving each leaf its individuality. The camera never fails to lie. There are virtues in virtuality but the pleasures of reality are vertiginous.
It was after I had walked down from the Pincio to the Piazza del Popolo and entered Santa Maria del Popolo that I encountered the injunction to sum this up: ‘no photo’ is printed in majuscules on A4 paper stuck on the both sides of the chapel containing Caravaggio’s two canvases. There are particular reasons, of course, to avoid photography of those objects in that confined space. But, there, in that holy place, a sin is committed nearly as bad as trigger-happy-snapping. For the price of a small coin, the walls are lit with an intense electric light that floods each of the pictures. It reveals every detail of the design: the folds of the rich drapery of Saul-becoming-Paul, the strain on the right arm of the cross-maker as he lifts the perplexed Peter off the ground. Yet, at the same time, something seems lost through this uncompromising revelation: it somehow evens out the pictures; it flattens them. Was this how Caravaggio intended them to be seen, a pool of light lapping around each element? We tend to like our seventeenth-century music played in ‘period’ style nowadays; is it not time we went in for some period viewing of our own? I waited for the light to switch off and gazed then at a different image of a fallen Saul, in some sort of harmony with the flank of the horse above him. It was something more mystical, less comprehensible – as a miracle should have been. I prayed silently for a few more moments of half-light, but the clatter of the coin falling into the box sent not a soul out of Purgatory, but the soul out of the paintings before us. No photo, yes, but no aggressive artificial lighting either, please.