bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The Art of the Margin

Posted in Art by bonaelitterae on 18 December, 2011

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?

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