Tastes change

Tastes change. “The greater part of the sculptures of the Vatican are dead,” wrote Sacheverell Sitwell in the 1930s. Grand Tourists had once gasped at those sculpted nymphs, gods and emperors. They had sought to procure similar examples for the gardens and galleries of their country seats. How could it be, then, that they stirred so little response in the shingle-headed, Oxford-bagged swells of his own generation? But no. They were dead. “Dead, and it is impossible to see how they can ever come to life again.”

Something similar has happened now with High Baroque painting. “Caravaggio to Canaletto” is a great sweep of an exhibition just closed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest. The title was artfully chosen because it names two artists in whom the public has a great deal of interest. And, unsurprisingly, the early rooms (with the nine Caravaggios on loan) and the last room (with the Canalettos) were full. Between the two, great halls were filled with works by scores of other artists, among them Guido Reni, Mattia Preti, Guercino, Carracci, Crespi. But the crowds were much thinner. Just imagine! Guido Reni was once, in the 19th century, one of the reasons why people went to Italy. “Second to nought observable in Rome” is how Browning described Reni’s Crucifixion above the high altar of San Lorenzo in Lucina. Nowadays I doubt many visitors notice that it’s there. It surely doesn’t make it into the Dorling Kindersley Top 10. Shelley was much struck by Guido Reni’s Beatrice Cenci and wrote his first play about the girl’s wretched fate. We’ve lost interest in Guido Reni now. But why does this happen?

The Romantic era, when Shelley was writing, was an age of great ‘sensibility’. Grown men did not think it ninnyish to write about daffodils. The Victorian era that followed was sentimental. A novelist could base his greatness on the creation of a character like Little Nell.

But these things all had their root in the Baroque.

Examine the painting at the top of this post. Mantegna’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ of c. 1480. In it, we see a dead body, presented without fuss (but with extraordinary technique), with Mary Magdalene’s little jar of embalming oil tucked away at the back and the only emotion coming from the half-shown faces of the three anguished mourners. The spice jar is not just some random touch. It is there to show that the mourners had no idea that Jesus’ body would not decay. They fully believed that they needed to embalm it. This was the end of his life. Their grief is sincere and comfortless and ugly.

Mantegna was a master and his influence on succeeding generations of painters was great. But the two imitators whose works are shown below imitate only the component parts of the scene. They fail utterly to capture its sober and honest spirit. Why? Because their canvases are soaked with stoked up emotion and become pieces of propaganda as a result.

The first one is by a very accomplished artist: Annibale Carracci. It was painted about a century later than the Mantegna. There are no mourners. The focus is on the gory result of a gruesome execution. The nails and crown of thorns are placed beside the corpse, the body itself is liberally spattered with blood. It is very Counter Reformation. The aim is to ramp up the horror, to appeal to people’s guts rather than their brains, to win them to faith through sensation.

The other version (Orazio Borgianni, 1615) is twee. The oil jar has come to the foreground as a show-off example of how well the artist can render glass. Carracci’s nails are retained. But those are not its main faults. The problem is with the mourners. No longer do they keep a respectful distance, half out of the frame, but they clutch intemperately at the body, lean right over it, giving self-indulgent vent to their tears. Emoting. Inviting us all to have a mass cry-in. They are also young and beautiful. A lovely young woman or beauteous boy will pluck at the heart strings much more effectively than a haggard crone. Anyone in the promo business knows that.

Neither Caravaggio nor Canaletto puts this kind of “spin” on their subjects. That is why we like them. I think we are ready to go back to the Vatican sculptures. Cold stone which lets us draw our own conclusions. The High Baroque is too manipulative—and we see enough advertising in our daily lives. Let art be something nobler.

Francesco Laurana’s serene beauty

Many thanks to a reader from Sicily who recently sent an email about the famous bust of “Eleanor of Aragon” in Palermo’s Palazzo Abatellis. Not only in the Blue Guide, but in many other sources too, this work (c. 1489), by the Dalmatian-born master Francesco Laurana, has been taken to be a portrait of Eleanor of Aragon, daughter of the King of Naples and later wife of Ercole d’Este of Ferrara. On the website for the Region of Sicily’s Department of Culture, however, Alessandra Merra and Valeria Sola argue that the sculpture in fact represents somebody quite different. The full text can be read here, in Italian. For those who do not understand Italian, I’m summarising it below:

Laurana came to Sicily sometime around or before 1468, to Sciacca, summoned by the influential Carlo Luna (scion of a noble house of Aragonese descent), who had probably become acquainted with Laurana’s work at the court of the kings of Naples, themselves also descended from the royal house of Aragon. Laurana received his first Sicilian commissions from Luna, and the bust is not a portrait of Eleanor at all but of a different noblewoman entirely, the wife of Carlo Peralta, Count of Caltabellotta. She died in 1405 and was buried in the Abbey of Santa Maria del Bosco di Calatamauro. The bust stood on her tomb until its transfer to Palermo in the 19th century. The fact that the bust was a posthumous one (sculpted many decades after her death) makes it not a portrait but an idealised image of a virtuous lady, which explains its famously rarefied quality and formal rigour.

Any further thoughts?

Being Mithridates

The death of Mithridates VI Eupator, the last king of Pontus, in 63 BC marks both the culmination and the implosion of the dream of an independent Pontic state uniting the shores of the Black Sea under one ruler. Born c. 134 BC in Sinop, Mithridates spent his life pursuing his ambition. He probably saw himself as another Alexander but his roots were hardly Greek. He certainly had deep ties with Persia, beginning with his name meaning ‘gift of Mithras’; the kingdom he inherited may have included a stretch of Black Sea coast but was originally very much an inland state. As for Sinop, that foothold on the coast, it was lost to the Romans in 70 BC and later turned into a colony under the name of Colonia Julia Felix. Mithridates’s relentless pursuit of his destiny—which earned him the respect of modern-day Turks who see him as a national hero who put up a stubborn resistance to foreign (i.e. Roman) interference, as much has Atatürk did after WWI with the Greeks—is well known through the works of Appian on the Mithridatic wars and indirectly from Plutarch’s lives of Pompey and Lucullus. His name also crops up in other contemporary sources, such as Pliny the Elder and Celsus. He was clearly a figure larger than life and though he eventually failed, he held for a while in his rule large chunks of Asia Minor, the eastern and the northern coasts of the Black Sea, until he was defeated and committed suicide. He had already become a legend in is own lifetime, which goes some way to explain why he was honoured with a monument in Delos. It is thought that the Greek priest Helianax saw him as the right character to exhibit in order to improve the cosmopolitan feel of the sanctuary.

Head of Mithridates in the guise of Hercules, in the Louvre. Photo © Eric Gaba.

Mithridates was known not only for his military achievements: he pursued many sidelines. One does wonder how he found the time to take an interest in his six wives (the first one being his sister Laodicea, a choice expressing a very Persian concern with the purity of the line) and numerous concubines. Mithridates was a linguist and prided himself on being able to address each of his subjects in his or her own language. According to Pliny, that required a total of 22 different languages. He also had a fixation on poisons—and quite rightly so. He had witnessed his own father, Mithridates V, succumb to poison at a banquet. Poison or the fear of poison was common in antiquity. So he set about looking for a remedy, and as prevention is better than cure, he hit on the idea of taking regular sub-lethal doses to make himself immune. Celsus thought this method worth including in his publication on medicine. Moreover, in his quest for an antidote Mithridates made his name in the field of botany (a couple of plants are named after him). Pliny himself, however, did not think much of his universal antidote made of dried walnuts, figs and rue pounded together with a pinch of salt, nor of the enhanced version with 54 different ingredients.

After a spell in the wilderness at the end of the Classical era, Mithridates re-emerged as one of the illustrious men whose fates Boccaccio wrote about in the early 14th century. At the beginning of the 17th century an unknown Italian cleric composed a tragedy about him; this found its way to the French court and eventually inspired Racine. His Mithridate, a tragedy of love, jealousy and treachery, was a hot favourite with Louis XIV; the Mithridates Riding to Battle with his Concubine Hypsicratea, which Antoine Paillet painted at Versailles in 1642, is probably no coincidence. Racine’s work was translated into Italian by Parini and Alessandro Scarlatti put it to music. The première was held in Venice in 1707. After that, libretti and operas on the tragic king multiplied. There were some 25 of them floating around when Mozart set about writing his own Mithridates King of Pontus in 1770. It was his first opera seria and was an instant success. He was barely 14.

Paola Pugsley’s Pontic Provinces of Turkey will be published by Blue Guides as an ebook later this year. Her Blue Guide Southeastern Turkey and Blue Guide Eastern Turkey were published last year. See here for details.