I Blame Walter Pater

‘She is older than the rocks among which she sits’ is one of those much repeated quotes which really needs a bit of context. Pater’s full paragraph on the subject of the Mona Lisa is positively rococo in its ramblings, and a bit long, but to give you a taste: ‘Hers is the head upon which all “the ends of the world are come”, and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. … All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and moulded there, in that which they have of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the mysticism of the middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias. She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; …’ (The Renaissance, 1893)

I think that’s more than enough of that. From my admittedly ignorant point of view, this is a rather flat picture of a not very attractive woman with an ambiguous, if not positively creepy, smile (nothing like as creepy, however, of that of Da Vinci’s John the Baptist, hung not far away), and I just don’t understand how it has become, over the years, the most famous, and almost certainly the most valuable painting (assuming it were ever to come upon the market) in the world. Or, to put it another way, as an unmistakably Australian accent enquired in the Louvre last Saturday, ‘So why is that painting worth so many millions? I don’t get it.’

The Louvre: enter by the Pyramid.

I found the National Gallery 2011 exhibition ‘Leonardo: Painter at the Court of Milan’ very interesting and very well curated, but the paintings themselves just failed to move me – all those uncommunicative faces, just blank when they’re not smirking. So we didn’t join the hordes heading to the Mona Lisa room when we entered the Louvre at 10.30 (last time we were there, in the era before pre-booked, timed tickets, people actually RAN to the gallery as soon as the doors were opened), but instead moved slowly down the Italian gallery – it took two hours, even though we speeded up a bit through Mannerism – and then spent a bit of time in Roman Egypt before declaring ourselves Louvred out and heading for lunch.

‘Napoleon Crossing the Alps’, by Jacques-Louis David (1800–1), in the Château de Malmaison.

The very large elephant in the gallery wears an oversize hat, and is frequently depicted in either martial (as above) or imperial mode – most ludicrously, on this visit, in the Madeleine, where, in velvet and ermine robes (on which an eagle perches), and fawned upon by unctuous bishops, he appears to be listening to Christ preaching the Sermon on the Mount.

‘The History of Christianity’, by Jules-Claude Ziegler, in the church of the Madeleine, Paris.

The quantity of Italian artworks which entered the French national collection between 1797 and 1815 is mind-boggling. Occasionally the label actually comes clean: a huge stone urn from the Villa Borghese was ‘confiscated’ by Napoleon, for example; but by and large it is the dates which hint at the story of plunder (reminiscent of the Crusaders’ despoliation of Constantinople in 1204), the closing of monasteries and churches and the despoiling of their contents, and the subsequent selling-off of family possessions by newly impoverished Italian families. Probably the most famous example of the looting (because never returned) is the Veronese ‘Wedding at Cana’ from the refectory at San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, but dozens of smaller paintings from smaller churches line the walls of the Louvre.

Veronese’s ‘Wedding at Cana’ (1563), now in the same room as the Mona Lisa in the Louvre.

Mostly, the enjoyment was in the details – though the most impressive and startling painting (IMHO, clearly) was Caravaggio’s ‘Death of the Virgin’. It and ‘Supper at Emmaus’ are two of my favourite paintings known only from reproductions (as opposed to actually seen), and, as so often, I had completely misunderstood the scale: it is vast, and totally without comfort. The top half of the picture consists of the huge red draping curtain above the bed, and the crude wooden ceiling beyond it – no sign of the rending of the roof by a beneficent shaft of light signalling the Assumption, just bleak despair.

Caravaggio, ‘The Death of the Virgin’, (c. 1601–6), acquired by Louis XIV in 1671.

But here are some of the more fun moments:

St Francis preaching to the birds, by Giotto, from the predella of ‘St Francis Receiving the Stigmata’ formerly in the church of San Francesco in Pisa; entered the Louvre (along with several other paintings from the same church) in 1813.

Another predella picture, by Fra Angelico, St Dominic and his companions fed by angels, below the ‘Coronation of the Virgin’ (c. 1430–2), from the monastery of St Dominic, Fiesole; entered the Louvre in 1812.

There were, inevitably, some Ugly Bambini:

This Bambino is presumably laughing at the absurdity of his own legs. Giulio Romano, ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds, with St Longinus and St John the Evangelist’ (1532–4), from the collection of Louis XIV, acquired in 1662.

This Bambino, by the Master of the Castello Nativity, seems to be considering his options …

By the same painter, ‘Virgin and Child with a Goldfinch’ (c. 1455–60). A goldfinch quite often appears in this scene: one theory is that the bird is a protector from the plague; another, that it is a symbol of innocent childhood.

A detail from the ‘Nativity’ (c. 1465–70), by Fra Diamante. On the back wall of the stable, two lizards confront each other, while a goldfinch peers down over St Joseph’s shoulder. From the church of Sta Margherita at Prato; entered the Louvre in 1812.

Some feet:

Detail from ‘The Virgin and Child with St Benedict, St Quentin, and Two Angels’, by Francesco Marmitta (c. 1500–5), from the Augustinian church of San Quintino in Parma; entered the Louvre in 1812.

Detail from ‘Parnassus’, by Andrea Mantegna, one of a series painted in 1497 for the studiolo of Isabella d’Este in Mantua; entered the Louvre in 1801. The dancing Muses tread the sward above a rabbit and a black squirrel.

St Ambrose (at whose feet sits a spectacular #notalion) sharpens a quill, from ‘The Four Doctors of the Church’, by Pier Francesco Sacchi (1516), from the church of San Giovanni Evangelista di Pre in Genoa; entered the Louvre in 1813.

And finally some flowers:

An iris, detail from Bernadino Luini’s ‘Virgin and Child with an Angel’ (c. 1520–30).

A vase of pinks, detail from ‘The Annunciation’, the central panel of a triptych by Carlo Braccesco (c. 1490–1500), acquired by Vivant Denon for the Louvre in 1812 from an unidentified oratory in Genoa. The city in the background is reminiscent of Mantua (?).





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12 Responses to I Blame Walter Pater

  1. LisaBee says:

    It’s delightful what you notice! The feet…. And still giggling about the bambino considering his options and Napoleon deigning to listen to the Sermon on the Mount. Thank you!


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  3. LisaBee says:

    I’ve bookmarked your earlier and extensive Bambino post to read when I need a lift (and sent to friends for similar therapeutic purposes…). 🙂


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