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19 April 2011

Seeing Susanna

Viva il Barocco!

Capella Maggiore, S. Maria di Loreto, Rome
The great intellectual strides in art history have long been made, at least for those of us in love with the Renaissance and Baroque. But of course, universities are still producing art historians, and they need something to do. What the latest generation seems to see as its mission is incrementally dismantling the grand constructs of their “grandparents”: Panofsky, Wittkower, Blunt, et al; their intellectual “parents,” being their PhD advisors, are for the moment safe, and have indeed opened the doors to this approach.

Enter the new generation of art historical publications, enabled by Yale University Press above all, where a single book attempts to make a singular (if possible head-turning) point, again, and again, and again. I have been, for lack of alternatives, reading some of these books lately—Todd Olson’s Poussin and France (le robe!), Kathleen Wren Christian’s Empire Without End: Antiquities Collections in Renaissance Rome (acquisitiveness triumphs over humanism), Estelle Lingo’s François Duquesnoy and the Greek Ideal, Stuart Lingo’s Federico Barocci: Allure and Devotion in Late Renaissance Painting (vaghezza!), Tracy Ehrlich’s Landscape and Identity in Early Modern Italy (green hectares)—and have found it hard going. Staking out a contrary position vis-à-vis some commonly accepted topos—Baroque Classicism, the strictures of the Council of Trent, etc.—or making a case for a new, “modern” interpretive framework—“the self,” prestige as program, politics before art, form over meaning (note the relevance to our modern world)—means that new art and architectural historical publications beat the reader into submission by making one presumably novel point repeatedly, albeit in ever so subtly different phraseology. These are books that really want to be essays. And because they are so single-minded, they are often blind to other, often more self-evident, propositions that are at least equally as valid.

Take, for example, the trendy interpretation of the classical tendencies in seventeenth century sculpture under the new theme “the Greek manner.” While Estelle Lingo has adopted Charles Dempsey’s proposition of a Greek current in certain Baroque classicists, she has embraced it so fully that every aspect of the Fleming’s art is filtered through that lens: never mind that Duquesnoy couldn’t distinguish Hellenic from Hellenistic, nor that his allies like Poussin and Sacchi had not a single Greek painting available to them; Duquesnoy’s agenda was for her exclusively, and presciently, neo-Grec. Of course, his most important commission, the St. Andrew for the crossing of St. Peter’s, was executed under Bernini’s watch and (at least for me) may actually beat the maestro at his own game; and his most recongized work, the one if any reproduced attached to his name—the S. Susanna from the Madonna di Loreto—displays a dynamic contrapposto and complex spatial response that has nothing to do with the static, self-contained, self-absorbed posture of a Doryphorous or Athena. Consider the Susanna: a paradigmatic Roman noble virgin, perhaps even related to the emperor Diocletian, positioned in a niche to the right of the high altar and the venerated fifteenth century painting around which the church and its polichromy is designed; the saint gestures across her body toward the altar, her gaze engaging the worshipper and her finger foucsing their gaze; no evident force from the spectator’s point of view motivates the gathering of her mantle up and to the left (her proper right arm being effectively invisible from outside the chancel), and the languid inclination of her head toward us counteracts this leftward thrust of mantle and indication. In sum, this is from any normative point of view a wholly Baroque sculpture, engaging, activated, dynamic. It is only from the impossible point of view—above and from the left as she is invariably photographed in art historical literature—that a case can be made for her anti-Baroque “classicism” or anti-Roman “Greekness.”

My diligent devouring of these texts has brought me, finally, to one that I am mostly so far enjoying: Michael Cole’s Ambitious Form: Giambologna, Ammannati and Danti in Florence. I am enjoying it because his point is thus far diverse and nuanced enough that I don’t feel browbeaten. Like the great works of the Old Masters, a work of art history should be broad minded and just a little subtle.