May 8, 2005

Duveen & the cleaning of the Elgin Marbles

Posted at 6:06 pm in Elgin Marbles

Since the late 1990’s there has been a lot of discussion over the cleaning of the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum in the 1930s, carried out under the instruction of Lord Duveen.
In his review of a new book on Renaissance art, Waldemar Januszczak looks at the accumulated misunderstandings & misinterpretations through history that led Duveen to this belief that by cleaning the marbles he was restoring them to the way their creators had intended them to be.

Sunday Times

The Sunday Times – Books

May 08, 2005

Art: The Mirror of the Gods
THE MIRROR OF THE GODS : Classical Mythology in Renaissance Art
by Malcolm Bull Allen

Lane £30 pp352

If I have worked out correctly the genealogy of these things — and when you are dealing with the gods the genealogy is fiendishly complex — then Picasso’s appropriation of classical imagery during his bulky- goddesses phase was essentially a revival of a revival of a revival of a revival of a revival. One of the few certainties available in the study of the gods is that they are persistent. We’re stuck with them. Another is that they ceased, many metamorphoses ago, several revivals back, to impinge on our reality in any practical or meaningful way. Once they were found in temples and at pilgrimage sites. But for most of their history they have existed exclusively in our dreams. Which is why they are so critical. And why Malcolm Bull has been tempted by them into mounting his magnificent hunt for their true Renaissance identity.

Bull is to my eyes a Hercules. What he has done in The Mirror of the Gods is to take on, single-handedly really, 500 years of instinctive sloppiness and fancy on the subject of classical mythology and its value to the Renaissance. It is difficult to overstate the import of these habitual misreadings. Balanced on the shoulders of the Atlases and Jupiters, the Venuses and Minervas, the Bacchuses and Dianas, and even the Triptolemuses and the Lyncuses, is the entire crumbling Colosseum of our fantasy of civilisation. It’s why our art history books say what they say. It’s why the White House appears as it appears. It’s why the wretched art patron Joseph Duveen got teams of workmen armed with wire brushes into the British Museum specifically to make the Elgin Marbles look whiter than they had ever been. It might even be why the British Museum allowed him to do it.

Bull snipes recurrently at those inhabitants of the Renaissance who assumed they had been born more divinely than others, and to whom the gods gave regrettable succour. It’s why we had Sun Kings and Holy Emperors, Charles V and, more recently, Duveen types. Like all gods, all the time, the gods of the ancients allowed certainties to become public that ought probably to have remained private. They enfranchised all manner of regrettable stuff and Bull, to his credit — again — refuses to condemn them for this. The last sentence in his book is a quotation from a classical arsonist called Herostratus who had apparently burned down the temple of Diana at Ephesus and who, by way of explanation, announced: “Amongst men, the passions are the winds that put everything in motion, though they often cause storms.” Absolutely.

When I was studying art history, the received image of civilisation’s progress went something like this: once upon a time, an era called the classical age achieved enlightenment in many corners. Then the Dark Ages set in, and most of this knowledge was lost. But, gradually, a re-awakening commenced some time around the end of the 13th century in Italy. This culminated in the High Renaissance, and climaxed in the careers of Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo. Everything since has essentially been a postscript.

I realise how childish and pat this story of civilisation now sounds but that is how I was taught to understand it. And I certainly wasn’t the only one. Duveen’s outrageous attack upon the Elgin Marbles was empowered by exactly these sorts of fantasies. What really happened, however, and what Bull illuminates in gripping, almost hallucinatory detail, with every Venusian guise and every Herculean labour carefully recounted and re-valued, was a much sneakier march of progress: a slither, really. Bull’s story is a sordid one. And it’s very colourful. He’s a serious mind with an excellently light touch, and must be related to Theseus, so successfully has he plotted his route through the labyrinth of the immortals and their many incarnations.

The book looks carefully at the ways in which classical influences were actually disseminated in the Renaissance, and also at the timings of their appearance. We discover that the infiltration began on a very base level as a tiny and secretive assault on propriety. It wasn’t the grand aesthetic ambition of artists that triggered the Renaissance’s interest in antiquity but a set of minor decorative needs. People getting married, people having picnics, gardeners, owners of writing implements, pedlars of trinket boxes, men wishing to father babies, and, of course, pornographers, all had reason to turn to classical imagery. How pleasing Diana looked on the side of a trinket box. How useful to have a full-size naked Venus in the bedroom. When a prince’s duty is to father a son, whatever Viagra was around was helpful.

Very few examples of important classical statuary were actually known to the Renaissance. And no paintings whatsoever. The Laocoon was dug up, the Apollo Belvedere was admired. But these were exceptional examples, appreciated very inexactly in states of extraordinary ignorance. As Bull points out with the gentle sarcasm that is a preference of his, none of the statues had labels. For most of the era it wasn’t the hunger for knowledge that drove classical exploration but, rather, a liking for nudes and a trusting to instinct. It wasn’t the great painters and sculptors who ensured that classicism seeped into the Renaissance but goldsmiths and trinket-makers, designers of fountains and mounters of festivals. In other words, the Renaissance’s appreciation of the classical example was as shallow, generally, as all the subsequent revivals. It was that season’s colour.

Interestingly, the particular form of classicism that inspired this minor revolution of the minor arts was already a revival itself. The phoney classicism of the imperial age, of Caesar’s Rome and Augustus’s, had borrowed its basics from the Greeks and grafted onto them an assortment of specifically Roman pretensions aimed at creating an imperial look. This was then copied by the princes of the Renaissance, and, through them, by banks, presidents, fascists. Reference to the classical world gave a bogus visual authority to the new Caesars of the Renaissance, notably the Holy Roman emperor Charles V, who comes across as this tome’s antichrist.

It was Charles who tried most fiercely to get himself seen in the same terms as Jupiter and Hercules. It was Charles who collected the most pornography. Indeed, to an extraordinary extent, a worrying extent, a huge percentage of the key Renaissance artworks which tackle mythology were commissioned by Charles or his family. Bull’s view of history allows for individuals and single families to shape their times. The lusts of Charles V certainly shaped the Renaissance.

While making all this clear, and overturning just about all the received wisdoms about the impact of classical imagery, Bull is simultaneously excellent at recounting the cracking yarns of the various gods who were favoured. It’s hilarious and fascinating stuff: so well told, so funny, so outrageous. The classical world kept making comebacks because it relied so negligibly on reality. The image of Zeus seducing Leda while disguised as a swan will always titillate and amaze us. With the classical world, you’re always an odyssey away from the quotidian. So we must never rule out the possibility of a revival of the revival of the revival of the revival of the revival of the revival.

Renaissance artists often used legends that had no classical source. Maarten van Heemskerck’s Triumph of Bacchus was one of many versions of a popular theme that was actually a conflation of the story of Dionysus and the triumphs of Alexander the Great.

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