Fallen Idols

Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture 1500-1900

by Francis Haskell, by Nicholas Penny
Yale University Press, 376, 180 illustrations pp., $45.00

Scholarly books, whatever their merit, tend to be of two kinds: most of them are devoted to subjects that have been dealt with before, while only a few break new intellectual ground. The present volume, astonishingly enough in view of its title, is of the latter sort. The authors, one suspects, must have tried to find a more precise title. They can hardly be blamed if it has eluded them, for the phenomenon they are concerned with does not lend itself to labeling. In fact, they had to go to considerable lengths telling the reader, in the introduction, what their book is not: it is not an attempt to “study the history of attitudes to ancient art,” which would be tantamount to “the history of European culture as a whole.” Nor does it embrace the lure, between 1500 and 1900, of classical sculpture in general; for good and sufficient reasons, the authors exclude small-scale works (coins, gems, cameos) and all but a few reliefs.

Their attention is limited to ninety-five pieces, most of them statues or groups life-size or larger, which were until less than a century ago “accepted by anyone with a claim to taste” as “the height of artistic creation.” The single criterion for admission to this select company is enduring aesthetic fame, of the sort that permitted Hawthorne to assume that the audience for whom he wrote The Marble Faun would be able to visualize the statue in question. Who can still do so today? Nobody, we may be sure. And the same is true of almost every one of the once universally admired works brought together in this volume. Their rise and fall over a span of four hundred years has, of course, not gone unobserved, but Haskell and Penny are the first to have pursued the subject systematically and in detail, and in the process have brought into focus a major chapter in the history of taste.

The task they set themselves turned out to be far more exacting than they, or the reader, could anticipate. How does one go about measuring the fame of a work of art? What conditions must it satisfy in order for the authors to state that it was “used as a touchstone by artists, art lovers, collectors and theorists alike for the gauging of taste and quality”? There are a good many of these conditions: frequent reproduction in prints, casts, and replicas is one, but the work in question must also be the constant goal of pilgrimages by the taste-makers of the time and the subject of ecstatic comments—often approaching religious awe—in guidebooks, letters, diaries, and theoretical writings. All of the ninety-five monuments assembled by Haskell and Penny enjoyed this extremely high reputation for a good part of the four centuries under discussion. Very few, however, maintained their standing as masterpieces throughout this time; only the Laocoön Group and the Apollo Belvedere had so long-lived a reputation. Both were among the earliest fruits of that frantic quest …

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