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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 for monumental ancient marbles that began around 1500 and continued, in spurts, until amateur excavators were displaced by the systematic archaeological digs of modern times. Their impact on artists, patrons, and collectors can hardly be exaggerated, for they revolutionized the then existing image of classical antiquity.

The Early Renaissance had been unaware of such buried treasures. Its knowledge of ancient sculpture was limited to objects of small or modest size—gems, cameos, coins, sarcophagi, Roman portraits, bronze statuettes—and to the handful of large sculptures that had escaped destruction in Early Christian or Medieval times and remained above ground during the centuries of idolophobia. The most important of these were in Rome: the bronze equestrian Marcus Aurelius (which probably owed its survival to being mistaken for an image of Constantine), the Spinario, some fragments of a colossal marble statue of Constantine, and the relief decoration of triumphal arches and of the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius.

Some attracted attention as curiosities—mirabilia—during the Middle Ages. Early Renaissance artists such as Donatello surely admired them as works of art, yet their influence was a limited one at best until Pope Sixtus IV, soon after his accession in 1471, assembled a group of them on the Capitol, giving them new prestige and visibility as the first public collection of ancient sculpture. At least two of these, the Spinario and the bronze Wolf, as well as the equestrian Marcus Aurelius (who was to join them on the Capitol in 1538), have the longest history of Haskell and Penny’s ninety-five classics. But their fame dates largely from the new era that began with the discovery of the Apollo Belvedere and the Laocoön, which became, and for centuries remained, the star attractions of the Papal collection of ancient sculpture in the Belvedere of the Vatican, established by Julius II soon after 1503 as the earliest museum of the artistic treasures of antiquity and steadily enlarged by his successors.

Another star of the Belvedere, acquired about the same time as the Apollo and the Laocoön, was a heroic male nude figure without head or arms and with the legs broken off at the knee that came to be known as the Belvedere Torso. Its recorded history begins in the 1430s, when it belonged to the Colonna, one of the oldest and most powerful of Roman families, who around 1500 sold it to a local sculptor, Andrea Bregno. Julius II apparently acquired it from Bregno’s widow. The Torso owed its rapid rise to fame in part to the distinguished company it kept at the Vatican, and in part to Michelangelo’s admiration for it, which was widely advertised from the 1550s on. It enjoyed, in fact, a unique status in that it remained unrestored, unlike the Apollo, the Laocoön, and almost all of Haskell and Penny’s ninety-five classics. Most of them were of marble and had been found in damaged or even mutilated condition. That they needed to be restored was accepted without question until the end of the eighteenth century; and restored they were, often fancifully and injudiciously. How the Torso Belvedere escaped this common fate is a mystery that even the exhaustive research of Haskell and Penny has failed to penetrate. Cause and effect here seem inseparably entwined: did the Torso remain unrestored because no Renaissance sculptor dared touch so great a masterpiece, or was its mutilated condition responsible, at least in part, for its fame?

Be that as it may, from the early seventeenth century until the end of the nineteenth, the Torso Belvedere epitomized the art of sculpture, as evidenced by its frequent appearance as the attribute or symbol of sculpture in allegories of the arts. Moreover (a point perhaps not sufficiently stressed by Haskell and Penny) the Torso evoked a positive aesthetic response unknown in the Middle Ages or the Early Renaissance—it taught the beholder to experience the pathos of mutilation. That this experience was well established as early as 1543 is well attested by the woodcut illustrations of De Humani Corporis Fabrica by Andreas Vesalius, the greatest anatomical treatise of the Renaissance, which displayed eleven sculptured torsos, including the Torso Belvedere, with the stomach region opened up so as to reveal the internal organs. These widely known and imitated images must have familiarized all of Europe with the torso as a distinctive self-contained form, even though the earliest torsos made on purpose did not appear until the late nineteenth century.

Among the classics selected for discussion by Haskell and Penny, the only rival of the Torso Belvedere is the Pasquino (actually a badly battered group of two figures) in Rome, since it, too, escaped restoration. Its fame, however, rested in large measure on its role as a sort of bulletin board for the display of satirical verses—pasquinades—rather than on its artistic authority. The Haskell-and-Penny corpus includes two other unrestored figures, the Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace, but these were not discovered until 1820 and 1863, respectively, which makes them the most recent members of the “classics club,” protected against tampering by the modern archaeologist’s ethic.

The chronological boundaries chosen by the authors, 1500 and 1900, are indeed two watersheds in the history of taste. Their book provides exemplary documentation for the various stages of the rise and fall of ancient sculpture as the “touchstone of taste,” and the catalogue of the ninety-five carefully chosen paradigms is a boon to art historians, who have to deal with these largely forgotten monuments because of their past importance but often find it difficult to locate them in the modern archeological literature, from which they have practically disappeared. When the Laocoön was discovered, everyone believed it to be the group by Hagesandrus, Polidorus, and Athenodorus of Rhodes that Pliny had seen and admired in the palace of the emperor Titus; today it is regarded as a Roman pastiche of the late first century AD derived from Hellenistic models and providing, at best, a flawed echo of the group referred to by Pliny.

With very few exceptions, such as the Barberini Faun in Munich and the Winged Victory in the Louvre, all the pieces in the Haskell-and-Penny corpus have suffered a similar process of devaluation. The authors, not being archaeologists, simply report these judgments without permitting themselves to speculate on their validity. Yet the reader may well wonder whether they are truly irreversible, whether the fallen idols could at some time in the future be restored to their former prominence. To the extent that present-day archaeological opinion reflects a constantly more refined standard of connoisseurship based on greater knowledge of ancient art, the reclassification of the ninety-five models is almost certain to be permanent. But reclassification does not necessarily entail a radical change in value judgment, even though this radical change has in fact occurred.

Here modern archaeologists reveal themselves as the heirs of Winckelmann, the founding father of their discipline, for whom anything Greek was automatically superior to anything Roman. Before Winckelmann, this distinction barely existed; and even Winckelmann, who died in 1768, had no certifiably original Greek works at his disposal as a basis for reliable criteria. The great sculptural ensembles from Greek temples—the Elgin marbles, the Aegina marbles, and those of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, to name the most important—remained unknown until the next century. Winckelmann did, however, postulate a development of early Greek sculpture toward ever greater perfection, culminating in the century between Pericles and Alexander the Great, and he linked the decay of Greek art in Hellenistic times to the progressive loss of political independence.

This scheme endured until the end of the nineteenth century. When King Ludwig I of Bavaria, in 1812, acquired the Late Archaic pedimental sculpture from the temple at Aegina he did so against the advice of Goethe, who judged it by Phidian standards and found it wanting. It took the skillful (if unscientific) restorations by the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen to mitigate the “awkwardness” of the Aegina marbles. Even Rodin still accepted Winckelmann’s value scale; he declared that no sculptor could ever equal Phidias, and devoted an ecstatic prose poem to the praise of the Venus de Milo. The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in contrast, Rodin’s sometime secretary and close friend, wrote a famous poem inspired by his admiration for an Archaic head (the final line reads, “You must change your life”). But then Rilke was a generation younger and thus belonged to the twentieth-century side of the watershed of taste, while Rodin remained on the nineteenth-century side.

Have modern archaeologists abandoned (dare we say, “outgrown”) Winckelmann? Not really, for Greek still outranks Roman in their minds. Archaic sculpture, however, is now acknowledged as equal—and by many, in fact, as superior—to that of Winckelmann’s classic century. There is a strong interest in what used to be thought of as the “primitive beginnings”: Early Archaic, Geometric, Cycladic sculpture now seems more appealing than Late Archaic. The same shift of taste may be seen among historians of medieval art, from Gothic to Romanesque to Carolingian to the art of the “dark ages.” At the same time—and surely not by chance—the early twentieth century discovered the aesthetic appeal of what had hitherto been of interest only to ethnologists: the tribal art of Africa, the South Pacific, and Pre-Columbian America.

Yet there has also been a revaluation of styles that the nineteenth century had looked down upon as degenerate, such as Mannerism (Late Renaissance) and Late Roman; and more recently of what had been despised as aesthetically irrelevant—the “academic” art of the nineteenth century (art officiel, art pompier, Kitsch) and the vernacular (commercial) art of the twentieth. In view of all this, it would be unduly doctrinaire to exclude the possibility that at least some of Haskell and Penny’s fallen idols will regain their pedestals in the future, perhaps even among archaeologists. There are already a good many of us who deplore the wholesale destruction, between 1920 and 1950, of the collections of plaster casts in art schools and museums, which always included a sampling of the ninety-five classics.

Perhaps the very fact that this book could be conceived and written may be viewed as a sign that the condition of the fallen idols is about to take a turn for the better. No reader of Haskell and Penny can escape the impression that these works have been tremendously important as part of our cultural heritage, however lowly their present station, and that their place in the history of art, taste, and ideas needs to be more fully explored. For such a task the authors provide the best possible apparatus, which includes an astonishingly rich and up-to-date bibliography of about a thousand items.

The only lapse I have been able to discover is the omission of W.S. Heckscher’s discussion of the history of the Spinario (s.v. “Dornauszieher”) in the Reallexikon zur deutschen Kunstgeschichte. Experts in the subject might quibble about one or the other of the ninety-five monuments: does the Winged Victory of Samothrace really belong in this company, since it was not discovered until 1863? Should the Berlin Adorante perhaps have been included, or the Madrid Knucklebone Player? But here, too, as in every other respect, all possible quarrels with the authors’ choices are minor and in no way diminish our gratitude for what is bound to become, and remain, a basic tool for research. The fallen idols could not have received a more fitting memorial.

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