Le Serment du Jeu de Paume de Jacques-Louis David
There are times when one wishes that the great art historians and theorists of the past who wrote biographies of their contemporaries had been more like the art historians of today…. Put like that the wish appalls by its condescension and Philistinism. Can one really imagine the intelligence and imagination of Vasari or Bellori confined within the pages of an “Outstanding Dissertation in the Fine Arts” or of a contribution to the Art Bulletin or Burlington Magazine? Nonetheless the fact remains that Marcantonio Michiel (who in the first half of the sixteenth century was planning to write a history of Italian art) could have asked Giorgione himself, or at least one of his friends, whether his (Michiel’s) description of the Tempesta as “the small landscape…with the storm, the gypsy and soldier” was an adequate one, or whether this beautiful and enigmatic picture in the Accademia in Venice did not really represent an abstruse legend involving Hermes Trismegistus (or whatever fanciful theory currently holds the field). The answer might perhaps have spared us several dozen articles in the learned journals of today.
Bellori, who was surely among those who would sometimes accompany Poussin on his early morning walks on the Pincio, during which he would “engage in curious and learned conversations with his friends,” could easily have inquired of the master whether in some of his late mythologies (such as The Birth of Bacchus, now in the Fogg Art Museum) he was thinking of the philosophy of Campanella (as has recently been claimed) or merely of the poetry of Ovid (as Bellori himself tells us). If any such question was put (and what Ph.D. student of today would not have put it?), the answer was not committed to paper.
The absence of both any (recorded) question and any (recorded) answer could have its own significance. As far as I know only one attempt has been made to account for the apparent lack of concern shown by the great writers of the past to some of the problems that most tantalize us today. In a challenging article published a few years ago Leo Steinberg suggested that Vasari’s famous (or notorious) description of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel was deliberately intended to be misleading in order to protect the artist from any danger to him that might have arisen from the possibly heretical implications of his fresco. Vasari gives a brief and somewhat conventional account of the principal figures and sums up Michelangelo’s aims as
none other than to paint the most perfect and best proportioned composition of the human body in the most varied attitudes—and not just this, but at the same time, the effects of the torments and gratifications of the soul: satisfying himself with this part of the art, in which he has been superior to all other artists, and has demonstrated the way to the grand manner and the treatment of the nude and his knowledge of the difficulties …