The Other Pope

I met Sir John Pope-Hennessy on only a couple of occasions, but his death on October 31 has been much on my mind. We had friends in common, and over the past year or so I have been working my way through his writings.

The first time I met him he was embarking on a study of Benvenuto Cellini. I asked if it was true that Cellini’s memoirs were a pack of lies. Pope-Hennessy replied that every verifiable detail in the memoirs had turned out to be true. He said this with great pleasure. He was very definite about it, and I liked to hear him say something so definite, even though I was also wondering what to ask next without opening up new tracts of my ignorance of Cellini.

On the next occasion, last summer, I was better prepared, but Pope-Hennessy was already ill and old, and concealing the fact behind a bright, sociable manner that made actual conversation impossible. He reminded me of someone I knew who had died only with great difficulty and fear, protesting vigorously to the end; and the verdict of the doctor a few days after he died was that he had lived about a year longer than anyone else in his condition would have. He received the last rites, and bounced back. His mental powers had certainly lasted, unimpaired, until very recently indeed.

The obituaries have all quoted him to the effect that objects meant more to him than people. If this were so, it would be hard to guess how he was able to command such love and affection (along with terror, respect, and doubtless loathing). My feeling is that he is more passionately present in his writings about art than most comparable scholars, and that these writings are not about objects but about an intense inquiry into the mind of the artist responsible, and into the other (some rival) scholars who have ventured an opinion on the subject.

At the time that Pope-Hennessy began work on sculpture, he had two major predecessors: Wilhelm Bode, who formed the Prussian art collections and whose name is commemorated by the Bode Museum in Berlin, and Leo Planiscig of Vienna. Bode was often a sloppy scholar, but he was the founder in the field, and Pope-Hennessy always likes to give weight to his virtues as a connoisseur. Bode is the grandfather. Planiscig, on the other hand, is to be rebelled against. He is beneath contempt. He is worthless. He is practically never mentioned without being slapped down.

This furious involvement, this terrific partisanship, provides the running sideshow, the “battle of the gods” going on at the same time as the epic of his own inquiries. Of course the ultimate judgment on art-historical questions must be nonpartisan. It must be built to last, and of course the substance of the reasoning must be, as one of the obituarists described it, almost legally watertight. But the essays and the catalogs make a salty read.

There is …

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