Gotham Diary:
Such fun
30 December 2013

At Timon’s Villa let us pass the day,
Where all cry out, “What sums are thrown away!”

Thus begins the excerpt from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Taste that appears in The Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse (1926, reprinted 1963). Although I never quite memorized it, I read it many, many times, often aloud. I was enchanted by Pope in those days. His easy elegance and clear cleverness made writing look not only easy, but a fun thing to do. His moralizing was not disagreeable; I never felt that he was pointing at me. I could have my cake and eat it, too: while agreeing that Timon’s villa was emptily, unpleasantly ostentatious, I could also, perched over the page, savor every extravagant detail.

And now the Chappel’s silver bell you hear,
That summons you to all the Pride of Pray’r;
Light quirks of Musick, broken and uneven,
Make the soul dance upon a jig to heav’n.
On painting Cielings you devoutly stare,
Where sprawl the Saints of Verrio, or Laguerre,
On gilded clouds in fair expansion lie,
And bring all Paradise before your eye.
To rest, the Cushion and the Dean invite,
Who never mentions Hell to ears polite.

I had no idea who Verrio or Laguerre were. At some point, I learned that they were imported artists. I may not have known that Verrio painted the grand staircase at Hampton Court Palace until I visited the place in 1984. Later, on that same trip to London — Kathleen and I were visiting her parents, who were living there are the time — we went to Petworth House, where I got to see a staircase by Laguerre as well. Verrio and Laguerre, specialists in illusionistic, quasi trompe-l’oeil murals, are pretty much as mediocre as Pope suggests. The very nicest thing that you could say about them (or about the staircases that I have seen) is that they are resolutely second-rate. Their work is too self-important to be pleasing. Fussing with the mechanics of spectacle, it is not spectacular.

Over the weekend, one of these painters came up, in Francis Haskell’s Patrons and Painters, a book that I truly wish I might have read, or been able to read, in 1963. Antonio Verrio appears in the chapter about the attempts of North European patrons to attract Italian artists to their countries. Born in 1636, Verrio was representative of the caliber of those artists who, prior to 1700, accepted the invitation. Haskell is especially stinging.

Verrio, like Gentileschi before him, came to England from Paris, though he had been born in Lecce and liked to call himself a Neapolitan. In common with the other artists employed by Le Brun at Versailles, he had there been required to lose rather than develop a personality, but in his case the process cannot have been a difficult one.

Such fun! Turn the page, however, and the deprecation becomes bizarre. Haskell is discussing the unhappy fates of several artists who felt obliged to flee England after the fall of James II.

Verrio was more cunning. With his coach and horses, parmesan cheese, bologna sausages, olives and caviar, he left the court and worked for a time in a number of country houses. Before the end of the century, however, he had been taken up by the new régime and was being employed at Hampton Court…

Parmesan cheese and bologna sausages? The shock of this passage points up how little Haskell has to say about food, if indeed he does mention it anywhere else in the book — I’ll be on the lookout now! — but even more how seldom (again, if ever) Haskell is at all obscure. This must be a moment of unsuppressed donnishness. Haskell is alluding, I suppose, to an anecdote of greed or gluttony or, it may be, finickiness: Verrio, who was very well paid, must have insisted upon the comforts of home (although — caviar?). Haskell airs a few other remarks that are, arguably, unnecessarily withering. It must be, too, that there was no need to go to Italy to experience the mediocrity of Verrio; one needed, rather, to escape England to avoid it.

At the other end of the scale, reading about Poussin and his great Italian patron, Cassiano dal Pozzo, made me want to look at some Poussins, so I pulled down the catalogue to the Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions exhibition that visited the Museum in 2008. This show was chiefly curated by the Louvre’s Pierre Rosenberg, and in the introductory essay, “Encountering Poussin,” Rosenberg makes the most extraordinary claim. He calls Poussin “one of the finest artists of the seventeenth century” — certainly! — “and, together with Cézanne, the greatest of all French painters.” I had to read this several times, sure that I had missed some qualifying clause; but, no, there isn’t one. Poussin and Cézanne, the greatest of all French painters!

It’s a moralizing judgment rather than an aesthetic one, as I sense the minute I disagree. But what about Watteau, Boucher, Chardin, and Fragonard? The believer in the paramountcy of Poussin and Cézanne purses his lips in disdain; I have named four painters from a decadent period, three of them devoted to amorousness and two occasionally pornographic. My reply is to insist that each one of them puts vibrant human beings on paper and canvas with an accomplished brio that is altogether lacking in Poussin and Cézanne, neither of whom is especially gifted at drawing figures.* And let’s not forget the two de La Tours, Georges and Maurice-Quentin. I don’t argue that any one of these painters is superior to Poussin. But I deny that he is superior to them.

I did read a bit more of the catalogue, and a good deal of it covered the same territory as Haskell’s chapter about “The Private Patrons.” There was Cassiano dal Pozzo; there was Camillo Massimi, another Roman patron. It’s like meeting someone at a second party, and feeling that one has gotten to know more than just a face and a name.

Massimi’s face quickly becomes familiar, because its was painted by Velásquez. Massimi’s great collection of fine-art objects is memorable, too, not for what it contained but for where it went when he died, in 1677.

Among the purchasers of some of the finest pictures, drawings and antiquities were the King of France, the Spanish Viceroy of Naples and an English gentleman, Dr Richard Mead. The transaction is almost symbolic. There were, of course, other important collectors in Rome at the time, but they were becoming increasingly rare. The combination of wealth, enthusiasm, catholicity of taste and discrimination that had marked the the leading Italian patrons of the seventeenth century did not really survive Massimi, and a largely new tradition had to be forged again in the neo-classical period.

I’ve been learning a good deal of just plain history from Haskell. I have never had a very clear idea of Italy in the age of the baroque, and one of Haskell’s bass-note motifs is the decline of papal prestige. This had something to do with the aftershocks of the Reformation, but more to do with the emergence of modern nation-states in the period, and it was most glaringly manifest in the Peace of Westphalia, which resolved the crises of the Thirty Years’ War without taking papal concerns into account. Indeed, disregard for Rome seems to have been a sine qua non for peace. Urban VIII, the Barberini pope and something of the genius loci of Roman baroque, died four years before the Peace, but he was already protesting the conduct of negotiations. His successors were forced to wear smaller shoes.

Meanwhile, the English were gearing up production of milordi — rich, young men who toured “the Continent” with their tutors. The tutors espoused high-minded objectives while their charges had as much fun as possible. Haskell writes of one of these, Sir Thomas Isham. Isham

left England in October 1676 and spent nearly eighteen months in Italy, where he visited most of the important towns with his tutor. Though he enjoyed a series of extravagant love affairs and got heavily into debt, he also managed to acquire a certain number of contemporary paintings, advised mainly by a dissolute priest called Buno Talbot.

Curious to know more, I learned at Wikipedia that Sir Thomas kept a diary in Latin for a few years before his Italian junket, at his father’s instance — he wasn’t Sir Thomas yet — and that he died of smallpox not long after his return to England. I should like to know what inspired Francis Haskell to describe his Italian dalliances as “extravagant,” instead of, simply, “expensive.”

* What I should say of Poussin is that he can be very good at painting statues, and giving them plausible skin tones. But his figures do not move.