Sunday, September 07, 2008

Ruskin--Part X

The pages from which the the subject matter for today's entry are taken are one by one descriptions of the sculpted capitals of all thirty-six pillars which form the support for the upper stories of the Doge's Palace. Someone has helpfully uploaded photographs of these capitals onto the Internet which will at least be of use to me as a reference to some of the quotes below.

At some point during this section I came to the conclusion that vanity and delusion were, and must be, the same thing. If it is never appropriate or desirable to be vain, even privately, perhaps especially privately--and from the theological vantage at least, this seems to be the common opinion--then this must be because it in some way obscures or ignores truth.

"12TH CAPITAL, 3RD SIDE: Stultitia, Folly...there represented simply as a man riding, a sculpture worth the consideration of the English residents who bring their horses to Venice." I am just getting the joke now (i.e., there is nowhere to ride in Venice).

"Nothing is more remarkable in all early sculpture than its appreciation of the signs of dignity of character in the features, and the way in which it can exalt the principal figure in any subject by a few touches." He is commenting on a carved head on the 16th capital which he believed was "meant to express the superiority of the Venetian character over other nations". This is one of my pet subjects, the necessity of a society that aspires to rise to a high degree of greatness to find beauty and dignity and all the virtues among its own people first and foremost. The point when doubt and other sophistications begin to creep in among men of real talent is the point from all societies can date their decline.

Figure 1--Giotto's Portrait of Dante. This was mentioned by Ruskin in connection with the statement that I quoted in the last chapter about the peculiar energies of the Middle Ages being gathered at their highest point right about the year 1300. In Giotto, he said, can always be found the central Medieval idea on any subject. The main ideas I get from this painting? Emphasis on color red, a tempered but difficult to contain ferocity of approach to life, the vividness of the subject in the foreground in contrast with the rest of the picture, strength. It is a start.

The figures on the 17th capital, both what was recorded as having been in the original sculpture as well as what remained in 1850 I found interesting enough to convey at some length. The subjects are the intellectual and artistic endeavors of man represented by the giants of antiquity in each field:

1st side: Solomon (the wise: a figure with two books, in a robe richly decorated with circles of roses).
2nd: Priscian (the grammarian: a man with one book, poring over it; he has a long stick or reed in his hand).
3rd: Aristotle (the logician: he has a peaked double beard and a flat cap, from under which his long hair falls down his back).
4th: Tully (the orator: sculpture destroyed by 1851 however).
5th: Pythagoras (the philosopher: destroyed, all but a board with three (counters?) on it)
6th: Archimedes (the mechanic: a figure with compasses)
7th: Orpheus (the musician: nothing is left but a guitar with its handle wrought into a lion's head).
8th: Ptolemy (the astronomer: unfortunately this one was completely destroyed).

I like these descriptions for the charming picture they present of the possibilities of human life, which activities seem so simple and natural, and it is from these that the great bulk of human knowledge springs, yet one feels and one knows that one is estranged from it most of the time.

Ruskin called the 18th capital, which features the planets, sun, moon, stars of the zodiac, etc, the most interesting and beautiful of the palace. I ought to reiterate again that I once stood in the shadow of this palace for at least an hour and probably walked past it another 15 or 20 times in all, maybe more, and was completely oblivious to most of this work. There are a few sculptures, such as a depiction of the drunkenness of Noah on the corner of the building, that are pointed out in guidebooks and I do remember looking at that for a minute or so, but most of it, being either largely worn down and hard to see from the ground anyway, I did not examine in any detail. One note on this 18th capital reads "The moon was, I believe, represented in Egyptian sculptures as in a boat; but I rather think the Venetian was not aware of this, and that he meant to express the peculiar sweetness of the moonlight at Venice, as seen across the lagoons." He goes on to describe the rippling of the moon's drapery on the scuplture to suggest the trembling of the moonlight on the water and adds "This beautiful idea is highly characteristic of the thoughtfulness of the early sculptures: five hundred men may now be found who could have cut the drapery, as such, far better, for one who would have disposed its folds with this intention." Ruskin was of course highly partial to the conception of existence and human life which took hold in 14th-century Venice. I don't know how much good it does to lament that such glories have no place or animating energy in the minds of one's contemporaries. This does not prevent me from doing it myself all the time however.

Figure 2--This is supposed to be another portrait of Effie by Millais, a very nice one, in which she is wearing a pink blouse, but it was not meant to be. This picture is in the Delaware art museum in Wilmington, Delaware however (they apparently have a large Pre-Raphaelite collection), if you want to see it.

Classics scholars may enjoy the indignation which the contemplation of a Latin inscription is able to arouse in our author: "Note the o for e in adolescentia; so also we constantly find u for o; showing, together with much other incontestable evidence of the same kind, how full and deep the old pronunciation of Latin always remained, and how ridiculous our English mincing of the vowels would have sounded to a Roman ear." Something about the tone of this makes me think the accusation is unfounded in fact. Nothing true in philology is ever perceived and expounded so suddenly, so succinctly, so excitedly and on such a thin presentation of evidence. It is not given to all disciplines to be swashbuckling, I suppose.

Figure 3--This is some emblem of the Ruskin Memorial Society. Holly? Now I am wondering if it has to do with the town of Ruskin, Florida rather than our author, though I do not think of holly as growing in Florida. Perhaps it is something else.

36th CAPITAL (the last in his ordering, which I believe is at the end nearest the Basilica and away from the canal). The depictions on this capital are of acts of justice or good government, and figures of lawgivers. Among those featured are Aristotle, Solon, Numa Pompilius, Moses and Trajan. The fifth side features a depiction of the chastity of Scipio (Africanus): "A soldier in a plumed bonnet presents a kneeling maiden to the seated Scipio, who turns thoughtfully away." This incident, recorded in Livy and said to have occurred during the Roman conquest of Spain, and crucial to that conquest for the supposed goodwill it engendered for Rome among some of the native tribes of that country, has been widely celebrated among students and other cultural descendants of that epoch. Poussin made a painting of it.

I don't have a blogroll but every now and then I stumble across blogs of people in doing my little researches who 1) share some major interest of mine and 2) (and this is the hardest criterion) don't appear to be completely hopeless, who I can imagine I might have been friends with if I had developed slightly differently.

This guy is a medieval literature instructor at Oxford, high culture omnivore and book fetishist to the point of creeping nerdiness (this is what prevents him from getting too far out of my social league however), who seems to enjoy zipping around England to exhibits and Chaucer conferences and getting drunk with his fellow medievalists. I would like that too.

These two blogs on the pre-Raphaelites (here and here) are a bit narrow in focus and not particularly interesting, but they are earnest, enthusiastic, express similar general tastes to mine and well, most pertinently, their authors are by my standards kind of babes, at least they seem like the kind of women I should have been able to both get along cordially with at a reasonably intellectual level and have a slight frisson of some variety of erotic tension at the same time. However, this never quite happened.

This person, on the other hand, it is hard for me to envision being too chummy with, as she gives off an air of being both easily bored and easily aroused to anger, neither of which maladies I have any ability to assuage. However she is a pretty dedicated and knowledgeable writer, albeit one who also doesn't seem to be able to get published, and she is also a (seemingly rare) non-campy, non-silly, almost masculine Judy Garland fan, so I give her props as well.

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