Antonello’s Moment 12: Encrusting Pieces of Time

September 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Since architecture, in Goethe’s words, is “frozen music,” it, like music, bears no relationship to the trio of signs of reality referred to earlier, or to a certain criterion of how human or divine a figure might be. Architecture may be proved to have some narrative elements; none are funnier or less devotional than the battle maps carved on the facade of Santa Maria del Zobenigo in Venice. Not a single religious symbol appears there. The benefactor who paid for the church commissioned these mementos of Venetian military victories to honor his service in the army, neglecting to commemorate the fact that he was dishonorably discharged. Music may have some symbolizing onomatopoeia (horns bleating like sheep in a Strauss work), but music and architecture present a different order of the shift we’ve traced in painting and sculpture, the transition from Gothic severity to Renaissance human.

It might be necessary to say here that Ruskin does applaud the unaffected “naturalism” of Gothic painting, when he’s confronted by the idealized classicism of the Renaissance. So much for easy distinctions. Sometimes, it seems, this thing called the Renaissance makes art more real, when depicting religious figures; other times, the Renaissance avoids the real world by excessive idealization. (Yes, and the Renaissance isn’t really an active agent “doing” anything.) But the naturalistic figures of Gothic painting are channeled into a framework, a purpose, a standard arrangement for worship where the divine figures tower over the mere humans. The Renaissance artists free man from the hierarchical society described by Huizinga and Adams. And in so doing, they drag down Mary and Jesus to the human level and at the same time freeze the figures of Gothic naturalism into classical rigidity. Both the “gods” (Mary and Jesus) and the commoners, are diminished in complexity by their reduction to sterile classical models, at least according to this view.

For Ruskin, the later Renaissance architects, in parallax to the painters, humanized (meaning watered down from the divine) their works by including more of themselves, by inserting their egos into their work with Renaissance balance and proportion and then with Baroque excess. Ruskin saw Palladio as an excellent designer of tombs or crypts, a glorifier of death with his use of colorless white Istrian marble, as a “humanist” who had squeezed all the natural life and sparkling color of the world out of his works, as a promoter of mathematical man-devised laws of harmony rather than spiritual truths.

But the shift to the realm of architecture brings up another question entwined with the damage to the Pieta: the issue of encrustation. Ruskin describes encrustation as the defining characteristic of Venetian architecture — the incorporation of elements brought from other buildings, locales, or cultures into a structure. This might consist of jewels or shards of colored marble, it could be entire sculptured reliefs inset, or it may be something as disembodied and substantial as the one odd green column brought from Byzantium and inserted in the middle of the Venetian Church of San Giacomo dell’Orio. Some of these materials were war booty, others may have been purchased or stolen. In Venetian naval history, the dangers and cost of a sea voyage dictated that each ship be laden with as much valuable junk as possible.

Column from St. Giacomo dell’Orio, Venice

Since almost every church and palazzo in Venice has been rebuilt multiple times, you end up with a mishmash of different elements from different styles incorporated into the latest. If you look at a series of palazzos on the Grand Canal which Ruskin notes as all having original Byzantine details from the twelfth century, you are moved by the old Byzantine arches standing out in their age and decrepitude. Ruskin says the Ca Barzizza is cut across by a “scar” of the old Byzantine architrave, and there certainly is no attempt to hide the contrast. You can actually appreciate this more than the gracefully incorporated Byzantine details of the restored Ca Loredan or Ca Farsetti across the Grand Canal, because it gives you a chance to see the historical transition most emphatically.

Ca Barzizza, Venice

At this vantage point on the Grand Canal, when you look at these six houses around you with Byzantine elements that were all there eight hundred years ago, you can summon Ruskin’s vision of “that first and fairest Venice which rose out of the barrenness of the lagoon; a city of graceful arcades and gleaming walls, veined with azure and warm with gold, and fretted with marble.” These houses and these arches were there when Antonello showed up with his oils. They were there for Venice’s defeat of Constantinople in 1204 and for the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453. They were there when Giotto painted the Scrovegni Chapel, even when the Doge’s Palace was built.

The beauty of their original design is somehow compounded by the layers of history piled on, and their age. The designers of the oldest houses aren’t known. But soon, all of the houses will be designed by Renaissance or Baroque geniuses with specific names, and their ideas will comprise the substance of the building if one should try to “read” it. Reading the Ca Barzizza (from the twelfth century) is perhaps more like reading an Elizabethan play adapted from a Boccaccio tale, performed by a certain modern company on a certain stage in a noted style, etc., while a “Palladio” reads like Paradise Lost, the genius of one man.

In literature, the “intentional fallacy” involves overly concerning oneself with what the author intended to say instead of letting the text speak for itself. Henry James or Stendhal or James Joyce may not be the best guide to his own work. If he were, we could just have the author explain it to us, so we could know what he was getting at. Or better yet, he wouldn’t even have to write the novel if he could just tell us what he wanted to say. We presume that a novelist writes a novel because that is the only form she knows how to use to say what she says.

Faced with architecture from the Renaissance on, we feel almost restricted to the creator’s point of view. Certainly, the architect can transcend his own ego and make grand connections to the world around him as in Palladio’s arrangement for San Giorgio Maggiore in the Venetian lagoon, one of the defining views of Venice since it was arranged in the sixteenth century. But older works connect you to something different: St. Mark’s with its generations of encrustation or the Ca Barzizza with its scar of Byzantine arches, make us feel more like we are in the presence of a relic, a relic of another age, a sign as in something that touched that first Venice, that world of porphyry and gold. Ruskin’s encrustation is a perfect example of the semiotician’s index, a footprint of the past.

Wall, Venice

Pieta (1575) by Titian, Accademia, Venice

This raises the question: Can a painting have encrustation? Gothic pieces routinely have encrustations like the blood and thorns in Giambono’s Man of Sorrows, physical elements from outside the frame that invade and shake up the usual notion of a picture as something painted on canvas inside a frame, a striking use of multimedia before the Renaissance. Other non-physical details that are too important to ignore permeate and enrich a simple eye-to-canvas perception of certain paintings: the brushstrokes that Titian may have painted in his unfinished Pieta on the last morning of his long life. Or this historical fact about Bellini’s Virgin with Four Saints in San Zaccaria: Napoleon stole it away to Paris where it was transferred from panel to canvas in the only city in the world where this technology was possible at that time, thereby saving it from extinction and making it possible to see it now, even if this does not absolve Napoleon of thievery. Can encrustation consist of a layering of fact or history rather than something tangible? Can it consist of the absence or removal of something as opposed to addition? What about the Pieta ? Are the damages wrought in the twentieth century now part of the painting? Instead of obscuring the vision of Antonello, the inspired vision of one man leading us into the Renaissance, could the damage give us a new version of the “text” with unforeseen effects of enhancement of the spiritual/human crossover? Characteristics unintended by the artist?

Detail, Pieta, (Titian)

Over the last several years, controversies have raged over the restoration of Leonardo’s Last Supper and the attributions of what he actually painted in The Adoration of the Shepherds. Should a painting be reduced to just what the man Leonardo did? Later overpainting seems clearly unwanted. What about the work of assistants, his workshop? What about Leonardo on a bad day? Would we chisel away all the floors of the Ca Barzizza to leave a lonely set of Byzantine arches? All of these embellishments, improvements, insults, rethinkings — are they part of the work, or a palimpsest of something once there, now lost? Should we contextualize the canvas more as an object now, like a piece of modern art, and not a picture? Once again, Antonello’s Pieta sits right there when it comes to asking questions.

Our relationship to the Pieta has become extremely complicated. Consider:

We are looking at a painting by one of the greatest Renaissance masters from his greatest period. He is somewhat unknown only because so few of his paintings survive.

The subject of the painting, painted with such emotion, is the Christian story at its most tragic peak, a source of spiritual reflection for a believer, or of astonishment at the innovative human qualities of the work, for a skeptic.

The sadness we witness in the frame echoes and echoes, reverberating in a burgeoning feedback loop, as we take in the damage on the canvas, the sense of fragility of human life compounded by the fragility of the object. First, we feel the palpable tingling sensation in the presence of something very, very old, like a scholar’s rock grooved by the dripping erosion of the centuries or an arrowhead chipped up long ago for battle. But then we divine that this particular decay is new, and the shock that it could happen now, brings home to us even moreso, age, decay, loss, death — of objects and persons.

And then we see that the circumstance of history holds this particular Renaissance masterpiece at a little distance from us, masked as it is by blurred faces and features, and this reticence distinguishes it from clearer Renaissance masterpieces, holds it away from us just out of reach; it does not offer all of itself but holds something back in reserve, like a god or goddess would. It is more mysterious, more holy if you like. All the other things — oil paint, Venice, art history, light, canvas, restoration, religion, architecture, our own lives, our own concerns — inform our viewing as if comprising a conditioning solution flowing around a specimen.

I want to make an outlandish case for Antonello’s being the central moment in [at least my] history of art. You are free to choose another.

Of the billions of years comprising the history of this planet, only the last 5,000 have involved the use of systematic language. The figure is not very exact. There’s evidence of written language starting around 3,500 BC in what is now Iraq and Iran. At the Metropolitan Museum, you can see a tablet from this era with scratchings representing quantities of wheat and barley. Another tablet records a man’s rations of bread, beer, oil, and onions — a creditslip in so many words.

We don’t know if the first people to write this kind of record down were incredibly articulate and conversed along these lines: “You know, I’ve been thinking that I could make these little symbols on this tablet so that we could keep a record of how many beers and how much bread you have each week.” Or, perhaps, they spoke a primitive tongue and at the moment of discovering writing, they just grunted, “Beer! Bread!” pointing at the tablet.

The period just before this, from about 10,000 to 5,000 BC, marked the most important developments in human history: organized agriculture, the domestication of animals, the beginnings of cities. It seems likely that people were writing things down in this age between themselves — notes, counts, and such.

The evolution of language and the use of tools had preceded these developments since perhaps 100,000 BC, fire from as early as 450,000 BC. Some twists of human language must have been there from the beginning, as they are intrinsic to the nature of symbolization. For example, lying, or the misuse of language, was possible as soon as verbal symbols were used to represent things; also humor contained in puns or the use of sarcasm. But the use of an alphabet, with a systematized means of written communication, really is confined to approximately 5,000 years. The most advanced of the murals in the caves of Altamira in northern Spain were likely painted around 12,000 BC. No one knows who painted the ingenious lifelike animals in relief on the rock face, but in some sense they may have been the greatest artists who ever lived.

But when we look back from now, from the dawn of the sixth millennium since writing began — writing that makes possible most kinds of culture including science and technology as well as literature, law, and architecture — we are impressed by how short a time it is. Consider this formula: If we think that we might live to be the age of a hundred, and then think of a great-grandparent or relative of ours who might have also lived to be a hundred, and who might have crossed paths with us around the time of our birth and their death, then we can see the entire history of civilization encompassing only twenty-five pairs of “you and your great-grandparent.” It is only an illustration. To make the lifespan only fifty years and to increase the number of pairs to fifty makes little difference. Or to add a few hundred years beyond 3,000 BC makes little difference either. The dinosaurs? Around 150 million years ruling the earth. Us, while we have been writing? 5,000 years. Almost everything mankind has ever accomplished falls into this fleeting period.

Venice provides an excellent vantage point for viewing a good chunk of this 5,000-year history. The Venetian entity (Republic, Empire, City) ran for almost 1,400 independent years from its founding in 421 AD to its fall to Napoleon in 1797. Its beginnings concerned the fall of the Roman Empire; the founders of Venice were running from the barbarians who were streaking down through Italy to sack Rome. The islands of the lagoon served as so many moat-encircled forts, their stone structures rising out of the water like phantom castles.

Venice ends after the formation of the United States of America and the start of the Industrial Revolution. The golden ages of Mayan, Incan, and Aztec culture began and ended during the Venetian Republic. Across time, there were ancient Babylonia, Egypt, Greece and Rome, China and India, the mysterious older pre-Colombian cultures, and everything else. Then Venice. Then the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In the middle of all this, Antonello’s moment is the central moment. Even though the moment happened 4,475 years into the 5,000-year period, what comes before and what comes after balances out pretty well for looking at history and art.

Anthropomorphic pebble figurine
Excavated in Israel at Sha`ar Hagolan (Central Jordan Valley-Yarmuk River)
Neolithic, late 7th millennium B.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art

For a moment pretend that only two things happened in history. The Neolithic Age transformed human life in the ages before writing with the domestication of animals and the development of agriculture, the founding of cities. Then, about 4,400 years after the invention of writing, the Renaissance offers itself, with the invention of printing, the creation of a more pronounced individual identity, the consciousness of time, the development of maps and navigation, as the beginning of our Second Act, which will include two more shifts into higher gear: the Industrial Revolution and the Computer Age.

Yes, Antonello’s moment is the principle moment of change, the moment when perception changed the most. And despite making claims of progress for the Renaissance, after this moment there also is a sense of loss, of that intensity of the Middle Ages. From now on, we are condemned to an unending parade of geniuses whose message, no matter how pious or righteously political their subject matter may be, will always primarily be, “I … yes I … am a genius, a brilliant talented genius.”

This will not be affected by any degree of estimable modesty, which will only serve to enhance the genius of the artist among his more plebian paint slatherers.

Perhaps, this is only a nostalgia for the past, akin to Paleolithic man sitting around the campfire bemoaning, “Life was so much more intense before we invented tools and agriculture. We never had to think about what to do — we just had to do it. Hunt, gather, hunt, gather. When you left for the hunt, no one knew if you would come back with any food or come back at all.” (!)

Standing in front of Antonello’s Pieta , you can grow dizzy with this sense that you are looking sideways in all directions of time and space and spiritual geography all at once from the same fencepost: looking at a holy object akin to the Gothic altarpiece, the Byzantine icon, the relic, but which is also a perfect human anatomy; pointing forward to a strengthening confidence of man over his own God; looking forward to the scratches made on this surface in the twentieth century and the questions about restoration, whether the text of the painting includes the history of its transformation through damage and how this relates to architecture and encrustation in a building; pointing back to Byzantium and Islam with the irony of the more divine elements having been rubbed out by a de facto iconoclast; looking forward to the revolution of Giorgione and the explosion of color and light on through Caravaggio and the Baroque to Goya, Turner, photography, Impressionism, and beyond. Antonello didn’t cause those developments, but he stands poised like a giant domino on a chain about to wreak convulsive havoc, with a nudge from behind.

Looking up above, these angels in front of us would take off on a flight through a Venetian sky if they could just lift Christ off the earth — the earth that we humans are held down upon.

Looking from down below, from the ground, we get a glimpse, just a glimpse, sometimes, of the whole story. Sometimes you come to a moment in time where you can see all of time; a moment of life when you see past death. At such a moment, the past comes clearly into focus, into the focus of our imagination, aided by those remnants of the past that we can still touch, that we can look at.

From the passionate south of Italy to the stone cold technique of Flanders. From the severe, Gothic decorations of the Venetian workshops drawing their inspiration from the East — Greece, Byzantium, and the myriad multi-ethnic composition of Venice, fashioning their holy objects on wood with gold ground and tempera, met by the well-traveled Antonello, bringing the new techniques from Naples and Milan.

A moment like that is worth getting lost in a museum, is worth getting lost in a maze of a city, a maze of a world, a maze of what’s there, of what’s not there, of what was there and what’s not there anymore, of what’s supposed to be there, of what will be there.

That which we have lost is still lost — our loved ones, the old religion, Henry Adams’s Virgin Mary, John Ruskin’s first and fairest Venice, Antonello’s paint, the blush of an April morning, the step of our youth,the echoed ways of our distant forebears, our loved ones, our loved ones ….

Madonna and Child with Four Saints and Donator (1507)
Giovanni Bellini
San Francesco della Vigna, Venice

Note: Keith Christiansen, the Curator of European Painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (and the curator of Room 5 at the Met) alerted me to a book published by the Correr in 1993 (Carpaccio, Bellini, Tura, Antonello by Attilia Dorigato, Electa) and not translated from the Italian, which details a later restoration of the painting from 1990 to 1993. My version of the events in the painting’s life wasn’t too far off, but it was backwards in one case. I gave Pelliccioli too much credit and later restorers too little, for making the painting like it is today. Said Mr. Christenson: “Let it be enough to say that the faces of Christ and the angels are gone—removed in a drastic/unsuccessful cleaning that dates from the late eighteenth century. Each subsequent restoration has attempted to resolve the damage in a different way and what you see when you compare the book you have with the current state is really a reflection of two different ideas of what it is legitimate for a restorer to invent when there really is nothing there. Pelliccioli invented a lot.”

So I was correct that the painting had gone through another transformation in the second half of the twentieth century. I was mostly wrong when I said dramatically that the later restorers might have rubbed off some of the oil paint Antonello had brought to Venice in 1475, because it had already been rubbed off in the eighteenth century. (Though they might have rubbed off a little more of Antonello’s.) Instead, the later restorers had rubbed off faces filled in by Pelliccioli in the 1930s, not Antonello’s faces. But I feel vindicated that I never really liked those faces; they didn’t seem as good as Antonello’s other paintings, and my statement that I preferred the damaged version really meant that I preferred the pure mastery of Antonello, one of the greatest of all painters, stripped down to its iconic, faceless image.

Tim Noel Harris


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