Interpretation is a radical strategy for conserving an old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it. The interpreter, without actually erasing or rewriting the text, is altering it. But he can’t admit do to doing this. He claims to be only making it intelligible, by disclosing its true meaning. However far the interpreters alter the text, they must claim to be reading off a sense that is already there.
You’re a painter. What’s the worst thing that can happen to you: neglect, derision, disgrace? Worse than all these misfortunes is to have to mutilate your masterpiece, the bravest thing you’ve ever tried. That’s what happened to Rembrandt in 1662.
That’s how Simon Schama introduces us to Rembrandt in his amazing book: The Power of Art.
20 years before, when Rembrandt was in his 30s, Amsterdam couldn’t get enough of the young master. “Over and over he had confounded expectations, and expectations adjusted accordingly to whatever it was he had done.” He was on top of the world.
By 1660, when Rembrandt was in his 50s, he
was living in a modest dwelling on the Rozengracht, opposite a pleasure garden. There were drunks in the street, knife fights on the corner. The tongue-clickers now saw him as someone from whom things had called steeply away: credit, property, the benisons of the mighty. God did not distribute fortune idly, so the truisms of the pious had it. Thus, in some fashion, Rembrandt’s fall from grace must have been ordained as a caution against sinful pride.
But then a lucky break. The Amsterdam elite desired a monumental history painting for their new town hall. Govert Flinck, their first choice for the job, unexpectedly died leaving Rembrandt with an opportunity to redeem himself and change everything.
The commission would be one of a series of paintings illustrating the history of the Dutch.
Together the cycle of histories would remind Amsterdammers that, while they were not themselves masters of an empire, their history began with an act of virtuous insurrection against the arrogance of the Roman Empire.
Rembrandt’s work would be the most important. He would be painting the Batavian leader Claudius Civilis at “the very moment of swearing his brethren to pledge their lives to the liberty of the Fatherland.” If he succeeded, Rembrandt would clear his name and return to prosperity.
The result was something no one expected and for the ruined painter it was a massive gamble.
Everyone knew about Rembrandt’s ruffian audacity; his regrettable imperviousness to the niceties of decorum, personal and professional. But with all those reservations, the civic worthies must still have been unprepared for what they got from his hand.
Wanting to save face, the worthies decided that letting it hang in the hall was better than leaving a vacancy where the masterpiece belonged. However, a few months later they changed their mind. “It’s confrontational coarseness” was too much and they ordered it removed, rolled up, and sent back to the artist. Rembrandt didn’t receive a penny for his work. Someone else, someone predictable, was hired to fill the space. They knocked off a painting in record time. “It might have been the worst painting on public display anywhere in the Netherlands. But no one complained.”
If Rembrandt wanted to rescue something from his masterpiece he would have to cut it down from the enormous arched space it was designed for into something for a residential buyer. So the cutting began.
Continuing my quest to learn more about Art, I present to you Gian Lorenzo Bernini — the Pope’s architect, the supreme sculptor of Rome, a man who practiced Jesuitical discipline every day.
Where should we start? Can you look at this picture with an innocent eye?
I thought not. A french aristocratic connoisseur passing through Rome on the Grand Tour, the Chevalier de Brosses, took on look at the sculpture and remarked: “Well, if that’s divine love, I know all about it.”
“Gianlorenzo Bernini,” Simon Schama writes in The Power of Art, “cared a great deal about likeness, to the point where he redefined it as more than appearance. True likeness — the kind he wanted to capture in his sculptures — was the animation of character, expressed in the movements of bodies and faces.” At the time it was thought that only pictures could generate “the sense of being in a warm-blooded, living presence.” Bernini proved that sculpture could as well. “Stone could be made to pulse with natural action. Out of the smooth, chill marble would spring human action.”
Bernini wasn’t a fan of straight standing people in status. “His figures break free from the gravity pull of the pedestal to run, twist, whirl, pant, scream, bark or arch themselves in spasms of intense sensation.” By taking chances with risky drilling, Bernini would make marble do things it had never done before. “He,” writes Schama, “made it fly and flutter, stream and quiver.”
Modesty was not one of Bernini’s failings. But then again, there was, according to Schama, never a time when he had not been hailed as a marvel. If anything, it’s surprising he didn’t have a bigger head. His father, a sculptor, paraded and promoted him as extraordinary. At the age of 8, a sketch of Saint Paul ‘with free bold strokes’ astonished Pope Paul V to the point where he thought he was looking at the next coming of Michelangelo. “To nurture his talent, Paul V appointed Cardinal Maffeo Barberini to watch over the young Bernini and to shape his education. The Cardinal was so smitten that he remarked to (the boy’s father), ‘Watch out, Signor Bernini, the pupil will surpass his master,’ to which the proud father replied, without any apparent testiness, ‘In that case, Your Excellency, why should I care, for the loser then also wins!'”
Years of what all sculptors had to do — study and draw from classical models — followed. Even boy wonders had to learn the rules.
Bernini would later say “Those who never dare break the rules never surpass them.”
Bernini was only 15 when he made The Martyrdom of San Lorenzo in 1613.
How could the Cardinals not compete for the services of the young prodigy? Bernini would repay this confidence with a procession of masterpieces:
But his big break was just around the corner.
When, in 1623, Maffeo Barberini become Pope Urban VIII he pounced and, unlike Apollo, got his way. Bernini was called into the papal apartments and given a famous acclamation: ‘It is your great good luck, Cavaliere [for Bernini had been knighted in the Order of Christ by Urban’s predecessor, Gregory XV], to see Maffeo Barberini Pople, but we are even more fortunate in that the Cavaliere Bernini lives in the time of our pontificate.’ It was now no longer just a matter of making sculpture for a private patron, even one as grand as Scipione Borghese. What Urban VIII had in mind for Bernini was nothing less than the remaking of Rome — its secular buildings, churches and fountains – always with the busy-bee emblem of the Barberini on it. Even for the officially acknowledged prodigy, brimful of self-confidence, this must have been a giddy prospect.
* * * * * *
To learn more about Bernini, watch Schama’s introduction to Bernini.
I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.