Perfection’s Progress

E.H. Gombrich

  • Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture, 1500-1900 by Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny
    Yale, 376 pp, £20.00, March 1981, ISBN 0 300 02641 2

Here, at last, is a book of which we can sincerely say in the old phrase that it meets a long-felt want. It offers, in the modest words of the Preface, ‘a series of illustrations (which are now often impossible to find except in specialised libraries) of the principal sculptures which were at one time accepted as masterpieces’ – that is, of antique statues with which, until a hundred years ago, the educated public were expected to be familiar. Of these, some of us can still visualise the Laocoon, the Apollo Belvedere or the Hercules Farnese, but would we, or would our students, be equally able to distinguish the Farnese Flora from the Capitoline Flora, or the Minerva Giustiniani from the Pallas Velletri? In future, we shall be spared any embarrassment on that score, for here is a catalogue raisonné of 95 of these once canonic works arranged in alphabetical order according to their most frequently used appellations, and providing all the relevant information about their history, their restorations, their changing fortunes in the hierarchies of taste and also the most recent archaeological opinion. The authors would never claim that their list is exhaustive: indeed they mention, but do not illustrate, a number of other works such as the Juno Ludovisi or the Clytie which occasionally rose to comparative fame. Understandably, they generally keep clear of portraits such as the Naples bust of Homer, the Vatican statues of Sophocles and Demosthenes or the Augustus of Primaporta, but, maybe, in a next edition they might include some of the works for which high claims were made by Winckelmann, such as the Minerva Albani or the Barberini Muse, which has meanwhile changed sex and is displayed in Munich as an Apollo. Even so, the invaluable repertory fills more than two hundred pages, packed with information. It is preceded by 15 equally crowded chapters admirably surveying, not only the formation and decline of the canon, but also the history of its publication in engravings, books, plastercasts and miniature copies up to the 19th century. The authors have refrained – quite rightly, of course – from chronicling the recent iconoclastic movements which resulted, not only in the removal of these casts from view, but in various gratuitous acts of vandalism: I know at least of one art school in the Middle West where, a few decades ago, they were thrown out of the window and smashed in a belated ritual of liberation.

It was mainly their role in the academic curriculum which provoked this hatred, the implied or explicit claim of the canon to embody and teach the ‘rules’ of art. No dogma of the Classical creed is more alien to 20th-century views of art than this acceptance of authority, and any discussion of the canon cannot but prompt reflections on the gulf that separates the aesthetic convictions of our century from those which are here exemplified. Perhaps it helps in this context to recall the central position which the theory of language and oratory occupied for so long in Western criticism. The fact that languages have rules which must be learned and observed is still accepted without demur. However many efforts are made to undermine the authority of grammar and spelling, it is obvious that in a total absence of such rules of the road, communication would break down. Given this social function of speech, teachers of language have always insisted on models which represent the norm; the very term classicus refers to authors suitable as models and the idea of the canon is originally rooted in this tradition. In the aesthetics of language no firm line can be drawn between the need for rules and the effect of their non-observance. Once we have acquired these arbitrary conventions we are conditioned to dislike certain lapses from grammatical speech.

It is a fact of cultural history, easily intelligible, that the subject-matter of model authors also entered the canon of literature which was deemed indispensable for communication among members of the culture. Take that magic litany of love from The Merchant of Venice, ‘In such a night as this’, in which the stories of Troilus, Thisbe, Dido and Medea are invoked. It is almost irrelevant to ask whether we admire those stories. They have entered the fabric of our civilisation and allow the poet to weave his spell, even though the demand that one ‘ought’ to know these names differs in character and cogency from the need to obey the rules of grammar.

The acceptance of a canon of ancient statues which is here under discussion takes us a step further towards an apparently arbitrary cultural authoritarianism. But even here the comparison with language and literature remains helpful. As long, at least, as art was closely linked to narrative, the budding artist had to master the basic vocabulary of human types and gestures. The Laocoon offered (in L.D. Ettlinger’s words) an exemplum doloris; the Hercules Farnese an extreme example of a muscle man. It was indeed the language of the body which could best be studied in these famous exemplars: the taut athletic posture of the Borghese Warrior, the sensuous relaxation of the Barberini Faun, the ebbing life of the Dying Gladiator exemplified the expressive potentialities of the male nude, which greatly extended the range of the artist. No modern critic has approached this role of the antique with more tact and success than Kenneth Clark in his book The Nude, and it is a pity that this title is absent from the extensive bibliography given by the authors.

It would certainly be possible to interpret the ‘rules of art’ derived from this approach as technical rules for the achievement of certain effects. ‘If you want to represent a noble warrior dying on the battlefield, study the Dying Gladiator and you cannot go wrong.’ All would have been well if critics of the past had confined themselves to recommending the canon of ancient statues merely as a repertory of types more easily studied and less expensive to maintain than hired models. But it lies in the dynamic of this situation that soon living bodies were judged by the degree of their correspondence to the canonic figures and that few scored well on this test.

The ambiguities arising from this role of the antique as a touchstone of nature make themselves felt in one of the earliest references to the canon (not mentioned by the authors): the Preface to Part III of Vasari’s Lives. Here the rise of the ‘Perfect Manner’ is partly attributed to the discovery of ‘certain ancient works mentioned by Pliny, the Laocoon, the Hercules, the big Torso of the Belvedere and also the Venus, the Cleopatra, the Apollo and countless others’. These, we learn, ‘helped to rid art of a certain dryness and coarseness’ associated in Vasari’s mind with the laborious study of nature. To illustrate the inevitable shortcomings of this earlier manner, he mentions Verrocchio’s restorations of the marble Marsyas in the Medici Palace, which still fall short of the perfections of the antique. But for Vasari even this perfection does not represent an absolute. In his view, Michelangelo ‘surpassed the antique by so much as the antique surpassed Nature’.

It was this gap between Nature and the Antique that no theory of art succeeded in filling. Vasari at least had the honesty to admit the impossibility of specifying ‘the licence within the rule which, while not following the rule, is still governed by the rule’. The imitation of nature was necessary but not enough. Thus ‘slavish’ naturalism remained a vice to most critics of art from the 16th to the 20th century, but the desired direction of the departure from mimesis was harder to formulate and justify. Neither ancient metaphysics in its Platonic or Aristotelian version, nor modern rationalism in its 18th century form, proved adequate to this task. The many high-sounding sermons commending the superiority of the best antique statues over the products of Nature could only be preached to the converted. Hence, perhaps, the dogmatism which so often became associated with the canon. Its rejection appeared to threaten the community of values on which civilisation depends in art no less than in poetry or speech.

It is this social function of something that cannot be justified in words any more than can the rules of grammar which may be responsible for the appearance of tame conformism in so much of the literature on the subject quoted by the authors. One is reminded of the splendid chapter in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon describing the ‘Musical Banks’ which demand and exact reverence, though their currency is of no practical value. Butler, of course, aimed his satire at the Church, but what is nowadays called the ‘Art World’ has always shared some characteristics with established religion, including its intolerance.

The violence of Lord Shaftesbury’s outburst (Advice to an Author, Part III, Section 3) would do credit to any Lenten Sermon:

I like: I fancy: I admire: How? ... Grotesque and monstrous figures often please, Cruel spectacles and barbarities are also found to please ... But is this pleasure right? ... Effeminacy pleases me. The Indian figures, the Japan-work, the enamel strikes my eye. A French and Flemish style is highly liked by me at first sight, and I pursue my liking. But what ensues? – Do I not for ever forfeit my good relish? How is it possible I should thus come to taste the beauties of an Italian master, or of a hand happily formed on Nature and the Ancients?

One thing emerges clearly from this diatribe. For Lord Shaftesbury, as for his contemporaries, the word ‘taste’ meant something radically different from ‘liking’. When the authors called their book Taste and the Antique they must have had the 18th-century meaning in mind. It is a meaning which strangely enough excludes any connotation of relativism, let alone of subjectivity. With his usual perspicacity, Reynolds put his finger on the problem of this ambiguity when he wrote in his Seventh Discourse:

We apply the term Taste to that act of the mind by which we like or dislike, whatever the subject. Our judgment upon an airy nothing, a fancy which has no foundation, is called by the same name which we give to our determination concerning those truths which refer to the most general and most unalterable principles of human nature; to the works which are only to be produced by the greatest efforts of the human understanding. However inconvenient this may be, we are obliged to take words as we find them; all we can do is to distinguish the things to which they are applied ... The arts would lie open for ever to caprice and casualty, if those who are to judge their excellencies had no settled principles to regulate their decisions.

This conviction even leads him in the last Discourse to quote with approval the opinion of James Harris that ‘we are on no account to expect that fine things should descend to us’ – ‘our taste, if possible, must be made to ascend to them.’ Hence Reynolds endorses the recommendation ‘even to feign a relish, till we find a relish comes; and feel, that what began in fiction, terminates in reality.’

To any modern reader reared in the cult of sincerity, this notorious advocacy of hypocrisy in matters of taste would seem to overstep the bounds of decency. But to the historian who wants to understand the laws governing the ‘tides of taste’ so splendidly plotted in this book, the remark may also suggest that for good or ill there can be no innocence of taste any more than can be an innocence of the eye. Man is a social animal and he is in need of approval. Even if we are entitled to hope that our moral convictions are sufficiently firmly grounded to withstand social pressures, few people could claim the same for their aesthetic preferences. We are all more or less suggestible if the right reflexes are triggered. That the existence of a canon led to conditioned responses which strike us as sheer attitudinising has been obvious since the time of its emergence. Interestingly enough, this undesirable side-effect was observed at a time when the canon had hardly begun to form, in 1512. It was in that year that the younger Pico, Gian-francesco, complained of the uncritical preference for ancient sculpture in his De Imitatione, an attack on Pietro Bembo’s Ciceronian orthodoxy. ‘I have very often observed this, where statues are concerned; any sculpture which is reported to be of recent make, even if it excels those made in ancient times, is considered inferior. To such an extent has the vain image of a thousand years invaded the judgment of people like a plague. If they are believed to be ancient, or even if the beholder is not sure whether they are antique or not, the praise is astounding; but as soon as it turns out that they are more recently made and the name of the artist is mentioned, we get at once a thousand Aristarchuses [severe critics] and even a whistle of disapproval is sometimes heard ...’ The passage sounds like an allusion to the famous episode a few years earlier when Michelangelo’s Sleeping Cupid was presented in Rome as an antique.

The history of artistic hoaxes and forgeries offers, indeed, inexhaustible materials to the student of human gullibility, but if the history of the canon did not also offer more it would not be worth studying. What it also shows is the tendency of the mind to make sense post factum, as it were, of what must have started as a conditioned reflex. The critics who praised the famous antiques were not mere parrots. Nearly all of them looked for ways of accounting for their ‘astounding’ admiration. Like theologians, they felt prompted to justify a dogma that should rather be accepted as an article of faith. It would be instructive if the authors were to supplement their book with an anthology of these uncritical critical writings of which they must have collected many in their notes. They would show us to what length honest writers could go to rationalise an inculcated preference. To pick an example almost at random: in 1862, the miscellaneous writer R.H. Patterson included in his Essays in History and Art two celebrations of the canonic sculptures. What is noteworthy in this late product is the author’s search for scientific authority. In one essay he quotes the findings of the Scottish naturalist and divine J.G. Macvicar to prove the conformity of Greek sculpture with Plato’s geometrical speculations: the Platonic triangle which has for its angles 90°, 60° and 30° marks the outline of the Dying Gladiator and of the Nile. Of the Venus de Medicis the author tells ‘the curious fact communicated to me by a learned professor of anatomy, who discovered it during a minute examination of this beautiful relic of Greek art’: the figure ‘is of such a posture that half an inch further stoop of the body would, were the same attitude retained, make it lose its balance. The figure, therefore, though still self-poised, trembles on the very verge of motion – a circumstance which doubtless enhances the indescribable charm of this statue which enchants the world.’

No doubt the rich vein of comedy which the authors have inadvertently tapped when they embarked on their learned project would seem grist to the mills of cynics who feel anyhow inclined to dismiss the cult of art as mere self-deception. But before we accept this conclusion we may well ask who were the main victims of this epidemic? The very names by which these marbles are still known offer a clue to their social standing. The Borghese Warrior, the Farnese Bull, the Barberini Faun, the Medici Venus, the Ludovisi Mars – these point to the powerful owners and collectors, the princes and dignitaries of the Church, whose prestige was enhanced by such possessions. Naturally some of these treasured relics also changed owners, but they still tended to remain in such ownership that access to them was restricted. Even the purchase and display of copies and casts had strong social and political overtones, as the authors amply document in describing the efforts of the French Kings and of Napoleon to turn Paris into a ‘second Rome’. In this atmosphere of proud owners and eager gentlemen on the Grand Tour, men of taste were certainly prone to be overawed when at last they found themselves in the presence of a work which they had long known by reputation. Artists, as the authors remind us, generally adopted a more factual approach. Their admiration often centred on sarcophagi which offered so many more useful examples of figures in dramatic movement. Nor, as we are also told, were scholars particularly involved in the creation of the canon as it is here presented. They, of course, preferred to patched-up monumental statues coins and tombstones with inscriptions which could serve them as historical documents.

In a seminal article on ‘Ancient History and the Antiquarian’ (Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, XIII, 1950), A. Momigliano has shown the increasing use made, from the 17th century on, of material relics to check and revise the testimony of ancient authors. In the long run, this critical attitude was bound also to include the statues for which such high claims had been made. But this slow process of corrosion, which runs parallel to the rise of historical criticism in Biblical and other studies, would hardly have had such a cataclysmic effect on the canon if it had not also affected the basic aesthetic assumptions of 18th-century critics. The increasing interest in the growth and decline of culture demanded to be satisfied by a greater precision in the assignment of monuments to periods and to masters. It is generally agreed that it was Winckelmann who gave the study of ancient art this impulse. It is true that those who turn to his Geschichte of 1764 will be disappointed if they expect the shedding of antiquarian ballast in favour of a clear sequence of monuments, but there is one chapter in which we find a description of the postulated sequence of styles – however few monuments Winckelmann was able to assign to these categories, which he had largely abstracted from literature. Winckelmann’s approach sowed the seeds of further doubts, for it was an article of faith with him that Greek art was infinitely more creative and therefore superior to the art of the Romans. These doubts were bound to bear fruit in the second half of the 18th century when the word ‘original’ had become a term to conjure with, as in Edward Young’s ‘Conjectures on Original Composition’ of 1759, which had a strong echo in Germany. Henceforward the term ‘A Roman Copy’ was tantamount to a condemnation.

In a sense, it demonstrates the strength of the ‘canon’ that the critical spoilsports were so slow in moving in. There had been rumblings before, but it was not before the 1770s that Winckelmann’s friend the painter Anton Raphael Mengs dared to formulate his belief that most of the admired statues in Roman collections could not be originals. The detailed history of this momentous development has been traced for the first time in a thesis by Alex Potts, and the relevant chapter has meanwhile been published in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes (XLIII, 1980). What he shows is the way the canonic statues succumbed to a kind of pincer movement carried out by scholars and artists. Mengs himself argued mainly as an artist whose exacting standards of truth and sensitivity were rarely satisfied by the treatment of the surface of works like the Niobe and the Apollo Belvedere. The edifice of academic aesthetics swayed for a time, but the push it had been given had fatally weakened its stability. Henceforward the question to be asked in front of an ancient statue was not ‘why is it so sublime?’ but ‘what lost work may it reflect?’

Once this question was asked in earnest, it was not too difficult to identify copies, reflections or imitations of some of these once famous works among the masses of statues which crowded the collections of Rome, Florence and Naples. In retrospect, it is also strange how long delayed was this recognition, on which we so largely rely in our picture of Greek art history. Winckelmann himself identified the Apollo Sauroktonus by Praxiteles, but only after the publication of his History. There followed the Discobolus, the Doryphoros, the Diadumenos, and the Apoxyomenos, which were only discovered in the 19th century. Valuable as were these discoveries, they were meanwhile put in the shade when the archaeologists moved into Greece and brought back from there the sculpture of Aegina, the Elgin marbles, the treasures of Olympia, of Delphi, of Pergamon and of Ephesus. How could the battered and much restored remnants of the copying trade stand up against these original creations?

Nobody would want to forego the gains we have made in our appreciation of Greek art during these past two centuries. And yet it seems possible that as a result of this revolution in taste our attitude is further removed from that of the average Greek or Roman than was that of the upholders of the canon.

There is an amusing letter by Cicero which illuminates this attitude in a vivid context. He had evidently commissioned his agent M. Fadius Gallus to buy some pieces of sculpture for him and was shocked by the purchase and by the price.

Not knowing my practice you paid more for these four or five pieces than I value all statues in the world. You compare those Bacchantes with the Muses owned by Metellus, but where is the analogy? In the first place I would never have thought the Muses worth all that money, and all the Muses would have agreed. Still they would have been suitable for the library and harmonise with my literary pursuits. But where would I find a place for Bacchantes? To be sure they are pretty. I know them well and have often seen them Had I wanted them I would have specifically asked you to buy them. I am used to buying statues which would adorn my palaestra and make it look like the gymnasia. But what can I, a champion of peace, do with a statue of Mars? I am only glad there was not also a statue of Saturn, for the two together would surely have made me bankrupt ...

Clearly Cicero took it for granted that the available works, though differing in price and quality, were all copies or replicas. When he claims that he knew the Bacchantes well, he means that he had seen replicas. But before we dismiss him as a homo novus let us remember that when we say with equal assurance that we know the ‘Emperor’ Concerto we mean that we know it through the mediation of a performer. This may seem an eccentric comparison to make, and indeed it would not hold up to detailed scrutiny: but it serves its purpose if it reminds us there are arts where we cannot and do not always insist on the ‘Original’ with the same moral rigour that we apply to paintings and statues.

Even in their dealings with works of the visual arts, whether created for the cult or for decoration, few cultures are much interested in this distinction: the highly aesthetic approach of Chinese collectors is much less dismissive of copies or paraphrases than we have become. Concerned as they must be with questions of dating and attribution rather than with the less tangible problems of artistic worth, our students are taught to look at the history of art as a series of easily remembered innovations. Admittedly it was in Greece that this historiographic schema, which Vasari was later to transfer to his account of the Renaissance, was first applied. In any case, this convenient approach notoriously works only over a limited stretch of time. Once progress has led to ‘perfection’, as with Lysippus and Michelangelo, we really lack a paradigm for dealing with subsequent periods.

Here the historian of ancient art is much worse off than his Modernist colleague, who can deal with personalities, schools and currents to his heart’s content. There are few such signposts in the seven hundred years between the death of Alexander the Great and the age of Constantine. Accordingly, his desire to assign a date to works of this period is often frustrated. The magnificent horses of San Marco are a case in point. We are told by the authors, who rightly include them in their catalogue of canonic antiques, that ‘scholars appear to be no surer today than they have been in the past about the dating ... which in recent publications has varied between 300 BC and AD 400.’ But does it matter? To ask this question may sound like the ultimate heresy, but it has become a heresy only because of our acceptance of progressivism in art, with its attendant cult of originality. It is this attitude which has made us use the term ‘derivative’ as a term of contempt when applied to works of art. But, after all, there is no work of art which is not derivative to some extent. Miraculous as was the advance of Greek art from archaic rigour to baroque exuberance, we should not ignore the degree to which even these centuries remained wedded to types and formulas which were subsequently varied, revived and reinterpreted in greater and minor creations. Need we, then, be ashamed of admiring the Spinario when we read that it may be ‘a pastiche of the late Republican or early Imperial period in which the naturalism of [a] Hellenic prototype is made more piquant by the addition of a head copied (or, possibly, literally taken) from an earlier Greek statue’? Why, after all, ‘pastiche’, and why ‘piquant’? Were later artists not entitled, as poets and composers have always been, to use the styles of the past for their own legitimate purposes? Even if it should turn out, as has also been proposed (though not in this book), that the Apollo Belvedere is not even a copy after a lost bronze by Leochares but rather a later re-combination of earlier artistic inventions, must we therefore remove it from our mental furniture? Surely the hold which these and similar works once had on the European sensibility demonstrates the power and flexibility of the visual language created in the ancient world. Moreover there is better evidence than the subjective reaction of gullible art-lovers for the objective value to mankind of the currency minted in Classical Greece: not only did it provide the arts of the Eastern and Western Middle Ages with their basic medium of exchange, it was carried via Afghanistan and India to China and Japan to generate new styles and new masterpieces. Before this background of the world-wide triumph of Hellenism, the lure of Classical sculpture, so lucidly chronicled in this thought-provoking book, can perhaps be seen in a wider perspective.