Into the Southern Playground

Julian Bell

  • 'The Quattro Cento’ and ‘Stones of Rimini’ by Adrian Stokes
    Ashgate, 668 pp, £16.99, August 2002, ISBN 0 7546 3320 9
  • Art and Its Discontents by Richard Read
    Ashgate, 260 pp, £35.00, December 2002, ISBN 0 7546 0796 8

Adrian Stokes’s Stones of Rimini is an extended obeisance performed by a young Englishman before some marble panels in an Italian church. The panels were carved in the 1450s, mostly by a Florentine called Agostino di Duccio, who was working in Rimini for the local warlord. Three dozen illustrations punctuate Stokes’s reissued text of 1934. Many show astrological figures: Aquarius wading through water, Mercury standing among clouds, Venus in a chariot drawn by swans. There are a couple of tall landscapes, almost like Chinese handscrolls, showing steep peaks and swirling seas. There are also putti riding dolphins and angels with fluttering tunics pressing against their epicene bodies. In its own time, this iconography was thought provocatively un-churchlike, adding to the charges on which Pope Pius II had Agostino’s patron, Sigismondo di Malatesta, burned in effigy for heresy. The slightly gauche figure-drawing adds to the carvings’ fey allure, but their chief trait is an obsession with describing drapery and water in very low relief through swathes of sinuously convoluted line.

Stokes, who was 23 when he first visited the Tempio Malatestiano in 1925, was following a trail trodden by cultivated tourists ever since Burckhardt had celebrated Sigismondo’s creative pretensions in his Civilisation of the Renaissance. Only two years before, Ezra Pound had given ‘Sidg’, fighter and builder, a scratchy apologia in his Cantos. The new devotee was a product of Rugby and Oxford travelling on an allowance from a rich stockbroker father. Tall and athletic, with a graceful but predatory mien – ‘hawklike’ or ‘aquiline’ are the words most memoirs settle for – he had been lately admitted to the aristocratic circle of Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell, and was offering sexual favours to the former. Osbert had encouraged a shift in the young writer’s interests from Bradleyan philosophy towards Italian art. The two books that eventually resulted – Stones of Rimini was preceded in 1932 by The Quattro Cento, now reissued along with it – would establish Stokes as a respected voice in English art-writing until his death forty years later.

Stones of Rimini is decidedly the more compelling performance. Its opening lines step forward with a cool swagger, toying with Virgilian cadences: ‘I write of stone. I write of Italy where stone is habitual.’ The reader is invited to fall in with a persona of Baedekered cosmopolitanism and sensual self-assurance. ‘We are prepared to enjoy stone in the South. For, as we come to the southern light of the Mediterranean, we enter regions of coherence and of settled forms.’ The prose nimbly sidesteps stock wordings and standard speech rhythms: ‘Stone sculpture apart, stone is more often conceived in the North as simply rock-like. And who will love the homogeneous marble sheets in the halls of Lyons’ Corner Houses? No hands will attempt to evoke from them a gradual life. For nowhere upon them is the human impress.’ These gestures of condescending curiosity towards the commonplace establish Stokes’s claim to be following Ruskin’s Stones of Venice and Pater’s essays on a new excursion into the Southern playground of English high-mindedness.

Slowly spiralling in on the Tempio, Stokes offers on the way bravura displays of scholarship regarding geology, ancient history and the career of Sigismondo. There are travel notes on dreary, sprawling modern Rimini – the ‘flat hotels and villas . . . cut off from the town by the dirty, jagged knife of the railway . . . What abruptness abounds is harsh and without colour.’ The splicing of the punchy and the abstract could almost be Rilke’s (compare Rilke on a canal in Bruges, in which, ‘by some ungraspable law’, the town’s ‘little streets, dawdling like convalescents . . . wake and grow clear in the transposed’); but this is prose argument, and the urge to categorise keeps overriding the urge to depict. Finally, however, a kind of poetry wins out. After extended passages of speculative foreplay running through antique astrology and Neoplatonism, the essay works up to a climax with a prolonged, fantastical rhapsody on the themes of Agostino’s iconography:

Here are the Twins, hand in hand: their young bodies glisten beneath the filmy draperies that guard their breasts like administering clouds that hasten to tend the moon, to hide her tired eyes some night when her laborious tears of cold silver shall not fall into gravity . . . The mountains rise and drop in the even, chorded light, a god in ecstasy on every peak as, breaking the leaf of tuneful silver, Venus comes reborn out of the further sea.

Yet, taking over the podium from Ruskin and Pater, Stones of Rimini is not only a belletrist performance but a lesson in aesthetic morality for Stokes’s English contemporaries. He offers them a guiding precept: ‘A figure carved in stone is fine carving when one feels that not the figure, but the stone through the medium of the figure, has come to life. Plastic’ – or, as Stokes terms it elsewhere, ‘modelling’ – ‘conception, on the other hand, is uppermost when the material with which, or from which, a figure has been made appears no more than as so much suitable stuff for this creation.’

The general drift of this distinction was hardly novel in art circles in 1934. During the previous thirty years, while the word ‘plastic’ was extending its reach from the art school lecture to the realm of household goods, there had been an avant-garde revulsion against all it implied in terms of wilfully imposed form. Rodin’s Kiss, the shape and surface textures of the master’s clay maquette mechanically enlarged and unfeelingly imposed by assistants on multiple blocks of marble: that, for progressive sentiment, was the nightmarish epitome of modern mass production values. The beneficent Kiss was Brancusi’s of 1908, two simple presences rawly but tenderly scored into a unitary limestone block. ‘Truth to materials’ had since become a watchword for sculptors like Epstein and the young Henry Moore.

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