Looking at the Ceiling

T.J. Clark

  • The Mirror of the Gods: Classical Mythology in Renaissance Art by Malcolm Bull
    Allen Lane, 465 pp, £30.00, April 2005, ISBN 0 7139 9200 X

Malcolm Bull has written a formidable handbook, for which, I predict, many scholars and lovers of Renaissance art will never forgive him. What he has to say in the end about the revival of the ancient gods in early modern Europe amounts to a wholesale (Savonarolan) bonfire of most art historians’ assumptions, or wishes, about the leaven of paganism in the transition to modernity. But ‘in the end’ is a real qualification here. The Mirror of the Gods is a difficult book to represent adequately in a review, because inevitably I shall find myself extracting from the texture of its pages – and the texture is, by and large, that of patient and incisive summary, deployment of just the right thumbnail sketches, and an extraordinary conjunction of evidence drawn from a wider range of visual media and a broader sweep of countries than any one author, to my knowledge, has dared to exploit previously – a set of strong and, as I say, unforgivable theses. I don’t think I am inventing the pugnacious arguments, and I shall not exaggerate their force. But it is of the essence that they appear in the book seemingly episodically, in no particular order, with some of the most dangerous and suggestive barely hinted at until the last twenty pages; and always they crop up as extrapolations, almost asides, in the course of a comprehensive mapping of sources, stories, patrons, transformations, functions, media.

Many of us will use The Mirror of the Gods in exactly the way its set-up of chapters and titles seems to invite. We shall go to ‘Jupiter’ or ‘Venus’ to refresh our knowledge of the basic narratives, discover which texts and episodes appealed to painters and goldsmiths, and wonder why others were ignored. We shall compare the attitudes to Ovid or Cartari of maiolica workshops, designers of table fountains, high or middle-grade erotic printmakers, builders of grottos, providers of poesie to the king of Spain. These various sites and types of image-making amount to a circuitry, in Bull’s opinion, not a set of high-and-low sealed chambers. ‘Somewhere along the route from porn to poesie,’ he says in a not uncharacteristic sentence, ‘the loves of Jupiter had lost their centrality.’ And that was because – here too the ad hoc explanation is typical –

during this period there were two main audiences for depictions of the loves of Jupiter: anonymous consumers of pornography, and the Holy Roman Emperor. Correggio’s Loves were given to Charles V by Federico Gonzaga; Perino’s tapestries were woven for his visit to Genoa, and the gallery of Francis I was hurriedly completed for Charles’s visit in 1539. To a remarkable degree the audience for all these visions of lust was one man.

But already I am gravitating towards Bull at his most waspish.

The fact that this book’s strong theses are embedded in a survey will only make them the more infuriating for those they are calculated to madden. And this is a handbook’s best trick. It so happened that as I was making my way through The Mirror of the Gods I was also reading Walter Burkert’s conspectus Greek Religion, and slowly coming to understand that its picture of cult and belief in antiquity – so painstakingly assembled, so drily stated – was far more unsettling than even the appalling anthropology of the same author’s great Homo Necans or Creation of the Sacred. Because here the Nietzschean theses loomed gradually, relentlessly, from the enormous dustheap of facts. Only time will tell if Bull’s book contributes to upsetting his field’s assumptions in a comparable way. But I have no doubt its ambitions and tactics are basically the same.

Here are the theses, ripped from their matrix. First, and pervasively: the return to Greek and Roman mythology in the visual arts was a marginal phenomenon. Bull means this fairly matter-of-factly. He makes a comparison between the new picturing of the ancient deities and the contemporary vogue for grotesque ornament, freely copied from things seen in Nero’s Domus Aurea and elsewhere:

Grotesques, for all their ubiquity, always remained marginal – quite literally in the many cases where they constitute the frame or boundary of the work itself. They tend to fill those spaces least likely to generate meaning. In this respect, their distribution parallels that of mythological art itself … But while grotesque decoration remained ornamental and eventually went out of fashion, mythology gradually migrates from the margin to the centre: from the frieze to the ceiling, the epigram to the epic, the intermezzo to the opera, and from small private spaces to large public ones.

In the beginning especially, mythological imagery was most at home in gardens or loggias, or on ceilings that could easily be imagined as opening onto the heavens. The suburban villa was its ideal site. It did well as temporary festival architecture. Indoors, it was best suited for private rooms – the study, the bedroom, the bath. Even the big showstoppers of the early 16th century (and Bull does not minimise the scale and swank of the great rooms in Mantua or Rome) bear the traces of their leisure industry origins. The subjects of Raphael’s Villa Farnesina are ‘frivolous’. The Sala dei Giganti in the Palazzo Te is stupendous, but in the way of Las Vegas, not Thebes. ‘Never before had anyone conceived of mythological art as a total, all-encompassing experience. The inscription (from Statius) that goes around the room reminds the viewer that if this is what happened to the Giants, there is not much hope for rebellious humans. But the room was meant to exhilarate rather than terrify. It led to the tennis-court, not the dungeon.’

Second, and closely connected: there is no discernible grand, organic development to the spread of mythological imagery in the Renaissance, and this is largely because it thrived in ‘secondary’ media – sometimes spectacular and ostentatious, often quite local and domestic. Wedding chests, hat badges, pastiglia boxes, pendants and cameos, painted plates from Urbino. Classical arches built for the entry of heads of state, emblems, fountains, small-scale bronzes (‘thought a rarity’). ‘Taken together,’ Bull notes, in a key paragraph,

these two clusters are not exactly central to what we have come to think of as the history of art, let alone to wider intellectual history. But it is a useful reminder that the diffusion of classical mythology came about through an accumulation of expensive yet seemingly trivial exchanges: the distribution of pornography and wedding presents, and the acquisition of things such as picnic dishes and jewellery, and garden ornaments for people’s holiday homes.

And then: ‘It may not sound like a cultural revolution, but that is what it turned out to be.’ This occurs on page 85. It will not be till page 394 that the reader will learn what the unlikely revolution really was.

Various lesser theses follow in the meantime from these first two. For instance, the fundamental rootlessness of mythological image-making in the Renaissance – the fact that it had no place in any pattern of belief, or even shadow approximation of cult – was not compensated for by its becoming linked to any genuine, sustained practice of learning. It had no ties to the emerging universities: a far from infallible litmus test, obviously, but in this period indicative. The sources artists and craftsmen used to elaborate the tales of the gods were few, largely predictable, occasionally arcane and pretentious (Bull is no enthusiast for Neo-platonism), but more often driven by the humble needs of function and occasion. Not Proclus and Pausanias, then, but a bit of Boccaccio, a pose picked up from an illustrated Ovid, and a couple of attributes cribbed from the Libellus de imaginibus deorum. This last little compendium, written in the late 1300s, was typical. ‘Its success was probably due to its simplicity,’ Bull suggests. ‘Beginning with the planetary deities, the Libellus offers a short paragraph on the appearance of each god, and a brief account of the 12 labours of Hercules. It was all most people needed to know.’ There were more modern mythographies than Boccaccio’s and the Libellus, of course, and one or two of them were scholarly as opposed to preposterous. Neither the good nor the bad kind appears to have had much impact on art practice. Very occasionally, a painter displayed signs of having studied, or heard about, an allegorical reading of a myth. Poussin, on whom Bull is an expert, was one such; he was the exception. Once or twice we have reason to believe that artists received specific scripts from intellectuals, got up for a great occasion. No doubt Poliziano guided Botticelli personally through Lucretius and the Fasti. The results are marvellous, but wholly unrepresentative. The Birth of Venus and the Primavera ‘had little influence on the development of later iconography, and they draw on none of the literary sources that artists customarily used.’

In general, intercourse with humanists was probably sparse, and largely unhelpful. The demands of actual patrons were crude, and easily fulfilled without the aid of large books. Edgar Wind remarks towards the end of his Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance – the kind of study of the subject Bull is determined not to write – that the modern art historian’s great armoury of learned suggestions is not meant to imply that most artists were steeped in the classics:

An iconographer trying to reconstruct the lost argument of a Renaissance painting … must learn more about Renaissance arguments than the painter needed to know; and this is not, as has been claimed, a self-contradiction, but the plain outcome of the undeniable fact that we no longer enjoy the advantages of Renaissance conversation. We must make up for it through reading and inference.

I hear Bull snorting derisively in the wings. Renaissance conversation, one gathers from him, was about up to usual courtly standards. An afternoon at Sandringham would give you the flavour; the theories of Alexandrian Platonists were not part of the lingua franca.

The result of all this is whimsical confusion. The Mirror of the Gods is hard going at times, because it refuses to make its material follow any logic, or plumb any depths, not detectable in the broad visual and verbal record, as opposed to the brilliant and spellbinding exception. (This isn’t to say Bull ignores Titian, Mantegna and Veronese – still less his beloved Poussin. He often has excellent things to say about them: his account of Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, for instance, is a tour de force. He just will not allow the major minds and masterpieces to substitute for the humdrum pattern of practice.) Some artists made use of ancient sarcophagi, and others borrowed from cameos and gems. But there is no discernible connection between the pace and nature of actual recovery of Roman – let alone Greek – objects and the dynamic of antique revival. This does not mean that ancient texts led the way, necessarily. Over the years something like a visual ‘canon’ emerges for each god, but as a result of an utterly inconsistent, arbitrary, unscholarly process – a wayward, casual, stupid assembly of preferred themes.

Sometimes texts drive the image selection. Petrarch’s Trionfi gave rise to some splendid paintings and over-elaborate floats. The Metamorphoses was unavoidable, though only twenty or so of its stories became standard in the visual arts (out of 244 transformations, according to one editor’s count). Not having its story told by Ovid, or having it told but never illustrated in the main editions, was no barrier to a subject establishing itself among the grotesques. Leda, Danaë, Endymion, the Judgment of Paris, the Birth of Venus came into favour via different routes. Representations of Leda, for instance, ‘rarely follow a text. Apart from anything else, there is not much to know … A Roman sarcophagus relief and an antique cameo once in the collection of Lorenzo de’ Medici give the picture.’ Even in books with real antiquarian pretensions, artists and scholars most often went their separate ways. The passage on Bacchus and Ariadne in Anguillara’s posh Italian Ovid of 1584 has an illustration recycled from Tintoretto’s treatment of a slightly different theme, a main text with material interpolated from the Fasti and Heroides, and interpretative notes (borrowed from Boccaccio) about women and the perils of wine. ‘It is a good example of the almost total lack of co-ordination between image, text and allegory.’ In any case, when artists turned to Bacchus they almost always seem to have thought that Roman tomb reliefs made Ovid supererogatory.

By now, you will gather, we are well on in the book’s detailed story. It is still far from clear how a cultural revolution is in the making. And if what we are looking for are arguments against the Aby Warburg view of the Renaissance – that the revival of the ancient gods was a process with real depths and dangers, and that in it and through it a whole alternative vision of humanity was conjured back to life – I warn you there is much more Bull to come. The case of Bacchus is exemplary. Gone, in Renaissance treatments, is the murderous, masked, smiling Dionysus. Gone, by and large, are the Maenads. Not a hint (till Poussin) of sparagmos or omophagia. Dionysus’ daemonic bestiality is defused and trivialised, partly by being shared out among his various sidekicks (and in the process ‘humanised’); Silenus becomes the superannuated drunk, Priapus the clumsy lecher, Pan the amiable spirit of the woods. In general, Bull says, the Renaissance has little to do with the truly daemonic in paganism. Wildness is savoured and marginalised by the new patron class, not posited, in the way of the ancients, as a true Otherness to the human. Much of this is aimed, it seems to me, at a new generation of scholars working lately to revive what they see as the real, and forgotten, legacy of Warburg. Reading Bull’s chapter on Bacchus, in particular, or, for that matter, scanning his earlier brief pages on the gods and the casting of horoscopes, the neo-Warburgians – always on the lookout for the return of the image-repressed from its strange hiding places through the centuries – are likely to be as depressed as the remaining high iconographers. Depressed and enraged. What about Bacchus and Ariadne? What price the dark decans on the walls of the Palazzo Schifanoia? Or Pollaiuolo’s grimacing supermen? There are exceptions, yes. Bull, as I say, reveres them with the rest of us. But they prove the rule, he believes. And the rule is mellifluousness, blandness, the easy appearance of energy and delight.

Mythological art – I shall call this strong thesis three – is largely sealed off from the true forward dynamic of naturalism which drives Renaissance painting. Its marginality meant that it tended to be mannered, stylistically – flat, fantastical, flowery, often more or less monochrome. Botticelli and Agostino di Duccio leap to mind in the later Quattrocento; and then the whole cadre of peripatetic Mannerists – Cellini, Rosso and Primaticcio, the erotic showmen of the court of Rudolf II – who criss-cross Europe two or three generations later. The fact that myths were most likely to appear, especially at the start of things, high up or low down, on cassone panels, friezes and ceilings (in contrast to a central artistic type like the altarpiece, whose world faced the viewer head on, and only a little above eye level) meant that rationalised space was almost never the artist’s main concern. ‘Mythologies are rarely to be found in positions where the viewer is likely to benefit from one-point perspective.’ The great new explorers of spatial illusionism – Masaccio, Ghiberti, Piero and the rest – were religious artists almost exclusively. Of course they were: the overwhelming majority of larger-scale painting commissions were for churches, family chapels, confraternities. ‘More than anything else, the stylistic limitations of mythological art are a result of the literal and symbolic marginality from which it emerges.’

At this point we begin to turn the dialectical corner. For there must be some advantages to marginality: there must be reasons for this particular form of marginality establishing itself as a constant presence in the visual culture of the rich; and the constant presence must surely have had an effect, over the centuries. Hence theses four and five. Neither is reassuring. According to thesis four, mythological image-making persisted primarily because it so perfectly served the interests of both Renaissance princes and Renaissance artists intent on showing off their new skills (which were now supposed to include a veneer of learning). Great sequences of the gods in action, revelling in their power, and dealing appropriately with Typhon, or Marsyas, or the Titans, or the mess in the Augean Stables, hardly needed decoding for diplomats and sycophants waiting in the outer office. The Christian tales of obedience were now supplemented by a pseudo-religion of force and lust. Artists provided what princes wanted, but they had their own stake in the game. They were widely supposed to be rivalling or surpassing the art of the ancients; and hadn’t the ancients told stories of the gods as one of their central tasks? Restaging the stories as convincingly as Apelles had done (or so one imagined) became integral to the best artists’ sense of themselves as a new kind of professional. Myth-making became part of their self-definition. That is why, from the mid-16th century on, so many artists’ town houses teem with Ganymedes, Cupids and Psyches and, inevitably, Apollo and the Muses. It was a symbiotic process. The interests of artists and despots dovetailed. They egged one another on.

Which leads to thesis five. The end result of the process just described was the emergence – or, at least, consolidation – of a fresh conceptualisation of the field of image-making, premised now on the notions of ‘art’ and ‘artist’, which in turn were more and more closely linked to the idea of brilliant untruth. Fantasia, favola, poesia: these terms, which spread in the ordinary language of appreciation all through the 16th century, map out an essentially new territory. Art was to be valued above all by the measure of its power to conjure improbable alternative worlds – to make the impossible lifelike. Renaissance art (and pre-eminently Renaissance mythologising) put in place in the culture a third category – a category which the upper classes came to take for granted – hovering somewhere between truth and lie. A whole family of images, in other words, ‘that were acknowledged to be false but were nevertheless permissible, provided they were sufficiently naturalistic or amenable to allegory’.

This is the cultural revolution. For ‘to a remarkable degree,’ Bull says, ‘the ancient world and the Christian civilisation that had emerged from it worked on the assumption that all cultural products were true – if not literally, then at some other level.’ Not any more. Impossibilities, tall tales, extended fantasies, images whose content no one believed in: these slowly became an entire culture, central to educated life. You would expect doctors of the church (or some of them) to complain, and they did:

Men pass their youth among the gods. At their leaving the schools, they find them again on the stage … You find them in your cantatas, songs, in the decorations of your apartments, gardens, and publick squares. Ingravings, pictures, poems, music, pleasant writings, learned dissertations, all in short conspire to show us … actions punished by the laws, and absurdities diametrically opposed to common sense.

Maybe the Abbé Pluche (his remarks were published in London in 1740) exaggerated. The ‘men’ in question were a privileged minority. But the cultural world they had made for themselves, and which so many of their children inhabited so unquestioningly for the next three centuries, was truly a strange one. As the culture of scientific inquiry established itself, taking the rhetoric of Truth for its own, the culture of humanism stood doubting or dreaming or making up nonsense in the wings.

This, then, is the world-picture of The Mirror of the Gods. It is a strong and unsettling one, which anybody interested in early modern culture will have to come to terms with. That I have tried to put it in the clearest and most pungent form I could manage doesn’t mean I agree with all of it. For someone reading this book in America, at a moment of neo-Christian and neo-Puritan revival, Bull’s determination not to be impressed by Renaissance eroticism – or not to credit erotic mythology with at least the possibility of opening onto a different (un-Christian) account of the world – is often dispiriting. ‘Ariadne is picked up by Bacchus as he cruises the beach in his luxurious tiger-powered car.’ Venus ‘had ensured victory by flashing Paris on an earlier visit’. ‘Lying in the bath looking at the frescoes on the ceiling’ – of Diana and Actaeon – ‘you might be tempted to amuse yourself by thinking about what might happen if someone peeped round the door.’ I know these forms of words are mainly meant to get up iconographers’ noses, but they do wear thin.

Similarly, I wonder about the dance of dominance and insubordination that inevitably comes with any engagement, however circumspect, with many of paganism’s central figures and stories. Bull thinks that in the Renaissance dominance wins hands down. No doubt this is true overall: but Bacchus and Venus (and even Pan and Marsyas) were not brought on stage merely to make everyone feel good about their agony or discomfiture, or smile at their bad behaviour. They gave form to a spectrum of human (and non-human) states and desires that Christian culture barely recognised. The Warburg in me, which takes some mobilising, occasionally protests at the briskness of The Mirror of the Gods. ‘A Roman,’ Bull says, ‘would have been astonished to find that Italians were all now the fanatical devotees of a Jewish sect which taught that the Roman divinities were demons.’ Quite so. And part of the appeal of mythologising on ceilings – part of what the ceilings’ marginality allowed certain artists to explore – was a wildness and monstrosity, or a beauty and implacability, that still shivered with the memory of the past.

There is, in other words, no shortage of things to dispute. Experts, I am sure, are sharpening their knives. But the book as a whole is tremendous. Unavoidably, in reviewing it, I have somewhat played up the side of Bull’s argument (and rhetoric) that is fleering and sceptical. I should make clear, finally, that the scepticism is always ambivalent, and full of dialectical energy. ‘Marginality’, for instance, is never simply a negative term. That the modern concept of art was born of the mutual back-scratching of princes and providers of visual services tells us something about the concept, but does not adjudicate, Bull is clear, on its ultimate effects. (He is no dismal epigone of Bourdieu.) In particular, readers of the book should be prepared to understand its final pages – where thesis five comes into its own – with passages from Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals somewhere in the back of their minds. Especially those in which Nietzsche rounds on the culture of science as he found it in his own day, and denounces it as the last refuge of the cult of Truth – meaning the last hiding place of the ascetic ideal. ‘Art,’ Nietzsche says,

in which precisely the lie hallows itself, in which the will to deception has good conscience on its side, is much more fundamentally opposed to the ascetic ideal than is science: this was sensed instinctively by Plato, this greatest enemy of art that Europe has yet produced. Plato contra Homer: that is the complete, the genuine antagonism – there the ‘otherworldly one’ with the best of wills, the great slanderer of life; here its involuntary deifier, golden nature.

I need hardly remind anyone what kind of future is being prepared, in Nietzsche’s view, by Homer’s and art’s willingness to live in harmony with the lie:

And here again I touch on my problem, on our problem, my unknown friends … What meaning would our entire being have if not this, that in us the will to Truth has come to consciousness of itself as a problem? … It is from the will to Truth’s becoming conscious of itself that from now on – there is no doubt about it – morality will gradually perish: that great spectacle in a hundred acts that is reserved for Europe’s next two centuries, the most terrible, most questionable, and perhaps also most hopeful of all spectacles.

Famous and dreadful words. One thing Bull has done in The Mirror of the Gods, it seems to me, is to write an account – or part of an account – of their prehistory. These ideas could only have been entertained in just this way, I believe he is saying, by a renegade classicist accustomed to wander the palaces of Genoa and Turin, looking unseriously at the ceiling.