Vol. 6 No. 4 · 1 March 1984

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The Venetian Exhibition

SIR: The claim made by Lawrence Gowing in his compelling review (LRB, 2 February) of the magnificent exhibition of Venetian art at the Royal Academy that Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas is ‘as consistently and in detail as finely wrought’ as those other late pictures which we know that the artist ‘valued and sold’ must surely surprise anyone who realises that the most obvious example of these is the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Rape of Lucretia hanging near the Flaying of Marsyas on the Academy’s walls. It is true that the crown worn by Midas in the Flaying of Marsyas is painted with the same precision as the similar jewellery worn by Lucretia, and the old king’s expression could hardly be more effectively painted: but many parts of the Flaying of Marsyas seem imperfectly resolved – which is not the case with the Fitzwilliam picture. For instance, the important figure of the kneeling Apollo, so strangely severed in two by his drapery, is flesh and blood in front, ghost behind. No less worrying are the smudgy features of the child satyr and the unagonised expression of Marsyas which Gowing, poetically but not quite plausibly, interprets as the vacancy of a trance (Titian having put down his Ovid and taken up Plato and Dante). Surely Titian meant to give more definition to the foliage and to strengthen the extraordinary blood-red ribbons hanging there – without diminishing the flurried brushwork of the sky. Can anyone decipher the object (a rag?) which the satyr holding a bucket has in his other hand?

The picture is surely best explained by the hypothesis concerning Titian’s late works advanced by Charles Hope. It looks as if the artist, who relished the slow evolution of his pictures, delayed the completion of this one until his eye and hand had (as contemporaries reported) begun to fail. In signing it he was, I suppose, conceding that he could do no more, and perhaps discouraging others from attempting to do so. It should be added that discussion of this controversial problem is not helped by the fact that much of the surface of Flaying of Marsyas, although still highly exciting, seems to have been worn. That the picture has also been drastically trimmed is suggested by the jagged edge of the original canvas clearly visible at one point on its lining, despite the frame. Titian cannot have intended the child satyr to have no legs and Apollo no right foot.

Nicholas Penny
King’s College, Cambridge

Lawrence Gowing writes: Nicholas Penny’s opinion that Titian intended the head of Midas but not the head of Marsyas in the picture that we have the chance to see at Burlington House is exactly the kind of subjective judgment that comes between us and the surprises of great painting. He may not fancy the rapt gleam in Marsyas’s eyes, the look almost of serenity, but I shall be surprised if anyone who has looked closely at the work of this time does not recognise Titian’s touch and his intention. It is of course true, as the painter wrote, that few late pictures gave him as much trouble as the Fitzwilliam Lucretia. Examination of his method shows that the typical works of the time would never have looked like this Lucretia (which recalls a more descriptive, earlier manner) however long he had worked on them. That is no reason for downgrading them or blinding oneself to what is unique and unforeseeable in art.


SIR: Is this plagiarism? In my history of Armenia, published in 1980, I wrote thus of the sufferings of the Armenians of Moush in 1915: ‘fingernails pulled out, limbs twisted, teeth knocked out, noses beaten down; and the wives and daughters were raped in public before their broken menfolk’ (page 211). In D.M. Thomas’s novel Ararat (1983, shortly to be issued in paperback) one of his characters speaks of ‘teeth knocked out, nails pulled out, limbs twisted, noses beaten down, the rape of wives and daughters in the presence of their menfolk’ (page 37).

Christopher J. Walker, page 212: ‘From the villages … around Moush the men were rounded up on 10 July … special forces … herded them into concentration camps and bayoneted them all … the women and children … were driven out of the city into specially prepared large wooden sheds … these were then set on fire … Before the massacre of Moush 60,000 Armenians had been living in the town and surrounding villages of the plain; very few survived. D.M. Thomas, page 37: ‘We rounded up all the male villagers from around Moush on 10 July: herded them into concentration camps and bayoneted them. The women and children we drove into large wooden sheds and set fire to them. Of the 60,000 Armenians who had been living in Moush very few survived.’

C.J.W., page 213:

Men were separated from the rest, and killed on the spot. Women and elderly men had to go on … Many were attacked in the early stages of the journey, and their clothes were taken from them. When they reached the Kemakh gorge … their hands were tied behind their backs. The order was given to kill them by pushing them over … probably 20,000 to 25,000 Armenians of Erzindjan were slaughtered, and of these about half at the Kemakh gorge.

D.M.T., page 38:

Soon after we left the town, we separated the men from the others, and killed them. The women and children went on. Many were attacked in the early stages of their journey and their clothes taken from them. When they reached the Kemakh gorge, overlooking the Euphrates, we tied their hands behind their backs. I gave the orders to pitch them over into the gorge. Probably 25,000 Armenians of Erzindjan were slaughtered, about half of them at the Kemakh gorge.

On page 217 I quoted from the memoirs (1946) of Professor Leon Surmelian.

I saw a woman’s nude body in the river, which was rather shallow here. Her long hair floated down the current, her bloated white abdomen glistened in the sun. I noticed that one of her breasts was cut off. Further up I saw another body, this time a man’s; then a human arm caught up in the roots of a tree … When, some minutes later, I looked at the river again, I saw a long, long band of frothy blood clinging to its banks.

D.M.T., page38:

It was rather shallow, and I saw a woman’s nude body in the river. Her long hair floated down the current, her bloated white belly gleamed in the sun. I noticed that one of her breasts was cut off. I was therefore sure it was not the responsibility of my own troops. I saw other bodies, and a human arm caught up in the roots of a tree … Then I saw a long band of frothy blood clinging to the bank.

Historians expect their books to be used and quoted from. I’m not so sure they expect their words to end up almost verbatim in the mouth of another author’s fictional character. My version of the events of 1915 had been worked over with care from long, verbose originals. If Mr Thomas had wanted authenticity, he could have read those originals, and worked from them himself. If he had sought imagination, could he not have used his own faculties, rather than mine and Professor Surmelian’s? Thomas acknowledges in his Author’s Note that my book is ‘the principal source for factual details relating to the Armenian massacres and diaspora’. If that is meant to appease me for what follows, it doesn’t.

Christopher J. Walker
London W14

The Dynamitards

SIR: Uninspiring and ineffectual though he was, Mr Humphrey Atkins was not the worst of British Government Secretaries for Northern Ireland. Therefore he should not be credited with the words of the late Reginald Maulding about settling for an ‘acceptable level of violence’ (LRB, 19 January) even if he may well have shared the sentiment ten years later.

Eamon Delaney
Co. Galway.

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