What is Venus, or rather the nude woman, doing in Velásquez’s Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery? Looking at her face in a mirror held for her by Cupid. Or so it seems to me; also to every visitor to the Gallery whose opinion I have sought, and to the mid-17th-century compiler of the inventory of paintings belonging to the picture’s first owner, Don Gaspar Méndez de Haro y Guzmán. But in recent decades art historians have considered another possibility: the woman is contemplating her own genitals in the mirror; her face is merely what we see reflected in it.
Before dismissing this, it is worth recalling that another celebrated painting in the National Gallery, that by Rembrandt showing a woman looking down and smiling as she stands in a stream with her smock raised, was described in a mid-18th-century sale catalogue as ‘a woman going into the Water holding her Coat pretty high, and laughing at what she sees reflected’. This interpretation would not occur to most viewers today, yet there was a streak of lewdness in Rembrandt which may make us hesitate to reject it. Velásquez’s woman may not be a goddess, but she is nude, not naked. Her pose is irreconcilable with the efficient performance of the act in question and her grace is hardly compatible with so low and ludicrous a subject.
In Only Connect John Shearman also objects to this theory, not for prudish reasons but on technical grounds: Velásquez ‘has not given us the geometrical information that would allow such a calculation to be made’. However, Shearman feels that he does have enough information to dismiss as a ‘common error’ the idea that the woman is looking at her own face, and offers in its place a proposal of his own: ‘It is a simple optical truth that if we can see her face, she can see ours.’ Acknowledgment of this truth will, he supposes, change our understanding of the picture: ‘just as we feel ourselves more engaged, so the Rokeby Venus seems more electric than it did before ... the viewer is not external to the plot.’
The beholder’s part in paintings of the Italian Renaissance is Shearman’s chief concern in Only Connect; it is exceptional for him to discuss 17th-century paintings. He explains how the saints gathered around the Virgin and Child in Renaissance altarpieces began not only to participate in collective reverence or animated discussion but to occupy the same space as those who viewed them and to acknowledge our presence and even to involve us – or at least the contemporary worshipper – as well. This tendency culminates in a painting such as Correggio’s altarpiece in Dresden’s Gemäldegalerie, in which the central figure is San Gimignano, ‘patron saint of Modena and so of the implied spectator’. Having left his model of the city in the care of a child angel, San Gimignano is ‘free to perform an unusually complex and dramatic role: he turns to point out to us, with one hand, the vision of salvation – the answer, perhaps, to our prayers – while with the other he recommends us to the Virgin’s mercy. To perform efficaciously his intercessory function the saint is moved so close that he seems to lean across into the liminal space.’
Correggio’s altarpiece is a painting we are invited to enter, a painting with a precarious composition and a pivotal figure who seems to have lost his balance in his attempt to reach out towards us. In Pontormo’s great altarpiece of the Entombment in the Capponi Chapel in Santa Felicità, Florence, ‘Christ is being taken to a tomb in the spectator’s space’ – Shearman is uncertain whether he will be ‘placed like the Eucharist on the altar’ or in the burial vault which lies below the paving in front of the altar. And in his condensed and erudite exposition of the evolving ideas for dome decoration, which culminated in the works of Raphael and Correggio, he observes how the establishment of a ‘perspectival or visually logical continuum between the real world and the pictorial space’ permits us to conceive of the action depicted moving out of our world and into the painted scene and vice versa.
Most rewarding of all the chapters is the one on the Renaissance portrait, which is crowded with insights concerning the impact such paintings may originally have had before their devices became commonplace. Shearman asks from where a work of art was meant to be seen. What did the artist anticipate as the beholder’s position? He is also acutely aware of the major distortions that minor alterations to paintings can cause (hence, for example, the meticulous accounts of condition in his splendid catalogue of the Early Italian Pictures in the Royal Collection). Noting the columns that have been cut from the sides of the Mona Lisa, he proposes that Leonardo intended ‘the fiction ... that she sat in the high-columned loggia ... the introduction of the chair, aligned with the loggia rather than with the figure, makes it the more obvious that her posture is turning, is momentary, contingent on our appearance in the same loggia.’ Of Raphael’s portrait of Julius II he observes that one of its ‘most profound innovations’ is ‘that we are placed very close to the Pope, but off to one side and looking down, even onto the gilded Della Rovere acorns on the throne. In other words, we are placed as if standing before Julius.’ These are observations which we immediately know to be just, for we have already, even if only subliminally or vestigially, felt ourselves to be in the very relationships with those sitters that he describes.
Shearman has been writing about such subjects for more than thirty years. The chapter on domes, for example, takes up some of the themes of his article on Raphael’s Chigi Chapel (1961); Pontormo’s Entombment was the subject of a lecture delivered in 1968; some of the discussion of altarpieces and of portraiture is adumbrated in his monograph on Andrea del Sarto (1965). Only Connect is based on the A.W. Mellon Lectures he gave in 1988 and does not set out to provide a complete account of the evolution of each major method of engaging the viewer during the Ranaissance, but in the case of the portrait and of the dome he does supply a full history as well as a highly stimulating one.
The book is so subtle and suggestive in its exploration of the different ways and levels in which the viewer is, or was, ‘drawn into the plot’, that it takes some time to realise how little attention Shearman has given to ways in which we might be engrossed by a picture without being grabbed or beckoned or smiled at by a figure within it. Only once does he touch on what might he defined as the imaginative involvement generated by the viewer’s quasi-voyeuristic invisibility: when he notes of certain absent, musing or melancholy sitters in Renaissance portraits that ‘in such cases, when the viewer is made to feel that, in a sense, he ought not to be present, he is all the more aware that he is.’ This is an admirably precise description and one which may also describe our feelings in front of many paintings which are not portraits. The paradox is that there is a type of imaginative engagement which is conditional on our not being ‘drawn into the plot’.
In Velásquez’s Rokeby Venus we are ‘external to the plot’ and that is precisely why the painting engages us. The woman’s features in the black frame of the looking-glass are shadowy and unfocused. Some people find in them hints of sadness, others hints of feline contentment (Dryden’s beauty who, ‘conscious of her form, in secret smiles’), but her look is certainly in some sense absent. Eyes painted like this are impossible to catch or to suppose to be catching ours. It is true that she could see anyone who sees her but that does not mean she has done so. Shearman is surely wrong about how this painting works. And yet every claim that he makes for the Velásquez is true of other paintings discussed here, most notably Titian’s Venus in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, who also looks into a glass held by Cupid but whose reflected eye so quickly and startlingly catches ours.
It is correct to emphasise that Velásquez and his patrons were familiar with 16th-century Venetian paintings – indeed, the Venus was painted as a companion for one. But even if Velásquez adopted the same device as Titian, that need not mean that he adopted it for the same purpose. Moreover, Shearman greatly exaggerates the degree to which patrons were capable of picking up specific references to other works of art and the degree to which artists intended their visual sources to be recognised, and to carry meaning.
A sash passes diagonally across the drapery of the Virgin in Parmigianino’s Madonna of the Long Neck in the Uffizi. A similar band passes in the opposite direction across the breast of the Virgin in Michelangelo’s Pietà. It seems probable that Michelangelo had seen the quiver straps in antique marble statues of Diana, although these always pass in the opposite direction – in the same direction as Parmigianino’s sash. Shearman proposes a public which was not only so learned that it would have recognised Parmigianino’s sash as a reference to Michelangelo’s, but would also have known that an antique Diana had inspired Michelangelo, and would thus appreciate the significance of Parmigianino’s ‘re-reversing’ the direction. But couldn’t Parmigianino have taken the idea directly from the antique? Shearman doesn’t see the sash merely as a formal quotation (or rather quotation of a quotation), but proposes that Parmigianino wished to associate his Virgin with Michelangelo’s in order to remind us that she will one day carry the dead body of her son. He also contends that Michelangelo wanted us to see his Virgin as a Christian Diana. ‘This last proposal would not have been impossible in a poem of the period but is highly improbable in a work of art in a chapel.
As if to anticipate the objection that the public would not have looked at art in quite this way, Shearman repeatedly cites the way in which Ariosto and other court poets alluded to earlier poems. But he nowhere concedes what is surely a crucial difference: the learned public for whom Ariosto wrote had not just read and reread but had memorised the passages from the classics he imitated – lovers of Parmigianino’s paintings, however sophisticated, had no such training in memorising images.
Shearman’s Introduction begins with an anecdote about a ‘colleague in comparative literature’ who ‘attacked’ the author during the boring wait at a graduation ceremony by asking when art historians were going to start ‘interpreting’. Although Only Connect is based on a series of public lectures, it seems rather to address other professors. Hence the defensive methodological preambles, also the occasional winks and whimsy. At times Shearman aspires to emulate the highwire exegesis in favour with professors of (or in) literature.
Having politely dismantled some of the crazy theories other scholars have advanced about Donatello’s bronze sculpture of a beautiful nude David, Shearman unveils his own interpretation: ‘The meaning of names is important in Renaissance art, and David means beloved.’ Did artists or their patrons really bother much about etymology? A footnote gives only one example, Domenico Veneziano’s St Lucy Altarpiece. Lucy means ‘light’ ‘and Domenico’s picture is a unique celebration of light.’ Well, yes, but so are Domenico’s other pictures and the light falls on all the figures in the altarpiece.
Several pages later Shearman writes that it was a familiar poetic comparison for the beloved to be described as ‘more cruel and more beautiful than Judith was to Holofernes, or David to Goliath’. If true, this is curious, for nowhere in the Bible is Goliath described as a lover of David or even as being in love with him, or indeed as in any way acquainted with him. Shearman cites a passage in Petrarch in which the poet observes that ‘even David wept for the deaths of Absalom and of Saul.’ But that hardly supports his case; it merely asserts that even a warrior can have a soft heart. A footnote mentions Boccaccio’s ‘Rime’ in which Love is reproached for Judith’s murder of Holofernes and for David’s adultery and ‘homicidal acts’ – surely a reference to the story of Bathsheba. A staggering statement follows: ‘That the nature of the relationship between the triumphant David and his victim is homoerotic is obvious, at least to me; but with the narrative material at hand, I think that it could not easily or straightforwardly he otherwise.’ And yet depictions of this exemplary narrative of the handsome giant-killer were deemed suitable to adorn chests intended for the bedchambers of Florentine brides.
Not all the sorties into literature in this book are so perplexing and fruitless as this one. Indeed, they are often highly illuminating, especially in the chapter on portraiture, which relates innovations in the viewer’s engagement in portraits to the conventions found in poems on portraits. The discussion of that most touchingly intimate and subtle of portraits, Raphael’s Castiglione, dwells on the sitter’s elegy, written only a year or so afterwards, in which he has his young wife, Ippolita Torelli, describe the consolation the portrait affords in his absence. Shearman may not know – at any rate he does not mention – that one of the most beautiful paintings by the artist, art historian and civil servant Sir Charles Eastlake, the first and greatest director of the National Gallery, represented Castiglione’s wife looking tenderly out of the picture as if at the portrait of him. This really is a case of a painting inspired both by literature and by other paintings, and addressed to a very sophisticated public. (The clue to the picture’s meaning was given in the catalogue of the Royal Academy exhibition where it was first shown. The painting, alas, was destroyed earlier in this century but is known from photographs.)
To a connoisseur today the idea of being wholly absorbed by the fiction of a painting seems naive, as it did not in the Renaissance. Nevertheless, it may he significant that Castiglione attributed to his young wife and to their child the idea that the image of him was about to nod and smile and speak. The notion that visual art offers special pleasures to the less educated, that the power it possesses may be both stronger and simpler, more magical in effect, than that of books, has a long history in literature itself.