High-Spirited Barbarians

Lawrence Stone

  • History and Its Images: Art and the Interpretation of the Past by Francis Haskell
    Yale, 558 pp, £29.95, June 1993, ISBN 0 300 05540 4

Today, multi-disciplinary, inter-disciplinary and multi-cultural studies are all the rage. They are, however, far more often preached than practised, in both Britain and America. During the 20th century, the rigidity and strength of the barriers separating discipline from discipline have become ever more impregnable as the institutional departmental structure has grown more politically powerful within universities. As a result, the training offered in schools and universities has grown narrower as it has become more professional. The free spirit ranging across the disciplines in order to tackle new problems or to look at old ones in new ways is nowadays likely to pay a high price in career promotion and professional esteem. Forty years ago, I could write and get published a standard textbook about English medieval sculpture, without having attended a single course in art history. So scandalous an episode would be unthinkable today, when everyone is busy protecting his turf from raiders from outside.

There are signs here and there, however, that things may be changing. Harvard has long run a very successful and high-powered history and literature programme for undergraduates, as does Oxford, which is also just embarking on a similar marriage of history and art history. The barriers between scientific departments are already visibly crumbling as chemistry and biology blend together. Similarly, on the practical side, it is slowly dawning on us that it is useless to leave the planning of road systems to engineers, since new motorways merely create new spatial links and new social connections that soon produce more congestion on the new roads. Traffic, in short, is both in constant flux and the result of social choice. Only a multi-disciplinary approach has the remotest chance of adapting to this exasperating fluidity.

It is against this general intellectual background that has to be set this vast, immensely learned, superbly illustrated, and deeply depressing volume by Francis Haskell, which tracks the futile efforts of historians, century after century, to make some credible and non-ideological use of the visual records of the past. What, he asks, has been the impact of the image on the historical imagination? His short answer is: little, and most of it wrong. The causes of this failure are fairly clear. First of all, images are often not what they seem. Are they authentic or fakes? What was the purpose for which they were made? After all, art for art’s sake is a very recent idea, especially in the minds of patrons. What is the message an image is trying to convey? That is what the iconographer is supposed to tell us. What impression do they make on us? Do we find them beautiful or ugly, and if so why? Here, clearly, the answer lies in the swings of fashion. For example, in the 17th century, the cultivated Roger North found the stupendous Romanesque pillars of Durham Cathedral evidence of the work of ‘an extraordinarily high-spirited Barbarian’.

The story begins with the early Renaissance, when historians first turned to numismatists to identify the faces of emperors on coins and medals, and to put dates to them. (Vico stressed the dignity ascribed to an imperial likeness, which forbade it being taken into brothels – obscene medals were used instead.) The trouble came when historians used the images on coins or medals to identify un-inscribéd marble busts. This was always a dubious procedure, especially since most of the marbles were broken and had been restored. Worse still was the use made of these portraits to draw conclusions about character: Nero looked like the debauched thug he was, etc. Worst of all, by the 17th century, most of the kings of Europe had re-created their ancestors to suit their own purposes: when in 1726 Daniel Defoe visited the portrait gallery of the kings of Scotland at Holyroodhouse, he had no doubt that they were ‘all guesswork’. But pictorial displays always had a propaganda purpose, often celebrating past victories in battle, as with the Armada tapestries which hung in splendour in the House of Lords. The faded paintings in the early Christian catacombs of Rome caused special problems, since Protestants could not endure the idea that early Christians were not as iconoclastic as they were themselves.

At this point in the story Haskell abruptly stops his narrative for a long disquisition on quality: what is beauty or ugliness? The 15th century, for example, worried that Roman art was in full decay before the barbarians arrived at the gates. Could Christianity be to blame? Or was it inevitable, a matter of the ineluctable rise and fall of civilisations? Whatever the explanation, late antique art had few defenders before the 20th century.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, scholars published huge multi-volume folio compilations of engravings of antiquities. They were carefully done, but they were not serious works of history. They were not arranged in chronological order, they ignored stylistic changes, and they often included many forgeries. Not until shortly before the French Revolution – just before the great iconoclastic purge of 1793, when 51 royal tombs in St Denis were destroyed by sledgehammer in a mere 72 hours – did more scholarly work begin. The surviving sculptures of the French monarchy were recorded; vast collections of medals were assembled – one patron owned 17,000; and the Bayeux Tapestry was discovered, carefully copied, and brought to Paris by Napoleon in order to give his invasion of England a historical justification. The tapestry was agreed by historians to be useful for the study of costume and manners, but the English hastened to point out that the story was heavily biased towards the French. Once again, art had failed history.

Other scholars visited the huge museums of antique sculpture in Florence and Rome – and put the data to perverse use. Some simply ignored what they had seen. Thus Montesquieu and Gibbon argued that the decline of Roman art in the middle of the third century matched the decline of Roman civilisation as a whole, but according to Haskell, they made no serious use of all they knew about the art history of Antiquity. Great art collectors and antiquarians of the 18th century did little better. Caylus, an immensely learned antiquary, published seven great volumes of antiquities, but put them, in no chronological order, advanced no theory or system to control the arrangement, and filled his pages with engravings of artifacts which were damaged, misdated or plain fakes. Voltaire dismissed another famous antiquary as ‘a prolix and useless compiler’, but he himself stuffed art in at the back of his Siècle de Louis XIV as a kind of supplement.

Only in the 19th century, according to Haskell, did historians begin seriously to look at and use art as an indicator of society. But now it fell victim to ideology. Winckelmann ignored Christianity and linked the flourishing of the arts to the flourishing of liberty. To make the evidence fit the theory, he had to fudge the dates of two of the most famous pieces of Roman sculpture, the Belvedere torso and the head of Antinous. By way of contrast, Pugin used images to illustrate the spirit of the time, but tied them to a theory that Christian faith was reflected only in the true Gothic style of the Middle Ages.

Above all, art was used as propaganda for the Nation and the Monarchy, especially at Versailles, which after 1833 was filled with contemporary paintings of glorious events in the past, sometimes with vague attempts at authenticity. Haskell thinks as little of these efforts to harness art to nationalism as he does of all that went before them. His heroes, if there are any, are Michelet and Huizinga. Ruskin studied Venetian art in order to demonstrate his prior conviction that its decadence began after 1416, arguing that ‘the decline of her political prosperity was exactly coincident with that of domestic and individual religion.’ Burckhardt in his great Civilisation of the Renaissance is accused of ‘neglecting the visual arts and lacking any understanding of the relation of art to history’. The example Haskell offers is Burckhardt’s reference to Can Grande della Scala as a patron of literature, which does not even mention his stunning tomb at Verona. He also, as Haskell points out, devoted only one line to the beauty of the Italian landscape. Burckhardt admitted that the political leaders he admired were bloodthirsty tyrants, but excused them on grounds of their cultivation of literature. Haskell’s conclusion is that Burckhardt ‘barely refers to art’, and thus failed to combine history and art history. For him, art was ‘an inspiration and a shaping spirit rather than a document in any strict sense’.

In the 19th century, the growing interest in social history led at last to a convergence of views. Folklorists were everywhere combing the countryside for popular literature, and art historians turned their attention to low art, such as the rough bawdy of misericords. For historical purposes caricature was more reliable than the great art of the age. Only Warburg – despite the fact that, like Michelet, he hated the Middle Ages, seeing them as a threat to civilisation – was capable of juxtaposing the two. Haskell is at last prepared to acknowledge a success.

Haskell’s hero, however, is Huizinga, whose Waning of the Middle Ages was first published in English translation in 1924. Huizinga was in the end convinced that Flemish realism was the last gasp of a society in decay, rather than evidence of a northern Renaissance. It was not until 1902 that a major exhibition was held in Bruges under the title ‘Flemish Primitives’ – meaning Flemings dedicated to naturalism and realism and unaffected by the Italian Renaissance. Earlier scholars are examined but Haskell finds that they fail the test. Of Schlegel he says: ‘it is not always easy to follow his reasoning.’ Of Laborde that his ‘independence of judgment ... is impressive but not always convincing’.

Haskell’s chapter on Huizinga is the longest and most profound, even if the acerbic note of criticism, the preoccupation with failure, are still present. But here at last was a historian whose evidence was primarily works of art – namely, the paintings of the brothers Van Eyck and their followers. Yet in his interpretation of them, Haskell is surely unfair to say that ‘sterility of the imagination lies at the heart of Huizinga’s conception of the waning Middle Ages.’

What is one to make of this fascinating, amazingly erudite, rambling set of essays, which reveal the intellectual and aesthetic failure of generation after generation of historians to grapple successfully with the evidence offered by the visual image? There is no book quite like this, and I doubt if it will ever have a competitor. Haskell’s sceptical dismissal of all his predecessors is ultimately jarring, despite the obvious justice of much of the criticism, and the splendour of the illustrations. Above all the book lacks an arrangement, or an argument, or a theory to hold it together. As such it is a triumph of British empiricism, with all its virtues of immense erudition, scrupulous attention to detail, dogged common sense and a jaundiced view of fellow workers in the field. Where is truth? Haskell scrupulously does not say. Reading his book is almost – but thank God, not quite – enough to push one into a Post-Modernist denial of its very existence.