July 18, 2013
The ancient world saw the birth of pantheons and singular gods who emerged as icons to be piously worshiped and duly feared (like the Greek word “thambos” suggests) but was particularly the heyday of mortals deified by deeds of such audacious character or so astounding a trait people could not refrain eventually granting them supernatural statute. From the much-revered Osiris to the now less popular Asclepius, faith elevated the extraordinary to heights unparalleled ever since and Antinous, reputedly the most handsome creature to have pleased the eyes of men, perhaps best exemplifies these hasty canonizations that were ultimately ensued by the plethora of mythological figures currently known.
But what did this ostensibly common youth, whose pulchritude seemed his sole distinctive feature, to deserve being an object of veneration for a cult even our contemporaries perpetuate?
What they all do: make themselves fervently loved.
Apparently, Antinous, a Bithynian Greek of no aristocratic breed, stirred a most unlikely passion in the eminent Roman Emperor Hadrian that would not cease to consume him the whole span of his lengthy life, which turns the case quite similar to Alexander and Hephaestion‘s. Thus the story goes that the named Augustus from Nervan-Antonine dynasty, being a declared philhellene who took a liking to the old Greek habits, penchant for homosexuality included, so ardently cherished the boy that when he was found drowned in the Nile river a whole sophisticated mechanism of propaganda ensured his place between the immortals. Countless statues bearing his marvelously beauteous features were consequently produced, sanctuaries erected to commemorate him and at one point Hadrian had coins struck with Antinous’ profile, a prerogative previously resumed to the gods or their earthly representatives, the Imperial family.
Across time, this most handsome lover of royalty secretly inspired all the gay intellectuals and J.J. Winckelmann, reputedly the father of art history, is said to have more ore less been influenced by Antinous in his pursuit of Greek and Roman culture.
How do you feel about it, though? to learn it’s outrageously easy to ascend a heavenly reputation through a very humane sovereign’s obsessive infatuation?
My, that’s love to shape destinies. Wonder what Freud would comment.
July 6, 2013
“There was a statue made not long since of Voltaire, which the sculptor, not having that respect for the prejudices of mankind which he ought to have, has made entirely naked and as meagre and emaciated as the original is said to be. The consequence is what might be expected; it has remained in the sculptor’s shop, though it was intended as a public ornament and a public honor to Voltaire, as it was procured at the expense of his contemporary wits and admirers.”
(Reynolds, “Seven Discourses on Art“)
Fortunately, since Pigalle’s Voltaire now neighbors Michelangelo’s Slaves in the Louvre with the blessing of a reputed curator, Reynold’s valuation of the peace doesn’t prove equitable enough to concur immediately. Indeed, the great philosopher’s nude realistically depicts the atrophied, skeletal physique of a septuagenarian crooked by age, secular and spiritual difficulties to an admirably small degree. No attempt to idealization being made, François-Marie Arouet‘s body appears feeble, humane in what may seem a depreciating way, as the English portraitist put it. Besides these features of decay, though, one can find that the sagacious expression on his face, together with a dynamic pose, redeem the decrepit members so as to convey the “triumph of mind over matter”.
And it was this victory Jean Baptiste Pigalle wanted to illustrate when “a literary society whose members included Diderot and d’Alembert (the authors of the Encyclopédie) decided to pay tribute to Voltaire” by commissioning a “marble statue in his likeness”.
Drawing inspiration from the majestic masterpieces of Greek and Roman art, Pigalle’s idea was to sculpt his model “entirely naked except for the flowing drapery that crosses his left shoulder and covers his loins. Such a portrayal, unprecedented in the modern period, caused a scandal and prompted a multitude of sarcastic comments, King Gustavus III of Sweden offering to contribute to the cost of a coat. Fearing ridicule, Voltaire attempted to dissuade the sculptor, but finally agreed to his project in the name of artistic freedom.”
But there’s no surprise such an “overly naturalist portrayal of the patriarch philosopher prompted unanimous disgust and rejection” since only “Jean-Antoine Houdon approach to the problem with a statue of Voltaire Seated, his whole body wrapped in swathes of timeless cloth” met with general approval and was finally displayed in the foyer of the Comédie Française.
It remained with the notorious sitter who eventually “bequeathed the work to his grand-nephew”, reaching the Louvre due to a donation at the beginning of the 19th century.
(Incidentally, the Louvre has an extended version of this article on its public site, from which descend all quotes here employed, plus a few more.)
So, what’s your personal opinion of it?
Mere tasteless representation of an old Voltaire or an image that rightfully invites to ponder on the triumph of mind over matter?
Having recently been to Austria (again) and inevitably but nevertheless unpremeditatedly stumbled upon an earthly remnant of the famed Sissi, Franz Joseph’s bohemian Empress, in the form of a palace called Kaiservilla, my fascination with her legend instantly rekindled. Thus I ended up buying yet another biography depicting the bizarre destiny of the much idolized monarch whose blazing icon still lingers over the lore-inspired part of our collective memory quite as if time would not attempt diminishing such rarefied a charm – although perhaps time in itself shares not half the merits for its transcendence in the detriment of intensive propaganda which doubtlessly enhances the Austrian economy with its touristic value. So, out of a melange of eagerness and spontaneous, exceptional magnanimity, I made my pecuniary contribution by purchasing Sophie Zavadill’s “Elisabeth, Empress of Austria” and Jean des Cars’ “Sissi, Empress of Austria” (do note I’m aware of the phenomenal difference between these two exceedingly dissimilar titles), managing to devour them in a bit under 2 days.
Here’s one delicious fragment to justify my enthusiasm and concomitantly provide an insight in Sissi’s complex personality:
‘During a carnival she and Ida Ferenczy attended a masked ball in secret. It was the Redoute, which is still held annually in the grand ballroom of the Hofburg. The emperor knew nothing of his wife’s escapade. She also deceived her servants by having herself undressed as usual, going to bed, and pretending to sleep – just as in a novel. When her servants had withdrawn, Ida Ferenczy slipped into her room with the fancy-dress costume, a magnificent yellow domino made of heavy brocade. Ida also brought the empress a red blonde wig and mask with long black tassels to completely cover her face. Ida wore a red domino and was also masked- as is still the custom at the Redoute.
‘The two slipped into the hall and at first only watched the goings-on from the the balcony. Elisabeth was fascinated. She had been to every sort of functioning by then but never to a masked ball. When she became tired of looking, the empress selected from the crownd a young man who was obviously without an escort. Ida brought him, a government employee in his late twenties, to the masked empress, who spent the rest of the evening in the company of this Fritz Pacher. She questioned him about politics, asked whether he was satisfied with the government, inquired what he thought of the empress and finally spoke about her favorite poet, Heinrich Heine. She flirted with the young man but could not be moved to lift her mask by a centimeter. The ball of the yellow domino was followed by a series of letters between the blonde “Gabrielle” and Pacher. These letters have survived and confirm the fairy-tale story.
”More than ten years later, Elisabeth wrote a poem called “Long, long ago: the song of the yellow domino”.’
(“Elisabeth, Empress of Austria” by Sophie Zavadill)