Monthly Archives: March 2014

True or not? Actors were once considered ‘professional liars’ and denied a Christian burial

Adrienne Lecouvreur as Cornelia  by Charles-Antoine Coypel

Too often I have been disappointed in trivia I had learnt as a teenager which I had for many years accepted as common knowledge, like the fact that eskimoes have an inordinate amount of words for the word ‘snow’, or the Victorians being prudish to the point that they covered their piano legs with embroidery to hide them from view.

Both the story of the snow and the piano legs turned out to be common misconceptions.

So I am pleased that what I had always accepted as fact, that actors were denied a Christian burial, does appear to be true.

Proof: French actress Adrienne Lecouvreur (1692 – 1730) who was refused a Christian burial by the Catholic Church upon which her friend Voltaire wrote the caustic poem, “Sur la mort d’Adrienne Lecouvreur“.

Why were actors refused a Christian burial?

Because — according to them — an actor is a liar.

This goes back to Plato, who said that fiction is untruth and untruths are lies. And we should not tell our children lies if we do not want to corrupt them.

Following his reasoning, actors are actually professional liars

Illustration: Adrienne Lecouvreur as Cornelia by Charles-Antoine Coypel

I am a god in the deepest core of my thoughts

A Pilgrimage to San Isidro (1819–23) by Francisco de Goya

Detail of A Pilgrimage to San Isidro (1819–23) by Francisco de Goya

I’m a stickler for firsts and origins, almost childishly so, or at least obsessively.

While researching Goya I stumbled on a letter by Goya to Bernardo de Iriarte dated January 4, 1794, in which I read:

I have devoted myself to painting a group of pictures in which I have succeeded in making observations for which there is normally no opportunity in commissioned works, which give no scope for fantasy and invention.” (tr. Enriqueta Harris)

Goya’s insistence on his artistic freedom (key to the notion of “romantic originality“) in making art with ‘fantasy‘ and ‘invention‘ “for which there is normally no opportunity in commissioned works” makes this dictum one of the candidates for a Manifesto of Romanticism.

Other dicta which emphasize the egomaniac (wording by Nordau) importance the Romantics placed on untrammelled feeling is the remark of the German painter Caspar David Friedrich that “the artist’s feeling is his law” and William Wordsworth‘s ascertainment that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings“.

In the Dutch language, the poet Willem Kloos said “I am a god in the deepest core of my thoughts,” giving voice to the Romantic conception of the artist.

Goya was a god too (and perhaps the first Romantic painter) though not a god that sought to please, soothe, nor comfort.

Illustration: A Pilgrimage to San Isidro, one of the black paintings by Goya

Ginzburg’s clues and Terence’s Danaë

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As you may have noticed [1] [2], I currently have a crush on the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg. In the latter’s Titian, Ovid, and sixteenth-century codes for erotic illustration is a record of what may be the very first description (an ekphrasis) of an erotic painting, found in Terence’s play Eunuchus.

The scene is like this:

Chaerea, a young Athenian man, spots the girl Pamphila and falls in love with her. He follows her to her house where he substitutes for a eunuch. While Pamphila’s servants prepare her bath, she looks at a painting of Danae and so does Chaerea.

“While preparations were being made, the damsel sat in a room looking up at a certain painting, in which was represented how Jove is said once to have sent a golden shower into the bosom of Danaë.” [3]

Chaerea resolves to follow the example of Jove (Jupiter) — the supreme seducer of Greek mythology — and sleeps with the girl. Some accounts speak of rape:

“a picture of Danae and the golden shower in her lap inflames a young man with such lust and such envy of Jupiter’s sexual agency that he rapes the object of his desire”[4].

The following is (as always) is the part I love. Negative reviews of finger-wagging detractors:

The finger-wagger is Saint Augustine who in the words of Ginzburg intends to “demonstrate the evil effects of lascivious pictures.”

In City of God Augustine says:

“Hence the young profligate in Terence, when he sees on the wall a fresco representing the fabled descent of Jupiter into the lap of Danae in the form of a golden shower, accepts this as authoritative precedent for his own licentiousness, and boasts that he is an imitator of God.”[5]

And that same Saint Augustine on the same passage in Confessions:

“Hence words are learnt; hence eloquence; most necessary to gain your ends, or maintain opinions.” As if we should have never known such words as “golden shower,” “lap,” “beguile,” “temples of the heavens,” or others in that passage, unless Terence had brought a lewd youth upon the stage, setting up Jupiter as his example of seduction.
“Viewing a picture, where the tale was drawn,
Of Jove’s descending in a golden shower
To Danae’s lap a woman to beguile.”
And then mark how he excites himself to lust as by celestial authority:
“And what God? Great Jove,
Who shakes heaven’s highest temples with his thunder,
And I, poor mortal man, not do the same!
I did it, and with all my heart I did it.”[6]

The best Danae is still Klimt’s. I previously posted it here[7].

‘Libri idiotarum’ and the triumph of Christianity

It’s nice to find a Google query with more hits in Google Books than in Google itself.

Such is the case with “libri idiotarum,” 47 hits in Google [1] and 215 in Google Books[2] (see also the Google NGram view[3].)

Libri idiotarum” means “books of the ignorant” or “books for the illiterate” (idiot did not mean what it means today). The expression was first recorded in a letter by Pope Gregory I:

“For pictorial representation is made use of in Churches for this reason; that such as are ignorant of letters may at least read by looking at the walls what they cannot read in books.”[4]

Gregory refers to paintings, illustrations, sculpture and other visual representations used in Christian art to spread the the gospel in an era when only the clergy and the nobility were able to read.

For these unfortunate illiterate souls, the biblia pauperum (an illustrated bible) was also made.

But apart from being literate or illiterate, a picture is worth a thousand words.

N’est-ce pas?

Illustration: Triumph of Christianity

The details and the big picture

Portrait of Giovanni Morelli by Franz von Lenbach in the Accademia Carrara

I’ve just canonized Giovanni Morelli  (1816 – 1891) and Carlo Ginzburg (born 1939).

Morelli for paying attention to the details, Ginzburg for painting the big picture.

Morelli on the details:

“Except the face, probably no part of the human body is more characteristic, individual, significant, and expressive than the hand; to represent it satisfactorily has ever been one of the chief difficulties which artists have had to contend with, and one which only the greatest have been completely successful in overcoming. Of this, both painting and sculpture afford us ample proof. I have given a few examples of characteristic hands.” —Italian Painters[2]

Ginzburg on the big picture:

“… kinds of knowledge which tend to be unspoken, whose rules […] do not easily lend themselves to being formally articulated or even spoken aloud. Nobody learns how to be a connoisseur or a diagnostician simply by applying the rules. With this kind of knowledge there are factors in play which cannot be measured-a whiff, a glance, an intuition.” –“Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes

Whiffsglances and intuitions are all examples of infrathin, that fine and fuzzy concept of Marcel Duchamp.

Eerie ears

Ears from Italian Painters

Ears from “Italian Painters”[1]


Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method by Carlo Ginzburg, a text famous for connecting Italian art critic Giovanni Morelli, British fictional character Sherlock Holmes and Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud.

From that text:

“Morelli’s books look different from those of any other writer on art. They are sprinkled with illustrations of fingers and ears, careful records of the characteristic trifles by which an artist gives himself away, as a criminal might be spotted by a fingerprint . . . any art gallery studied by Morelli begins to resemble a rogues’ gallery . . .” (Wind 1963:40-41)

‘The Temple of Iconoclasts’ by Juan Rodolfo Wilcock

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My brother told me about the enigmatic book, The Temple of Iconoclasts by Argentine writer Juan Rodolfo Wilcock. The work fits in the tradition of Imaginary Lives (1896, see previous post) by Marcel Schwob, Jorge Luis Borges’ A Universal History of Infamy and Alfonso Reyes’s Real And Imagined Portraits, in which the line between fact and fiction is blurred.

In Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches, 1998-2003Roberto Bolaño has this to say:

The Temple of Iconoclasts is one of the best books of the twentieth century. … Some of his characters are real historical figures, like Hans Hörbiger, the Austrian scientist who advanced the theory of successive moons and counted Hitler among … Owing a debt to BorgesAlfonso Reyes, and Marcel Schwob, who in turn owe a debt, in the manner of funhouse mirrors, to the prose of the encyclopedistsThe Temple of Iconoclasts is a collection of biographies of mad inventors, adventurers, scientists, and the odd artist. 

See also: fictional encyclopedia.

Marcel Schwob’s ‘Imaginary Lives’

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I’m told that Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Livesa collection of twenty-two semi-biographical short stories by Marcel Schwob is, — by virtue of its mixing of known and fantastical elements — the first example of fictional biography.

Is that true?

I decide to delve in.

What about the historicity of other biographies?

I find the genre de viris illustribus, meaning “On Illustrious / Famous Men”, a trope of ancient Roman exemplary literature that was revived during the Italian Renaissance and inspired the assembly or commissioning of series of portraits of outstanding men— and sometimes, by the sixteenth century, of outstanding women as well— with a high didactic purpose. Historicity? Dubious.

I find Parallel Lives by Plutarch, criticized for its lack of judicious discrimination in use of authorities and the consequent errors and inaccuracies.

I find Lives of the Saints and I’m reminded of Veronica’s veil and Stephens poking fun at relics in The Apology of Herodotus.

I’m reminded of the historicity of Jesus.

Once again, the lines between fact and fiction  appear more blurred than one would expect.

So maybe Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives can lay claim to being the first example of purposely fictional biographies?

PS. On the cover of the book shown is Saint George and the Dragon by Uccello, whose biography is also in the book.