Summer 2001


Leave the monuments caked with grime

Robert P. Harrison

The following dialogue is extracted from the second chapter of a book that appeared in French under the title Rome, la pluie: A quoi bon la littérature? (Paris: Flammarion, 1994). The book consists of five dialogues, set in the city of Rome, between a young man named Leonard Ash and his enigmatic friend Owler.

I arrived early for my mid-morning rendez-vous with Owler. I usually would whenever I had to meet him somewhere. For someone who gave the impression of having an ample margin of leisure in his life, he was awfully intolerant of tardiness. The first and only time I was late for an appointment with him he laid into me in inexplicable fashion, accusing me of living in flight from my own death. When I protested that I didn’t see what my being late had to do with my being-toward-death, he scoffed at my Heideggerese and insisted that every appointment, however casual or insignificant, figures as a prelude to our ultimate rendezvous, or “self-rendering.” When it comes to that last appointment some of us want to be there on time, ready and waiting, while others would prefer to delay the moment. Some people hope to cheat a little more time out of their existence, he said. The problem is that death runs on its own schedule, not yours. It may come early, it may come late, but it’s unlikely you will assure yourself of the latter alternative by making a habit of tardiness. A habit of tardiness? I pointed out that, as far as I knew, I did not make a habit of tardiness, but Owler would hear nothing of it. I felt like, but refrained from, asking him what he could possibly know about the anxieties of death, he who did not share our ordinary limitations and who had prolonged his existence beyond all deadlines.

Waiting for him near the barrier that keeps tourists at a safe distance from the Pietà, inside the Vatican basilica, I tried to remember the name of that high school classmate of mine from the Overseas School of Rome who got caught one night driving without a license and ended up spending it in the same jail cell with the Hungarian vandal who had just assaulted the statue with a hammer. His name wouldn’t come to me. My thoughts drifted to Owler. As I spotted him walking down the aisle toward me, looking like a cross between a seaman, a dandy, and a sage, I couldn’t help wondering what business my friend could possibly have with the Vatican, for this was not the first time that he had told me to meet him inside the basilica.

“Can’t talk sense to anyone around here! Hello, Leonard. Am I intruding on your aesthetic pleasure?” He gestured toward the statue. “Bewitching simulacrum, n’est ce pas?” A tour guide was pontificating to a crowd of heads turned up toward the statue, which the chapel’s meticulous illumination failed to render less abstract and remote. It seemed an ethereal, almost artificial thing, perched on its lofty base and enclosed in a plexiglass container. “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even want to see it anymore, trapped in that cage like a wounded bird,” Owler said. “I try to disregard it, pretend it’s not there, but I reckon it has a pair of eyes of its own. I can feel them staring at me every time I walk out of this place.”

“Which you do pretty often, from what I can gather.”

“Not that often, only every now and then. Curious of you to ask, though. Did I ever tell you I happened to be there when the statue was first unveiled? No? I was, believe it or not. A small handful of us, select private guests and aesthetes. None of us had heard of the young Florentine before. We were prepared to do some courteous murmuring, admiring, criticizing, you know, size it up. Instead, as the sheet came off, we were stunned, like a mouse by the smack of a falcon swooping down out of nowhere. We stood there, all muffled up. Then some of us dropped to our knees, with our heads down, in an appeal for forgiveness. That was the immediate power of the thing—to force your eyes away from it toward some… darker image of the heart.”

“What were you asking forgiveness for?”

“Now that’s an insensate question to come from someone who used to be an altar boy. It’s not like asking for a strawberry milkshake, is it? What do you ask forgiveness for if you’re a Christian in a Christian world? For needing it, for needing to ask for it.” His gray eyes gave me a gray stare. “It’s amazing how a work of stone could have drawn a cantankerous community together on that basis, if only for a moment, but that was the power of the thing. Of course at the time ... I don’t say the demise hadn’t already started, we just weren’t quite aware of it yet. Then the age that produced it gave way to another, and the thing turned into a relic. Now we can’t even see it anymore—the testimony of it, I mean—no matter how many magnifying lenses we focus on it, or how many efforts we make to study it, analyze it, restore it, encase it.”

I figured there was not much point in remarking that he was lamenting the loss of what Walter Benjamin called the “aura” of artworks in their original religious contexts—he was liable to get annoyed at my “authority references,” as he called them—so I limited myself to a leading question: “You mean it’s been divorced from its original context?”

“I mean the core of its coherence has disintegrated. It’s visible to us only in fragments of perspectives pieced together as best we can. Better that way, I suppose—spares us its violence somehow. Every now and then it may suddenly reveal its crux to someone, shed the veils of familiarity that cover it up for us. If you happen to be visionary enough to get a glimpse of its message, who knows what you’d be capable of—conversion, derangement, an act of vandalism.”

The tourists had moved on and we were left to ourselves. His words, resounding sinisterly in the hall, seemed intended to provoke a reaction, and I obliged him. “I hope you’re not insinuating that the Hungarian vandal who attacked it was a visionary, because if you are, that’s absurd.”

“Is that what I was insinuating? Well, who am I to judge?” He leaned back against a pillar like someone ready for debate. “What makes you so sure he wasn’t?”

“A classmate of mine from high school spent a night in jail with the man. He was no visionary, he was a quack. Do you remember what he shouted when he jumped the rail and assaulted the Virgin? ’I am Christ! I am Christ! You have murdered me!’ Does that sound like a sane person to you?”

“I didn’t say he was sane, did I? Again, who am I to judge? I don’t know what went on in the man’s mind, but I reckon that when he went for the statue he was responding to something he saw in it, something which most of us don’t see any longer, except only partially. I’ll admit it intrigues me. Why not? It makes me want to ask what it was about the thing that provoked him. Or do you think it’s ‘absurd’ to raise the question?”

“No, but I think a psychologist is more qualified to answer it than I am. I can’t guess why he might have done it. Maybe he was desperate for attention and figured that hacking away at a masterpiece was a good way of getting it. Maybe he had an overdetermined relationship with his mother and took it out on the Virgin. Anything’s possible. It’s not the statue’s fault that he chose to attack it.” “Are you sure of that?” I asked him to give me one good reason why I shouldn’t be. “There you go,” he said, pointing to the statue—“one good reason.” I told him I didn’t see it. “You don’t see it, but maybe he did.” I shook my head and repeated that the vandal hadn’t seen anything in the statue except his own hallucinations. “So what do you see in it, if you don’t mind my asking?” Owler asked.

“What I see,” I said deliberately and polemically, “is a masterfully resolved harmony of proportions: a three-dimensional triangle, starting at the base of the statue and leading up to a point of convergence somewhere above the Virgin’s head. In the juxtaposition of the horizontal body of Christ and vertical posture of the mother, I see a figure of the cross—the crucifixion, the plastic realism of kenosis, and an amazing tension between rising and falling. In the figure of the Virgin, her gesture, her expression, I see something that calls to mind Eliot’s line about ’an infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing.’ In the generosity of her gown and its abundant folds I see the implications of the Virgin’s mercy, her motherhood’s capacity for universal containment—the sacred womb of involution, if you will. As a whole it strikes me as an image of the passion’s redemption.”

“Well, you always were a good reader,” Owler remarked in what I took to be a spirit of irony, as though I had rehearsed a passage from an art history book. “What about the prophylactic glass cage you see it through? You didn’t describe that for me. Of course we can pretend it’s not there... flippant? Well, maybe you can ignore it. I can’t. Besides, you’re the one who said it ‘strikes you’ as an image of redemption. So let me ask you another question, if you’re up for it. Why do you suppose the vandal, in his moment of self-dispossession, struck mostly at the Virgin’s eye?”

“I would say it’s your turn to answer. You obviously have your own theory about that.” “We can only speculate,” he said with a strange enthusiasm. “But the target makes me think that there was something objectionable about her gaze; it suggests that the statue may have eyes of its own which can suddenly open up and accuse you, trouble you, ‘implicate’ you, since you talked about implication. To me it suggests that he felt himself put into question by that look. Is that what he said?—‘I am Christ! You have murdered me!’ Strange. Very strange. Oh, I don’t doubt for a minute that he was loose in the head. Still, it makes you wonder what there is in that gaze of hers that murders. Sure there’s a gentleness in it. But there’s also a trace of incomprehensibility, wouldn’t you say?—something absurd or unjustifiable about the body’s lifeless weight on her lap. That’s what she’s looking at, that’s what she’s theorizing, after all—her stone-dead son.” Owler never missed a pun.” In earlier lamentation scenes, the mother tends to be looking skyward, as if she’s receiving an explanation from above. Not here, though. Here she’s looking down at the brutal fact of a murder. There’s a hint in her gesture that no lofty answer could possibly allay the question.”

Was he suggesting that the vandal saw in the Pietà a testimony of existential abandon, à la Jean-Paul Sartre? I asked the question cynically. Owler answered earnestly: “Who knows what unnerved him, but I reckon that his act of aggression was responding to whatever it is we think of as the thing’s appeal. When an artwork attains a degree of expressive power it can elate you, but it can also offend, even humiliate you. There’s a sublime violence in certain images which we naively call their beauty or wonder. I would say that, more often than not, vandalism is an act of counter-violence directed against the threat emanating from the representation. Representation itself is a form of violence. It begins and ends with cadavers, pledges allegiance to the dead. The cadaver is the basis of the first image, the first statue, the first commemoration in form. Or maybe the image is itself a kind of cadaverous thing. There are good reasons to fear the image. It’s never innocent. A terror lurks in the shadow it casts. Vandalism grapples with it, the shadow I mean. It strikes at something you can’t say is there yet can’t say is not there. I reckon that few of us who have been deeply moved by an artwork have not also felt the stirring of an urge to destroy it. Vandals and artists share something in common, as if their creative and destructive acts arose from the same impulse. And if I have to go all the way, I’d rather not, but if I have to, I would say that, yes, in some cases vandalism is a more genuine response to a work of art than the self-satisfaction of our aesthetes and culture mongers.”

A new group was clustering nearby. “Come on,” said Owler, “let’s get the hell out of here.”

We stepped out of the basilica into the blank glare of a winter noon, into the vulgar sunlight of a washed-out hour. The clamor of car traffic, the bustle of bodies, the frenzy of locomotion, gave the impression of a civic upheaval or mass panic, but it was just another day in downtown Rome. I looked down the magisterial Via della Conciliazone, extending rectilinearly toward the Tiber, and tried to imagine what the neighborhood had looked like before they cut open the grand perspectives. Owler had once remarked that before the transfiguration it had been the most complex maze of streets and small squares in all of Rome. He would know. We walked toward the river and headed for the Viale Trastevere. The Tiber glided past us like a sluggish beast of the mire, bearing its burden beneath the estranged repose of the bridges. A riotous traffic on the Lungotevere discouraged us from exchanging words as we made our way toward the Piazza Sonnino. In the piazza we caught a bus that contested its way up the Via le Trastevere and eventually dropped us off near the Villa Doria Pamphili. As we gained the asylum of the park, we took up our conversation about the Pietà.

“That’s the second time you used that word,” I said. “Why are you calling it a simulacrum? I hope you’re not implying that what’s displayed in the cathedral is not the original Pietà.”

“It depends on what you mean by ‘original.’ They didn’t substitute a copy for the original, no, but by restoring the thing after it was damaged, they falsified it, gave us a mere likeness of its image before the incident occurred.”

“They’ve reconstructed it very faithfully.”

“They’ve reconstructed what very faithfully?”

“What the statue looked like before it was damaged,” I replied naively.

“What it ‘looked like’? What it looked like when? Exposure to the world changes the artwork’s aspect day by day. Which day in its lifetime are we talking about when we talk of restoring an artwork to its original aspect? The first? The seventh? The thousandth?”

“How should I know? When it was intact, say when it left the artist’s hand.”

“Is that what we mean by the original? Something like a car with zero miles on it? What about those cases where the artist took into account the effects that time would produce on his artifact and dealt with his materials accordingly, anticipating the aging process? Artworks don’t descend on us from some timeless realm of pure form. They come to us from the materials of the earth, and when they’re finished they’re consigned to the fate of time and history. But for some reason we’ve got it into our heads that we should box them up, erase the marks of their ‘historicity,’ to use of one of your favorite words. I don’t understand it. Why do we behave as if artworks aren’t given over to mortality like the rest of us?”

“Restorers know full well that artworks are perishable, Owler. That’s why they restore them.”

“Which amounts to saying that because a woman knows there’s such a thing as an aging process she does everything she can to look twenty for the rest of her life.”

His analogy stunned me somewhat and caught me off guard, but I recovered quickly. “The analogy doesn’t hold. The artwork’s not eternal—no one’s saying it is—it just hangs around longer than we do. We try to prolong its life as best we can so that future generations can see how their predecessors saw the world.”

“No, Leonard, we never see the world the way our predecessors saw it. What we see in the work that comes down to us from another age is the historical distance that separates us from its past—a distance lodged in the traces of its age and the tangible evidence of its having endured in time. A 16th-century fresco that’s made to look like it was painted yesterday is not a 16th-century fresco. It’s a forgery, a simulacrum, an artwork vandalized in the name of false veneration.”

I had to laugh. “So now it’s the restorers who are the vandals!“

“Of course they’re vandals,” he said, as if nothing were more evident than that. “I’ll take you on a visit one day and you can see for yourself. They’re fine fellows, I’m sure, but most of them are scientifically trained technicians who may know a thing or two about chemistry but precious little about art. Most of our major museums now have their own restoration laboratories, with a permanent staff of these professionals, and I’ve seen them at work. Their first priority is to keep busy, to hold on to their jobs, which means that every newly purchased canvas passes through their hands, whatever its condition, whatever its age. It gets stretched out on their operating floors, under bright lights, like a sick patient. Then the surgeons go to work on it with their precision tools—remove the patina, the varnish, touch it up, accentuate the contours, homogenize the colors, re-varnish, until they bring the thing into conformity with a uniform standard of newness, regardless of centuries, styles, manners. To hell with age. There’s no age left on these restored paintings, if not our own. Do you think it looks like the ‘original’ when it leaves their hands? It looks more like a precision photograph. But that’s what the contemporary public expects, you see, of a restored artwork. Every age has its own aesthetic prejudices which it’s blind to, and ours happen to be dominated by the photograph—sharp outlines and a clear focus. When our present standards change, as eventually they will, only then will we truly see to what extent the restorers left indelible marks of the epoch’s taste on these paintings and frescos. But by then it will be too late. What am I saying? It’s already too late for most of them—those the restorers have gotten their hands on. Let’s destroy the heritage if we must, if that’s what it takes to keep the fellows employed, but let’s at least be honest with ourselves: This is not restoration, this is systematic, institutionalized vandalism.”

“What are you proposing, that we don’t touch them at all, that we let them rot? What’s the alternative?”

“Leave them alone! They’re meant to age, grow old, and eventually die—like everything else that has a life of its own. We can care for them, preserve them, minimize as much as possible the decaying process, but to intervene in the materiality of an artwork—that’s a breach of its originality.”

“So where do you draw the line? What do you do with the Pietà, for example, after some quack has violently ‘intervened in its materiality’? Do you just leave it the way it is, damaged and disfigured?”

“Leave it alone! Its place is in the world. It has a history of interaction with its viewers. That incident is part of its past now. Something in the thing provoked an attack. It happened. The original has been disfigured. If we were permitted to see the evidence of that defacement with our own eyes, who knows, maybe that would open them to the scandal of the work. Isn’t that what Christianity is at bottom—isn’t that what the Pietà is—the revelation of a scandal? Instead we cover up the traces and call it restoration. What we see in that chapel is no more than a contrived image of what the statue ‘looked like’ at some prior point in its temporal life. We’ve denied the thing’s reality, its worldliness.” He paused, then added almost as an aside: “The argument I made at the time was that if people want to see a simulacrum of what the statue looked like before it was damaged, then let the restorers make a wholesale reproduction of it, leaving the disfigured original intact. Do you think anyone listened to me?”

No, I couldn’t imagine that anyone would have. “If you’re consistent with your own logic,” I said, “then why not just accept the fact that the restoration of artworks forms a part of their ongoing history and interaction with the world?”

“Oh, I accept the fact that restoration leaves its marks on the artwork and that future generations will have no choice but to see as part of its history the irreparable mutilation it suffered at the hands of restorers in the 20th century. But frankly, I prefer the Muslim’s deliberate defacing of an image of Christ in a Cappadoccian monastery to a restorer’s painstaking alteration of a painting in the name of care and respect. I can accept the fatality of it, if I have to. What irks me, as usual, is the bad faith with which we go about believing we’re the preservers of a cultural heritage when in fact we’re the destroyers.” He was going too far. He had a habit of always going too far. “If I’m going too far,” he said, “it’s still not far enough, because we have a long way to go before we catch up with ourselves.”

“Owler, do you really believe that or are you just into your topics again? When you go around town and see how they’re cleaning off the façades of the old buildings and churches, painstakingly restoring them to the aspect they were intended to have, rather than this dull and indistinct gray they’ve accumulated over the centuries—if we weren’t motivated by respect for the heritage I don’t see why we would go to such lengths. Sure, the tourist industry has something to do with it, but when I see those workers at work up there on those scaffolds, how can I take seriously your statement that we think of ourselves as preservers while in fact we’re destroyers?”

“Why do you think they have to go up there in the first place?”

“To clean off all the slime and dirt....”

“Which comes from where?”

“Where? From the pollution....”

“And you’re saying we’re not the destroyers? No, Leonard, no, I don’t buy it for a minute. I would rather leave the monuments caked with grime. It’s more honest of us. At least that way they reveal the state of the world to which they’ve been consigned. What’s the point of lying to ourselves, of cleaning up an old façade to make it sparkle in the midst of the grime of our inner and outer lives? If our concern is conservation, let’s start by conserving the environments the works inhabit. If we want restoration, let’s start by restoring the habitat.”

“But if we don’t take action now and start protecting them, lots of artworks will be lost for good by the time we get our act together with respect to habitat restoration, and that would be a shame, would it not?”

“It might seem that way to you, but believe it or not these coats of grime they’re removing from the façades, or from the frescos inside churches, they actually serve to protect what’s underneath them from the even more corrosive pollutants now circulating in the air. That’s right, we’re exposing them, naked and defenseless, to the attack of all kinds of insidious acids when we clean them off. So what do we do? We clean them off. We think to save and instead we accelerate the decay. That’s the way we are. We see the dilemma and demand action, but we lack the courage to accept the fact that sometimes the best thing to do is to do nothing at all, until the time is right. Well, I say the time’s not right.”

“So we just leave them alone?”

“Leave them alone! That’s all they’re asking of us at the moment, if we would only listen to them.”

If we would only listen to them. I was taken aback by the shift in the sensory medium, from sight to hearing, so much so that ever since that day I have made studied efforts not only to look at artworks but also to put an ear to them. You will ask me how that’s possible, those of you who have never tried it. Well, you just stand there and listen until you hear something you have no choice but to conclude is coming from the thingness of the thing, rather than from its visible image. And if that sounds horribly obscure, that’s what it sounds like. Every now and then, in art galleries or museums, I can actually hear muffled, inarticulate laments: How long are we going to stay here? When will we be able to leave? Are we ever going back? I heard, in other words, or thought I heard, what sounded like the plaints of refugees, murmurs of a longing for repatriation. If you haven’t heard its subterranean voice with your own ears, you would never suspect how much misery haunts our museums. But that, as they say, is another topic.

Robert P. Harrison is professor of Italian literature at Stanford University. He is the author of The Body of Beatrice (1988), Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (1992), and Rome, la pluie: À quoi bon la littérature? (1994).

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