Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 2, 2008
Estelle Lingo François Duquesnoy and the Greek Ideal New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. 256 pp.; 150 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780300124835)
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François Duquesnoy and the Greek Ideal by Estelle Lingo is beautifully written, thoroughly researched, intelligently constructed, and handsomely presented. Lingo’s close attention to technique and what she refers to as “bodily presence” (an essential element in the Greek ideal) call for the highest quality pictures, which by and large she gets. Given Lingo’s gifts with ekphrasis, the excellent visual documentation, and her no-stone-unturned approach to investigating modern and early modern sources and documents relating to Duquesnoy and the Greek question, this book serves as a kind of laboratory in which the author attempts to distill the essence of the Greek ideal, what that ideal meant in the sixteenth century, what it suggested to Duquesnoy and his milieu (including Poussin), and finally how it played out in the eighteenth century. Lingo acknowledges her debt to Elizabeth Cropper and Charles Dempsey’s Nicolas Poussin: Friendship and the Love of Painting (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), where one finds an excellent introduction to the Greek ideal in the circle of Poussin and Duquesnoy. Lingo builds upon and expands from Cropper and Dempsey, especially in terms of Duquesnoy’s oeuvre.

But Lingo’s ambitions are greater than what I have just suggested; although not writing a monographic study of the “man and his works,” she just the same engages Duquesnoy’s sculpture with art-historical finesse and connoisseuring perspicacity. Even if one were not particularly interested in the Greek ideal (which would be a mistake), this text has much to offer. Indeed, anyone working in early modern art history should read it, for those were heady days in the history of Roman art. The cast of characters is impressive, from Duquesnoy (who, as Lingo points out, has been better known to specialists than to a wider audience), to Poussin, Peter Paul Rubens, Cassiano del Pozzo, Vincenzo Giustiniani, Giovanni Battista Passeri, Giovanni Pietro Bellori, Joachim von Sandrart, and Orfeo Boselli (whose Osservationi della Scoltura Antica deserves—and here receives—close attention as part of the artistic literature of the seicento), not to mention such luminaries as Gianlorenzo Bernini and Alessandro Algardi. As the book unfolds, there is an ever-expanding cast of characters, historical and contemporary, making their entrances and exits.

After an introduction rich in its historiographical and critical implications and a deft transition using a painting by Michael Sweerts (In the Studio, 1652, Detroit Institute of Arts), Lingo gets down to work in chapter 1 with Duquesnoy’s “Small Sculptures and Grand Ideas.” Not just Duquesnoy, but other artists in Rome (like Poussin) formed a small “academy,” as Sandrart called it, that met informally to discuss what they understood about Greek art. Their knowledge of Greek sculpture, although based in part upon relatively few (and often Roman) examples, comments from Pliny, images on Roman coins, and old (although not strictly speaking antique) tomb sculpture, was not inconsiderable.

Duquesnoy’s terracotta copy of the Laocoön made for Cardinal Massimi, which occupied him for six months even though it was a bare two palmi high, became a recognized document of the Greek manner. Lingo comments on Passeri and his assertion that Duquesnoy believed that only Greek sculpture possessed the secret of how to combine “grandeur, nobility, majesty, and loveliness [grandezza, nobilità, maestà, e leggiadria]” (13). These are terms of laudation and commendation, vaguely related to rhetorical traditions, smacking also of social status and distinction. They tell us nothing about how or why something looks the way it does (or did—to them). The categories and periodization methods of modern art history had virtually no presence in seventeenth-century Rome, nor did there exist then the modern attentiveness to style as a trace or gesture of an individual, that which is—as articulated by Erwin Panofsky (reflecting Ernst Cassirer’s notion of “symbolic form”)—“apprehended by ascertaining those underlying principles which reveal the basic attitude of a nation, a period, a class, a religious or philosophical persuasion qualified by one personality and condensed into one work” (Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1955, 30). Not that artists and cognoscenti were indifferent to an artist’s maniera, as Lingo makes abundantly clear; but what impressed Duquesnoy’s contemporaries and cohorts may not strike us quite the same way. Lingo juggles and organizes these differing points of view so that we always know through whose eyes we are seeing the art—and it remains abundantly clear what was at stake.

For instance, Passeri, who was on the ground and knew the housemates Poussin and Duquesnoy, reported that Poussin was wont to “vilify” antique Roman sculpture (the “Latin style”). This gives us a hint of what lay in the balance: whether or not Poussin really despised or calumniated against Roman sculpture is perhaps less important than the very phenomenon of defamation and denigration to which Passeri himself gave voice. The Greco-Roman dispute is like Greco-Roman wrestling; there is something here worth fighting over, and not just for the sport of it. This small, informal academy of artists believed they were returning to that which is timeless and essentially, perpetually valid. By creating works that encompass permanent values, they could regain, in a sense, an artistic paradise. As Cropper and Dempsey report, this was not just a “rear-guard” action against the prevailing gusto romano (what we call the baroque), but an early appearance of Neoclassicism, which did triumph in the later eighteenth century.

Fundamental to the Greek manner is the “subtle contour” alluded to or specified by Vitruvius, Ludovico Dolce, Pliny, Boselli, and carefully discussed by Lingo in terms both of “fluid contours” and “relaxed” postures, especially as she attends to Duquesnoy’s exquisite putti. She writes that because of the ubiquity of Duquesnoy knock-offs from old porcelain manufactories and low-end modern decoration, there are those who see putti as “relatively minor and self explanatory works, despite their high quality” (45). Lingo makes us look at what can be (but should not be) so easily overlooked.

Bellori in his introduction to the life of Duquesnoy credited Michelangelo with establishing the heroic and the magniloquent in Italian sculpture, but his art did not range so far as the “select and the elegant” (“una forma scelta ed elegante”—Lingo provides the Italian in her footnote (192)). Scelto has the connotation of refinement, exquisiteness, a kind of distillation, quintessence, quiddity. Michelangelo may have shot for Olympus, but Duquesnoy struck to the core. A few pages later, as Lingo reports, Bellori regrets that “it seemed that all the industry of this sculptor resulted only in putti.” Lingo, as we have seen, finds grand ideas in Duquesnoy’s small sculptures, and she is right to do so. Her section on “The Infant Putto and the Greek Manner” is one of the best sustained essays I have read on the putto as a fundamental figura, meant both literally and metaphorically—as in “figure, scheme, trope”—in the history of Italian sculpture. The implications of what she writes for studies of eighteenth-century Roman sculpture, when the putto reigned supreme, are legion.

In chapter 2 (“The Tomb and the Portrait”), Lingo continues to develop her thesis on “the emotive power of [Duquesnoy’s] infant putti, now within a commemorative context” (82). In her consideration of the Filomarino Chapel in SS. Apostoli, Naples, Lingo demonstrates her own subtle and close reading of Duquesnoy’s skill: “Worked on marble cut on a gentle convex curve to follow the rhythm of Borromini’s architecture, two pairs of angels at each side and a central group of four are arranged on clouds textured by the claw chisel, with very delicate spatial transitions between areas of lower and higher relief further dissolving the plane of the stone” (85). It is this kind of writing that brings us close to understanding an early modern notion of the Greek ideal in sculptural technique.

In addition to the careful description of the objects themselves, Lingo investigates in some considerable detail the epitaphic and epigrammatic tradition—fed by new editions of the venerable Greek Anthology. The Anthology contained Greek (and some Byzantine) poetry meant to be “inscribed,” that is, written on a tomb, so as to solicit from the passerby a sense of the fugitive and the necessity of recalling fame, accomplishments, and identity. Here we have a well-informed word/image disquisition that attends to literary traditions and the humanistic milieu in which the visual arts then thrived.

The Greek ideal fades into the background a bit in the section from chapter 2, entitled “Duquesnoy as Portraitist,” because, as Lingo observes, portrait busts encoded contemporary notions of “social identity” and, given the overarching idea of mimesis, the actual features of the sitter. As a result, the sculptor had somewhat less latitude for incorporating the Greek ideal. One can, just the same, point to the Greek motif of the abbreviated bust form and, when studying Boselli’s writing on the Greek ideal in portraits, note the word pulizia, with the associated notions of pulimento, politezza as referring “to a related group of concepts that included exactness of contours, exquisiteness, grace, and loveliness” (95). Again, these are characterizations (excluding the comment on contours) and terms of approbation.

When she introduces a new work of art, such as the Guglielmi portrait (1627) in S. Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Rome, Lingo first of all discusses the commission in traditional art-historical fashion, before looking for an angle on the Greek manner. Doing this may interrupt the thematic approach she has been developing, but that strikes me as relatively inconsequential, for the art historian, whom I suppose to be the reader, is interested in this information and understands that the text’s “controlling idea,” for all its interest, does not supplant one’s desire to know the art and the artist. This is certainly not a call for a return to traditional art history, but a reminder of the gripping presence—the aura, as we have come to call it—of a portrait bust by Duquesnoy, especially one still occupying the place for which it was intended.

Chapter 3 (“Bodily Presence: The Greek Style and the Cult Statue”) foregrounds the sculptural body as a kind of “symbolic form” (back to Cassirer and Panofsky) in Greek art. In concert with most contemporary historians of Italian early modern art, Lingo shuns the traditional and Wölfflinian conceptions of classic and baroque, which have held art history almost by the throat for more than a century. Duquesnoy’s great statue of St. Andrew (1629–40) in the crossing of St. Peter’s should not, Lingo argues, be seen in cold, classicizing terms, but as a sensuous object.

Lingo negotiates among stylistic categories, a Cropperian “attractive power of corporeal beauty” (118), the notion that this may be a “Christianized Laocoön,” Petrarchan modesty, and certain conventions of Italian and Latin prosody. She moves across broad discursive territories, but keeps it all focused and under control. She considers as well the impact of moving St. Andrew from its intended niche in the northwest corner to the southeast pier. As a result, the statue no longer is beheld by the pilgrim walking down St. Peter’s capacious nave; one has to enter the crossing and turn to the left and slightly backward to see it. From a distance, the modeling of Andrew’s chest would have appeared somewhat blurred so that transitions between planes were softened; that experience was lost when Bernini changed the statue’s location. The poetics of St. Peter’s grand spaces depend upon distant viewing and a sense of the sublime. The melancholic and sickly Flemish sculptor was essentially done in by the displacement of St. Andrew; the loss of an advantageous view (not to mention the withholding of payments) and the destruction of an aesthetic experience killed him.

Lingo ends her third chapter with that supposed quintessence of classicism, Duquesnoy’s St. Susanna (1629–33) in Santa Maria di Loreto, Rome; it sets her up for her concluding chapter, “Reflections on Greek Art and the Greek Manner before Winckelmann.” The St. Susanna, admired and acknowledged in its own time, became genuinely famous later on when the Greek ideal morphed into buon gusto and eventually Neoclassicism. It not only achieved a level of quintessence, but, as I have suggested, it became the paradigmatic image of classicism for those Roman artists within the ambit of the Accademi degli Arcadi in the earlier decades of the settecento. Filippo della Valle’s allegorical statue of Temperance in the Corsini Chapel of San Giovanni in Laterano (1735) updates Duquesnoy’s Susanna with a sheen of good taste. Rome’s eighteenth-century journalist Caterina Chracas, editor of the newspaper Diario ordinario, used the phrase “di ogni buon gusto” again and again when reporting on the dedication of a new work of art.

Implicit throughout Lingo’s intricate, nuanced commentary on the Greek ideal is an awareness that the Greek manner is not really subject to definition. Although not so explicitly post-structuralist and Foucauldian as to lay out a discourse analysis, Lingo nonetheless remains alert throughout her text to issues of desire and power, to the kind of “work” the Greek manner could do. Poussin and Duquesnoy were stranieri in a strange city, one whose artistic culture was coming to be dominated by a Baroque visual rhetoric appropriate to the ambitions of post-Tridentine Rome and the Jesuits (yes, there was—in a sense—such a thing as a “Jesuit style”), along with the powerful, dominant presence of Gianlorenzo Bernini. Duquesnoy, Poussin, and friends were disinclined to compete in that arena, so they recreated something that resonated with a newfound authenticity, a manner and mode that supposedly transcended history and fashion. Art mattered; there were rivalries. Beliefs and strategic positions among artists, patrons, and cognoscenti were often contestable. The “Greek Ideal” was no one thing in itself, but a cumulation of related ideas and forms used by artists, antiquarians, rhetoricians, polemicists, Jansenists and other anti-Jesuits, philosophes, eruditi, and historians (the list of course can be extended) struggling to define identity and culture, to express ideas, to find beauty.

Vernon Hyde Minor
Research Scholar, School of Art and Design, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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