Saturday, December 8, 2012


Nothing underscores historical distance as much as encountering commonplaces in the past. To recover the what-was-once-banal requires historical excavation to make them comprehensible. The significance of the symbolism of the classical gods, for example, is slowly fading. The humanists and artists of the Renaissance, in engaging with the classical and antique worlds, found far too much to fuel their interpretative overdrive, their exegetic frenzy. The classical myths -- read through Plato, the Neoplatonic authors, the medieval commentators, the Christian allegorising traditions and many such other lenses, possibly edifying but more likely confounding -- generated layers upon layers of meaning, as Renaissance authors competed to come up with ever more fantastic interpretations. No doubt such cloudy mysticism provoked David Hume to comment, magisterially and dismissively, that 'Learning, on its revival ... was attired in the same unnatural garb which it wore at the time of its decay among the Greeks and the Romans'. Hume lamented the 'forced conceits' and 'adulterated relish' of the Italian humanists. But I admit more sympathy than Hume. 

It would be too tedious to rehearse here the precise (or more often, staggeringly imprecise) fancies of Renaissance authors. One small game was much in vogue: the penchant for playing the gods against each other, placing them in different and novel combinations and, to crown this invention, finding a persuasive and shrewd reading of the image. The Hermathena, a combination of Hermes and Athena, had classical precedent, however. Cicero's letters to Atticus mention a bust of the Hermathena for his Tusculan villa, though, frustratingly, he declines to say much about its symbolism. 'The Hermathena you sent I am delighted with: it has been placed with such charming effect that the whole gymnasium seems arranged specially for it,' (I.1.5) says our consul in one of his Martha Stewart moments. But Cicero later hints at a programme of meaning: 'It is an ornament appropriate to my Academy for two reasons: Hermes is a sign common to all gymnasia, Athena specially of this particular one.' (I.4.3). In the hands of the Renaissance humanists, however, the Hermathena was foisted with meaning Cicero refused to supply. Take the explication given by Achille Bocchi, a Bolognese humanist, in his book of emblems, the Symbolicarum quaestionum de universo genere (1555):

Bridging Hermes and Athena, arms interlocked, Eros bridles the beast below his feet. The emblem, with the accompanying slogans, urges us to pair the steadfast wisdom of Athena (modestia sapientiam) with the swift eloquence of Hermes (progressio eloquentiam). With these, we can reach happiness (perficit felicitatem), and if we look at the image itself, are monsters tamed (sic monstra domantur). Edgar Wind points out that there is a suggestion of the union of contrarieties in the opposition of steadfastness and swiftness. Whether this was grounded in the Neoplatonic belief that contraries are ultimately resolved in the One or simply a beguiling and glib use of paradox is, as with the ever-looming question of the problematic link between art and philosophy, unresolved.

Hermathena, Minerva-Mercury -- this pairing appears much in iconography and painting. Rubens' The Apotheosis of the Duke of Buckingham (before 1625) is one example, noteworthy perhaps because its subject is the infamous George Villiers. But the same couple recur in the Banqueting House in Whitehall, in the Peaceful Reign of James I (1632-4). Here the mysteries have been themselves tamed, being little more than the humdrum background noise to power. Such blandness is enough to send one back to the arms of inscrutable Venus in Botticelli's Primavera.

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