The History of Art and the Art of History: Hugh Hood's 'Five New Facts about Giorgione.'

By Knoenagel, Alex | Mosaic (Winnipeg), March 1994 | Go to article overview
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The History of Art and the Art of History: Hugh Hood's 'Five New Facts about Giorgione.'


Knoenagel, Alex, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Recent developments in literary theory, commonly subsumed under the name "New Historicism," emphasize strongly the relevance of history for the creation and reception of works of art. Stephen Greenblatt suggests that "the work of art is the product of a negotiation between a creator or class of creators, equipped with a complex, communally shared repertoire of conventions, and the institutions and practices of society" (Learning 158). Consequently, the knowledge of these forces becomes an imperative prerequisite for literary investigation. The deconstruction of historiography--commonly associated with the work of Hayden White--suggests, however, that this history is itself something that resists easy insight; as Hubert Zapf explains: "History as a decentered intertextual event resists the criteria of coherent explanation and the concept of an unbroken continuity and teleology of its course. It becomes fluid, fragmentary and discontinuous" (231: trans. mine).

The historians, in their attempts to analyze a segment of the past, are thus in a situation where their presentation of facts itself becomes the moment for inevitable further analysis. The historiographer is in the same situation as the novelist or playwright who also frequently adopts the pose of historian of private life. As Greenblatt explains, "there may be a moment in which a solitary individual puts words on a page, but it is by no means clear that this moment is the heart of the mystery and that everything else is to be stripped away and discarded. Moreover, the moment of inscription...is itself a social moment" (Negotiations 4-5). In addition, one has to consider the fact that this social moment is at the same time a very private moment, influenced also by the writer's individual preferences.

In his novella Five New Facts About Giorgione (1987), Canadian author Hugh Hood makes a provocative contribution to the historiographic debate. At first glance, Hood's novella appears to be merely a somewhat tediously told whimsical tale about an art historian's trip to Venice and his decision not to pursue further a possibly significant research project. A closer analysis of the novella shows, however, that Five New Facts About Giorgione raises basic questions about the nature and ethics of historiography--in this case that concerned with Venetian Renaissance painting--and about the responsibilities of the historiographer toward his/her readers. The novella's indirect contribution to the "New Historical" debate shows also in the fact that Five New Facts About Giorgione refers to the same historical era with which most New Historicism is concerned and similarly recognizes the nature of this attraction. As Zapf explains: "It also becomes clear that the concern with Shakespeare and Renaissance culture is at the same time a concern with the basic premises upon which our 'modern' western culture is based. Literary criticism becomes a medium for the critical self-reflection of our culture and its history, and from this it gains actual significance also for our current situation of life" (237; trans. mine).

That Hood was aware of current theories about historiography can also be seen in his observation: "Historiography, the study of the writing of history, is first of all a deliberate choice of narrative patterns" ("History" 75). Indeed, what I wish to argue in this essay is the way that, in its concern with ethics, Hood's novella goes beyond Hayden White's theses about reconstructing the past. The focal point of Hood's novella is the moral dilemma that the historiographer faces when he/she comes upon some evidence that contradicts the established view.

The plot of Five New Facts About Giorgione is itself quite simple. The protagonist, Neil Tarrant, is a Toronto art historian whose intention is to prove that the Castelfranco altarpiece--which according to art historians is "one of only two works undoubtedly by |Giorgione~" (Wittkower 161)--was in fact painted by Giorgione's contemporary, Titian.

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