The Greek Manner and a Christian Canon: Francois Duquesnoy's Saint Susanna

By Lingo, Estelle | The Art Bulletin, March 2002 | Go to article overview

The Greek Manner and a Christian Canon: Francois Duquesnoy's Saint Susanna


Lingo, Estelle, The Art Bulletin


In his 1672 Lives of the Modern Painters, Sculptors and Architects, Giovan Pietro Bellori wrote that in the statue of Saint Susanna in S. Maria di Loreto, Rome (Fig. 1), the Flemish sculptor Francois Duquesnoy (1597-1643) "had left to modern sculptors the example for statues of clothed figures, making him more than the equal of the best ancient sculptors. . . ."1 This was significant praise, for Bellori was implicitly comparing Duquesnoy's achievement in the Saint Susanna to that of the ancient Greek sculptor Polycleitus in the statue called the Canon, a nude figure that embodied Polycleitus's theory of art and whose outlines were imitated by subsequent artists.2 Bellori's praise drew a crucial critical distinction simultaneously between the ancient and the modern and the pagan and the Christian, for in the post-Tridentine era, it had become a commonplace of art theory to urge the artist to demonstrate his virtuosity in the fabric rather than the flesh, in the clothed rather than the nude body.3

The distinction between the nude and the clothed is also a key to seventeenth-century connoisseurship of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture. From at least the sixteenth century, scholars and collectors had noted Pliny's report, in book 34 of the Natural History, that the Greek sculptural practice was to represent the figure nude, and that the Romans had introduced the clothed statue (Natural History 34.18). This observation, which strikes the modern reader as an overgeneralization of little value as a connoisseurial tool, encouraged sixteenth- and seventeenth-century antiquarians and connoisseurs to attribute Greek authorship to any sculpture of a nude or largely nude figure. Pliny's statement was lent credence by the presence of the inscribed names of Greek artists on several celebrated nude figures, such as the Farnese Hercules and the Borghese Gladiator.4 In the essay on ancient art that he contributed to the 1568 edition of Vasari's Lives, the Florentine scholar Giovanni Battista Adriani wrote:

Greek and Roman statues had a difference between them that was very clear, that the Greek statues for the most part were nude, according to the custom of the gymnasium, where young men exercised themselves in wrestling and in other nude games, in which they placed the highest honor; the Roman statues were made clothed, either in armor or in the toga, the particularly Roman garment....5

In subsequent art theoretical writings, this distinction received both positive and negative interpretative glosses. Pliny's observation was restated later in the century by the painter and theorist Gian Paolo Lomazzo, who speculated that the Romans had begun to create statues of clothed figures because they were not able to sculpt nudes with the same skill ("facilita e felicita") as the Greeks.6 In the third decade of the seventeenth century, Cardinal Federico Borromeo, in Della pittura sacra, used Pliny's testimony to argue for the classical pedigree of the modestly draped figure, asserting, "Nor will the covering of the statues and the paintings be a new thing, since it was actually the Romans who did not like to follow the custom of the Greeks, who made their figures nude."7

Duquesnoy and the Greek Manner

Duquesnoy had received his training as a sculptor in the Brussels workshop of his father, Jerome Duquesnoy the Elder, who served as court sculptor to Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella. On the strength of his father's position, Francois applied to Albert and Isabella for a stipend to support two or three years of study in Rome. His request was granted, and in 1618 Frangois left for Rome, where he spent the remainder of his career. According to the seventeenthcentury biographies, the sculptor's early years in Italy were devoted to intensive studies of ancient sculpture, and some time after Nicolas Poussin's arrival in Rome in the spring of 1624, the two artists began to collaborate closely in these investigations.

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