Magazine article The Spectator

The Art of Bathos

Magazine article The Spectator

The Art of Bathos

Article excerpt

In the days when masques were all the rage at the Stuart court before the civil war, with their graceful articulations of bien-pensant propaganda from deities in designer frocks winched down on pasteboard clouds specially painted for the occasion by Inigo Jones, no such entertainment was complete without a section intended to mock or subvert its grandeur and dignity, known as the 'antimasque'. After the graver discourse of embodied abstracts with names like Amphiluche, Eunomia and Entheus, in would rush a party of Red Indians or gypsies, 'a Jewess of Portugal', `Chimney-sweeper and his Wench', 'Plumporridge' or `Doctor Almanac', as a sort of circus-act-cum-music-hall turn, `the opposites to good fame, a spectacle of strangeness'.

The principle, that of solemn conventions established one minute, blown to smithereens the next, is an intriguing one. After the antimasque, might we have an anti-drama, in which the playwright consistently baulks the audience of thrills and catharsis and the ending ostentatiously cheats us of a denouement? Or an antibiography, in which the promised life record suddenly gives way to the biographer's hysterical exasperation with his subject's fraudulence and mediocrity? And how about an anti-diary? No, I don't mean the fictional kind, done already and immortally by Mr Pooter or by - oh well, all right, if we must - that Jones woman, but a live effort, conspicuous by the absence of the Queen Mother, Mrs Thatcher and absolutely anything which, even unintentionally, suggests that its writer might be interesting enough for us to want to sit down to dinner with him.

The perfect model for the anti-diary genre, in all its compelling, hermetic uncommunicativeness, was created in Italy around the middle of the 16th century. No sensible visitor to Florence has ever ignored the beautiful Capponi Chapel in the otherwise rather dull church of Santa Felicita, on the way from Ponte Vecchio to Palazzo Pitti. The paintings here, a damaged yet still radiant 'Annunciation' and a 'Deposition' in haunting, luminous pinks and blues, are the work of Jacopo Carrucci, known to the world as Pontormo from his birthplace near the Tuscan town of Empoli. A pupil of Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Sarto, and one of the earliest of the socalled Mannerist school, he was perhaps the last truly original artist of the Florentine Renaissance.

When Pontormo began what he called `II libro mio' on 7 January 1554, he had already started work on a monster fresco cycle in the choir of the church of San Lorenzo, featuring the Flood, the Resurrection, the story of Adam and Eve and Christ in Majesty, which a bungling reconstruction two centuries later completely destroyed. Never the most prolific creator, he was venerated throughout Tuscany for the slightly mournful, otherworldly lyricism of altarpieces such as the dreamlike `Visitation' at Carmignano and for the incisive handling of colour in portraits like that of the ornately codpieced halberdier recently bought by the Getty museum.

What therefore might we not expect from such a diary? Some gossip, perhaps from the court of Grand Duke Cosimo de' Medici and his duchess Eleonora, a memory or two of old Michelangelo, some savour of Florentine street life or a breath of air from the Tuscan countryside. …

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