The Weekend Australian - Review - - Essay -

THE French writer Flaubert is float­ing down the Nile when he is struck by the sight of a colos­sal gran­ite fist pro­trud­ing from the desert sands in the dis­tance. He writes to a friend back in France: “The sight of so much grandeur in ruin makes one give up all de­sire to go back to Paris and get one­self talked about.”

Four hun­dred years ear­lier, on Rome’s Via Ap­pia, in April 1485, stone ma­sons labour­ing to re­trieve a large block of mar­ble from a tomb un­cover a sar­coph­a­gus. When they opened it they find the body of a girl from An­cient Rome.

From a con­tem­po­rary let­ter: “They dis­cov­ered a body ly­ing on its face, coated with a greasy but fra­grant sub­stance to a depth of two fin­gers. When they cleared away the perfumed coat­ing, they looked upon a pale face with fea­tures so clear it seemed as if the girl might have been buried that day. Her long black hair, which was still firmly at­tached to the scalp, was fas­tened in a knot and parted in a man­ner suit­able to a maiden … Tiny ears, a del­i­cate fore­head, black eye­brows ——and fi­nally —— eyes of a cu­ri­ous shape, with the whites show­ing be­neath the lids. Even the nos­trils were unim­paired, and so soft that they yielded to the slight­est pres­sure of a fin­ger. In short, here was a girl of no­ble fam­ily from the days when Rome stood at the pin­na­cle of her glory.”

Af­ter 20,000 people had come to see it in a sin­gle day, Pope In­no­cent VIII is­sued a cu­ri­ous or­der and the body was taken, in the dead of night, and re­buried out­side the Porta Pin­ciana in se­crecy. With this story be­gins C.W. Ce­ram’s The March of Ar­chae­ol­ogy, a book I pur­chased on Au­gust 29, 1969 at the age of 13. Along with his Gods, Graves and Schol­ars which I’d de­voured the pre­vi­ous year and var­i­ous other pub­li­ca­tions such as The World of An­cient Rome, a beau­ti­ful pic­ture book pub­lished by Macdon­ald in 1967 and which fi­nally I pur­chased on Septem­ber 28, 1968, af­ter pay­ing it off over sev­eral months with my earn­ings from work­ing in a lo­cal milk bar, the tone was set for what has be­come a life­long in­ter­est in the cul­tures of an­tiq­uity and the art they pro­duced.

In the mid-80s, I was read­ing Elias Canetti’s The Hu­man Prov­ince and came across a cu­ri­ous ex­cla­ma­tion in his day­books from 1948: “A prin­ci­ple of art: to re­dis­cover more than has been lost!” The ob­ject of ar­chae­ol­ogy is a whole new kind of fu­ture. It is ret­ro­grade; ev­ery new step it takes into the past, ev­ery older grave it finds, be­comes a piece of our fu­ture. The ever-older be­comes what lies ahead of us. An un­ex­pected dis­cov­ery could change our own, still un­cer­tain des­tiny. View of the Port of Ripa Grande

View of the Arch of Ti­tus

When stand­ing in front of a frag­ment of clas­si­cal sculp­ture — se­crets hid­den in the stone! –– or when surf­ing the paint in Titian’s Shepherd and Nymph in Vi­enna — no colour, just light –– these things over­take rea­son and a deep sense of con­ti­nu­ity of be­ing in­side time and of cul­ture, be­ing in­side na­ture, opens up.

An­other car­di­nal qual­ity that such en­coun­ters sug­gest? Some­thing pow­er­fully ap­pre­hended, yet never fully un­der­stood — the thing that slips away from thought?

For me it is the re­al­i­sa­tion — a shock of recog­ni­tion (and it can be a grad­ual shock, ex­tend­ing over many years) –– that the great­est works of art are only just hid­den in­side the phys­i­cal world. There is a gath­er­ing sense of the “against-the-odds-ness” –– the sheer un­like­li­ness — of some­one man­ag­ing to bring these im­ages from the world of the imag­i­na­tion and into the phys­i­cal world where we can see, smell and touch them — and of the en­tirely un­rea­son­able tra­jec­tory of that arc.

It’s a place where form and con­tent are at the limit of their tol­er­ance for each other and yet are some­how held in a mag­i­cal, vi­brat­ing sus­pen­sion. Gio­vanni Bat­tista Pi­ranesi’s etch­ings rep­re­sent one of the great mad-cat­a­logues of the world. I’ve al­ways thought of Pi­ranesi as hav­ing a kind of haunted re­la­tion­ship to the grandeur of the past. Not so much the ob­ses­sively labyrinthine “dark brain” of Mar­guerite Yource­nar but rather more the Spen­g­le­rian need to find a sys­tem for un­der­stand­ing the world such as one finds in those deeply strange pas­sages in The De­cline of the West where the au­thor de­scribes the dif­fer­ent “colour” of var­i­ous his­tor­i­cal pe­ri­ods and so­ci­eties.

Pi­ranesi un­ques­tion­ably wanted to learn from an­tiq­uity and dis­cover use­ful ap­pli­ca­tions for this knowl­edge in his own age but it’s the ob­ses­sive rep­e­ti­tion and fo­cus on de­tail that is the hall­mark of all re-in­ven­ters of the world.

Charles Fourier’s The The­ory of the Four Move­ments is an­other of those stag­ger­ing ap­pli­ca­tions of the will to doc­u­ment — in his case, with words — an en­tire utopia ca­pa­ble of ac­com­mo­dat­ing, to his mind, all that hu­man na­ture could throw at it.

The strange thing is that we so of­ten fail to see this pur­pose­ful­ness at first be­cause we are dis­tracted by the cre­ative in­ven­tive­ness (that thing that feels like play in Mozart). I al­ways felt that this sys­tem was present in the un­sta­ble paint­work of late Rem­brandt — surely the overwhelming pathos and hu­man­ity that hovers just above the sur­face of his Re­turn of the Prodi­gal Son in St Peters­burg (one of the great­est pic­tures hang­ing on a wall in Europe), con­tains an en­tire way of see­ing the world — a com­plete sys­tem for un­der­stand­ing how to live in the world. As we know from his own words, Pi­ranesi felt like a constructor of worlds. BACK in the Mel­bourne of the 1960s, a delu­sional 12-year-old was scour­ing the sec­ond­hand book­shops in a vain at­tempt to track down a set of Howard Carter and A.C. Mace’s three vol­umes on the con­tents of Tu­tankhamen’s tomb — pub­lished by Cas­sell be­tween 1923 and 1933. There wasn’t a copy any­where that I could find in Mel­bourne; I would even­tu­ally ac­quire these in Novem­ber 1983.

I, too, was con­struct­ing my own imag­i­nary world. Grow­ing up on the out­skirts of Mel­bourne with its un­made roads, or­chards and dairy cat­tle, I spent hours wan­der­ing around the flat boggy flood plain of Dan­de­nong creek and one could see, could feel, the low, marshy coun­try­side so beau­ti­fully recorded in Rem­brandt’s small hor­i­zon­tal etch­ings, every­where. The two places be­came one. A dream­scape.

I can’t say ex­actly when I first en­coun­tered a book of Pi­ranesi’s works. How­ever, I do re­mem­ber think­ing that they were rather more in the na­ture of “il­lus­tra­tions” much as in the same way I’d re­sponded to the work of Gus­tave Dore and even Wil­liam Blake. It would be sev­eral years and many glances later be­fore I started to sense a greater depth in the work.

I’d al­ways found the “graphic” — in­clud­ing the hard-edged, line-dom­i­nated im­agery of etch­ing and wood­cuts, which of course were em­ployed in the il­lus­tra­tion of books — limited in its sug­ges­tive po­ten­tial. Now I know. How, for in­stance, could any­one feel that way in front of Durer’s Me­lan­cho­lia? This feel­ing, how­ever,

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