“Physical sensation through vision is the key”
I’ve had Daniele da Volterra (1509-1566) on my mind ever since I came across the information back in January, when first looking at his two-sided painting, The Battle of David and Goliath (16th century), that da Volterra was the artist who accepted a papal commission to put pants on the nude figures in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. He’s a recurring presence in my blog, actually, having already shown up in blog posts 8 and 9, but each time I considered writing just about him I turned back. It was in part because I felt it was more his notoriety than his artwork that attracted me and in part because my only source for his notoriety was Wikipedia, which is rather notorious itself.
I decided to add him to the blog this week because something in the June 29th issue of the Globe and Mail made me think of his Battle of David and Goliath. In an interview, Toronto theater mogul and art collector David Mirvish was speaking about being in the presence of some of his best loved paintings, large-scale color-field works. He emphasized the physical impact of the experience. “Physical sensation through vision is the key,” the journalist Sarah Milroy reports him as saying. Mirvish went on, according to Milroy, to criticize “encyclopedic museums, where a smattering-of-each is the curatorial rule”; he wanted the private museum he plans for his collection to give paintings “their own space”. It is not surprising that Mirvish also sees deficiencies in other ways of experiencing his favorite works; Milroy writes, “He talks, too, about the difficulty of writing about colour-field painting, or doing justice to it in print reproduction, given the often gargantuan scale of the works and their vaporous visual effects.”
The concerns expressed here have relevance both to the Louvre’s display of da Volterra’s Battle of David and Goliath and to my experience of approaching it through the Louvre book, the Louvre website, Wikipedia, and other online and print sources. Although not gargantuan, Da Volterra’s work is quite large: 133 cm. by 172 cm., that is, 4.3 ft. by 5.6 ft. Moreover, it is two-sided: different perspectives on the same scene, with David about to strike off Goliath’s head, give views of the figures from front and back. Da Volterra painted in oil on two sides of a piece of slate; according to the Atlas Database, he was attempting to demonstrate that painting had the potential of creating effects similar to sculpture’s rendering of three dimensions. In addition, the Louvre displays the two-sided painting on a gold-embossed wooden base designed in 1715 to accompany the work when it was given in 1715 to Louis XIV. Housed for several years at Fontainebleau, The Battle of David and Goliath was restored and installed in the Grand Gallery of the Louvre in 2007.
I did not see the painting when I was there, so I’m dependent on print reproductions and online images for my “physical sensation through vision.” In this particular instance, I have to humbly agree with Mr. Mirvish that a print reproduction presents difficulties. My first sighting was of a reproduction only 2 in. x 2.5 in. Moreover, the two-sided painting is not visible in the Louvre website’s photographs of the Grand Gallery. Perhaps my expectations have sunk so low that I’m not a reliable judge, but I have found some online images helpful in getting a sense of scale. Here’s one from a photography blog, which includes a number of museum visitors in the frame: http://www.google.ca/imgres?imgurl=http://no-onions-extra-pickles.com/wp-content/uploads/louvre-gallery.jpg&imgrefurl=http://no-onions-extra-pickles.com/how-art-history-affects-my-travels/the-louvre-grand-gallery/&h=768&w=1024&sz=350&tbnid=lq2_2pGhKbCQZM:&tbnh=95&tbnw=127&prev=/search%3Fq%3Dgrand%2Bgallery%2Bof%2Blouvre%26tbm%3Disch%26tbo%3Du&zoom=1&q=grand+gallery+of+louvre&usg=__Feat7qBX-A-WXTVSDIPeK0od1Kk=&docid=f-T6y5ZBwB7ScM&sa=X&ei=oQjkUbXJFceCrgG3jYC4Dw&ved=0CDYQ9QEwAQ&dur=362.
Here’s another link, this one to a 2007 newspaper article about the work’s mounting in the Louvre: http://www.thearttribune.com/A-Daniele-da-Volterra-redisplayed.html. As good as they are, these online images nevertheless seem to me to demonstrate that the physical sensation of a painting is usually, if not always, better when the viewer and the painting are in the same room.
But the brief information on artist, title, dimensions, etc., that accompanies the painting in the Louvre book, the sort of labeling provided by the Louvre itself for most works, would never have been enough to lead me to the discovery of da Volterra’s place in art history. For that, I needed a work on art history, even one as notoriously unreliable as a Wikipedia entry. In fact, I have often thought that I should acknowledge in the blog how often I have found a Wikipedia entry on one of my one-painting-only artists. It’s not Wikipedia’s fault that so few of them carry with them the sort of notoriety that da Volterra does.
There were three topics in da Volterra’s biography that I decided to read more about. The first was da Volterra’s role in clothing the nudes in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, which was easy to verify. The second topic was closely associated with the first: da Volterra was said to have scraped away and repainted the images of saints Blaise and Catherine of Alexandria (For more on images of Catherine of Alexandria in the Louvre collection, see blog post 6) that appear to Christ’s left in the Last Judgment in response to criticisms that the arrangement of the two figures suggested some type of sexual intimacy. This second topic, too, was easy to verify from other sources, including the official Vatican website. In addition, I learned that a copy of the Last Judgment by Marcello Venusti (1512/5-1579) is in the collection of the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples; there are reproductions available online.
The third topic that interested me was the statement in Wikipedia that “According to Daniele’s will, the marble knee of the missing left leg of the Christ from Michelangelo’s Deposition was in his possession at the time of his death.” My adventures in pursuit of this marble knee will be the subject of my next post.