So I’m on a retro reading binge at the moment, and this moment very much revolves around Susan Sontag.
Read. Her. Again.
While “The Volcano Lover” as a title sort of trends toward bodice-ripper, this is one of the most literary of the literary fiction I’ve read. And it involves art. And it plunges to the depths and crests of character development. It is based on the life of Sir William Hamilton, the British envoy to the Neapolitan royal court in 1764 (“the Cavalier”). But it is really about his infatuation with collecting. Sculpture. Ancient Greek and Roman artifacts. Caravaggios. Anything and everything. He is driven by it. He even climbs into Mount Vesuvius and collects its lava rocks. He meets other collectors – but they are all different types of collectors than he. Some collect to show off their collections. Others collect Bellinis, golden candlesticks, reliquaries, Poussins, but hide them from the world. Still others were more interested in the chase than staring at their newfound capture day in and day out – ”to find the xxxx!” they’d say. “On to something new!”
The Cavalier ponders the idea that art can either be temporary or eternal. War can torch the halls and massive buildings where artifacts are incinerated to dust. But other pieces live on eternally (e.g., relics from the ancient Greeks t hat have somehow survived centuries), and as humans we are just a fleeting image of life on earth. The holders, the caretakers, the admirers of these great objects have more of date with mortality than the artifacts themselves. He thinks that the reason we sometimes become beholden to certain objects is because they have no contract on life – there’s no predestined date with death like the one we have with another human.
Sontag is brilliant in “The Volcano Lover.” There’s so much more to savor. It definitely merits another read. But in a few years — I have so many other books on my list right now!
Degrees of Freedom synopsis: A work of literary fiction that touches on themes of art history, food, and geography, Degrees of Freedom is set amid the streets of Seville, Spain, and chronicles one man’s search to mend the unraveling seams of his life — a rocky relationship with a temperamental daughter and a failing epistolary (and achingly platonic) friendship with an art critic for the Rome Times – using art as his therapy. As he immerses himself in the vibrancy of the Sevillan streets, the people, and most compellingly, the portraiture housed in the maze of tiny galleries at the city’s Museo des Bellas Artes, he is shaken into a surreal sense of consciousness by the profound impact that art, place, and history can stamp – sometimes favorably, and sometimes mercilessly — on life.
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Could it be true that a painting’s success is predicated on its level of infamy? Is it really true that works are remembered, even revered, because they were stolen/lost? Does that incident live on, overriding the quality of the work? The test is: have any bad works of art been stolen, and are these works now considered good?
Consider Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ :
Taking of Christ
Why has the arrest, trial and execution of a religious radical in Roman Judaea just over 2,000 years ago inspired so much of the world’s greatest art?…It tells the intriguing story of this picture, rediscovered in a Jesuit house in Dublin in 1990 after being misrecognised and undervalued for centuries. Since its rediscovery, The Taking of Christ has become one of Caravaggio’s most famous works.
But the author of the article claims that its “famousity” is:
Because it is a story of universal human truth. It speaks to all oppression and all suffering. You don’t have to be a Christian to feel the tragic power and disturbing authenticity of Caravaggio’s scene.