Friday, December 3, 2010

Hawthorne learns to appreciate the cherubs and angels - his Italian notebooks

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Italian notebooks are a conscious act of art appreciation.  Hawthorne, prodded by his wife, spent much of his year and a half in Italy, the part he wrote about in his journal, at least, studying art.  He was not a natural connoisseur.  Appreciation is hard work.

One puzzle to me, reading earlier travelers to Italy, and earlier art critics, was the amount of attention paid to the Vatican’s Belvidere Apollo.  Why did this statue become the summit of ancient artistry?  Once that fact was established, by whatever means, it could only be repeated and reinforced by later writers.  Hawthorne knew those earlier writers, too, but he sometimes fought free of them.  He did the one thing that is so hard to do – he really looked at whatever he was looking at.

I saw the Apollo Belvidere as something ethereal and godlike; only for a flitting moment, however, and as if he had alighted from heaven, or shone suddenly out of the sunlight, and then had withdrawn himself again. (Mar, 10, 1858)

That glimpse is valuable, but Hawthorne has no illusions that it is endlessly repeatable, or that it does not require specific conditions.  His teenage son, during the same trip to the Vatican, reacts like this:

Julian was very hungry, and seeing a vast porphyry vase, forty-four feet in circumference, he wished that he had it full of soup.

That is also a fine piece of art criticism.

I sympathize, perhaps too much, with Hawthorne’s tastes.  Like me, he finds renewed vigor whenever he moves from a museum’s Italians to the painters of the Dutch room.  In the Uffizi:

These petty miracles [Gerard Dou’s flowers, feathers, and eggs] have their use in assuring us that painters really can do something that takes hold of us in our most matter of fact moods; whereas, the merits of the grander style of art may be beyond our ordinary appreciation, and leave us in doubt (nine times out of ten that we look at them) whether we have not befooled ourselves with a false admiration.  Until we learn to appreciate the cherubs and angels that Raphael scatters through the blessed air, in a picture of the Nativity, it is not amiss to look at a Dutch fly settling on a peach, or a humble-bee burying himself in a flower. (Jun. 15, 1858)

What a useful warning for my own reading.  A matter-of-fact mood is my most common mood, and I prefer the Dutch flies in literature to the cherubs.  A good part of the reason I write here is to put some pressure on my tastes, to make sure I don’t always rush past the Raphaels and Titians in order to see my beloved Boschs and Breughels.  And that business about not befooling myself with false admiration – I don’t even want to get into that.

On an unrelated note, the Hawthorne’s spend a lot of time visiting the Roman and Florentine studios of American artists.  One of the sculptures they see I actually know well.  It is Harriet Hosmer’s Beatrice Cenci (1856), which is now a prominent feature of the Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.  A Wuthering Expectations blog post or two may have been written in close proximity to this piece.  Hawthorne’s only comment is that it “did not very greatly impress me” (April 3, 1858, not in the abridged notebooks).  I like it all right!  But I looked at it, and then looked some more.


  1. I want to do some Hawthorne reading/rereading next year, so your pieces on Hawthorne-as-amateur art critic are fanning the flames of my enthusiasm so to speak. Love that quote about Julian's utilitarian approach as well!

  2. I might do a little Hawthorne wrap-up next week. Or maybe not. My opinions are, as usual, entirely conventional.