13.7.13

Glittering Images by Camille Paglia: Lord of the Sea

Glittering Images is the perfect art history book for readers who want to understand the motivations and significance of the most important art movements without committing to an extended and in depth reading list.  Camille Paglia provides an insight that was both informative and contemporary. 

In each chapter, Paglia gives equal attention to historical context and reading the work.  

Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Andrea Doria as Neptune. Ca. 1530. Oil on canvas.
In her chapter, Lord of the Sea, Paglia has chosen one painting by Agnolo Bronzino to describe the movement of Mannerism.   

"By the time Andrea was born, his family had lost political power but was still influential as bankers, landlords, and soldiers.  Orphaned in childhood, he joined the Papal Guard, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and worked as a naval mercenary.  He became wealthy from confiscated treasure on his bold expeditions against Muslim pirates of North Africa's Barbary Coast... In 1528, Doria restored his family to dominance when he freed Genoa from French control and became de facto dictator of the new republic.  For the next thirty years, he ruthlessly crushed opposition, particularly after the assassination of his nephew and heir, Giannettino Doria."

This description is useful in giving a personal and concise story of the man featured in the painting.  Knowing the personal history of the man gives specific insight into why certain artistic choices were made in the painting.  Doria was the kind of man who commanded power, who made wealth out of risky journeys and adventures, as well became politically significant to his community at large. Knowing this makes it easy to understand why he would have been portrayed as the God Neptune.  Paglia elaborates, 

"With his calm, implacable gaze, Doria demonstrates Neptune's lordly dominion over the sea.  His spray-whipped hair falls forward to mimic the tufted crop of Roman emperors.  The flowing gray tendrils of his beard resemble sea fronds or ship wakes.  He stands in a bleak raking light,  as if under a full moon.  Or the ship may be heading into the high wind of a thunderstorm, the gathering clouds of war.  Galleys were deft in amphibious assaults but notoriously unstable in rough seas.  Perhaps the sail has suddenly been struck as the galley, propelled by oar, plunges toward enemy vessels."

Paglia uses this paragraph to show how this painting induces the viewers imagination. She describes Doria's stance as one that exemplifies control in the face of oncoming dangers, such as the sea or war. Doria's hair befits the style of an emperor - another detail that alludes to his power.  These kind of details provide content to Bronzino's painting. 

Paglia's pattern of historical context and a reading of one particular work allow her to focus on these relevant details.  Throughout Glittering images she uses this pattern of describing one work of art in detail, in an attempt that it will be enough material to give the reader an idea of the entire movement. 

Paglia continues to dissect the painting, finding leadership in the placement of his index finger before concluding with this sentence, 

"Bronzino's painting evades these problems by treating Doria's entire body, from his planted thigh, veiny forearms, and brawny shoulders to his hard brow and pouched eyes, as a tumescent column of sheer willpower."

The last paragraph illustrates how Mannerism is a development of the Greek nude. Telling the reader how the nude was perceived at the time and how each detail of the painting acted harmoniously to create a figure of strength and power, Paglia can make clear that this strategy is a hallmark of Mannerism.  

Each chapter is precise in this way with a single work summarizing an entire movement.  This book feels like one of tastes and samples of larger meals.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing, and I may share a couple more samples with you.  However I do wish she had included a bibliography, though based on the style of the book I can't really blame her for not doing so. 

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