art history music

Voices Carry: Philip Glass’s Akhnaten, or Echoes across Time

By Enrique Ramirez

You are a vapour trail / In a TV sky
— Ride, Vapour Trail (1990)

On a cool Spring night in 2014, driving on the Merritt Parkway through the heart of darkest Connecticut, I caught a strange noise through my speakers. It hung in the air inside my car for a couple of seconds before it broke apart into a field of high-pitched static. I detected within that jagged, dissonant burst some notes or chords from a pop song I knew from my youth. There was something else, however. As I focused on the red tail light contrails left behind by the cars and trucks speeding headlong into gloomily somber night, I thought I heard a voice caught in the hissing white noise. I could not understand what was being said, but the sound was unmistakably human, a symphony of glottal stops, fricatives, and sibilants. This voice crackled solemnly and distantly, broadcast from who knows when and where. I then took the nearest exit hoping to chase this human sound, to capture this fluttering pulse of life skipping along the aether.

The previous summer, on a rainy July evening in Chicago’s Union Park, I witnessed a charcoal-black raincloud descend from the sky as Björk took the stage at the Pitchfork Music Festival. I was far away, trying to cover my head as the ground below my feet became a swirl of mud and water. And through the haze, illuminated momentarily by the light emanating from the jumbotrons flanking each side of the stage, I caught a glimpse of the Icelandic singer. She entered in a field of magenta stars projected against three giant screens at the rear. Light glinted from her gold lamé dress. Quills emanated from her head—or at least that is what I thought I was seeing—turning her into a giant sea urchin save for a blank swath that revealed her mouth and face. She was not just from another world, but another world altogether, present, oceanic, suspended in the watery air enveloping the audience. There was a choir behind her, similarly dressed, all clad in platinum wigs, all dancing more or less together but not together, the movement of their arms and legs now appearing like strands of waterweeds carried along by sheets of rain. And then, that voice … so unmistakable. This was 2013.


It is 1897, and Albert Allis Hopkins, the future associate editor for Scientific American and a rabid Charles Dickens enthusiast, publishes Magic: Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions, Including Trick Photography (1897), which contains a description of the backstage interiors of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. His point of view is that of the interloper, a person arriving upon the flotsam and jetsam of a previous evening’s reverie. His inventory of the items inside the “property-rooms” are matter-of-fact, but even the most casual reader may detect a hint of wanderlust in what at first seems to be mere description of objects from another time:

The property-rooms are the most interesting. Here you may see Siegfried’s anvil, his forge, Wotan’s spear, the Lohengrin swan, or the “Rheingold;” while under the second fly gallery will be seen the parts of “Fafner,” the dragon in “Siegfried,” […] The armory is a room containing a vast collection of helmets, casques, breastplates, swords, spears, lanterns, daggers, etc.; while in a case lighted by electricity are the splendid jewels, crowns, etc. which make such an effective appearance when seen on the stage. Here will also be found a model of the old dragon which was burned up in the fire. Hung up on one side of the wall is an elephant’s head with a trunk which is freely flexible, and in the next room will be found the head of a camel which winks his eyes. In here are also stored the shields and weapons which the great artists use when they impersonate Northern gods and warriors. Under the property master’s charge are modeling rooms and carpenter shops. (265)

On November 26, 1922, Howard Carter descended by candlelight into an opening underneath the tomb complex of Rameses VI in the Theban Necropolis. He opened a door, which at least in his recollection, bore the “seal impressions of Tut.ankh.amen” when a current of hot air escaped and almost extinguished his candle. It was an exhalation, a release of pent-up memories of roiling sands, of waters diverting and scarring the Wadi bedrock, a remembrance of stars turning overhead in slowly changing patterns as armies ravaged the valleys and floodplains and made way for new patterns of living, for new forms of speech. It was this whoosh of air that whispered a lament for a burgeoning modernity and revealed to Carter a spectacle beyond his own imaginings. When he caught the first glimpses of “two strange ebony-black effigies of a King, gold sandalled, bearing staff and mace” looming out “from the cloak of darkness” and of “gilded couches in strange forms, lion-headed, Hathor-headed, and beast infernal,” Carter thought of the same world that confronted Hopkins in 1897. “The first impression,” wrote Carter of the gilded chairs, thrones, and chariots deep inside KV62, now known as the Tomb of Tutankhamun, “suggested the property-room of an opera of a vanquished civilization.”


Costanzo, as Akhnaten, flanked by Nefertiti (J’Nai Bridges) and Queen Tye (Dísella Lárusdóttir). Metropolitan Opera, 2019.

Nearly a hundred years later, in November 2019, I learned about Howard Carter’s discovery during a call with Anthony Roth Costanzo, who was just finishing a stellar run in the title role in the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten. To prepare for the role—a demanding one written specifically for a countertenor—Costanzo visited the Griffith Institute at Oxford University. It was there that he found Carter’s diary entry with its description of Tutankhamun’s tomb as a “property-room,” and his excitement at doing so was palpable, as if he were channeling the same thrill that Carter might have felt on that day in November 1922.

Costanzo’s photograph of Carter’s diary page, where Carter described entering the “Tomb of Tomb of Tutankhamun” on Nov. 26, 1922

Perhaps this was because like Carter, Costanzo experienced the electric charge felt when one catches a glimpse from another world and time. I was reminded of Arlette Farge’s own account of an “impassive archivist” at the Archives Nationales in Paris, encountering her own property-room of sorts, a portal to another temporality. She noted: Time is elsewhere, as the clock has been still for a long time, like the one in the porphyry room of the Escorial where the kings and queens of Spain are buried, sternly laid out in their marble tombs. At the bottom of that dark Spanish valley the long line of the monarchy lies at rest; at the bottom of the Marais in Paris the traces of the past lie at rest. An analogy between the two mausoleums may seem arbitrary, yet on each of her visits to the inventory room she is struck by this memory from across the Pyrenees. For Costanzo, time too is sequestered in archives and rooms, in seemingly distant elsewheres, yet seamed together through the alchemy of his vocal performance.

Allow me to clarify. We talked of two Akhnatens. There is the first, successor to Amenhotep III and known for introducing a monotheistic cult at el-Amarna that replaced the worshiping of the falcon-headed sun god Ra with adulation for the solar Aten, the disk of the sun that appears to hover like a flying object before the new pharaoh. This is the Aknhaten committed to dusty archives and countless texts (including a novel by Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz). Then there is the Akhnaten of Glass’s work. This is Costanzo’s Aknhaten, with a libretto culled from a diverse array of texts and objects, from E. A. Wallis Budge’s translation of The Egyptian Book of the Dead, to the Pyramid Texts from the Old Kingdom, and even transcriptions of boundary stelae found in James Henry Breasted’s A History of Egypt: From the Earliest Times to the Persian Conquest (1906). This is more than singing, more than the mere enunciation of words written elsewhere. The artist momentarily inhabits a text and lives out its contours by summoning a “voice within a voice” (per novelist James McCourt), a voice that radiates and ensnares the audience in the feint of historical time.

Costanzo as Akhnaten, Metropolitan Opera, 2019

“Opera time is slower than actual time.” This is Costanzo. In our interview, he is gregarious and friendly, knowledgeable not just about his craft, but also about Glass’s work. His performance at the Metropolitan Opera was not his first encounter with Akhnaten, having played the title role in earlier productions in London and in Los Angeles. I keep this in mind as he describes Glass as an “additive composer” that works with “macro structures,” clusters of time and sound that change ever so slightly to achieve maximum emotional impact. I cannot help but hear the voice of a historian in Costanzo. “The performer’s job is to create the narrative,” he tells me in our interview, as if echoing historian Carolyn Steedman, who remarked how the “practice of historical work, the uncovering of new facts, the endless reordering of the immense detail that makes the historian’s map of this past, performs this act of narrative destabilization on a daily basis.” (48) And Costanzo’s own descriptions of the structures of operatic time are reminiscent of Geoff Eley’s observation that Marc Bloch’s writings “freed historical perspective from simple narrative time, reattaching it to longer frames of structural duration.” (36)

Costanzo with J’Nai Bridges as Nefertiti. Metropolitan Opera, 2019.

This is not to say that performing historically is a kind of abstraction, a form of intellectual suspension that allows the musician to become lost in the structures and rituals of musicking. As it turns out, the craft of working within macro structures and of creating “longer frames of structural duration” is demanding—musically and physically. For instance, Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76) is known as an exacting work. To borrow Costanzo’s own words about performing Akhnaten, it is “repetitive” and “relentless.” Music for 18 Musicians lasts about an hour when played live and is composed of 11 “pulses,” each a small piece of music based around a single chord. Different instruments phase in and out of the piece. In one moment, high-pitched female voices accentuate the downbeat. In another, bass clarinets enter with a low swell—a reedy doppler shift of sorts. The sonic complexity of Reich’s piece has a temporal effect as well. In Parallel Play (2009), music critic Tim Page cites his review of Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians as an important event that foreshadowed his eventual diagnosis with Asperger’s syndrome. Here, he remarks on the perception of time while listening to Music for 18 Musicians:

Minerva-like, the music springs to life fully formed—from dead silence to fever pitch. There is a strong feeling of ritual, a sense that on some subliminal plane the music has always been playing and that it will continue playing forever … Imagine concentrating on a challenging modern painting that becomes just a little different every time you shift your attention from one detail to another. Or trying to impose a frame on a running river—making a finite, enclosed work of art yet leaving its kinetic quality unsullied, leaving it flowing freely on all sides. It has been done. Steve Reich has framed the river. (168)

This brings to light some similarities between Costanzo performing Akhnaten and musicians playing Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. Both capitalize on extended temporal horizons, and both rely on a double commitment of sorts: there is the time depicted in the libretto and the score, and then there is the time required to perform it. One may even sense that the slight variations in key and fluctuating time signatures have been occurring in perpetuity. You have to wait patiently to experience the tonal changes, to feel the emotional shifts. You have to listen carefully for a similar sense of perpetuity in Music for 18 Musicians. Peel away the layers of voices, metallophones, and clarinets, and you will hear the constant and relentless pounding of marimbas and xylophones. Imagine how tired these performers must be. They have been playing for the past 56 minutes, but as Page noted, they could have been playing for an eternity. They could be playing the first sounds ever made. 


“Everything made now is either a replica or a variant of something made a little time ago and so on back without break to the first morning of human time.” (2) It is 1962. This is George Kubler, writing in The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things. His eye is cinematic and roving, envisioning—literally—the history of art in terms of “form-classes,” each a sequence of objects whose differences are manifested slowly and deliberately in long, clustering durations of time. Beginning with a “prime object,” they vary and develop across different materialities, becoming the aforementioned replicas, and in some instances, developing mutations. The routes of Kubler’s “form-classes” are registered as if in a chronophotograph or stroboscopic flash photo: a gauzy presence that makes itself known persistently. I hesitate to call these developing forms phantoms, if only because Kubler reserves this ghostly description for a category of objects that exists outside the contours of his temporal purview. These are fashions, objects marked by “duration without substantial change: an apparition, a flicker, forgotten with the sounds of the seasons.” 

Kevin Pollard, the costume designer for Akhnaten, used these doll’s heads to create the version of Aknaten’s Deshret, the Crown of Lower Egypt, that was used in the Metropolitan Opera’s production.

The twin serpents once wound into a diadem encircling Akhnaten’s head are gone. In its place, a toy doll’s face peers from the front of a Deshret, the Crown of Lower Egypt. Above, a Hedjet, the White Crown of Upper Egypt, receives an egg-shaped stone of veined carnelian, polished and shining. Combined, the two crowns rest on top of a headpiece resembling a Nemes, a simple headdress, and here made of EVA foam and shellacked to look like an ormolu casque. Around the pharaoh’s face, blue, red, and green plastic jewels echo the bands of amazonita, turquoise, feldspar, and obsidian found on the funerary mask of Tutankhamun. And the effect is similar. They splinter light in all directions and for a moment, the audience may be lost in what looks like a radiant crown hovering around Akhnaten’s head. On the neck, aligned with the chin, a giant gold brooch appears suspended between lines of pearls fastened to an oversized pauldron on each shoulder. They are covered with more clusters of doll faces. Some of them are ashen, with lips and eye sockets dabbed in lampblack. Others are simply burnt, covered in dark alligator-skin blotches or bubbling blisters from which dead eyes peer at the audience. A v-shaped bodice shrouds the pharaoh’s torso in cascades of gilded crinoline and tulle. It flares out to create a large split skirt with a lower hem made of turquoise ruffs and more doll faces. Seen from the front, the pharaoh cuts a wide figure, part-Kamakura era Samurai, part-Elizabeth I posing for her Spanish Armada portrait. Flanked by Horenhab and the High Priest Aye, Akhnaten holds a crook and flail, confident in his newfound authority. When he is on the stage performing and in this costume, Costanzo is in Akhnaten’s body. This is what he tells me.

Akhnaten, Metropolitan Opera, 2019

A historical figure, like a fictional character, defies death by living across various texts, in different media. It is “a stand against oblivion and despair,” as Ian McEwan tells us in the final moments of his 2001 novel, Atonement. Whether in the guise of a novelist or under the mantle of the seasoned historian, a writer conjures an immortal subject, and does so in multiplicities. The historical Akhnaten and the operatic Akhnaten can exist in the same place and at the same time. So does Helen of Sparta, whose sequestration becomes the flashpoint of a conflagration, a tale of killing fields and captive voices woven into an everlasting refrain born of war and anguish: “Sing, Goddess …” I think of the image of Helen, her eidolon appearing not just in different texts, but in different places. In addition to the Helen in Homer, there is also the Helen in Herodotus and the Helen in Euripides (as well as the Helen in recent novels like Madeline Miller’s Circe and Pat Booker’s The Silence of the Girls.) Helen narrates her own fate, of the Judgment of Paris, and speaks through Euripides: “But Hera, indignant at not defeating the goddesses, made an airy nothing of my marriage with Paris; she gave to the son of king Priam not me, but an image, alive and breathing, that she fashioned out of the sky and made to look like me.” The image of Helen is substantiated not because it looks like her, but because she breathes, and by implication sounds like Helen. She speaks. She laments. She sings. Helen is telepresent. Helen is theatrical. She is more than a trompe l’oeil. She is a trompe l’oreille.

Two Helens

I heard Helen in 2013, listening to the Buggles’ 1979 hit “Video Killed The Radio Star” on a pair of studio monitors. I closed my eyes and heard her in the background. At first the voice was slow, languorous (not the one that goes “Oh-a Oh”). It was almost lost among the sequenced drums and ARP String Ensemble swells, and monophonic Minimoog and Prophet 5 voicings. During the second verse, when bassist Trevor Horn sings, “And now we meet in an abandoned studio/We hear the playback and it seems so long ago/And you remember the jingles used to go,” Helen’s voice stays in the background until the end of the verse when it transforms into a high-pitched scramble as her recorded voice rewinds at high speed. And finally, as the song reaches its coda, I hear Helen singing “You are a radio star,” only getting louder, panning subtly from back to front, changing from mono to stereo.

Laurie Anderson in Radar

It is 1987. I hear Helen in Laurie Anderson’s “Blue Lagoon,” a track from the 1984 album Mister Heartbreak. She is marooned on an island, reciting a letter to a distant love as if she were Miranda from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. She addresses her rambles to a digitized male voice skipping above a wobbling synth. The effect is disorienting, and as we listen to Anderson’s voice, hers is one of resignation turned to sarcasm: “Days, I dive by the wreck. Nights, I swim in the blue lagoon / Always used to wonder who I’d bring to a desert island.” Her letter quickly becomes an interior monologue, oneiric musings to the disembodied, electronic voice that sounds almost like the Ariel-like Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet (1958). She recites Ariel’s song from Act I, Scene II of The Tempest (“Full fathom five thy father lies / Of his bones are coral made”) before riffing on the Epilogue from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, just as the accompanying, irregular rhythms and guitar feedback samples become a swelling chorus of gamelan instruments and steel drums, increasing in volume, as if the song were levitating, invoking a moment when Ferdinand hears Ariel’s singing and asks, “Where should this music be? I’ the air or the earth?”


I have heard voices. They are the sounds of ethereal presences eulogized into printed words, relayed station to station. They are compressed vibrations, airborne, wired and ducted into our cochlear nerves. They mimic speech. They are unmoored in time and space. They scatter across electromagnetic spectra, twisted into technicolor coils of visible wavelengths. They fray and recombine once again as dense fabrics of pixels emanating a ghostly haze of narrow-spectrum blue light. These are the voices I have heard.

Malden Bridge, NY  /  Brooklyn, NY 
November 2019-March 2020
Enrique Ramirez is a Brooklyn-based writer, architectural historian, musician, and critic. He is currently a Critic in Graphic Design at Yale School of Art. You can follow him on Instagram at @riqueramirez


art history Atlantic history Dutch Early modern Europe empire Latin America

Agneta Block’s Pineapple: Colonial Botany and the Europeanization of Knowledge

By Cindy Kok

Look closely at the lower left corner of Jan Weenix’s 1693 group portrait: a pineapple grows amidst a cluster of exotic plants (Fig. 1). At first glance, Weenix’s depiction of this family suggests a familiar narrative of Dutch Golden Age wealth and success. To the right, merchant Sybrand de Flines (1623-1697) wears a luxurious kimono-inspired robe; his wife and children pose at a country estate, surrounded by objects of knowledge and art. However, Weenix draws the viewer’s attention to the pineapple, composing the family members in a diagonal leading to the plant. In addition, the artist shows the pineapple on its stem—still relatively small—rather than an imported ripened fruit.

Why is an American botanical a focal point of this composition? More than a family portrait, Weenix’s painting celebrates matriarch Agneta (Agnes) Block (1629-1704) and her achievements as a naturalist and botanist. Scholarship on women naturalists has highlighted their role in shaping a domestic relationship to European exploration. Botanical illustrations by artists like Maria Sibylla Merian and Rachel Ruysch—as well as the images’ afterlives in crafts like embroidery—made fragments of the larger world accessible to a European audience (Tomasi, “La femminil pazienza,” 160; Kinukawa, “Science and Whiteness as Property in the Dutch Atlantic World, 93-94). Block, however, purchased an estate outside Amsterdam in 1670 to engage directly in theoretical and experiential sciences from which women were commonly barred (Fig. 2). In 1687, she successfully grew the first European pineapple plant in the Vijverhof hothouses. With her pineapple, and this portrait, Block locates herself intellectually within a network of (predominantly male) European naturalists taxonomizing, codifying, and propagating the flora and fauna of the New World.

European explorers did not discover the pineapple, nor were they the first to cultivate it. Pineapples are indigenous to the tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas, originating between the Paraná and Paraguay rivers (where modern-day Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet) (Okihiro, Pineapple Culture, 74). Native Americans first domesticated the plant for its fruit, which they believed stimulated the appetite and aided digestion. By the seventeenth century, the pineapple is well-documented in European writings such as Pietro Martir de Anghiera’s  De Orbo Novo and Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdéz’s Historia General y Natural de las Indias.

Fig. 1. Jan Weenix. Agneta Block and garden Flora Batava. 1693-4. Oil on canvas. Amsterdam Museum.

Oviedo describes the pineapple as having a “beauty of appearance, delicate fragrance, [and] excellent flavor” that affects all the senses in a way in which “none of the other fruits…can compare, by many carats” (Oviedo y Valdéz, Historia General y Natural de las Indias, in Collins, 9-14). He quantifies its value in commercial terms typically reserved for precious materials.  Indeed, European interest in the pineapple grew with trading companies’ investment in commercial botanicals, or “green gold” (Schiebinger, “Prospecting for Drugs,” 119). Plantation owners cultivated these profitable plants in American and Asian territories; trading companies carried the products back to eager consumers in Europe. Undergirding this imperial economy was the study of natural sciences, which used European scientific methods to monetize plant resources from outside territories (De Vos, “The Science of Spices,” 401-402).  Block’s pineapple, particularly its reliance on hothouses that replicated equatorial colonial climates, is inextricably linked to this imperial-commercial complex.

To have greater control over cultivating tropical plants, gardeners had to understand how to manage the instruments of a hothouse. The Dutch first pioneered the design and use of hothouses in 1685, prompting European elites to send their gardeners to the Netherlands to study Dutch methods and buy Dutch pineapple plants (O’Connor, Pineapple, 24). Most prominently, Gaspar Fagel, adviser to stadhouder William of Orange (later William III of England), established a tropical garden at his estate Leeuwenhorst; after his death, part of his collection transferred to Hampton Court in 1689, accompanied by Dutch gardeners who maintained, expanded, and documented the collection (Arens, “Flowerbeds and Hothouses,” 266). The European gardener needed to be a mechanical as well as a natural scientist, bringing together technical knowledge with field and laboratory research (Fleischer, “Rooted in fertile soil,” 1). Hothouse technology, in combination with botanical knowledge, allowed gardeners to grow tropical plants year-round in cold Europe, subverting natural seasons and climates.

The hothouse became a way to appropriate even the environment of South American territories, overcoming distance, reordering non-native plants in a European taxonomy, and controlling them with European science. The wealthy and well-educated Block deployed this new technology at Vijverhof. In the humid hothouse, she planted a pineapple slip—a tuft of leaves taken from the base of the plant—acquired from the collection of tropical and subtropical plants at the Horticultural Garden in Leiden (O’Connor, Pineapple, 24; Oviedo y Valdez, Historia General y Natural de las Indias, in Collins, 12). Most likely she learned this indigenous American method of propagating pineapples from books such as Oveido’s. Although Block’s work intersected with colonial botany—whereby imperialists acquired and deployed indigenous knowledge—she was uninterested in growing pineapples commercially. Rather, her success was a personal achievement that gained her access to European intellectual and cultural networks. Vijverhof became a center for other painters and naturalists like Merian, Herman Saftleven, and Jan Commelin to study rare specimen firsthand.

Fig. 2. From the Atlas Coenen van ‘s Gravesloot (specific maker unknown). View of the Vecht River in Loenen from the Vijverhof Estate. c. 1718-1719. Print. Utrecht Archives.

Before the development of hothouses, the pineapple had been elusive: difficult to preserve in the transatlantic journey, impossible to grow in cold northern climates. Its rarity made it an impressive diplomatic gift. When unable to purchase the expensive fruit, English noblemen could still rent a pineapple to display at important dinners (Thompson, “Pineapples”). According to legend, royal gardener John Rose gifted a pineapple to his patron King Charles II in the 1660s. Although the pineapple was likely imported and not even grown in the royal gardens, Hendrik Danckerts chooses this career-defining exchange to commemorate Rose upon his death (Fig. 3). The moment of presentation, as mythologized by Danckerts, is ceremonious: Rose kneels before Charles presenting the pineapple, as if symbolically offering his monarch all the botanical resources of the New World.

Rose and Charles pose in front of an English estate, the gardener holding the pineapple as if it were a flower. Danckerts’ constructed image erases the origin of the pineapple and the work and knowledge of the indigenous American cultivators who grew it; he implies that the plant originated from the estate, reinforcing this idea with visual echoes of pineapple plants in leafy pots surrounding the fountain. The artist places Rose at the center of the narrative, positioning the European gardener as procurer of New World goods and proprietor of scientific botanical knowledge. Similarly, in her portrait, Block claims credit for the pineapple, seamlessly incorporated into her surroundings. Although central to his painting, Weenix situates the plant among other foreign flora and symbols of knowledge within a European landscape. These portraits fictionalize global natural history, perpetuating a narrative in which the pineapple is only available when mediated by European expertise.

Fig. 3. British School, after Hendrick Danckerts. Charles II Presented with a Pineapple. c. 1675-1680. Oil on canvas. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Block also facilitated the normalization and circulation of the foreign through images. In particular, her successful cultivation of a pineapple prompted her to adopt it as her personal emblem. Around 1700, Albert van Spiers illustrated a frontispiece for an album of drawings Block collected from Heroldt (Fig. 4) (“Design for a floral frontispiece with a portrait medallion of Agnes Block”). The floral wreath includes Block’s portrait medallion, discussed below, as well as her family’s coat-of-arms. Floral motifs were popular for frontispieces but Spiers customizes his illustration for Block’s album by using tropical flowers, many of which he likely studied in  her garden. Even the scales of the gold frame recall segmented pineapple fruit. In her visual program, exotic botanicals become associated with Block’s personal identity, rather than with non-European peoples or places. Once the botanicals are transplanted to her estate, they become absorbed into Vijverhof’s knowledge base for Block to (re)distribute.

Block also commissioned a portrait medal by Jan Boskam that references her expertise in horticulture (Fig. 5) (Vander Ploeg Fallon, “Petronella de la Court and Agneta Block,” 103). On the recto, the phrase “Flora Batava,” or Dutch Flora, is stamped alongside Block’s profile; on the verso, an anthropomorphized figure of Nature holds a tulip—originally from Turkey but popular and valuable in the Netherlands—and gestures to Block’s gardens at Vijverhof. To the right of Nature, as in the Weenix portrait, are a cactus and a pineapple plant, crown jewels of Block’s garden.

In this idealized vision of the garden, the tools of Block’s work, such as the hothouse, are elided in favor of a more mythical narrative about the bounty of nature with which Block (like the Dutch Republic) is blessed. With the non-native flora, Block mimics a guild tradition of stamping medallions with signs of membership to a network of like-minded specialists (Weinstein, “The Storied Stones of Altona,” 573). Block symbolically joins the ranks of professional naturalists and, like them, collects and fits knowledge into a European framework. Long before pineapples were widely available for consumption, Block assimilates the imagery and disseminates it. Unlike artists like Merian and Albert Eckhout, who traveled to the Americas and painted pineapples as symbols of foreign bounty (Fig. 6), Block’s pineapple is presented as a Dutch product integrated into Dutch gardening.

The modern age of the Anthropocene has inherited this notion that human interventions—from hothouse pineapples to ethylene-ripened bananas—allow us to master and improve upon nature. Yet even with naturalists’ attempts to scientifically regulate and define plants, the living specimen remained inherently unstable and mutable (Arens, “Flowerbeds and Hothouses,” 272). In spite of the advantages afforded by the hothouse, gardening was always characterized by this European struggle to control colonial resources and manage the demands of nature. The visual, however, remained easier to manipulate and, while not her explicit goal, Block patronized work that reinforced the visual scheme of empire. Botanical gardens and natural sciences, long considered politically neutral in scholarship, actively facilitate a Europeanization of knowledge taken from indigenous sources through processes of imperialism. The images that emerged in conjunction with natural histories and accounts of curiosities achieve similar ends, eliding a sense of locality to privilege European centrality. Through her experiments and visual rhetoric, Block similarly displaces the pineapple to relocate it in a European sphere. By placing exotic fruits in her portraits, medallions, and printed material, Block expresses a sense of possession that reflects a Dutch understanding of their relationship to the New World.

Fig. 4. Albert van Spiers (Piramied). “Design for a floral frontispiece with a portrait medallion of Agnes Block.” c. 1700. Christie’s Old Master and 19th Century Drawings (Sale 1340), Lot 129, Jan. 22, 2004, New York, New York.
Fig. 5. J. Boskam. Portrait Medallion of Agnes Block; reverse with her garden at Vijverhof. 1700. Silver. Centraal Museum, Utrecht.
Fig. 6. Albert Eckhout. Still Life with Watermelon, Pineapple and Other Fruits. 17th century. Oil on canvas. National Museum of Denmark.

Cynthia Kok is a PhD candidate in the History of Art department at Yale University. Her work investigates the global circulation of material and ideas in an early modern Dutch world; she is currently working on a dissertation on mother-of-pearl.

art history history of science Intellectual history philosophy

French Symbolism and the Origins of Analytic Philosophy

On the face of it, art historian Andrei Pop, in his latest book, A Forest of Symbols: Art, Science and Truth in the Long Nineteenth Century (Zone Books, 2019), sets out to achieve something rather concrete—a reevaluation of the French symbolist movement in art—and yet the reader soon becomes aware that much more is at stake, as Pop weaves together art history with an account of early analytic philosophy to raise questions about the very nature of truth and human ways of meaning-making in artistic and scientific practice, which are further explored in this interview with David Kretz.

A Forest of Symbols: Art, Science, and Truth in the Long Nineteenth Century begins by characterizing a type of mid-19th-century reductionism about the self and the mental that finds expression, for example, in Ernst Mach’s psychologistic philosophy and impressionist painting, which, roughly speaking, presents the viewer with sensations of color pigments rather than with objects. You then establish a surprising parallel between two counter-reactions to this Zeitgeist: symbolist art and early analytic philosophy, especially Frege and the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus. Can you sketch the parallel in their responses for us?

The predominance of positivism and various forms of mechanistic philosophy and science, including physiological psychology, was no ideological conspiracy but a result of real progress: the invention of analytic chemistry, the refinement of celestial mechanics, and the rapid strides in comparative anatomy, microbiology, and the rest, crowned as we still think by Darwinian evolutionary theory. To say nothing of practical gains from pasteurization to electricity. This materialist front faltered a little when confronting the mind and subjectivity, but here too advances were legion: from the study of the eye and physiologic color to the psychology of counting and their manifold applications, from calculators to color printing, early motion pictures, and, yes, realist and impressionist painting. These art practices, of course, were not always understood as reductive, but insofar as they were—as they answered to the decree of “paint only what you see”—they fit the positivist lockstep.

Only they also produced weirdness: what an impressionist ‘saw’, made up as it was of blocky saturated brushstrokes, differed markedly from what anyone else saw, live or through a camera. So the act of translating vision to canvas produced an effect different in kind. At the same time, positivism was of little help in the foundations of arithmetic, or physics, where explaining natural law mechanistically and psychologically (a tendency called “psychologism” on the model of scientism—taking psychology beyond its field of application) led to theories of numbers as consensual hallucinations, or meaningless counters in a game. This self-undermining nature of positivism—its search for verification leading always to unstable mental states that could deceive the verifier—naturally led to revolt among ambitious scientists from Boltzmann to Cantor. The revolts tended to assert the reality of things unseen and strictly unseeable: whether infinite sets (Bolzano) or irrational numbers (Weierstrass) or both of these (Dedekind, Cantor, Frege). This is a reformed Platonism, because it doesn’t point us to the perfect Bed in the sky, but to what is necessary for there to be anything at all—the laws of arithmetic describe any possible universe. They certainly underlie the mathematical natural science on which positivism relied while undermining it.

It is perhaps surprising then that the scientific revolt against equating truth with the perceptible or verifiable, which issued in mathematical logic and philosophy of language that you call “early analytic philosophy”, also made room for domains inaccessible to it, what it called the subjective realm, which stretched from color perception and proprioception to poetic nuance to aesthetic judgment. If we identify the later tradition with the elimination of subjectivity and a nearly algorithmic commitment to the application of logic to philosophical problems, we may, ironically, regard Frege and the young Russell and Wittgenstein as backward Romantics, because they sought to delimit objective sense and laws from realms of radical subjectivity that separate each mind from each other: the very notion of private language, which the older Wittgenstein violently rejected. The philosophical point of this book is to show that the objective requires the subjective as a foil if it is to play the scientific role late nineteenth-century philosophers assigned to it, not to mention to become accessible through our perceptual apparatus in new kinds of mathematical and logical symbolism. As for the symbolist artists, they frankly acknowledged that the mind contributes as much as the hand in reproducing reality, so that continuous color and contour, which impressionism and the opticians had rejected as found nowhere in nature, reappear as signs of our subjective activity as perceivers as much as our logical activity organizing percepts into objects. The category of the image serves as a useful beacon, joining theoretical speculation to plastic art: it is structured sense itself, distinct from and mediating between the concrete things embodying it and whatever else, concrete or abstract, they stand for or refer to. But once one has noticed the affinity between the artistic and philosophical project, there is no reason to leave out photographers, realist painters, or romantic poets like Poe, when one finds them engaged in a project of exploring the interface between the logically objective, or public world, and the private, subjective worlds which Heraclitus already said we each possess.

Édouard Manet, Illustration for Stéphane Mallarmé’s translation of “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe, 1875

You agree with historians of science like Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison that there is an artistic aspect to scientific practices of observation and documentation, for example, but want to also claim the inverse: that artworks are, in a sense, truth-apt and logical. Truth in art, moreover, on your view lies not so much in its power to disclose a world (Heidegger, Gadamer). Rather your concept of truth in art seems to follow along representationalist lines: Frege and the early Wittgenstein. Could you tell us more about your understanding of truth—in art, in science? Are they the same? Is truth in art the same as meaningfulness?

The opposition between disclosive and representationalist accounts of truth requires some scrutiny. I take it by the latter you have in mind the view that sentences or images build up models of reality, which we compare with their referent and judge to be true in case the representation corresponds to reality. Frege in fact denied that such a view is generally applicable to pictures—as he pointed out, we would only call a picture of Cologne Cathedral “true” in this sense if we appended the sentence “the cathedral looks like this”, so that what we are really judging true is the sentence. But then he went further and pointed out that the correspondence theory doesn’t explain truth in language either! For if you ask just what makes this sentence correspond to reality, and I provide an answer, you can still ask whether the answer is true, which on the correspondence theory would lead to asking for another object of correspondence (not of the sentence, but of the sentence asserting the truth of the sentence), and thus a vicious regress. So correspondence will not explain truth in general: but it certainly plays a role in much everyday language and imagery, from ID cards to IOUs.

So it won’t do to dismiss representation altogether and insist on elevated uses of “world-disclosing” language and images: it matters whether I owe you or you owe me a sum of money, just as it should matter to the disclosing of a peasant world whether, say, a pair of boots painted by Van Gogh belonged (are painted as belonging) to a peasant woman or not. What matters still has to do with the language or the image: these are logically articulated, which needn’t mean reducible to language. What it does mean is: properly interpreted, it is responsive to true or false propositions about it. This is how a picture differs from the object which is its bearer, as it differs from a stone or a leaf, which are neither meaningful nor potentially true or false, though we can say meaningful, true or false things about them. As for the worry that pictures allow for multiple plausible interpretations, that doesn’t differentiate them from language qualitatively, only quantitatively. A picture might seem awfully ambiguous about, say, the intentions of the person it portrays, but it is merely compatible with several different ones. In turn, a sentence describing a face, as Lessing noticed, is endlessly more ambiguous than even a crude visual image of that face. Logically articulated, then, in every domain, means something like this: the object would mean different things if it were structured otherwise.

Likewise, context matters: language abounds in indexical expressions whose full significance (as opposed to linguistic meaning) depends on who is speaking and listening, and the sense of images may depend on assumptions about who is looking, what goes on beyond the frame of the picture, and so on. This is why I like to say that a historian may not be a Platonist, but a Platonist must be a historian: you never reach mind-independent meaning from a historical artifact unless you account for specific human conventions and acts. As for truth, that is once again a further step: it is not objects as such, but the thoughts they provoke, which are true or false. The only guaranteed truths are the tautologies held in such suspicion by Wittgenstein—which are perfectly respectable logical truths, true solely due to their structure (the same goes for contradictions, which are necessarily false). As for other thoughts, their truth and falsity depends not so much on correspondence to fact (which, inconveniently, tends to ape the representational content of the thought), but on what they really mean. Again artifact and world, structure and context interlock, while remaining very much distinct.

And that is why images, and not just texts or scientific sentences, may be logically articulate: it’s because they are interesting, eventful. The Nelson Goodman line, according to which pictures are just analog color gradients with no structure, is as implausible as Heidegger’s speculations on peasant shoes, which he claims are accessible only in looking at a Van Gogh painting, but which in fact can only be had by reading Heidegger. In order for this kind of art theory to reestablish contact with ordinary acts of looking, and with communication between lookers, and their other intellectual activities (including science), logical structure has to be recognized wherever it is found. It is naturally rather unevenly distributed among meaningful artifacts (perspectival pictures may be dreadful at tense, but they are far better than sentences at describing spaces, and both are terrible at clarifying inferences). We also have to recognize and respect the incommunicable aspect of each subject’s experience, which we can sense rather than verify and which I suspect is what drives the world-disclosing philosophers to their premature attempts at disclosure.

Is there anything that would make an artwork logically inarticulate? Would you rule out the possibility of interesting, eventful nonsense?

I rule out “nonsense” understood as “no sense”, a degree zero of sense: the nonsense poems of Lear, Carroll, dada, medieval monks, etc. are in fact full of tidbits of sense, arranged less than sentence-wise (or even word-wise at times). So the “may be” above applies to the degree of coherence a particular artwork aspires to. A monochrome may well occupy a monistic logical space akin to David Chalmers’ fantastic “consciousness of a thermostat”. If so it is quite dull, perhaps inarticulate by our usual standards, but never unintelligible or senseless in a pure way. Poésie concrète, doodles, automatic writing are telic activities too, with a minimal sense that is requisite to being an interesting representation. Of course, a fossil or a blank wall may be interesting, but not as representation: only as a natural object about which questions may be asked.

How does your understanding of these larger metaphysical and epistemological issues inflect your own methodology as a historian? What do you think art historians should learn from philosophy—and philosophers from (art) historians?

I more than once heard a celebrated philosopher say that his only method is to never say anything that is obviously false. One could do worse! The use of external “theory” in art history once had a dogmatic cast—the writer “knows” that Marxism or Lacanian psychoanalysis or structural linguistics is right, and rearranges art, or rather the extant writings on it, in accordance with this certainty. The old (“classical”) Germanophone art historians by contrast had some philosophical training (generally neo-Kantian), which they did not flaunt, instead inventing terms like Kunstwollen (‘art-willing’), Pathosformel (‘pathos formula’) or symbolische Form (this one due to a philosopher, Ernst Cassirer) to do their philosophizing, still in a broad generalizing vein, but generally asserting a continuity or change over time in how concrete objects embodied these more abstract patterns or schemata. I hope I have learned some lessons from both traditions: to think on our feet when the form of artifacts is meaningful and to look outside them when artifacts reach into the world. Still, art historians must learn not just philosophical theories, but some habits of mind philosophers take for granted (notably analytic philosophers, whom too few of us read, but above all the great philosophical minds, wherever those occur): not to adopt any position because they think it’s right or will elicit admiration without understanding it, but to think for themselves, accepting only what on their best efforts they regard as the truth. This, of course, need not involve certainty, but includes possibilities and hypotheses and the most plausible conclusions.

Can philosophers in turn learn anything from art historians? Well, besides learning what not to do (in the bad case), most art history, and certainly art history at its best, abounds in careful and explicit observation of meaningful artifacts, from all known human cultures and epochs: I think it does so in a way that if properly taken up could challenge the philosophy of mind, of language (which really should be a branch of a larger philosophy of meaning), and of logic and science. Art history isn’t just interesting to aestheticians. Questions ranging from the compositionality of semantics to the nature of things can be elucidated, if not definitively answered, by closer attention to art and artifacts. Not that this will involve taking anything art historians say at face value, but most of what philosophers think about the limits of thought, discursive language and the expressible, would benefit from an acquaintance with a wider range of meaning-making tools. Knowing symbolic logic helps, but so do comics or sculpture or opera! I am just as bad, I have no clue what to make of key signatures and chord changes in music, which can be instruments of thought, as much as any syllogism or perspectival projection. The key to wisdom, I’d agree with Socrates, is knowing that we don’t know. That is something art historians and philosophers have in common with each other—and with everyone else.

Andrei Pop is a professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the Department of Art History at the University of Chicago. Previously, he has taught eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art history and aesthetics at the Universities of Basel and Vienna

David Kretz is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Germanic Studies and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. His current project contrasts poets and translators as complementary paradigms of historical agency in times of crisis

art history music

Milton at the Opera

By guest contributor John Phipps

February, 1639, and the festivities of the Roman carnival were approaching their apex. There had been processions and parades, public displays of civic and religious devotion—almost all bankrolled by the ruling Barberini family. The Barberini patriarch, Maffeo, sat in the Vatican as Pope Urban VIII. His nephews, Antonio and Francesco, were powerful cardinals and patrons of the arts. Together, the three men had the eternal city in their deep cassock pockets. 

The crowning glory of the carnival was Virgilio Mazzocchi’s comic opera, Chi Soffre Speri (Let he who suffers, hope). It was staged in the Barberini Palace, in a theatre capable of seating several thousand. There were vast choruses, troops of dancers, and a dozen changes of scenery. Real rain and thunder would appear to threaten a stage designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. 

Half an hour before the performance began, the young John Milton was greeted at the door by a Barberini official, and went to take his seat among the lords of Rome. 

John Milton, c. 1629

Milton was on his Italian gap year, having arrived in the summer of 1638. He was, in Susanne Woods’ phrase, ‘an oxymoron in search of the higher resolutions of paradox’: a Protestant in the home of Catholicism; a great poet who was more or less unknown to his contemporaries (ed. Di Cesare, 9). Denied entry into the priesthood, uninterested in the law, and sceptical of Caroline royal patronage, Milton was a brilliant young man with almost no prospects. So he went to Italy, in search of culture, art, and personal validation. 

These were precisely what he found. Milton would write later about his time in Florence:

In that city, which I have always admired above all others because of the elegance, not just of its tongue, but also of its wit, I lingered for about two months. There I at once became the friend of many gentlemen eminent in rank and learning, whose private academies I frequented—a Florentine institution which deserves great praise not only for promoting humane studies but also for encouraging friendly discourse. Time will never destroy my recollection—ever welcome and delightful—of you, Jacopo Gaddi, Carlo Dati, Frescobaldi, Coltellini, Buonmattei, Chimentelli, Francini, and many others.

 ed. Loewenstein, 347

It is a matter of record that Milton was, on his arrival in Italy, accepted as a member of a prestigious Florentine academy. On an almost weekly basis, Milton attended intellectual meetings with poets, scholars and noblemen. In Florence, the educated (and of course, male) humanist could move freely, in an elevated space where the “humane arts” superseded the old, denominational boundaries. Milton’s affectionate words—along with his long correspondence with the nobleman and poet Carlo Dati—suggest that, to Milton, Florence wasn’t far from worldly paradise.

But it’s hard not to wonder what the deeply Puritan Milton must have thought in Rome, which he would later call “the very stronghold of the Pope.” And not just in Rome, but seated in one of its finest palaces, the future author of Eikonoklastes (The image breaker) sitting down for five hours of operatic extravagance. 

His feelings can only have been uneasy. He was not just a puritan and a republican, but the product of a culture that lived in fearful opposition to Rome. In Britain it was commonplace to refer to the pope as Antichrist; a Catholic zealot had tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament within living memory. At the same time, to be invited was a compliment. Milton would have been weighing his acceptance into Roman society against his feelings about the papacy; his uncertainty about princely patronage against his republicanism; his scepticism about Catholic musical propaganda against his cultural and lyric appetite.

All that, before the curtain had even risen. 

And after it had? Opera would not have been, to Milton, what it is to us now. In Italy it was the exciting new art form. Public demand was exploding: in the year of Milton’s visit, two new public opera houses were built in Venice alone. What’s more, Milton’s Florentine companions believed that opera had been invented by their forebears, in an academy much like their own, and they surely would have impressed this fact upon their English guest.  

In an age when Italian cities still functioned like states, regional pride was fierce, and the Florentines took pains to codify their claim to opera’s invention. Milton’s great friend Dati later wrote that opera had its roots in sixteenth-century nobleman Jacopo Corsi’s Camerata, which was “always open, like a public academy, to everyone who had intelligence or talent in the liberal arts … Recitative style for use on stage was born there (ed. Price, 135).”  

“Recitative style” refers to dramatic singing over homophonic chords (as opposed to the more common polyphony), just as in modern operatic recitative. It was at once an innovation and an archaism. Its invention stemmed from the contemporary belief that ancient Greek tragedy was not spoken, but sung, and both Florentine recitative and opera were born out of the desire to recreate the mythical impact of classical tragedy. Not only were many of the early operas on classical themes, they also centred and emphasized the self-consciously Greek device of the chorus.  

Milton was paying attention. At some point in the next few years, most likely not long after he returned to Italy, Milton began drafting tragedies on religious themes. These are clearly conceived with performance in mind: one contains specific instructions for costumes; others talk freely about “the audience.” Two of these drafts, for a tragedy called “Adam Unparadiz’d” or “Paradise Lost,” make extensive use of a chorus, a device unseen on the English stage for many years. One contains the shorthand instruction, “Chorus of angels sing a hymme of the creation.”

“Paradise Lost: The Opera?” It feels too unlikely to be true. But Milton was no stranger to music. His father was a composer; he himself was a good singer and talented multi-instrumentalist. He took a chest of the new Italian music home from Venice. And the 1634 masque Comus, his longest work to date, was set to music by his friend, the composer Henry Lawes. Even as a protestant amongst the world’s leading heretics, it seems that Milton was taking notes for his own dramatic designs. 

Edwin Henry Landseer, The Defeat of Comus (1843)

Whatever his plans were, Milton’s tumultuous life got in the way. His triumph would be to write what some consider the greatest poem in English. But what awaited him beyond the page—blindness, divorce, Europe-wide infamy—cannot have been what he had hoped for from life. 

The ambivalences of his Italian trip never left him. In Paradise Lost, there are several ambiguous references to the Italian humanist culture he experienced, most notably in Milton’s descriptions of Hell. For instance, an image in Book II sounds very like an Italian academy:

Others apart sat on a hill retir’d,
In thoughts more elevate, and reason’d high,
Of Providence, Foreknowledge, Will, and Fate,
Fixt Fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,
And found no end, in wandring mazes lost.

II. 557-561

The “others” in question are the fallen angels, banished to hell by God for an eternity of torment. Yet the demons seem more like philosophers than hellhounds. 

It’s not just that the fallen angels seem to be like Catholic humanists, civilized but confused, it’s also that Hell sometimes seems awfully like Italy—and in Paradise Lost Milton’s Italian references are consistently Hell-bound. Milton’s description of the devils as they lie chained on the burning lake in Book I goes so far as to be geographically specific, talking of “Angel forms:”

who lay intrans’t
Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th’ Etrurian shades 
High overarch’t imbowr.

I. 301-4

The reference is puzzling, because it is unlikely that Milton visited this remote area during his time in Italy. Some have suggested a reference to Psalm 23; the place name translates to “The valley of the shadow.” Others see a reference to Virgil’s description of the dead in Book 6 of the Aeneid, whose souls flutter and fall like leaves in Autumn wind. But the deliberate Italianisation of the classical image, the biblical reference, the Hellish context and the elegiac tone add up to something rich, strange and ambivalent—much like Milton’s own experience in Catholic Italy.. 


The questions facing Milton in Italy have not gone away. With whom can we acceptably associate? And do we make those decisions for reasons of principle, or for fear of our contemporaries’ judgement? How can we live among people with worldviews that would exclude our own? And if we find we can live among them, what does that say about us? 

The problems of liberalism have never been remote or intellectual. They are the problems of our daily life. Everyone works towards their own answer, though this is not to say that all answers are equally good. But the emotionally indeterminate Italian moments in Paradise Lost demand a change in perspective. If travel provides us with new choices, then art and literature offer us a space where we need not necessarily choose at all: where our many selves can coexist more happily than they can in daily life. 

In Italy Milton was engaged in the messy business of living with difference. He was hungry for knowledge, for culture, for something new and challenging. He was lucky enough to find a world removed not only from the one he knew, but from the increasingly bitter and hostile one he would return to. Several centuries later, on a continent far away from Milton’s, Elizabeth Bishop found herself pondering the narrow possibilities of a wide world, in her poem “Questions of Travel

Is it lack of imagination that makes us come 
to imagined places, not just stay at home? 
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right 
about just sitting quietly in one’s room? 
Continent, city, country, society: 
the choice is never wide and never free. 
And here, or there . . . No. Should we have stayed at home, 
wherever that may be?

John Phipps is a writer. He lives in London.

art history French history Medieval Think Piece

Seeing the Gothic through the blaze of Notre Dame

By Contributing Editor Cynthia Houng

Abbot suger

I first encountered Abbot Suger: On the Abbey Church of St.-Denis and Its Art Treasures, edited, translated and annotated by Erwin Panofsky (1946, 2nd. revised and expanded edition 1979) when I was working on a paper on the stained glass program at Sainte-Chapelle. Abbot Suger is a remarkable set of texts. In this book, Panofsky gathered three important documents related to the construction of St.-Denis by Suger: De Administratione, De Consecratione, and the Ordinatio, all written between 1140 and 1149, the decade surrounding the cathedral’s construction and consecration, between c. 1140 and  c. 1144.

Two weeks ago, transfixed by the fire at Notre Dame, I went to my shelf and pulled down my copy of Abbot Suger.

abbot suger presenting the tree of jesse window
Abbot Suger, donating the Tree of Jesse window to St.-Denis

In his introduction to Suger’s text, Panofsky noted that, “Suger was acutely conscious of the stylistic difference that existed between his own, ‘modern’ structures (opus novum or even modernum) and the old Carolingian basilica (opus antiquum).” Suger tells us what it was like to experience the lightness and the airy qualities of the Gothic nave for the first time, to stand beneath those stained glass windows with their “wonderful and uninterrupted light.” It is all new, still. The Gothic has not yet become loaded with additional–and sometimes inconvenient, or even unsavory–ideological and emotional resonances.

In Suger’s moment, the Gothic does not have a history yet. It does not even have a name. We do not look back at St.-Denis, or Sainte-Chapelle, or Notre Dame through a haze of romanticism (as Viollet-le-Duc did), nor do we see, as Louis XIV, a tired relic of the past (Louis XIV modernized Notre Dame’s interior to suit his own Classical tastes). The association with the Gothic with the ancien régime has not yet happened, and we do not see it, as French revolutionaries did in the eighteenth century, and again in the nineteenth, as part of the order that must be destroyed. (Sainte-Chapelle’s glorious glass windows survive only because they were removed and packed away before revolutionaries could smash them.) No, to see St.-Denis through Suger’s eyes is to see both a new world rising, and the difficulty of making something so new that it was untested–and if it were to endure, it would do so only by the grace of God.

A donor portrait of Abbot Suger, “The Annunciation,” from the axial chapel of the Virgin at St.-Denis

Writing on the survival of St.-Denis’s “arches” (the arches that formed part of the cathedral’s vaulting) through a heavy storm that hurled “a force of contrary gales” against them, so that “they threatened baleful ruin at any moment, miserably trembling, and as it were, swaying hither and thither,” Suger said: “Thus [the tempest], while it brought calamitous ruin in many places to buildings thought to be firm, was unable to damage these isolated and newly made arches, tottering in mid-air, because it was repulsed by the power of God.” (109) Suger’s text is full of such instances, at once marveling at the cathedral structure as a feat of construction and engineering, and giving thanks to God that we, mere mortals, could complete such feats in our temporal world. The miracle of St.-Denis, in many ways, is that it happened at all, that resources were found and hands and bodies were set to the task. When we say that these cathedrals were “well built,” we are commenting, in part, on this remarkable conjunction of human and natural resources.

Choir, with vaulting and stained glass, Abbey of St.-Denis

Suger describes what went into the construction process–endless hours of physical labor, but also the less tangible work of funding it all. He tells us remarkable stories of men, “nobles and common folk alike,” harnessing themselves like “draft animals” to draw massive stone columns out of the quarries of Pontoise. He also tells us about combing through the abbey’s accounts, searching for ways to fund “an annual revenue for completing this work,” and finding it by cobbling together income from various offerings, income “from the possession called Villaine in the district of Beauce, previously uncultivated but with the help of God and by our labors brought under cultivation and developed to an annual revenue of eighty or a hundred pounds,” and then providing contingencies in case revenue from Villaine “should fall short of its full contribution.” This small aside on Villaine also tells us something about how the landscape around St.-Denis was changing, as more and more land was improved and brought under cultivation. Revenue from the Fair, too, would play a part in funding the construction. With a light touch, the world of eleventh-century France comes to life. It is not hard to imagine similar considerations in the construction of Notre Dame, though work there was drawn out over a much longer period of time — Stokstad writes that “Pope Alexander, exiled in France, is traditionally believed to have laid the first stone of the choir in 1163,” and yet the facade would not be completed until well into the thirteenth century.


Of course, by now, we all know that the Notre Dame fire began in “la forêt,”  the forest of ancient timbers that carried the cathedral’s roof. Suger’s text reminds us that such massive roofs were, if not outright miracles, incredible feats of planning and ingenuity, down to the problem of procurement. As he recounts in De Consecratione, the process of finding timber beams for St.-Denis was fraught: “When we inquired of our own carpenters and those of Paris where we might find beams we were told, as was in their opinion true, that such could in no wise be found in these regions owing to the lack of woods; they would inevitably have to be brought hither from the district of Auxerre.” Not easily discouraged, Suger “began to think in bed that I myself should go through all the forests of these parts, look around everywhere.” The next morning, “we hastened with our carpenters, and with the measurements of the beams, to the forest called Iveline. When we traversed our possession in the Valley of Chevreuse we summoned through our servants the keepers of our own forests as well as men who knew about other woods, and questioned them under oath whether we could find there, no matter with how much trouble, any timbers of that measure. At this they smiled, or rather would have laughed at us if they had dared.” And here Suger gives a wonderful aside on the recent history of France, noting that his queries were met with smiles because the men “wondered whether we were quite ignorant of the fact that nothing of the kind could be found in the entire region, especially since Milon, the Castellan of Chevreuse (our vassal, who holds of us one half of the forest in addition to another fief) had left nothing unimpaired or untouched that could be used for building palisades and bulwarks while he was long subjected to wars both by our Lord the King and Amaury de Montfort.”

But such are the rewards of faith–or stubbornness. Suger plunges into the forest himself, “and toward the first hour we found one timber adequate to the measure.” At the end of the day, they had found twelve timbers, the exact number required for their task. Suger sums up the episode: “Thus in this matter Divine generosity, which has chosen to limit and to grant all things according to weight and measure, manifested itself as neither excessive nor defective; for not one more [timber] than was needed could be found.”


Charles Nègre, The Vampire (Le Stryge), 1853. Salt print on paper.

It is impossible to know Notre Dame without mediation–of representations, of texts, of the intervening centuries themselves. Michael Camille wrote, in the introduction to his strange and wonderful book The Gargoyles of Notre Dame (2007): “What these insistent monsters have taught me is the impossibility of viewing the art of the Middle Ages without looking past and through the nineteenth century, without appreciating our own and the cathedral’s substantial Modernity.” In the case of Notre Dame, it was literally impossible to see the cathedral without the mediation of the nineteenth century, for the fabric of the cathedral was substantially altered under the direction of Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus. The spire that fell and burned before our eyes was a Viollet-le-Duc intervention. So are the beloved gargoyles. Viollet-le-Duc’s hand can be felt both inside and out. And the cathedral has been changed since the nineteenth century. In the 1960s, new glass was installed in the nave in an effort to brighten and lighten the dark interior.

Robert Doisneau, Gargoyle, Notre Dame, 1949.

Camille has something to say about this, too: “In writing the first-ever art-historical study of this group of well-known Parisian sculptures, my point is not that they are modern and therefore less important than the superb twelfth- and thirteenth-century sculptures still in situ on the west facade. Rather than view them as “not medieval” I hope to show their instrumentality in having helped construct the very idea of the medieval. Our most cherished cultural monuments are not the neatly packaged products of a distant and therefore irresponsible historical past. Cathedrals are above all spectacular sites in the here and now, sites that are continually being reinterpreted, reconstructed, and interrupted by new monsters of our own making.”

This, I think, is something that Suger could understand, at least in part, though he probably would not articulate it in quite the same way. The “new” St.-Denis was constructed using the stones of the “old” St.-Denis. As gorgeous as the new cathedral might have been when it was freshly constructed, it only came into the fullness of its beauty when animated by the life of the Church. The final passages of Suger’s De Consecratione are dedicated to the translation of the relics–to the joy and passion of the processions and rituals that brought life into the cathedral, life that could be wondrous and joyful but also edged with terror. The cathedral exists for the moment, for the here and now. But Suger doesn’t share Camille’s world-weary disenchantment. Setting aside whether this disenchantment is a function of personality or of modernity–it suffices to say that Camille’s sense of the “here and now” is quite different from that of Suger, as is his sense of how the present moment interacts with the cathedral site.

Here, I think, we have to be careful about drawing binaries between belief and unbelief, the secular and the sacred. When Notre Dame was on fire, men and women fell to their knees in prayer. Things that we believed to have been swept away by the tides of time may in fact endure in surprising ways. The past glows for us only because we have not experienced it ourselves. Suger told of the remarkable work that went into the construction of St.-Denis. He did not tell us of other important things–of the politics, of the force and violence, of what it might mean to do all of this under the sign of feudalism. As for what all of this means, now, in the here-and-now of 2019, for the rebuilding of Notre Dame–perhaps we can only fumble for words when we are mired in the thick of it.

Camille passed away before Notre Dame burned. For him, back in the first years of this century, the question was not “Will Notre Dame burn to the ground?” but rather “Can we delicately repair the damage of time? Is it acceptable to insert signs of our own time into the fabric of the cathedral? Should we make new gargoyles to replace the old, crumbling nineteenth-century ones that are maybe a little bit Disney and a little bit steampunk, that is, of ‘our moment’?” The terms of the equation have shifted a bit. What is our moment? Who are we? When donations poured in for the rebuilding of Notre Dame–after decades of difficulty raising adequate funds for preservation and maintenance–the size of individual donations pledged by ultra-wealthy donors such as François-Henri Pinault and Bernard Arnault served, for some, as painful instantiations of the gross economic inequality that characterizes the twenty-first century.

The best that I can do, for now, is leave you with this quote from T.J. Clark’s Heaven on Earth (2017):

There are aspects of the human imagination — the attempts that individuals and societies go on making to give overall shape to earthly existence, and have time take on a trajectory and destination; the effort to have pain and powerlessness be bearable, and to answer the question of whether the coherence and fullness of a life in common ought to be seen as an entirely human possibility or as the foreshadowing (the gift, the vision) of a world to come–whose main established metaphors look to be indelible, however often they are subjected to the fires of disbelief. […] The idea of heaven on earth, in particular — of a future close to us in which ‘former things are passed away’– will persist as long as the hellishness of the present demands it.

Perhaps it is all just magical thinking. I know in the thick of it all, when the fire could have gone one way or another, I promised to myself that if Notre Dame were to stand, if “la forêt” should be all that was sacrificed, I would return to the site myself. To see it with my own eyes. Call it what you will — faith, magical thinking, a misguided attempt to project my own desires onto the external world. In the moment it was the only thing I had.

Ancient art history Book reviews Classics

On Lately Looking Into Twombly’s Homer

By Contributing Writer Jeremy Glazier

When John Keats first looked into George Chapman’s rendition of Homer in 1816, he stayed up all night reading the two-hundred-year-old translation with his friend Charles Cowden Clarke and left us with a brief but white-hot record of that transformative encounter: a sonnet, composed on the two-mile walk home from his friend’s house in the wee hours. He was twenty-one years old, with four years left to live and nearly all of his important works yet to come. Cy Twombly (1928-2011) was also in his twenties when he discovered Homer, perhaps at Washington and Lee in 1949, or the following year at Black Mountain College under the tutelage of the poet Charles Olson. In any case, Twombly’s own artistic response to Homer would take longer to germinate than Keats’s—but when it did, it resulted in one of the most extraordinary works of art in the twentieth century: an epic ten-painting sequence, Fifty Days at Iliam.

Two recent books on Twombly offer new insights into a sequence that Carlos Basualdo calls “one of Twombly’s most ambitious and successful works of art” (167). Basualdo is the Keith L. and Katherine Sachs Curator of Contemporary Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the paintings have been housed since 1989, and the editor of the museum’s new catalogue, Cy Twombly: Fifty Days at Iliam (Yale UP, 2018). The book not only presents large, full-color prints of the sequence and many related works in the museum’s collection, it also gathers critical appraisals and commentary from art historians, classical scholars, and others. Twombly started work on the sequence in 1977 at the villa he had bought and restored in Bassano, Italy; he was fifty years old. Photographs of the house and Twombly’s studio, taken during this time, help to situate the paintings—which are also shown in their context on the museum’s walls—in the milieu that inspired them. As Joshua Rivkin has noted in another new book—published, coincidentally, the same day as the museum’s catalogue—these works “were as influenced by the interior spaces of Bassano” as they were by the Iliad (216).

Rivkin, Joshua (C) Mary Burge
Caption and credit for the headshot of Rivkin:
Joshua Rivkin Photo: ©  Mary Burge

Rivkin has written a compelling biography/memoir, Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly (Melville House, 2018), which weaves together the familiar elements of biography—the letters, journals, and ephemera that make up a life, compiled over the course of a decade—with Rivkin’s own metanarrative: his personal encounters with the paintings and with the people who guard Twombly’s legacy. Rivkin too has been to Bassano, accompanied by Twombly’s son Alessandro, to absorb the spirit of the place. Interspersed with his insightful commentary is another story, that of the writer chasing the shadow of his inspiration, trying to grasp the intangibles, make sense of something—call it genius—that’s not quite rational. In that sense, Rivkin is not unlike a translator: Pope or Chapman, seeking to transform one thing into another so as to be newly perceptible.

Rivkin, a poet, former Fulbright Scholar, and Stegner Fellow, takes a characteristically readerly approach to Twombly’s paintings: the canvases are texts to be read, texts that are themselves readings of Pope’s Iliad, which of course is a reading of Homer’s Iliad, which is a reading of one of the foundational myths of Western civilization. But “Twombly’s work resists an easy reading” (88), and Rivkin’s method, at once impressionistic and sharply focused, is not without its pitfalls: “in Twombly’s hand, one word can become another, and even scholars who spend hours looking mistake dreams for alarms, mistake one meaning for another” (89). The process of interpreting art, like the process of creating it, often isn’t rational. “Instead,” Rivkin explains, “I let myself experience them without trying to impose a narrative.” (80)

Yet narratives sometimes emerge anyway. The “cloud-like” red, blue, and white figures of Shades of Achilles, Patroclus, and Hector, the centerpiece of the sequence, “represent the dead heroes—these fuzzy ghosts, these spirits made flesh” (218). This painting—the one facing the visitor when first stepping through the gallery door—is for Rivkin the series’ emotional apex: “Death, these cloudbursts say, is waiting.” Other apexes appear in the form of the Greek letter delta (Δ), in red, which Twombly uses for the “A” in names like Achilles and Achaeans. Rivkin sees these not just as “triangles and names and phallic figures” but also as warriors “charging around the viewer in a frenzied rush” (217). There are no color plates in Chalk, unfortunately, but Rivkin’s readings of the canvases provides as intimate encounter with the paintings as can be hoped for in print—and a valuable supplement to the catalogue (or, better yet, to a visit to the museum).

In her essay “Adapting Homer Via Pope” in the museum’s catalogue, Emily Greenwood argues that Fifty Days at Iliam is “an important intervention in the history of Homeric translation and adaptation in the twentieth century” (73). As Olena Chervonik points out in “Study for the Presence of a Myth,” “Twombly’s artistic engagement with the ancient epic is not that of an illustrator, elucidating the twists and turns of a well-defined story” (90). Instead, he uses Homer’s “text as a springboard to dive into the complex history of the Trojan War.” Another word for that kind of springboard or intervention is ekphrasis. Usually we think of ekphrasis as a written, poetic description of a work of visual art, such as W. H. Auden’s famous “Musée des Beaux Arts,” with its comment on Breugel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. The classic example comes from Homer himself: the description of Achilles’s shield in Book 18 of the Iliad. But in the broader sense ekphrasis is the rendering of one art form into another, a sort of alchemy in which a work is transmuted from one medium into another.

In fact, The Shield of Achilles is the first painting of Twombly’s sequence, located just outside the main room in the Philadelphia museum where the others are essentially lined up for battle, Trojans on one side, Achaeans on the other. Twombly’s depiction of the shield represents a kind of meta-ekphrasis: it is a rendition on canvas of Homer’s famous depiction of the shield—though Rivkin argues that Twombly’s picture “is closer to Auden’s dark poem [with] its scenes of violence and nightmare, ‘barbed wire’ and ‘a sky like lead’” (217): in any case, a painting about a poem about a shield forged by a god as a cosmological map of the world. It’s practically a nesting doll of meaning, an omphalos awaiting skepsis. “In a way,” Rivkin muses, “Twombly always wants it both ways—to be figurative, calling forth the past, an invocation of a lost world and to have the gesture mean gesture. The line is the line.” (229)

Of course, it was Pope’s lines that Twombly’s work traces. As Greenwood notes, “Twombly ostensibly starts with a line of Homer, Englished by Pope […] and then in a process that both departs radically from and is consistent with the highly visual imagination of Homer’s traditional oral poetics, starts putting abstract lines to the war” (82). (Twombly owned a gorgeous copy of Pope’s translation, she relates in a note: an octavo second edition from 1720.) He also, according to Chernovik, “read and reread Homer in renditions from Roman times by Virgil and Apollodorus” and was familiar with Constantine Cavafy’s interpolations of Homer’s stories (89-90). Many of the twentieth century’s greatest masters turned to mythological themes for their muse—but few of them seem to have absorbed Homer’s text as fully as Cy Twombly did, particularly in Fifty Days at Iliam.

Cy Twombly: Fifty Days at Iliam and Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly (photo by the author for JHIBlog)

The two books taken together, then, present something like a master class in reading Twombly’s masterpiece: text, context, subtext, paratext. As Rivkin notes, “They are paintings to be seen all together, the drama of the whole, and to be observed one at a time” (216). Seeing the complete sequence in Basualdo’s catalogue’s high-quality reproductions is perhaps the next best thing to seeing them in sitio. The paintings and their provenance only make up a small portion of Chalk, but their story is at the very center—both literally and figuratively—of Rivkin’s indispensable book. Ultimately, he insists, the paintings represent “not Homer or Pope’s Trojan War but Twombly’s” (216). And thanks to these two very different but complementary studies, it’s now ours too, to read, to translate, to look at and into—perhaps with that same “wild surmise” Keats felt on first looking into Chapman’s Homer.

Jeremy Glazier is a poet, an essayist, and a two-time recipient of the Ohio Arts Council’s Individual Excellence Award in Criticism. You can read his essays on Alex Dimitrov, Don Share, Stéphane Mallarmé, and others in The Los Angeles Review of Books. His poems have appeared in Kenyon Review, Antioch Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, and many other journals. He lives in Columbus, Ohio and is Associate Professor of English at Ohio Dominican University. Email him at