December 28, 2008

I’ve been reading Ingrid Rowland’s new collection of her New York Review essays.

Her review of the 2003 Titian retrospective mounted in London and Madrid brought me back to my art historical ‘annus mirabilis,’ when, at a much more impressionable age than I then realized, I digested the Prado (my first major European museum) and then the glorious thousand pages of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages (the eleventh edition, with a detail of the hands of that Bronzino on the cover) in the space of ten months.  I remember that show so well. I remember stopping in front of Ranuccio Farnese

and realizing that my life had, in some palpable but certainly not yet articulable way, changed for good.

I miss that year, and I miss art history.  I’ve felt a delinquent’s guilt at having strayed from the discipline at U.

But it dawned on me recently that the delinquency might make good sense~that art history~in that compelling first encounter, at least, before it descends into husband-hunting & canvas-counting~can be a preparation for something else.

To see this painting, and then this painting, and to fall in love with both, is to have the scope & stakes of intellectual history telegraphed to you in a moment. To find yourself caught up in the rivalry between colorito and disegno is to intuit the unresolvable tension~and the subsequent battle of ideas~that lies at the heart of our civilization.

Of course, art history is not just the history of ideas in cliffsnotes. There is a quality to that first uncomprehending glimpse of a vast panorama that no itemized analysis or methodical exploration can ever recover.

No understanding can beat that instant of knowing, that divine lurch in your stomach when you first see Bacchus step off his car.

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