Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Dolce's Aretino

References in parentheses are to Mark W. Roskill’s Dolce’s Aretino and Venetian Art Theory of the Cinquecento (New York: NYU Press, 1968). The entire text including magisterial apparatus is conveniently available at http://www2.gwu.edu/~art/Temporary_SL/105/Reading105/Roskill.pdf.

Lodovico Dolce was a superlatively productive man of letters in sixteenth century Venice, writing epics, tragedies, comedies, romances, histories, and essays as well as editing, commenting, and translating, but he is today best-known as the author of the Aretino, a dialogue on painting. There the historical figures Pietro Aretino (the poet, pornographer, and playwright) [1] and the humanist and scholar Giovan Francesco Fabrini argue the comparative merits of Florentine and Venetian painting and discuss the very nature of art. The all-but-contemporary evaluations of the artists are lively, but the book’s central value is in the picture it provides of the ordinary aesthetic assumptions of the time.

Translator Roskill explicitly denigrates Dolce’s theoretical powers, saying his theory consists of “a weak compound of Platonism and Aristotelianism,” (10) [2] and that “he certainly had small capacity for originality of thought.” (6) Besides, visual art for him was not even “a vital or recurrent enthusiasm.” (7) Accepting these as accurate judgments, however, makes it only more likely that he will trot out the common assumptions, the received ideas of his time, employing the currently fashionable jargon.

Much of the dialogue is absorbed with discussion of Michelangelo, praised in particular by Fabrini, Raphael, championed by Aretino, and finally of Titian whose work Aretino says allows one to see “gathered together to perfection all the excellent features which have individually been present in many cases.” (185) Both praise and blame are distributed with what often seems subjective enthusiasm of a piece with Dolce’s insistence that “the painter really needs to be born that way, just as much as the poet does.” Paintings must “move the spectator,” (159), but can there be evidence of one’s being moved?

A standard begins to emerge with the declaration that “painting is nothing other than the imitation of reality” (97), but Dolce offers little basis for evaluating realism other than “propriety” and the avoidance of “absurdities” (which he found in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment). (165) In Dolce’s telling Aretino declares that “man’s ability to judge comes, in general, from practical experience of the way things are . . .each man is qualified to pass judgment on what he daily sees.” Every “living human being,” not just those educated in the arts, is qualified to make aesthetic decisions. (101) Common sense, when it is so very common, is of little use. Stuck with such a limited criterion for excellence, Dolce provides stories of trompe l’oeil paintings as though such stunts reflected the finest of art (151) and enlists Dante (of all poets) in support of realism. (159)

Apart from an apparent ideal of photographic realism, one gets little information about what constitutes beauty. It is associated with design (disegno) (115 and elsewhere) or “harmony of proportion.” (101) And proportion assumes an almost divine significance since sensitivity to “ideal” proportions leads one to a “higher” model for which the ancients provide the best models as they “embody complete artistic perfection, and may serve as exemplars for the whole of beauty.” (119) The artist’s ambition soars beyond mere realism then since the aesthetic aim is “the execution of a perfect body, above and beyond the ordinary imitation of nature.” (139)

Lest the modern fear that Dolce’s artist would be wholly absorbed in academic imitation, he also recalls Castiglione’s Courtier when he recommends “sprezzatura” (translated by Roskill as “casualness”). It is apparently possible to have “too much beauty” (157) if it results in an impression of fussiness. All this is likely to sound a great deal like individual taste gussied up with the era’s catch-words.

Dolce’s impressionism is occasionally buttressed by unconvincing socially-based arguments, maintaining, for instance, that since Alexander respected painters, the art must surely be itself noble. (105) This argument is consistent with the conditions of the author’s society including his fulsome dedications and semi-relevant praise of the powerful.

His basic scheme then is founded on an idea of a sort of illuminated realism in which the artist through his good taste selects elements that are especially harmonious but who is bound by representation of reality. His most dramatic omission is a concern with didacticism which had since Augustine captured the critics of the Middle Ages but which seems to mean nothing to Dolce. He declares that painters “surpass the rest of humanity in intellect and spirit, daring as they do to imitate with their art the things which God has created” (113) yet this supremacy is qualified by his assertion that painting is second to literature. (107)

In fact, he thinks his work is relevant to literature, (99) saying “writers are painters,” and that “poetry is painting.” Not stopping there, he proceeds to what sounds like a general semiotic view, saying that “history is painting, and that any kind of a composition by a man of culture is painting.” (101) There is however, a more particular and technical relationship between his dialogue and literature, and that is his use of rhetorical theory. The general tradition of literary theory from antiquity through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance was solidly founded on rhetorical theory though this connection receives little attention today. A general European tradition including writers such as Matthew of Vendome, Geoffrey of Vinsauf, and John of Garland lie behind Dolce’s treatment. Dolce analyzes the painter’s creative process into invention, design, and coloring, paralleling rhetoric’s elements of invention, division, and elocution. (117) [3] Since ancient times rhetoricians had counseled the same imitation of models and the sophists in particular had similarly broken free of the need to teach, being similarly satisfied with moving or captivating an audience.

Dolce was fortunate in his translator/editor and Professor Roskill has provided not only a clear and readable translation, but has, in this volume made from his dissertation, added voluminous commentary with such full information on meaning, sources, and influences that the reader feels that the scholarly work is complete. He has made accessible to all a book which conveys in a lively and vivid manner the assumptions and rhetoric of the connoisseurs of art in sixteenth century Italy, including their debt to classical writers and in particular to the rhetorical tradition. Only specialists, perhaps, would care to delve so deeply into the subject, but the fact is that Dolce gives more than anything a sense of what it meant to be civilized for him, and we are all still investigating that question.

1. I might warn the curious that I found Aretino’s obscene dialogues (in the translation by Raymond Rosenthal) to be boring to the point of unreadability. My copy is a popular Ballantine edition which touts such other titles as Girls Who Said Yes.

2. Roskill regards as “Platonist” the assertion that people are naturally drawn to the good and that love of art is evidence for this tendency and as Aristotelean what he calls “the value of practical experience as a basis for sound human judgments.” (11)

3. See Roskill’s commentary pp. 267 ff. for a detailed analysis of these categories as well as authoritative information on Dolce’s immediate sources.

On Pronunciation and Pedantry

As not everyone is familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet I have here used phonetic spellings which I hope will be immediately clear to American speakers.

The entire world has decided it must learn English which is certainly convenient for us Americans with our peculiar national antipathy to the study of foreign languages. Yet it still happens, especially to those who have managed to catch some fragments of a liberal education in this era when all school (including higher education which ought properly to concern itself with pure research) is made into vocational school, that one desires to use a word or phrase or name in another language. In the pronunciation of foreign names there is no consistent rule of usage, and when no standard of propriety exists, the choice become a matter of style, though, of course, style taken far enough impinges on propriety.

I once read a piece in public that mentioned the church of St. James in Prague, naming it Svatý Jakub in my best imitation of Czech tones. A listener questioned my usage – I don’t really speak Czech -- and my only defense was that my pedantic side preferred to approximate local pronunciation. That occurred at a reading that drew a literary crowd, but even an American in the midst of academic Francophiles would be unlikely while speaking English, to pronounce France’s capital any way other than “Pear-iss.” Yet France’s third largest city, which a Londoner would cheerfully call “lie-uns” (adding an “s” as well as anglicizing) is likely in America to undergo a variety of local impressions of a French pronunciation of Lyon. A little-known location would receive everyone’s best try at its local name. Though even Americans competent in French generally pronounce Montreal without nasalized o, acute accent for the “e’ or a French “r,” but, should the same person speak of the town of Saint-Jacques, it would surely come out “Zhahk” and not “Djay-kweez” as Shakespeare had it in As You Like It. (In the play the character’s last name is deBoys, pronounced as W.E.B. duBois did “Doo-boyz,” not like Blanche “Doo-bwah” in Streetcar Named Desire.) Anyone who calls Hungary’s capital “Booda-pesht” or the Peruvian ruins “Mah-choo Peek-choo” has probably been instructed about the sound during a visit. And, of course, more or less subtle bragging about international travel is an established practice among the educated classes as is the put-upon reaction of those who have not been there and find listening to such correctness as bad as Grandpa’s ordeals during the fifties in watching his neighbors’ slides of the Grand Canyon.

Perhaps the lingering memory of empire allows people in the U.K. to be more confident about pronouncing words in an English fashion. They do, after all, regularly discuss Cervantes’ novel “Dahn Kwicks-ut” and the reader of Byron will find that the meter doesn’t work if he tries to say the name of the hero of “Don Jew-un” as “Whahn.” The editors of the Oxford dictionaries unashamedly declare, “the anglicized pronunciation represents the normal pronunciation used by native speakers of standard English (who may not be speakers of other languages) when using the word in an English context.” France can be equally shameless in its Frenchifying. In the Louvre when I first visited, I saw works by Titien, Michelange, and the like, though a current check of their website suggests that they now use more names that more accurately reflec t the artists’ original languages.

No one, I think, today would speak of “Green-witch” Village, but rather would pronounce the name in approximately the same way they would in referring to the London borough, and Worcester everywhere is, I think, “Wuh-ster,” though not everyone is hip to the Cheshire village Cholmondeley (“Chum-lee”) or the personal name Saint-John (“Sin-djin”). Further, many adopted names are treated differently from their originals. In Illinois there are towns named Peru, Milan, New Madrid, and Pekin. In every case, the residents stress the first syllable of the name while the second receives the accent when speaking of South America, Italy, Spain, or China. For such cases the standard of propriety is set by local usage.

A similar rule applies to personal names the sound of which is always subject to the wishes of their bearers. My mother’s maiden name was Kopecky and I never heard anyone in the family pronounce it other than with the Czech “ts” for “c,” yet surely most Americans would make the “ck” a simple “k” sound. Meeting a Polish-American, one cannot know whether the person’s preference is for “w” as “v” or as an American “w.” And reference to language of origin is far from an infallible guide. I used “High-meh” for a Hispanic student who corrected me, saying his name was “Djay-mee” and I have known a Thérèse (complete with accents when written) who said “Teh-rees.”

Words that have become thoroughly naturalized in English often acquire a new accepted sound. Still, for my part, I would rather hear “root” than “rowt” 66 because the word is French in origin, and likewise “neesh” and not “nitch.” Most people pronounce the Italian segue as “seg-way” -- but the striver who thinks it French and says “seeg” sounds not more sophisticated but less.
Indeed, over-correction is a greater hazard for certain overreachers. One hears talk of people having a “tett-ah-tay,” though of course the final “t” deserves to sound the same as the initial one. I once worked for a Spanish man named Javier who always responded though perhaps with a faint air of contempt hovering about his nose, to a colleague who regularly addressed him as “Havy-ay,” which must have sounded properly Continental, though the fact is that in Spanish all letters (with the exception of initial “h”) are pronounced.

The issue is doubly present for a classicist since written as well as spoken forms vary. The pronunciation of Greek and Latin changed, of course, over time, both as languages spoken and studied, even apart from popular pronunciations. If one called Julius Caesar “Kahee-sar” it would at least lead to an understanding of the origin of Kaiser and Czar, but no one calls him that. “Kick-ero” the orator? It is not likely to gain favor. And, as for the spelling, in recent years it has become far commoner to use Greek transliteration, for instance Bakkhos instead of Bacchus, Aischylos for Aeschylus, etc., but does anyone really want to say Platon and Omeros in English? The extremely punctilious might choose to begin Sappho’s name in the Aeolic manner, not with a sigma but with a psi, yet to call her Psappho introduces a distracting defamiliarization.

For those interested in Chinese culture the multiple questions of spelling as well as pronunciation are similar. Many first became accustomed the widely used Wade-Giles transliterations which date from the Victorian period and remain widely known. We read Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, Chuang Tzu, and the poetry of Li Po and Tu Fu. The introduction of the Yale system during World War II influenced language learners but not the general reading public. Now, however, hanyu pinyin is the standard, and those names have become Lǎozǐ, Zhuāngzǐ, Dàodéjīng, Li Bo (or Li Bai in a more recondite literary usage) and Dù Fǔ. Confucius derives from neither of these Romanization systems but rather from a Latinization like Erasmus, Columbus and Linnaeus.

Foreign phrases can also pose questions. The beautiful former home of Frederick Franck is called Pacem in Terris which I say with a hard “c” in spite of the fact that the phrase is derived from church Latin and everyone else says “Pah-tchem.” Greek scholars would prefer to hear “the many” rather than the solecism “the hoi polloi.” It is a statement of a sort even to use the foreign words. We always say laissez-faire (never “let-work”) and double entendre (probably maintaining the French pronunciation apart from the final “r”), while “free verse” is far more common than its original vers libre and received ideas has beat out idées reçues.

With no accepted standard of usage, each speaker or writer defines an individual profile in the use of foreign words and phrases. For everyone there is a tipping point where the appeal of exotic sounds and erudition starts to seem bumptious and annoying; from the other direction, the borderline would be when the natural and unpretentious begins to seem ignorant. My own preference, while no more systematic than anyone’s, leans low in the direction of original spelling and pronunciation, but then I also like original sources and full documentation. A carelessness about a name might cast doubt on all else in the passage, while I fancy something like a genuine German “r” will cast an air of authenticity over fiction and fact alike. Still, my scruples in these matters may ill accord with my casual, colloquial, or subjective comments, but it is through such inconsistencies that personality takes shape.

And today virtually everybody will be put off, as no one would have been a century ago, by an author presenting an untranslated Latin tag in a rhetorical move with only the most highly speculative returns. In spite of that I might remind the reader what the great Venutian wrote:

Dulce est desipere in loco.

Godwin's Theatre of Calamity

References in parentheses are cited by part and chapter.

Godwin may have conceived of Things as They Are or Caleb Williams as a Tendenzroman, and the theme is certainly asserted with little room for doubt. The book’s unfortunate protagonist, a clever and idealistic youth of serious moral character, suffers all but constantly from the irrational power of a member of the ruling class, whose imperious power is unjust always and susceptible to aggravated criminal misuse. The legal system is condemned in the strongest terms for its injustice and inhumanity. The novel’s revolutionary implications did not escape the bookseller or the authorities and Godwin was first dissuaded from his original ending and then convinced to remove a preface that indicated the book meant to illustrate “a general review of the modes of domestic and unrecorded despotism, by which man becomes the destroyer of man.” Godwin arranged for its publication on the very day Prime Minister William Pitt suspended habeas corpus and began rounding up the radicals of the London Corresponding Society. [1] Stage adaptations were banned, though Sheridan presented one under a different title.

Countless passages throughout the book remind the reader that morality and justice have little to do with the operations of government, that the wealthy and privileged are empowered to do as they will while the poor make do as they must. Godwin’s position as a philosophical anarchist is evident from his non-fiction works, [2] and he presents with passion and conviction a shocking story of “the gore-dripping robes of authority.” ( III, 1) The book’s title (anticipating Trollope’s The Way We Live Now with which Godwin’s book might be profitably contrasted) insists on its intention to break through what Rexroth used to call the Social Lie and reveal the simple fact of the absolute amorality of government by the selfish.

Yet it is difficult to view the novel in only that way. The theme of social protest is surely distorted by the depiction of the oppressor Falkland who is anything but a typical aristocrat just as Caleb is not a representative worker. Falkland in fact seems an extraordinarily unselfish and moral person whose sense of noblesse oblige is part of his polished and sophisticated manners. His degradation arises not from simple greed (as does the corruption of the ruling class under any system) but rather from his obsessive idealistic concern about honor and reputation. The reader never hears of how he makes his money. Though he might be viewed as an etiolated aristocrat whose decadence presages the end of his class’s governance, the central protest is not economic but legal. The wealthy can manipulate the law.

But in the conclusion as it stood in the first edition, Williams is implicated in similarly using legal process for private ends. Though he had long made it a point of pride not to reveal his one-time employer’s blood-guilt, he ultimately does, not to secure a disinterested retribution, but in revenge. He relates the tale of his personal “theatre of calamity” (I, 1) retrospectively so the pathetic (if not quite tragic) conclusion was never in doubt and Caleb ends by thinking himself more a sinner than his persecutor. Though at the outset he had said he wrote in hopes that “posterity” might “render me a justice, which my contemporaries refuse,” (I, 1) but he ends having given up on himself – he says “I have no character that I wish to vindicate” -- and hoping only that his antagonist “may be fully understood.” (Postscript) Even Falkland lauds Williams’ “greatness and elevation of . . .mind.” (Postscript) The reductive social reading’s bipolar distribution of good and evil is thoroughly confounded, and the alternate ending, in which the narrator’s persecutions continue, pushing him into madness, would have emphasized Williams’ own pathology.

As the first-person narrative voice tells the tale in retrospect, the reader can never expect a Dickensian story of the eventual rise of a meritorious but poor lad. The curiosity that marks his advancement in education and skills also will lead him to investigate the forbidden chest, extract his employer’s confession, and lock them in mutually destructive struggle. The very real economic conflicts of the early Industrial Age are quite absent; instead, the story suggests the role of chance (called “fatal coincidence” in the Postscript) and a powerful psychological determinism.

In the final pages of the book Caleb excoriates himself and excuses Falkland, thinking his employer has acted in the only way that he could given his life experience which led him early to dedicate himself to “the poison of chivalry.” The reader is invited to consider Caleb, too, as a victim of circumstance, operating blindly in a deterministic world where a person can only suffer and cannot control destiny.

The book, as Godwin said in his 1832 preface to the Bentley’s edition, “has always been regarded by the public with an unusual degree of favour.” He conceived it, he says as a volume of “fictitious adventures, and wrote the last part first, elaborating Caleb’s repeated attempts to dodge his tormentor, never for long successful, a continuous “flight and pursuit.” And indeed the book makes a decent episodic suspense story as Williams finds the agents of his nemesis oppressing him at every turn. Taken realistically the narrative involves a wide variety of circumstances from the robber’s den with its unlikely leader to his short-lived idyll in Wales. The conclusion in which Falkland and Williams reconcile at the end of the novel betrays the laboriously constructed horror of the Gothic machinery. The original ending, too strong for the publisher’s opinion of the public, had had Williams descend into madness while imprisoned under the supervision of the tireless Gines (or “Jones”).
The book may have sold as a straightforward adventure story, but the hero’s persecution is so extreme that the plot sounds very like a projection of the imagination of a paranoid schizophrenic, and his suffering is primarily psychological. If Williams is paranoid, surely Falkland is grandiose. Both Falkland and Williams are obsessively enwrapped in each other, their relationship deeply neurotic, ambivalent, and in the end internecine. Their connection has been taken by some as homoerotic and much of what happens might be viewed as a dramatic representation of the trials of love. [3]

The narrator’s mental suffering reaches such heights that it becomes a truly Existential theme. Like Beckford’s Vathek and Byronic heroes soon to come, Williams takes on the world and goes crashing down in glory of not in comfort. A large share of Williams’ pain arises from his isolation, as Falkland denies him the chance to have friends or even more casual human relationship. His isolation and his Job-like suffering lead him to cry out “Here I am, an outcast, destined to perish with hunger and cold. All men desert me. All men hate me. I am driven with mortal threats from the sources of comfort and existence. Accursed world . . .Why do I consent to live any longer?” (III, 7)

Today Godwin’s philosophic anarchism plays little role in contemporary political discourse, and his name most commonly appears in accounts of Shelley and Byron detailing their involvement with his daughter Mary and his step-daughter Clair Clairmont. The reader of Things as They Are or Caleb Williams will find something unrelated to these issues, a readable, compelling story that reflects how everyone has felt, at one time or another, about a boss, a loved one, or life in this world.

1. The date was May 12, 1794. It is a pleasure to report that English juries freed all the defendants.

2. See most prominently his Enquiry concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness which was published the same year as Things as They Are.

3. See, for instance, Gold, Alex, Jr. “It's Only Love: The Politics of Passion in Godwin's Caleb Williams.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 19 (1977): 135–160.