Rome (part III)

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The same transformation everywhere—in painting, in sculpture. The copy, even when conscientious, is always unfaithful. It is made heavy, pasty, and laborious; it is dead. The Greek statue maker, working in Rome, sometimes has beautiful awakenings, but he obeys the fashion—now he is classical, now decadent, now archaistic. As to the Roman statue maker, his work is to manufacture for the collector innumerable replicas of the statues of the great period of Athens. It is the second step in that academism from which the modern world is still suffering. The first dated from those pupils of Polycleitus, of Myron, of Phidias, and of Praxiteles who knew their trade too well.

Rome encumbers itself with statues. There are the dead and the living. All those who have held public office, high or low, want to have under their eyes the material and durable witness of the fact. Far more, each one, if he can pay for it, wants to know in advance the effect that will be produced by the trough of marble in which he is to be laid away. It is not only the Imperator who is to see his military life made illustrious in the marble of the triumphal arches and columns. The centurion and the tribune surely have, in their public life; some high deed to hand down for the admiration of the future. The sculptors of the sarcophagi devise the anecdotal bas-relief. Historical "genre," that special form of artistic degeneration, which at all times has so comfortably kept house with academism, is invented. The great aim is to find and relate as many heroic deeds as possible in the life of the great man. On five or six meters of marble adventures are heaped up, personages, insignia, weapons, and fasces are squeezed in. Everything is episodic, and one seizes nothing of the episode; whereas in the sober Greek bas-relief where nothing was episodic, the whole signification of the scene appeared at a glance. And yet it is, above all, in these bas-reliefs that the harsh Roman genius has left its trace. There is very often a kind of somber force and a solemnity there which affect us sharply, carrying with them a train of crushing memories—the laurels, the lictors, the consular purple. In these bas-reliefs there bursts forth a barbarous power which no education can restrain. Sometimes, even, in the heavy chiseled garlands where the fruits, the flowers, and the foliage accumulate and heap up like the harvests and vintages of the strong Latin Campagna, one feels the mounting of the rustic sap which Rome could not dry up and which swells in the poems of Lucretius as in an old tree that sends out green shoots again. Then the Greeks are forgotten, and the sculptors from Athens must laugh in pity before these confused poems to the riches of the earth. And doubtless they prefer the heavy imitations of themselves that are made. There are no more empty places, to be sure, no more silent passages, no longer any wave of uniting volumes that reply to one another in their constant need for musical equilibrium. But it is a disciplined orgy, even so, whose opulence is an element to be incorporated with the intoxication of the flesh rather than inscribed in the mind. The landscape background of the Roman, on the whole, affirms itself as less stylized, doubtless, but more moving and sensual than the Greek setting. One hears the crunch of the vintagers' feet on the grapes, the oak offers armfuls of firm acorns and black leaves, the ears of wheat loaded with grains group themselves into thick sheaves, we smell the floating perfume of green boughs and the odor of the plowed soil—and the richness and density of all this sculpture are due, probably, to workmen only. In the production of the official statue maker, on the contrary, a violent confusion reigns, monotonous ennui and immobility.

Such a spirit is entirely foreign to man, it is devoted entirely to glorifying beings, things, and abstractions toward which man is not drawn by his true nature, but by prejudice, or the cult of the moment. And it was to this spirit that allegory owed the favor which it enjoyed under Roman academism. The great artist does not love allegory. If it is imposed on him, he dominates it, he drowns it in form, drawing from form itself the sense that is always in it. Allegory, on the other hand, dominates the false artist, to whom form says nothing. Allegory is the caricature of the symbol. The symbol is the living visage of the realized abstraction; allegory has to mark the presence of the abstraction by external attributes.

These cold academic studies, these mannikins of bronze and of marble, these frozen gestures—always the same—these oratorical or martial attitudes which knew no change, these rolls of papyrus, these draperies, these tridents, lightnings, and horns of plenty crowded themselves, heavy and tiresome, into all the public places, into, forums, squares, and sanctuaries. Sarcophagi and statues were made in advance; the orator dressed in his toga, the general in his cuirass, the tribune, the quaestor, the consul, the senator, or the imperator, could be supplied at any Lime. The body was interchangeable. The head was screwed on to the shoulders. To recognize the personage one had to look at the face, which would sometimes be placed too high to be distinguishable. It was the only thing that did not' have the appearance of having come from the factory. It alone responded to a need for truth, an obscure and material need, but a sincere one. It was made only after the order had been given and from the person who ordered it; thereafter, the artist and the model collaborated honestly.

There is something implacable about all these Roman portraits. There is no convention, but also no fantasy. Man or woman, emperor or noble, the model is followed feature by feature, from the bone-structure of the face to the grain of the skin, from the form of the hair dressing to the irregularities of the noses and the brutality of the mouths. The marble cutter is attentive, diligent, and of complete probity. He does not think even of emphasizing the descriptive elements of the model's face, he wants to make it a likeness. There is not the least attempt at generalizing, no attempt at lies or flattery or satire—no concern with psychology and little character, in the descriptive sense of the word. There is less of penetration than of care for exactitude. If the artist does not lie, neither does the model. These are historical documents, from the real Caesars of Rome to the adventurers of Spain or of Asia, from deified monsters to Stoic emperors. Where is the classic type of the "profile like a medal" in these heads? They may be heavy or delicate, square, sharp-featured, or round, at times dreamy, often wicked, but they are always true, whether puffed-up play actors, slightly foolish idealists, wholly incurable brutes, weather-beaten old centurions, or crowned hetairae who are not even pretty. Some of these heads, certainly, through their quality of attention, and the intensity with which life concentrates in them, by their density and mass, by the pitiless pursuit of the profound modeling which the bone structure of the interrogated face possesses by chance and reveals to the sculptor, are of a powerful beauty. In the statue of the Great Vestal, for example, immediate truth attains the stage of typical truth: then the whole of Rome, with its domination of itself, and the weight it laid on the world, appears in this strong and grave woman; it is as solid as the citadel, as safe as the hearth, without humanity, without tenderness, and without weakness, until the day when slowly, deeply, irresistibly, it is to have plowed its furrow.

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