Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Tidewater Trip

"weary with wrongdoing"

I am not quite sure what exactly I anticipated with the word retirement, but it wasn’t the rather breathless activity that leaves me once again facing blog morning with the sole option of a sort of journalistic “Hail, Mary.”  I have to fly off to London later today, and there are various other non-negotiables standing between me and Newark Airport.  Perhaps saying I have to go to England is stretching the truth a bit, since my only goal is a fancy dinner party at my old college in Oxford; but I have arrived at the point of life at which I tend to seize opportunities lest they never appear again.  This means that retirement is not always less busy than my old professional life, but is often more fun.

            Last week Joan and I took a trip to Richmond, and everything about it was fun.  The ostensible purpose of the trip was my engagement to give a lecture to the Tuckahoe Woman’s Club in their baronial clubhouse. My topic was “The Language of History and the History of Language”—or was it vice versa?  Anyway the experience was highly enjoyable at least to the lecturer, though it turned out to be only one of several pleasurable episodes of our three-day visit.  For we had the good fortune to be billeted not in a hotel but with our friends the Moxleys, who seemed determined to prove that southern hospitality, though proverbial, is far more than a proverb.

One high point was a leisurely visit to Williamsburg, which included an excellent lunch at the home of President and Mrs. Reveley on the campus of the College of William and Mary.  As a post-luncheon treat Mrs. Reveley had arranged for us a private tour of the old campus, conducted by a highly knowledgeable graduate student in colonial American history.  At Princeton (founded in 1746) we like to think we’re old, but William and Mary is older.  Furthermore the old stuff there is both more copious and more interesting than what we have here.  Old Virginia was run by fox-hunting Anglicans.  Princeton was the brainchild of chilblained Dissenters.  Such distinctions are not without spiritual consequence.  Of course later on there was a decisive event, called the Civil War, that pretty well flattened--literally or fiscally--every institution of higher learning in the south.  Wars have consequences too.

             I had been to Williamsburg before, and even had lectured at William and Mary, but somehow I was unaware of the Muscarelle Museum of Art.  We spent the hour before lunch visiting the museum, which was hosting a knock-out show entitled “Michaelangelo Sacred and Profane: Masterpiece Drawings from the Casa Buonarroti”.   The visiting treasures will have one more American stop—at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, beginning April 21st.  See them if you can.  Most of Michaelangelo’s drawings are quite famous, and I had seen many of them before, though only in reproduction.  Seeing the real things, en masse and intelligently mounted, was an unanticipated thrill.

            The “Sacred and Profane” bit is the sort of title you revert to when trying to impose some spurious unity upon a lecture, a show, or an academic course.  It meant that some of the drawings were of religious subjects, and some were not.  There were, for example, a fair number of architectural drawings.  I am an architectural illiterate, but if it’s Michaelangelo you must at least try.  The emphatic place in the exhibition had been reserved for a fine, large Madonna and Child; but I doubt that I am alone in placing the well-known drawing of Cleopatra at the top of my private list.  Shakespeare’s Enobarbus might have been looking at this drawing when he uttered his judgment on the Egyptian Queen:  “Age cannot wither her nor custom stale her infinite variety.”  Swinburne, who did gaze upon the drawing during his Italian tour, said something a little different: “Beautiful always beyond desire and cruel beyond words; fairer than heaven and more terrible than hell; pale with pride and weary with wrongdoing.”  You can almost always count on the Victorians.  Weary with wrongdoing.  What a great idea!

            We now know that Michaelangelo himself probably shared it.  Admirers had oooed and aaahed over this drawing of Cleopatra for more than four centuries when a sharp-eyed expert noticed (in 1988) that there seemed to be something drawn on its backside.  This was by no means easy to discern, as the obverse of the drawing had been backed with reinforcing paper.  Removal of this backing paper, conducted by conservators with the care of a bomb-removal squad, revealed another view of Cleopatra—with staring eyes and anguished, tortured face. The meaning of this reversal, according to the excellent catalogue essay of John T. Spike, “must have been to suggest to the beholder that the opposite face of mortal beauty is the danger of submitting to sensual pleasure and, ultimately, destruction.”  I love it when Renaissance geniuses show their true medieval colors.

The Dorian-Graying of Cleopatra