Monday, January 21, 2008
Blogging The Louvre
Today I set out for the Louvre with the mud of the French countryside on my boots leftover from a Sunday afternoon outing to Chevreuse. If at first it seems like an affront (to the museum, to the royal palace), I quickly think of it as an offering to the spirit of the French kings that haunt the halls: a bit of earth to remind them of their lost kingdom.
I've also got a mission. Last night I saw a performance of "Berenice" by Jean Racine, with Carole Bouquet in the lead role, and Lambert Wilson both playing Titus and directing. In Racine's tragedy, Titus, on the verge of being named emperor by the Roman Senate, is forced to choose between his passion for the Jewish queen Berenice and his ambition (Roman law forbids a foreign-born emperess). He chooses ambition. Now I'm curious to see how the same story might play out on a canvas. It strikes me as a primitive form of multimedia hyperlinks.
But a docent confirms what an internet search had already suggested. There are no canvases of Berenice and Titus. I wander through the French painting wing until I stumble on "The Painting of the Month": Mercury Orders Aeneis to Abandon Dido. I never read the Aeneid, so the story is unfamiliar to me. But the parallels are there and the canvas, hanging alone in a small alcove off a passage, is a beautiful one, so I take a seat.
Aeneis sits on a chair, a child servant lacing his sandals, while Dido reclines naked on the bed beside him. Her expression is one of resignation, youthful but somehow not innocent or naive. As if she understands her status as object of desire, a footnote to the larger narrative of Aeneis' destiny. Berenice disappeared from the historical record after Titus' death, and it seems safe to assume, given the nature of Western mythology, that the same will be Dido's fate. From her expression and her languid posture it's clear, too, that she understands her essential failure. She has offered her being, her self. And it was not enough.
Clearly, the unmade bed he's rising from is their lovers' bed. She lies in it, still naked, a living echo of the passion they've shared, while he is present but already gone, his eyes directed towards Mercury, messenger of the Gods: to his destiny, to his glory. It's a moment we've all lived, if we've lived: the interior farewell that precedes the last goodbye. It's a moment of brutal rejection, a declaration that all that the other has to offer is not enough. That the unknown offering in destiny's outstretched hand is more tempting than all that is known and cherished in the soon-to-be-abandoned lover.
The brutality of the moment is magnified in the canvas by the public nature of the scene. The servant lacing Aeneis sandal, two old maidservants huddled in the background gossiping, the courtyard in the distance representing the public square and community, and the Gods all witness Dido's humiliation.
From Dido's attitude and expression, I wonder if Aeneis has left her carrying their child. At least, it occurs to me, the deadbeat dads of antiquity abandoned their families to accomplish heroic deeds. What began as a pursuit of glory has, in modern times, devolved into a shirking of responsibility.
But were the ancients really all that glorious? Titus, I learn once back at my desk, was a violent and lethal chief of his father Vespasian's "secret police" (the Praetorian Guards), a Putin-esque figure at best, an Uday Hussein type at worst. Nicolas Sarkozy, whose name came up last night after the theatre performance, is more a child in a toystore than a hero in search of glory. But is glory even possible in the age of google, when all of a man's shortcomings are stored in a database for instant recall?
The colors of the painting are evidence of its recent restoration. The vibrant pastels of Mercury's rose tunic, the servant's peach shawl, Aeneis' blue armor almost leap out from the canvas. Aeneis' pink and ruddy skin contrasts sharply to that of Dido, pale and porcelain. Outside, through the window, the sky bleeds grey. It's barely dawn; he'll be gone before the light.
I wonder if she'll rise and carry on as if nothing has happened? Or lie in bed all day long, wondering where she went wrong?
Image of Mercure ordonne à Enee d'abandonner Didon. Orazio Samacchini (1532-1577). Richelieu Wing, 2nd floor, French painters, Room 17.