Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Coral Redux!

Several years ago now, a friend of mine named Old Ken posted this blog entry about Renaissance art and coral. While Old Ken sadly died about a year ago, I have recently come upon some new information about coral, which expands upon Ken's theme in interesting ways. So, in the aggregating spirit of our age, I'm going to repost Ken's text and images adding in my own special, Sanchez touches here, there and, well, everywhere.

In an award-winning essay from 1999 entitled "Cellini's Blood," art historian Michael Cole offered a fascinating reading Benvenuto Cellini's Perseus and Medusa (c 1550, Florence). Among the numerous interesting observations made in this article, Cole notes how the clots of bronze blood streaming from Medusa's severed head and neck were referred to in period inventories as "gorgoni." And while seemingly related to the Greek word Gorgon that often designates Medusa herself, Cole argues that in the sixteenth century, gorgoni meant coral. By understanding why these spurts of bronze blood would be likened to coral, so the argument goes, we can apprehend how period viewers thought of Cellini's sculpture and the narrative it represents. Cole then goes on to relate how, in period Italian translations of Ovid's "Metamorphoses", a mythical origin story of coral is told by the dripping of blood out of the head of Medusa as Perseus frees Andromeda.

With this reading of Cellini's bloods as corals in mind, Old Ken was fascinated to see this 1679 depiction of the Perseus and Andromeda story in the Louvre. Perseus strikes a pose at the center of Pierre Mignard's massive canvas, bloody sword by his side, while Andromeda being unchained by a cherub at right. Here is the relevant story from Ovid as Cole gives it:

"Having killed the dragon, Perseus came down from the rock and sat on the bank of the sea to wash himself, for he was soaked with the dragon's blood. As he did this, the head of the Medusa got in his way, so he set it on the ground. So that the head did not crack, Perseus gathered some seaborne sticks of wood to set it on, and put them on the ground. Immediately those sticks hardened as stone does, and from the blood of the head they became vermillion. It is thus that coral is made, and this was the first coral."

Perseus' left foot in Mignard's painting points toward the severed head of Medusa, which still seems to wriggle with serpentine life. Moreover, as can be perceived even in this lousy detail, red sprigs of coral are clearly emerging from beneath the head, presumably from contact with the leaking blood (or perhaps just from contact with the head itself, depending on your version of Ovid).

Now, while Ken went on to make interesting comparisons between this painting by Mignard at the Louvre and a portrait at the National Gallery in London, what is more interesting still are the connections between these learned, French paintings of the later seventeenth century and the Italianate circulation of thoughts about coral and gorgons on which they drew. Consider this drawing by Nicolas Poussin known as La Tintura del Corallo, where the severed head of Medusa is being inspected by two sea nymphs on the river bank at lower right.

Here is the account of the drawing given by Anthony Blunt in The French Drawings in the Collection of His Majesty the King at Windsor Castle (Oxford: Phaidon, 1945):

"The subject is taken from Ovide (Met. iv, 740). Perseus, after killing the sea-monster, washes the blood of the latter from his hands. Before doing so he has laid the head of the Medusa on the ground, and the plants which it touches harden into coral. Hence the title which Bellori gives to this composition: 'La Tintura del Corallo.' S├ębastian Bourdon used this drawing or [a studio version thereof, also in the Queen's collection] as a basis for his painting of the same subject in Munich. ... This particular episode from the story of Perseus and Andromeda is rare in art, and it is interesting to note that Cardinal Massini, to whom this drawing belonged, commissioned a painting of it from Claude, now in Lord Leceister's Collection." (36)

With its sprouting coral placed at the juncture of land and sea, we can infer that Poussin probably served as inspiration for Mignard's composition, given the incredibly high regard with which the earlier painter was held in later seventeenth century French academic circles. 

Seeing this print in a fascinating paper by art historian Elmer Kolfin at a recent conference in Chicago, however, I began to reconsider some of the implications of the whole coral matrix. This print is the frontispiece to de La Croix's Relation universelle de L'Afrique, ancienne et eoderne (1688). Here, we see a seated maiden posed with a coral crown not unlike Mignard's Marquise de Seignelay and Two of her Sons (1691), surrounded by objects ostensibly signifying "Africa": an alligator, coral, a snake, a chameleon, etc.

Drawing upon this older history of coral as a material and sign of transformation, what if we were to think of this image as not only visualizing a fragmented African menagerie, but as a meditation on things that change dramatically in appearance and outward properties? Coral changes from hard to soft, from ductile green to rigid red. The chameleon epitomizes this malleability. But, so too, according to the theories circulated among scientific circles of the time, were the pigmented skins of peoples native to Africa subject to alteration. Here is a fragment of conversation along these lines as recorded in the minutes of the Royal Society of London from April 12, 1682:

“And upon the occasion of those concerning the transformation of Creatures by means of the qualifications of the place, wherein they are fostered, the President [Sir Christopher Wren] related that he had observed in a garden made out of the ruins of an old building, that the leaves of all the plants became speckled and striped; and that the same plants being transplanted from thence to another place would for some time continue striped and speckled. The change effected in mules and in red steak fruit was also mentioned. It was likewise urged, that there are many of the Jews black, who yet are very strict in not mingling with other nations; and that Europeans, by continuing to inhabit in Africa, have been found to turn black, and that Blacks in England, after a few generations, become white; and that wild asparagus, which is very small and sticky [i.e. stick-like], being planted in gardens, and heightened with dung, becomes large and soft.”

Seen in this (strange) light, de la Croix's print might thus be read as activating coral as a governing model for material transformation. That is, where coral models the marvelous transfiguration of liquid bronze into sculpted blood—or, if you like, of monstrous, feminine abjection into gleaming, virtuosic  artifice—for Cellini, Poussin and his academic followers, it provides a gloss upon the more humble transformations at work in and as de la Croix's print. White paper reads as black female body when impressed with ink. Like the coral, the chameleon or even the curling snake who will shed its skin, perhaps one of the possible readings of this image (following the Royal Society passage) is that those attributes are themselves in ongoing flux. Change and transformations may still yet be unfolding.


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