Saturday, 21 November 2009

Cousins



Several (well, two) much esteemed fellow bloggers have been trying to trace their ancestry. Perhaps I can help them.

For many years, in fact from about 1945, this painting hung at home, neglected, smoke-stained and finally slightly damaged by fire. Through the layers of dirt and blackened varnish it appeared to be very old, maybe 17th century. The style and the Classical subject suggested Poussin or Claude Lorraine. My mother couldn't remember where she had got it from. It showed Europa, she said, being carried across the Hellespont from Asia Minor on the back of a bull. There were maidens on the shore welcoming her. This was how the European people were founded.

Recently I took it in hand and brought it from Scotland to France to have it cleaned by Aude Ficini, the demure, beautiful and very professional picture restorer in Montpellier.

Before entrusting it to her I took it out of its frame and was mortified to find that it appeared to have been painted on hardboard. H'm. I looked closely with a magnifying glass and found traces of frayed canvas overlapping the backing. Apparently it had been originally painted on canvas, and at some time someone had cut it away from a frame and had glued it on to a sheet of hardboard. Big relief, even though this suggested that at some time it might have been stolen.

Mademoiselle Ficini was very interested. She raised an eyebrow over the hardboard, but she proved the painting's antiquity in an interesting way: she closed the shutters and put all the lights out and passed an ultra-violet light over the painting, saying that anything that appeared black was relatively recent, say post-1850. Only the garland woven between the bull's horns came out black; some later hand had added it. She suggested 1630 as a possible date, and I was enormously gratified. 1630! Why, Shakespeare was hardly cold in his grave, Charles I was on a collision course with Parliament, Europe was in the grip of the Thirty Years' War...

It took Mlle Ficini two months to transform it into a scene of light and clarity. What had appeared to be a big black smudge on the right turned out to be a capacious cave. Far from making gestures of welcome, the shore maidens were frantically urging the bull and Europa to turn back. One of them points to the cave, showing where the bull will deposit Europa, reveal himself transformed into Zeus or Jupiter and slake his wicked troglodytic lust on her.

But that bull looks all wrong, as though the artist couldn't do bulls. He's so placid, so playful, even. He has a suggestion of Moomin about him. You can't imagine Moomin being done for rape, even if the result is the founder of a great continental race. I wondered if the original painter had taken his information from the commonest contemporary account of the legend, Ovid's Metamorphoses, and there it was, on p.73 of my Penguin edition: 'There was no menace in the set of his head or in his eyes; he looked completely placid. Agenor's daughter [i.e. Europa] was filled with admiration for one so handsome and so friendly...'

So there you are, Vicus and Dave. I suppose that makes you cousins.


14 comments:

Dave said...

Given that every generation one goes back one doubles the number of ancesters, if one goes far enough back eventually one will have more of them than were actually alive at that time. Clearly, therefore, there must be some intermingling of lines.

However, I think it must be obvious to even the most casual observer that Vicus and I could never be cousins.

Vicus Scurra said...

Cousin Dave, you are a tease. I suppose you get that from your naughty Swedish ancestors, whereas my Laotian grandmother was far more dour. However, as we are both directly descended from Bismarck it explains our fondness for each other.

It is very kind of you, Christopher, to strengthen the already firm bonds that exist between Dave and I.

Christopher said...

I hesitated to claim cousinship for myself, Dave, in case you should suspect me of harbouring eventual consanguinary claims to your collection of table mats.

Dave said...

Whilst, we, of course, may have designs on your C17 artworks.

Christopher said...

It's possible that your expectations may be fulfilled in due course with half the picture each, although at the moment I can't decide which of you is the more characterised by placid playfulness in the shallow water and which by the cave's suggestions of wicked troglodytic lust.

Dave said...

Really? I would have thought it was obvious.

Christopher said...

Well, I'm not so certain, but I'd happy to take advice from any lady readers with relevant experience.

Sarah said...

It was Dave

Christopher said...

Not the least doubt of it, Sarah. What a dark horse, eh?

I, Like The View said...

(now I see where Dave found his inspiration for today's post)

I always liked the Hattifatteners

(I hope the instructions for I,LTV's 2009 Secret Santa Bonanza are explanatory - let me know if you need further clarification, very pleased you'll be joining us!)

Christopher said...

Thank you, I,LTV. All seems clear, tho' I'm quite capable, even when someone points left, grasps my head and turns it to the left while shouting LEFT! in my ear, of turning right. Like the captain in the film Titanic who gave the command 'Hard a-port!' but nevertheless the ship turned to starboard. (Apparently the mock-up of Titanic made for the film was only complete on the port side. Or was it the other round? You see my problem.

I, Like The View said...

I understand totally

of course, I've never taken a cruise (not old enough)(yet) but the definition of posh would make total sense if ever I did (provided the other half of the ship was complete)

I did once see the QEII depart from port on a New Year's Eve tho, but perhaps this doesn't count (does "port" mean that boats only dock on the one side then? that had never occurred to me before)(and does that mean that starboard refers to the side facing the North Star on the way out?)(I think I might have to go off and google this, in the vain hope of learning something today)

Christopher said...

Never been on a cruise because you're not old enough yet? Could this be why Vicus claims he's never yet drunk champagne?

Dave said...

Viking boats have a steering oar on the right side - the 'steering board' side. Because it would be damaged when landing, they docked always on teh left side - the side facing the port.

Who needs Google when I'm around?