Dust and Sacred Fragments

To me, art history holds a dimly sad connotation. Art history, not art itself. It is the call of a distant past, which hinders our senses and pleases our mind. Yet, it is also the call of a dead siren, lost somewhere in the sea of time. I think so while looking at any painting by Claude Lorrain. Throughout his career, he painted Italianate landscapes fulfilled with ruins, under the tender light of sunset. He romanticised the slow, inevitable ravaging of time and the beauty of what is old, decaying, majestically crippling. The ruins, indeed, are a subtle promise. They hint at a better age of humanity, suggesting that this might eventually return, and hopefully a few of us will be there to witness.

Imaginary View of Tivoli – Claude Lorrain

I study fragments of the past. In fact, I study objects. They are human fossils. They do not reveal the thoughts of the craftsmen who produced them, nor they preserve the excited thrill of the eager patron. They are silent relics of a holy age. Compared to them, our own instruments seem shallow and vulgar. They are new, functional, and necessary. In other words, they remind us of our link to matter, and of the weight of our limbs. On the contrary, a relic has no function, if not to be admired. We look at it forgetting what it used to be, and how people employed them as we do now. Deceived, we take them out of the stream of time as if they were never produced by anybody. Maybe some god did, far away, and this allowed them to survive up to our days.

The Lesson of Love – Jean-Antoine Watteau

We are drawn to the past as gravity draws our feet to the ground. It is our foundation, our solid refuge from relativism. Art is the epiphany, that is to say, the contact between past and present. Its destiny is becoming past itself and turning into inspiration, new life for new ages. In the poem The Sepulchres, the Italian writer Ugo Foscolo describes the tombs of the great men of Florence. Among them, the poet perceives life. It is the paradoxical root of tradition, which painfully reminds of a direction, a path to follow across the millennia. We are part of it, and nobody is the beginning, nobody the end. As a student of art, I realised how beauty worships death; indeed, how beauty is made of dead things. We might be deeply hit by an image, a single blow of sensual pleasure. Yet, when we stand in front of a piece by Lorrain, that is not what we are admiring. We crave for the lost Arcadia and the ignorant joy of its inhabitants, a golden age that nobody saw, but depicted by our ancestors through words and images.

What is thus so melancholic in the study of art? The true nature of its object. Despite pretending to be eternal, art is the product of mortality. It is a bunch of bones scattered into the soil, rudimental artefacts left by some far civilisation. I gladly remember the famous statement of Marcel Duchamp: artworks end up in museums only when already dead. In fact, this does not always take long. You can be alive, and yet your works might be exposed somewhere around the world. Your blood has dried, you have shaped a beautiful corpse. This is made of dust and holy fragments of existence. In the future, somebody else will be attracted by their shimmering. He will avidly inspire, and grasp some traces of life, before committing himself to his own death, leaving behind a sign, a work of art.


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Imaginary View of Tivoli

The Lesson of Love

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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