Desiderio, A Little Boy - marble filled with grace

Desiderio, A Little Boy – marble filled with grace

As a student, I was introduced to the writings of Adrian Stokes, that curious and now neglected English essayist, painter and poet. His writings on art ignited a passion that has given me joy throughout my life. I regard Stokes’ critical writings as some of the greatest works ever written about art, and of his books none is finer than The Quattro Cento. In his introduction, he sets out his thesis, that the great early Renaissance sculptors “made stone to bloom.” Carrying on the metaphor, he identifies, so very beautifully, stonework that is “immediate, without rhythm, like the open face of a rose.” I carried the volumes of Stokes on my early journeys around Italy, and they proved wondrous companions, not just to the art of Florence, but to the entire conceit that is Venice, and to strange yet riveting oddities like Rimini’s Tempio Malatestiano (immortalised in Stokes’ ‘Stones of Rimini’).  Stokes moved to Cornwall just before Wold War II. LIke many artists, his best works originate from his time there, during which he also met Peter Lanyon, encouraging him to paint in a more contemporary style. Lanyon subsuequently became a close friend of WS Graham – Graham’s elegy to his friend, The Thermal Stair, can be heard here

The Cornish artist, Peter Lanyon

The Cornish artist, Peter Lanyon

In it, Graham declares the common purpose of artist and poet:

“His job is love

Imagined into words or paint to make

An object that will stand and not move.”

In that stillness, I see an echo of Stokes and his rose without rhythm, and Graham, too, saw in great art the ability for the materials of art to overcome their physical state, for words, in poetry, to become something other than words.

 

The funerary tomb in Santa Croce

The funerary tomb in Santa Croce

Stokes introduced me to Desiderio da Settignano, the great Florentine sculptor. I went to Santa Croce to see the funerary monument to Carlo Marsuppini, and I saw, I felt, marble transform into something lighter, something almost insubstantial. Fine cloth is draped over the shoulders of two nimble angels, while two children stand in mock guard below. Stokes has it: “No call for soldiers and funeral genii to guard the breezes of repose, no call to drag at the silky canopy when nothing is hidden, and when nothing is stark or crushed by celestial flames.”

The guardian children

The guardian children

In this death, nothing is dark indeed. There is a world of grace in the space between the two guardian children, who are joyful, curious and naked but for their outsize shields.

In this heaviest, most ponderous of settings, the monument is as light as air, as insubstantial as a kiss on the cheek. Even Carlo’s body appears to be in the act of ascension. Marble has been turned into a rose petal; this is art as alchemy; it is love imagined.

 

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