Thursday, May 24, 2007

"On The Medusa of Leonardo da Vinci In the Florentine Gallery"

In 1819, Shelley was in Florence. He visited the Uffizi. He penned the following lines:


IT lieth, gazing on the midnight sky,
Upon the cloudy mountain peak supine;
Below, far lands are seen tremblingly;
Its horror and its beauty are divine.
Upon its lips and eyelids seems to lie 5
Loveliness like a shadow, from which shrine,
Fiery and lurid, struggling underneath,
The agonies of anguish and of death.

Yet it is less the horror than the grace
Which turns the gazer's spirit into stone; 10
Whereon the lineaments of that dead face
Are graven, till the characters be grown
Into itself, and thought no more can trace;
'Tis the melodious hue of beauty thrown
Athwart the darkness and the glare of pain, 15
Which humanize and harmonize the strain.

And from its head as from one body grow,
As [ ] grass out of a watery rock,
Hairs which are vipers, and they curl and flow
And their long tangles in each other lock, 20
And with unending involutions shew
Their mailed radiance, as it were to mock
The torture and the death within, and saw
The solid air with many a ragged jaw.

And from a stone beside, a poisonous eft 25
Peeps idly into those Gorgonian eyes;
Whilst in the air a ghastly bat, bereft
Of sense, has flitted with a mad surprise
Out of the cave this hideous light had cleft,
And he comes hastening like a moth that hies 30
After a taper; and the midnight sky
Flares, a light more dread than obscurity.

'Tis the tempestuous loveliness of terror;
For from the serpents gleams a brazen glare
Kindled by that inextricable error, 35
Which makes a thrilling vapour of the air
Become a [ ] and ever-shifting mirror
Of all the beauty and the terror there-
A woman's countenance, with serpent locks,
Gazing in death on heaven from those wet rocks. 40

Florence, 1819.

The painting in the Uffizi which inspired these lines is this one:

Head of Medusa
Oil on wood, 49x74
Palazzo Pitti; at the Uffizi since 1753.

The mass of writhing snakes is in the foreground. The eyes of the Medusa are half-closed. They eyes look upwards. The head is surrounded by a mist in which can be seen a variety of bats, mice, and other more ambiguous and sinister creatures. Out of the half-open mouth issues a whitish cloud of breath, the "thrilling vapour" referred to by Shelley.

In Greek mythology, Medusa , was the only mortal of the three Gorgon sisters.

The gorgons were vicious female monsters with brass hands, sharp fangs and hair of living, venomous serpents. Medusa was literally petrifying to look upon. Every creature who saw her was turned to stone.

She was said to be a daughter of Phorcys and Ceto, a mortal woman whom Athena changed into a Gorgon as punishment for desecrating her temple by sleeping with Poseidon there. When Athena came upon Medusa and Poseidon (also an arch-rival of Athena's), she turned Medusa's beautiful hair into snakey tendrils and banished her to the far ends of the earth where she remained with her sisters.

Medusa was killed by Perseus with aid from Athena and Hermes.

After Perseus used Medusa's head to kill Phineas, he gave it to Athena, who placed it on her shield, the aegis.

From Medusa's blood sprang two children by Poseidon: Pegasus and Chrysaor.

By the sixteenth century Medusa was said to symbolise the triumph of reason over the senses. Cellini and Caravaggio also produced famous works on the theme of the Medusa: Cellini`s Perseus and the Medusa standing only yards from the Uffizi in Loggia of the Piazza della Signoria, and Caravaggio`s painting is also in the Uffizi.

As regards the poem, Carol Jacobs asked: "Who is the gazer - Perseus, his predecessors, the painter, the poet, the reader?" Grant Scott answered: "None of the above" and suggested that it was the Medusa herself.

As a meditation and reflection on the painting, Shelley makes it clear that he has been transformed.

It is perhaps unfortunate but not fatal that the painting is now considered not to be by Leonardo da Vinci.

The confusion seems to have derived from the fact that Vasari mentions a famous depiction with two versions of the Medusa by Leonardo. According to Vasari, one version of the painting ended up in the possession of the Duke of Milan in the sixteenth century. The second version ended up in the possession of Duke Cosimo de` Medici.

In 1782, Leonardo's biographer Luigi Lanzi, while making a search for his paintings in the Uffizi, discovered a depiction of Medusa's head which he erroneously attributed to Leonardo, based on Vasari's description of Leonardo's second version of the subject.

The attribution by Lanzi stuck. It was accepted until the twentieth century. In the nineteenth century, it was regarded as one of Leonardo`s most popular works. Shelley`s error is therefore understandable.

In the 20th century, Bernard Berenson and other leading critics argued against Leonardo's authorship of the Uffizi painting. It is now believed to be a work of an anonymous Flemish painter, active ca. 1600.

One does wonder if the wrong attribution had not been made, whether Shelley would have penned the same lines if at all.

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