When considering Art History we often forget that at the foundation of this edifice is a joke or a prank and a forgery. It could very well be that laughter, or at least some queer smile is an artist’s duty to an art historian. That is what we may guess when contemplating Casanova and Mengs, two XVIII century pan-European artists, and Winckelmann, a pedagogue and pedophile teaching us how to drink water, that is teaching reserve and intrepid serenity of aesthetic judgement, that is teaching us the neo-classicist and civic virtues(1), which is precisely the mental attitude I take while looking at the the desk of Marie-Antoinette and suppressing a burp. (2) (3)
(1) Casanova and Mengs made a few fake frescoes; these frescoes were described as genuine antiques by the duped Johann Joachim Winckelmann in his Art History, the first Art History book ever written. The above Jupiter and Ganymede is the fresco painted by Mengs, and the fact that the allusion to Winckelmann’s pederasty and hubris did not alert the first art historian, hints at the latter’s humor deficit. Winckelmann’s theoretical view of antiquity was developed around a stoic notion of athaumastie, emotional detachment, which Johann Joachim advocated as approach to antiquity and which he frequently compared to drinking water. This rational coolness appealed to the XVIII century intellectual elites; its resonance with the already established disdain for religious enthusiasm took the Age of Reason one step further; the high regard for the civic virtues, extolled by Jaques-Louis David, also finds its inspiration in Winckelmann.
(2) It’s been a year since Chateau Versailles had re-acquired for 6.75 m euros the above desk. Jean-Henri Riesener was the late XVIII century Parisian artist, who, working in the neo-classical style, bound wood and gilded bronze for Marie-Antoinette. In France this style of furniture is known as Style Louis XVI. But the irony of history is omnipresent: as a patron of arts Louis XVI was quite worthless; he would squint for months at the prototype pieces, unable to choose a furniture maker.
(3) The first temptation when arriving at Versailles Rive Gauche train station, the closest train station to Chateau Versailles, is to visit the across-the-street MacDonald’s. Most of the morning passengers rush in there to relieve themselves: the RER’s cars have no bathrooms. Once relieved the tourists usually yield to the next temptation, and I am here to warn my reader that Winckelmann was absolutely right and the carbonated beverages do not agree with any serious contemplation of neo-classical furniture.