At the beginning of The Names, one of Don DeLillo's earliest and least known novels, the protagonist is in Athens, but refuses to visit the Parthenon, so weighted is the monument with reputation, intimidating history, cultural baggage and import. "What ambiguity there is in exalted things," he says. "We despise them a little."
Rebirth of light and science
He would not know where to start in order to relate in any meaningful way to the cultural behemoth, and thus finds it best to avoid contact altogether.
Renaissance painting can be this way too. Before this hugely successful exhibition at the National Gallery, is there anything new to be said about this period when the western world stumbled once again upon the texts of classical antiquity and began to look within, rather than to the heavens, for an understanding of our lives, our earth and our selves? Is there any new way of looking at these paintings some of which are - in the literal, rather than the hackneyed and lazy contemporary use of the word - iconic?
Bellini, Titian, Botticelli, Lotto, Raphael, Carpaccio - these artists and their works are integral to that golden tapestry that forms the foundation of modern European painting and ways of seeing; as if that were not enough, they also carry the message of the Christian faith with them - they are Information. Form, representation and religious instruction - these paintings are fairly groaning with centuries of layered significance. Or as DeLillo said of the Parthenon: "It's what we've rescued from the madness. Beauty. Dignity. Order. Proportion."
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