The Mona Lisa, universally acknowledged as either Leonardo’s quintessential masterwork or art-historical muzak, entered the Louvre’s permanent collection in 1797. With brief interruptions—wars, tours, a stint in Napoleon’s bedchamber that’s best not to think about—it has remained there since, smiling its mystery out into the gallery. The canvas has rarely been moved, and never been altered—brushstroke for brushstroke, it is the portrait that came off the master’s easel circa 1517.
But though the oils haven’t changed, the painting has. On that wall and in that frame have hung two Monas Lisa: one from 1797 to 1873, another from 1873 on. The painting that was will never be seen again. The one that is came into being alongside these words:
The presence that rose thus so strangely beside the waters, is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire. Hers is the head upon which all “the ends of the world are come,” and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. Set it for a moment beside one of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how would they be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed! All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and moulded there, in that which they have the power to refine and make expressive of the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the mysticism of the middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias.
Smaller critics would descend on this passage from Walter Pater’s 1873 Renaissance in droves, emitting a shrill and unabating whine about solecisms of scholarship and style, but the damage had been done. Whatever was perceptible in the Mona Lisa in the prelapsarian centuries before Pater had vanished. He had given the world an entirely new painting, without lifting a brush, by giving it an entirely new vision. Many of the people—mostly men, mostly young—who read these words committed them to memory; and as they stood before Leonardo’s masterpiece, could be heard to softly incant Pater’s.
Whether or not his vision “really” reflects the painting, whether or not Leonardo himself saw his Lady Lisa as “older than the rocks among which she sits,” is a matter of great and stultifying indifference. The subtle perspectival perfume of Pater’s ekphrasis became a part of the critical-discursive air we breathe; the most convincing rebuttal or the most energetic rejection would be powerless to clear it.
To rehash the tired postmodern ritual of exhuming and once more slaying the author is not the point. The point is rather that whereas eyesight may be fixed, vision is infinitely educable—just as the ear can be taught, as distinct from the hearing, and the voice can be taught, as distinct from the tongue. And much more urgently, the point is that these faculties are not indifferent to, or abstracted from, history, subjectivity, and identity.
At first glance, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry would be indistinguishable from any number of other reverent art-historical monographs of the eighteenth century, in whose hundred years the Renaissance coalesced as an object of study and veneration—in a certain sense, was invented. And such a glance would, in countless small but defensibly adequate ways, be accurate. Its author was indeed an Oxford don of impressive provenance and pedigree, studying and later working under the critic John Ruskin and the Classicist Benjamin Jowett; and its tone indeed has many of the formal features of a studious and studied work, the work of a man for whom academe is less a matter of employ than a matter of spirit.
It is a clever ruse of exceeding subtlety. By the fourth or fifth time he has mentioned the hands that will eventually caress his book, and even well before he has enjoined his—readers? pupils? followers? eromenoi?—to “burn always with [a] hard, gem-like flame,” it’s become clear that Pater has slipped us something unexpected—that the book wears its graduate’s gown like a Balenciaga, that in its heart of hearts the drab is drag.
For it would be both an error of fact and a mistake of principle to treat Pater as a surgically disinterested scholar, or his Renaissance as the nonpartisan report of an official inquiry. The work is scholarly, and it is inquisitive, but it is deeply invested in a program and an agenda articulated nowhere and everywhere in its pages.
Why these artists? From all the Renaissance’s abundance of geniuses, why would Pater gather this group between his covers? Why Botticelli, whose name would have been unknown to his readers at the time? Why Winckelmann, who did not live and work during the Renaissance at all?
The answer runs like a thread of royal lavender through an already dangerously empurpled text. Each and every figure there summoned had been accused of too-fond attachment to a male companion or (more often) pupil. Not one man appears but in the company of another. With, of course, scanty and suppressed sources, and with, yes, a closety quantity of caution, Pater was architecting a history of homosexuality. And something more powerful yet: a homosexual history.
We may be bitterly glad that the level of queer consciousness required to do politics that looks like politics did not then exist, for it drove Walter Pater to the fundaments. Like the Socrates of the Republic—whose place among the screaming queens of antiquity should not for a moment be forgotten—he was forced to build his ideal city, the civilization to which he belonged, out of nothing; and like the Socrates of the Republic, he began with art. Art, the raw material from which we build, and each of us builds, personhood, identity, and soul.
Axiomatically, the struggle for visibility is the Alpha and the Omega of all queer struggle. When we fight violence inflicted on our bodies and persecution visited on our souls, when we demand to be equal citizens and a community standing apart, we set our shoulders against the politico-cultural machinery which for millennia has ground us to atoms—isolated units denied genesis and revelation, doomed to signify nothing, sentenced to eternity in a world-historical oubliette.
To the many things that this volume “is”—one of the most exquisitely-crafted works of English prose extant; a model for a new and vital art criticism; the book no less a decadent than Oscar Wilde called “the very flower of decadence”—must be added two more: it is a manifesto; and it is a primer.
A manifesto, it demands that we risk the human and historic consequences of its vision, and in calling on us to take axe in hand and smash the age-old closets of Leonardo and Botticelli calls on us to smash our own. A primer, it is a queer semiotic alphabet-song, a picture-book guide to who we might have been in freer times gone by and who we might be in a messianic future to come.
When Walter Pater read the story of queer desire in the lines of Lisa del Gioconda’s brow, then was our battle against oblivion joined.