The Lady
Wal­ter Pater and the begin­ning of queer his­tory.

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.