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Bill Thayer

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Nulla Ars in Se Versatur

Actually, the exact quote is:

Est enim perspicuum nullam artem ipsam in se versari

It is obvious that no true art looks at itself.

Cicero, de Finibus 5.6.16

[image ALT: A marble tomb depicting a winged skeleton holding in its arms a roundel with a low-relief carving of a prelate in a button-down cassock. The skeleton's foot is on a large winged hourglass. It is the very ugly tomb of Olaus Magnus in the church of S. Maria dell' Anima in Rome.]

Our attitudes towards death, and fashions in depicting it, cycle endlessly thru a few predictable phases — matter-of‑fact, magical, religious, sentimental, theatrical, minimalist — so that someday the taste for symbolism and the macabre that spawned the tombstone you see here will come back once again, but I sincerely hope I don't see it . . . in my lifetime.

Then both Pompa and the Elegant Elephant gasped, for out of the bubbling waves arose the most curious figure that they had ever seen — the most curious and the jolliest. He was made entirely of soup bones, and his head was a monster cabbage, with a soup bowl set jauntily on the side for a cap. For a cabbage head he sang very well and this was the song to which he kept time by waving a silver ladle:

"Ho, I am the King of the Soup Sea,

Yes, I am the King of the Deep;

My crown is a bowl and my sceptre a ladle,

I fell in the soup when I fell from the cradle,

And find it exceedingly cheap!

I stir it up nightly, and pepper it rightly —

liquid perfection you'll find.

And here is a roll, sirs,

So fill up your bowl, sirs,

And think of me after you've dined."

Ruth Plumly Thomson,
Kabumpo in Oz (1922):
chapter 12, The Delicious Sea of Soup

The sculptor, surely under tight constraints from the family that commissioned the tomb, has put a lot of work into a very expensive piece of marble, to show us something outlandish.

Just in case you believe that an age closer to ours would be incapable of this type of bad taste, by the way, here is a Fascist variation on the theme, from the Roman cemetery of Campo Verano.


As for whose this outrageous monument was, I was stumped: it was clearly that of an early 17c prelate, but my photo log and guidebooks were silent.

The detail of the coat of arms, which appears to include a bat and three roses, ought to have given it away, but did not; if you have an idea, drop me a line, of course.

What's astonishing is that even the tombs of popes are not immune from excesses of self-conscious symbolism. In this same church, the generally attractive funeral monument of Pope Hadrian VI unfortunately includes this well-carved bas-relief, of balanced composition and occasionally beautiful detailing, representing the newly elected pope's entrance into the Eternal City in 1522:

[image ALT: A bas-relief of a sort of procession, with a cleric on a horse approaching a group of allegorical figures. It is the ingress into Rome of the newly-elected Pope Hadrian VI.]

Ingresso di Adriano VI a Roma,
attributed to il Tribolo (Niccolò Pericoli, 1500‑1558).

We don't need to wonder what city our horseman is entering: the artist beats us over the head with it. An expert will probably be able to pick out up to a dozen clues neatly planted here for us; I'm no expert, but four very obvious ones leap out at me: the dim shapes of the Colosseum and of the Pyramid of Cestius — here superimposed though they stand 2 km apart, and the pyramid may be pointed but hardly that much — the woman wearing a legionary's helmet is of course a personification of Rome (and one which would have raised the hackles of any ancient Roman thruout its millennial history); and, with relative discretion and appropriateness, the reclining river god in the right foreground has got to be the Tiber. The composition as a whole seems intended to remind us of the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.

With all that, here is what I was reminded of, instantly:

She at once got to work on the portrait which Lucia had commissioned. She had amplified Lucia's biographical suggestion, and it represented her in full mayoral robes and chain and a three-cornered hat playing the piano in the garden room. Departmental boxes were piled in the background; a pack of cards and a paintbox lay on the lid of the piano; and her bicycle leaned against it.

"Symbols, beloved," said the artist, "indicating your marvellous many-sidedness. I know you don't ride your bicycle in the garden room, nor play cards on your piano, nor wear your robes when you're at your music, but I group your completeness around you. Ah! Hold that expression of indulgent disdain for the follies of the world for a moment. Think of the Tilling hags and their rouge."

"Like that?" asked Lucia, curling her upper lip.

"No, not at all like that. . . ."

E. F. Benson,
Make Way for Lucia (1939)

Square in the middle of it all, one last piece of self-consciousness, although of a different kind: some young man's shiny round derrière. It is very well executed.

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Page updated: 12 Nov 12