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Sebald and the Old Masters

By Geoff Wisner

Until last year, I had never read a word of W.G. Sebald. So far I have read only Vertigo, his first work, and The Rings of Saturn, but I have greatly enjoyed not only the beauty, grace, and dry humor of Sebald’s language but the echoes of Proust, Kafka, Poe,and Bruno Schulz that it contains.

Both Sebald and Proust are deeply concerned with memory, but another (if more superficial) connection is that they write about the Old Masters as sensitively as anyone I can think of, and in a way that relates them to the everyday lives of their characters.

Many of Sebald’s descriptive passages in Vertigo (and elsewhere) are accompanied by somewhat murky black and white illustrations. But two extended passages on works by Tiepolo (1696-1770) and Pisanello (1395-1455?) are not — perhaps for the better.

The first passage comes on p. 51 of the New Directions edition. Traveling by train from Vienna to Venice, the narrator finds himself in the rough terrain of the northeastern region of Italy called Friuli (Friaul in German), where a devastating earthquake took place in 1976.

It occurred to me that this was the Friaul, and with that thought came naturally the memory of the destruction which that region had suffered some few months before. Gradually the daybreak revealed landslides, great boulders, collapsed buildings, mounds of rubble and piles of stones, and here and there encampments of people living in tents. Scarcely a light was burning anywhere in the entire area. The low-lying cloud drifting in from the Alpine valleys and across that desolated country was conjoined in my mind’s eye with a Tiepolo painting which I have often looked at for hours. It shows the plague-ravaged town of Este on the plain, seemingly unscathed. In the background are mountains, and a smoking summit. The light diffused through the picture seems to have been painted as if through a veil of ash. One could almost suppose it was this light that drove the people out of the town into the open fields, where, after reeling about for some time, they were finally laid low by the scourge they carried within them. In the centre foreground of the painting lies a mother dead of the plague, her child still alive in her arms. Kneeling to the left is St. Thecla, interceding for the inhabitants of the town, her face upturned to where the heavenly hosts are traversing the aether. Holy Thecla, pray for us, that we may be safely delivered from all contagion and sudden death and most mercifully saved from perdition. Amen.

The second description is less obviously worked into the narrative, but is well worth reading for itself. (The painting he's discussing can be seen at this blog post on Sebald and Pisanello.)

The following afternoon, back in London, my first port of call was the National Gallery. The painting by Pisanello that I wanted to see was not in its usual place, but owing to renovation work had been hung in a poorly lit room in the basement into which few of the visitors who wandered the gallery every day found their way. It is a small painting, measuring about 30 by 50 centimetres, lamentably imprisoned in a far too heavy Victorian frame. The upper half of the picture is almost completely filled by a golden disc, radiant against the blue of the sky and serving as a background for the Virgin and her Redeemer Child. Lower down runs a line of dark green treetops from one side to the other. On the left stands the patron saint of herds, herdsmen and lepers, St Anthony. He is wearing a dark red cowled habit and a capacious earthen-brown cloak. In his hand he holds a bell. Beside him lies a tame boar, close against the ground in kindly submission. The hermit with a stern expression surveys the shining knight who stands before him, and who, for his part, is all of this world, almost heart-rendingly so. The dragon, a ringed and winged creature, has already breathed its last. The ornate armour, wrought of white metal, draws the evening light unto it. Not the slightest shadow of guilt shows on the youthful face of St George. His neck and throat are bared to us, unprotected. The most remarkable feature, however, is the very finely worked broad-brimmed straw hat adorned with a large feather which the knight wears on his head. I wish I could know how Pisanello conceived the idea of furnishing St George with such inappropriate and positively extravagant headgear. San Giorgio con cappello di paglia – most odd indeed, as the two trusty horses gazing across the knight’s shoulder may well be thinking too.

Published Feb 13, 2013   Copyright 2013 Geoff Wisner

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