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Saturday, 30 March 2013

Stevie Smith: Yes, I know


Portrait of a woman (thought to be Lucrezia Borgia): Bartolomeo Veneto (1470-1531), 1520-25, tempera and oil on poplar panel, 44 x 35 cm (Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt)

That pale face stretches across the centuries
It is so subtle and yielding; yet innocent,
Her name is Lucretia Borgia.

Yes, I know. I knew her brother Cesare
Once. But only for a short time.

Stevie Smith (1902-1971): Yes, I know, from Poems, 1962

File:Veneto 0004.jpg

Portrait of a woman (thought to be Lucrezia Borgia), detail: Bartolomeo Veneto, 1520-25, tempera and oil on poplar panel (Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt)

File:Veneto, Bartolomeo - Lucrezia Borgia (alleged), detail of portrait.jpg

Portrait of a woman (thought to be Lucrezia Borgia), detail: Bartolomeo Veneto, 1520-25, tempera and oil on poplar panel (Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt)

File:Lucretia Borgia Pinturicchio.jpg

The Disputation of St Catherine (detail: Lucrezia Borgia as St. Catherine of Alexandria):
Bernardino di Betto (Il Pinturicchio) (1454-1513), 1492-94, fresco with gold leaf (Borgia apartments, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican)

The Disputation of St Catherine: Bernardino di Betto (Il Pinturiccio), 1492-94, fresco with gold leaf (Borgia apartments, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican)

File:Cesare Borgia, Duke of Valentinois.jpg

Profile portrait of Cesare Borgia: believed to be a copy of an original contemporary painting by Bartolomeo Veneto (1470-1531) , c. 1500-10 (Palazzo Venezia, Rome)


Portrait of a Gentleman (aka Cesare Borgia): Altobello Melone (1490-1543). c. 1500-1524, oil on panel, 58.1 x 48.2 cm (Galleria dell'Accademia Carrara, Bergamo)


TC said...

Sometimes the things a poem doesn't say may be at least as important as the things it does say.

Stevie Smith introduces this one as "a ghost poem... Here you must imagine two souls, in paradise perhaps, leafing through the pages of an expensive art magazine -- they pause at the portrait of a beautiful girl, and speak of her."

(The key word in that short summation, perhaps, is the "perhaps".)

You can listen to Stevie's reading here.

And of course, Lucrezia was, as the cops like to say, a "person of interest".

This Italian version of a History Channel documentary about her life has some positive points. First, the images come from the time in which the subject lived; and of course, that was a relatively sophisticated epoch, with a contemporary visual record far richer than anything that might be captured today on one of those ubiquitous I-Me-Me-Dumbphones. Second, the tiresome babblings of the American talking-heads experts proves a bit easier to endure when the American academic-talking-head-ese is dubbed out.

Presumably many are aware of the Home Box Office series on the Borgias. Pure trash, I thought. But to each his or her own simulation of history. As for myself, I wouldn't trade the entire HBO tv-history-for-dummies marathon for Stevie's five-line poem, with its subtle hints of the general atmosphere of menace and danger of the period -- "speaking volumes", as the saying goes.

Hazen said...

Lucretia and Cesare, sister and brother, y otros demas, could call Pope Alexander VI their daddy. ¡Hijo del papa! The Borgias were a family with money and power and the dogma dispensary to back it up. Meanwhile, quimosabe, Machiavelli whispers in a shadowy corner of the ducal court.

Wooden Boy said...

I knew her brother Cesare
Once. But only for a short time.

A short time would be enough, I imagine

The picture I have is heaven's waiting room. Stevie knew about waiting. "Speaking volumes" is right.

The first Veneto is exquisite and very disturbing.

-K- said...

I wonder if Stevie Smith was referring to this portrait.

I guess I see something that could be called "subtle" but as for "yielding; yet innocent," if anything I see the opposite of these two qualities.

What I find interesting are the two pieces of jewelry, the headband and necklace, the designs of both wouldn't be out of place today. And I wouldn't be surprised if they, as I'm sure the flowers do, have symbolic significance.

TC said...

About the flowers -- nor would I. (Be surprised, that is.)

I believe that Stevie was quite aware of the lethal elements in Lucretia's makeup, and that the poem counts on our sharing this awareness.

"...yet innocent" might be read to mean "as yet innocent", i.e. in her girlhood; with the implication that the early innocence was but a temporary and passing thing, and still ahead down the road lay an assortment of somewhat less than innocent behaviors -- grand accomplishments in the realms of realpolitik, sexual intrigue and betrayal; machinations and perfidies of all sorts; plots and schemes aimed at achieving personal and familial advancement; various permutations of incest (with her father and, her brother-in-law Francesco her brother Cesare among the likely consorts); multiple poisonings & c. I think the poem takes for granted our knowledge that the historical character Lucretia Borgia was no spring chicken, but a clever survivor, and somebody one would not want to turn one's back upon, lurking there behind a pillar with her pretty flowing blond ringlets concealed beneath a snood, in the shadowy corridors of the court.

By the by, that tv series on the Borgias (the work mainly of Neil Jordan) was done not by HBO (as I errantly suggested), but by Showtime; it had all the essential ingredients -- sex, violence, dark motive emerging at every turn -- of a blockbuster, which of course it did become.

I couldn't help but notice the popularity of the show, because around the time it was playing, the New York Times put up a link to a post I had done on the bad popes. The link became extremely active and remained so for some while, suggesting perhaps that "our time" had taken Lucretia and her crowd to its bosom, finding in her and her circle a murky mirror-image of itself.

Certain Notable Moments in the Papal Succession

The baddest of all the bad popes, perhaps, was Rodrigo Borgia, dad of Cesare and Lucretia, known to history as the infamous Pope Alexander VI, and played in the series by Jeremy Irons.

The true Rodrigo, however, actually bore little (well, make that no) physical resemblance to the actor. His profile portrait by Cristofano dell'Altissimo can be seen as the fourth image in my post. Definitely worth a look, for confirmation of the scale of the abyss between historical verisimilitude and showtime,

My thumbnail account of this charmer, which appeared as a caption to that portrait:

"Pope Alexander VI, aka Rodrigo Borgia, who in three bulls of 1493 confirmed the Spanish monarchy's ownership of and entitlement to enslave the natives of the newly discovered lands of the Americas; a tyrannical pope who murdered and confiscated the property of any cardinal who resisted him, thus subjugating to the power of the house of Borgia the great rival houses of Orsini and Colonna; at his death, probably by poisoning, in 1503, his mouth foamed up like a kettle on the boil, his body emitted foul sulphurous gases from every orifice and became swollen to a width twice its length so that it could be jammed into a coffin only through force exerted by jumping upon the lid."

(By the by, I particularly enjoyed that last bit, about the bloating of the coffin and the jumping upon the lid.)

TC said...

Perhaps Lucretia's most notable place in history has to do with her consummate skill in the fine art of poisoning. In the annals of this craft, raised to its exquisite zenith in the European courts of her time, she had few rivals.

"As the Renaissance surged through Europe, so did the popularity of poison as a method of disposing of people who were in the way. You could almost say that poisoning had become fashionable -– certainly it was the most convenient way of migrating into the upper circle of society. The most infamous example from this era is that of the Borgia family, who migrated from Spain to Italy around 1455 and whose name became synonymous with dinner-party executions. The most well-known member of this family was the notorious femme fatale Lucrezia Borgia, who formed a ghastly poisoners' triumvirate with her father Pope Alexander VI and brother Cesare, and whose reputation as a poisoner has achieved a sort of mythic immortality.

-- A Brief History of Poisoning

In our time, however, hardly less cynical in its rarefied upper zones of wealth and power than Lucretia's, her lurid reputation as a femme fatale and murderess has been polished up a bit. See, e.g.:

The rebranding of Lucretia Borgia

But the real woman, from what we know of her and her lot, remains formidable enough. From a review of a recent biography (Sarah Bradford: Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy):

"The Borgias moved through a fog of intrigue and bottom-line alliances. Princelings test poisons on cats and doves; brothers are blinded and assassinated; there's a particularly revolting scam involving olive oil and syphilis...

"Each of Lucrezia's marriages was made for strategy, and was plotted for maximum political and financial gain by her family. First betrothed at 10, she married husband number one at 13, in 1493. When a better prospect was in view, her husband was bullied into accepting a divorce on grounds of non-consummation.

"The second got on the wrong side of Alexander and Cesare, Lucrezia's brother, whose henchman had him suffocated.

"Husband number three was heir to the dukedom of Ferrara, a practical man, handy with a lathe, who built foundries in the gardens. His second marriage was not without passion. The new couple made love three times during their first night together. Neither partner was faithful: Lucrezia enjoyed a romance with a poet and a long relationship with her bisexual brother-in-law, Francesco: rugged, violent, fond of sex and horses..."

And so on.

Dalriada said...

i took the poem somewhat differently by the tone of the reading as a parody of English middle-class Philistinism regarding art The arch "knowing" while knowing nothing I think this is what Stevie Smith knows not at all innocently. So the interlocutors both appear ridiculous in their knowing The one for thinking LB innocent and the other for innocently dating her brother (in the strange a-historical space that the poem seems to occupy)and not understanding how close her brush with death might have been.

TC said...

Listening to the poem again, after rising in the dark from a wrenching spell of internal disturbance (physical not moral) -- a vivid reminder that being poisoned might prove a significant inconvenience -- and then reviewing the several thoughtful readings proposed here -- I am interested to find that each reading has its merits and might well equally apply. Colin's reminding us that this might well be a dialogue between a couple of sily U-class art-pseuds is certainly borne out tonally by the reading. Equally, WB's "a short time would be enough" also fits; surely this would have been the case for the majority of those on the extensive list of Lucretia's serial disposable paramours; her numerous alleged flings and one-night stands, even if only a fraction of them have a factual basis, would provide ample cause for caution to those next-in-line. Kevin's remarks about the jewelry and appurtenances in the Pinturicchio portrait certainly place this "designing woman" into a context we can understand, as in many respects comparable with her coldly calculating, strategically charming descendants in our day (it's that way of looking out of the corner of her eye at us that's so very chilling). And there's no denying the truth in Hazen's hard assessment; Lucretia might have walked straight out of the text of her contemporary Machiavelli, as an alluring, slippery and cool-headed object lesson in sexual realpolitik.

In the end, maybe what I like best about this little poem of Stevie's is that, in saying so little, it leaves the door open to all that can and does go unsaid; and in that sense, each of these several readings is on the mark.

(Stevie Smith is dismissed by some as "lightweight", but there are razor blades cleverly baked into many of the airiest of her confections, I've always thought.)