The Spark of Inspiration

Palazzo Pitti, Florence

Snippets 181.  In 1817 Henry Matthews went on a “tour in pursuit of health”, and wrote about his experiences in Diary of an Invalid, in 1820.  In Florence he visited the Palazzo Pitti, taking a keen interest in the art, although he was keen to avoid the guides and form his own opinions of the paintings:

Another morning in the Pitti… Lounged carelessly through the rooms, without any guide of any kind, trusting to first impressions. When one has thus, by two or three visits, become familiarized with what one likes, and what one does not, it is useful to get a catalogue, and compare one’s sensations with authority. Protect me from the tiresome flippancy of a professed Cicerone, — who takes you round a gallery of pictures, like the showman of a collection of wild beasts.

“Cicerone” is a term used for a guide at any tourist site, often (but not always!) an academic or expert.  Later in his journal, Matthews went on to explain why he valued the views of the Cicerone so little, when it came to art appreciation:

When I visit collections of paintings, I go to have my understanding instructed, my senses charmed, my feelings roused, my imagination delighted or exalted. If none of these effects be produced, it is in vain to tell me that a picture is painted with the most exact attention to all the rules of art. At such pictures I look without interest, and turn away from them with indifference. If any sensation be excited, it is a feeling of regret, that such powers of style should have existed, without any sparks of that Promethean heat, which alone confers upon them any real value. If this be wanting, it is in vain that a connoisseur descants upon the merits of the drawing, the correctness of the perspective, and the skill of the arrangement. These are mere technical beauties, and may be interesting to the student in painting; but the liberal lover of the arts looks for those higher excellencies, which have placed painting in the same rank with poetry…

Yet, I would not be understood to deny all merit to mere excellence of execution, I would only wish to ascertain its true place in the scale. The perfect imitation of beautiful nature in the landscapes of Hobbima or Ruysdaal, — the blooming wonders that expand under the pencil of Van-Huysum, — and the exquisite finishing of Gerhard Douw’s laborious patience, — cannot be viewed with absolute indifference. Still less would I wish to deny the praise that is due to the humorous productions of Teniers, Hogarth, or Wilkie. These have a peculiar merit of their own, and evince the same creative powers of mind, which are exhibited by the true vis comica in the works of literature.

“Vis comica” is literally “comic force”, an expression that sprung from a mistranslation of a line of writing by Caesar.  It is used to describe the talent of creating something humorous.

Matthews’s “pursuit of health” was sadly not entirely successful.  He died in 1828, still a young man.  He had managed to fight through ill-health to pursue a successful legal career, and was advocate-fiscal of Ceylon from 1821 to 1827.  His only child was born in Ceylon in 1826, also called Henry Matthews, who became a Conservative MP and was ennobled as the first Viscount Llandaff of Hereford.

Previous “snippets” from Diary of an Invalid:

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About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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