Where’s an Art Historian When You Need One?

I wonder if art historians ever endure the kind of blues that literary types suffer every time they cross a national or linguistic border. A reader wants to keep up with poetry in other languages even though, as Frost says, ‘Poetry is that which is lost in translation.’ So following poetry in other tongues, even if it is flawlessly translated, or translated at all, is a botheration. What’s the analogous situation for the art historian who looks as Polish portraits, Japanese portraits, French landscapes, Argentinian mountainscapes? Style, customs, local symbols, biographies, materials? Aren’t all these items that can be written about, described, explained in one’s native tongue? Is something lost? Is there any need for translation? Isn’t a first impression in a museum gallery a more explicit experience than paging through texts in a bookstore or library?

I’m not really whining. Rather, I’m raising the question out of complete ignorance of the stakes art historians play for. And so I wish that my art historian friends, whom I cherish, were here in Croatia. The reason? I’ve been looking at Dalmatian art of the last century, and I note two things: first, so much of the work in the small city museum in Split is wonderfully fine; second, I did not recognize a single name among all the artists on display. Would my colleagues know them? I don’t remember seeing such names on syllabuses or research efforts. Are the Balkans so remote despite the daily ferries between Dubrovnik and Bari? Is there some bias against artists from Eastern Europe? Do we have to draw a line somewhere, and Italy is it?  Or am I just so woefully undereducated?

You may answer privately to spare my feelings.

In any case, here are just a few of the works from the Split Museum I thought worth your notice.

And here’s another note for art historians to keep in mind. Yes, Diocletian’s 4th century palace (which the Split guide calls the first summer home in history) has gone the way of most of the antique world. Fires, earthquakes, invasions do their work. Succeeding ages of church builders, city planners, and wealthy homeowners cannibalize thousand-year-old structures to pave their naves, alleys, and courtyards. So: no palace to visit and use to sharpen your imagination of a former splendor.  The remaining pleasure, as you walk through squares in the shade of medieval and baroque and Renaissance buildings, is to know that directly beneath your feet, some 12 or 15 feet down, is Diocletian’s wine press, or his granary, or his cistern. All these underground chambers replicate the full design of his palace; every basement room tells us the size and shape of the room or passageway immediately above. And why, oh ye conservators, oh art historians, why have these cavernous halls survived? They survived because, for 1300 years, the inhabitants of Split, using the cracks and crannies in their houses and streets, threw their garbage, their construction detritus, their dead cats into Diocletian’s basement. The deft architecture was propped up by the trash of the ages.

I suspect that if this discovery had been made last year rather than 100 years ago, our present archeologists would concern themselves with the trash and let the rooms fend for themselves.

N’est-ce pas?

And here are a few pictures from the underground vaults of Diocletian’s palace. The long passage that led from the sea to the distant opposite gate is now a souvenir market, but never mind.

And, finally, here are a few pictures of the streets above the basement level, modern since about 1350.

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