'At the very end of the 18th century and in the first years of the 19th, when the Imperial Republic of Venice had finally crumbled and the city itself was being handed backwards and forwards like a playing card between France and Austria, an exceedingly old Frenchman known as the Baron d'Hancarville used to enthral the guests who assembled regularly at the Salon, not far from the Rialto, of Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi, something of a blue-stocking, but above all one of the most famous society hostesses in Europe, at different times the friend of Byron, Foscolo and Canova.' In this manner, Francis Haskell begins the third of his selected essays, written over the last twenty years and brought together in this volume. It is a manner which seems to parody, in its relentless accumulation of the circumstantial, a lost genre of writing, the late 19th-century 'imaginary portrait'. And it reminds us immediately of what has always been so distinctive about his work: the sympathetic attention to patrons, collectors, connoisseurs and scholars whom more orthodox art historians, concerned more exclusively with the art-object, have consigned to oblivion; and the narrative style which manages to impart an extraordinary amount of detailed information while seeming to represent each essay as a short story. His writing can be read as an attempt to close the gap between historical scholarship and belles-lettres.
LRB 25 June 1987 | PDF Download