From Botero to Blunt, and Back to Botero

On 13 November 1979 Marc Fumaroli sent me an essay he had written for an exhibition at Galerie Claude-Bernard in Paris—on recent works by Colombian artist Fernando Botero (d. 2023). It was a surprise, it was jarring, it was odd. Botero? I had returned five weeks before from un voyage artistique across Austria, in Fumaroli’s company. No Botero in sight but Baroque all the way. Well, not quite: in Saint-Florian and Melk he lectured me, and anyone within earshot, on the fact there is no Baroque in France, whatsoever. He had asked me to come along, by way of thanks for having played interpreter at a colloqiuum in Wolffenbüttel. He had no German. Nor could he drive. In Hanover we went to see Poussin’s Inspiration of the poet. At that time I had no idea who Anthony Blunt (d. 1983) was. But I listened dutifully to his off-the-cuff lesson on Poussin, Blunt’s predilection. It turned out to be my introduction to the relationship between rhetoric and painting. The Master’s lesson was not entirely wasted on the chauffeur apprentice (not apprentice chauffeur): in 1989 I translated and edited Du Fresnoy’s De arte graphica, the equivalent, for French Classical painting, of Boileau’s Art poétique for literature du Grand Siècle.

That visit to the Hanover museum of Lower-Saxony had the allure of a Grand Tour: in those days one had to travel to a museum, one had to get visas and buy various forex and study rail schedules, just to be able to see that painting, there, only on Wednesdays, between 2 and 4 pm, and hope to buy a postcard. Ten years later, in 1989, Fumaroli published his virtuoso monograph, L’Inspiration du poète de Poussin, for a prestigious Louvre exhibition, into which he poured all his erudition. Fumaroli was now dialoguing with Blunt, thirty years apart, responding to the Englishman’s grandiose presentation of Poussin’s works at the same Louvre (1960). It is somewhat poignant that Fumaroli dated the dispatch of his essay on Botero two days before Margaret Thatcher confirmed in the Commons that Blunt had been a Soviet spy. Fumaroli maintained his admiration for Blunt to the last.

Thus it is in Hanover, in 1979, that Fumaroli started to project his scholarship beyond L’ Age de l’éloquence (1980). His explicit intention was to show how and why Renaissance and Classical rhetoric breathed life in artistic forms, and shaped a representation of humanity specific and unique to European civilization. The project produced the monumental L’ École du silence. Le sentiment des images au XVIIe siècle (1994). In fifteen years he had given its full meaning to the formula ut retorica pictura. Still, what he was scribbling during the late afternoon respites of our motoring along the Danube was his Botero essay.

As I flew back home, in Pretoria, I went through the booklet I kept of this initiatic iter austriacum (plotted, no less, by a member of the Roman Black Nobility). Then, as today, on the inside cover of my notebook are the titles of four works I had to read, at Fumaroli’s command : Klibansky, Saxl and Panofsky’s Saturn and Melancholy; Wittkower’s Born under Saturn; Binswanger (he did not bother telling me more); and simply: Ficino’s De Triplici Vita. Enough to fill up a year. Or a life. But excellent to kick off my doctorate. I plunged into this thesaurus of ideas and images, the living heart of post-Mediaeval European culture—thanks to a modern library so well stocked that it put to shame many I knew in France. My flat was in a district of Pretoria called… Arcadia. Poussin and Blunt, and Panofsky, and Gombrich, and Seznec, up to my eyeballs, while the black townships were burning.

So, one can imagine my astonishment when, instead of a learned article on Poussin or the Austrian Baroque, or Guido Reni, or Giorgione, I got pages on Fernando Botero!

That was 1979—no Internet, no quick check on a computer bookstore, and slow mail (plus, in my case, under the pall of State security surveillance). I discovered Botero, but more decisively I discovered that Marc Fumaroli had an ability to look and think far and wide. He was an iconodule. He listened to images, and could make them speak. He was a student of the imaginal as he called it for a while, to avoid Lacanian imaginaire. Dreams? Going back to Binswanger, Fumaroli was referring me to Foucault’s confidential 1954 edition of Traum und Existenz (Le rêve et l’existence): the argument revolves around dreams as living images. Engravings? L’Age de l’éloquence is also a catalogue raisonné of frontispieces: turn to the appendix with its rich and rarely seen at the time iconography, obtained with difficulty and reproduced at great expense. Movies? After Sorbonne lectures, he often went to a late-night show at a nearby, small cinéma d’art et d’essai in the Latin Quarter. Queen Christina, Gilda, Sunset Boulevard, Teorema were favourites, with Bergman’s movies. Actress Dominique Sanda was “la beauté incarnée.” I am certain that had he wished to write the definitive book on cinema as art, taking à rebours the trend, then, to semiotics, he would have. The cinematic metaphor re-appears, in full force, in the Botero essay.

Yet, Botero. How does one correlate Botero’s tortilla-fed piñatas with Blunt’s Stoically cool Poussin ? Perhaps a key is provided by Fumaroli’s odd book on metaphors (Le Livre des métaphores, 2012). Metaphors, especially trodden ones that have become ingrained in quotidian turns of phrases, argues Fumaroli against linguists, continue for that reason to irrigate everyday language and popular imagination. They carry commonplace images, set in language to the point of banality, hence unobtrusive, and for that reason are a form of cultural transmission. Similarly Botero’s exaggerated characters and inflated personages, yet quite habitual in South America, are visual metaphors of the luxuriant nature and culture they inhabit, while transmitting forms of indigeneity and Hispanidad in their very banality. Those fat piñatas are commonplace, common even, vulgar perhaps, gross may be, yet they form part of the common visual language of their world, the imaginal world they populate, evoke and represent. So, back to Botero.

French philosopher and essayist Philippe-Joseph Salazar writes on rhetoric as philosophy of power. Laureate of the Prix Bristol des Lumières in 2015 for his book on jihad (translated as, Words are Weapons. Inside ISIS’s Rhetoric of Terror, Yale UP). In 2022, the international community of rhetoricians honoured him with a Festschrift, The Incomprehensible: The Critical Rhetoric of Philippe-Joseph Salazar. He holds a Distinguished Professorship in Rhetoric and Humane Letters in the Law Faculty of the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Featured: Parnassus, by Nicolas Poussin; painted ca. 1630-1631.