Sunday, 8 January 2012

Proust on Giotto's "Charity" & "Envy"

Proust on Giotto
One of the pleasures that the internet can add to reading, is the opportunity, if your attention is arrested by a particularly vivid description of an artwork, or building, to view images of the object thus described. This allows the reader to implement a sort of 'gold standard' to judge the writer's descriptive and interpretative powers. They are 24 carat in this instance, I hope you agree.

on "Charity"

"... it is without any apparent suspicion of what she is about that the powerfully built housewife who is portrayed in the the Arena beneath the label 'Caritas', and a reproduction of whose portrait hung upon the wall of my schoolroom in Combray, incarnates that virtue, for it seems impossible that any thought of charity can ever  have found expression in her vulgar and energetic face. By a fine stroke of the painter's invention she is tumbling all the treasures of the earth at her feet, but exactly as if she were treading grapes in a wine-press to extract their juice, or, still more, as if she had climbed on a heap of sacks to raise herself higher; and she is holding out her flaming heart to God, or shall we say 'handing' it to Him, exactly as a cook might hand up a corkscrew through the skylight of her underground kitchen to some one who had called down to ask her for it from the ground level above."

on "Envy"

"The 'Invidia,' again, should have had the same look on her face of envy. But in this fresco, too, the symbol occupies so large a place and is represented with such realism; the serpent hissing between the lips of Envy is so huge, and so completely fills her wide-opened mouth that the muscles of her face are strained and contorted, like a child's who is filling a balloon with his breath, and that Envy, and we ourselves for that matter, when we look at her, since all her attention and ours are concentrated on the action of her lips, have no time, almost, to spare for envious thoughts."

On Giotto's method

"in later years I understood that the arresting strangeness, the special beauty of these frescoes lay in the great part played in each of them by its symbols, while the fact that these were depicted, not as symbols (for the thought symbolised was nowhere expressed), but as real things, actually felt or materially handled, added something more precise and more literal to their meaning, something more concrete and more striking to the lesson they imparted."


  1. Oh! You need Paintings in Proust by
    Eric Karpeles. It's such a treat.

  2. It looks like the perfect companion book. I might have to ignore current budgetary constraints and order this.

  3. Par une belle invention du peintre elle FOULE aux pieds.....Fouler aux pieds means to treat with scorn.
    I am no expert but I feel sure "tumbling" is wrong.
    ..she scorns worldly goods but exactly in the manner that one would tread grapes to extract the juice or ,rather,that she has stood on the moneybags in order to give herself some height..
    Well done on the blog;it is great to be able to use sites like this to aid comprehension of this work.
    Thank you.

    1. That makes so much more sense. 'Tumbling' confused me. Thank you for that and your kind words. Glad you enjoyed the blog.

    2. I am pleased to hear that.
      Of course I should have added that as well as meaning ,to scorn,it means ,at one and the same time to walk on and to tread.

    3. That makes the match of image and description perfect. Thanks again. It also makes me regret that I can't read the book in French.

    4. i believe the D. J. Enright revision of Moncrieff'S original makes this correction. i highly recommend it.

    5. Perhaps for the reread, in a few years time.

  4. Hello,
    If you have reached Sodom and Gommorah there is a sentence in it that refers to his mother's "en tous cas".
    I have just seen a very erudite Proustien ask what it means and the answers given to him all confirm that it is an umbrella cum parasol.
    The translation just says "en tous cas" which confirms that at least three people had not got a clue what it is;the translator,the Proustien and me.

  5. I realize that this is an older post, but I'm committed to reading Proust this year and your thoughtful explanations and readers' additions have helped. I also ordered Karpeles' Paintings in Proust.

    1. Thanks for commenting! New or old, it's nice to see that some of these posts are still being read, and even better, proving to be of some use! Reading Proust was one of the biggest reading commitments I've ever made but it was well worth the effort. I hope you enjoy it as much.