Rome Journal: Theory of Value

The career of Denis Mahon (1910-201l), the aristocratic art historian and collector is the inspiration behind the “Da Guercino a Caravaggio, Sir Denis Mahon and italian art of the XVIIth century” show at the Palazzo Barberini. Mahon who was the author of Studies in Seicento Art and Theory was an important force in both beating the drum for and rediscovering much neglected baroque art. For instance before he discovered it, many people thought the Caravaggio, “The Young St. John the Baptist,” hanging in the office of the Mayor of Rome, was a copy. He played a major role in the National Gallery’s acquisition of “Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist.” Talking about his collector’s nose, Mahon is quoted as saying,

“When I bought those paintings no one gave them value. Nowadays no one can price them.”

Just down the block from the “Da Guercino” show is S. Maria Della Vittoria where Bernini’s “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa” is a permanent part of the plant and the walk to the Palazzo Barberini is the perfect icing on one’s baroque cake. But one wonders if you can have your cake and eat it too. The show touts Mahon’s eye for beauty, but do beauty and commerce go hand in hand? What happens to the notion of disinterested scholarship when the results of years of study can turn into the proceeds from numerous sales. The scholar is like a psychoanalyst with the art works like his patient. Is there not a danger when the line is crossed and the scholar or analyst starts to play a role in the artwork or patient’s life? And isn’t the very notion of value confused when, when esthetics and commerce become intertwined?

Painting: “Judith Beheading Holofernes” by Caravaggio

This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy’s blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture

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