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Mario Praz: Voice Centre Stage

by Elisa Bizzotto (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 240 Pages
Series: Victorian and Edwardian Studies , Volume 7

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction (Elisa Bizzotto)
  • Literature
  • Word and Image: A Comparison between Two Languages (Loretta Innocenti)
  • Modernism and the Baroque: Two Strange Bedfellows in Mario Praz’s Oeuvre (Laura Scuriatti)
  • Mario Praz: Beauty, Terror and the Artificial Man (Renzo D’Agnillo)
  • The Arts
  • Evil Eye: Mario Praz and the Superillustrated Text (Jonah Siegel)
  • Praz and the Camera Obscura of Memory (Angelo Maggi)
  • Praz’s Reception of Paolo Veronese: An Intercultural Dialogue (Sofia Magnaguagno)
  • Framing Likeness and Otherness: Mario Praz and Wax Portraiture (Lene Østermark-Johansen)
  • Forms of Auto-Biography
  • Unromantic Praz: Anti-Stereotyped Portraits of Cities and Places (Guido Zucconi)
  • A ‘Life inside my own Life’: The Correspondence between Mario Praz and Vernon Lee (Stefano Evangelista)
  • Marius the Epicurean, Walter the Medusean: Praz’s Paterian (Self-)Fashioning (Elisa Bizzotto)
  • Bibliography
  • Index of names and subjects
  • Series index

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Introduction

Mario Praz (1896–1982) has received scant in-depth critical attention since his death, even though he was a noted figure of twentieth-century culture and a key agent in international literary relations. This is surprising, to say the least, if we consider that his formidable oeuvre spanned six decades and covered an incredible variety of topics in the humanities. He was a pre-eminent scholar of English and comparative literature, historian of culture, literature and art (often in their most interstitial, marginalised and morbid manifestations), interart and intermedial critic and theorist, translator, journalist, collector and autobiographer. His numerous publications include the all-too-famous The Romantic Agony (1933; first published in Italian as La carne, la morte e il diavolo nella letteratura romantica in 1930), as well as many less seminal, though still acclaimed, studies on subjects as varied as art history, interior design and travelling. These works span six decades: from the early 1920s, when he began to publish articles in Italian literary magazines and issued his first volumes, La fortuna di Byron in Inghilterra (Byron’s Fortune in England, 1925) and Secentismo e Marinismo in Inghilterra: John Donne, Richard Crashaw (Secentismo and Marinismo in England: John Donne, Richard Crashaw, 1925), to the early 1980s, when his last book, Il mondo che ho visto (The World I Have Seen, 1982), came out just one month before his death.1 In the interim, he not only wrote extensively on literature and produced the most popular history of English literature in the Italian language (Storia della letteratura inglese), first published in 1937 by Florentine Sansoni and running to several reprints and editions,2 but also on collecting and ← 17 | 18 → figurative arts in An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration from Pompeii to Art Nouveau (1964, first published in Italian as La filosofia dell’arredamento in 1945) and On Neoclassicism (1969, first published in Italian as Gusto neoclassico in 1940), while tangentially touching on the same subjects in the autobiographical The House of Life (1964, first published in Italian as La casa della vita in 1958). His love for art and literature produced the profound theoretical study Mnemosyne: The Parallel between Literature and the Visual Arts (1970, translated into Italian as Mnemosine: Parallelo tra la letteratura e le arti visive one year later). Furthermore, he tried his hand at travel writing in Unromantic Spain (1929, originally published as Penisola Pentagonale in 1928), Viaggio in Grecia: Diario del 1931 (A Travel to Greece: A Diary of 1931, 1940) and Viaggi in Occidente (Travels in the West, 1955). Praz also published many other volumes as well as innumerable essays and articles on the most diverse topics.

As has just been shown, a considerable part of Praz’s works was translated into English. There were, in addition, English translations of Studi sul concettismo (1934, published as Studies in Seventeenth-Century Imagery (1939–1947)), single essays on the Anglo-Italian relations collected in The Flaming Heart: Essays on Crashaw, Machiavelli, and Other Studies in the Relations between Italian and English Literature from Chaucer to T. S. Eliot (1958),3 La crisi dell’eroe nel romanzo vittoriano (1952, translated as The Hero in Eclipse in Victorian Fiction, 1956).4 Some of Praz’s studies also appeared in French, German, Spanish, Polish, Japanese, what was then called Serbo-Croatian and Dutch.5 ← 18 | 19 →

Being such an eminent scholar, Praz came into contact, and sometimes into contrast, with outstanding intellectual personalities of his time – from Vernon Lee to Benedetto Croce, from Aby Warburg to René Wellek, from Edmund Wilson to Frank Kermode. He was also, though less ostensibly, a model for major twentieth-century critics, and continues to exercise his influence on recent scholarship. In 1957, Kermode had referred to The Romantic Agony as a book he was ‘particularly indebted to’ for his own Romantic Image.6 This was an opinion he still retained in the ‘Epilogue’ to the 2004 edition of his volume, where he admitted that The Romantic Agony was a ‘more ← 19 | 20 → remarkable book’ than Romantic Image, even though the two works shared principal critical stances – what he called ‘“Old Historicism”’.7 Kermode also defined Praz as ‘the greatest of foreign students of English, an authority in very diverse fields, and above all a man of power and originality’.8 Several decades later, in 1995, David Weir was still ready to recognise Praz among the major theoreticians of Decadence, which the Italian author had famously seen as an extension of Romanticism in the ground-breaking The Romantic Agony.9 In more recent years, Matthew Potolsky has adopted Praz’s idea of Medusean beauty in The Romantic Agony as an example of the ‘paradoxical encomium’ he sees as typical of Decadent rhetoric, more specifically of its epideictic mode.10 Perhaps more significantly, Kostas Boyiopoulos and Mark Sandy have adopted what could be termed a Prazian approach in Decadent Romanticism: 1780–1914 by investigating the continuities between Romanticism and Decadence through the different receptions of the former in Decadent authors.11 Furthermore, they have partly embraced an updated version of Praz’s notion of Decadence as an eroticised, degenerated and diseased form of Romanticism. Thus, outside Italy, recognition of Praz has mostly come from scholars of Decadence and Aestheticism, who have all acknowledged the impact of The Romantic Agony on their researches. The tendency persists to the present day, with few exceptions. Most recently, Jonah Siegel, in his article ‘War and the Domestic Interior: Pater, Curtius, and Praz in the House of Life’,12 has minutely investigated the underlying meanings in Praz’s obsessive collecting practices and cult of the house. ← 20 | 21 → Siegel demonstrates that art history, aesthetics, history of taste and of architecture are also ambits in which Praz must be seen as a specialist across cultures.

In Italy, where Praz taught generations of prominent English scholars at ‘La Sapienza’ University of Rome from 1934 to 1966, he still represents an essential though often tacit influence on many experts of English literature and comparatists, who have necessarily had to come to terms with his work. He is also remembered as the recipient of such important literary prizes as the Premio Feltrinelli in 1960 and the Premio Flaiano in 1979, as a member of the prestigious Accademia dei Lincei since 1966 and the formidable creator of a unique collection of Biedermeier art and furniture in his two Roman houses, first the celebrated one in via Giulia and then his flat in the elegant Palazzo Primoli, where he lived from 1969 and which has now become the ‘Casa museo Mario Praz’ (Mario Praz House-Museum). Indeed, from the perspective of the culture he was born into, Praz remains to the present day one of the very few twentieth-century intellectuals to have enjoyed international fame and circulation. He was certainly the most influential in the field of English studies.

Why is it, then, that individual studies on Praz have never been published outside of Italy, but for a little-known French exception?13 And why is it that even in Italy posthumous criticism on Praz has not been as abundant as one would have expected? After his death, in fact, he has been the subject of just a small number of monographs. In the 1980s, the Bari-based publisher Adriatica brought out Andrea Cane’s Mario Praz critico e scrittore and Francesca Bianca Crucitti Ulrich’s Praz e la Francia;14 two further, insightful contributions have seen the light of day in the new millennium – Arturo Cattaneo’s Il trionfo della memoria: La casa della vita di Mario Praz15 and Davide Dalmas’s Il ← 21 | 22 → saggio, il gusto e il cliché: Per un’interpretazione di Mario Praz.16 Meanwhile, only two collections devoted to him have been issued in his native country – Mario Praz vent’anni dopo, edited by Franco Buffoni,17 and Scritti in onore di Mario Praz (1896–1982), edited by Piero Boitani and Patrizia Rosazza-Ferraris.18 Finally, the 2002 Meridiano Mondadori volume Bellezza e bizzarria: Saggi scelti – accurately edited by Andrea Cane and introduced by Giorgio Ficara – proposed an annotated selection of the writer’s works.19

While this Italian criticism has undoubtedly thrown substantial light on the figure of Praz, it also shows some limitations. The fact that these books were written in Italian, and that most of them were issued by non-mainstream publishing houses, has prevented a wider international reception. The miscellanies, besides, do not really bring out the complex interdisciplinarity of Praz’s corpus and generally privilege literature and biography over the incredible range of his interests. What is more, they tend to neglect Praz’s extraordinary connections not only with the Anglophone countries, but also with other cultures – Spanish, Hispano-American and German, to name just a few. Finally, the Meridiano volume, valuable though it is, can only give samples of the many-sidedness of his oeuvre.

There appear to be various reasons for the rather unsatisfactory critical attention that has been paid to Praz so far. One of these is certainly the attempt to exorcise (not only metaphorically) his looming presence in order to leave room for other voices that have been silenced, or at least subdued, by his overwhelming character. Of course, this attitude has been mostly true of Italy and of the years immediately following Praz’s death, when his absence after decades of intellectual supremacy gave critics, experts and pundits more freedom and opportunities to express their opinions. As a corollary of this first reason for Praz’s partial oblivion comes the intimidating range and depth of his culture. In the words of the art critic John Russell, who knew him personally, ← 22 | 23 → ‘He was immensely, impossibly, almost unbearably learned’,20 to the extent that he still appears as an unsurpassed – and outmoded, some would say – encyclopaedist, admired, envied and feared, but most of all too distant and difficult to confront critically. As is well-known, his colossal erudition encompassed an enthusiasm for the eccentric, the interstitial, the erotic and the macabre that may have alienated other potential scholars.

A further explanation for Praz’s relative neglect and for the almost exclusive study of his work within the confines of his own country is Italy’s past and present scant recognition of the consideration bestowed on him abroad, particularly in the Anglophone world. In other words, one has the impression that Italian scholars, and more precisely Italianists, have claimed Praz as their proper field of research and chosen to keep debate on him at a national level, shunning a more inclusive dialogue between cultures, approaches and specialisations that would be necessary to engage in serious discussions on the critic.

It is also plausible that Praz has not been popular among certain critics because of what can broadly be defined his pre-theory positions. More correctly, he did not openly belong to any critical school and has therefore been perceived as either a non-theorist, or someone who rarely embraced acknowledged critical stances, or also somebody who deployed a variety of perspectives without privileging any one among them,21 though being ultimately faithful to the principle of taste because of its ‘mobile, changeable, protean’ nature.22 Edmund Wilson called him an artist rather than a critic and scholar,23 whereas Pietro Citati ← 23 | 24 → has observed that he was just uninterested in textual interpretation.24 And, indeed, there is little disagreement on the fact that Praz was a radically sui generis author and critic, often seen as the embodiment of a uniquely subjective and creative vision, free of what he might have considered preconceived theoretical constructs at their best, or burdens at their worst. The point is that he was so in a period – the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s – in which theory was starting to be ubiquitous and staunchly retained his method at a time – the 1960s and 1970s – when it became a sine qua non.25 This only augmented the perception of his difference and fostered suspicion. After his death and all through the 1990s and beyond, the growing prominence of New Historicism and Gender Studies reinforced the idea that Praz belonged to a distant past, although in fact there is more than a hint in his method – and specifically in what Kermode termed ‘Old Historicism’ – of proto New-Historicist conceptions.

A consequence of Praz’s hyper-distinctive criticism, impermeable to contemporary theoretical models with few exceptions, is that he seldom revised his opinions through time. As a matter of fact, he even used to reprint former works in new collections with minimum or no changes26 – a practice that still raises more than one eyebrow among academics and specialists. Apparently, for the critically gifted Praz, self-criticism was not a forte. On the other hand, one might argue that such a tendency depended on the fact that he had become a classic during ← 24 | 25 → his lifetime – once again, a rare condition and one that did not help his posthumous reception.27

Nevertheless, in an age like the present one, which is proving increasingly responsive to a plurality of critical views, including “post-theory” and “death of theory”, and has accepted the necessity to listen to a polyphony of theoretical voices, the times seem to be ripe for a revaluation of Praz. Being the outcome of a conference on Praz held at Iuav University of Venice in December 2016, Mario Praz: Voice Centre Stage situates itself within this possible, and still germinal, rediscovery of the Italian critic. It aims to introduce his work from multicultural and pluri- and interdisciplinary perspectives that avoid localisms. It also refuses strictly biographical approaches, often based on personal memories and allusive anecdotes concerning Praz’s notorious idiosyncrasies, misanthropy, elitism and bizarre collecting manias, or on his legendary evil eye, all of which may just provoke some tight-lipped smiles and prove sterile when not leading to more complex exegetic operations.

Mario Praz: Voice Centre Stage attempts to bridge a substantial critical gap. It brings together different perspectives and disciplines in order to offer a clearer image of Praz as not only a man of letters and art collector but also as a critic of art and architecture, literary and cultural theorist, travel writer, photography and cinema enthusiast and innovator in print culture. The volume consequently assesses Praz’s uncommon familiarity with different literary genres (critical essay, (auto)biography, travel writing, fiction, journal article, etc.), as well as the interartistic and interdisciplinary practices that are embedded in his work. The essays also examine Praz’s possible legacy on Postmodern and cosmopolitan approaches to criticism, along with his committed redefinition of ← 25 | 26 → cultural boundaries and debunking of cultural misconceptions. The contributors to this volume, who specialise in different branches of the humanities, open new areas of research and suggest new interpretations, thus broadening and revitalising discourses around Praz.

Mario Praz: Voice Centre Stage does not easily dismiss the autobiographical component that is pervasive in Praz’s work and has been a constant in much criticism on him. However, this component is considered in connection with his intellectual interests and ideas, without merely satisfying a taste for curiosity. The essays in the book share a full awareness of the fact that Praz was a compelling character, to the extent that he might well offer a fine case study as a subject for celebrity studies (suffice it to say that he was the main inspiration behind the ‘Professor’ in Luchino Visconti’s 1974 film Conversation Piece).

The contributions in Mario Praz: Voice Centre Stage have been divided into three sections – literature, the arts, and forms of auto- biography – in order to facilitate consultation, although the distinction is not to be meant as a rigid one, for each single chapter establishes connections with others both within and outside these loosely-outlined groups. The essays by Jonah Siegel and Lene Østermark-Johansen offer conspicuous examples of such a dialogue between the essays. Siegel analyses Praz’s possible invention of a peculiar printing genre through his later publications on art history, which combine word and image in unprecedented ways. Siegel calls this invention a ‘superillustrated book’ and describes it as mostly made up of an accumulation of images, with the very practice of accumulation itself lying at the centre of the book’s creation. The printed page eventually conveys both Praz’s urge to collect and his parallel compulsion to display, thus throwing unusual light on his aesthetics. The essay identifies other specimens of superillustrated books and even comes to suggest that Visconti’s film Conversation Piece, partly based on Praz as pointed out, might represent an extreme expression of the genre. On the other hand, one of the most bizarre forms of Praz’s collecting mania was his passion for wax images and miniatures – mostly anthropomorphic and lifelike and often bordering on the grotesque in their hyper-realistic details. Østermark-Johansen reads these images as one of the critic’s most enduring obsessions and eloquent examples of his aesthetics. In Praz’s collection of wax ← 26 | 27 → micro-sculptures, the strange and disturbing become supreme sources of pleasure and manifestations of the ‘Beauty of the Medusa’ he theorised in The Romantic Agony.

Both Siegel’s and Østermark-Johansen’s essays share some fundamental concerns with that of Loretta Innocenti, who probes into Praz’s role as a theorist of the Sister Arts firstly through his study of emblems, devices and topoi and, later in his career, through his volume Mnemosyne (1970), an unexpectedly formalist and structuralist text in its own way, for it did not obliterate the historical and cultural dimensions. Innocenti’s essay also testifies to Praz’s interactions with major twentieth-century philosophers and critics – Croce, Warburg, Curtius, Wellek, Propp – and his concurrent capacity to elaborate a distinctly personal vision, often against the grain.

Laura Scuriatti considers Praz’s tendency to periodise the history of art and literature by investigating his reception of the Baroque. In this process, Praz was involved in dialogues with European Modernists and their rereadings of Baroque culture – as Scuriatti, a comparatist, demonstrates in detail – though appearing particularly sensitive to T. S. Eliot’s interpretation. Praz’s assessments of the Baroque are both a product of the interbellum cultural milieu and evidence of his tendency to establish illuminating analogies between past and present.

Biographical notes

Elisa Bizzotto (Volume editor)

Elisa Bizzotto is associate professor of English Literature at Iuav University of Venice. She specialises in Victorian, late-Victorian and Modernist literatures and cultures. She has written books on the imaginary portrait genre (2001), the Pre-Raphaelite magazine The Germ (co-authored 2012) and Pater (2018).

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Title: Mario Praz: Voice Centre Stage