Barbarian in the Garden Critical Essays

Zbigniew Herbert


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The first section of the book deals with the cave drawings at Lascaux. Herbert briefly sets the scene for his investigation of those drawings by describing his breakfast of truffled omelet at a nearby restaurant and giving a history of the truffle industry in the region. He traces the discovery of the cave drawings by some young boys in the 1940’s and the subsequent debate over their authenticity. His reaction to the drawings is one of awe; he calls the drawings known as the “Chinese Horse” a masterpiece. Herbert is not only drawn to the drawings’ beauty but also fascinated by the rituals of primitive man and their representation in the drawings. He suggests that the only way to reconcile the artistic beauty with the violence it portrays is to see the animal being placed on a plane that is equal or even superior to the human. The qualities embodied in the animals depicted in the caves were necessary and desirable in that prehistoric society. Herbert responds fully and enthusiastically to works of art, but aesthetic contemplation is not a sufficient end for him. He is always probing behind the work to see the historical and social context.

Herbert moves from the mysteries and fascinations of prehistory to the Greek colonies of the eighth and sixth centuries b.c.e. in “Among the Dorians.” His interest in the ruins in Sicily is more historical than artistic; he traces the changes in the settlement at Poseidonia (later Pesto) from its founding by Dorian exiles through rebellions by the native population, conquest by the Romans, and the establishment of a Christian community there in the Middle Ages. His attention is drawn, however, to a Doric temple in Hera; Herbert is impressed by its austerity, but he disagrees with the academics who perceive it as a purely mathematical and linear structure. The historical changes embodied in the site are also found in the mixture of styles in the surviving temple to Demeter. Herbert ridicules the academic attempt to circumscribe the periods of Greek style by some mathematical formula, but it is clear that his preference is for the Doric, which was more closely linked to gods and rituals. The Corinthian and Ionian styles might be more “correct,” but according to Herbert they also signify that “the graceful gods had lost their power.”

Herbert relates some amusing anecdotes about his visit to Arles—for example, the limited and confused account an old man gives of his memories of Vincent van Gogh. The old man can only recall, “He was very funny. His hair was like a carrot.” In keeping with his chronological approach, Herbert focuses here on the growth of Arles from Roman times. Most of the residents seem more interested in that distant period of the caesars than that of recent centuries. The apogee of Arles’s glory came when Constantine the Great moved there with his court in 308 c.e.; a few centuries later, Arles sank back into its place as a provincial capital. There was one attempt to recoup the lost glory of the region in the nineteenth century: the Felibrige movement, led by the poet Frederic Mistral. There may be something of Herbert’s special position as a Polish poet who has experienced an uprooting from his land and culture in his response to the work of Mistral, “the last of the troubadours.”

After a brief stop to view the Italian version of the northern Gothic in Orvieto, Herbert goes to Siena, where he speculates on the troubled Renaissance history of the town. An aristocratic council ruled the city at least as early as the thirteenth century. Because of its geographical position, between Florence and Rome, it was natural for the town to resist subjugation by Florence and support any cause which Florence opposed. This led it to choose the Ghibelline side against Florence in the conflict that raged over many years. The Republic of Siena came to an end with the invasions of Charles V of Spain and the hated forces of Florence in the sixteenth century.

Turning to the artistic heritage of the city, Herbert first singles out Simone Martini and Duccio for attention. The qualities he finds in Duccio’s art represent a synthesis of the Byzantine and Gothic, of East and West, rather than the prized realism of the later Renaissance. Duccio’s paintings are for him dramatic and so powerful that he “has no desire to look at anything else after Duccio.” He describes Duccio’s Maesta as a masterpiece that was honored by the whole town in 1311 and still retains its power today. Herbert does quarrel with Bernard Berenson’s promotion of Giotto and demotion of Duccio, for Giotto was an innovator while Duccio produced “new syntheses,” and in order to appreciate the latter’s work fully the observer must “be thoroughly acquainted with their epoch and its artistic background.”

Herbert makes further distinctions between Sienese and Florentine painting when he visits the local museum; in contrast to Florence with its Medicis, Siena had no great patrons. Artists created works for various guilds in the town and for local churches. In addition, Siena was the home of numerous saints, most notably Saint Catherine of Siena, who became a sort of Joan of Arc, visiting the pope in Avignon to convince him...

(The entire section is 2160 words.)