Velázquez’s Aesop was painted most likely in the late 1630s, as part of the decor of the Torre de la Parada, Philip IV’s hunting lodge outside Madrid. It would be good to know something of its original place in the building, or at least be sure that the Torre was its first destination, but as usual with Velázquez the court records are mute. (Even Las Meninas is a ghost in the archive.) The earliest trace of Aesop occurs a full sixty years after it was made, in a 1701 inventory of the lodge: ‘Three paintings of the same size from the hand of Velázquez, one representing Mars, another Aesop, and the other Menippus, appraised at 50 doubloons each.’ Let’s leave the Menippus aside (a sequence of ragged Greek philosophers, preferably cynics or sceptics, was a standard feature of court furnishing by the mid 17th century, particularly in places devoted to pleasure) and concentrate on the stranger companionship of Aesop and Mars.
It seems significant that the two paintings are the same size, and that the size is special among Velázquez’s surviving work. They are tall – as tall as many a full-dress portrait of the king – and narrow: an inch short of six feet high, and just a little over three feet across. This suggests that they were conceived together; some historians have thought they may have hung in the same room; the inventory almost says so, but not quite. It is striking that there is no trace of a pendant to Mars – the god’s singularity matters. But for the moment I want to focus on the quality of the two figures’ expressions.
‘Expression’ is a troublesome word. Neuroscientists have accustomed us to the notion that the brain may have a specific circuitry or ‘module’ devoted to reading other people’s faces and inferring from them things as intangible as feelings, intentions, states of mind. Some say this ability (or the confidence that one has it) is part of what went to make Homo sapiens. But the confidence I put in parenthesis is easily lost. Inference as to internal states is difficult – the way it’s done is a mystery – and mistakes can be fatal, especially in a group of hunter-gatherers still working on bonds and allegiances. Who was the first human being to see the inferring of mental states as a distinct activity, and cast doubt on its premises?
Take Aesop, for example. Already in Velázquez’s lifetime, writers trying to come to terms with his achievement, and realising that it centred on an approach to portraiture (and even the fact that portraiture was central, to a body of work whose ambitions were so wide-ranging, seemed odd), came up with the idea that his painting was strong because it stayed so relentlessly on the surface of things. Particularly human things; particularly faces. The word ‘distance’ crops up in early poems and commentary – not much is said about it, but it seems to be claimed as a quality specific to Velázquez, and certainly a strength. No doubt, these Baroque intellectuals say, we all want to get close to other people, to identify with them, to enter their interiors; but closeness, entry and identification may only be metaphors in a world of outsides. ‘Depth’ in particular, Velázquez’s painting suggests, could be an illusion – most of all in our dealings with others. Doesn’t that question come up with Aesop? Is the extraordinary look he is giving the viewer at all a deep one? Aesop may be wise – if his isn’t the look of wisdom, then where will we ever encounter it? – but poise and acuity don’t seem bound up, necessarily, with an ethics (or metaphysics) of penetration. Is this a man who has ‘seen through’ anyone? What’s more difficult: seeing through, or deep inside, the people who surround you, or seeing them in a way that stops at the facts of this or that expression – that doesn’t imagine some secrecy informing them? These are questions, no doubt, that come up with a special urgency in a group of sophisticates gathered around a sovereign – a retinue, a court society – in which keeping things superficial, and therefore not subject to malicious misinterpretation, may be a virtue, not to say a survival skill. As Thomas Hardy put it: ‘Aspects are within us; and who seems/Most kingly is the King.’
Many of the same questions recur with Mars – once more it is tempting (though unprovable) to think of the god and the fabulist looking at one another across the room. How is Mars’s face meant to engage with the viewer? What word, or family of words, will get us even approximately into the realm – the frame – of his peculiar stare? Writers through the centuries have rung a wonderful – in a sense, ludicrous – set of changes in their attempts at an answer. The idea of melancholy has been invoked by some (emblem books in hand), but so, more convincingly, has ‘nonchalance’ or ‘sardonic play-acting’ or even ‘silly sheepishness’. One scholar’s emasculation is another’s Olympian sangfroid.
Again, I suspend an answer. For the time being, let’s simply attend to the difference between Aesop’s and Mars’s expressions, and reflect – with these paintings’ courtly destination in mind – on what it might have meant, to a gathering of warriors, to have the god of war address them this way. Mars, surely, has ‘lost face’. (It is, we’ve already discovered, part of the effect of looking at Velázquez that all these dead metaphors of human attentiveness – seeing through, losing face, being deep or superficial – get brought back weirdly to life.) The historian Robert Stradling pointed out some time ago that during the 44 years of Philip’s reign there was not a single day of peace; and most of the wars were far from being triumphs. This may be relevant.
We might compare the lost face of Mars with that in another Velázquez portrait, Don Juan of Austria (shown below), probably painted a few years before the Torre de la Parada. Again, there is no record of the portrait being commissioned, but we know that in 1632 its leading character was allotted material for a suit of clothes much like the one he is wearing here. (Such are the slim pickings of Habsburg court accountancy.) This painting makes even Mars seem orthodox. Its mood and tone are utterly baffling. The painting and its protagonist may be treading the edge of insolence, or wistfulness, or bewilderment, or just plain foolishness: which description fits best becomes more uncertain the longer we look. Or the more historical details we fill in. The man on view was a fool. He was a court buffoon, undoubtedly a jester and mimic but quite probably some kind of simpleton or loco too. The language of court records and contemporary memoirs slides constantly between real and pretend idiocy, and mental and bodily freakishness. (It was considered piquant if they co-existed.) And the man’s name, to repeat, was Don Juan of Austria. That is, he was named after, or had usurped and was allowed the name of, the son of Charles V and victor of the battle of Lepanto – the short-lived, but symbolically important, sea victory of Spain over Islam two generations earlier. He was a fool called Don Juan of Austria.
What did it mean for Habsburg self-consciousness, the question follows, that it made room at court for a lugubrious parody of one of its greatest heroes? And in what spirit was Velázquez enlisted to immortalise the parody? War and buffoonery went together easily in Madrid. The Dutch ambassador a little later in the century can be found letting slip, as if reporting nothing remarkable, that ‘during the meal [at the palace], two buffoons played at war.’ The celebrations of the birth of Philip Prosper – whose portrait Velázquez did two years later – in 1657 gave pride of place to eight dwarves tilting with lances in a tournament. But is Velázquez’s Don Juan acting the fool? And if he is, does Velázquez show him acting it well? Does he understand his own script? How is he regarding us? What different degrees or levels of unreality – of pretending, or mimicking, or projecting an image – are intended by the juxtaposition of Don Juan’s face and the phantasmagoria called ‘Lepanto’, ships on fire, sea full of wreckage, visible through the door – or is Lepanto an image painted (projected) on the wall?
My subject is the quality of a certain look in Velázquez – a certain expression. I am not saying that Aesop, Mars and Don Juan of Austria exactly share it, or that it is exclusive to them, but I think their looks are comparable. Distance – keeping the viewer at arm’s length with one’s eyes, questioning, maybe concealing something – seems to be in play in all three. The look in point doesn’t puncture the illusion, exactly (though Lepanto on the wall may), but in some sense intercepts it. The look may be interested in itself: mirrors are everywhere in Velázquez’s world. Maybe the look is even asking itself what a look – a look out of the picture, over the footlights – does to the bargain on which any picturing rests. That bargain is easily welched on. Portrayal and betrayal are cousins.
A period term that scholars argue may be helpful is desengaño, which in the literature of poised disaffection characteristic of the Habsburg court (or its fringes) came to mean disillusion in the English sense: not a shrugging aside of illusion, that is, nor the hope of a realism prised apart finally from pretence and deception; but at least an achieved disillusion, a partial detachment from role; perhaps even the idea of living with illusion in full knowledge, continuing knowledge, that that was what living consisted of.
This is, to put it mildly, a difficult balance. Sometimes in the literature on Velázquez one encounters what seems to me a simple-minded scepticism as to whether his art could have included the kind of critical distancing – the edge of irony or even distaste – we detect in it from a 20th-century perspective. Surely the rigidities and aridities of the Habsburg court disallowed such things. I think, on the contrary, that the problem for Velázquez may have been not to have the attitude of desengaño tip over, as it often did in the poets and pamphleteers, into a kind of outright, self-congratulatory otherworldliness. Compare the set-up of Don Juan of Austria with some famous lines from Antonio López de Vega. Vega looks on at the antics of a group of buffoons and court lunatics, then turns aside, asking himself why such presences are needed at court at all, when the palace itself is a permanent entertainment, in which ‘all are striving to make affected expressions be perceived as real gravity, looking down on others with the scorn of the proud, ordering people about imperiously, claiming that everything they see belongs to them.’
This is impressive; it may be relevant; but surely it is not Don Juan of Austria’s tone. Velázquez had the tone available to him, for certain, and in a sense Don Juan called for it – there he was, the buffoon, reducing warfare to dress-up. And isn’t that what all of us do? Isn’t that what war is? Yet I think the painting stands in the way of such generalisation. It is simply too strange, too elusive and unnerving. I even doubt we can turn from the scene and think the great line from Baltasar Gracián – ‘Half the world is laughing at the other half, and all are fools’ – sums things up. Perhaps if we substituted the word ‘dwarves’ for ‘fools’ we would be closer. ‘Half the world thinks itself superior to the other half, and all of us are dwarves.’
There is, I think, one more element to my set. I find I cannot look long at Aesop, Mars and Don Juan of Austria without their faces being shadowed by the young rifleman’s in Velázquez’s Surrender of Breda, off to the left, his green jacket and trousers an irresistible punctuation mark in the painting’s wall of browns. And I cannot take stock of the rifleman – his look out of the illusion, his exchange of some kind of awareness with us, his distraction from the scene of chivalry – without Brecht’s ‘Fragen eines lesenden Arbeiters’ coming to mind:
Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
In the books you find the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the blocks of stone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Didn’t he even have a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept, they say, when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one weeping?
In the case of Breda disillusion goes all the way down. Velázquez knew full well as he made the Surrender, as did those he must have taken most seriously among his audience, that the scene he depicted had never really happened: there had been, at the end of the siege, no such lordly face-to-face encounter, no touch of the hand on van Nassau’s shoulder. And in any case victory was fleeting. Velázquez finished his painting probably in 1634 or 1635, commemorating an event then ten years in the past. By that point things in the north were best not talked about. Two years later, in 1637, freedom from Spain a fait accompli, the Dutch retook the city.
I turn to Aesop, whose look, for me, contains the other three. Is the picture some kind of portrait? Here’s where the emptiness of the court records is most infuriating. We know nothing of Velázquez’s models – who they were, how he selected them, whether they were professionals or individuals recruited for a particular job. Therefore the lines drawn in the studio between a particular physiognomy and a type or ‘idea’ remain a mystery. Velázquez’s art turned on portraiture. The least look at Aesop convinces that the making of such a face must have begun, and in some sense ended, with the apprehension of an actually present cast of eyes, depth of socket, thickness of cheek, set of neck, greying of hair. We are looking at a person. But the person has become Aesop – no doubt as the result of a complex collaboration, model adopting the attitude (the expression) of an imaginary being, artist imagining, fashioning, intensifying that fiction – but never unduly, never moving too far from the facts in front of him. And imagining Aesop, we shall see in a moment, was necessarily a peculiar, perhaps transgressive activity – an identification with an outsider. (Is that why Aesop has always struck some viewers as Velázquez’s true self-portrait?)
The idea of the beggar philosopher was, to repeat, comfortably part of the Baroque repertoire by the time Velázquez turned to it. Naturally the ancient world, like any mature civilisation, had made room for seekers after knowledge, disdaining riches, swapping wisdom for necessities. But Aesop was something different. He was a figure who loomed large in 17th-century Spain, with effects far beyond the world of humanism. The editors of the modern edition of the Saragossa Aesop’s Fables of 1489 – La vida del Ysopet con sus fabulas hystoriadas – say that ‘it can be stated without fear of contradiction that the romantic life of Aesop and the collection of fables made available to Spaniards in 1489 was the most widely read body of literature across at least two centuries.’ The importance of Aesop’s way of storytelling for the emerging picaresque novel has never been doubted, so that Nietzsche’s later verdict on the novel as a whole (that it ‘may be described as an infinitely enhanced Aesopian fable’), however double-edged, is a fair characterisation of the kind of narrative fiction Velázquez would have read as a young man in Seville. Aesop, in a word, was the figure of a certain realism. But the question is, in Velázquez’s hands, what kind?
I have mentioned already that the Aesop painting is tall and relatively narrow – six feet high, three feet wide. This means that its subject is offered to us roughly life-size, but in the flesh – in front of the picture – he has a height and composure that always seems decidedly above one’s sightline. That is true, I’ve discovered, however low the canvas is hung. (The Prado has changed its mind about this through the decades.) No doubt the figure’s ‘aboveness’ derives from the picture’s dimensions, but also, more fundamentally, from the way its internal organisation takes advantage of them – the way its placing and orientation of Aesop’s body, and that body’s extraordinary address to us, and the exact measure of space opened and closed around the body, and the ground plane with its enigmatic objects and utterly puzzling gradient, especially towards the right … the way all this establishes Aesop’s unique non-dominant height. The man is immense, implacable; but he is entirely commonplace. There is not the least touch of the numinous about him. The brown of his coat is a triumph of plainness. Velázquez opens a world of light behind the figure, space brightening slowly from left to right, with what appears to be direct illumination – studio light – striking the face from above. Aesop stands out in silhouette. The dark at his shoulder is almost grim. But again, the light speaking back to it is not a halo.
Maybe the words that first come to mind in front of Aesop are physical, physiological: words like posture (which surely here is not shadowed by its companion, imposture), or standing, or stance, or attitude – all of them understood, once again, as primarily matters of here-and-now bodily disposition, though inevitably carrying with them the signs, the traces, of what the world has done to a person over time and the way the person has met it. I showed Aesop some years ago to an expert on muscles and skeletal health, and she was impressed by the figure’s composure, but worried about the way the man was holding himself. She looked at the line of Aesop’s shoulders, the slight imbalance between them, and imagined the sway (the contrapposto) of his body under the coat. Something seemed slightly wrong to her – maybe some curvature of the spine. The turn outwards of Aesop’s right foot – the one nearest the bucket, with its sole on display and its socks in especially bad shape – confirmed her suspicions.
I hadn’t revealed to the expert what Velázquez must have known, or been told, about Aesop the historical individual. He would have known a great deal. (Whether there had ever been an actual person called Aesop was, by the way, already a matter of doubt in the 17th century, and continues to be, but this didn’t mean that the story of his life, told in detail, was any less determinant of the ‘Aesop effect’. La Fontaine in France – the other great Aesopian of Velázquez’s age – began his version of the Fables with a biography of the author which he said he knew, or suspected, was untrue, but nonetheless thought indispensable.) The culture had an investment in Aesop’s physical existence. What the investment amounted to is suggested, at least in part, by the frontispiece of the Saragossa Fables, the ‘Aesop’ Velázquez would have had on his shelves. I think this picture kept the painter company.
Aesop was a hunchback, the frontispiece reminds us; as does the Life put before the fables in the Saragossa collection. Maybe he was spectacularly deformed. Some accounts have him as a dwarf. (Later 17th-century visualisations, particularly in books, are certain on that score.) Part of the story in the Life turns on his being astonishingly, disgustingly ugly, yet making his way in the world in spite of it. Some versions have Aesop born mute – being close to an animal at the start of things – and only gaining language later thanks to the intervention of a goddess. His animal stories came out of that early experience. He was often called a Phrygian, and sometimes wore the cap of liberty in illustrations, especially in the 18th century. But he could have been an Ethiop (hence his name) – he was often described as black. And crucially – it is a main theme of all the Lives – he was a slave, though eventually he won his manumission. Leslie Kurke, in her book Aesopic Conversations, points out that the Life is the only extended slave biography to have come down to us from antiquity. You get the flavour of the 17th century’s interest in Aesop’s physique from this passage by Francis Barlow, editor of a great English edition of the Life published in 1687:
As to the Features and Dimensions of his Face and Body, they were so shuffel’d and hudled up, that Nature in his Production, did seem to insinuate that she oftentimes does set the most refulgent Gems in the most uneven and ragged Collets: for he was of a sharp Head, flat Nos’d, his Back roll’d up in a Bunch or Excrescence, his Lips tumerous and pendant, his Complexion black … Large Belly, Crooked Bow-Legs … But above all his Misfortunes, this was the most Eminent, That his Speech was slow, inarticulate and very obscure.
Velázquez’s picture, I believe, exists wholly in the light of such fantasies – such hallucinated facts – and in some way includes them at the same time as contradicting them; intimating and incorporating the facts, and in doing so changing their valence. A large part of the reversal, clearly, hinges on the way Aesop as Velázquez imagines him seems to have come to terms with his imperfections – that is, has taken a stance towards them (and us knowing about them), adopted an attitude, built an expression in the face of the world. This is the picture’s central triumph. But let’s leave this in abeyance for a moment – we still have to know more about what the expression was made of.
Ishall be brief. We have been treated in recent decades to excellent work, by Leslie Kurke and Annabel Patterson in particular, demonstrating, really for the first time, the full range of the ‘Aesopian’ in antiquity and the Renaissance. It is a complex picture. Here are the facets of it that touch Velázquez. First, the ugliness – the otherness. This is fundamental to the Aesop myth, partly because the ugliness is what ties the storyteller to the animals (so the 17th century tells us) and can make him their spokesman; but also because it is felt as the sign of Aesop’s enslavement. Aesop is a slave – slavery, baseness, subservience are there in his body, as his very nature. Repulsiveness is a difficult subject for art, but Aesop seemed to call for it. Velázquez’s visualisation is to be compared with Ribera’s, for instance: there is a terrifying painting by the latter in the Escorial. And do not assume that Ribera’s treatment derives simply from his general preference for extremes. He was perfectly capable of intimating roughness and uncouthness, or at least a wild carelessness of appearance, and lending them nobility if he chose. His Diogenes in Dresden strikes the balance as surefootedly as Velázquez. The Escorial Aesop, by contrast, is a man challenging us not to look – this is deformity, frightfulness, the thing itself. And deformity matters, because (this is the logic that lies behind the Baroque fascination) Aesop’s is a truth that comes out of otherness, out of a condition close to animality, a lived subordination.
The second aspect to Aesop’s truth, said the commentators, is the fact of its having been written in prose. Hegel in his Lectures on Fine Arts notoriously made the link between slavery, fable and the end of poetry – the end of the age of enchantment. ‘Im Sklaven fängt die Prosa an.’ (‘In the slave, prose begins.’) By this he seems to have meant that the animal fable, with its necessarily un-poetic creatureliness, was one main road humanity took out of a world in which beasts had been believed to be forms of the unearthly, the divine. In the end, through the cunning of reason, this exit from enchantment would lead to a new kind of truth, even a new kind of mastery. But the first form of disenchantment was slavish, Hegel says – moralistic, merely prosy. There are shadows here of the Phenomenology’s master-slave dialectic, but in the Lectures Hegel largely misses his own point: his Aesop is master of no one. (The Aesop of the Life, incidentally, revels in the Phenomenology’s paradox. The slave outwits his owner at every turn. ‘Does anyone want to buy a master for himself?’, Aesop instructs the herald at the slave market to announce. And sure enough someone does – a dim philosopher called Xanthus.) Aesop’s earthiness is the key to his power. And earthiness is often a euphemism. The opening events in the Saragossa Life – the episodes by which Aesop enforces his authority over Xanthus – turn on vomiting, urination, and the new master shitting uncontrollably in the street. The Saragossa volume has a good illustration of the last, with Aesop holding the bucket ready to do the necessary; and subsequently one realises that the odd form immediately to the right of Aesop in the frontispiece is most probably a turd curling into a bucket.
Aesop’s prose does battle essentially, as Hegel saw, with myth – with a world informed by the work of the gods. The Greek evidence backs this up. Aesop was a kind of Socrates (ugliness and all); and classicists have lately meditated on the strange moment in the Phaedo where Socrates, the night before drinking the hemlock, spends his time setting some of Aesop’s fables to music. The fables are inherently cautious: they are slave language, always ready to cancel any insubordinate suggestion with a trite moral tag affixed in conclusion. But they often steer close to parody of the mythic past. François Lissarrague pointed us twenty years ago to a red-figure cup in the Vatican, on which a hydrocephalic old man with a walking stick is seen listening intently to a fox. Could it be Aesop himself, with the fox asking him a riddle? And isn’t the cup a burlesque of Oedipus and the sphinx? Maybe we should look at what Velázquez did to Mars in the same light.
Finally, then, Aesop was the master of an irony that could be instantly retracted if need be – of an insolent implication to a story that surely, says the storyteller when challenged, is only the reader ‘reading things in’. Joseph Jacobs, the 19th-century editor of Craxton’s Aesop, wrote that ‘the fable is most effective as a literary or oratorical weapon, under despotic governments allowing no free speech. A tyrant cannot take notice of a fable without putting on the cap that fits.’ In the 17th century, interpreters of Aesop often fought to the finish over such matters. Here is Milton in the 1650s, rounding on a reading by a royalist cleric of Aesop’s ‘Frogs Who Desired a King’:
The frogs (being once a free nation saith the fable) petitioned Jupiter for a King: he tumbl’d among them a log. They found it insensible: they petitioned then for a King that should be active: he sent them a Crane (a Stork saith the fable) which straight fell to pecking them up. This you apply to the reproof of them who desire change: wheras indeed the true moral shews rather the folly of those, who being free seek a King; which for the most part either as a log lies heavie on his Subjects, without doing ought worthie of his dignitie and the charge to maintaine him, or as a Stork is ever pecking them up and devouring them.
Again, the Life of Aesop is a guide to reading the stories it prefaces. Time and again it shows the slave storyteller turning to storks and frogs and wolves and lions as a means to talk about enslavement and liberty without seeming to do any such thing. And the form of the fable is crucial in that regard. It nudges and beckons its audience toward a conclusion that must be theirs, not their humble servant’s. The moment of pivot in the fable, when suddenly the plot yields up its uncomfortable point, the moment the reader becomes a Milton, thinking the unthinkable – this is all the reader’s or listener’s doing. So that’s what you reckon my innocent story intends! What a testament to your cleverness!
The classicist Leslie Kurke puts it beautifully: Aesop, she says, is the master of ‘a kind of martial art of the abjected that cunningly turns the social weight of the powerful against themselves’. It must be the freedom and sophistication of the slaveowner that end up making the slave’s facile patter call the very gods in question. ‘Not me, you … I was just trying to entertain.’ (Here’s where the idea of Aesop as Velázquez’s self-portrait is most tempting.)
These are, I think, the meanings and appearances of Aesop with which Velázquez had to work. But how, in the end, did he give them expression? How does his Aesop address us? With what sort of attention? From what specific distance? Many Velázquez portraits provoke questions of this kind (think of Don Juan of Austria) but here they are intensified – exacerbated – by the suspicion that a particular set of features has been shifted by the artist to embody an entire worldview. What could be more particular than Aesop’s face? But when has a face been more imprinted with a philosophy?
Could it be, in the first place, that the very words ‘expression’, ‘address’ and ‘us’ are the wrong ones to apply to Aesop’s way of looking? Does Aesop as Velázquez imagines him exist, or exist primarily, in a world made up of interlocking subjectivities? He is, remember, the master of animals. The world he takes stock of may include ‘us’ only as objects or processes of a certain kind – entities, outsides, behaviours, patterns of dominance and submission. Such a way of thinking is no doubt extreme, or at least uncommon, but doesn’t Aesop’s whole attitude make it seem reasonable – realistic? Doesn’t his face ask us to rearrange our notions of normality? What’s normal, he asks, about reading other minds?
I reach a familiar impasse. I have no words, or none that strike me as convincing, for the way Aesop looks – the way his features hover between irony and resignation – but that doesn’t mean I don’t know what his look intends. On the contrary, the wordlessness of Aesop’s communication makes his intention all the clearer. I have a good idea what he’s contemplating. I understand the quality of his distance: he is assessing not addressing me, would be one way of putting it – reaching a judgment but not pronouncing one. (As is his way with the world in general.) And isn’t this partly what we mean by expression – isn’t this what expressions are for? Expressions, especially ones as charged and impenetrable as this, are for where words fail us, where we’re lost for them. Aesop’s original muteness – the original muteness of each individual, the stumbling of the infant into speech – is part of his power.
This brings us back to Aesop as narrated in the Life: to enslavement and animality, and the way the biography is at pains to stress its hero’s special proximity to matter. Writers about Velázquez’s Aesop have laboured to make the objects scattered on the painting’s ground plane mean something; or even, in the case of the objects bottom right, be something specific. None of their efforts are very convincing, beyond the suggestion that what we see on the left is most probably the household bucket. (Remember the bucket in the Saragossa illustration.) The length of dark material over its side could be leather: there is a fable about tanning in the early collections. But the fable isn’t an important one (it doesn’t get taken up by the frontispiece, which is a good map of the tales that mattered to early readers) and the beautiful pattern of stuffs and implements on the right in Velázquez doesn’t seem to continue the theme. The pucker and ripple of the grey and white fabric, with its visceral trace of pale red (a strange rhyming of the folds here with those on Aesop’s chest) – what are they, these folds? Is the dark material on top of the white another strip of leather? But what is the shape that seems to be holding it down? A weight of some sort? An opened shackle? One historian thought it a pasteboard crown. Did he mean as used in some court buffoonery? I don’t understand the trace of bright red at Aesop’s left ear, and the clamp of dark metal seemingly attached to the ear’s cartilage. Is it a mark of slave ownership?
I think the object-world in Aesop is an enigma, and meant to be. Compare the armour on the floor in Don Juan of Austria. Aesop may take up the objects in a moment and make a story of them, but the moment is eternally deferred. It is the enigma that counts. Goya, in the great drawing he made of the Velázquez – it includes a strong misreading of Aesop’s expression, pushing it a little too far towards brutality – found room, just, for the cusped metal weight. Then he left it out in a subsequent etching. The book Aesop holds – one assumes it is his book – is extraordinarily beautiful. The play between its dog-eared pages and the wrinkles of the sash nearby is entirely touching. Aesop holds it carefully. But it is an object among others, not the solution to the riddle.
And so to Mars – it may be right to treat him with Aesopian brevity. There is a wonderful throwaway Aesop fable on the subject of war, whose sheer speed and shrug of the shoulders – whose utter disdain for the god of battles – anyone would be happy to emulate. The fable is typical of Aesop’s anti-mythological myth-making:
All the gods having decided to get married, each took a wife that fate assigned to him. Polemos [it is important that Aesop’s war god is someone more ancient than Ares or Mars: polemos is one of the oldest words known in Greek for war] being left last in the drawing of lots, could find only Hybris remaining. He fell madly in love with her and married her. That is why he goes everywhere she goes.
Incidentally, we are told of a festival in ancient Argos called the Hybristica, probably in honour of Ares, where ‘they dress women in men’s tunics and cloaks, and men wear women’s dresses and veils.’ The Greeks seem to have known that the madness and hubris of war are tied to the collapse, or burlesque, of gender distinctions. War and buffoonery are one. And this leads to Velázquez.
I have said that the evidence we have, slim as it is, suggests that Aesop and Mars were together in the same room at the Torre de la Parada. The relation between them does strike me as Aesopian, in the sense Hegel sets out (and disapproves of) in his Lectures. It is a brilliant enigma, a kind of bright, infinitely clever slave language: because the fabulist, Hegel says, ‘dare not speak his teaching openly’; he can ‘only make it intelligible in a kind of riddle which is at the same time always being solved’. It is not accidental that the scene of Aesop and the Fox on the Attic cup is a parody not just of the realm of the gods in general but specifically of the riddle of the sphinx.
Believe it or not, there are historians who have argued that no irreverence towards the military was intended by the Torre Mars. This is the king’s painter, after all, at work in a time of war. I guess these are the kinds of reader who don’t find Don Quixote funny. But let’s go along with them a little way. It is true that there is nothing new, nothing truly outlandish, to the episode Velázquez presents. It is a version of Mars Disarmed by Venus, a subject licensed – performed previously – by all the Italian masters Philip IV admired. Various prototypes for the Velázquez have been suggested, but I think the most relevant has been left out of account. It is a Veronese, done around 1580. (The painting was in Philip’s collection, then presented to the Prince of Wales in 1623. I’m assuming Velázquez saw it before it left for London. It was a celebrated thing: one or two variants and early copies survive.) The figure of Mars in the Veronese is what matters, obviously: the paintwork suggests the figure was added late, almost as an afterthought, but it is one of Veronese’s great inventions. The link with Velázquez is mainly in Mars’s face – the character of his look out in our direction, as he’s surprised making love not war.
Velázquez has fed in particular on the look’s trajectory, its slight downward tilt, and the fact of its being in shadow, thanks to the un-discarded helmet. Naturally Veronese has given the look an explanation within the surface logic of the scene: Mars is looking past Venus at the child’s play on the floor. But one sees why Velázquez extracted the look and made it his picture’s subject. The look was spellbinding: it was enough on its own. And what shall we call it, in either case? Abashed? Imperturbable? Shameless? Crestfallen (not a bad metaphor here, in spite of the plumes and gold beasts on both men’s helmets)? Caught out, unmistakably – but oddly engaged with whoever has done the catching, not flinching from the intruder’s smile.
Velázquez’s Mars is Veronese’s pushed several stops farther. It is fundamental to its effect that Venus has left the building. Mars is disarmed, but who or what it was that disarmed him is intimated, not shown. He still has his helmet and baton and proper martial moustache, but clearly he’s been unmanned. The colours of his garments, if that is what they are (very soon it occurs to us that they could be bedclothes put to hurried, embarrassed use), are utterly feminine here, even if on the battlefield they might be flown on a regiment’s flag. Mars’s body (by far Velázquez’s most astonishing treatment of the nude) is absurd by reason, above all, of its uncertain age and imperfection. (Recall that the figure is nearly life-size.) The incipient wattles at his neck, the thinness of flesh over his collarbone, the two harsh creases of fat on the belly, the claw-like fingers, the oversize thigh and calf … Is there another body in Western art whose subjection to ageing, to ordinary wear and tear, is treated so relentlessly? Maybe in Titian. Maybe a tortured Christ. But Velázquez’s Mars is anti-Christ.
And is there another male body in painting whose emasculation is so flagrant? The splayed legs and open lap – don’t they become in due course the stock shot of pornography? In the Velázquez Mars has covered his nakedness; but never has a pair of fig leaves – the twisted and bunched up blue material, the pulpy organic flesh-pink below – been more evocative of what might or might not be underneath them. The great smooth baton Mars is holding seems like a wish-fulfilment. The wispy strap coming down from the helmet across his collarbone is surely closer to the truth.
Mars is disarmed, then, but even the disarmament is not to be taken too seriously. None of the negatives I have listed rob his body of sex appeal. The clutter of armour on the ground, the experts tell us, is tournament stuff, mostly for show. The shield has a rim with pretty fur trimmings, and seems to be made mainly of glass. Even the armour in Don Juan of Austria looks more serviceable. The association – definitely a negative one – between war and luxury is a 17th-century trope, haunting the critique of absolutism. Saint-Simon at Versailles, praising the Dauphin at Louis’s expense, says: ‘The great and sublime maxim that kings are made for peoples and not peoples for kings, was so deeply imprinted on [the prince’s] soul that it made luxury and war odious to him.’ Again, no need to press home political lessons. They are implicit in Velázquez, made possible – deniable – by the atmosphere of comedy. Aesop is speaking, not López de Vega.
Ishall draw attention , finally, to just three aspects of Velázquez’s invention. First, to Mars’s singularity. Second, again to his look. Third – it may amount to the same thing – to his foolishness.
It seems to me fundamental to Velázquez’s picture that Mars is on his own. He is singular through and through – Mars without Venus, and if the record is to be trusted, always Mars without a pendant god or goddess in a matching painting of the same size. (And this, by the way, puts the Mars in a very special place in the Torre de la Parada’s decorative scheme, which was built on pairings and sets of stories.) There is something vertiginous to the figure’s singularity. His expression and his singularity go together. He looks bewildered – a good 17th-century word, meaning ‘adrift in pathless places’. A bewildered male is a bewildering sight. He looks at a loss, and here what the loss is of is sufficiently comically clear.
But let’s not dwell on the sexual dimension. It is important that Venus is not in frame, and that what we are left with is a picture of masculinity on its own, mustering itself to confront us – the bare forked animal, not whatever was the force that made it. Masculinity in Mars – this seems to me Velázquez’s thinking – is deeply not a reciprocity, not a form of relationality at all. This is the true uncanniness in the case. Mars is embarrassed, but also deeply at ease in his isolation. He has lost his armour, and maybe his bearings, but he’ll stare any viewer or voyeur down; he won’t be the first to lower his eyes. Historians, as I have said, casting about for their own bearings, have sometimes suggested that the hand to chin in Mars is the pose of the melancholic. Maybe, conventionally. But Velázquez as usual makes the convention work against itself. The hand holds the head steady and colludes in the gaze’s outwardness, its lack of depth. The gaze is impenetrable, the helmet keeps things under wraps.
Mars’s expression still eludes us. There used to be a strand in the Velázquez literature that proposed that Aesop, Menippus and Mars were pictures, all three, of court jesters playing at being philosophers and gods. I see why the notion was discarded – it came out of a period when Velázquez’s art was interpreted too much in a late-19th-century Realist way. Nonetheless, the idea does speak to something. (It is odd that down by Aesop’s ankle there looks to be a diamond-shaped tassel attached to his coat, as if the stuff had been taken from a fancy dress cabinet.) The look Mars is giving us – if we focus on that alone – does seem to be an expression that knows itself to be one, and perhaps wants to signify some kind of distance from the expression even as it assumes it. Could we even say – this would be another solution to the question of Mars being so imperturbable – that Mars seems to know that his humiliation is only a role, a move in an unserious game? His look invites our complicity. This is courtly art. It expects us – Mars expects us – to be properly sophisticated, and share in the cool desengaño. Readers like Milton push things too far.
For a moment, then, initially, as we tune in to the picture’s Mars Disarmed by Venus iconography, we assume we are meant to condescend to the warrior wearing women’s clothes. But are we allowed to condescend? Isn’t the levelness of Mars’s look – level here meant literally as well as metaphorically – in the end unnerving, even disarming? Is it the look of a fool? Or of someone playing the fool, entirely knowingly? (This is what the older historians seem to have suspected.) Mars is disarmed by Venus, but that’s always just the start of the story. A fool and his phallic armour are soon parted, though not for long. Mars returns to the battlefield, his madness only exacerbated.
The Greeks knew madness – knew murderous foolishness – when they saw it. Ares was the most uncanny of the gods, more so even than Dionysus. Aeschylus in The Suppliants – the chorus of desperate women – writes:
I would say that the dead
are better off than this.
Alas, unlucky indeed the fate
of a city captured –
murder, fire, and rape,
all the city polluted by smoke,
and the breath of Ares on it
maddened, desecrating piety, slaying the people.
War is performance, and therefore performance anxiety. War is tomfoolery. Madness and pollution are constitutive of it, not collateral damage. Polemos and Hybris are partners for life. Both Don Juans of Austria – the victor and the jester who dared claim his name – are buffoons. The warrior is all the more merciless for knowing his armour is for show. I think Velázquez’s painting speaks to these things – this terrible commixture of weakness and invulnerability – in Aesop’s voice.