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An English 17th-century double portrait holds many clues to its meaning

23 January 2021

9:00 AM

23 January 2021

9:00 AM

The Ghost of Galileo: In a Forgotten Painting from the English Civil War J.L.Heilbron

OUP, pp.520, 25

This is a big book about a minor painting — a double portrait of John Bankes, aged about 16 (the son of the Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, Sir John Bankes), and his tutor, Dr Maurice Williams. It was done in Oxford in 1643-4 by Francis Cleyn, a court painter. At the time, Oxford was the headquarters of the royalist army, and painters were busy recording for their loved ones Cavaliers who would soon be dead. In the left corner of the painting there is a copy of Galileo’s Dialogues Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, in its Latin translation, open at the frontispiece, along with a globe and a telescope. Young John holds out a drawing compass into the centre of the image, and looks out into empty space.

J.L. Heilbron devotes 500 pages to trying to make sense of this painting, but makes surprisingly little progress. What does he get wrong? First, let’s ask who the painting is for. Heilbron thinks it was intended to hang in Gray’s Inn in London, but by 1643 London was a no-go area for royalists such as the Bankes family. Young Bankes’s home was Corfe Castle. His father was with the King, caught up in the war, and his mother, the redoubtable Lady Mary Bankes, was at home, preparing to defend her castle against the Parliamentary army, a task she performed with aplomb.

The painting, then, was to hang on the walls of Corfe Castle, and its immediate audience was not Sir John but Lady Mary. Heilbron makes nothing of the compass young John holds out. He should have remembered John Donne’s ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’. There the compass stands for Donne’s promise to return safely home again, just as the compass pencil returns to the place where it began. And this tells us what the painting is really about: young John’s tutor is keeping him safe, locked up with his books, away from the court and the Cavaliers, and will bring him safely home.

Let’s turn to the books. In the frontispiece to Galileo’s Dialogues three old men, Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Copernicus/Galileo, stand arguing with each other. But in the Latin translation Copernicus appears as a very young, beardless man, detached from what is going on around him, staring into space, and holding his hand out into the centre of the image. Heilbron is a Galileo scholar, and is fascinated by the contents of the book, but much less interested in the frontispiece to the Latin edition. Young John, as he appears in the painting, he sees as pasty faced, and melancholy — obviously an unsatisfactory, unenthusiastic scholar.

But that is not, I suspect, what the painting tells us. It shows John as another Copernicus, looking into empty space because he is contemplating mathematical truths. Cleyn knew how to flatter his sitters, and here he assures Lady Mary that her son is a young genius who is already overtaking his elders. The frontispiece is reproduced in the painting to tell us not only what John is reading, but also how to read the painting; and the painting reproduces the swagged curtain of the frontispiece as well as the hand gestures of Copernicus in order to stress that one can read across from the frontispiece to the painting.

Sitting on top of the copy of Galileo’s Dialogues is a fat book. Heilbron thinks it might be a copy of Sarpi’s History of the Council of Trent. Sarpi was a friend of Galileo’s, and much admired in England for his attacks on the papacy. This cannot be: the Latin edition of the Dialogues is a quarto; Sarpi’s History was a large folio. The book sitting on the Dialogues is not a folio but a slightly bigger quarto. There is no title on the spine. What sort of book doesn’t carry its title on its spine? The answer is simple: a book you recognise at once because you handle it every day; a book which lives on your desk, not on the shelves of your library. Tell me a book that has no title on its spine, and I will tell you it is a prayer book, an almanac, or (as in this case) a Bible.

So, as John studies what Galileo called the book of nature he does not forget God’s own book. Aubrey, an Oxford man, reported that it was only after the execution of the King in 1649 that Copernicanism came to be generally accepted, so young John will be well aware that many Protestants agree with the Catholic Church in thinking Copernicanism is contrary to Scripture. He is studying dangerous, new-fangled ideas, but his watchful tutor is keeping him safe from heresy.

Heilbron admits that he cannot pin down the meaning of the painting, though it is not, I suggest, difficult to do so. He resorts to writing an imaginary dialogue in which painter and subject discuss the painting, and, at some length, the significance of Galileo. Are we to think of him as a rebel, who deserved punishment, or as a great philosopher, who should have been allowed to publish freely? I think historians should not make things up, particularly conversations, and if they do they should avoid anachronisms such as ‘unintended consequences’, a phrase virtually unknown before 1936.

Heilbron’s book embodies ten years of research, and, like Clyne, he has worked con studio, diligenza, e amore. But he thinks that Paolo Sarpi was a monk. Monks retreat from the world to worship and contemplate. Sarpi was a Servite friar, and friars go out into the world to preach and teach. Hence the church called i Frari in Venice, designed for preaching to vast congregations. Sarpi’s career as a political propagandist, his mixing with Venetian politicians and academics and even with English Protestants, would have been totally inappropriate for a monk, but exactly what one would expect of a friar, for friars are supposed to be in the world, if not of it.

What Cleyn portrays is not the world of a Sarpi, a state theologian, or even a Galileo, whose frontispiece claims his Dialogue has been written for the Grand Duke of Tuscany. It is the cloistered, monkish life of an Oxford college; he leaves us to imagine the hubbub in the streets outside, the soaring rhetoric of the preachers, the calls to arms. The painting is, surely, a polite fiction — John’s clothes and haircut are not those of a scholar; the soldiers were already within the college gates — but let’s hope it reassured Lady Mary as she took command of her troops at Corfe. In 1645, the year of the battle of Naseby, young John was packed off to travel in France and Italy. He survived the Civil War, surely to his mother’s relief, unscathed. So did his portrait, though Corfe Castle was reduced to a picturesque ruin.

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