07.13.12 5:15 PM ET
Reading the Entrails
A severed ram’s head, a rope of liver and lungs above it and to both sides some gorgeous fruits and vegetables – if still-life painting can sometimes seem convention-bound, this one seems to have more to it. It was painted in 1652, in Florence, when the Dutch painter Willem van Aelst was there serving the Medici court, and it’s now in the solo show of his works (the first ever) at the National Gallery in Washington. The ram’s head is such a strong symbol of the classical world that I’d want to make it central in any reading of this painting. This still-life seems to me to involve some kind of confrontation between the scientific, botanical and anatomical interests of the Medici court – to wit the accurately rendered organs and fruit – and the Roman practice of reading the future in entrails. (The term of art for reading a liver is haruspicy or hepatoscopy; the practice is mentioned in Virgil and Cicero and Pliny. The gallery reads the offal as belonging to a turkey, but I’ve done enough butchering to recognize the lungs and liver of something much bigger – such as the classic sacrificial ram.) Could van Aelst’s picture be about science superseding or completing ancient ways of knowing?
I particularly like how such a complex reading mirrors the divination referenced in the work.
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