So I’m scooting through the V&A museum, Kensington, on a schedule. I only have an hour, max, and I am on the equivalent of an insane cultural trolley dash. Must take in my favourite stuff, of course; a bit of Leonardo, Some ancient locks and keys, a tomb or two.
And I’m practising that “I’m not running” frantic glide I learnt in the corridors of convent school conning nuns, when I come face to face with this man.
And I skid, like a choirboy caught sprinting for evensong, to a halt under that level gaze.
How deeply unsettling that he can gaze through marble, though he died in 1462. His name is Giovanni Chellini, and he was a lecturer and doctor at the University of Florence. He was Donatello’s doctor.
His bust was made around six years before he died, by the Florence sculptor Antonio Rosselino. The artist used a life mask to cast his face; and such an immediate method of collecting a face brings the man into the hall with me on this Monday afternoon. Every fold, every line life has worn on his face is there for us to see. The way his decisions sculpted his face in life are preserved in death. He has, in some way, achieved immortality. His gaze is by no means stern; it has something of the benign about it; but there’s something else. Something I couldn’t put my finger on. Something familiar.
It was not until this evening. ten or so days after my visit, that I could identify who the fifteenth century cordial professor reminded me of so strongly.
I don’t know why. But for me, having met the academic in the marble, so to speak, there is something in the gaze which is the same as Grant Wood’s American Gothic. Not unkind, but austere. Not malevolent, but no less unsettling for all that.