or, How a Metaphor in the Decameron Modifies Arasse’s Interpretation of the Snail in Francesco del Cossa’s Annunciation
The Angel Gabriel stands on the threshold of Mary’s chamber, his wings’ feathers resembling that of a peacock or dove. In his hand he holds a lily, the symbol of virginality, or perhaps he greets Mary with two raised fingers as he delivers God’s message of the Holy Spirit’s Incarnation. Mary remains in her chambers, often enthroned, sometimes studying. As she receives this message, so too does she receive the Holy Spirit into her body, and simultaneously is the Son become flesh.
In his texts The Snail’s Gaze, and Secrets de Peintres in “Histoires de Peintres” art historian Daniel Arasse illuminates the secret of the Annunciation’s duality. Since the actual Incarnation is a fundamentally unportrayable image, representations of the Annunciation display its portrayable aspect – Gabriel’s announcement of that very Incarnation. This visible image of the angel’s visitation which reveals the Annunciation, simultaneously sequesters the second, secret and unportrayable image of the Incarnation beneath its surface. In a double movement of concealment/revelation the Annunciation represents the “coming of the unfigurable into the figurable realm.” Although Arasse writes this regarding Annunciation paintings only, its field of action can be widened to include all painting. For what metaphor is more perfect to stand for painting than a scene which renders the invisible visible?
In Francesco del Cossa’s Annunciation, as Arasse points out, there is a very noticeable anomaly designed to catch our attention. Namely, a gargantuan Snail crawling along the painting’s edge, “practically leaving a trail of slime behind it.” The Snail is not only out of place due to its presence, but also to its size. Since, if the Snail were true to the painting’s ratio established by its perspective, it would be as large as the angel’s foot. And here Arasse proposes his brilliant solution: The Snail is only gargantuan if it is crawling inside the painting. However if the Snail were represented on the painting, it would be of perfectly lifesize.
Arasse interprets how this duality of the Snail’s presence both in and on the painting draws our regard into the depiction, by pointing to its artifice. The Snail, incongruous by both its presence and size, is simultaneously real and irreal, drawing the viewer into its embrace, and in this intimacy whispers to its viewer the secrets of its inadequacy. ‘Who am I,’ asks the painting, ‘belonging to this material world to attempt to ever represent the conception of the Son of God?’
Arasse’s interpretation of the Snail as a portal into the painting draws its nourishment from inside the history of painting, seeking interpretation through a painter’s devotion. Yet, if a devoted Arrasse shows us this entrance into Francesco del Cossa’s Annunciation, a snail metaphor in the Decameron from a somewhat more irreverent Bocaccio illuminates its complementary exit present through the very same door.
In the third story of the eighth day Boccaccio recounts the first tale of three medieval Florentine painters Bruno, Buffalmacco, and Calandrino. Calandrino, “a simple-witted man of strange customs” is tricked into believing in a city named Berlinzone, located in the magical country of Bengodi, blessed with rivers overflowing with the best vernage, overlooked by a mountain of grated parmesan cheese, where there is aught to do but spend every passing moment of the day baking ravioli, all thanks to the magic of wonder-making stones. Naturally, Calandrino wants nothing more than to visit this extraordinary land and obtain these stones for himself. However, Bengodi being somewhat distant, Calandrino is tricked into believing in the existence of another stone found in Florence’s vicinities – the heliotrope – which would grant him invisibility.
Calandrino, quivering with excitement, tries to convince his two colleagues to join his quest for these magical stones. To convince them to leave their painting behind and come along, he attempts to bait them with the promise of unlimited riches. “We could simply swipe money off moneylenders’ tables” says Calandrino, and “none will see us, and so we’ll grow rich of a sudden, without having to smear walls all day long, Snail-fashion.”
Bruno and Buffalmacco hearing this, fall to “laughing in their sleeves,” and pretending to be amazed, go along with Calandrino in order to better fool him. Deceiving Calandrino into believing he is invisible when he is anything but, the story ends with both Calandrino and his wife receiving as many bruises on their backs as they have worthless stones piled in their house.
Regardless of Calandrino’s unhappy fate, Boccaccio’s mischievous tone presenting the image of the Snail as a metaphor for the painter who does little more than “smear a trail of slime across a wall” adds a second, more impious interpretation of the lowly gastropod to modify Arasse’s humble, celestial Snail.
For Arasse, the Snail in Francesco del Cossa’s Annunciation painting “leads us to understand that this painting is itself a poor, inevitably inadequate representation of the event it represents.” Bocaccio’s metaphor adds a second, alternative perspective – the Snail is not simply the figure of painting’s inadequacy, it is also a sign of the painter’s supremacy.
The painter, lowly mortal though he may be, is nonetheless tasked with creating the infinite. As a painter of holy images, his daily task is to represent the unrepresentable by dealing with this creation quotidianly. It is not enough for the religious painter to passively await God’s inspiration, for he must also calculate ratios of dyes, formulate new compositions, figure costs, and select brushes, all to create an icon which will eventually be vested with sanctity. Pointing out painting’s artifice opens the door not only to a pious interpretation but also to an impious one, illustrating the painter’s unique position between the Infinite and the Void.
Although Francesco del Cossa’s Snail is most certainly on the painting, as a painted figure it still never ceases to be in the painting. Its body remains constituted of tints, and not of blood. Here is the source of the Snail’s duality – the Snail is composed from the same matter which one uses to compose images of the Lord. The Snail’s painted representation indicates an existence in the artificial world of painting, and its size indicates its existence in this material plane – granting the Snail a duality of spirit and flesh much like that of the Son of God.
The Snail which granted access into the painting, now also provides an exit out of it, doubling the Snail’s significance. Although the Snail might be the mundane which grants access to the heavenly realm, it is also the celestial brought down to the level of the gastropodal. The Snail is more than “painting which cannot represent” but it is also “the painter who must represent” by smearing his trail of slime behind.
The Snail becomes the dual figure of humility/pride, creature/creator that embodies every painter of holy images. And who knows? Perhaps this was Francesco del Cossa’s way of painting his autoportrait into the painting, as the lowly servant and powerful creator, and it is his head peeping out from beneath the shell?
The Snail’s reflexivity might be a sign of painting’s inadequacy before God, but it is also a sign of God’s inadequacy before painting. As the Snail crawls along the painting’s edge, completing the image’s last lines, it reminds us that as much as the Annunciation creates paintings, so too does painting create the Annunciation.
One final anachronistic note: It is difficult to look at a snail today without thinking of the geometrical significance of the spiral it carries on its back. In fact, one can even say that the Snail is the beast from which the spiral arose, as its synonym in German – Schneckenlinie, or snail-line – suggests. Today, the spiral form is saturated with significance, representing both the Infinite – Life, the Galaxy, even Time – and the Void – black holes. Although Francesco del Cossa could not possibly have prophesized DNA’s double-helictical shape, it is tempting to believe that the Snail’s presence in this Annunciation is also an intuition of its form’s significance, and that this spiral, just like the Snail’s presence is the visible sign of a polarized, insoluble duality which releases the interpretive energies from this remarkable anomaly slithering at the edge of Francesco del Cossa’s Annuncation.