Half-Baked Swan Song

Neither of these is related (at least not consciously) to the fact that I’m attending an academic conference at the moment, but both have come up in talks I’ve attended – the first with respect to the deceptive practices of Renaissance potters, and the second with respect to a rather mysterious Renaissance engraving by Rosso Fiorentino depicting ‘Fury’, which has long defied satisfactory (at least to art historians) explanation.  As you may have intuited, the conference is the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America (obviously not confined only to Americans, since the last session was stuffed with Italian, Dutch, French and other scholars, all of whom have now toddled off to lunch).  Critical engagement with the past makes one hungry in the present.  

In any case, when the sixteenth-century ‘pop’ humanist (an expression I heard someone use today) Tommaso Garzoni accused Renaissance potters of selling pots that were half-baked, I wondered if that was indeed the origin of the expression.  According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, half-baked came into popular use in about 1620 to signify ‘underdone’  – eureka! – I think I’ve discovered something – Garzoni published his book in 1605.  Using ‘half-baked’ in reference to incompletely fired clay pots evidently made its way into the popular vernacular as a means of indicating anything underdone, from pots to schemes to plots.

Swan song has a much longer history, and evidently can first be found in Greek literature of the fifth century BC, specifically in the Agamemnon, with respect to the death of Cassandra.  It was based on the mistaken apprehension that swans, who spend their lives being silent, utter a single and final cry at the moment of their death.  Only one kind of swan is evidently somewhat silent – the aptly named mute swan – other varieties bugle honk and often hiss- an angry swan is a noisy swan, a scientific observation I’ve had occasion to make first-hand.

The odd thing about the ‘swan song’ associated with Rosso’s engraving, called ‘Fury’ since we don’t really know what it’s about, is that, to me, the swan seems quite composed and his mouth is closed, so although he’s often seen as an index of the swan song of death in relation to the underfed protagonist, he’s a perfect model of calm next to the absolutely furious dragon.   I could supply you with all the semantic readings, hermeutical responses and Lacanian interpretations, but let’s just say it’s half-baked and leave it at that. 

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About hickson1

Art historian, professor, Italian Renaissance and Baroque specialist
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