The Siren’s Call: The past is never past

“The past is never dead,” Faulkner famously wrote in “Requiem for a Nun.” “It’s not even past” — and nothing demonstrates that maxim better than the discovery of a “new” painting by a revered, long-dead artist.

Suddenly, it is as if that person is alive and well again and walking among us.

Art collector Peter Silverman had such a jolting recognition concerning a painting he saw in the late 1990s and again at a New York City auction in 2007. He was convinced it must have been executed by the one and only Renaissance master from Vinci — a story he relates, with Catherine Whitney, in “Leonardo’s Lost Princess: One Man’s Quest to Authenticate an Unknown Portrait by Leonardo da Vinci” (Wiley: 256 pp., $25.95).

The painting that beguiled him — a 9-by-13-inch drawing in chalk and pen and ink — seems hardly dramatic: A young woman in profile, her brown hair bound in ribbons. Simple. Plain. Leonardo? Really?


Auction catalogs suggested something more reasonable: Here was a 19th century imitation of Leonardo, perhaps by some Renaissance-inspired German painter living in Rome in the early 1800s. Silverman, however, couldn’t shake his preoccupation with the painting — nor could he describe the painting’s hold of him even to his wife, his longtime partner in collecting.

“I could not fully explain my feelings of being captivated,” he writes, “or what it was about the portrait that made it so unforgettable, except to say that it was incredibly lovely and had immediately presented me with a mystery: when was it really drawn, and by whom?”

Silverman’s opportunity to pick up the painting for $19,000 — the price made him hesitate; in hindsight, of course, what a stunning bargain — soon takes him, and his fortunate readers, into a fascinating adventure where scholarly detective work relies as much on specialized skills as it does on the miracle of technology.

Multispectral digital imaging is crucial. At a pivotal moment, it dramatically redirects the search for answers to Poland. But crucial too are countless human skills: An ability, for instance, to tell from brushstrokes that the painter was left-handed (like Leonardo), and the historical depth and breadth to speculate that the young woman may have belonged to Milan’s ruling family, the Sforzas, a major patron of Leonardo.

Silverman is a knowledgeable guide, but he knows his limits and smartly enlists others — such as Leonardo expert Martin Kemp and engineer and scientist Pascal Cotte — to propel the hunt beyond any potential roadblocks. What finally helps them won’t be spoiled here. Let’s just say everything, even a scratch or tear, can be a tremendous clue when it’s properly understood.

Public reaction to the news, first published in 2009, about the painting, called “La Bella Pincipessa,” was charged and divided. Silverman assembled a list of distinguished authorities along with Kemp and Cott to face down detractors of the painting, which today calls a Zurich vault its home.

Students of estoterica, take note: The skills of various specialists in “Leonardo’s Lost Princess” demonstrate why the study of the past is never a waste of time, even if the money-making world puts its value elsewhere. If you dig ancient mysteries, keep digging them. Some day your skills might be needed. Faulkner was right.



The past isn’t irrelevant to British novelist A.S. Byatt either: The author of “Possession,” “The Children’s Book” and many other works, Byatt blends memories of her childhood in wartime England with Norse mythology in “Ragnarok: The End of the Gods” (Grove Press: 179 pp., $24).

For an English child confronted by German bombings in World War II, the grim-but-exhilarating tales in “Asgard and the Gods,” a book she received from her mother, electrified her imagination. Though Byatt’s family moved to a country town “of no interest to enemy bombers,” a dread of destruction loomed — much as it looms over Odin and his fellow gods as ominous dark forces are set in motion. The mythic past, in other words, helps the young Byatt to make sense of her experiences.

“These gods … were apprehensive gods, fearful gods, right from the beginning,” Byatt explains. “Asgard had defensive walls and sentinels on watch. There was an expectation of doom.”

The Norse gods are clearly and fatally flawed — Odin loses an eye in exchange for knowledge; Frigga overlooks a tiny detail that leads to her son Baldur’s death. This was appealing to Byatt. It was far more appealing, in fact, than Christianity’s “pictures and songs of gentle Jesus meek and mild” and the “nice, kind, good God [who] could condemn the whole earth for sinfulness and flood it.”


Byatt’s retelling of stories about Odin, the world-tree Yggdrasil, Loki’s treachery and much more is interwoven with a ghost-memoir of herself — not a detailed confessional but an outline of her thoughts and emotions at a perilous time in her nation’s history.

She calls herself “the thin child,” and from an early age she describes her celebration of the world of nature, whether the English countryside or the strange ecosystems of Midgard. Her father is away, fighting in the war, and the story of Baldur’s inability to return from the dead reminds Byatt of her father’s “flaming hair … flying under the hot sun in Africa, and she knew in her soul that he would not come back.”

Many retellings of the Norse myths have been published — Kevin Crossley-Holland’sis a personal favorite — but Byatt, as a world-class novelist, adds something distinctly all her own. The subtle, meditative frame of her experiences invests “Ragnarok” with a clear reminder of the enduring relevance of these stories in our lives.

This year might be associated with the Mayan prophecy of global cataclysm, but Norse visions of the end — and the judgment of the gods — seem far more human and easier to understand. Behind the terrifying images of the devouring wolf Fenris or the serpent clasping the world is a warning: We sow the seeds of our own destruction.



Princeton University Press has made a predictable move in publishing a book called “How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians” (Princeton University Press: 99 pp., $9.95), but they’re using a less predictable choice: the words of Quintus Tullius Cicero, brother to the great Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero.

How’s that? The great Marcus Cicero needed his younger brother’s advice?

Absolutely. In class-conscious Rome, explains translator Philip Freeman, Cicero’s bid to become consul was hampered because his family wasn’t blue-blooded. His practical brother Quintus stepped in with a letter of advice to him known as the “Commentariolum Petitionis.”


Though Quintus’ tips are directed at only one person, it is not difficult to find insights here that would help today’s U.S. presidential contenders.

Imagine Quintus whispering into Mitt Romney’s ear: “Now, my brother, you have many wonderful qualities, but those you lack you must acquire and it must appear as if you were born with them. You have excellent manners and are always courteous, but you can be rather stiff at times.”

Or this, to Ron Paul: “Any criticism of your outsider status will be greatly mitigated by your well-known skill as a speaker, for oratory has always been highly valued.…[Y]ou should approach every speaking engagement as if your entire future depended on that single event.”

Were he alive today, no doubt, Quintus would be making big bucks as a political consultant.


It was more than brotherly concern, however, that prompted him to advise his brother. He knew, Freeman points out, that “his brother’s success would pave his own way to fame and fortune.” And he was right. When Marcus won election and became a consul of Rome, Quintus’ star rose with him. (Years later, however, their alignment wasn’t such a good thing. It meant that Quintus shared his brother’s fate when both were executed in 43 BC as the Roman republic was crumbling.)

Quintus’ advice isn’t only about political maneuvering among interest groups, though he spends a lot of time on this topic. Quintus also emphasizes the importance of having a positive message. In fact, at one point, his words remind me of the Shepard Fairey poster of Barack Obama that was a defining image of the president’s 2008 campaign: “The most important part of your campaign is to bring hope to people and a feeling of goodwill toward you.”

Speaking to us from a distance of more than two millenniums, Quintus Cicero’s words are incisive and revelatory: They remind us that, when it comes to that strange beast known as politics, human nature hasn’t changed very much since then.

The past, that’s right, isn’t even past.


Owchar is deputy book editor of the Times. The Siren’s Call appears monthly at