In 2005, the art connoisseur Philippe Costamagna and a colleague were in a museum in Nice, on the French Riviera, when their eyes were drawn to a painting of Christ, and specifically to “a beam of sunlight falling upon the feet, glistening on nails that had a porcelain texture that to me was unmistakable.” The men were stunned. They instinctively knew that this was the work of 16th-century Italian mannerist Agnolo Bronzino, although it had been misattributed to Andrea Commodi.
The circle of experts who can credibly make such attributions is small, and Costamagna is among them. His new memoir, “The Eye: An Insider’s Memoir of Masterpieces, Money, and the Magnetism of Art” gives us a glimpse into that rarefied world.
As translated by Frank Wynne, “The Eye” opens promisingly with that Bronzino discovery, and the second chapter, “How I Became an Eye,” offers Proustian details of Costamagna’s childhood as an aesthetic savant in southern France and Paris. Another chapter recounts the discoveries of great works in unlikely places and art experts’ unusual obsessions, including one’s quest for a piece by Lorenzo Lotto that depicts Cupid urinating on Venus. Costamagna also gives thoughtful consideration to how a keen visual sense plays out in various fields — art history, photography, cinema, fashion.
But that leaves the other two-thirds of the book: a fairly dry history of art expertise blended with score-settling, snobbery and self-regard. The title trope of “the Eye” — a semi-mystical visual brilliance shared by a handful of freakishly talented art historians (including the author, of course) — is seductive at first but soon becomes irritating and then laughable. By book’s end, Costamagna sounds like a deranged cult leader:
“Though I myself was born with an eye, I became an Eye. I learned to see. As if from blindness, I acquired great vision. My gaze, however, focuses only on what is essential. What is most beautiful about my profession is that I see the light behind the darkness. I am an Eye so that others can see.”
Yes! Help the hordes of plebeian, sweaty Uffizi tourists see the light, oh Great One!
Don’t get me wrong. There’s every reason to believe that Costamagna is very good at his job. Speaking of the artist Andrea del Sarto, for instance, he writes that “standing in front of any of his paintings, an Eye will immediately recognize the Florentine brushwork . . . his line, his contours . . . his color palette, which is slightly acidic; the flesh tones are harsh, there is a certain coldness to the figures.” Costamagna’s excitement about art symposiums and artist anniversaries is endearingly wonky, and his concern for connoisseurs’ integrity admirable.
What’s frustrating is that there is the start of a richer coming-of-age story that remains unwritten.
Costamagna and his sister, as young children, were placed in the care of his maternal grandparents. In the grand bourgeois villa, overlooking Nice, were Renoir portraits of Costamagna’s relatives and fine 18th-century furniture. Punctuating August holidays were trips to “Romanesque churches and medieval castles. . . . We liked to dream about the designs, the gargoyles, or a pair of sparring lions. . . . Despite not learning much, these discussions shaped our tastes and made us receptive to the effects of detail and sensitive to atmosphere.”
Costamagna seems willing to reveal only so much of himself, though. Post-adolescence, the curtain closes, and the momentum of this early section is lost, the prose stiffening as his account moves on to “The History of Eyes.” A section on forgeries is notable for what is says about connoisseurs’ grudging appreciation of them, and another emphasizes how distinct art history’s drawing and painting specialties are. All this is informative but hardly riveting.
I did enjoy the tale of a taxi driver in Strasbourg, France, in the early 1980s who found out that he was the son of a recently deceased collector of Old Masters. His two newly discovered half sisters kept the good stuff and palmed off on him what they thought was a graceless painting of an angel, signed by Perugino. Costamagna’s mentor, Sylvie Béguin, helped determine that it was in fact an early Raphael. It had been painted over, the Perugino signature a fake. It was restored and exhibited, and the taxi driver made a sum “more than enough . . . to buy several apartments.” Given their shabby treatment of him, his sisters didn’t have the nerve to file a suit against him.
Despite the book’s rigidity, one comes away feeling somewhat re-sensitized to beauty and somewhat nostalgic for an era when museums weren’t the selfie-stick madhouses they are today. About his boyhood trips to churches and castles, Costamagna notes: “We had no iPads or smartphones. . . . We had only our instinct to make the ancient stones speak to us.” He repeatedly underlines the importance of seeing works in person and not on the Web.
If among our children and grandchildren there are potential connoisseurs in the making, will we — will they — even know? Will tomorrow’s Eyes tear themselves from their screens long enough to see?
Alexander C. Kafka has written about books and the arts for The Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Chicago Tribune.
By Philippe Costamagna
New Vessel. 256 pp. $24.95.