Junk and Bunk

The great Renaissance painter, architect and writer Giorgio Vasari told a delightful story about Sandro Botticelli in his Lives of the Artists. One day, a cloth-weaver moved in next door to the artist. The weaver worked so noisily it spoilt Botticelli’s concentration. The sound rattled the walls of Botticelli’s house. He couldn’t paint; he couldn’t even stay inside. He begged the weaver to be quiet, but the noisy neighbour — unlike Botticelli’s walls — stood firm. In my own house, the weaver said, I can and will do just what I like. Botticelli, Vasari wrote, “grew very angry”.

Damien Hirst’s diamond skull exhibition at Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio ends on June 12. A PR rep for the exhibition said the skull had been a “success” in the city. For ten euros you could buy three minutes with it, which is two more than you needed to determine that it was a multimillion-pound piece of junk. It wasn’t busy on the day I went and the skull’s minder was chatting to the ticket collector. So I had ten minutes to look at it closely, and wait for it to become interesting. It didn’t.

It’s a nifty piece of craftsmanship though. It took a jeweller’s expertise to put the 8,601 diamonds in place, and I suppose Hirst was there to supervise this work with his usual enthusiasm and flair. The diamond skull is a platinum replica of a skull bought from a London taxidermy shop. Its jawline is severe, and in the depths of the nasal cavity is a sharp piece that looks like a razor blade balanced vertically. The skull sits in a glass box lit by three overhead lights. When you walk around it, the diamonds sparkle purple, green and orange.

If my description sounds silly, it’s because For the Love of God is a silly object. It carries no weight of interest, or meaning — when you look at it, it doesn’t do anything to you. So people find silly things to say about it. There’s a book about the skull that you can take home from the exhibition for another 35 euros. It has an introduction written by the Dutch art critic Rudi Fuchs. Fuchs thought: “We see it shine, intrigued by its eerie magnificence, but we stand before it in silence. With inexorable authority the skull puts us in our place.” As I stood before it in silence, the skull made me want to put myself in some other place, a place made magnificent by the skull’s absence. 

Next door in the Uffizi you can stand before Botticelli’s Primavera and stare at the gently-linked fingers of the Three Graces. Stendhal once stood before a canvas by Guido Reni and declared: “This is superlatively beautiful.” So too is Botticelli’s Primavera. 

Fed-up, Botticelli balanced a huge stone on his roof. The slightest vibration caused by the noise of his neighbour’s work would send the stone crashing through the weaver’s house. Terrified, the weaver ran to the artist to complain. In my own house, Botticelli said, I can and will do just what I want. The weaver relented. 

Damien Hirst reminds me of the cloth-weaver, making a lot of noise spinning out products to pump up his profits. With his diamond skull in the Palazzo Vecchio he became Botticelli’s latest noisy neighbour.

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