The Material of Form: Vernon Lee at the Vatican and Out of It


The conceit of a child’s unmediated encounter with galleries of antique art that opens Vernon Lee’s “The Child in the Vatican” (1881) seems designed to evoke that well-worn contrast between an idealized vision of antiquity based on sparse knowledge and conjecture characteristic of earlier eras and a more informed—because more material—encounter with particular objects typical of later periods. And yet, the scandalously formalist account of the Niobe group at the center of the essay moves the argument beyond the emphasis on material experience that it initially appears to valorize, and toward a formal account of aesthetic value that places an emphasis on abstraction that surpasses even the most idealizing art-historical models.