On n’y voit rien by Daniel Arasse

"In a series of terribly clever essays framed as imagined conversations and letters, art historian Daniel Arasse analyzes some of Europe’s best-known works of art using purely formal analysis. In art history, formal analysis is similar to a cold reading: you look at a work of art and draw conclusions based purely on instinct and composition."  - Book Riot

The Snail’s Gaze
(Chapter 2 from On n’y voit rien)
Translated from the French by Alyson Waters
Francesco del Cossa. Annunciation. Tempera on poplar panel. 27.5 x 44 cm.
I know where this is headed. You’re going to tell me again that I’m going too far - that I’m having a good time, but that I’m also over-interpreting. It’s true, there’s nothing I like more than having a good time. As for over-interpreting, though, you’re the one who’s going too far. I admit I see a lot of things in this snail; but after all, if the painter painted it the way he did, it was because he wanted us to see it and to ask ourselves what the heck it was doing there. In Mary’s sumptuous palace, at the precise (and oh so holy) moment of the Annunciation, a fat snail, its eyes popping out of its head, is making its way from Gabriel to the Virgin, and you think this is normal? You find nothing out of the ordinary in this? In the foreground no less! You can almost make out the trail of slime it leaves behind. In the palace of the immaculate Virgin, so pure, so clean, this slimy thing is quite subversive, and there is nothing discreet about its presence either. Far from trying to hide it, the painter has placed this snail right in front of our eyes; we can’t miss it. In the end, it’s the only thing we see, the only thing we can think about, and so we ask ourselves: What the heck is it doing there? And don’t go telling me that it’s merely the painter’s “whim.” Sure, it is one of Francesco del Cossa’s capriccios, and maybe it took a painter from Ferrara to come up with this bizarre figure to confirm his originality. But the capriccio doesn’t explain everything; you know that as well as I do. If this snail were but the painter’s whim, the patron would have refused it, erased it, covered it over. But it’s there, irrevocably. And so there has to be a good reason for its existence at such a place and in such a time.