In his incomparable memoir, Giacomo Casanova made an excellent distinction between stupid people and fools. Stupid people, he wrote, were easy to like, and “in the nature of their stupidity [even] had a kind of intelligence.’’ (Phew! Aren’t we all, after all, richly endowed with stupidity?)
Fools, on the other hand, the great lover could not abide: “Fools are insolent,’’ he spat out, “and their presumptions insult the mind.’’
Casanova’s problem with fools was simply that they are so well defended. In their minds, their own folly does not even register as a possibility, so that, communicating with them, you almost have no choice but to join them on their level. As Casanova puts it: “I feel like a fool whenever I find myself in their company.’’
This picture, by the 16th-century Antwerp painter Quinten Metsys (also called Massys, or Matsys) is unmistakably of a fool. That smile could not be more splendidly idiotic.
Might he also, however, signify something more?
The painting, which was owned by the late art historian Julius Held, has been hanging in the Worcester Art Museum’s galleries on long-term loan since the mid-1980s. It is called “Allegory of Folly,’’ and it was painted around 1510, just as Metsys was emerging as the leading painter in Antwerp.
Much of Metsys’s work reveals Italianate influences. There’s good evidence to suggest that he was familiar with the work of Leonardo da Vinci, so Leonardo’s grotesque heads may be one source for the fool here. The fantastical, moralizing inventions of Hieronymus Bosch were surely another.
But Metsys was also friendly with the great scholar Erasmus, whose “In Praise of Folly’’ was published around this time. Foolishness in general, it seems, was a hot topic.
Metsys’s hunched and small-eyed figure wears the traditional costume of the fool: a cowl with ass’s ears and a cock’s head. The outfit reminds us that fools were commonly retained by royal courts. They were not there only to be laughed at. As with Shakespeare’s jesters and fools, the guise of foolishness was often employed to arrive at secret wisdom.
What’s more, our friend here makes a gesture of silence with one finger, and the words by his mouth - “Mondeken toe’’ - mean “Keep your mouth shut.’’ Since silence had long been considered an attribute of wisdom, it feels we’re getting close to the point where we must conclude that this donkey-eared dunce is actually a sage.
But no! We’re saved by the cock emerging from his head. It’s clearly cackling away, signaling our fickle friend’s inability to remain silent. He is a jabberer, a pedant, a Polonius. The stone of folly embedded in his forehead and the marotte - the long stick with the indecent figure emerging from one end - seal the business: This detestable figure is an out-and-out fool, by whom we need not be detained any longer.
Why then, do I love him so much, and anxiously seek out his company?Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.