Why did the motif of landscape develop from a backstage prop into a self-sufficient genre in Flemish painting around the middle of the sixteenth century? What did this mean to the contemporary viewer? These are the questions the author asks in Die Erfindung der Landschaft,and he chose Pieter Bruegel the Elder as his main explanatory example. The book opens with the widely known paradox of Bruegel bringing back from his journey to Italy exclusively landscape drawings, of which only a part can be identified as topographically correct images. Why did Bruegel produce these drawings and why were print editors and the public interested in these works?
After a short introductory review of the traditionally given explanations as to why landscape as independent genre evolved in the sixteenth century – the ‘translatio generis’ thesis of an Italian Trecento invention into the North and the reference to a supposed ‘new’ feeling for the beauty of landscape – the author presents his own theory. In his opinion it was the new interest in geographical images which formed the impetus for this development. The proposal might not be completely original – it was aired in quite similar terms by Walter S. Gibson in his book on the Flemish world landscape (1989) – but Büttner takes the historical implications of this idea surprisingly seriously.
If it is not by mere chance that there are only landscape drawings known from Bruegel’s trip to Italy, and if Bruegel’s decision to submit only these on his return to Antwerp was an economically wise one, then two questions are of obvious interest: Who bought these images and for what price? A good part of them was reproduced in print by Hieronymus Cock. Therefore the book’s first chapter discusses the Antwerp art market in regard to the relation between print editors and designing artists. Besides a good knowledge of the published documents from the Antwerp Stadsarchief and the relevant literature, the author relies on the Plantin correspondence in the Plantin-Moretus-Museum in Antwerp, where he did solid archival research. Unfortunately Jan van der Stock’s important synthesis of his extensive research in this field (1998) was published too late to be considered in more than a footnote. Büttner also presents details about the European market for drawings. He points out the predilection of connoisseurs for finished drawings, which might be the reason why Bruegel reworked the foreground of some of his drawings to give them the right finish. The author proves that the production of finished landscape drawings added substantially to the average income of an Antwerp artist.
But the examination of the Antwerp art market cannot answer the question what the appeal of this sort of images was and why it was strong enough to form a specialized genre. The second chapter on the ‘cosmography of Bruegel’s contemporaries’ proposes the idea that the growing interest in geography was the main motivation to buy landscape images. Büttner reviews the great progress of geography in the sixteenth century, which was not limited to a renewed humanist interest in Ptolemy’s Geography. The Netherlands, and especially Antwerp, where Abraham Ortelius published his Atlas in 1570, became a centre of this science. One important step was Gemma Frisius’s (1508-1555) groundbreaking method of measuring small geographical distances, which he published in 1533. Frisius solved an age-old problem of geography and map making, for it was until then only possible to determine large geographical distances with a passable precision. Frisius’s method resulted in a more exact ‘chorography’, i.e. geographical descriptions of small areas and sites.
To illustrate the interest in geography and/or chorography as the driving force behind the birth of landscape painting as an independent genre is the aim of the following six chapters. Büttner documents the involvement of artists in map production as designers of ornament and as ‘registrars’. A lot of maps were produced by well known artists of high standing such as Jan van Scorel and Pieter Pourbus. An important part of Büttner’s argumentation is his deconstruction of the modern category of a landscape image, which implicitly separates the panorama view of the world surface from map making. Büttner shows that in the time pertinent to his study there did not exist a clear distinction between the ‘modern’ ground maps and more traditional panorama views. There are many maps in which a small panorama view of a city is included (like in a map drawn by Johann van Doetecum in 1567), or city vedute in which details are changed in concurrence with the actual site in order to make the image clearer (as in views of Anthonis van Wijngaerde). He also documents a case from the Rhine area in which a semi-perspective view was preferred to an exact ground map in the context of a juridical dispute.
The author summarizes his observations in the supposition that there existed a method of combining different views and details in a convincing whole, which was deemed by contemporaries more ‘exact’ than a mere mathematical map. As result of this proposal Büttner reconsiders the category of landscape not in the French academy sense of the word (which was still used by Max Friedländer in his Essays). He interprets the notion of landscape in the wider sense of all forms of visual documentation of the world’s surface. The arrangement of historical collections in ‘Kunstkammern’ and in originally bound volumes, placing together maps, landscape prints and drawings, confirms this interpretation. If the author is right, then Bruegel’s landscape drawings were regarded by his contemporaries as examples of chorography, whether or not they are images of identifiable sites.
The change of categories enables Büttner to look for concrete functions of geographical/chorographical pictures. Analyzing published and unpublished inventories from Antwerp households from the sixteenth century he demonstrates that patrician buyers of geographical publications are the same who acquired landscape pictures. He is even able to identify a special place for such images in an Antwerp patrician’s house. The inventories regularly mention geographical images in the ‘vloer’ (corridor, passage), which connected the more public part of the house near the street with the more private part in the back. These observations give a concrete foundation to some of the book’s more abstract explanations and form the core evidence of the reasoning. To round up the picture, Büttner includes some further observations on geographical images as source of information for real travellers or for the imaginary journeys of arm-chair travellers.
An outcome of the ‘new’, non-anachronistic definition of landscape genre is that the issue of interpretation becomes less problematic than in the traditional views. There is no need to look for literary parallels or a moralistic or religious narrative in order to legitimate landscape images. As chorographic pictures they fulfill their decorative function with reference to a general view of the outer world, which might be seen at the same time as a visual sign of the all-mighty creator of the world to which geographical publications regularly refer in their prefaces.
Unfortunately the author does not separate clearly between the two main strands of his reasoning: one biographical (Bruegel), the other more general. Therefore he sometimes misses out on the opportunity to discuss pertinent evidence in detail, as for example the fine maps by Pourbus and other painters from Bruges. Sometimes so-called evidence which concerns the work of Bruegel is used, unsuccessfully, to corroborate his general thesis. If the friendship between Ortelius and Bruegel is a strong confirmation of the connection of geography and landscape images, what does that imply for the generation before Bruegel? I fear that the author’s choice to explicate the book’s thesis with the example of Bruegel makes it difficult to conceive a clear chronology of the development of landscape painting in general.
The choice to use Bruegel, a comparatively well documented artist, as a main historical example is of course borrowed from the basic rules of rhetoric which prescribe the use of a specific example to enliven an abstract argument. This ‘rhetorical’ arrangement of the material slightly distorts the strong and implicit thesis of the book, which might be summarized as follows: the different functions of geographical/chorographical images for a wider public combined with new market mechanisms in the Flemish metropolis Antwerp – like the new importance of the printing industry – resulted in the ‘invention’ of landscape images as a specialized field of production. Here it is tempting to ask whether this reasoning might not also be applied to the parallel ‘inventions’ of other specialized fields of picture production in Antwerp which arose at approximately the same time: the market- and fruit-pieces of the Pieter Aertsen and Joachim Bueckelaer-brand and the low life paintings by the Brunswick Monogrammist, Gillis Mostaert and Jan Sanders van Hemessen as well as the perspective paintings by Hans Vredeman de Vries and Henri van Steenwyck. But of course this is a wide and wild field of research which offers ample opportunity for inquiry of its own.
Apart from the general historical reasoning there are a lot of interesting observations (e.g. on ornamental paragons for maps and the price for the colouring of prints) which make the book a rich and original study. I missed a reference to handbooks on the ‘art of travelling’ (ars peregrinandi), which were invented in the second half of the sixteenth century and were still popular in the eighteenth. Like the most famous book of this kind, the Methodus Apodemica by Theodor Zwinger (1577), they propose a fixed structure for the documentation of a journey. Their great success is a good indication of the increasing mobility of gentry and patricians and the growing importance of geographical knowledge for Bruegel’s contemporaries.
Büttner’s book is a welcome and well wrought contribution to the historical contextualisation of art historical research. Whether his is the correct interpretation of the historical circumstances which gave birth to landscape as an independent genre is not certain, but it is a profound and thought-provoking alternative to the old fashioned, traditional views of inner-artistic ‘Kunstwollen’.
Weserrenaissance-Museum Schloß Brake, Lemgo