This multi-author volume edited by Christine Göttler and Mia M. Mochizuki is a welcome addition to the environmental humanities. As its title suggests, the book draws our attention to differences between landscape – a traditional subject in the humanities – and earth, the enduring component in the ancient system of an elemental world. This classical view of the world, known through the ages to readers of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, became outdated in the wake of advances in science but persisted in the arts as a framework for poetical and allegorical inventions until the end of the classical tradition. This book does not look for the harmonies of the universe, but, instead, focuses on how disruptive forces impact the natural environment in Early Modernity.
The book opens with an extended essay by Christine Göttler entitled Landscape, Mutability, and the Unruly Earth: An Introduction that tracks the shift from harmonious landscapes (as seen in calendrical imagery) to the concept of an unruly earth and the issue of mutability in the Early Modern Period. The author describes the shifting thoughts in Early Modernity about what constitutes “land” and explains what she calls the “mutable body of the earth” and how it is to be imagined. One of her themes is that unrest in an age of war and environmental disasters led to the demand for imagery that deals with the realities in the sublunar universe.
Following are eleven essays organized into four general categories: Latent Landscapes, Elemental Resources, Staged Topographies, and Fragile Ecologies. These papers treat themes as rich and varied as the poetics of flooded lands, draftsmanship as a form for generating vegetation, landscape as parergon, colonial plantations, the mystique of stones, the cosmologies of mines and metals, the promise of agriculture, and the oddity of a room filled with 95 winter landscapes, the horror of a landslide wiping out a city in “the blink of an eye,” anthropomorphism in landscape representation, and hopes for humans re-uniting with the earth in the landscapes of the future. In short there seems to be no dearth of subjects in Early Modernity that fall under the rubric “unruly,” a word that has its roots in medieval French for uncontrollable (insoumis).
My observations on the individual essays follow.
1. Mia Mochizuki, “Waterland and the Disquiet of the Dutch Landscape,” discovers waterland as a continuous shifting between sand and sea in which it is not clear which is the prevailing element, water or earth. Hence her term terraqueous and the discussion of the seafarer’s gaze in the scrutiny of the ambivalent land that is the Dutch Coast.
2. Victoria Sancho Lobis, “Landscape and Autobiography,” argues that Bruegel drawings were virtuoso pieces – detached from nature and intent on the products of the studio. She relates the drawing of vegetation – largely shrubbery and trees – to the artist’s urge to create a new nature through the art of drawing. Her analysis casts a shadow on the historiography of the so-called Lugt Group of drawings which traditionally has been linked to the rise of sylvan imagery in Dutch art. Sancho Lobis, instead, observes a relay of studio art, not responses to the natural world, in the creation of natural imagery among Netherlandish draftsmen.
3. Karin Leonhard, “Painted Landscape before Landscape in Early Modern England,” presents a close reading of Henry Peacham’s “generall rules for Landtskip” included in both the 1606 and the 1612 edition of Peacham’s The Art of Drawing. In the section Landscape and Drapery she reveals that in the mind of Peacham a landscape undulating into space is analogous to rippling fabric as it lies on a floor or a table. Both are mere parerga to the argument of the image, which would be its subject.
4. Romita Ray, “Unruly Indigo? Plants, Plantations, and Partitions,” writes about the horrors of vegetal monocultures, which, in colonial societies ravage the soil and enslave the people. The plant in question is the indigo plant, which was a vital source for the color blue in the British textile industry. Reference is made to the Nil Bidran, the great Indigo Uprise, in 1856-60, which underscores that plantation cultures in the colonies break the rules of compassion and follow the unruliness of exploitation.
5. Steffen Zierholz, “A Natural History in Stone: Medusa’s Unruly Gaze on Bardiglio grigio,” addresses the depiction of an ancient myth on a large piece of stone (Bardiglio grigio). The subject is in fact a myth depicting the moment in which the Greek hero Perseus uses the Head of the Medusa to change the Titan Atlas into a rock. (I would note here that the references to Ovid’s Metamorphoses are not properly dealt with in the footnotes. For instance, Ovid, Metamorphoses, 148-50, leaves out in which of the fifteen books the myth occurs. The answer is Book IV.) Part of the image is rendered in oil, but the sloping rock that will be Atlas’s future form is presented by the stone’s own marbling and striations. It is unclear whether the giant’s boots are depicted in paint or are a lapidary contrivance. This ambiguity between substantive material and illusionary image is typical of objects that find their home in Kunst- und Wunderkammern. These are the collector’s rooms, popular in the Early Modern period, that brought together objects of art, nature and science. One of these cabinets was found on Isola Bella in Northern Italy, which to this day is the home of this stunning object, which seems to invite speculation on petrification as a trope for the stunning effects of nature.
6. Tina Asmussen, “The Cosmologies of Early Modern Mining Landscapes,” moves the debate on the early mining industry from the Death of Nature critique to an understanding of how miners related their subterranean activities to a sacred cosmology. The agency on the part of God is manifest in a small drawing that appears as an illustration in a book titled Speculum metallorum (1575). It depicts Christ on the Cross in front of seven colored strips that represent the seven metals in ancient natural history (lead-black-Saturn; tin-Jupiter-blue, etc.). These divine dimensions of metal mining offer cultural refinements in our assessment on what the author calls “subterranean economies.”
7. Ivo Raband, “Aurea Aetas Antverpiensis: Land(scapes) in the Blijde Inkomst for Ernest of Austria into Antwerp, 1594,” focuses on the representation of agriculture in the first of the “staged topographies” in a festive parade organized by the city of Antwerp in honor of Archduke Ernst of Habsburg (1594). The same event is also associated with the gift of Antwerp city to the Habsburg ruler of all six of Bruegel’s famous landscapes painted in oil. These facts ally with the idea of agriculture and its bounties as a figure for the Golden Age, as described in Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue or in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The allegory underscores the importance of farming in a city which we associate with international trade, advanced technologies, and the arts.
8. Michèle Seehafer, “An Overlooked Landscape Installation: The Winter Room at Copenhagen’s Rosenborg Castle,” focuses on an assemblage of 95 pictures with winter scenes in a single room in a king’s castle. They were all painted in The Low Countries by different artists, most of them unidentified. Such repetitive assemblies are referred to as a “hyperimage” that in aggregate have their own fascination. Music was another component in what is a multi-sensorial installation. The author shows how this assembly of wintry images creates an “affective” space that projects the virtues and powers of an ambitious ruler of a Lutheran kingdom.
9. Michel Weemans, “Insidious Images: Veiled Sight and Insight in Pieter Bruegel’s Landscapes,” has long argued that early modern artists in the Low Countries insinuated into their natural scenery anthropomorphic forms. Rockeries, in particular, lend themselves to hidden images of human profiles and distorted grimaces. Weemans links these “insidious images” to a thematics of sight, as a troublesome sense that can just as easily lead us astray as it can teach us the good.
10. Suzanne Karr Schmidt, “’In einem Augenblick:’ Leveling Landscapes in Seventeenth-Century Disaster Flap Prints,”focuses on the publishing of flap sheets (additional printed material that could be inserted into a book) that provide information about disasters. This is the case with printed sheets of Plurs, a town in Switzerland, which in 1618 vanished beneath a landslide in the blink of the eye. These enumerated landscapes, which readers might insert into a book, capture the sensational aspect of Sudden Death.
11. Peter Schneemann, ”Performative Landscapes: A Paradigm for Mediating the Ecological Imperative?”, a Swiss ecologist, focuses on the trend of non-object based modes of ecological experience. An example would be Hesiod’s image of The Dance of the Muses on Mt. Helicon, a dance of chthonic significance which seems to return in a fascinating installation by Vietnamese-Swiss artist Mai-Thu Perret titled And Every Woman Will Be a Walking Synthesis of the Universe, 2006.
Leopoldine van Hagendorp Prosperetti
University of Houston