The works of Pieter Bruegel the Elder transfix viewers and vex interpreters. When Karel van Mander wrote that one could not look at Bruegel’s works without laughing, he spoke to the immersive experience of viewing them, to laughter that arises as much from humor as from the uneasy discovery that Bruegel somehow knew and depicted everything about us. For the humanist cartographer Abraham Ortelius, Bruegel was not the best among painters, but nature among painters, which implies for the artist a creative ability akin to the divine maker. No wonder then – between the nervous laughter, the awe at his powers of creation, and the complex comments of his early critics – that we find it so hard to write about him.
Stephanie Porras’s imaginative and beautifully produced book is among the most recent endeavors to do just that. Her contribution ambitiously endeavors to bring together three major discourses of past Bruegel scholarship. The first asks whether the peasant subjects in Bruegel’s pictures function as satire, ethnography, exempla contraria of moral behavior, or some combination thereof; the second concerns his negotiation between the allegedly dichotomous classical and “vernacular” styles in the art world of early modern Antwerp; and the third considers his status as a humanist artist, who hobnobbed with members of the local intellectual elite like Ortelius, and whose works dialogued with their learned interests in the broader cultural sphere. These three diverse strands of inquiry into Bruegel’s art already point to the formidable challenge that Porras has set herself with this book.
The introduction opens with an etymological history of the Latin word paganus. Porras notes that for the ancient Romans, paganus referred simply to a farmer or peasant but that its usage shifted when early Christians appropriated it to mean heathen or pagan in the modern English sense. We learn that the seminal Polyglot Dictionary (Dictionarium tetraglotton), published by Christopher Plantin in 1562, translates the Latin paganus as villageois and paysant in the French vernacular, dorpman and boer in Dutch. Porras does not mention that in the original 1562 dictionary entry, Cicero is explicitly cited as the locus classicus for the word paganus, which accords with the straightforward vernacular translations provided and the absence of reference to “pagan” in its modern meaning. Notably, in the later 1573 Thesaurus of the Dutch Language (Thesaurus theutonicae linguae) also published by Plantin – to which Porras refers elsewhere in her book – the potential Latin translations of boer include: “rusticus, colonus, agricola, villanus, paganus, substantiva.” These words variously combine to describe the boer as a rustic, a tiller of the soil, a farmer, a self-sufficient countryman – in sum, as a peasant, plain and simple.
Porras nonetheless sees something crucial in the slippage between the peasant and the pagan, and what she sees undergirds her entire argument. This slippage, she says, “collapses the temporal distinction between classical antiquity and the vernacular present.” (p. 2) Bruegel’s peasants, through the workings of his historical imagination, become archeological artefacts, simultaneously embodying “the pagan past, local custom, and the artist’s own representational heritage” (pp. 4-5). She coins the term “vernacular antiquity” to describe Bruegel’s creation of a “hybrid past” (p. 7) in his works through a collapse of time and space with a self-conscious “historicity,” which Porras conceives with recourse to Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood’s Anachronic Renaissance and to a “metaphor of translation” (p. 16), already modelled by her etymology of paganus. Words change meaning over time through dynamics of translation and cultural appropriation. So too “Bruegel pictures the act of translation – between the past and the present and between foreign and indigenous sources – as a continually negotiated process” (p. 18). For her, this approach resolves dichotomies and settles debates that have long riddled interpretations of Bruegel’s art.
Porras’s crucial first chapter argues that Bruegel’s peasants – particularly his representation of their customs and artefacts – offered a direct window into the lives of the Batavians, the ancient inhabitants of the Low Countries who formed an object of study among sixteenth-century Netherlandish humanists. For instance, she sees the recurrent wagons in Bruegel’s peasant scenes as relics of ancient local custom, referring to their presence in an accompanying print from Ortelius’s Mirror of the Golden Age (Aurei saeculi imago) – a guide to the local antiquity of the Low Countries that was published in 1596, almost three decades after the artist’s death. One recalls Jan Theuwissen’s 1979 essay, “Volkskundliche Aspekte im Werke Pieter Bruegels” and its exacting archeological inquiry into Bruegel’s wagons, not cited here but highly relevant for its insight that the artist sometimes documented peasant culture with exactitude but at other times, took creative license – as artists are indeed wont to do.
In the next chapter Porras turns to Bruegel’s religious narratives, arguing most crucially that his Flight into Egypt comments on idolatrous practices among the contemporary peasantry. Her third chapter proposes the notion of the “Bacchic” as a means to understand peasant festivities as “a living link to the local pagan past.” (p. 82) She creatively opens the chapter with Jacques Jonghelinck’s life-size bronze Bacchus, a commission for his brother – and Bruegel’s most prominent patron – Nicolaes Jonghelinck. For Porras, “Jonghelinck’s corpulent Bacchus looks more like one of Bruegel’s fleshy peasants than he does to a classical Apollo” (p. 84), but to this reader there seems an evident link to Valerio Cioli’s contemporary marble sculpture of the Medici dwarf Morgante in the Boboli Gardens, setting up a potential dialogue not with Netherlandish but instead with Italianate models. In her final chapter, Porras considers Bruegel’s fertile engagement with the history of art history through his enigmatic drawing, The Calumny of Apelles,and his grisaille paintings. She concludes by situating the artist in the emergent sixteenth-century discourse on Netherlandish artistic tradition and at the dawn of an emergent sense of Dutch nationhood.
Throughout Porras’s study innumerable unexpected associations and visual comparisons open avenues for further research and debate. I do have a bone to pick with the word “vernacular,” which I offer here not as a critique of Porras’s book but as one among several key issues raised within its pages. Without discounting the significant contributions that Mark Meadow, Todd Richardson, Bart Ramakers, and others have made in using this term in relation to Bruegel’s art, I remain unconvinced (pace Michael Baxandall) that the rise of Neo-Latin transformed the worldview of early Italian Renaissance art theorists any more than the ascendant appreciation for the Dutch language did so for sixteenth-century Netherlandish artists. The contemporary humanist Johannes Goropius Becanus, who (as Porras notes) argued doggedly for the antiquity of the Dutch language in his infamous 1569 Origines Antwerpianae (Origins of Antwerp), later inspired Gottfried Leibniz to coin the term goropiser to describe the invention of ridiculous etymological linkages between past and present. It is hard to see Bruegel’s representations of peasants and rural life, which seem even today so intensely present and real, as “goropizing” in any sense.
I also wonder whether “local” rather than “vernacular” might be more useful as a means to get away from the insidious use of linguistic terminology when discussing works of art, which operate by such different rules and means than language does. And I cannot refrain from voicing my skepticism about Bruegel’s presumed close association with contemporary humanists, even with Ortelius, whose celebrated encomium to Bruegel – written after the artist’s death and inscribed in the cartographer’s own friendship album – is dedicated to “his loving memory” (amicae memoriae) in the standard fashion of inscriptions in such albums, which were not always as personal as they sound. Ortelius’s ownership of Bruegel’s grisaille Death of the Virgin and his posthumous praise do not in themselves affirm a close friendship between the two men, let alone an exchange of ideas between like minds.
By raising and rephrasing so many questions of central concern not only to our understanding of Bruegel but also to early modern Antwerp in general, Pieter Bruegel’s Historical Imagination expands the discourse in new directions. As we continue with nervous laughter to venture into the worlds of Bruegel’s peasants, and struggle like Ortelius to understand them, Porras’s book will surely remain an engaging source for future study.
Marisa Anne Bass