Monday, 11 June 2012

Bomarzo and Ariosto: Moon, Madness and Hippogriffs

It occurred to me the other day that there was no renaissance material on this blog, which given my background, is a travesty! So I was looking around my archives and I found this little something on topics very close to my heart;  poetry, gardens and intellectual endeavour. Using a sixteenth century epic poem called Orlando furioso I explore how it influenced key aspects and themes of the so-called Parco dei Mostri, a fabulous Italian renaissance garden. 

I would like to boldly state that texts are absolutely central in understanding any Renaissance art. BL Ullman opens his book by stressing that although it is wrong to equate ‘renaissance’ with humanism or a ‘revival of learning the founders of the Renaissance were creative artists, poets chiefly […] perhaps indicat[ing] that the fortunes of humanism and creative literature, reading and writing, were inextricably associated, and therefore cannot be separated’. Though the main concerns of the early humanists were the rediscovery of ancient texts and obsessive recreation of an authentic Latin style, it was the resultant intellectual ideas circulating amongst the humanists’ wealthy patrons that gave the movement impetus and focus, providing a context in which art, sculpture and architecture could flourish. It has been pointed out, ‘humanists were seldom instrumental in initiating these developments, but they helped create the climate in which such changes could come about and profoundly influenced their course’.

Art/garden historians have used literary works to explain the garden park known as the 'Parco dei Mostri' (Park of the Monsters) or Sacro Bosco (Sacred Wood) at Villa Orsini in Bomarzo which was created over the period 1552-1584. The earliest was Ezio Bacino whose 1951 and 1953 articles were the first to suggest that the wood should be read as a humanist garden. In 1959, Calvesi proposed connections between the garden and the literary world of the fifteenth and sixteenth century, specifically pointing out parallels to the works of Bernardo Tasso, Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499) and Ludvico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso or The Frenzy of Orlando (1532). He specifically mentions Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered as a source for an enchanted wood. Continuing the literary theme, Quarante in 1960 and Battisti in 1962 returned to Hypnerotomachia. After a period of garden historians looking at other possible influences, in 1984 a comprehensive study of the garden was carried out and the authors provide scholarly historical and literary background, with emphasis on a library of texts as inspiration. They categorically conclude that the garden was ‘understood and enjoyed by those who shared Vicino’s literary enthusiasm in general and Ariosto in particular’. Recent times have seen more textual interpretations with Calvasi returning to Bomarzo in 2000 and combining Ariosto’s OF and Tasso’s Aminta. In 2007 Sheeler revisited the 1984 article and brought it up to date with her own interpretations based on literature and Vicino’s humour and wit.

As garden historians have demonstrated in their scholarly research, by the mid 1550s a substantial history of Italian vernacular literature had built up. Important humanistic literary figures such as Petrarch and Boccaccio, who combined classical research and a desire to articulate human feelings in poetry, ensured a gradual shift to writing in Italian rather than Latin. Italian epic poetry continued to develop throughout the fifteenth century with figures such as Luigi Pulci and Matteo Boiardo. Boiardo’s now almost forgotten unfinished Orlando innamorato (1495) encompassed many romantic and chivalrous Carolingian legends and went on to inspire Ariosto in the next century. Developments in epic subject matter led to Jacopo Sannarzo’s innovative pastoral epic Arcadia (1504), the first Italian poet since Virgil to evoke nostalgic bucolic motifs with a contemporary influence. This in turn led to the romances, sonnets, eclogues of Bernardo Tasso who directly inspired his son Torquato Tasso. He wrote the love idyll Aminta (1573) and the hugely influential heroic epic Jerusalem Delivered (1581). However I wish to return to Ariosto’s romantic epic Orlando furioso.

The action in this long poem takes place against the background of the war between Charlemagne and his Christian paladins and the Saracen army attempting to invade Europe. These stories already had their own history via medieval French romances however Ariosto takes this tradition and the work of his predecessor Boiardo as a starting point and then produced a poem of heroic proportions. He was not concerned with historical or geographical accuracy and reader embarks on a fantastical journey from the Far East to Scotland. He populates the story with beautiful women, bewitched gentlemen, kings, saints, imams, and an array of magical creatures. Many themes are interwoven in its complex, episodic structure but it is Orlando's unrequited love for the pagan princess Angelica, which develops into the madness of the title.

Who was the creator of this garden? Pier Francesco ‘Vicino’ Orsini (1513-1584) was not a duke or cardinal but a politically unimportant professional soldier, a vassal of Pope Paul III and the Farnese family. His distinguished military service in the European wars continuously interrupted the expansion of the garden and he returned there for good only when the peace treaty of Cateau-Cambresis was signed in 1559. He was a highly intelligent man with excellent connections to the high level literary/poetic, artistic and religious world. According to David Coffin, he was acquainted with Claudio Tolomei, Annibal Caro and the poet Molza who dedicated his Il Raverta to Vicino, and Coffin suggests that Vicino composed the various poetic epigrams scattered throughout the garden. So we have evidence that he was in constant communication with poets and very likely to be a poet himself.

One of the roles of the humanists was assisting in the production of iconographical programmes for their equally well-educated patrons. Fashionable themes they presented can be identified thus; allegories of the interaction of art/nature, ‘a ‘third’ nature; celebration of the patron’s mythical ancestors/the classical golden age as recounted by Virgil and Ovid; and physical demonstrations or museums of natural philosophy. For example the Villa D’Este at Tivoli is said to represent two ideas, ‘the fertile region of Lazio with its abundant water supply and the guardianship of Hercules from whom the d’Estes were said to be descended’.So by concentrating so much on one text, Vicino’s garden was very unusual. That he was aware of the garden’s singularity can be demonstrated by one of his poetic inscriptions, stating that the garden ‘resembles itself and nothing else’.

Surrealist Max Ernst wrote, ‘the conjunction of two or more allegedly quite incompatible elements in an incompatible context sparks off the most powerful poetic insights […] the more arbitrary the conjunction of elements was the more surely and ineluctably the ensuing spark of poetic inspiration was capable of effecting a partial or total transformation of things’. This is a wonderful way of describing the effect of many of the tableaux of monsters that I look at below.

The first sculptural group I will consider is the giant turtle carrying a statue of Fame or Fortune on its back. Both the turtle and lady face towards the stream, beyond which is the head of a mythical sea monster. This can be seen from the turtle or through a tunnel which offers a very different perspective, both surprising and witty as you’re left gazing straight into its mouth. The meaning of the first part of this tableau is festina lente – make haste slowly. This was portrayed in many gardens and artworks by combining a turtle and something representing speed.[1] Fortune is illustrated by Ariosto’s ‘potent Alcina’, who is discovered on a beach ‘pulling ashore all the fishes she wanted […] swift moving dolphins […] and ponderous tunny, open mouthed’. She seduces Astolfo into a life of lust and luxury but after only two months abandons him for another lover. In a story reminiscent of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, she transforms Astolfo into a myrtle tree. Clearly this is a warning against changeable and faithless women - or fortune. 

The comedic aspect of the story is continued when Ruggiero’s hippogriff takes fright and starts to tear up the myrtle/astolfo tree to which he is tethered. The second part of the sculpture could have been inspired by Alcina’s tunafish, or alternatively there are two instances of the heroes, Ruggiero and Orlando battling an orc. The description of Orlando’s battle seems to explain the view of the orc through the tunnel;
He wedged the anchor between its palate and its soft tongue so that it could no longer bring its two fearsome jaws to shut together. […] Having secured his prop and ensured that the monster could no longer close its jaws, Orlando drew his sword and adventured through that dark cavern slashing and thrusting as he went  [Canto 11, 31-40]
The purpose of fighting with this creature is to rescue maidens that it likes to ‘swallow alive’. Commentators have suggested the colossal female semi-nude on the hill above the grotto is a depiction of Angelica, one of the creature’s maidens because she represents ‘lust’ in the epic. Though I concur that the statue may be her, I feel it would be more appropriate to call her ‘chastity’. Her nakedness inflames Ruggiero, who scrambles out of his weighty armour so that he can ravish her more easily. However she steals his magic ring of invisibility and disappears back to the Orient without any loss of virtue. Not only does he lose the girl but whilst searching for her his hippogriff escapes, therefore he is justly punished for his lustfulness. [Cantos 10 and 11, 1-14]

Hell's Mouth
The most well-known and charming wonder of this garden is the Hell’s Mouth grotto. It is cut into the hill which separates the upper and lower terraces and steps like a multitude of chins lead up to the gaping black mouth of an entrance. The eyes are windows and the tongue forms a table, ‘for the grotto was a summer dining room’. The combination of flickering candlelight and the acoustic effect of the interior on laughter would have thoroughly alarmed passers by. The inscription around the entrance is ‘ogni pensiero vo(la)’ [all reason/thought departs] which is a paraphrase of Dante’s ‘abandon hope all who enters’. This grotto has clear roots in the events of Canto 33, after Astolfo drives away the tormenting harpies and
Almost at the base of the mountain a deep cave penetrates below ground – undoubtedly the gateway to hell […] the swarms of predators made dropped down to the banks of Cocytus […] At the dark nebulous hole which gives access to those who abandon the light, the illustrious duke stopped […] He listened carefully and heard the air rent with shrieks and reverberating with sobs and endless wailing
As the harpies had constantly stolen food from the Egyptian court, it is amusing their refuge becomes a dining room for Vicino’s friends. The grotto urges you to leave aside reason, whereas the gate down into hell is for those who abandon the light – perhaps the two are synonymous. The endless transformations and ambiguities of this grotto come from a creator with an imagination that any poet would envy.

As the title suggests, the manifestation, effects and cure of madness is a theme of OF. It seems that characters can consciously leave aside reason in love or war, or have reason leave them due to circumstances outside their control. To illustrate these two ideas I consider the colossal statues of Orlando rending the woodcutter in two and the Plateau of Vases. 

The colossus is Orlando and is confirmed by a letter of April 1578 when Vicino himself speaks of Orlando. The bitter madness that comes from losing his beloved Angelica is described in the opening of Canto 24,
If you have put your foot in the birdlime spread by Cupid, try to pull it out […] love in the universal opinion of wise men, is nothing but madness […] what clearer sign of lunacy than to lose your own self through pining for another
In his descent into madness he unleashes his fury upon himself and then on all around him, including horses, oxen and an innocent woodcutter, who he grabbed by the feet ‘extending his hands to arm’s length, tore him in two, the way one may see a mean tear a heron or chicken apart to feed its warm entrails to a falcon or goshawk’. As Ascoli points out, ‘as the madness progresses he is both literally and figuratively stripped of all the signs of his humanity, leaving him unrecognisable’. His graphic downfall with ferocious imagery is reflected in the super human scale of the colossi, made more terrifying in their naïve non finito sculptural style emphasising their bestial, non rational nature.

Ruggiero’s trip to the moon with St John the Baptist to recover Orlando’s lost wits I feel is a depiction of madness beyond all reason. Even though the poem is set in a world where unimaginable journeys can be achieved with a hippogriff, this seems a leap too far, indeed the poet appears to acknowledge our disbelief, ‘I want to leap the distance between heaven and earth – my wings can no longer support me at such heights’.[Canto 35 24-33, also a reference to Icarus and his failure to stay within the rules not to fly too close to the sun.] However the idea of all the items that have been misplaced or lost on earth being stored on the moon is very attractive. It has been suggested that the Plateau of Vases is an interpretation of the moonscape; over time all men lose their sanity and what is lost is contained in vases.

Fighting is central to OF, just as fighting was central for a large part of Vicino’s life. Nearly every canto contains elements of confrontation and the garden reflects this blood lust; sculpture groups of the elephant and dead soldier, dragons fighting the lions and Orlando and the woodcutter in two are violent images. In a book on exemplarity in renaissance literature, Hampton states that ‘past [ie classical] words and deeds embody a value which the modern [Renaissance] reader can appropriate to guide practical action’. After the religious backlash of the Counter-Reformation, poets sought to ‘redefine the epic so as to accommodate aspects of humanist exemplarity to the new ideological exigencies’, therefore pagan history is replaced with the ultra Christian history of the Crusades. Garden historians have inferred that Vicino might have been inspired to imitate the heroes of the epics when designing the garden.

It is interesting to note that when Salvador Dali experienced the garden park for the first time he was ‘thrilled by the grotesquerie and ambiguity [and he] made a film about it, reintroducing it to a post war Europe that was thirsting for novelty and still brooding over the horrors it had survived’. This assimilation of the garden into surrealism, one of the more extreme avant-garde movements puts it in a curious position. Though separated by four hundred years, the lives of the surrealists and Vicino were heavily influenced by war and its destructive tendencies. When peace was restored they were looking to create something that said something about their ambiguous states of mind given the horrors they had suffered; nightmarish, fantastical, dreamlike, contradictory and disturbing.

Text in all its forms, from letters, essays, treatises, translations, poems, dialogues were central to circulating the ideas of the renaissance. Therefore I feel it is right to conclude that the modern commentator needs to be familiar with the material that was being read in the sixteenth century. Without this knowledge we can appreciate the formal aesthetic value of the art/architecture/sculpture and even have an idea about its social or political context but we would miss the finer, more interesting, humorous or intellectual points that would have been immediately recognised by the renaissance patron.

Note: If you want footnotes/references, just ask! Also I've only put a couple of images in because when I visited this garden in 2004(ish), I didn't have digital camera so they are all prints.

[1] One delightful and unusual examples of this emblem is in the Boboli Gardens in Florence, where the dwarf Morgante is sculpted sitting astride a turtle; they are certainly going nowhere fast. There is also a description of it in Hypnerotomachia Poliphili


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