I once heard Martin Kemp, the great Leonardo specialist, talk about the geology in background of the Mona Lisa. Apart from surprise at the blackness of the distinguished professors hair, I remember him saying that the artist had been hired to survey the land between Florence and Pisa, to give Florentines a navigable waterway to the sea bypassing their rivals. That survey work, and Leonardo’s analysis of the role of water in changing topography, allowed him to think of time in different ways, to move away from the prescriptive Christian chronology; geological time for example. His proposed route was to go through Prato and Pistoia, although the land behind Leonardo’s portrait of Lisa Gherardini is not an exact portrait of the lakes above the great valley of the Arno, it bears similarities. It allows Leonardo to use the landscape to meditate on the role of time, as well as present the site for a pre combustion engine form of transport, that is now incidentally the route for the A11 from Florence to Pisa.
What transport routes are we looking at in Het Steen?
What geology? What time span? Apart from the obvious track leading the horses and cart out to our left, what other forms are here and what do they tell us about Rubens’ thinking? There are tracks in the centre midground, serpentine, leading toward the horizon, lighter in colour than the green and possibly slightly frosted grass that surrounds them. Several tracks seem to come together here, to lead in to the space towards Malines (the town on the horizon). They are not large roads, nor direct.
This is presumably an alluvial plain, laid down over millennia by slow moving rivers, they are not the fast moving lakes of built up water, about to burst their banks and cause tumultuous change as represented by Leonardo. Het Steen is placed in a land where not much changes, not of course true, this was a sector of Europe that had been constantly fought over, the Northern Netherlands were at war with Spain right up until 1648, and we are in the middle of the Thirty Years War. Land reclamation to the north and west was at its peak, new canals being dug constantly, agricultural practices were changing fast to keep pace with growing urbanisation.
Viewing it now, this great flat plain stretching to a low horizon, looks just made for a 21st century motorway system: 6 lanes; gantries; illuminated signs throughout the night; those huge, double European lorries. In fact it has the A1/E19 running from Brussels to Antwerp, which apparently has one of the widest central reservations in Europe (40 metres wide over 31 km since you ask)
The hunter in the foreground, the stock figure, he is trying to move to his right, to go around the tree trunk, through the thickest part of the brambles to shoot the oversized ducks behind. Surely, his quickest path would be to his left? Or so our elevated viewpoint would seem to indicate. It would be easier to shoot the ducks from the left hand side of the trunk, he could just hit them with his great long barrel in fact.
“It must be fairly late”
“In the day?”
“No, in the History of Art, you look at that Renaissance painting over there and the trees aren’t half as green”
“What’s the best way to get to our hotel anyway?”
The brown foreground of the painting ends at a very strong horizontal line, tilted down slightly to the left. One’s eye first notices it at the right where it is marked by a drainage ditch, the field boundary for the cow field with the milkmaid, although there are more cows in the field beyond as well. The pure sunshine continues across the midground, a line of sunlight ends just in front of the house. This lets Rubens spotlight the house, placing it on a boundary edge, the left corner of sunlight exactly touches the left hand end of the mansion.
The later Judgement of Paris to my right is a constant draw for Chinese visitors, in huge numbers. They stand today in Burberry scarves, usually their leader has one of those microphone affairs, they never stay long, they have an itinerary to follow.
I’m intrigued to know where the rustic wooden bridge would lead anyone to. If it is for the milkmaid approaching the cows in the next field but one, then two questions occur:
- Would the bridge bear her weight and that of the milk she will carry? Presumably in another of the brass jugs like that on the cart, and the same balanced on the head of the girl in Landscape with a Rainbow, the companion piece to this (see previous post). If you look closely at the smudges of paint, the milmaid would appear to have something on her back with a highlight, a jug strapped there? The bridge is flimsy with only one handrail, in a list of ‘Bridges in Art’ (Hiroshige, copied by van Gogh; Monet; Sisley; Constable; Turner; Stella; there is of course a bridge in Mona Lisa, on the right, just where her clothing swirls across her bare shoulder; that poem by McGonagall, the Tay Bridge Disaster etc. Any more? I refuse to sing Bridge over Troubled Water in the National Gallery) in that list, this little wooden span is not the most convincing.
- The milkmaid would have to cross another bridgeless ditch to get from her cows to this one, is that right? Then she would have a long walk round the wrong way to the house. That route would take her to the front and the drawbridge as well. Would servants go in that way? Was the drawbridge the only way over the moat around Het Steen? Perhaps there was a loading place for milk and the cart, by the tall foreground trees? Evidence of growing rural industry?
The last time I was here, someone was drawing the earlier Judgement of Paris in pencil. Today, an elderly man, quite scruffy in a grubby brown jacket, trainers, battered grey rucksack old jeans is drawing Minerva from the same painting. She is the figure with her back to us, with armour at her feet. It is a copy with a high degree of accuracy, and he is making it on an Ipad. Minerva, in the digital drawing, is completely isolated on a pale blue grey background. The digital drawing has a definite sense of texture from the ‘tooth’ of a virtual surface, Ingres paper is the name of the physical paper with equivalent qualities.
I see all this as I leave, finding my own path past the Turners and Constables, all that power and paint as thick as the painted skeins of cloth on Lisa Gheradini; seized moments of meteorological time.