(Click image to enlarge, and again for more detail.)
From the vault, here’s a tiny essay written back in September 1995, my first week at Harvard, for a graduate seminar with the brilliant Joseph Leo Koerner–a class that ended up being my real introduction to both Marshall McLuhan and my design mentor Edward Tufte. The brooding mood of the piece, and maybe even the choice of subject in the Sackler Museum exhibition, is indebted to the Coltrane Orgy playing on WHRB while I wrote it. Before long I’d be writing conventional catalogue entries on a number of neglected 17thC French landscape prints for an exhibition at the Boston MFA. None of those works approached the sheer weirdness of this ca. 1555 etching/engraving by Jan and Lucas Duetecum after a design by Bruegel.
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Carl van Mander writes that Pieter Bruegel was said to have swallowed up the Alps and spit them out as pictures after returning from Italy to the Netherlands. Looking at the image in front of us, it is tempting to think that the artist disgorged the half-digested mountains into a riverbed near Tivoli and sketched the following scene as a souvenir of the gruesome event. Of course we don’t have to adopt the metaphor of coughed-up cud when trying to describe this picture. We can imagine instead that the vast belly of the earth has been sliced open, exposing her pungent, pulsating entrails. Like the tiny animal forms dotting the left-hand horizon, the spilled-guts metaphor recalls a secret buried deep within this same Roman landscape: namely the bones of a thousand sacrificial sheep sliced open by ancient diviners seeking knowledge of nature’s inner workings. Continue reading