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Sunday, January 4, 2015

Sunday Guest: Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Bruegel's messy compositions "re-present" the Renaissance society way better than Machiavelli's clear-cut doctrines. As CS Lewis would say, fantasy is the best vehicle to show the real world. Bruegel's engravings and paintings provide a full immersion into late 16th century Europe with all of its fun, everyday activities, landscapes, fashions, achievements, folklore, passions, struggles, fears, violence, values, contradictions. The artist's works also witness a phenomenon, typical of the late Renaissance, that would have far-reaching and, in the long run, negative consequences: the "divorce" between old religious/anthropological traditions (magic, alchemy, etc.) and the new official culture (scholarship, science, established Churches, etc.).

Picture 1   From Bruegel's engraving for the deadly sin of Pride, 1558, a delightful albeit a bit worrying detail shows a barber who owns a license to work as a chemist and a surgeon (!) too: a 'multi-task' job that was still very Medieval, the cerùsico; but, of course, a custom didn't change in a fortnight.

Picture 2   A medical doctor in the current sense of the word, from the 1559 engraving Prudence, and something more than that, as the Latin word prudentia meant wisdom.

For the catalog: Gloria Vallese (ed.), Vizi, virtù e follia nell'opera grafica di Bruegel il Vecchio. Catalogo generale ragionato, Milan: Mazzotta, 2004, pages 188, with 89 big, well printed pictures and a rich data sheet for each of them, cm 24 x 34. N.B. Except in one case, the plates were designed by Bruegel, but not engraved by him.