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Paolo Porpora (1617–1673) was a Neapolitan painter during the Late Baroque. He was apparently influenced by Dutch still life paintings and his works share the precision, control, and aesthetic elements of paintings by Rachel Ruysch or Balthasar van der Ast. Yet Porpora did not paint still life paintings. His works are miniature nature tableaus which have the dark drama of Baroque art written small in the lives of small animals. In Still Life with a Snake, Frogs and a Tortoise, the various reptiles and amphibians square off in a little landscape of fungi and flowers. The small world has the menace and violence of a Webster play as the cold blooded creatures stare beadily at each other attempting to work out who will eat whom.
Frederick V, the elector Palatinate and briefly crowned King of Bohemia was not a very successful ruler…but that is not the only thing that there is to life. Frederick had a happy marriage and he was an ardent lover of gardens. When he spent a winter in England romancing Elizabeth Stuart (the daughter of King James I of the United Kingdom), Frederick was himself courted by several visionary gardeners and engineers. In 1614, Frederick commissioned one of these men, Salomon de Caus, a Huguenot hydraulic engineer and architect, to design an epic garden around Heidelberg Castle as a present for his new bride. The garden which de Caus designed, the Hortus Palatinus, or Garden of the Palatinate, was accounted to be the finest Baroque garden in Germany. Some awe-struck contemporaries went farther and called the garden the eighth wonder of the world.
Since the ground around Heidelberg castle was steep, the builders had to cut and level great terraces for the Hortus Palatinus. Once they had carved a huge “L” shape around the castle, no expense was spared in furnishing the gardens. Exotic plants were collected from around Europe and the world (including tropical plants such as a full grove of orange trees). Gorgeous flowers and fully grown ornamental trees were planted amidst sumptuous statues, grottos, fountains, and follies. Great knotted parterre mazes led the wandering visitor through the sprawling grounds where costly novelties abounded. There was a huge water organ built according to the design of an ancient Roman text, clockwork cuckoos and nightingales which sang musical pieces, and an animated statue of Memnon, a Trojan warrior who was the son of the goddess of the Dawn. Among some circles it was whispered that de Caus was a mystical Rosicrucian and he had coded secret magical wisdom within the repeating octagonal motifs of the garden.
By 1619, the Hortus Palatinus, was the foremost Renaissance garden of northern Europe, and it was still not finished. To quote Gardens of the Gods, Myth Magic and Meaning,“Heidelberg was the scene of a brief idyll of enlightenment, culture, learning, and toleration.” The young king Frederick and his pretty English bride would romantically dally in the garden he had created for her. Then everything went wrong. Frederick V went to war with Ferdinand II and lost badly, a conflict which began the Thirty Years war. The garden was never finished. Instead it was destroyed by Catholic artillery who then used it as a base for destroying the city. By the time that Frederick’s son was restored to lordship of the Lower Palatinate, the region was in ruins. The garden was never rebuilt—it remains a picturesque ruin to this day.
One of the goals of the visual artist is to evoke senses other than sight (which of course is involved outright). Modern artists can accomplish this by producing multimedia creations that emit smells, play music, shriek, or even reach out to tickle or grope the gallery-goer. The thoughtful artist, however, realizes that these gimmicks will probably soon be relegated to the scrap heap. Like the poet, the painter must rely on imagery to entice his viewer’s senses. Wondering though a gallery of masterpieces, a visitor hungers for banquets laid out centuries ago: he longs to smell eternally blooming roses and yearns to reach through the ages to cosset a spaniel or stroke a silky cat. These non-visual cues not only heighten the verisimilitude of art, but provide overall meaning and context.
All of which brings us back to the hurdy-gurdy from yesterday’s post. Although musical instruments are fascinating to look at in their own right, when they are included in a painting it adds an additional sensory dimension to the work. Music plays in the viewer’s head even though the gallery is silent. I hope you listened to some hurdy-gurdy samples so that you can imagine its plangent voice while looking at these pictures.
As the hurdy-gurdy traveled from the monastery to the fashionable dancing rooms of the Renaissance, to troubadours’ gear, and into the hands of beggars, its symbolic meaning changed as well.
[I included only a detail from Hieronymus Bosch’s magnificent triptych because the work is incredibly detailed and I intend to blog about it in greater detail in the future.]