Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 30, 2017
Stephanie Porras Pieter Bruegel’s Historical Imagination University Park: Penn State University Press, 2016. 216 pp.; 34 color ills.; 48 b/w ills. Cloth $79.95 (9780271070896)

Stephanie Porras has written a smart, important book on Pieter Bruegel the Elder. She offers a carefully considered take on his notion of the Netherlandish past as it manifests in the peasants who cavort and carouse their way through his oeuvre. While this is familiar terrain, Porras’s study redirects focus from the once-heated debate about Bruegel’s peasants as either moralizing signifiers of excess or amusements for urbane viewers. Instead, by citing Netherlandish humanism’s interest in reconciling classical antiquity with the local Batavian past, Porras builds on Bruegel’s unassailable status as the most gifted interpreter of Hieronymus Bosch’s pictorial idiom to portray him as an erudite artist who formulated a Netherlandish antiquarian vernacular. Porras has illuminated an aspect of Bruegel’s art that has always been present, though we did not recognize it.

Relating Bruegel to antiquity is by now a well-worn scholarly pursuit. Interest in the topic began to develop in the mid-1950s as attention turned to the artist’s Roman journey (ca. 1552–54) and the relation between his art and his humanist orbit. Regarding the former, Fritz Grossmann cited Giulio Clovio’s importance for Bruegel’s early landscapes (Pieter Bruegel: Complete Edition of the Paintings, London: Phaidon, 1955). Gerard Volker Grimm’s more recent book Pieter Bruegel d.Ä., Italien und die Antike (Göttingen: Cuvillier, 2009) reveals Bruegel’s absorption of the motifs he encountered in ancient Roman sarcophagi, decorative fragments, and coins by tracking their appearances in the minutiae of the paintings. Katrien Lichtert’s assertion that Bruegel traveled through eastern France, not the Swiss and German Alps, should beget studies of his response to French antiquarianism (“New Perspectives on Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Journey to Italy [c. 1552–1554/1555],” Oud Holland 128, no. 1 (2015): 39–54). While these studies have helped clarify Bruegel’s relation to Rome and antiquity, they do not address what is vernacular or distinctly Netherlandish in his art. Only Jane ten Brink Goldsmith has discussed Bruegel’s Roman sojourn in ways that are prescient of Porras’s book; she revealed Bruegel’s Roman-period landscapes as his native Netherlandish response to Italian art theory, arguing for their importance to the mid-century maturation of Netherlandish humanism’s agency in defining its own local cultural heritage (“Pieter Bruegel the Elder and the Matter of Italy,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 23, no. 2 (1992): 205–34).

That Bruegel’s peasants could have humanist antiquarian overtones has proven another matter entirely. Carl Gustaf Stridbeck first suggested as much in 1956 (Bruegelstudien: Untersuchungen zu den ikonologischen Problemen bei Pieter Bruegel d.Ä., sowie dessen Beziehungen zum niederländischen Romanismus [Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell]). The subsequent debate over their meaning—most famously but not exclusively by Hessel Miedema versus Svetlana Alpers—evolved our thinking on the topic with its sheer volume of reasoned argumentation. Less concerned with reception, Margaret Sullivan’s Bruegel’s Peasants: Art and Audience in the Northern Renaissance (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994) argued for Bruegel’s indebtedness to ancient Roman vernacular literature. But a spate of studies appearing just prior to Porras’s volume, which collectively attest to the varied depth of Bruegel’s antiquarianism, moved us closer to seeing his peasants as vernacular antiquities. Walter Gibson’s Figures of Speech: Picturing Proverbs in Renaissance Netherlands (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010) continued the long probe into the links between Bruegelian proverb imagery and Erasmus’s Adages. Sullivan (“Bruegel the Elder, Pieter Aertsen, and the Beginnings of Genre,” The Art Bulletin 93, no. 2 (2011): 127–49) linked Bruegel’s genre imagery to an antique literary idiom, the genus sordidis (the “dirty genre”). Todd Richardson’s Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Art Discourse in the Sixteenth-Century Netherlands (Burlington: Ashgate, 2011) revealed the appeal to humanist antiquarians in the monumentality of Bruegel’s rustic manner. Further, in Pieter Bruegel and the Culture of the Early Modern Dinner Party (Burlington: Ashgate, 2013), Claudia Goldstein linked the reception of Bruegel’s peasant feasts to Erasmus’s promotion of the Roman convivium tradition. While these studies, especially Richardson’s, brought us to the brink of understanding Bruegel on the terms the present book argues, none of them contends, as Porras does, that Bruegel’s peasant was both ancient and modern and thus a fixed temporality. Moreover, Porras uses a broader range of sources extending beyond art and literature to include sixteenth-century archeology, cartography, song, and drama.

Porras begins her introduction by tracing the word “pagan” back to the Latin paganus, which means both polytheist and peasant. She teases historical, religious, and even geodemographic significances from this ostensibly small observation. The early Christianization of Europe’s previously Roman population centers—villages, towns, and cities alike—left many on the rural peripheries clinging to polytheism. Thus, paganus came to signify the rural heathen. Porras also finds this early medieval elision in the Dictionarium Tetraglotton (1562), a lexical tour de force by Bruegel’s associate Christophe Plantin, which agglomerates Latin, Greek, French, and Dutch. Plantin’s relating of paganus to the French villageois and paysant, and the Dutch dorpman and boer, suggests that the mid-sixteenth-century consciousness of paganus maintained its collapse between antiquity and the vernacular. Porras advocates for the survival of this connection by engaging Erwin Panofsky’s “historical distance,” the time-honored notion that there could be no revival of antiquity until enough time had passed—and enough culture had changed—for people to perceive antiquity’s distance from them. She aligns her study instead with the reappraisal of Panofsky’s theory in Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood’s Anachronic Renaissance (New York: Zone Books, 2010). In their rejection of historicism’s linear temporality, Porras finds support for her idea of Bruegel’s apparent modernisms as evocations of “an imagined Netherlandish past” (12).

The book’s four chapters unfold from the introduction’s concepts. Porras organizes her analyses around further attempts to relate the concerns of Bruegel’s milieu with his art; respective chapters describe Bruegel’s peasant as a surviving archeological artifact, his historic mode as a supra-temporal hybridization of past and present, his portrayals of peasant drunkenness as Bacchic excess, and his art-historical self-consciousness as consummation of his Netherlandish artistic heritage. Looming large in chapter 1, “The Archaeological Peasant,” is the reemergence from the sea in 1552 of a ruined fortress, presumed Roman, in Brittenburg. Abraham Ortelius’s print commemorating the discovery combines a map of the coastal region with a plan of the fort, genre scenes of peasants in and around the site, and a classicizing inscription. For Porras, this “strange juxtaposition” visualized Brittenburg as “a locus where local history, the peasant, and classical antiquity meet” (24). She goes on to argue for the peasant as a keeper of social custom, also a surviving remnant of the antique. In chapter 2, “Hybrid Histories,” Porras focuses on Bruegel’s portrayals of religious subjects. Here, she analyzes his Flight into Egypt (1563) for its inclusion of a ubiquitous, enduring type of venue for worship favored by peasants: a rural arboreal shrine. Its containment of a fallen pagan idol suggests it as a hybrid monument, another marker of the temporal collapse of antiquity and present, which Porras sees pervading Bruegel’s oeuvre. She interprets the Tower of Babel (1563) and Christ Carrying the Cross (1564) similarly; the former’s containment of small structures with thatched roofs like those forbidden in the Netherlandish cities of Bruegel’s time suggests the painted architecture as a locus of antiquity and rusticity; likewise, the temporally bifurcated figure groups in Christ Carrying the Cross—a mourning Virgin reminiscent of a Rogier van der Weyden figure in the foreground and peasants in the middle and background—suggest our timeless witness of the event. Chapter 3, “Bacchic Excess,” shows us the strength of associations between the Bacchic archetype and the Netherlandish peasant. In harvest imagery, Bacchus functioned alongside other deities to signal the change of seasons. Porras reveals Bruegel’s strategies for avoiding classicizing figuration while managing to infuse the Seasons series with Bacchic antiquity’s presence. In chapter 4, Porras ties things together by highlighting Bruegel’s “participation in the production of a Netherlandish art history” (130). She bases this chapter on an analysis of his drawings and grisailles—the Calumny of Apelles (1565) and the Death of the Virgin (1564), in particular—where she finds him operating in a manner not unlike the Hendrik Goltzius of Karel van Mander’s Schilder-Boeck (Haarlem: 1604); these works “signal [Bruegel’s] awareness of multiple stylistic languages” (139). Bruegel’s formulation of a Netherlandish art history via his stylistic amalgams, she argues, is a visual analog for his consciousness of the antique in the vernacular.

This well-written, beautifully produced book’s problems are few, but worth noting. Porras could have enriched her argument by engaging more openly and at length with earlier studies, especially Goldsmith, Richardson, and Goldstein, concerned as they are with the native, vernacular, and antiquarian in Bruegel’s art. More broadly, readers who understand Porras’s argument and “historical imagination’s” historiography might puzzle over the use of the phrase in her title. R. G. Collingwood coined it in The Idea of History (Oxford: Clarendon, 1946) to recommend that historians imagine the thinking that motivated history. His method has received a thorough, critical working over. In two short, narrowly focused sections on the subject near the book’s end, Porras does not discuss Collingwood or responses to him. In this volume, which argues so eloquently against historical distance and for a collapse of past and present, Bruegel’s pictures seem less the product of historical imaginings than the purity in his vision of rustic antiquity, which Porras herself suggests required no imagination because it survived to his time.

Nonetheless, Porras has succeeded in showing us a supremely important aspect of Bruegel’s art. Along with the studies mentioned above and Leopoldine Prosperetti’s study of Jan Bruegel I, Landscape and Philosophy in the Art of Jan Bruegel the Elder (1568–1625) (Burlington: Ashgate, 2009), which reveals the Neostoic impetus in Jan’s rura picta (rustic landscapes), we now have further foundation for seeing the Netherlandish vernacular in antiquarian terms.

Arthur J. DiFuria
Professor, Department of Art History, Savannah College of Art and Design