Reverie and Action

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Reverie and Action

Madrid, Columbus Square. Amid trees, water and flowers, two hieratic, distanced protagonists assert their counterpoint. Whereas the Monument to the Discovery of America is set centrally, the statue of Christopher Columbus occupies a lateral space. And at night, when the urban noise has been muted, a world of calculated labyrinths, of scarcely-traced contradictions acquires high relief. Lit by powerful beams of white light, the monument’s massive weight is imposing, while the celebrated navigator’s silhouette rises, erect, faraway and ghostly. Thus the observer is caught in a dream-like situation in which the objects take on an appearance of strangeness. The statue, standing on a corner of the square, cannot be fully appreciated because its back is to the observer. Neither can one get to the monument, because it is surrounded by a pond. One must leave the square and, going roundabout, reenter it from the street. But from there one is too close to the blocks, and it is impossible, as one backs up, to regulate the distances necessary to enable one to observe the details and the whole. Finally, when one tries a different perspective, some trees block the line of vision. And so one can only view the complex one aspect at a time—just one aspect, step by step. Two stern cypresses are outlined between the blocks of the monument, while olive and magnolia trees alternate in the gardens. Small lampposts with yellow lights and a few stone benches frame the calm, compacted, disconcerting ambiance.

The square was inaugurated toward 1841. At present a fine, twenty-meter Neo-Gothic column rises up from the gardens, above which the figure of the great Genovese1 is emplaced. It holds in its right hand a folded banner with a cross atop its staff, seems to be stepping forward. There are no decisive dates to read on the scene of stone. One does not see the names, embroidered on the flag, of the King and Queen of Spain. There are no caravels or natives from America. Absent are the figures of the Pinzón brothers accompanying the landing at Guanahaní. This is because it was not the sculptor’s intention to show the reality of an extraordinary adventure; rather he materialized the image the mariner had of himself when he felt himself embodying Saint Christopher of legend. The artist rendered visible the reverie that impelled Christopher Columbus to replace his civil name with a fictitious one. It is thus that one comprehends that the word stamped on numerous documents from that era is not a pseudonym, but the author’s representation2—it is his signature that says “Cristo ferens,” and it means “the bearer of Christ.”3

The Monument to the Discovery of America4 is set in the central space over a tiered platform equipped with ramps. Over that floor rise enormous walls of reinforced concrete. The monument consists of four volumes, the tallest of which is 17 meters high. Large, cut-up drawings and massive texts occupy the 2,000 meters of decorated surface on the segmented murals. The light plays over the walls’ flat or curved faces, composed with the arid reds of Alicante. The grand construction impresses with its astonishing features.5

On the monument’s two central volumes are engraved the principal dates, places and names in the history previous to the discovery. One sees Columbus with his son Diego and can make out the interview with the Spanish monarchs. Further on are the bars, castles and lions of Castile and Aragon, together with the bars and eagles of Sicily. This is the heraldic stamp on the flag that was carried to the lands of Guanahaní.

On the enormous final block, called “The Discovery,” the names of the crewmembers and the circumstances of the adventure can be read in bas-relief:

…The Admiral went ashore on the armed barge, and Martín Alonso Pinzón and his brother, Vicente Yáñez, who was the captain of the La Niña. The Admiral took out the royal flag and the two captains the two flags of the green cross with an ‘F’ and a ‘Y,’ each letter bearing its crown. Standing on land they saw very green trees, and many waters, and fruits of diverse kinds … later many people of the island gathered there.
A seven-meter figure of Columbus in the style of the Saint Christophers of the cathedrals, his feet in the water and the great staff in his hand, dominates the whole of the ensemble.

The disquieting first block, which the architect of the works called “The Prophecies,” shows several inscriptions. One is of the chorus of Seneca’s “Medea,” exactly as it was translated from the Latin into Castilian by Columbus to support his arguments before the Court. In the free translation of the verses written by the Roman from Cordoba, one reads: “There will come, in the late years of the world, certain times when the ocean sea will loosen the bindings of things, and a great land will open up, and a new mariner, like the one who was guide to Jason and whose name was Typhis, shall discover a new world, and the island of Thule will no longer be the hindermost of lands.” Actually a very different phrase from the one written by Seneca: “Times will come, with the passing of the years, when the ocean will let loose the barriers of the world, and the earth open up in all its breadth, and Tethys shall disclose to us new worlds, and the end of the earth will no longer beThule”.6

Another writing, this time by Saint Isidore of Seville, accompanies Seneca’s words on the wall. Eight centuries before the Discovery the author of Etymologies asserts: “Aside from the three parts of the world, there exists another continent beyond the ocean.” This rather suggestive inscription contains little of prophecy, and, in any case, approximates Raymundo Lulio’s perception, in which he speaks of the existence of a great land “where the ocean must lie to the west.”

Also brought to the walls are the words that Columbus wrote on the margin of a page of Pierre d’Ailly’s Ymago Mundi:7Beyond the Tropic of Capricorn is found the most beautiful dwelling place, since it is the highest and noblest part of the worldthat is, Earthly Paradise.” The theme of paradise on earth is pondered by the Navigator especially on his third voyage, and this creates some problems with regard to the reliability of the documents and the language used. But once the difficulty is overcome, an extraordinary mythic geography appears that aids in the comprehension of certain motivations for the new travels and discoveries.8 “The Holy Scripture testifies that Our Lord created Earthly Paradise and in it placed the tree of life, and from it a fountain flows, from which derive in this world the four principal rivers.” That place is found in the highest point of the world, and crossing the sea it rises higher, as it advances toward the south. “And it seems that Aristotle was of the opinion that the Antarctic or the land that is below it, is the highest part of the world and the closest to the sky.” And farther on he comments that the world “…is in the shape of a pear that is very round, except there where it has the stem, where it is most prominent, or like a very round ball, and in one part of it there was a prominence like a woman’s breast, and that the part of the nipple would be the highest and the nearest to the sky.”9 Of course, Columbus’s idea (that there is a place higher than all the rest on the world’s sphere and that also in that zone the water is also higher), corresponds to beliefs that had already been proven wrong for centuries. In this respect, one should remember what Dante wrote in 1320: “The water does not have any hump at all protruding from its regular circumference,”10 and also: “This argument originates from a fallacious imagination, for sailors at sea imagine that they cannot sight the land from the ship because the ship is higher than the land; but this is not so; rather the exact contrary happens, since they would make out a much broader vista than the one that they do see. The cause consists of the fact that the direct ray from the visible object breaks between the object and the eye, due to the water’s convexity; since, given that the water necessarily, in all places, has a circular form around its center; therefore, from a certain distance, the water forms a barrier for the sight with its own convexity.”11 Although Dante refutes the ideas regarding the highest parts of the waters in the globe, he sustains that in the southern hemisphere there is a gigantic mountain over which Earthly Paradise is situated. These images mixed with Ptolemy’s geocentric conception will continue to inflame navigators’ imaginations until well into the seventeenth century.12

On this first block one reads a prophecy that seems to have been born in the lands of America before the arrival of the Europeans. The inscription says: “They are already a shout away, a day away, Oh, Father! Receive your guests, the bearded men, those from the east, the ones who bring the sign of Ku, the deity.” The quote is attributed to the Mayan book Chilam Balam de Chumayel,13 one of the cornerstones of indigenous American literature.14 But the phrase is composed of two different paragraphs: The 11 Ahau says: “…They came from the east when they arrived in this land, the bearded ones, the messengers of the sign of the divinity, the foreigners of the earth, the reddish-blond men.” The 12 Ahau says: “…Receive your guests; one day away, one shout away, they are already coming.” All this is better understood when we read the 13 Ahau, which says: “The Ah Kines, Priests-of-the-Sun-Worship, prophesied because they understood how the Spanish foreigners would arrive; they read them in the signs of their papers and for this reason they began to say: ‘Truly we will make them our friends and we will not wage war on them,” saying besides: ‘To them tribute will be paid.’” By the way, these texts are subsequent to the conquest. The matter is already very clear from the 1 Ahau, in which “prophecies” are made after the events have happened: “…At the end of the katun, from the Heart of the Mount, Augustus Caesar (Charles V) will receive his alms, his share, in deaths from starvation, in vultures in the houses.”

From 1930 on, materials of the Mayan culture began to circulate, translated into the different European languages. The specific case of the prophecies is still a topic of discussion among philologists and historians, and has served as inspiration for writers and artists, as is left very clear in this first block of the monument.15

On the other hand, the sequence of blocks leads us to reflect on the fantasies that Columbus elaborated, and that did not merely remain in his mind, but ended up acting in the interpretations of some authors who devoted themselves to recreating his life. Many of these images influenced those who adopted the Navigator as the model of an extraordinary discoverer, as a kind of ever-contemporary adventurer, notwithstanding the passing of the centuries. Even today we can discern this in a cinematographic creation where the director (and producer) did not come from the field of the arts, but from astronautics.16

Through the monument of Columbus Square, one intuits the universe of images that impelled the Navigator throughout his life. His projects were above all grand flights of imagination and his actions turned out to be consistent with those ecstatic visions. After all, there are cases in which a few unlikely reveries end up orienting the protagonist’s life, and, the interplay of historical forces, become converted into decisive factors. Something of this took place in a few of Christopher Columbus’s projects. He himself dismissed various plans as being unattainable,17 and others, whose basic conceptions were erroneous, nonetheless hit the mark.

And now one reaches the point of comprehending why a separation—one would say a clash—has been produced between the statue of Columbus and the Monument to the Discovery. Everything that appears as surprising and contradictory in the square is, in reality, a reflection of what was the world divided, of the dreamer and the man of action.

Notes to Reverie and ActionThe Bomarzo Woods

Bomarzo:1 The Opera2

Before the curtain rises, the voice of the Shepherd Boy fills the theater:
“Poor though I am,

I would not trade places

with the Duke of Bomarzo.

He has a herd of rocks

and my herd is of sheep.

I am content with what is mine

with this peace of Bomarzo,

the sweet voice of the stream,

the cicadas’ song…”
There is an Act I, Scene III, called “The Horoscope.” Later, the scene of “The Alchemy,” and finally, “The Park of the Monsters,” in which an enormous and grotesque face, carved in stone, appears. Then a baritone defines the situation with this stanza:
“It is a night for loving, like no other.

For dying as well, for everything trembles

with the mystery of unique hours.

And the enormous monsters that my brother

orders sculpted on taciturn stones3

lie in wait for those who dare

to walk along the thicket.”

Information on The Park

Near Viterbo, a hundred kilometers from Rome, there is a wood publicized today as “Parco dei Mostri” [The Park of Monsters . It is visited by tourists of various kinds. There are always some who are drawn by the site’s mystique, having heard a rumor passed on by word of mouth, newspaper articles and television programs. The basic idea is more or less like this:
The sacred wood of Bomarzo was created by a gentleman named Orsini in the sixteenth century. The park’s concept is purely esoteric, and anyone who knows how to walk in an orderly manner among its monuments achieves an inner transformation similar to what the alchemists effected in their laboratories.
In 1645, Vicino Orsini’s Sacro Bosco of becomes the property of the Della Rovere family. Only a few drawings without commentaries4 remain from this period. After a silence that lasts until 1845, the park resurfaces in the hands of the Borghese family. In 1953, a newspaper article5 calls attention to the Wood. In 1955, various studies iare published.6 In 1954, Giovanni Bettini acquires the property and makes significant changes, removing the bordering walls, outlining interior paths, and modifying the positions of the monuments (sphinxes, obelisks and others). After the restoration of some sculptures, the park is opened to the public.7 In 1955, a group of professors from the Facoltà di Architettura di Roma carries out an investigation on the archives and field work, including mapping. In 1958, Mujica Lainez visits the site,8 and in 1962 publishes his novel Bomarzo, which leads to the libretto of the opera of the same name, written in collaboration with Ginastera and premiered in 1967. From that moment on, numerous articles, books and films begin to diffuse a stereotypical image of the Sacro Bosco. Of course, apart from the works approached with scientific sobriety, fanciful works appear, inspired by the Bomarzo novel and opera, that force interpretations based a type of deep psychology that was popular in the 1970s.

The Place

The Sacro Bosco is located at the foot of the town of Bomarzo. Entering a gate, one comes upon a wood preserved in its “wild” state, interspersed with some conifers and a few cultivated species. No doubt during the time of Orsini this wood looked quite similar to the Nemi Wood , also quite close by, where stood the sanctuary to Diana Nemorensis, or Diana of the Forest . Like the Nemi wood, Bomarzo featured numerous oaks, dotted here and there with the sacred mistletoe, from which Aeneas broke off a golden bough so as to be able to enter Hell.9 But there is more than arboreal variety, streams, stone walls, constructions and sculpted rocks. There is, above all, an ambience ruled by the Mannerist aesthetici , in which the depersonalized Renaissance garden has lost its place. Here personal experience is now highlighted.10 In this wood, visual unity and spatial coherence have vanished. Places that occupy opposing positions in the imagery of the times are placed at the same level of importance. In this way, heavens and hells can coexist with all naturalness. This is made manifest in the statuary, which derives from figures sculpted in situ, taking advantage of the rocks already found there. The artist will use the elements at hand and take advantage of the topographical conditions to design his garden. A continual allegorization will become manifest, inspired by myths and legends that produce “wonder” and amazement in the spectator. Here the system of thought that was so fond of geometry, equilibrium and rationality, that a few years before had reigned over the paths, gardens and villas of cultivated Europe, has already changed.11

For anyone interested in comprehending the formation and process of profound mythic images that originated with Western Humanism and continues into our times, this forest will be paradigmatic. It will be necessary to revisit the springs of inspiration that Vicino Orsini and the artists who worked in Bomarzo drank from, in order to comprehend the meanings of the sphinxes, ogres, demigods and fabled animals that populate the site.

Bibliographic References

The earliest bibliographic note reports on the letters exchanged by Pierfrancesco Orsini and the French alchemist Jean Drouet . The correspondents were connoisseurs of Bernardo Tasso’s Amadigi and Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso; however, these men hold in esteem, above all other literature, that strange book entitled Hypnerotomachia Poliphili ,12 also one of the most important sources of a profusion of literary, pictorial and sculptural productions. Furthermore, its influence will make itself felt in numerous architectural productions, and even in landscape design.13 We should take into consideration the first Venetian edition of 1499, an in-folio illustrated with 171 wood engravings, in which one can observe the plastic representation of the text descriptions. Taking the first chapter of Poliphilo’s Dream (“The struggle of love in the dreams of Poliphilo”), illustrated by the first woodcut, we see the figure of the protagonist entering the wood. The text comes to our aid: “…hard wild holm oaks, strong black and holm oaks laden with acorns and such an abundance of branches that they did not allow the sun’s pleasant rays to completely reach the dew-drenched ground.” The book’s dense descriptions continue thus, until they lead to interminable encounters (illustrated by the engravings) with abandoned buildings, Egyptian-style pyramids, domes, towers and pantheons, temples and obelisks. Large amphorae and gigantic vases also appear, marvelous trees, incomprehensible machines and devices. Of course elephants, winged horses, and dragons are unfailingly present. Processions, ceremonies and rituals follow in succession, showing beautiful maidens and youths in readiness for the practice of pagan religiosity and the dramas of love. And there are, of course, the transformisms of Poliphilo’s dream, which present his beloved Polia in opposing facets of mysticism and criminality.

The hieroglyphics, extravagantly commented on, also play an important role. Here is an example:

When I finally returned to the square, I saw a pedestal of porphyry, carved around it were these majestic hieroglyphs: first, a bull’s cranium with two farming tools tied to its horns; and an altar supported over the two hooves of a billy goat, with a burning flame above it, and on its forehead, an eye and a vulture; later a wash bowl and a washstand… these hieroglyphs were writings rendered in superb sculpture. I meditated on these ancient and sacred scriptures and interpreted them thus: EX LABORE DEO NATVRAE SACRIFICA LIBERALITER, PAVLATIM REDVCES ANIMVM DEO SVBIECTUM. FIRMAM CVSTODIAM VITAE TVAE MISERICORDITER GVBERNANDO TENEBIT, INCOLVMENQVE SERVABIT.14

Although Poliphilo’s Dream is the immediate bibliographic source that serves as inspiration for the artisans of the Bomarzo Woods, the book’s imagery has, in turn, very remote origins. With respect to the hieroglyphs commented on above, we must point out that by 1422, the Hieroglyphica15 - had already begun to circulate, and it had become fashionable to write, paint and sculpt in this style, overladen with allegories and signs that in many cases were indecipherable. Perhaps one of the best expressions of hieroglyphic art can be found in “Maximillian’s Triumphal Arch,” engraved in wood by Dürer in 1515.16 And so it was that in Poliphilo’s Dream , as well as in so many works until the early nineteenth century (and even today in occultist texts), the hieroglyphic interpretations based on the Hieroglyphica were considered authoritative, until they lost all credibility when the Egyptian language was effectively deciphered in 1822.17

The inspirational bibliography of the Sacro Bosco artisans is very extensive, and is of course by no means limited to Poliphilo’s Dream, but is indissolubly linked to the productions of the fifteenth century humanists, influenced by Byzantine thought and by the rediscovery of the Alexandrian rigor of the third century.18 On the other hand, not only is there a concurrence of an abundant literature here, but of an oral tradition as well, that is transmitted through architects, designers and sculptors.

The Woods

We have in our hands a catalog —almost an inventory—that gives an account of the “marvelous” objects in the Wood. It mentions some sphinxes, the monument to the Triple Light , the Gigantomachy [Wrestling between Giants] , the harpies, the giant turtle, the dog Cerberus , the elephant topped by a tower , Pegasus and the dragon confronting a wild beast. The sacred places are also mentioned: Neptune’s fountain , the leaning tower of meditation , the nymphs’ cavern, the fountain of life. This material, prepared as a guide for tourists as to the order in which they should take pictures, also elaborates on the ambient light of the place, the vegetation, streams, the ascending and descending planes, the stairways, artificial grottos, the footpaths with the aligned amphorae…. It is well worth devoting a morning to careful observation of this endeavor, carried out over four hundred years ago. It will also be interesting to follow a group of visitors as they listen to the guide dissertate on the ceremonies of magic held here; on the alchemists who, after following an initiatory circuit , finally acquired an ineffable knowledge.

We shall reach the wood by walking along a brook. A river, a bridge and a gate with battlements that bears the Orsini coat of arms will come into view. We shall enter the space that Pierfrancesco referred to in several of his letters as “El Sacro Bosco” (The Sacred Woods) .
The visitor is received by two “gynocephalic [female-headed] sphinxes ” that face one another. These fabled creatures, reposing over their pedestals, present their riddles, written in stone. But here is our first surprise. These monsters do not ask the classical riddles. They are not models of profundity, but are rather like advertising signs with slogans written in the taste and style of the day. A sphinx invites us to respond to her exacting challenge: “TU CH’ENTRI QUI CON MENTE PARTE A PARTE ET DIMMI POI SE TANTE MARAVIGLIE SIEN FATTE PER INGANNO O PUR PER ARTE.”19 The inscription on the other sphinx says: “CHI CON CIGLIA INARCATE ET LABRA STRETTE NON VA PER QUESTO LOCO MANCO AMMIRA LE FAMOSE DEL MONDO MOLI SETTE”.20 This is a reproach, and a demand for “seriousness.” The Seven Wonders of the World are mentioned in passing, letting us make a mental association with the eighth. We breathe more easily upon realizing that there is a careless humor in the statement, not entirely without impudence, but removed from any ponderous solemnity. Seeing this, nothing better than to continue searching for the messages that we may be given by the craftsmen of the Wood, directly and without the intermediation of interpretative theories.21

When we come upon the “battle between giants ,” on a stone stele to the left of the monument we read: “SE RODI ALTIER GIA FU DEL SUO COLOSSO PUR DE QUEST IL MIO BOSCO ANCO SI GLORIA E PER PIU NON POTER FO QUANTO POSSO”.22 One more instance of self-glorification.

In the so-called ninfeo [nymphs’ cavern], we find an inscription, unfortunately quite worn by the passage of time. We can only make out these words: “L’ANTRO LA FONTE IL LI … D’OGNI OSCUR PENSIER...”.23

And searching for new inscriptions, we come to the “theatre ,” which, as in any important Roman garden, could not be left out. In the proscenium one can read with difficulty: “PER SIMIL VANITA MI SON AC… (CORDA)… TO D’ONORARE…”.24 At the foot of this stage, portions of two recently-unearthed obelisks have been placed. One of them says: “VICINO ORSINO NEL MDLII.”25 The other announces: “SOL PER SFOGARE IL CORE.”26


Coming to the “Orco”—the ogre—we see this legend on the monster’s upper lip: “OGNI PENSIERO VOLA”.29

Nearby is an “Etruscan bench ” whose backrest says: “VOI CHE PEL MONDO GITE ERRANDO. VAGHI DI VEDER MARAVIGLIE ALTE ED STUPENDE VENITE QUA, DOVE SON FACCIE HORRENDE ELEFANTI, LEONI, ORSI, ORCHI ET DRAGHI”. 30 It is an invitation to see an amusement park.

An inscription on the “rotunda ,” or circle, reiterates the undisguised promotion of the Wood: “CEDAN ET MEMPHI E OGNI ALTRA MARAVIGLIA CH EBBE GIAL MONDO IN PREGIO AL SACRO BOSCO CHE SOL SE STESSO ET NULL ALTRO SOMIGLIA”.31

The inscriptions have enabled us to understand the intentions of Bomarzo’s creators; at least, we’ve understood the direct messages of Pierfrancesco Orsini . But with this disclosure of the interest of this visit, we find ourselves before a hollowness of meaning…

We have not gone into the imagery of this Woods because it is not its exclusive patrimony, but has to do with the common landscape wherein the mystique of the Renaissance is expressed—a mystique at times barely delineated, and at others—as in this case—roundly presented.

Whether because of epochal necessity or in order to accentuate the ingenious personality of the lord of the place, the architects, designers and sculptors called on alchemical, astrological and mystery themes, we cannot presume that the artisans had full knowledge of what sorts of meanings they were dealing with . In any case, the expressions of that mystique are there before our eyes, and—as can happen in some abandoned attics—valuable materials accumulate amidst the many absurdities. Surely the information (or, better said, the disinformation) on the Bomarzo Woods will multiply. We’ll be able to consult virtual libraries, leaf through books that will talk in a disorganized way about the stars, the philosopher’s stone, and even about the collective unconscious; but none of it will ease the access to a complex cultural ambience that began to be forged in the Hellenic syncretism of ancient Alexandria.

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