Welsh landscape in perspective

Jenkins begins The Valley of Bones (VB) with his Welsh regiment in a seaside village in Wales. He describes the setting: “The streets, built at constantly changing levels, were not without a bleak charm, an illusion of tramping through Greco’s Toledo in winter, or one of those castellated townships of Tuscany, represented without great regard for perspective in the background of quattrocento portraits.” [VB 6/2]

View of Toledo El Greco (1596-1600) oil on canvas, 19 x 17 in Metropolitan Museum of Art photo in public domain from Wikipedia.org

View of Toledo
El Greco (1597-8)
oil on canvas, 48 x 43 in
Metropolitan Museum of Art
photo in public domain from Wikipedia.org

El Greco (1541-1613) was born Domenikos Theotokopoulos in Iraklion, Crete. He trained in Venice and Rome but spent most of his career in Toledo, Spain. He was best known for his portraits, and  View of Toledo is his sole surviving landscape, which is not surprising since landscape painting was not in favor in seventeenth century Spain. He painted not for realism but for mood, conveying the threat of a coming storm (Zappella, khanacademy.org), an apt image at the beginning of the three volumes of Dance that cover the years of the War. El Greco started painting in a flat Byzantine tradition, which may help explain any liberties that he took with perspective.

The Agony in the Garden (right panel of the predella of the San Zeno Altarpiece, 1455) Andrea Mantegna, 1458-1460 tempera on panel, 25 x 32 in National Gallery, London photon in public domain from the Yorck project via Wikimedia.org.

The Agony in the Garden (right panel of the predella of the San Zeno Altarpiece, 1455)
Andrea Mantegna, 1458-1460
tempera on panel, 25 x 32 in
National Gallery, London
photo in public domain from the Yorck project via Wikimedia.org.

Mastery of perspective long preceded El Greco. Masaccio (Italian 1401-1428) managed coherent depictions of space using linear perspective early in the quattrocento, and after Brunelleschi’s demonstrations of the geometrical basis of linear perspective mid-century, most Italian painting had lost that wobbly charm that Nick sees in the Welsh seaside village.   At the same time, Italian portraits of single individuals posed in front of distant views of their domains only came into popularity late in the 15th century.  We could find no example of a castellated township of Tuscany in a quattrocento portrait, with or without “great regard for perspective.”  So probably Powell has inadvertently caused Nick to conflate two periods in Italian art history here.  No matter, this Agony in the Garden by Andrea Mantegna (Italian 1431-1506) is an apt example of the effect Nick is thinking of.  The castellated township here is meant to represent Jerusalem, and its internal perspective is pretty convincing, but it is seen from a point of view different from the several other points of view that Mantegna uses in this painting’s areas of interest.  Brunelleschi had already shown that a convincing spatial effect was predicated on a single point of view, but Mantegna seems not to have consolidated an understanding of that concept in this painting.  Perhaps at the time Mantega completed this painting Brunelleschi’s revelations had not quite made their way from Florence to the Veneto, where Mantegna lived and worked, but Mantegna had surely become one of the great masters of naturalistic perspective by the end of his productive life.

 

 

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