Monday, May 27, 2024

Perspective of the Trevi Fountain

 Office of Sir John Soane, Interior of Hagia Sophia (detail), c. 1806-19


Sir John Soane’s Museum currently has a small exhibition called 'Fanciful Figures', focusing on the evolution of staffage in architectural drawings. I have included here a couple of photos I took when we visited yesterday. The painting above is by an unknown artist and was used for Soane's Royal Academy lectures. He was not really interested in the design of the building ('very defective'); the point was to illustrate the vast scale of the Hagia Sophia, at that time the world's largest interior space. I think the image resembles contemporary landscape watercolours, with small figures gazing up at awe-inspiring mountainous walls. The beautiful drawing of the Trevi fountain below includes figures so small as to be somewhat surreal - they are not only tiny compared to the architecture,  they are also out of scale with each other. 'Even more strange,' the curators note, 'is that the figures stand with their feet below a thick ruled line - possibly a border line - indicating their placement outside the principal composition'. It is as if figures in a landscape have been minimised to such an extent they have been pushed outside the frame.

Laurent Pécheux, Perspective of the Trevi Fountain, c. 1755

William Aslet has written a piece for Apollo about this exhibition which mentions this question of scale. 

If we look closely at Leonard Knyff’s c. 1695 drawing of one of Sir Christopher Wren’s schemes for Greenwich Hospital, for example, we see that many of the figures are comically out of scale and that the galleons in the drawing’s foreground are the same size as the rowing boats alongside them. If they do not convey the building’s size, what purpose do these details serve? Here things become more nuanced. Knyff’s drawing of Greenwich is for a project that was never fully realised. The staffage here works alongside the exaggerated – and unrealistic – sense of perspective to beguile the viewer with vignettes that do not just give a sense of scale, but also make the building seem alive. It is no coincidence, then, that several of the most impressive drawings included in the Soane’s exhibition are for buildings that probably never could have been executed.

Friday, May 10, 2024

Boating on Ruoye stream in the spring

The Government of Zhejiang Province have recently launched the Poetry Road Cultural Belt. There is a fascinating article on the literary sources for this, ‘Spatial patterns, causes and characteristics of the cultural landscape of the Road of Tang Poetry based on text mining: take the Road of Tang Poetry in Eastern Zhejiang as an example’ by Xuesong Xi, Xingrun An, Guangming Zhang & Shifan Liang. They analyse 1593 poems written in Eastern Zhejiang by 451 poets of the Tang Dynasty. These relate to 79 places ‘which are classified into four categories, including natural land-scapes, residences of celebrities, Buddhist temples and Taoist temples, and administrative zones.’ The authors find 47 natural landscapes covered in the poems, ‘of which 36 are related to mountains and 11 to water landscape, such as Mount Tiantai, Mount Wozhou, Mount Wanwei, Jinghu Lake, Ruoye River and Shanxi River’. I've reproduced their map below.

The ‘celebrity houses’ the poems refer to are Lanting (the ‘Orchard Pavilion’ associated with Wang Xizhi, who I've mentioned on this blog before) and the houses of the politician and poet He Zhizhang (c. 659-744), Zheng Qian (a Han Dynasty diplomat) and Yan Wei (a brave Three Kingdoms period general). The Tang poems also reference the ‘folk-cultural landscape’: ‘the perch and Brasenia of Eastern Zhejiang, the Shan paper and wine of Shaoxing, the famous tea of Eastern Zhejiang from the Shanxi River and the Mount Tiantai, the various kinds of valuable medicinal herbs produced in the Mount Tiantai, and the rattan of Yuezhong, the Huading Rattan, which was preferred by the literati.’ 

I feel I should now conclude by mentioning some actual Tang Dynasty landscape poetry from Zhejiang. However, the study only covers the area south of the Fuchun River, so excludes Wuxing, where the poet-monk Jiaoran had his tea farm, Duqing where Meng Jiao lived, and the great city of Hangzhou, where Bai Juyi (as governor) built a causeway and Meng Haoran wrote a poem about watching the tidal bore (maybe I'll write about this natural phenomenon in a future post). I could talk about Hanshan (Cold Mountain) and his Buddhist friends in the Tiantai mountains, but they have featured here before. So I'll go for Qiwu Qian (692-749), whose 'Boating on Ruoye stream in the spring' is in the famous anthology of Three Hundred Tang Poems (a fraction of the number analysed by Xuesong Xi et al!)

Qiwu Qian was a friend of Wang Wei, who wrote a poem immortalising his failure to get into the civil service, 'To Qiwu Qian Bound Home After Failing an Examination'. Ruoye River is at the foot of the Kuaiji Mountain. As Stephen Owen says (in The Great Age of Chinese Poetry), Qiwu Qian's poem traces ‘the oldest thematic pattern in Chinese landscape poetry: the poet moves through the landscape, attaining enlightenment or understanding the futility of public life.’ Qiwu’s boat is blown by the evening breezes. ‘Mist over pools flies billowing, rolling, and the moon of the forest lowers behind me.'

Sunday, May 05, 2024

A tin flash in the sun-dazzle


I'm going to write about landscape in this book, but it needs a bit of explanation first. Here's the New Directions publisher's blurb:

Rummaging through his papers in 1958, Ezra Pound came across a cache of notebooks dating back to the summer of 1912, when as a young man he had walked the troubadour landscape of southern France. Pound had been fascinated with the poetry of medieval Provence since his college days. His experiments with the complex lyric forms of Arnaut Daniel, Bertran de Born, and others were included in his earliest books of poems; his scholarly pursuits in the field found their way into The Spirit of Romance (1910); and the troubadour mystique was to become a resonant motif of the Cantos. In the course of transcribing and emending the text of “Walking Tour 1912,” editor Richard Sieburth retraced Pound’s footsteps along the roads to the troubadour castles. “What this peripatetic editing process… revealed,” he writes, “was a remarkably readable account of a journey in search of the vanished voices of Provence that at the same time chronicled Pound’s gradual discovery of himself as a modernist poet.”

This transition towards Imagism was leading Pound to look for precise observation of nature in the best troubadour poetry. In Sieburth's introduction he describes Pound's attempts to read their poems in elements of the landscape he passed through. 

Ambling down the valley of the Dronne near Arnaut Daniel's birthplace at Ribérac, he verified the vernal vegetation of the countryside against vocabulary of the poet's cansos. Observing the rhythm of "cusps & hills, of prospects opened & shut" as the road climbed northward toward Mareuil, he wondered whether the structure of Arnaut's sestinas might not derive from patterns of recurrence in the local terrain. Having fought the wind and rain through the greater part of his journey, he reflected that he now "found a deal more force in certain lines & stanzas than I had ever expected ... if we consider them as sung by men to whom the condition of the weather was a necessary concomitant of every action & enjoyment... the prelude of weather in nearly every canzon becomes self evident, it is the actual reflection." (Three decades later, exposed to the elements at Pisa, the full force of these observations would hit home.)

Pound also had a theory about troubadour topography: that Bertran de Born's 'Lady Since You Care Nothing For Me', about a composite ideal love with features taken from the fairest beauties of Provence, actually disguised a military plan to take the castles where these ladies lived. Sieburth suspects that 'Pound was in fact unconsciously projecting his own private scenarios of phallic beleaguerment and grandeur onto the landscape of his troubadour alter-ego'. 

The notes Pound made are fragmentary - readable but hardly polished travel writing. They nevertheless contain flashes of imagistic description that anticipate the Cantos. Sieburth quotes one example, where light on the river Dordogne, 'a band of bluish metal with rippled chevrons in the shadows', looks forward to this phrase from Canto 2: 'There is a wine-red glow in the shallows, / a tin flash in the sun-dazzle.' 

The book also includes three poems from 1915 that were directly inspired by the walk - one of these, 'Provincia Deserta' provides 'the first occurrence in Pound's poetry of that rarefied, virtually Chinese landscape of mountains and valleys which provides the elevated topography of the paradiso of the late Cantos.' Sieburth quotes lines from this poem that refer to the town of Foix in the Pyrenees and I'll conclude here with some of the original notes Pound made in 1912:

To Foix by night...

We are come again to a place where the waters run swiftly & where we have always this chinese background. The faint grey of the mountains...

I had at last my plan of starting late in the day so the hills were full of cloud & mist & there were bright & dim colours upon them. I went into this Coliseum of hills with Foix like Caesar's stand behind me, but with a veiled light over it & scarcely visible. I went out the other end where a great sheet of rock juts thru the quarry, out & into a paler basin that faced me with light emerald & pearlish shadows. Then you go up & over till the sky shows blue before you. It is not the rd. of the diligence. One may lie on the earth & possess it & feel the world below one.

Of related interest:

'Ezra the Troubadour' - an article on Pound's travels and poems that includes Sieburth's map.

'Poundian Itineraries': An attempt to map Pound's later 1919 walking tour (and another article on his third walking tour in 1923).