Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Netherlandish Proverbs and the Practice of Rhetoric.

Author:Kavaler, Ethan Matt
Position::Essay - Critical essay


Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Netherlandish Proverbs and the Practice of Rhetoric Zwolle: Waanders Publishers, 2002. 176 pp.; 50 color ills., 50 b/w. $60.00.


Architektur der Gotik/ Gothic Architecture: Bestandskatalog der weltgrossten Sammlung an gotischen Baurissen der Akademie der bildenden Kunste Wien/ Catalogue of the World-Largest Collection of Gothic Architectural Drawings in the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna

Salzburg: Verlag Anton Pustet, 2005. 464 pp.; 501 color ills.; 8 b/w. [euro]195.00

The art and architecture of the early modern period are rarely considered together, partly a consequence of the way academic disciplines have been institutionally constituted. Yet both can shed light on similar problems from different perspectives. One of these is the relation of the work to the text. With the painting of Pieter Bruegel, this most clearly refers to the problematic dependence on a verbal text. With architecture, it concerns the relation of buildings to the drafted text--the architectural drawing.

Few of Pieter Bruegel's paintings are so distinctive as his large panel of 1559 in the Gemaldegalerie, Berlin, known as Netherlandish Proverbs. Across its span of more than five feet, diminutive figures of modest villagers and well-heeled burghers act out more than eighty vernacular sayings. The ostensible subject is curious enough, and the overall design, which seems to deny the usual narrative access, is bewildering to modern eyes.

Mark Meadow's concise monograph on this picture (volume 4 in the Studies in Netherlandish Art and Cultural History series) raises some crucial issues for the study of early modern art in northern Europe. First among these is the relation of art to rhetoric, to the principles and procedures that governed the fashioning and comprehension of written texts. Second is the epistemological value of art, its potential for creating or facilitating the construction of knowledge. The book necessarily considers the connection between Bruegel's ethnographic interests and learned humanist culture.

The author also addresses the early theoretical writings on northern art and Bruegel. Meadow includes a short discussion of Bruegel's critical reputation among early writers, his status as a learned and self-reflective artist, and his adoption of a vernacular style. Because these observations do not greatly expand on the views expressed in earlier articles by Jan Muyle, David Freed-berg, and Meadow himself, I will concentrate on the author's central interest, the genesis and semiotic properties of Bruegel's painting Netherlandish Proverbs.

Meadow introduced many of these issues in an article of 1992 in the Volkskundig Bulletin, a rather recondite ethnological publication. (1) Since then he has found time to elaborate on these concepts and make them available in a more accessible venue. He focuses chiefly on the peculiar accumulative manner of design that characterizes this picture. His principal insight is his perception of a relation between the painting's structure and rhetorical procedures for amassing authoritative quotations, including proverbs. Thus, Bruegel's compositional techniques are found to derive from mental habits formed by strategies of textual collection. In attempting to come to terms with Bruegel's strange invention, Meadow has recourse to two roughly contemporary cultural phenomena: the Wunderkammer, with its rules for ordering artifacts from both the natural and man-made world, and the so-called notebook system, an educational procedure for collecting and arranging textual references.

A significant section of Meadow's book concerns not Bruegel's painting directly but rather the notebook system itself, its development, and its adaptation to the collection of proverbs in the sixteenth century. The author recounts the pedagogical practice of collecting valuable passages and, more important, of organizing them according to topics that imparted a structure to these particles of knowledge. Following the notebook system, phrases and passages from educational readings would be transcribed in study books under set loci, or "places." These places were originally dependent on the rhetorical needs of preaching and consisted initially of the standard vices and virtues. Quotations of similar import would be stored together--sometimes with their opposites--as a way of facilitating their recall in appropriate situations.

Meadow makes good use of Ann Moss's enlightening study Printed. Commonplace-Books and the Structuring of Renaissance Thought, which describes much of this practice. (2) Like Walther Ong, R. R. Bolgar, and Anthony Grafton before her, Moss examines in great detail the educational procedure of culling revered or useful passages from approved texts and assembling them according to topic in commonplace books. The development of printing both stabilized and homogenized what had at first been an intensely personal practice. Of course, proverbs made up only one category of commonplaces gathered by schoolchildren--and not the greatest portion, at that. But they themselves were the subject of special collections, and it makes sense for Meadow to devote considerable space to a consideration of proverb compendiums in the sixteenth century.

More essential to Meadow's argument is the mental ordering that he claims resulted from the inculcation of the notebook system in school. The headings under which textual passages were recorded imparted an essential arrangement to the mind, a humanist "deep structure" that replicated itself in all applications. This is an ambitious claim.

Meadow asserts that the buildings Bruegel depicts are important as loci for the reception of related proverbs, and he reminds the reader that Cicero and Quintilian had recommended that memory be structured like architecture, with certain types of data assigned to one of numerous fictional "rooms" or intercolumnar spaces. Meadow endeavors to distance Bruegel's painting from the conventional memory palace (p. 53), yet the formation the author points out resembles precisely this sort of mnemonic edifice.

And, indeed, there are differences: these architectural constructs were meant to house statements with a natural relation to each other. In Bruegel's painting, the associations between most proverbs are weak, variable, and superficial. Meadow proposes some general headings that he feels dictated the array of proverbs represented, but these seem insufficient as determinants of Bruegel's design. First of all, his headings are seldom distinct--grouped, for example, around different associations with the notion of the "world." Others have to do with shapes, such as the general figure of the wheel that Meadow introduces. It is possible that Bruegel intuited similarities between proverbs that he visualized using similar abstract forms, but these conglomerations would appear to have little to do with the rhetorical headings employed by schoolchildren who had mastered the notebook system. Furthermore, it is not clear that they represent the manner in which Bruegel stored proverbs in his memory and ineluctably recalled them. Sometimes it seems as if Meadow wants to claim Bruegel's Netherlandish...

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