Sunday, August 21, 2011

As Above, So Below: A Novel of Peter Bruegel by Rudy Rucker

In this rich imagining of the life of 16th century Flemish painter, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Rudy Rucker  uses one of Bruegel's works to title each chapter.  The novel spans the second half of his life, to his death at age 44. It begins in 1551 with his trip to Italy and subsequent return to Antwerp as a young man, then the progress of his love life, friendships, and family life as he built a following for his work (and dropped the 'h' from his surname). His paintings and drawings contained veiled political and religious commentary, a risky thing during a time when treason and religious heresy were punishable by death.

Art lovers and fans of historical fiction will find this book interesting. I picked it up before heading off to Belgium and only got halfway through before my trip. Now that I'm home, I just couldn't seem to get back into it, so I read the final chapter  to see how things turned out and it feels like that is enough. It was nice that the storyline involving Bruegel's gay friend, mapmaker Ortelius, is also wrapped up in the final chapter.

I learned a lot, but it isn't exactly a page-turner. Rucker's style is often more like a university lecture (albeit an interesting one). Here's an example: "Leaning against the wall were two great oak panels, nearly five feet across and four feet high, each of them painted with hundreds of little figures, too many to count.* Bruegel and his patron Nicolas Jonghelinck called them wemel paintings. The word wemel meant 'seethe' or 'boil'; it was the word they'd used in Bruegel's village to describe the motion of a mass of insects:** like ants, like the roly-poly bugs found under a rotten log, or like the springtails in a wet pile of duckweed at the river's edge."

While I was in a museum in Brussels, it was a thrill to see the original painting that was used on the dust jacket of this book, The Fall of the Rebel Angels. Reading As Above, So Below, (well, as much of it as I managed) gave me a greater appreciation and a deeper understanding of the early Flemish art I saw on the trip. In the story, Bruegel spends hours examining the paintings of his hero, Hieronymous Bosch. This gave me the idea to take my time with similar art, since so much is going on in them. I felt rewarded to spy such things as a street vendor cooking waffles in The Fight Between Carnival and Lent. And then I went outside to enjoy waffles on the streets of Brussels...

*A quibble - I believe stars are too many to count, but not figures in a painting.
 **Why didn't he just put a period here?
Pieter Brueghel II; detail from a copy of his father's work.

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