X

Create an account to continue reading.

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles
For unlimited access to The Spectator, subscribe below

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles

Sign in to continue

Already have an account?

What's my subscriber number?

Subscribe now from £1 a week

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
 
View subscription offers

Already a subscriber?

or

Subscribe now for unlimited access

ALL FROM JUST £1 A WEEK

View subscription offers

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Login

Don't have an account? Sign up
X

Subscription expired

Your subscription has expired. Please go to My Account to renew it or view subscription offers.

X

Forgot Password

Please check your email

If the email address you entered is associated with a web account on our system, you will receive an email from us with instructions for resetting your password.

If you don't receive this email, please check your junk mail folder.

X

It's time to subscribe.

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access – from just £1 a week

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
X

Sign up

What's my subscriber number? Already have an account?

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Your subscriber number is the 8 digit number printed above your name on the address sheet sent with your magazine each week.

Entering your subscriber number will enable full access to all magazine articles on the site.

If you cannot find your subscriber number then please contact us on customerhelp@subscriptions.co.uk or call 0330 333 0050.

You can create an account in the meantime and link your subscription at a later time. Simply visit the My Account page, enter your subscriber number in the relevant field and click 'submit changes'.

Please note: Previously subscribers used a 'WebID' to log into the website. Your subscriber number is not the same as the WebID. Please ensure you use the subscriber number when you link your subscription.

Books

Currents of imagery

17 December 2011

9:00 PM

17 December 2011

9:00 PM

The Book of the Wind: The Representation of the Invisible Alessandro Nova

McGill-Queen’s University Press, pp.223, 50

In the first book of his scientific-cum-philosophical poem ‘De rerum Natura’ — or ‘On the Nature of Things’ — Lucretius draws the reader’s attention to the power of invisible forces. The wild wind, he wrote,

whips the waves of the sea, capsizes huge ships, and sends the clouds scudding; sometimes it swoops and sweeps across the plains in tearing tornado, strewing them with great trees, and hammers the heights of the mountains with forest-spitting blasts.

It was a description I was well placed to appreciate as I read this whimsical, scholarly and original book while staying in a Georgian folly on a country estate in Kent. All around this mock gothic tower, in the words of Lucretius, ‘the frenzied fury of the wind’ shrieked, raged and menacingly murmured. Off the Welsh coast a ship sank and sailors drowned.

In the modern world the winds remain a formidable power. They still destroy and create, bring drought and rain, life and death. Alessandro Nova, an Italian art historian, has set himself the intriguing project of writing a history of how these invisible forces have been represented in art. How do you depict a current of air? Beyond that he sets himself another question: how do painters and sculptors show us anything that cannot be seen? Because, a moment’s reflection will reveal, art is full of images of things that cannot strictly speaking, be seen: thoughts, beliefs, even sounds.

The ancient Greeks regarded the winds, like rivers, as minor male gods. The Tower of the Winds, a building from the first or second century BC in the forum at Athens — part clock, part weather-gauge — is decorated with carvings of these blustery deities, one on each of its eight sides. Boreas, the cold and ferocious North Wind, is elderly and hirsute; Zephyr, the West Wind, bringing spring and summer rain, is a youth whose cloak is bulging with flowers and ears of wheat.

[Alt-Text]


 These personifications had a long life in European imagery. From them descend the puffing cherubs in the corners of old maps. Their most memorable appearances in the Renaissance, however, were in paintings by Botticelli. In ‘The Birth of Venus’, two fluttering figures with inflated cheeks waft the naked goddess to shore and to the right of Primavera a chilly-looking blue fellow clutches the nymph Flora (he is, according to Nova, impregnating her with his breath so that flowers stream out of her mouth).

There was another current of wind imagery: the Hebrew tradition in which a wind might be a manifestation not just of a minor, seasonal divinity, but of Almighty God. The prophet Elijah ascended Mount Horeb, where he fell asleep in a cave. In the morning he was struck by a wild, rock-cleaving storm, ‘but the Lord was not in the wind’. Nor was he in the earthquake and fire that followed, but then a light breeze arose, and Elijah, covering his face with his mantle, knew that he was in the presence of the Lord.

The sky and tempest as a manifestation of the divine go hand in hand in later European landscape painting with close observation of natural phenomena. Towards the end of his career, for example, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) produced drawings of cataclysmic tempests, in which cities are engulfed and tiny trees and figures blasted by mighty forces swirling in the sky.

It is not clear what subject, if any, he was depicting: the Biblical Flood, the Apocalypse, or some personal fantasy. But the formula he used to draw the twisting and spiral currents — like plaited hair or taut springs — is astonishingly close to a satellite photograph reproduced later in this book of El Niño creating a massive and menacing spiral weather system over the Pacific Ocean. That is decidedly one up to Leonardo, pioneer scientist.

The Book of the Wind charts an audacious course. Beginning in Classical Greece, Nova ends with contemporary artists such as Anish Kapoor, whose ‘Ascension’ is a miniature typhoon of vapour, shaped by enormous fans. It was to be seen — just — during the last Venice Biennale, curving skywards like a ghost beneath the dome of Palladio’s church of San Giorgio Maggiore.

On occasion Nova is blown off course. He spends a good deal of time on the storms and shipwrecks of 17th-century painting — a favourite subject of Dutch and Flemish masters — but waves and clouds are much easier to paint than currents of air, and scarcely invisible. Indeed, the question of when a work of art is actually representing wind and not just weather is an elusive one. But the pursuit of this art historical will-o’-the-wisp is enlightening, and accompanied by many beautiful illustrations. 

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.


Show comments
Close