Books  &  Reading
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

    Related Items

Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin

By Richard Davenport-Hines
North Point Press. 368 pp. $35.00

  Chapter One

Chapter One: The Spectre Still Will Haunt Us

Marketplace Online Shopping

Compare prices
for this book

More book shopping

Save money with NextCard Visa

Except for us, Vesuvius might consume
In solid fire the utmost earth and know

No pain (ignoring the cocks that crow us up
To die). This is a part of the sublime
From which we shrink. And yet, except for us,
The total past felt nothing when destroyed.
Wallace Stevens

The St Gotthard, like other catastrophes, becomes unbearable slowly
and seems never to be over. For some time they blinked in and out of minor tunnels;
suffocation and boredom came to their climax and lessened; one was in Switzerland,
where dusk fell in sheets of rain. Unwilling, Cecilia could not avert her eyes from all that
magnificence in wet cardboard: ravines, profuse torrents, crag, pine and snow-smeared
precipice, chalets upon their brackets of hanging meadow.
Elizabeth Bowen

Naples: An Ever-Moving Picture

Vesuvius has always evoked terror. The only interlude in its intimidation lasted from 1500 until 1631. The volcano had been somnolent for almost five centuries, quiescent since 1500, and it was believed by many that its fires were extinct. Neapolitans descended daily by tortuous paths to the luxuriant green bottom of the crater. Woodmen worked the dense woods flourishing on the lava soil; wild boar roamed there; herdsmen tended animals grazing on succulent grass. The crater walls at the bottom of the abyss were pierced with caverns through which wind whistled eerily. Late in 1631 there were earthquakes in the vicinity and water in adjacent wells fell mysteriously. Around 1 December an early visitor to the summit found the woods gone and the chasm level to the brim with volcanic matter. He walked across from one side to the other apparently neither awed at the magnitude of the-event nor apprehensive of danger. A few nights later local peasants were alarmed by demons growling in the mountain whom they tried to placate with religious ceremonies. On the night of 15 December, a bright star appeared glinting above the volcano; later that evening a lightning flash struck the mountain while its summit glowed with a deep red. Then smoke billowed out of the mountain; its pastures ignited in flames; huge stones were hurled from the crater. In Naples on the morning of the sixteenth the populace saw an extraordinary cloud shaped like a gigantic pine tree hanging over Vesuvius.

Still no one understood the terror threatening them, until the abbot Braccini, who had made a long study of the volcano, went to his library and read them Pliny's first-hand account of the Vesuvian eruption of AD 79. `There,' said Braccini, as he shut the book, `there, in the words of sixteen centuries ago, is depicted what you see today.' Earthquake shocks came faster, concussions boomed ever more loudly, people choked on the sulphurous stenches; their fear was all the worse for having had no premonition of danger. Around noon the city was enveloped in darkness; the houses, according to Braccini, swayed like ships at sea; there was a roaring sound like the blast of many furnaces; tongues of lightning flashed continuously; the crashes became appalling; Naples went wild with terror. Its Cardinal Archbishop ordered the Sacrament to be celebrated throughout the city. A solemn procession was organised to venerate the city's patron saint, but when the priests went to his relics, his blood was found to be liquefied and bubbling. The suffocation of Naples was, however, supposedly halted by the miraculous intervention of San Gennaro at the moment when his relics were being carried out to the cathedral square. The authorities sent drummers round the city beseeching the people to forsake the pollution of gross pleasures and selfish vices. Next day the sea receded for nearly half a mile from the coast, and then swept back in a huge wave to a point high above its usual level. Seven tongues of lava poured down the mountainside at terrible speed, destroying villages, killing thousands of people (one wiping out a religious procession). The lava flow soon reached the sea, which for days resembled a boiling cauldron.

Pliny's account of the destruction of Pompeii ensured the enduring notoriety of the Vesuvian eruption of AD 79; but the violent paroxysm in 1631 hugely impressed contemporary imagination: the terrible violence of Nature, the symbolism of storms and lightning, the puniness of humanity in everything except its fears, the horrors from whose ghastliness humanity is protected by proscription and custom. John Evelyn's emotions fourteen years later on beholding Vesuvius were typical: `I layd my selfe on my belly to looke over & into that most frightfull & terrible Vorago, a stupendious pit ... Some there are who maintaine it the very Mouth of hell it selfe, others of Purgatory, certainely it must be acknowledged one of the most horrid spectacles in the World.' The volcano's fascination, its power to excite emotion, its parabolic implications about human existence were continuous. In the early nineteenth century Lord Lytton wrote a similarly momentous description of Vesuvius:

From the crater arose a vapour, intensely dark, that overspread the whole background of the heavens; in the centre whereof rose a flame, that ... might have been compared to a crest of gigantic feathers, the diadem of the mountain, high-arched, and drooping downward, with the hues delicately shaded off, and the whole shifting and tremulous as the plumage on a warrior's helmet. The glare of the flame spread, luminous and crimson, over the dark and rugged ground ... An oppressive and sulphurous exhalation served to increase the gloomy and sublime terror of the place. But on turning from the mountain, and towards the distant and unseen ocean, the contrast was wonderfully great; the heavens serene and blue, the stars still and calm as the eyes of Divine Love. It was as if the realms of the opposing principles of Evil and of Good were brought in one view.

At the time of the 1631 eruption Naples was the capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and the second European city after Paris. It had been ruled since 1503 by Spanish viceroys after incorporation into the Hapsburg empire. The Spaniards drew the lawless provincial nobility away from their estates and enmeshed them in the duties and rituals of the viceregal court rather as Louis XIV later drew the French aristocracy into the elaborate etiquette and political impotence of court life at Versailles. These nobles built fine palaces, kept rich retinues about them, bickered over protocol and adopted the austere black clothes of their masters. As well as being a centre of political power and aristocratic display, Naples was a rich port (its inhabitants were exempt from many taxes) set among some of the most exciting vistas in Europe and celebrated for the beauty of its gardens. One consequence of the destruction of 1631 was an outburst of sumptuous rebuilding and ornamentation of Neapolitan churches with an attendant flowering of the arts. The Spanish authorities were, however, unable to suppress the bands of brigands swarming through the surrounding countryside in search of plunder and leaving desolation in their trail.

Naples excited raptures and fears in visiting Englishmen, fed their veneration of antiquity and gave them a new way to use their eyes. The castle of St Elmo, occupied by the garrison enforcing Spanish power, was visited in 1645 by John Evelyn: `built on an excessive high rock, whence we had an intire prospect of the whole Citty, which lyes in shape of a Theatre upon the Sea brinke'. Mounting a steep hill he `considerd the goodly Prospect towards the Sea, and Citty; the one full of Gallys, and ships, the Other of stately palaces, Churches, Monasteries, Castles, Gardens, delicious fields and meadows, Mount Vesuvius smoaking ... doubtlesse one of the most divertisant & considerable Vistas in the World'. This pictorial power and theatrical quality were persistently associated with Naples by the English. In the century after Evelyn's visit `the city and bay of Naples' were to Ann Radcliffe `an ever-moving picture'. To John Meade Falkner, a Victorian who visited the district for the prosaic reason that he was interested in a naval arsenal at Puzzuoli on the north of the bay, `the panorama of the most beautiful spot on earth, the Bay of Naples, with Vesuvius lying on the far side ... was unreal as a scene in some brilliant dramatic spectacle'.

Naples and its surrounding vistas enriched the English visual imagination in the late seventeenth century and gave a new gothic aesthetic to the English-speaking world. The antecedent imagination in this process is that of a proud, scornful Neapolitan painter called Salvator Rosa (1615-73). After Rosa's death his creative ideas were intellectualised by an artistic, invalid English nobleman, Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713). Shaftesbury's ideas were popularised by the poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744), who disseminated a new sense of the visual and the picturesque; Pope's version of Shaftesbury's doctrines and Rosa's images were then given solid form by the architect and landscape artist William Kent (1686-1748). This process would have been impossible without the new taste for Continental travel that developed among the English of the seventeenth century and without the new fortunes that enabled them to collect works of art.

Salvator Rosa: The Fascination of Horror

Salvator Rosa was born in the small village of Arenella, situated high above the Bay of Naples, in 1615. He retained the Neapolitan dialect and mannerisms all his life, and always regarded Naples as a paradisiacal place, though he reviled some of its customs. After his father's early death, he was deserted by his mother and endured uncongenial charity schooling. He had a truant disposition, and used to sketch with burnt sticks on the walls of his bedroom. Once he was severely whipped for thus decorating the walls of a chapel. He was simultaneously estranged and tempted by the sumptuous sybaritism in Naples — `all tinsel and frippery, like its population,' as Sade later wrote, `every other people have used the Neapolitans to establish a power; they alone have remained weak-willed and listless.'

Destined for the priesthood, Rosa became a novice in a local monastery, where he acquired the classical learning later manifest in his paintings and poems, but earned the enmity of the priests. At the age of sixteen, in 1631 (the year of the great Vesuvian eruption), he abandoned his novitiate and took to the Calabrian hills: `If there is no other religion than this of pope and cardinals, let us to the dragon's ambush and the dragon's den,' he is quoted as saying. It was fundamental to the English admiration of Rosa that he had repudiated monkish submission by vanishing into `wild but splendid regions ... which modern art had not yet violated', to quote his Irish Protestant biographer Lady Morgan in 1824. `Full of difficulty and peril ... they were alluring to one, who, lonely and proud in spirit, could find in the trackless solitude of Nature, magnificent and endless combinations of the sublime and the terrific.' Many romantic stories have been invented about Salvator Rosa. He is rumoured to have joined a bandit gang. Dumas represented him as an intimate friend of Masaniello, the handsome and reckless young fisherman who in 1647 led an insurrection against the Viceroy and was briefly installed as an arbitrary sovereign in Naples. After a few days' rule, the fisherman-prince suffered a nervous paroxysm, tearing off his clothes during a diatribe from the pulpit, and was killed in a volley of assassins' bullets. Rosa praised Masaniello, but the story of the Compagna della Morte, a band of Neapolitan artists including Salvator Rosa which roamed the city murdering Spanish soldiers, appears to be mythical.

Rosa began painting before leaving Naples for Rome about 1635; later he moved to Florence. In both places he was a poet, satirist, salonnaire and street actor as well as a painter. Like every ambitious baroque artist, he chiefly produced portraits and sacred or classical history paintings. To the latter he imparted coded messages: his picture of Diogenes the Cynic crouched in his barrel rejecting the conversational overtures of Alexander the Great, conqueror of the world, was a declaration of his own misanthropy and contemptuous independence of patrons. Literary images were important in his work. He asked poet friends for ideas, and pillaged the writings of Stoic historians for images to paint. Indeed, he called himself a Stoic and identified himself with Timon of Athens: his satire La Guerra is constructed as a dialogue between himself and Timon on the subject of despotism. His famous self-portrait in the garb of a philosopher emphasises that he was in earnest about moral philosophy. In keeping with this character, he was keen to praise Virtue and the triumphs of the virtuous. His scorn was that of a man anguished by the prevailing corruption, and his ethical ardour contributed to his isolation. Fellow painters resented his courting of literary intellectuals who in turn mistrusted his ethical pretensions.

Moreover, his artistic ambitions were baffled by contemporary consumer tastes. He avidly desired commissions to paint complex allegorical and historical paintings — Fortune and The Death of Regulus are ambitious examples of this line of work — but the papacy's prestige was declining in his lifetime and Roman patronage was unreliable. Failing to find powerful patrons, he popularised his work by selling pictures to what would now be called the middle classes. The traditional forms of landscape painting which had emerged from the Middle Ages — decorative, with historic allusions — were being superseded by new styles in the seventeenth century. A few artists produced paintings in which the landscape looked more important than the people or objects. Claude Lorrain (1600-82) gave the genre of landscape painting parity with historical figure painting; though a keen student of nature, he seldom painted directly from life, preferring idealised poetic landscapes evoking a Virgilian golden age removed from the crudities of nature or of the bamboccianti (painters of condescending little pictures of everyday life). Rosa's supreme gift, though, was in painting savage and desolate scenery. He saw the misery of the earth and of humanity represented in the harsh Calabrian landscape, and scorned the clients of the bamboccianti as sentimental fakers: `what they abhor in real life they like to see in a picture.' The Roman connoisseurs exasperated him too: `always they want my small landscapes, always, always, my small ones.' The success of these pictures seemed a mockery of his high intellectual ambitions, and entrenched him in a lifetime habit of angry disdain. He despised some of the best of his own works and raged at their admirers. He insulted his clients, telling one who made suggestions for a picture `to go to a brickmaker as they work to order'. Although by the late 1660s the demand for his work was international, Englishmen started buying his pictures only after his death, whereupon he became a specifically English, or perhaps British, taste.

His Scene of Witchcraft, for example, was bought by the first Lord Spencer and hung at Althorp (it is now in the National Gallery in London). In Rosa's lifetime it was owned by the Roman collector Carlo de'Rossi and provided the climax when he took his friends round his private gallery. De'Rossi kept it covered with a curtain, which he would draw aside with a flourish at the end of each tour. It is the quintessence of a gothic image, excessive yet evasive. On its far left a foul hag is directing a blindfolded young innocent to the centre of the picture; nearby an old man supports a skeleton half-dragged from its coffin so that a sinister confederate can force the skeletal fingers to write a forgery or inscribe a prophecy. In the background a coolly menacing white veiled figure holds candles. This last figure recalls the shrouded, festooned people who surround the Virgin Mary in the frescos of Mantegna; but the clothing of Rosa's figure also evokes the wrappings of a mummy and a leper. The hag, the old man and the shrouded attendant are villainous-looking figures constituting a tableau of deception and betrayal. They are oblivious to everyone surrounding them: indeed, though there are several distinct groups of people in the picture, none pays the slightest attention to any other. This is Salvator Rosa's reminder of the inwardness of people's fears and fantasies, and their potential for secret tawdriness.

The centre of the picture is dominated by a withered tree-trunk with a grimacing corpse hanging from its bough; this central image presents a total inversion of Christian values. The dead tree is a negative of the tree of life. There is a skull lying near its base, as there was in most pictures of the Crucifixion, for Christ's cross was grown from a sapling taken from the tree of life which had been planted in Adam's mouth after his death. The corpse evokes the traitor Judas who hanged himself; though, as a suicide, the dead man is damned, his remains are being offered incense by a woman who represents an inversion of Mary Magdalene. A witch meanwhile is severing the hanged man's toe-nails for use in her potions. In the foreground under the corpse a naked girl gazes into a mirror before which she holds a little wax model man which is reflected opaquely in its glass; behind this girl an uglier naked woman gapes and gasps with stupid prurience at the distorted reflection of the miniature. The women are hunched and intent figures engaged in acts of manipulative possession, their envy and slyness more repellent than their lust. Illicit desire, which subsumes much gothic literature, is the power commanding their attention. To their right, a crone squeezes entrails into a mortar and grinds with a bone as her pestle. Behind the crone a knight in armour sets fire to a white rabbit crouching in a magic circle; the knight, though, is bowed in submission, and is being beaten with a broomstick by a man wreathed as a poet, who in turn takes a bloody heart pierced on a swordpoint held out to him by a bearded necromancer. Behind the poet there rears a hideous predatory bird skeleton. On the right of the picture two witches approach riding bizarre monsters; they are the bad women who disrupt fertility and nurture: one with a vicious face clutches a swaddled innocent baby who must be sacrificed. The approach of dawn is signalled by lurid blue and golden streaks on the horizon.

Rosa perhaps had burlesque intentions in Scene of Witchcraft: the viciousness is so busy in this picture, and the old people and crones such potentially comical figures, with their grimacing faces reminiscent of the speciality of Neapolitan street theatre. Even in the direst extremities of the gothic imagination the evasiveness of burlesque and parody is never far away. There is certainly a burlesque element to Salvator Rosa's witchcraft poem. `La Strega', or `The Witch', tells of Phyllis, who threatens to use infernal spells on the lover who has forsaken her. `I'll try magic plots, unholy lays, strange herbs and nuts that stop the celestial wheels.' She lists the ingredients for her spells to summon the forces of iniquity: `A magic ring, icy streams, fish, alchemic draughts, black balsam, ground powders, mystic gems, snakes and owls, putrid blood, oozing guts, dried mummies, bones and grubs, fumigations that will blacken, horrid cries that terrify.' She intends to burn the wax image of her lover, for `when the false image burns/so burns the real one'. This poem was set to music, and `sung on a dark evening by a powerful soprano or, perhaps, by a counter-tenor, it may have tingled the spine'. Spine-tingling is a prime gothic effect; or rather a prime effect of gothic in the modern world.

Rosa was the precursor of every gothic revivalist down to the end of his millennium. `He had not the sacred sense ... he saw only what was gross and terrible,' Ruskin wrote of him. `I should not suspect Salvator of wantonly inflicting pain. His constantly painting it does not prove he delighted in it; he felt the horror of it, and in that horror, fascination.' When New York gallery glitterati in the 1990s stand before Joel Peter Witkin's photograph of an old, bald man's severed head, taken from a hospital mortuary, lying neatly in the centre of a salver of salad, they feel the horror of it, and in that horror, fascination. They become part of the gothic experience: Witkin's photographs are like Rosa's witchcraft paintings in twentieth-century accents. Rosa provided images for feelings that were too ubiquitous and fundamental to originate in any epoch or nation. They were irrational, pessimistic, fearful and uncanny. `Of all men whose work I have ever studied, he gives me most distinctly the idea of a lost spirit,' Ruskin continued. `I see in him, notwithstanding all his baseness, the last traces of spiritual life in the art of Europe. He was the last man to whom the thought of a spiritual existence presented itself as a conceivable reality.' This spiritual awareness entailed both inescapable, oppressive mystery and a sense of the puniness of human power. As the English connoisseur Lord Shaftesbury wrote, `The Specter still will haunt us, in some shape or other: and when driven from our cool Thoughts, and frighted from The Closet, will meet us even at Court.' Rosa's interest in the supernatural was reflected in his personal response to landscape. `The famous waterfall of the Velino', he enthused in 1662, was `enough to inspire the most fastidious brain with its horrid beauty: the sight of a river hurtling down a half-mile mountain precipice and raising a column of foam fully as high'.

Rosa was crucial to the emergence of a new sense of the pictorial in late-seventeenth-century England. As Margaret Jourdain described, `The works of Salvator Rosa, with their savage scenery of rocks, cascades and blasted trees, opened English eyes to the picturesque qualities of the wilder kind of scenery; and the wide landscapes of Claude Lorrain, diversified by ruined temples and other fragments of the antique world, were adopted as setting the standard for the pictorial qualities of park landscape.' Rosa's precipices, withered trees, pitiless outlaws and bold, strangely armed solitaries never delighted French collectors, with their national affinity for Watteau, Fragonard and Boucher. Claude-Joseph Vernet, the French artist who settled in mid-eighteenth-century Italy to paint Salvatorian views of the Neapolitan coast, sold much of his work to British tourists: Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, who painted Salvatorian banditti, moved to live in his best market, London, in 1771. Supposedly it was during his bandit adventures that Rosa learnt this landscape style that the English so relished: it is typified by Attack by Bandits, an early Rosa picture sold to the Duke of Dorset in 1770 (and still at Knole), in which three travellers are maltreated and robbed while riding through a narrow rocky crevice: characteristically there are stunted trees and trailing ivy on the surrounding crags, and on the high outcrop there is a remote and desolate building.

At one level such pictures could be read as literal exercises in story-telling. Attacks by bandits were a real menace. Brownlow Colyear, the young heir to two rich grandfathers, Lord Portmore and the last Duke of Ancaster, who was fatally wounded by banditti at Gensano while on the grand tour, was one of their most poignant English victims. But Salvatorian bandit landscapes produced more complicated evocations. Ann Radcliffe's ode `Superstition' connects Salvatorian landscape with spiritual fears, its human figures with lost souls:

Enthron'd amid the wild impending rocks,
     Involved in clouds, and brooding future woe,
The demon Superstition Nature shocks,
     And waves her sceptre o'er the world below.

Around her throne, amid the mingling glooms,
     Wild — hideous forms are slowly seen to glide,
She bids them fly to shade earth's brightest blooms,
     And spread the blast of desolation wide.

Lord Lytton's account of Rosa similarly presented the little banditti figures as [Illegible]: `His images have the majesty, not of the god, but the savage; ... he grasps [Illegible] imagination, and compels it to follow him, not to the heaven, but through all [Illegible] most wild and fantastic upon earth.' In more conventional painters, Lytton [Illegible] in his gothic novel Zanoni (1842), set largely in Naples, `the living man, and the [Illegible] that lives in him, are studiously made the prominent image; and the mere accessories of scene kept down, and cast back, as if to show that the exile from [Illegible] yet the monarch of the outward world'. By contrast

in the landscapes of Salvator, the tree, the mountain, the waterfall, become the principal, and the man himself dwindles to the accessory. The matter seems to reign supreme, and its true lord to creep beneath its stupendous shadow. Inert matter giving interest to the immortal man, not the immortal man to the inert matter. A terrible philosophy in art!

Thomas Burnet and the Sublimity of Mountains

Until the late seventeenth century literary evocations of landscape remained, very few exceptions, descriptive lists with little evocative power, individuality or [Illegible]. Landscape in seventeenth-century poetry was used to symbolise [Illegible] or to indicate the amenities that came from property and power. Limitations [Illegible] travel meant that Shakespeare and Dryden probably never saw a mountain in [Illegible] lives. Dryden's opinion of rugged landscape suggests that his knowledge was theoretical rather than direct; he seems entrenched in the contemporary view that [Illegible] Nature must be tamed. `High objects', he wrote in 1667, `attract the sight; [Illegible] looks up with pain on craggy rocks and barren mountains, and continues not [Illegible] on any object, which is wanting in shades of green to entertain it.' His revulsion [Illegible] shared by travellers too. John Evelyn in 1746 found the Alps `strange, horrid & [Illegible] full', and their mountain people with their goitres `ougly, shrivel'd & deform'd [Illegible] of gigantic stature, extreamly fierce and rude'.

The English response to mountain scenery was drastically revised under [Illegible] influence of Thomas Burnet (1635-1715). Early in the reign of King Charles II, [Illegible] young Cambridge clergyman, he left England as the travelling companion of [Illegible] Wiltshire (afterwards first Duke of Bolton). It cannot have been an easy journey. Wiltshire `would take a conceit not to speak one word, and at other times he would not open his mouth till such an hour of the day, as he thought the air was pure; he changed the day into night, and often hunted by torchlight, and took all sorts of liberties to himself, many of which were very disagreeable to those about him.' One consolation for Burnet came when their party crossed the Alps and Apennines, for those wild, vast mountains captivated his imagination. A stranger

would think himself in an inchanted Country, or carri'd into another World; Every thing would appear to him so different to what he had ever seen or imagin'd before ... Rocks standing naked round about him; and the hollow Valleys gaping under him; and at his feet it may be, an heap of frozen Snow in the midst of Summer. He would hear the thunder come from below, and see the black Clouds hanging beneath him.

After long meditation, in the 1680s he published The Sacred Theory of the Earth (expanded and influentially republished in 1691). The passion and intensity of his treatise remain impressive. It has a fin de siècle quality: `We are almost the last Posterity of the First Men, and faln into the dying Age of the World,' he declares early on. His subject is `the greatest thing that ever yet hapned in the world, the greatest revolution and the greatest change in Nature'.

Burnet argued that the earth had originally resembled a giant, unblemished, smooth egg:

In this smooth Earth were the first Scenes of the World, and the first Generation of Mankind; it had the beauty of Youth and blooming Nature, fresh and fruitful, and not a wrinkle, scar or fracture in all its body; no Rocks nor Mountains, no hollow Caves, nor gaping Chanels, but even and uniform all over. And the smoothness of the Earth made the face of the Heavens so too; the Air was calm and serene; none of those tumultuary motions and conflicts of vapours, which the Mountains and the Winds cause in ours: 'Twas suited to a golden Age, and to the first innocency of Nature.

But the catastrophe described in the Bible, the immense inundation to cleanse human sin, when God destroyed the human race save for Noah, crushed the earth's shell, according to Burnet. The shell fragments were scattered as mountain ranges, whose first appearance was `very gastly and frightful'. To Burnet mountains were `nothing but great ruines; but such as show a certain Magnificence in Nature; as from old Temples and broken Amphitheatres of the Romans'. The moral for human vanities was clear: `What a rude Lump our World is, which we are so apt to dote upon.' Burnet's explanation identified mountain scenery in all its horror as product and symbol of the Fall: such terrain was punitive of desire, a reminder of how God obliterates the perverse and the transgressive.

Half a century later, mountain scenery was still terrifying in its potential for accidents, but already touristic — a terrain for jaunts and cultural associations. `Mount Cenis ... carries the permission mountains have of being frightful rather too far; and its horrors were accompanied by too much danger to give me time to reflect upon their beauties,' Thomas Gray wrote from the French Alps in 1739; but at other moments among the crags and thundering waterfalls he relished `the most solemn, the most romantic, and the most astonishing scenes I ever beheld'. Horace Walpole, who was travelling with Gray, described them as `lonely lords of glorious desolate prospects': the `prodigious' mountains of Savoy as `precipices, mountains, torrents, wolves, rumblings, Salvator Rosa'. William Beckford felt `seized by the genius of the place' when travelling to La Grande Chartreuse in 1778:

The woods are here clouded with darkness and the torrents rushing with additional violence are lost in the gloom of the caverns below; every object, as I looked downwards from my path, that hung midway between the base and summit of the cliff, was horrid and woeful. The channel of the torrent sunk amidst frightful crags, and the pale willows and withered roots spreading over it, answered my ideas of those dismal abodes, where, according to druidical mythology, the ghosts of conquered warriors were bound.

Mountain scenery excited the philosopher in Beckford: `I am filled with Futurity. That Awful Idea is attended by mystery and sublimity — They make me tremble. What will be my Life? what misfortunes lurk in wait for me? what Glory?'

Salvator Rosa inspired a new perception of trees as well as of mountains. In the lamentation of the naturalist William Lawson in 1618, `How many forests have we, wherein you shall have for one lively, thriving tree, three, four, nay sometimes twenty-four evil-thriving, rotten, and dying trees: what rottenness! what hollowness! what dead arms! withered tops! curtailed trunks! what loads of mosses! drooping boughs and dying branches.' Lawson deplored dead wood; but the next century's Englishmen were taught by Rosa to see decay differently. `What is more beautiful', asked the clergyman William Gilpin, `than an old tree with a hollow trunk? or with a dead arm, a drooping bough, or a dying branch?' He cited `the works of Salvator Rosa' as proof of the beauty of ruined trees:

These splendid remnants of decaying grandeur speak to the imagination in a style of eloquence which the stripling cannot reach; they record the history of some storm, some blast of lightning, or other great event, which transfers its grand ideas to the landscape and, in the representation of elevated subjects, assists the sublime.

Shakespeare had used forest imagery memorably, but forestry had a special role in the gothic imagination. Thus the woods of Ann Radcliffe personified the misery and hope of her heroine incarcerated at Udolpho:

Their tall heads then began to wave, while, through a forest of pine, on the left, the wind, groaning heavily, rolled onwards over the wood below, bending them almost to their roots; and as the long-resounding gale swept away, other woods, on the right, seemed to answer the `loud lament'; then others, further still, softened it into a murmur, that died in silence.

Rosa's images became the staple landscape of gothic literature, as in Sheridan Le Fanu's story `Mr Justice Harbottle': `under a broad moonlight, he saw a black moor stretching lifelessly from right to left, with rotting trees, pointing fantastic branches in the air, standing here and there in groups, as if they held up their arms and twigs like fingers, in horrible glee at the Judge's coming'....

© Copyright 1999 Richard Davenport-Hines

Back to the top
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar
WP Yellow Pages