Bruegel'sIcarus.doc - Peasant Imagery and Bruegel's Fall of...

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Peasant Imagery and Bruegel's “Fall of Icarus”ROBERT BALDWIN[published Konsthistorisk Tidskrift, LV, 3, 1986, 101-114]Recent scholarship has explored a tradition of overwhelmingly negative peasant imagery from thetwelfth through the sixteenth centuries.1Developed in medieval courtly circles and taken up in theRenaissance by the middle class, the peasant provided a negative definition of what was civilizedand noble.2Set against this background, Pieter Bruegel's peasant scenes display a curiousambiguity. On the one hand, his prints and paintings of peasant festivals express a bourgeois scornfor how “the peasants delight in such feasts, To dance, caper, and get bestially drunk”.3Suchscorn is clear on the face of the middle-class man who watches, with the jester and the realviewer, the drunken boors in the ViennaPeasant Dance. On the other hand, Bruegel's paintings oftheSeasonsand hisFall of Icaruscelebrate peasant life for an industrious harmony with nature.This view of peasants is particularly clear in theIcaruswhere the sweeping panorama is anchoredaround the heroic figure of the plowman (Fig. 1).4To date, no scholar has explored the GoodPlowman theme and its importance in sixteenth-century Northern art.5To do so will allow a morebalanced understanding of Bruegel's peasants and a richer sens of theIcarusas a mythologicalimage phrased in vernacular terms. As such, it parallels Northern humanists who called fortranslations of classical texts and the Bible. On a more social level, it implies a bourgeois distancefrom farmers by celebrating the peasant who stays in his place. In this sense, the painting may, onone level, dovetail with Bruegel's more satirical images of peasants.The husbandman was a familiar paragon of industry, moderation, and moral integrity, bothin classical and early Christian writings. Virgils'Georgics, Horace's secondEpode, Columella'sOnAgricultureand Pliny'sNatural History-all well known to the Renaissance-used agricultural laboras the central metaphor in nostalgically describing a golden age in early republican Rome.6Virgil'saccount offers intriguing parallels to Bruegel with its extensive description of the peaceful,moderate plowman ignorant of the bellicose, avaricious ambitions of city dwellers seeking“kingdoms doomed to fall”.7Horace, Columella, and Pliny also contrasted a past, moral countrylife to the present immorality of cities. In the golden age, even urban life was guided by the virtuesof rural existence. Thus Pliny wrote of Republican Rome. “The agricultural class produces thebravest men, the most gallant soldiers, and the citizens least given to evil designs.”8Thepersonification of Pliny's farmer-leader was Cato the Censor whose treatise on husbandry,DeAgricultura, along with those by Varro, Paddadius, and Columella, were known to the middleages and reprinted in Bruegel's time. An illustrated fifteenth-century FrenchCato glossatusshowsCato pointing out the importance of frequent plowing.9

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