Department of self indulgence

This is just some expanded and consolidated musing from Twitter.

A few days ago I was thinking about The Fall of Icarus, the 16th century Dutch painting after Bruegel.800px-Bruegel,_Pieter_de_Oude_-_De_val_van_icarus_-_hi_res

It’s probably most popular for near absence of the ostensible subject, Icarus, who is barely shown in the background, and ignored by all othersin the painting. This suited the tastes of modern viewers when the painting became known in the 20th century, who were happy to see the elevation of the ordinary, and the indifference of everyday, and more important events, to the tribulations of those we have traditionally lavished historical attention on. There’s also the wonderful suggestion that the title is a subversion/hack of neo-platonic assumptions; two legs in the background transforming a lowly genre painting or landscape in an esteemed historical painting.

But that’s not what interested me. There are three men in the foreground, all dressed like 16th century Flemish rather than Greeks of any age. One is guiding a horse wearing a collar, the great disruptive technology of the Middle Ages, rather than the technologies of any Homeric farm. The thoroughly modern trade ship unfurls a thoroughly modern triangular sail, and presumably intends to go on open oceans unknown to those used to tranquil Mediterranean waters.

These are not things I imagine would be in the world of Icarus

This may just be because it really is a genre painting pretending to be of a more esteemed subject. Or even that he was contemporising the story in a fashion that would is much more popular today.

But maybe Breugel simply didn’t twig that the world changed, that Icarus should be presumed to dress and eat and plough differently to his countrymen and contemporaries. After all, why would he understand this? He lived in world that changed rapidly compared to ages past, but was this apparent to someone on the ground? The fashions of ordinary people were not likely to be recorded, and the collar and ship were well established by his day. With no huge stock of art and history to draw on outside selected classics, it would be quite plausible for someone to assume that back then was much like right now.

Many centuries before Bruegel, when the romances of the Arthurian cycle were created, their writers and audiences didn’t seem to know the hill forts and limited role of cavalry in sub-Roman Britain, and instead seemed to favour the stone castles and knights they were familiar with. A few decades after Bruegel, when audiences in England watched Julius Caesar or Coriolanus, did they appreciate that the characters, as well as inhabiting a different society, also dressed in togas?

By eight decades after Bruegel, however, Poussin was using mistaken ideas about principate dress and architecture when depicting early Rome, but at least he understood they didn’t look like 17th century France.

Was there a point in the early modern world where we grasped that the world changed, constantly, rather than being stasis punctuated by crisis – periodic, but temporary departures from equilibrium? If so, was this because the stock of knowledge required was now accessible to a large part of the population through literacy? Or was it because technology, politics and the Columbian exchange made the pace of change quick enough to see? Or was it when we stopped seeing problems of the day as something to be overcome with something new, rather than tribulations that could be addressed by returning to the practices of the past (such as “ancient English liberties” or of the early church, or even of the early Zhou)?

I’d be tempted to call any such moment the birth of modern thought, if a) it wasn’t such a wank to do so, and b) the most sudden jump to modernity still had pretenses to restoration of practices past.

In any case, I’m hoping this exercise in dodgy history based on half arsed interpretations of paintings is as lucrative to me as it was for Simon Schama.

About Richard Tsukamasa Green

Richard Tsukamasa Green is an economist. Public employment means he can't post on policy much anymore. Also found at @RHTGreen on twitter.
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Nicholas Gruen
11 years ago

Richard, Troppo has been asked to supply to the BBC, ABC, CBC and franchised global operations a 12 part TV series on the history of the universe, life, humanity Icarus and art (They haven’t specified how many episodes on each of these but they must be presented in this order).

They have said they’re looking for the new Simon Schama, with a touch of Kenneth Clark and Jacob Bronowski.

Looks like you’re our man.

11 years ago

I can see square sails, very badly set, – some lateen mizzens and lugsails on the herring smacks. No triangular sails.

john r walker
11 years ago


‘soaring too close to the sun’ is a myth. A myth that does not work in ‘contemporary dress’ is not a myth.

As for interpretations:
“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible. ”

Mind Schama does do a pretty good Spag Bol recipe or two in , Scribble Scribble .