JF Ptak Science Books Post 1629 (On Clouds and Not-Clouds, Part I)
"...and they drew all manner if things--everything that begins with an M---'
'Why with an M?' said Alice
'Why not?', said the March Hare." --Lewis Carroll, from "A Mad Tea Party", in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Why not, indeed? I've long had an interest in clouds, and since this blog is ostensibly on the surfacing or definition of Cloud Bones, I though to spend a little time on the origins of the depictions of printed clouds in art. Not being an expert by any means on the history of art, it just seems to me that after long exposure clouds are not well-represented in woodcuts, wood engravings and other early engravings, or at least not so well depicted as their landsmen in paintings. There seems to be no shortage of effort to reveal gorgeous clouds through the early Renaissance--but the doesn't seem to apply very often to their representation in prints.
And that of course is when the detail of the sky is depicted at all. It seems that more often than not, in woodcuts printed from say 1460 through 1550, that the sky is left blank, like this image from Ovid (Accipe Studiose Lector P. Ouidij Metamorphosin...printed in Venice in 1509:
"You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead --
There were no birds to fly".--Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass.
I could go on with many examples of the blank sky--the white, blank, settled nothingness--but exhibiting variations of nothing at this point isn't necessary. But illustrating clouds is.
And for the most part, clouds don't look very much like themselves in prints, not really, not for more than a hundred years. For example, Martin Schoengauer's spectacular The Temptation of St. Anthony, which was printed in 1470/5, has a beautiful, fluid circularity to it, full of an earthy roundness even as the saint is pursued by demons. But the sky in the background is populated with nothing but dashes to suggest clouds.
Perhaps clouds would have taken away from the moment; but if that were the case, why bother with the dashes?
There are considerable exceptions to this practice, with Durer and Altdorfer coming quickly to mind--but in my experience, the oddly-formed cloud seems to be the majority rule in the woodcut.
At this time there were of course many depictions of skies with no clouds in paintings, bare suggestions of themselves, even in some of the most famous works--Botticelli's Birth of Venus and Michelangelo's Fall of Man in the Sistine Chapel are fair examples. But once you move away from the golden Sienese skies of the14th century1, clouds are given full and beautiful shapes from early periods. (Giotto's Christ's Entering Jerusalem, 1305/6; Simone Martin The Road to Calvary, 1340; Duccio's Christ Entering Jerusalem, 1308-1311; Fra Angelico's The Dposition, 1436; Masaccio's The Tribute Money, 1424; Lippi's Annunciation, a perfect cloud treatise, 1442, and on and on. Other examples are found in continued reading below.)
Clouds in prints are a different matter--I'm not sure if it was just too technically difficult to create clouds in wood, or if there was some sort of languishing Byzantine sensibility inherent in woodblocks that was not so in oil. I'm really not so sure about this, and as much as anything else I'm thinking out loud about this lack of cloud definition. I don't have an answer for it. But I do want to share the beginning of a timeline for undefined clouds as they appeared (or not) over the course of about one hundred years, from 1485 to about the end of the 16th century. As I mentioned clouds appeared beautifully in paintings from earlier periods, and there doesn't really seem to be a substandard-cloud complement in the painting world as there was in the print world. Of course, in western philosophy and science, clouds were pretty much left alone from inquiry, even by a series of the great natural history classifiers--they wouldn't really be given a fully taxonomic appreciation until 1803 by Luke Howard (which I wrote about in this blog earlier, here).
A Timeline of Clouds in Prints, 1485-1596
Franciscus de Retza, De Generatione Christi, sive Defensorium Castiatis Beatae Virginis Mariae, a beautiful work in Gothic type--a picture book, really, with two illustrations of magnets. Printed in 1485, this image depicts Isidorus in a magnetic coffin which is floating in the air:
"The Adoration of the Magi", from Legenda Sanctorum Trium Regum, printed in Modena in 1490: