Friday, June 12, 2009

Premodern Aerial Views

by J J Cohen

David Wallace has asked me to post this, and I have to say I myself am very interested in the answer: can you, ITM readers, think of any premodern instances of the aerial view, either textual or visual? Here is the note sent to David by his BBC producer:
One of my Clouds essayists is working on a cultural history/tie in Courtald exhibition on the aerial view: you know the kind of thing: de Certeau on the transition from the itinerary to the overhead map; the development of war from the air etc etc. I`ve told him I`d flag any nice passages from modern/postmodern literature that occur to me. But, though he`s pretty well prepared from the early modern period on, I was wondering if any particular premodern passages come to mind: obviously one thinks of angel-eye views, Dante, etc etc. SO, if you have any thoughts on texts/passages he might examine for his study, do please let me know..

Well, what do you think? One instance that comes to mind for me -- only because it is part of my recent research -- is the imagined aerial view of Stonehenge in the 15th C Scala Mundi. I love this because it imagines the tenon joints as visible, when even from the top they are not. Anway, there is something about this bird's eye view that has always struck me as unique.

Can anyone think of other examples? How about texts that describe the world as if from vanatge of heaven?


Karl Steel said...

Okay, putting my foot back in for I hope a full-fledged return later this week....but this is precisely the sort of question I love.

I wonder if we could think of the roof bosses at Norwich Cathedral as a kind of reverse aeriel view. I'm thinking particularly of the Last Supper (image available here if one scrolls down).

Karl Steel said...

And here's the obvious one:

And down from thennes fast he gan avyse
This litel spot of erthe that with the se
Embraced is, and fully gan despise &c.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Maybe even the same with the Nativity scene boss that follows? Anyway the perspective on that last supper is terrific!

Jonathan Hsy said...

This is such an interesting question! Looks like Karl beat me to the "Troilus" book 5 reference (VERY cool Last Supper image by the way). Note Geffrey's view when he's taken into the air by the eagle in book 2 of "The House of Fame" -

And y adoun gan loken thoo,
And beheld feldes and playnes,

And now hilles, and now mountaynes,
Now valeyes, now forestes,

And now unnethes grete bestes;

Now ryveres, now citees,

Now tounes, and now grete trees,

Now shippes seyllynge in the see.

Jonathan Hsy said...

P.S. I'm not in the office at the moment so I don't have these items on hand but it also occurs to me that some recent work on medieval cartography would be a good place look as well (e.g., Lavezzo, Birkholz, Hiatt - it could be argued that the classic T-O map is already a type of "aerial" conceptual view). FWIW, I notice from a quick Google Books search that _The History of Cartography_ ed. Harley and Woodward (Chicago, 1987), Part 1, has compelling chapters, e.g. Plato describes the variegated colors of the world when viewed from above in the "Phaedrus" (qtd. 137-8) - and medieval maps like those of Matthew Paris, the Gough map, and Rosselli's bird's-eye-view urban landscapes (1480s) are seen as "precursors" to large-scale aerial maps (464-5).

Rob Barrett said...

I've got one example (visual and verbal) in Against All England: in Lucian's De laude Cestrie, he includes a cruciform map depicting Chester's Benedictine abbey and the four Cistercian houses at Poulton, Stanlaw, Basingwerk, and Combermare. The allegorical idea here is to demonstrate the way in which Chester's monastic region replicates the city's cruciform streetplan--and to show how Chester occupies the same position on the cross as Christ's body. What's interesting is that the four Cistercian monasteries are in roughly the same spatial relation to Chester on the map that they are to the city in geographical "reality" (Lucian has actually moved northwestern-lying Basingwerk south and southeastern-lying Combermare north so that the two monasteries are directly west and east of the city). This certainly seems like "aerial" thinking to me.

Chris said...

Cicero's Dream of Scipio has a "heavenly" view of Earth (and Macrobius of course then goes and comments on it).

Anonymous said...

Of course, supra-aerially, there is in Dante Paradiso 22.151-153, staring down from the Constellation of Gemini:

L'aiuola che ci fa tanto feroci,
volgendom' io con li etterni Gemelli,
tutta m'apparve da' colli a le foci;

The patch which makes us all so fierce.
from hills to rivermouths, I saw it all
while I was being wheeled with the eternal Twins.

You say that your friend is well prepared from the early modern period on, it strikes me that Dante's brief image of aerial earth was taken up with great detail and imagination in Robert Hudde's Micrographia (1665) comparisons of early telescopic views of the Moon as a second pastorial earth (also conceived aerially):

...for through these it appears a very spacious Vale, incompassed with a ridge of Hills, not very high in comparison of many other in the Moon, nor yet very steep...and from several appearances of it, seems to be some fruitful place, that is, to have its surface all covered over with some kinds of vegatable substances; for in all portions of the light on it, it seems to give a fainter reflection then the more barren tops of the incompassing Hills, and those a much fainter then divers other cragged, chalky, or rocky Mountains of the Moon. So that I am not unapt to think that the Vale may have Vegetables analogus to our Grass, Shrubs, and Trees; and most of these incompassing Hills may be covered with so thin a vegetable Coat, as we may observe the Hills with us to be, such as the Short Sheep pasture which covers the Hills of Salisbury Plains.

Anonymous said...

sorry, Robert Hooke, not Hudde (who is always on my mind from this period)...

Dr. Virago said...

The plan for the staging of The Castle of Perseverance is semi-aerial (though the castle itself is not). Wikipedia has a good image here:

This old world is a new world said...

Following Karl's lead (viewers, not views), but moving outside: the statues and gargoyles on Notre Dame that look down over Paris.

Anonymous said...

Standing on the western scarp slope of the Yorkshire wolds yesterday, (at Givendale not far from Garrowby Hill) we were able to see the whole of the Vale of York spread out beneath us west to the Pennines, north to the Yorkshire Moors and south to the Humber and beyond. York Minster stood out clearly in the centre, while we could just pick out the towers of Lincoln cathedral on the far horizon to the south.

or earlier this year - when we saw practically the whole of Wales laid out beneath us and up to the Isle of Man, Scotland and Scafell pike to the north - from the top of Snowdon (sadly we did not see ireland, though you can sometimes).

Both viewpoints are sacred places - the first patronised by St Ehelburga and the second by Peris.

Anonymous said...

One wonders as well if the Sheild of Achilles could not help but be the world as seen from the aerial vantage of Olympus?

The outer ring of Oceanus seem to distinctly render something of an aerial bent, especially with the spatial sense that Chthonic deities are below, and Olympian ones above.

Nic D'Alessio said...

Picking up on the history of cartography thread, I immediately think of the mappa mundi tradition, esp the view of Jerusalem as the world's umbilical chord.