Magazine article The Spectator

Currents of Imagery

Magazine article The Spectator

Currents of Imagery

Article excerpt

The Book of the Wind: The Representation of the Invisible by Alessandro Nova McGill-Queen's University Press, £50, pp. 223, ISBN 9780773538337

In the first book of his scientific-cumphilosophical poem 'De rerum Natura' - or 'On the Nature of Things' - Lucretius draws the reader's attention to the power of invisible forces. The wild wind, he wrote, whips the waves of the sea, capsizes huge ships, and sends the clouds scudding; sometimes it swoops and sweeps across the plains in tearing tornado, strewing them with great trees, and hammers the heights of the mountains with forest-spitting blasts.

It was a description I was well placed to appreciate as I read this whimsical, scholarly and original book while staying in a Georgian folly on a country estate in Kent. All around this mock gothic tower, in the words of Lucretius, 'the frenzied fury of the wind' shrieked, raged and menacingly murmured.

Off the Welsh coast a ship sank and sailors drowned.

In the modern world the winds remain a formidable power. They still destroy and create, bring drought and rain, life and death.

Alessandro Nova, an Italian art historian, has set himself the intriguing project of writing a history of how these invisible forces have been represented in art. How do you depict a current of air? Beyond that he sets himself another question: how do painters and sculptors show us anything that cannot be seen?

Because, a moment's reflection will reveal, art is full of images of things that cannot strictly speaking, be seen: thoughts, beliefs, even sounds.

The ancient Greeks regarded the winds, like rivers, as minor male gods. The Tower of the Winds, a building from the first or second century BC in the forum at Athens - part clock, part weather-gauge - is decorated with carvings of these blustery deities, one on each of its eight sides. Boreas, the cold and ferocious North Wind, is elderly and hirsute;

Zephyr, the West Wind, bringing spring and summer rain, is a youth whose cloak is bulging with flowers and ears of wheat.

These personifications had a long life in European imagery. From them descend the puffing cherubs in the corners of old maps.

Their most memorable appearances in the Renaissance, however, were in paintings by Botticelli. In 'The Birth of Venus', two fluttering figures with inflated cheeks waft the naked goddess to shore and to the right of Primavera a chilly-looking blue fellow clutches the nymph Flora (he is, according to Nova, impregnating her with his breath so that flowers stream out of her mouth). …

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