A rather splendid collection of thoughts and images on architectural fantasies recently put me back in mind of Monsù Desiderio and his  array of startling paintings, some of which simply defy description. Desiderio is a non-person, a fusion through error or convenience of two separate painters, a riddle of mistaken nomenclature and pseudonymity that still continues to deflect our total comprehension. It seems that two artists from Metz, Didier Barra and François de Nomé, travelled and worked together, first maybe in Rome and later in Naples during the first quarter of the seventeenth century; together, they created a corpus of pictures that now bears the ‘Desiderio’ attribution. These paintings are usually described as fantastic vedute or nightmarish capricci, but they — at least within my limited knowledge — have absolutely no parallel in the western history of art. Desiderio’s images are, generally speaking, landscapes that are populated by monstrous half-ruined structures that seem to belong to a dream-time, and which dwarf into insignificance occasional scattered human figures who seem to pained, dazzled, or mute.

martyrdom-in-ruined-landscapeIt seems impossible to understand the buildings as ever in use, nor do adjacent buildings seem to belong to the same age or the same urban language; maybe they were never even finished. Similarly, the people who inhabit these blighted scenes of fantasy do not appear to belong inside them: they seem engulfed not only by an architectural landscape that is unheimlich and atemporal, but they are also adrift and isolated from each other. This sense of uchronia in the static and miniaturised stances these people adopt is heightened by the fact that they frequently seem to be enacting scenes from Biblical narrative: moments from which specificity and uniqueness has been drained to be replaced by the omnitemporal suffocation of somatic allegories being rehearsed eternally.  Desiderio achieves, to me at least, some kind of unparalleled aching malevolence in his articulation of the built landscape and its relationship to those who have become entrapped by it, and yet somehow, despite this, there remains some kind of exuberance in the depiction of these landscapes. The structures grow, tower, reach, spiral, collide, escape; in their forecourts we sleepwalk, trapped in dreams.


The visual depiction of ruined landscapes becomes increasingly common during the three centuries or so between the Hypnerotomachia and Joseph Gandy, but throughout this period and its visual lexicon of architectural decay and dismemberment, there’s very little that’s quite as astonishing and arresting as Desiderio’s paintings of structures captured at the precise moment of their demolition. These stones don’t just fall; they fly apart, atoms fleeing from order, entropy exploding and rampant.


I have been fascinated by Desiderio since I first saw his work (and, inevitably, I am not alone); the kind of dreamed architecture found on his canvases, especially when it is captured at the instant of its dissolution, always seems endlessly haunting. A couple of years ago I spent two weeks in Malta, and despite a memorably enjoyable cavalcade of sun, rum, and underground chambers, the high point came when walking around the otherwise deserted Museum of Fine Arts in Valetta I saw from across the room two small Desiderio paintings (which seem to have  made their way to the Gallery from the Palazzo):  an utterly unexpected joy.

Desiderio painted two pictures with the theme of Augustine’s vision of the Trinity on the seashore, and to me at least they represent some his most striking juxtapositions of a monumental and fantastic architectural backdrop overshadowing the miniaturised rehearsal of allegory. This particular visionary encounter is a cautionary tale, popular in later medieval iconography, concerning the futility of human rational endeavour when attempting to comprehend that which is mystical and ineffable. Augustine of Hippo, it is said, walked by the shoreline one day and there came upon a child absorbed in activity at the water’s edge. Upon being asked by the bishop what he was doing, the child replied that he was attempting to transfer the entirety of the sea into a small hole he had scraped into the sand, spoonful by spoonful. Upon remarking on the pointless impossibility of such a task, Augustine received the stinging response from the child that he was as likely to empty the sea into a small pothole one spoon at a time as Augustine was to comprehend the mystery of trinitarian theology with his imperfect human rationality. The child, inevitably (as this is a vision and an anecdote at the same time), is an angel, and the medieval version of Augustine is doubtless forced to retreat back to library and anachronistically starting leafing through the Pseudo-Dionysius.


The story is relatively well-known and well-used in modern religious culture; almost certainly, it has a strong appeal to the more traditional or evangelical strains of contemporary Christianity that position themselves as anti-science. If it is attributed at all, it is most usually connected to The Golden Legend, and yet it is completely absent from Voragine’s original text. In fact it makes its way into English vernacular religion through an addition of William Caxton himself, who notes at the very end of his 1483 English translation of the Legend that this particular ‘miracle’ has been ‘omitted’ from his exemplars, and his knowledge of it stems from the fact that he had seen it “painted on an altar of St. Austin at the black friars at Antwerp…”. An altarpiece roughly contemporary to Caxton’s visit to Antwerp, although in this case from Bruges, has been fragmentarily preserved, and features Augustine’s encounter with the child in the top right corner; its attribution is problematic. The story itself seems to date back to the mid-13th century, and seems to initially surface in the writings of Caesarius of Heisterbach, although the figure encountering the angel and being warned of the futility of rationalising too closely the mysteries of the divine, is anonymous and only later does the tradition settle on the figure of Augustine. The earliest extant depictions of the story seem to be either a predella of Fra Lippi, now in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg (which Ruda has argued could be as early as the 1430s), or left-hand side of a scene expounding the Trinity by Benozzo Gozzoli at San Gimigniano.

augstine-desiderioWhy Augustine? For historians of medieval religion, there are lots of good reasons concerning the varying approaches to the relationship between religion and learning taken by the different monastic and mendicant orders from the mid-13th century onwards. Augustine, then, is a suitable candidate to be the figure in a cautionary tale concerning the inability of the human mind to comprehend the divine. I would, however, like to connect it with something slightly different; the medieval tale has always been for me a very faint echo of another encounter Augustine had with the incomprehensible by the sea, this time a moment of unimpeachable canonicity in his life, on the shore at Utica. In City of God XV.9, Augustine relates that as he walked along the waterline (now long since silted over), he and others came across a molar tooth of such size that it was easily a hundred times bigger than a comparable human specimen. To Augustine, it was proof that those who walked the earth in centuries past were of great size and stature; to us, of course, he was looking at the tooth of a mastodon or a similar relic of a prehistoric landscape he would scarcely even begin to believe. The encounters of the ancients with fragments of an unimaginable prehistory (collected in an amazing book by Adrienne Mayor) might just remind us that landscapes of wonder don’t always have to be dreamed.