Hieronymus Bosch: At the Border of Disorder

The 2016 quincentennial of Jeroen von Aken’s death has given rise to two major exhibitions – at the Noordsbrabant Museum (’S-Hertogenbosch) and at the Prado (Madrid).  Rather than add to the excellent reviews already written, this essay considers the  Prado’s Garden of Earthly Delights primarily as a political object.  Three 20th-century European theorists of the state frame the work’s patronage, interpretation, and provenance: Giorgio Agamben, Carl Schmitt, and Alexandre Kojève.

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Hieronymus Bosch, “Garden of Earthly Delights”, c. 1500, Museo del Prado. Source: Wikipedia

The triptych has long obsessed its aristocratic owners and puzzled historians studying it.  Unlike its Netherlandish antecedents, The Garden‘s exterior is painted in precise grisaille, enigmatically depicting either the third day of Creation or the aftermath of the Flood. Inside, the left leaf presents a magical Eden, seemingly at the instant following Eve’s emergence from Adam’s rib. Christ, in common with some of Bosch’s other paintings, looks out, firmly yet gently, at the viewer.  The central panel’s formal garden is inhabited by a multitude of fruitophages, naked yet guile-less, both black and white, diverting themselves amorously around a lake, surrounded by vegetal pink towers, blue orbs and a host of friendly animals.  The less jolly right-hand leaf, a vision of Hell, is centred upon Bosch’s eponymous ‘tree-man’, below whom a diaphanous devil, seated atop a bog-throne, simultaneously ingests bodies and defecates souls. Yet a parsimonious description omits much: what is it about those monsters that grips us so?  Why do we, eagerly if slightly shamefully, stare at those scenes of evisceration, limbs being rent asunder, indiscriminate fornication? The scatological merges with the eschatological, leading the viewer to ask – what was El Bosco up to?

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Hieronymus Bosch, “Garden of Earthly Delights”, c. 1500, Museo del Prado. Source: Wikipedia

Patronage and Image
Bosch’s images, combining detail, vividness and sheer weirdness invite scrutiny and disputation.  Yet, owing to a lack of clear evidence or contemporary accounts, it is hard to establish why, or even when, he painted what he did. It has been proposed that Garden may simply have been a moral allegory.  Others have perceived an alchemical theme in the work, while the historian Wilhelm Fraenger saw a primitive and promiscuous Adamite cult at work in the painting.

A more interesting interpretation suggests it may have been commissioned, as a teaching aid, by Engelbert II, the syphilitic Count of Nassau for his nephew and heir Henry III.  A cultured man, Engelbert had brought Henry to Brussels, and sought to give him a princely education from the Burgundian court’s own excellent library.  Books for rulers-to-be are one of the oldest veins of political writing: prior examples are Xenophon’s Cyropaedia (Greece, 370 BC), Chanakya’s Arthshastra (India, 150 BC – 125 AD), or Machiavelli’s Il Principe (Italy, 1532 AD).  As befitting the practices of his sumptuously ornate, performative, and visual court, Engelbert may have wanted to supplement his charge’s education with a magnificent image.  Falkenburg links the hermeneutics of the image with the content of a travelling library, which included Augustine’s City of God, and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.  These, and other texts, are documented as accompanying Duke Phillip the Fair, on his journey to Spain, where he would assume, via marriage, his Spanish possessions.

Moreover, Garden was not a static wall-hanging – it was active object of theatre.  First documented by Antonio de Beatis in 1517, it is described as a bizarre thing, calculated to induce stupefaction at the intricacy and variety of its contents.  One imagines that the austere grey-black leaves would open in front of the astonished viewer, revealing for an Augenblick a tableau of coloured wonders, only to be slammed shut again, leaving him befuddled as to what was actually glimpsed.

So why do I belabour the origins of a 500-year old painting?  Because it begs a question raised by Giorgio Agamben on the role of art today.  Whereas in the past art fulfilled a clear spiritual vocation, today it has lost this potency, neither threatening the established social order nor bringing forth truth from the shadows. Agamben also discusses the importance of the patron as a co-creator, rather than merely a source of funding.  He specifically points to Popes Julius II and Clement VII as being intimately involved — commissioners, collaborators, tormentors — in the Sistine and (Florence’s) Medici Chapels, respectively.  In the same way, one imagines senior members of the Burgundian court, documented as reciting poetry to each other, guiding, even hectoring, Bosch to bring to fruition his phantasmagoric work.  In our age, when we have neither courts nor court artists, that crucial transmission channel between audience and artist is much more diffuse, largely mediated by the market, mass-culture, and the ideological proclivities of curators and other tastemakers.  Thus the artist must create, seemingly ex nihilo, without any urgent and personal connection to a single figure of authority and patronage.  Thus, art has been diluted to a matter of tepid aesthetic appreciation on the part of a great mass of ‘culture vultures’: some more, others less, well-schooled in art theory and history.

Who is my Enemy?
One of Agamben’s philosophical antecedents was the conservative German jurist Carl Schmitt, from whom we get a second perspective on Bosch.  Schmitt, immensely influential in political philosophy, had a decidedly chequered record in practical politics.  Yet his thought cannot be stripped from its context – the fatally-flawed Weimar Republic, hyperinflation, combined with a decadent Berlin, which, while perhaps admired today with the distance of nostalgia, was in stark opposition to the Zeitgeist of a defeated, occupied, and bankrupt Germany.  In his world, Schmitt perceived looming revolution, apocalypse, the eschaton; indeed, it is (Christian) theology that drives his conception of the political.

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Carl Schmitt. Source: http://nationalinterest.org/feature/carl-schmitt%E2%80%99s-war-liberalism-12704

Schmitt’s Hobbesian view on man’s nature correlated with his interest in Bosch, the demon-painter par excellence.  The jurist, commenting on Hobbes’ Leviathan, writes: ‘[Bosch’s] devils are ontological reality, not the products of a fantasy or horror; the landscape is hell, whose fire in many places breaks through the veil of earthly colours…’.  In his Gombrich lectures on Garden, Joseph Koerner starts with Schmitt’s relationship with this painting.  In 1947, as a prisoner awaiting possible trial at Nuremberg, Schmitt is described by Koerner as reviewing and critiquing Wilhelm Fraenger’s iconological analysis of the triptych. In response to the American interrogator’s question ‘Wer bist du?’ (‘Who are you?’), Schmitt responds with his own ‘a priori “Who is my enemy?”’.  For Schmitt had built his very definition of politics around the friend/enemy distinction, with its implicit threat of violence amongst groups or nations, without which ‘life…would be shallow, insignificant, and meaningless’.

So, who was this enemy that so exercised the old man from Plettenberg?  His writing states that it is liberal society, cosmopolitanism, the consequent dissolution of all values – a possibility he perhaps perceives in the licentious, gluttonous frolicking in The Garden of Earthly Delights.  But can we be more specific? Returning to Bosch, in works such as Christ Crowned With Thorns (London, 1479), or Christ Carrying the Cross (Ghent, 1515), we cannot but miss the apparent, yet not definitively identified, presence of Jews and Muslims.  Or, in the triptych Adoration of the Magi (Prado, 1500), we see an enigmatic, partially-unclothed, pseudo-monarch (see image below) with an unattractive leprous sore on his leg.  This figure is variously identified as the Antichrist, an alchemical representation of lead, or the Jewish Messiah.  The ambiguity in these examples illustrate Schmitt’s point that the enemy is not a factual or objective category, therefore an outsider cannot recognise the enemy.  It is a classification made subjectively by a group.  Logically then, how does the sovereign, or any outside observer, distinguish between the merely different Other (perhaps living alternatively, but ultimately in a reconcilable and law-abiding manner), and the irreconcilable enemy (who acts outside the law in the name of a radicalised religion).   It has not been possible, for the purpose of this essay, to establish to what extent Schmitt had seen or written about these particular paintings while developing his theory of the enemy, but one hopes Prof. Koerner will analyse this point in an upcoming book on the enemy in Bosch and Brueghel’s art.

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Hieronymus Bosch, “Adoration of the Magi”, c. 1500, Museo del Prado. Source: Wikipedia

 

Schmitt also seems haunted by the katechon, an obscure figure from early Christian theologyKatechon, ‘the restrainer’, who keeps Antichrist at bay until the Apocalypse, is never explicitly identified in scripture, and has had many interpretations over the ages.  Schmitt himself refuses to specify who the restrainer is, merely citing as one example, the last Hapsburg Emperor Franz Joseph.  He seems to view it as a category that, in every age and in various guises, has been a bulwark against chaos.

The nature of katechon is important, because it leads to Schmitt’s other major conceptual contribution – the definition of the sovereign.  For if the state is not to descend into chaos, it may be necessary, from time to time, to suspend its normative workings (namely the constitution), and impose rule under an exception.  In Schmitt’s words: ‘Sovereign is he who decides on the exception’.  In this sense, the sovereign, by preventing chaos through the instrument of exception, might act as restrainer, in a practical if not necessarily theological sense.

Schmitt’s thought has acquired renewed relevance, in part because other philosophers have built upon it, but also because governments post-9/11 have adopted policies that seem to reference him.  Moreover, although Schmitt viewed the exception as a temporary condition, governments have increasingly relied on states of exception or emergency as the ordinary course of business, so to speak. Lastly, Schmitt’s view of a nation and a state that are organised around a friend/enemy distinction, if ever it made sense, throws up particular problems in a multicultural, tolerant society, which the US, UK, EU, and India (to take the most populous examples) identify as. To summarise, while some left-wing commentators therefore view his thought as incompatible with modern democracy, others find a degree of Schmittian influence impossible to avoid, as a practical matter of how a democracy negotiates pressures from competing groups.

Europe’s Unbridged Chasm
To establish our third vantage point, we must step away from Bosch’s paintings themselves, to examine the milieu in which they were created and still exist: namely, a Continent that remains divided between North and South, notwithstanding the EU’s foundational vision of an impartial, technocratic state that would rise above national, linguistic, and ethnic differences.

This post-war environment found a Russian emigrè, Alexandre Kojève working in France’s Ministry of Economic Affairs, planning what would become the Common Market.  At a conceptual level, Kojève felt the era of the nation-state was over, and would be supplanted by one of international alliances.  In a quixotic yet prescient 1945 memo to General Charles de Gaulle, he predicted Germany as likely hegemon within the new Europe. He also felt that Germany would inevitably fall into an Anglo-American orbit.  Germany’s population advantage, proven technological and organisational skill, a Weberian appreciation for work as highest good, and finally a cultural affinity for England, would reduce France to an impotent ‘dominion’ state.   He proposed a counterweight – a Latin Empire that would comprise Spain, Portugal, France, and Italy – Greece presumably being left to fend for itself. He next raised a mirror-image of the Schmittian question – what glue would bind the peoples of the proposed Latin Empire, if not ethnicity, nor language, nor religious fervour (France having long become a secular republic), nor a common monarch, nor colonies, not even a rampant American-style capitalism?

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Alexandre Kojeve Source: Wikipedia

Kojève’s answer was a secularised Catholic Church.  He envisioned the Church as the historical fountainhead of all European culture, having risen, by the time of the Renaissance, above narrow theology to realpolitik and patronage of the arts, as exemplified in the Janus-faces of the Papal State.  Were it to shed its remaining Italian and theological baggage, it might become a unifying cultural force, and thus live up to the full dictionary meanings of the words catholic and œcumenical.

Writing before the messy denoument of France’s own colonial escapade in Algeria, Kojève was relatively silent on how to accommodate non-Catholics – by axiomatically defining a secular Church, he seemed to wave away the question of how Muslims, and others, such as Jews or Gypsies, were to be integrated.

The idea might have remained a curious footnote in the proto-history of the EU.  However, in 2013, amidst a continuing crisis in Greece, Giorgio Agamben resurrected the concept of a Latin Empire.  Agamben’s provocation caused a predictable firestorm in the German media, to which he gave a rejoinder of wry surprise.  Yet, the notion is not as fanciful as it might first seem – although not couched in the grandiose, quasi-theological terms of a Latin (Catholic) Empire, the structure of a ‘two-speed’ Eurozone has become increasingly credible.

What has this to do with Bosch’s painting?  At the most simplistic level, the central garden panel may evoke the (apocryphally) care-free Mediterranean life.  But the subtlety lies in the left-hand leaf where Christ’s eyes meet those of viewer.  Falkenburg extensively comments on this as the spectator being drawn into the speculum of the painting – which one could think of as a personal relationship being created between the viewer and Christ.  This, in turn, is essentially the message of the Reformation: direct salvation, with a generous lashing of original sin, bypassing the malefic intermediation of Popes, Saints, indulgences or any of the other panoply of Roman Catholicism.  In this light, it is notable that not even a God, seated atop a nimbus of angels, graces the triptych’s interior.  Thus this work, painted about 40 years before the Reformation, foreshadows a humanist and anti-institutional perspective on faith.

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“Garden of Earthly Delights” (detail)

Provenance also illuminates the North-South divide. In 1567, Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, the Duke of Alba and Spain’s greatest general, was sent to the Netherlands by King Phillip II to crush a growing civil and religious insurrection.  Alba’s action in the Netherlands would inaugurate the Eighty-Years War, ending in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia, which of course was the starting point of Carl Schmitt’s analysis of the nation-state. The result of the War are still visible: Protestant Flanders and The Netherlands, Catholic Wallonia and Luxembourg.  Koerner, perhaps employing poetic license in his Gombrich Lectures, depicts (Spain’s own) Iron Duke, obsessed by this painting, as declaring a state of emergency primarily to acquire it.  Eventually though the triptych ended up in Philip II’s collection. One imagines this most Spanish of monarchs, alone in his monastery-fortress at El Escorial, grimly signing warrants for The Inquisition’s autos-da-fé, his days lightened only by the Apocalyptic visions of an obscure Netherlandish painter.

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‘Master of the Princely Portraits’, Engelbert II, Count of Nassau, c. 1475, Rijksmuseum. Source: Wikipedia

Notes & References

1)  Hieronymus Bosch’s family seems to have come from Aachen, though his name was eventually Latinised and linked to the town in which he worked, ’S-Hertogenbosch. Source: Laurinda Dixon, Bosch (London/New York: Phaidon Press, 2003), 20.

2) http://www.hetnoordbrabantsmuseum.nl/

3) https://www.museodelprado.es/en

4) One of the most insightful reviews: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/08/18/mystery-of-hieronymus-bosch/

5) Interpretation cannot help but be influenced by this title, a relatively modern attribution.  More likely, the work was originally untitled, while a 1593 inventory refers to the work as a painting of the madroño plant.  This fruit, visually similar to a strawberry, is essentially tasteless.  Some interpretations have centred on this fruit as metaphor, see Reindert Falkenburg, The Land of Unlikeness (Zwolle, NL: WBOOKS BV, 2011), 18-22.

6) Lynn F Jacobs, “The Triptychs of Hieronymous Bosch” The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 31 No. 4 (Winter 2000),1019, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2671185, accessed 31 August 2016.

7) E. H. Gombrich, “Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’: A Progress Report” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 32 (1969), 163, http://www.jstor.org/stable/750611, accessed on 31 August 2016.

8) Laurinda Dixon, Bosch (London/New York: Phaidon Press, 2003), 228-232.

9) ibid 233.

10) Joseph Leo Koerner giving the E.H. Gombrich Lecture at The Warburg Institute, 15 March 2016, https://youtu.be/VoujwsX_AKE, accessed 31 August 2016.

11) FALKENBURG (2011), 271.

12) ibid 266-267.

13) E. H. Gombrich, “The Earliest Description of Bosch’s Garden of Delight” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 30 (1967), 403-406, http://www.jstor.org/stable/750758, accessed on 31 August 2016.

14) ibid, 74.

15) FALKENBURG (2011), 268-270.

16) Once again, books may have played a significant part in Bosch’s creative process – many of the hybrid beasts in his paintings can be traced to images and marginalia of Late Medieval manuscripts.  See FALKENBURG (2011), 55, 63, 68, 81, 123, 138-139, and others.

17) Giorgio Agamben, The Man Without Content, trans. Georgia Albert, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 19-23.

18) Carl Schmitt, The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes, trans. George Schwab and Erna Hilfstein (Westport, CN and London: Greenwood Press, 1996), 24.

19) Joseph Leo Koerner giving the E.H. Gombrich Lecture at The Warburg Institute, 15 March 2016, https://youtu.be/VoujwsX_AKE, accessed 31 August 2016.

20) Lars Vinx, “Carl Schmitt” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward Zalta, (Spring, 2016), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/schmitt/, accessed on 31 August 2016.

21) William Alexander Hooker, “The State in the International Theory of Carl Schmitt: Meaning and Failure of an Ordering Principle” London School of Economics PhD Thesis 2008, 16.

22) Koerner’s Gombrich talk provides a supporting quotation from Schmitt.

23) JACOBS (2000), 1035.

24) Slavoj Žižek, “Are We in a War? Do We Have an Enemy?” London Review of Books, Vol. 23 No. 10 (May 2002), 3-6, http://www.lrb.co.uk/v24/n10/slavoj-zizek/are-we-in-a-war-do-we-have-an-enemy, accessed 5 September 2016.

25) press.princeton.edu/titles/10815.html

26) The term is found in St Paul’s 2nd Letter to the Thessalonians (2 Thessalonians 2:6-7)

27) HOOKER (2008), 79.

28) HOOKER (2008), 39.

29) VINX (2016).

30) Philip Golub, “The Will to Undemocratic Power” Le Monde Diplomatique, September 2006, http://mondediplo.com/2006/09/08democracy , accessed 5 September 2016.

31) For instance, the Nazi regime suspended the Weimar constitution for three successive 4-year periods, under Article 48, rather than simply repealing it.  Slavoj Zizek describes General Alfred Stroessner’s bizarre state of emergency in Paraguay: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v24/n10/slavoj-zizek/are-we-in-a-war-do-we-have-an-enemy

32) ŽIŽEK (2002)

33) Matthew Wilks, “Theories of Multicultural Toleration: An Examination of Justice as Fairness and Political Theology“ Inquiries Journal, Vol.6 No. 3 (2014), http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/874/4/theories-of-multicultural-toleration-an-examination-of-justice-as-fairness-and-political-theology , accessed on 5 September 2016.

34) Translated/reprinted at https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/fr/kojeve2.htm

35) ibid

36) Robert Howse, “Kojeve’s Latin Empire” Hoover Institution, August/September 2004, http://www.hoover.org/research/kojeves-latin-empire, accessed on 1 September 2016.

37) Giorgio Agamben, “The ‘Latin Empire’ Should Strike Back” VoxEurop, (26 March 2013), http://www.voxeurop.eu/en/content/article/3593961-latin-empire-should-strike-back , accessed on 5 September 2016.

38) German interview with Agamben: http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/bilder-und-zeiten/giorgio-agamben-im-gespraech-die-endlose-krise-ist-ein-machtinstrument-12193816.html

39) Matthew Karnitschnig, “Welcome to a two-speed Europe” politico.EU, (18 May 2016), http://www.politico.eu/article/welcome-to-a-two-speed-europe-deal-british-voters-brussels-open-marriage/ , accessed 1 September 2016.

40) FALKENBURG (2011), 76.

Review: Yuri Pattison, ‘User, Space’ at Chisenhale Gallery

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Installation View, Yuri Pattison, ‘User, Space’, Chisenhale Gallery, 2016. Author’s own image.

A visitor to Yuri Pattison’s exhibition User, Space at the Chisenhale Gallery is confronted by a large, nearly empty, room that is, paradoxically, filled with stuff. Orange industrial shelving on two walls support stacking plastic boxes, miniature designer furniture and computer servers. In the middle is a long glass table flanked by semi-opaque room dividers, a profusion of transparent Eames chairs covered in plastic sheeting, and a pile of plants under a steel canopy.  Rectangular panel lights, hanging overhead, come on and off at seemingly random intervals, and the room is filled with the hum of computer equipment. Monitors abound while electrically actuated bottles emit vapour.

The show is a product of an 18-month residency which allowed Pattison to spend time in London’s tech community: the non-profit Hackspace, as well as in Second Home, a ‘co-working’ business where freelance workers, writers, graphic designers, and coders use shared desks. The room represents a “speculative live/work environment drawing influence from Modernist architecture and science fiction”.

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Installation View, Yuri Pattison, ‘User, Space’, Chisenhale Gallery, 2016. Author’s own image.

There is little physical transformation of materials – other than said plastic sheeting, quite a lot of dust, and electronics stripped of casings.  Lighting and electric window-films are controlled by computer server, while cameras feed live footage from the gallery to a monitor.  A large monitor shows a video based on the architecture of co-working spaces. Some notable contemporary art tropes are missing: 3-D printed objects, UV-printed plastic, casts of body parts (though there is a little finger stuck onto a server), crutches-as-sculpture.

In an accompanying printed interview, one learns that Dexion shelving units relate to Pattison’s interest in global logistics. He talks about an Amazon fulfilment centre in London, recalling for the viewer how work and labour have changed in the contemporary gig economy.  The interview goes on to explain that transparency, surveillance, modification of sleep patterns, and the history of computing are amongst the ideas that occupy Pattison.

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Installation View, Yuri Pattison, ‘User, Space’, Chisenhale Gallery, 2016. Author’s own image.

He also talks about the work-leisure slippage, a phenomenon that started with the mobile internet, and developed most famously in Silicon Valley offices with their bean-bags, ping-pong tables, and free food.  On a related note, companies like WeWork, which started by developing co-working spaces, are now building ‘co-living’ spaces.  In a co-living arrangement, millennials, finding city-centre housing unaffordable, rent rooms in a shared flat (often decked out as a loft with exposed brick, cable runs and concrete), complete with ‘concierge’ services like cleaning and laundry.  Sounds like a conventional flat-share, except that the flats are owned by a large corporation; in WeWork’s case, valued at sixteen-billion dollars.  Co-living and its economics have attracted mild incredulity in the venture-capital press, and apoplexy in the art press.

Pattison’s particular take is how these practices result in individuals who “isolate themselves…[and] create a physical filter bubble”, resulting in a “disengagement with the fabric of the city”.  Moreover, the sharing economy means time gets carved up, as people rent desks by the hour or co-living spaces by the week, again to the potential detriment of the broader community. Yet this isn’t really picked up, visually, in the installation – the videos and CGI feel a little lazy and could have taken a more critical perspective.

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Installation View, Yuri Pattison, ‘User, Space’, Chisenhale Gallery, 2016. Author’s own image.

The 14-page interview is fascinating in its breadth, touching on almost ever trendy topic in contemporary cultural and economic theory: Bitcoin-mining rigs, pop-up restaurants and stores, the new international style in interior design, coffee culture, mass-marketing of Modernist furniture, and so forth. These first-world concerns, arguably familiar only to the culturally-aware metropolitan, when combined with the visual poverty of the exhibition, fail to move or surprise the viewer.

The closest Pattison perhaps gets to eloquence, is in the dried sebum and dust covering many surfaces – the abjection of which somehow speaks to the absence of the worker, of the human.  One misses the jargon, rituals of coffee, cigarettes or Soylent, inside jokes, backstabbing, gossip – all of which characterise shared places, whether of work or life.

To end with a counter-example, consider Simon Denny.  He has similar concerns: intersection of corporate and hacker culture, surveillance, the physical and digital material of the work environment.  In contrast to Pattison, Denny’s 2015/2016 exhibition at the Serpentine maintained a tight focus on organisational and software structures.  He married, mediated, and abstracted the graphic and architectural elements of corporate and governmental intelligence entities, producing an installation of sculptures memorable as much for their totemic presence as for any politically-charged content.

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Installation View, Simon Denny, ‘Products for Organising’, Serpentine Galleries, 2015/2016. Image courtesy Serpentine Galleries.

The overwhelming sense of Pattison’s show was that of a research project rendered visible, almost a ‘core dump’ (computing term for the aftermath of a crash: the entire contents of memory are dumped into a file, to help programmers debug).  That is not to suggest the collection or display were un-curated or arbitrary, and there were some clever twists, such as a circulating economy of Bitcoins that are mined using free electricity.  Yet somehow, there was a whiff of incoherence, and it is not clear the interview, perhaps due to the sheer catholicity of Pattison’s avowed interests, helped.  Most importantly, the social element that energises any working or living space, was missing.  Yet one could argue, it was precisely that exclusion of the human that generated a pathos and brought forth the moral and ideological bankruptcy of the sharing economy.

Drinking on the Devil’s Shoulder

View up the mountain from Solicchiata. Too close to see the peak, one can however see the old terraced walls, built without cement. Here things grow, while further up the land is just grey-black.
View up the mountain from Solicchiata. Too close to see the peak, one can however see the old terraced walls, built without cement. Here things grow, while further up, the land is just grey-black.

The wines of Sicily have long had an undistinguished history. They were known as powerful and tannic feedstock for the more tepid strains of the northern Italy and Calabria.  Much of the wine was produced in cooperatives, often in the press-cum-warehouse called a palmento.  When the EU outlawed the palmenti as unhygienic (cue Brexit contingent’s ferocious gnashing of teeth ‘bloody Brussels bureaucrats !’), Sicily finally moved into the era of modern winemaking.  The Art of Eating issue 65 [2003] is an excellent and poetic, albeit dated, introduction to Sicilian wine.

This article is more of a photographic survey of the area, contextualised with food, rather than a particularly knowledgeable review of wine – the links below are a good start, and there are plenty of wine blogs with great articles on Etna DOC.

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View of Etna from Randazzo

One cannot drink wine in Sicily without a little sense of the climate.  Sicily’s Pozzallo port is located further south than Tunisia’s Cape Bon, and the African sun affects all. The heat saps one’s desire to do anything, least of all drink the off-dry, alchoholic production.  As Luigi Veronelli (taken from AoE 65) put it: the wines of Sicily ‘flash like a knife…leave the unprepared drinker more dead than alive’.  While, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote of the pouring style practiced by footmen of the Bourbon-era – ‘no collars’ i.e. up to the brim.  He goes on: ‘ “Only water is really good”, [Don Fabrizio] thought like a true Sicilian; and did not dry the drops left on his lips.’

The black earth of Etna.
The black earth of Etna.

Yet it is all different on Mount Etna.  In the curious landscape of Etna Nord, away from the tourists who throng the beautiful sun-drenched green south slope, we find a gentler, cooler clime, hospitable to such vines as can survive in the rich but unyielding soil. From Randazzo to Linguaglossa  heading clockwise on the SS120 lies an extraordinary zone of production that has, in the past 10 years, attracted tremendous, well-deserved, attention.  As ever, an excellent introduction is Jancis Robinson, but Eric Asimov at the New York Times has also energetically championed Etna, and Sicily generally.  Very briefly, the principal grapes are Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio for reds, while Catarrato, Carricante, and Minella Bianca fill out the whites.

Modern times here start, perhaps with the Normans in the 13th c. The church of Randazzo, black, built of volcanic rock - like much of the city of Catania - shows classic Norman features (again like the backside of Catania's duomo). As ever, layered onto this were later periods - including the Catalan Gothic.
‘Modern’ times here start, perhaps with the Normans in the 13th c. The church of Randazzo, black, built of volcanic rock – like much of the city of Catania (further south from Etna) – shows classic Norman features (again like the backside of Catania’s duomo). As ever, layered onto this were later periods – including the Catalan Gothic on the facade.  Randazzo, unlike most of the other towns nearby, was never destroyed by lava flow or earthquake, sparing it the worst excesses of the Baroque.

The terroir has been most memorably described by Marco de Grazia (see below) as the ‘Burgundy of the Mediterranean‘.  He sees Burgundy’s variety of soils and fickle climate mirrored in Etna’s geography: the DOC encircles the mountain for 120 sq km, with exposures ranging between full north to full south; rainfall 6-10x Sicilian average with one of the latest harvests in Europe; volcanic soil with layers of lava flow interpenetrating, creating soil zones, only hundreds of metres separated, yet that originate in eruptions thousands of years apart; and lastly, an altitude range of 400-1000m.  Despite all the variety, the wines, and how they interact with the food and landscape of Eastern Sicily, seem to have a deep unity and embedded history.

To be fair, the Byzantines came here first. This, the so-called 'Byzantine Cuba', is near Castiglione di Sicilia. It is thought to be more Norman in origin than Byzantine. It is not to be confused with the larger, clearly Norman Cuba in Palermo, which dates to the same time as the more-famous Zisa, also in Palermo.
To be fair, the Byzantines came here earlier, as did the Arabs. This, the so-called ‘Byzantine Cuba’, is near Castiglione di Sicilia. It is thought to be more Norman in origin than Byzantine. It is not to be confused with the larger, clearly Norman Cuba in Palermo, which dates to the same time as the more-famous Zisa, also in Palermo.  Both have strong Arabic influences, from the craftsmen who worked in the court of Count Roger.  This feels like a church, while those were pleasure-palaces amidst gardens.

Our trip started in Bronte & continued, via Catania, to the Baroque jewels of Noto and the sea at Siracusa. Yet it was in the misty, brooding slopes of the devil’s mountain, as Etna was known to the Arabs who once ruled it, tramping amongst vineyards and fields of pistachio & almonds, that we were happiest.

This land is about more than wine. Pistachios are a major crop in Bronte.
This land is about more than wine. Pistachios are a major crop in Bronte.  Slightly afield, in the Nebrodi, almonds and carob are cultivated.

Every day the mountain would be different, often with clouds blown from the south, giving an English aspect to the hill towns. On certain days, one could see the slightly different denser clouds expelled from the craters of Etna – sole sign that Monjebello could, once again, erupt.  All around was evidence of volcanic activity, as ravines were filled in with volcanic rock, while the soil was often crumbly black, almost a fine black talc.  This soil often had few weeds or plants, for it is rough and inhospitable.  Yet, for those hardy greens which can survive, it is nutritious.

While Bronte itself lent her name to the writer via the family of Horatio Nelson, of Trafalgar fame. Though he would never get to enjoy this estate, it was awarded to him by a grateful King of Naples for defending his beleagured kingdom. The castle is decorated as an English country house, all carpets, chintz, and doilies. As ever, the bath is a principal focus, while the tiles are in the traditional Sicilian style, albeit muted, of Caltagirone, and old Arab stronghold.
Bronte, a tiny place on Etna, lent her name to an English writer, via the family of Horatio Nelson, of Trafalgar fame. Though he would never get to enjoy this estate, it was awarded to him by a grateful King of Naples for defending his beleagured kingdom. The castle is decorated as an English country house, all carpets, chintz, and doilies. The family of Nelson was active in the fortified wine trade, a curious thing one finds all over the Sicily – particularly around Marsala and Palermo. As ever, the bath is a principal focus, while the tiles are in the traditional Sicilian style, albeit muted, of Caltagirone, and old Arab stronghold.
Looking at the minor church at Passopisciaro, site of Az. Ag. Frank Cornelissen.
Looking at the minor church at Passopisciaro, site of Az. Ag. Frank Cornelissen.  The ubiquitous FIAT Panda, sometimes with jacked-up wheels – with the Ape 50, this is Italy’s answer to Citroen.

The legendary & idiosyncratic winemaker Frank Cornelissen inspired the trip, and we mostly drank his wines and those of a few other producers who share his philosophy – a fidelity to the earth that most winemakers preach, but few practice. In the tasting at his cantina, he told us about his background and how he came to Etna, and his approach to making wine.  As an glimpse of what winemaking really boils down to, it was invaluable, particularly as we have seen and drunk his wines over years, and remember the especially volatile and idiosyncratic wines of the early days.  Some of his wines employ skin contact, yet he made an interesting comment on orange wine, a trend that’s gripped the weingeist in London and New York.  His sense was that orange wines tend to have a certain similarity of flavour – they resemble each other, in their oxidative notes and strong tannins, more than they fully express individualities of terroir.  While I am not sure I can entirely see the wines of Gravner or Radikon in that way, I do agree, that, in lesser producers’ hands, after one subtracts the colour and tannin, there’s precious little left of fruit or individuality.

Cornelissen also gave an example of a cold maceration as an approach that let’s him get the things he wants, such as the transfer of natural yeasts from grape skins to the juice, without undesirable effects, such as transfer of tannins.

That said, Cornelissen is all about expressing the identity of the land, grape, and vintage, with as little intervention in the cantina as possible.

Cornelissen's parcels (each called a 'contrada' in local parlance), over a range of elevations from 600m to 1000m.
Cornelissen’s parcels (each called a ‘contrada’ in local parlance), over a range of elevations from 600m to 1000m.

Cornelissen, like many of the other top producers in the area, uses the archaic alberello approach to training vines.  The French term is gobelet, but the gist of it is that vines are trained to form a clump of vine leaves and suspended fruit, around a central spur, so resembling a wine goblet or a tree.  Given there is a minimum of external support (i.e. trellis or wire), the weight of the grapes can cause them to drag on the ground, hence this is a method better suited to low-yield varieties.  It is also well-suited to Sicily’s relatively dry climate and difficult soil – because of the vine’s bushy, clumpy structure there is enhanced risk of damp and rot. This is also a fiddly approach that requires more manual work, and, combined with the steep terraced terrain, it’s not a surprise that Cornelissen requires a (very glamorous) enclosed tractor: Sicily’s answer to the Lamborghini tracked-vehicles we saw in the mountains of the Abruzzi.

One can see why the vines that manage to survive here can be...well...particolare
One can see why the vines that manage to survive here can be…well…particolare
What man needs to work this land.
What man needs to work this land – tending the devil’s shoulder.

 

 

Susucaru is Cornelissen's rose - as in the others, no added sulphur dioxide, skin contact, fully-complete malolactic fermentation. The grapes are Malvasia, Moscatel, Insolia, and Nerello Mascalese (the last two are autochthonous to Sicily). This wine drinks as a very light red, a bit like a Jura wine.
Susucaru is Cornelissen’s rose – as in the others, no added sulphur dioxide. Skin contact, fully-complete malolactic fermentation. The grapes are Malvasia, Moscatel, Insolia, and Nerello Mascalese (the last two are autochthonous to Sicily). It drinks as a very light red, a bit like a Jura wine.  Malvasia and Moscatel are, of course, the aromatic white grapes founds further west at Trapani and Marsala.
The tasting table: 2015 bianco (yet to be named), 2014 Munjebel Bianco (blend of grecanico dorato, carricante), 2014 Munjebel Rosso (blend of n. mascalese, n. cappuccio, minella nera, minella bianca, alicante bouschet), the entry-level Contadino blend, another 2014 Munjebel Rosso with 100% nerello mascalese.
The tasting table: 2015 bianco (yet to be named), 2014 Munjebel Bianco (blend of Grecanico Dorato, Carricante), 2014 Munjebel Rosso (blend of N. Mascalese, N. Cappuccio, Minella Nera, Minella Bianca, Alicante Bouschet), the entry-level Contadino blend, another 2014 Munjebel Rosso with 100% Nerello Mascalese.

Asked about what he thinks amphorae do, he was characteristically forthright – he lines his in epoxy, so they are essentially neutral vessels of 400 hectolitre volume, nothing more or less. He didn’t see any particular attraction, in the final product, to lining them with beeswax, making them out of terra-cotta, etc., as other producers sometimes claim.  Georgia, a country with an illustrious and long history of wine-making, was one of Cornelissen’s first stops when he made the transition from wine trader to novice vignero.  He recounts how Georgian oenology perhaps ended up pursuing traditional approaches, such as kvevri (amphorae), without questioning  them sufficiently.  Indeed, Georgian wine is somewhat ‘rustic’ (Cornelissen’s term), but I find it works well with the spicy, flavourful food of that land.

Cornelissen's amphorae. Asked about what he thinks amphorae do, he was characteristically forthright - he lines his in epoxy, so they are essentially neutral vessels of 400 hectolitre volume, nothing more or less. He didn't see any particular value, in the final product, to lining them with beeswax, making them out of clay, etc., as other producers, indeed a nation, Georgia, sometimes claim. That said, Cornelissen is all about expressing the identity of the land, grape, and vintage, with as little intervention in the cantina as possible.
Cornelissen’s amphorae.
Cantina-porn 1
Cantina-porn 1
Cantina-porn 2
Cantina-porn 2
We had the Munjebel Bianco at Cave Ox, a lovely osteria with rooms in Solicchiata.
We had the Munjebel Bianco at Cave Ox in Solicchiata.

 

Cave Ox
Cave Ox

 

A dear friend we made amongst the vines at the San Marco agriturismo in Rovittello near Castiglione di Sicilia. She answered to Etta, but her neighbours Mario the donkey, and Max the somewhat waxy sheep-dog were a bit more responsive.
A dear friend we made amongst the vines at the San Marco agriturismo in Rovittello near Castiglione di Sicilia. She answered to Etta, but her neighbours Mario the donkey, and Max the somewhat waxy sheep-dog were a bit more responsive.

Similarly, his comments on the palmento were telling – they weren’t particularly hygienic ways of making wine – and as in any natural wine-making operation, Cornelissen has essentially no defence against harmful bacteria.  That is, other than taking great care to keep kit clean, keeping the cantina cold, and, in the field, hoping it doesn’t rain too much.

An old palmento, now turned into the really lovely San Marco agriturismo near Rovittello. Having been to loads of agriturismi, we can say they span the phenomenal to the dreary, and this one was amongst the best - a great view of Etna, a mum cooking, good food, and best of all, a veritable petting zoo of pigs, donkeys, sheep, dogs, and some young vines yet to make wine.
An old palmento, now turned into the San Marco agriturismo. Having been to loads of agriturismi, we can say they span the phenomenal to the dreary, and this one was amongst the best – a great view of Etna, a mum cooking, good food, and best of all, a veritable petting zoo of pigs, donkeys, sheep, dogs, and some young vines yet to make wine.
Hobnail boots used for the old-style pressing of grapes in the palmento. At a tiny museum near Rovittello.
Hobnail boots used for the old-style pressing of grapes in the palmento. At a tiny museum near Rovittello.

Cornelissen’s cantina at Passopisciaro is bracketed by two fine eno-restaurants: San Giorgio e Il Drago in Randazzo, and Cave Ox in Solicchiata.  San Giorgio is a joyous, casual place, particularly when one of the younger proprietors is on the floor – and it is, hands down, the best value on (high-quality) food or wine, that we have found in Sicily.  Its wine list is exclusively Sicilian, with many Etna names.  Cave Ox, owned by Sandro Dibella, is a bit of a legend – a phenomenal and wide-ranging wine list, both Sicily and otherwise.  In particular, it’s great fun to drink awesome wine there with the equally spectacular pizze, though his lunch menu was some of the finest food we had on the trip.  Prices are slightly higher, but it’s emphatically worth it – and it’s worth staying the night.  In both places, we saw mostly local people eating simple food and drinking modestly-priced wine.  It was early in the season, but there was a smattering of the international eno-set tootling along from village to village in rented Audis.

View inside San Giorgio e Il Drago (Randazzo)
View inside San Giorgio e Il Drago (Randazzo).  Salvo Foti’s I Vigneri is well represented in the bottles.  Sadly, we didn’t get to taste one of their wines (but have one sitting in front of me at the moment), but this article gives a good idea of Foti’s approach.
At San Giorgio e Il Drago: the lovely aubergines of the area, marinated with chili; little fried 'meatballs' of potato. With
At San Giorgio e Il Drago: the lovely aubergines of the area, marinated with chili; little fried ‘meatballs’ of potato. With Crasa’s SRC Rivaggi blend of nerello mascalese & grenache.  Not the most exciting wine in the world at the price, but the food more than made up for it.
The fabulous antipasto dish at Cave Ox, with the Wiegner Triterre wine.
The fabulous antipasto dish at Cave Ox, with the Wiegner Treterre.  100% Nerello mascalese from 750m, natural yeasts.  It was a lovely, very balanced, elegant wine.  They say nerello mascalese could be the pinot noir of the south, or as aglianico is to nebbiolo.  You could sort of see it in this wine.
Cave Ox (Solicchiata)
Cave Ox (Solicchiata)
Magma is the grandest of Cornelissen's wines. From a single vineyard at 910m, vines of 106-year old vines. 1300 bottles. I've only had it at tastings, and have no useful comparative note to offer. I do think Cornelissen's wines, more than most, benefit from tasting over a few hours.
Magma is the grandest of Cornelissen’s wines. From a single vineyard at 910m, vines of 106-years, 1300 bottles. I’ve only had it at tastings, and have no useful comparative note to offer. I do think Cornelissen’s wines, more than most, evolve greatly as they are tasted over a few hours – so, some day, keen to splurge on a bottle of this.
A jolly good go at Cornelissen's entry-level wine Contadino. With arancini of horse-meat, some marinated greens, and pizza.
In beautiful, but perhaps culinarily challenged, Noto: a jolly good go at Cornelissen’s entry-level wine Contadino. With arancini of horse-meat, boiled greens, and pizza. And lashings of the marvellously mild garlic of the area.  It was Thursday, and we would go to bed confident of a Remain vote – after all Farage had all but conceded (‘Remain will edge it’) and Sterlinga had hit 1.50.  What could go wrong?

Other producers have gravitated to the area – such as Marco de Grazia who runs Tenuta delle Terre Nere near Randazzo.  His vineyards are from 700 to 900m, and one parcel has pre-phylloxera alberello vines of 140 years age.  The wines, while slightly spicy, have a chewy sort of minerality, described by Jancis Robinson as a ‘cappucino’ edge. Their soils range from volcanic pumice to volcanic sand mixed with basaltic pebbles and ash.  The terrain is steeply terraced, and again, needs to be tended by hand.

Terre Nere entry-level Etna Rosso 95% nerello mascalese, from near Randazzo
Terre Nere’s entry-level Etna Rosso 95% nerello mascalese, from near Randazzo.  With grilled veg, stuffed pies, and pizza on a balcony in Noto.  It was Friday – the vote result has sunk in, sort of, markets are tanking.

Tuscan winemaker Andrea Franchetti’s Passopisciaro makes some phenomenal wines, both with the local grapes but also transplants such as chardonnay in the 2013 entry-level Guardiola white, from a parcel at 1000m, vinified in stainless steel and aged in wood botti grandi.  Franchetti also makes single-contrada reds, and like wines from some other producers, the pale, perfumed production of nerello mascalese bring to mind northern greats like Pinot Noir as expressed in Chambolle-Musigny or Gevrey-Chambertin, or Nebbiolo as expressed in Gattinara.

Passopisciaro 2013 Guardiola
Passopisciaro 2013 Guardiola, with the archaic tumminia pasta of Sicily, in a sauce of swordfish, zucchini, and baked ricotta.  Our take on the Catanese classic – pasta with swordfish, aubergine, and cheese.

We drank Alberto Graci’s wines a few times, as they were amongst the most affordable.  Like Franchetti, Cornelissen, and Wiegner, Graci is an import from the north (a Milanese banker in this case, albeit with Sicilian roots), his parcels are also near Passopisciaro.  This bianco is a blend of Carricante and Catarratto and was actually one of the loveliest and most versatile we tried, particularly with food.

Alberto Graci's Etna Bianco accompanies pasta made with the blood-saturated off-cuts of tuna. They're called buzzonalia, and we bought them dock-side from a small cannery in the marina of Avola.
Alberto Graci’s Etna Bianco accompanies pasta made with the blood-saturated off-cuts of tuna (from near the main dorsal vein and spine). They’re called buzzonalia, and we bought them dock-side from a small cannery in the marina of Avola.  Very strongly flavoured, they’re best eaten in pasta with the sweet onions of Tropea (Calabria), sweet/tart tomatoes (Pachino, Sicily), and lots of herbs.  They can also be served with sun-dried tomatoes.  This is the ‘fifth-quarter’ of the tuna, so-called pig of the sea.
Salvo Foti's rose Vinudilice
Salvo Foti’s rose Vinudilice

The last producer we sampled, albeit back in London, was Salvo Foti’s I Vigneri, a collective named after a winemakers’ guild of 1435.   His Vinudilice comes from a parcel nestled in a forest of holly oak (quercus ilex giving the name), near Bronte, located at 1300m, probably making it one of the highest vineyards in Europe.  The grapes are Alicante, Grecanico, Minella Bianco, Minella Nera, and Nerello Cappuccio, growing on alberelli vines 100-200 years old.  The soil is ash and sand, and the terrain requires Foti to employ Ciccio the mule  – fair competition to Cornelissen’s tractor.   This was a pretty remarkable rose – pale in colour, strong acidic backbone, but a tremendous complexity of nose and palate – really not like any other rose we’ve had.  That complexity, I suppose, was the pure expression of rock and ash.  We paired it firstly with boquerones, then a guinea fowl roasted in wine and grappa – secondo Patience Gray’s recipe from Carrara.  Vinudilice is available retail at Noble Fine Liquor and also through Les Caves de Pyrene.

The digestivi at San Giorgio e Il Drago, one of which is made for the restaurant.
The digestivi at San Giorgio e Il Drago: the amaro on the left is made for the restaurant.  Interestingly, we saw quite a few ‘grappe’ made in Sicily.  Cornelissen’s grapes used to be sent for grappa production (no longer, he preferred to stay focused on the wine and olive oils, both of which are much more about his terroir, whereas the grappa reflects mostly the distiller’s work).  To be honest, I didn’t love the Sicilian grappe in comparison to Veneto, FVG, etc., but that probably has more to do with the heat.

 

By the time we got to the humid, hot, slightly dusty plain of Catania, all thoughts of wine had evaporated. Instead, it was enough to get to the fish-market before dawn, to watch the tuna come in. Unlike most fisheries, some tuna in Sicily still are caught in the Mediterranean, and gutted onshore. The plaza gets soaked with blood - the perennial renewal of the vines in Etna is replaced by the ancient and tragic rituals of the tuna hunt.
By the time we got to the humid, hot, slightly dusty plain of Catania, all thoughts of wine had evaporated. Instead, it was enough to get to the fish-market before dawn, to watch the tuna come in. Unlike most fisheries, some tuna in Sicily still are caught in the Mediterranean, and gutted onshore. The plaza gets soaked with blood – the perennial renewal of the vines in Etna is replaced by the ancient and tragic rituals of the tuna hunt.

Some addresses:

Cave Ox, Solicchiata

San Giorgio e Il Drago, Randazzo

Enoteca Solaria: Via Roma, 86 in Ortigia, Siracusa

San Marco agriturismo, Rovittello

 

Wine-makers:

Frank Cornelissen

Passopisciaro

Tenuta delle Terre

Alberto Graci

I Vigneri

Tutto Wines, Le Caves de Pyrene, Noble Fine Liquor, Berry Brothers Rudd, and Corney & Barrow are good places to start in London if one wants to track these wines down.