A & R, or the Mirror of Myth(Making)

I talked already about introduction of the ‘classical’ themes into the European Medieval, and especially Renaissance art (for example, when writing about Venus, both herself  together with Mars), and the role (and contributions) of mirrors in these developments case. In this context, the above painting can be easily understood as one of the many examples of Venuss (together with unusually feminine Mars).

In reality these are different heroes, and from a very different story. The story represents quite a unique case, of a totally invented myth that emerged at some point in Europe and then spread so rapidly and so deeply into European culture, that at the end it became as classical – if not more – than many classical tropes.

It’s a fabulous example of a myth-making ‘out of thin air’, but for me it is also interesting because of the important role that a mirror played in this the whole affair.

To begin with: the painting above is by some Antonio Bellucci, an interesting, but – as  i_shmael says sometimes – notgenial Italian Rococo artist of the late 17th century. His biography is interesting and pretty twisted, and he produced some interesting works (provided, of course, that you do not completely despise everything Rococo, as I do). But I can not afford too many tangents now, since the main story, or A & R, is rich and complex enough itself.

A & R is also a reference to the title of the painting: Rinaldo and Armida (it was makde in 1690s).

In order to explain who these Armida and Rinaldo, and what they’re doing here with the mirrir (and being nude), I need to make a series of jumps in time. I decided to build a simple infoviz to make the jumping easier:

For the same of simplicity, let assume that it’s all started around the year 0 (zero) (by the way, as I have learned recently, there is no such year, 1 BC immediately goes into 1 AD, skipping zero… but I digress).

The events that took place prior to the year zero, both real and mythological, have some relation to this story, but I’d cut it for a moment, pretending they do not.

The events that occurred in around 33 AD are of some importance to the story, but mostly by the fact they happened in the vicinity of Jerusalem.

The year 1099 is much more important to this story; it’s about this time when many noble knights (later called Crusaders) from all over Europe decided they need to retake the city Jerusalem from the ‘infidels’. The succeeded (few times, even, eventually).

The history of the holy city during the next six centuries is interesting, and very complex, but again has little relation with the story of R & A.

Things get warmer around 1580, when some Torquato Tasso (described as “one of the greatest Italian poets of the XVI century”) published one of his most famous works, a  giant poem called La Gerusalemme liberata, “Jerusalem Delivered.”

In fact, the year 1580 is not the exact year of creation of this masterpiece, some early drafts appeared already in the middle of the 1560s, and more or less complete text existed by 1575. In 1580 the poem was published first, but this was not the end, and the text had been edited by Tasso almost till the end of life (very sad, in fact, he seemingly suffered from schizophrenia and died in a mental asylum house in 1595 ).

The poem, written almost five centuries after the First Crusade, tells the story of this campaign, but it tells in form of seemingly never-ending stream of the names of knights, their victories, their endless bragging to each other, long, pompus and plain boring. There are, of course, numerous side lines, some of them are about love, but it’s all intertwined with each other rather helplessly (I made some efforts, and much of the text was ‘thumbed through’, but I wouldn’t call it ‘reading’). Everything is relative, of course, and for centuries this was one of the most popular and widely read text in Europe.

But closer to our A & R.

Rinaldo is one of the many knights who gathered to capture the city from unholy Saracens. He is not the most important and honorable one, but not the last knight in a kindgom either. He’s not The One, but his role is of some important. He is also very handsome.

Armida is the daughter of Hydraot, the chief sorcerer the Saracens and herself a skillful sorceress. As soon the the infidels learned about the approaching Christian warriors,  they immediately realized that they would fil in a fair, honest fight with them, so they need to call for the help of “dark forces.” Armida the sorceress is entrusted to, well, eliminate Rinaldo.

For a while, she is not able to accomplish the mission; but eventually the right moment arrives, and she is just about to kill Rinaldo with her sharp dagger:Nicolas Poussin – Rinaldo and Armida (1625)

but then… then she fell love, so deeply that she decides not to kill Rinaldo,but on the contrary, put him into sleep and drag in her palace. Here Rinaldo is being transported to the next destination while sleeping:

Nicolas Poussin – Armida abducts unconscious Rinaldo (1637)

The palace, as it often happens, is on the most remote island:

Anthony van Dyck – Rinaldo and Armida on the Island (1629)

and surrounded by the gardens (which later become known as the Gardens of Armida), where she plans to indulge in a set of diverse pleasures with the beautiful knight.

Jean-Honore Fragonard – Rinaldo in the Garden of the Palace of Armida (1763)

The problem is – and Armida understands it very well – that as soon as Rinaldo would wake up, he will most likely show a strong disagreement with the situation. He is disarmed, of course, but still can bring a lot damage to the things around. And besides, in no wildest dream he would fall in love with Armida, the infidel thus the enemy. well, she could keep him in a sleep – but what’s the use of a sleeping lover?

And at this moment a very interesting idea comes to the Armida’s head – what if she wold somehow twist, distort the perception of Rinaldo? What if he would see not the ‘reality’, but a ‘desired reality’? Desired by Armida, that is? Soon the idea comes into reality – with the help of a mirror!

Of course, it’s not a simply, but a magical mirror, the one capable to substitute the ‘real reflection’ with the ‘preferred one’. That’s how this solution is described in the text (a bit vague, I have to admit):

Book Sixteen:

Down by the lovers' side there pendent was
A crystal mirror, bright, pure, smooth, and neat,
He rose, and to his mistress held the glass,
A noble page, graced with that service great;
She, with glad looks, he with inflamed, alas,
Beauty and love beheld, both in one seat;
Yet them in sundry objects each espies,
She, in the glass, he saw them in her eyes:

Her, to command; to serve, it pleased the knight;
He proud of bondage; of her empire, she;
"My dear," he said, "that blessest with thy sight
Even blessed angels, turn thine eyes to me,
For painted in my heart and portrayed right
Thy worth, thy beauties and perfections be,
Of which the form; the shape and fashion best,
Not in this glass is seen, but in my breast.

"And if thou me disdain, yet be content
At least so to behold thy lovely hue,
That while thereon thy looks are fixed and bent
Thy happy eyes themselves may see and view;
So rare a shape no crystal can present,
No glass contain that heaven of beauties true;
Oh let the skies thy worthy mirror be!
And in dear stars try shape and image see."

Exactly this mutual gazes mediated by the ‘worth mirror’, are depicted in the painting by Bellucci:

I will live aside for a moment the very ability to create such a mirror, as well as its specific optical and/or magical features which would be required for it to perform the task.

Instead, I will say a few words on the mirror in terms of the ‘mirrors in art’ point.

The mirror shown here is quite interesting: it’s already not a convex, but a flat mirror, although it’s still round. There is not much reflected in it (just a belt with a buckle, and some parts of Armida), but still  there is a mirror reflection here. But what is more important is that we see here – perhaps the first time in art history – is complex social interlay, this mutual gazing through mirror; it’s a social, collaborative action.

This is a very complex game with mirrors, there was nothing like that before (at least not in this blog); I would of course need to check if such social games had been depicted by someone earlier, but doubt. The closest thing that comes to mind is  Caravaggio’s Martha and Mary, but even in that case we didn’t see this mutual gaze into the mirror.

I have more images of this, or similar scene, but I’d first finish with the story (just in case – Spoiler Alert!)

The story in fact ended if not happily, than at least not in horror. Basically, the trick with the magic mirror worked well, and Rinaldo went in some sort of trance, where he would see only the beautified world, including beautified (and transformed) himself.  What you see is what you get, and he was getting all these pleasures of Armida and her magic gardens. In principle, this trance didn’t have any chance to stop – as soon as the  mirror would keep ‘working’.

But then came the Eagles arrived two faithful companions of Rinaldo, two soldiers who’s been advised by a wise wizard (“our wizard”, that is). He told to the soldiers not only where Ronaldo is kept, but also how to get to the Palace while avoiding all sorts of traps set here and there as well as how to fight with various evil creatures.

When the two soldiers finally got into the place, they saw a very sad scene there –  their former daredevil Rinaldo was laying completely naked and surrounded by the lustful beauties; a pig in mud. (We see these soldiers already in the painting by Bellucci, they’re hiding behind a fence, but they are depicted in many other versions of the scene, too):

Francesco Hayez – Rinaldo and Armida (c.1840)

To rescue Ronaldo from this hypnotic trance , they decided to beat the fire with fire (and a magic mirror with a real one): as a sobering ‘mirror’ they decided to use their own shields – seizing a moment, they show Rinaldo himself in one of them (=”of diamond clear that pure and precious“). Rinaldo wakes up, ashamed with himself and angry with what has happened with him.  

Ubaldo forward stepped, and to him hield
Of diamonds clear that pure and precious shield.

Upon the targe his looks amazed he bent,
And therein all his wanton habit spied,
His civet, balm, and perfumes redolent,
How from his locks they smoked and mantle wide,
His sword that many a Pagan stout had shent,
Bewrapped with flowers, hung idly by his side,
So nicely decked that it seemed the knight
Wore it for fashion's sake but not for fight.

As when, from sleep and idle dreams abraid,
A man awaked calls home his wits again;
So in beholding his attire he played,
But yet to view himself could not sustain,
His looks he downward cast and naught he said,
Grieved, shamed, sad, he would have died fain,
And oft he wished the earth or ocean wide
Would swallow him, and so his errors hide.

An over-pampered playboy just a second ago, Rinaldo comes to life again and instantly becomes a fierce knight. He flees with his friends back to the walls of Jerusalem, and makes a significant contribution to its ‘liberation’, expectedly.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo – Rinaldo Sees Himself in Ubaldo’s Shield (1755)

Arimida – well, also quite expectedly, she is in tears and grief, yet she also understands that no sorcery can mislead a true Christian warrior. There are a few different version of the end: in some of them she dies, in others she is converted to Christianity (interestingly, this latter, more Hollywood-like version was not very popular in the past).

That’s the end of the story in the poem. But in real life the things went further, and in somewhat fantastic way. For a while the the poem was just a text, a ‘proper Christian text’, but not more. But then it got in to the hands of musicians. I don’t know if someone have investigated the reasons behind it, but somehow this plot became incredibly, wildly popular: more than a dozen of operas had been written and played, by such masters as Jean-Baptiste Lully, George Frideric Handel, Antonio Vivaldi, Antonio Salieri (yes, that one), Christoph Gluck, Joseph Haydn, Gioachino Rossini… and these are only the top-notch ones. There were also ballets, operettas and plays. For a long time it was an absolute blockbuster – which, in turn, affected the visual art. Many paintings had been created in response to these operas and ballets, and not the text itself (where the story is only a tiny part of the whole saga).

Here is a drawing showing the very first opera based on the R & A story, set in 1686 by Jean-Baptiste Lully:

Paintings based on the A&R theme not just galore, but GALORE. For a myth, a completely fictional fairy tale, invented out of the blue, it is, of course, an incredible success. (Ok, I may slightly exaggerate its out-of-the-blue-ness, the story of course woven many classical, Greek and Roman, motifs, but still).

As I said, I’d love to read a ‘cultual investigation’ of some sort, of how and why this all happened. But I am even more interested in the impact it made during more than two centuries on the public opinion on (and perception of)… mirrors. The story implies a very particular, and peculiar take on how mirrors work, and what they can do with people. But that would require much more solid analysis, and more sources to read.

Meanwhile, just a few more Rinaldo and Armida; a lot of them, in fact:

Anthony van Dyck – Rinaldo and Armida (1625)

By the way, this is a pre-opera painting, Van Dyck was illustrating the book, not an  opera libretto; and here we see a convex mirror (and no social games, yet).

François Boucher – Rinaldo and Armida (1733)

In the days of Boucher it was more important to show a rich frame than the mirror itself; and if to show the mirror, then the bigger the better! (I am saying it with some certainty, because I am studying the mirrors of Boucher at this very moment, but didn’t write about them here, yet).

May be also worth pointing at the Medusa-like shield at Rinaldo, yet another interesting  allusion.

A couple of works by Giovanni Tiepolo – I guess they were intended for opera decorations:

Giovanni Tiepolo – Rinaldo and Armida in the Garden (1752)

Giovanni Tiepolo – Rinaldo and Armida (1760)

An interesting work, by anonymous Italian master, created around 1750; here the bodies of Rinaldo and Armida are completely intertwined, with each other, and a mirror, forming a complex human-technology actant.

Luca Giordano – Renaud and Armide discovered by the knights

Some paintings depict Rinaldo who dutifully holds a mirror before Armida looks; this is, of course, a more simple ‘mirror game’ (we saw the example of such things already in the Titian’s works), although R&A story always has an additional BDSM aspect.

Ludovico Carracci – Rinaldo and Armida (1593)

Anonymous (French School) – Rinaldo in the garden of Armida  (c.1680)

Louis de Boullogne – Rinaldo and Armida (1723)

In some paintings Armida looks at the mirror herself – which is, of course, a step back in the development of the mirror theme. But in this work by David Teniers we see another interesting thing: convex mirrors had been hardly used by then, and to depict one in the painting was a way to ‘age’ the scene – of course, it was necessary to show the “11th century”!

David Teniers the Younger – The Garden of Armida (1670s)

Some works show Armida alone, and then the theme degrades to a more simple Vanity:

Jacques Blanchard – Armide (1635)

There are, of course, the works where the mirror plays no role; but it’s still there: “just in case”:

Louis E Lagren – Rinaldo and Armida

I don’t fully understand the plot depicted in this work: it seems that this is a moment when Rinaldo has already woken up and is about to run away. And at the end he shows Armida herself in her magical mirror? or in his “Diamond Shield”?

Francesco Maffei – Rinaldo and the Mirror (1650)

Escape from the island; the mirror did not help.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo – Rinaldo Abandoning Armida

Here depicted is a deep sorrow of Armida:

Charles Errard – Renaud abandons Armide

This is such a beautiful story that I did not even want to sum up it with some ‘conclusions’ (I may venture with the ‘icon’ later). More precisely, there are too many conclusions, and on different levels, each adding new and interesting twists to my saga of people, and mirrors, and futures (for example, the social gazing I wrote earlier, or the presence of ‘male’ hero in generally ‘female’ technological domain.”

And of course, this whole theme of magical, deceptive mirrors, the ones that can pervert reality, and help to manipulation the consciousness of the viewer. Interestingly that none of the pictures try to show this perverseness of the mirror itself, we mostly see pretty usual artifacts. In a sense, all these paintings are pure conceptual art, one needs to know the ‘meaning’ of the work prior to the viewing on the visual representation.

And Tasso is great, of course: to compile such an Alice-Through-The-Looking-Glass story – in the late 16th century (!) in Italy (!!) is an act of amazing cretivity. That said, I would need to check at some point the technological advances of the ‘Saracen’ (Muslim) civilization, better both in 16th and 11th centuries.  Perhaps, the references all these magical, beautiful glass mirrors were coming from Venice – but may be we can track something to much earlier times.

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