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Egypt in the Alps

Michelangelo wasn't impressed with Flemish painting, and there's no sign of a pyramid either. Stephanie-Suzanne Durante on a landscape by Pieter Bruegel

Stephanie-Suzanne Durante

Michelangelo once said of Flemish painting generally, and of Flemish landscapes such as this one in particular:

‘It will appeal to women, especially to the very old and the very young, and also to monks and nuns and to certain noblemen with no sense of true harmony. In Flanders, they paint with a view to external exactness or such things as may cheer you and of which you cannot speak ill, as for example saints and prophets. They paint stuffs and masonry, the green grass of the fields, the shadow of trees, and rivers and bridges, which they call landscapes... And all this, though it pleases some people, is done without reason or art, without symmetry or proportion, without skilful judgment or boldness, and, finally, without substance or vigour. Nevertheless, there are countries where they paint worse than in Flanders. And I do not speak ill of Flemish painting because it is all bad but because it attempts to do so many things well (each one of which would suffice for greatness) that it does none well.’

In the unlikely case that the visual evidence of this exquisite painting does not discredit the great man all by itself, be assured that Michelangelo goes on to discredit himself a few lines later, by uttering the following idiocy:

‘It is practically only the work done in Italy that we can call true painting, and that is why we call good painting Italian.... Thus we give the name of Italian painting not necessarily to painting done in Italy but to all good and right painting... and if good painting be produced in Flanders it will still be Italian painting.’

What?? Was he stupid? You can decide that for yourself, but a more important question is: why this absolutely hysterical tirade against Flemish painting generally, singling out Flemish landscapes in particular?

Stephanie-Suzanne Durante investigates what upset Michelangelo so much and why, in this work, the flight into Egypt seems to have taken a slight detour...

The threat and the story

Egypt never looked like this

Journey through a landscape

Reading list

Rose-Marie Hagen, Rainer Hagen, Bruegel - Basic Art Series, pub. Taschen, 01/11/1994 www.amazon.co.uk

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