A rainy day in Brussels, where it rains a lot. But there are still plenty of visitors on the steps, descending through the wintry drizzle from the Mont des Arts towards the Gare Centrale. Angling for a nebulous shot of the Gothic spire that tops the Town Hall on the Grand Place, phone cameras are pointed slightly to the right, blending out the brutalist sandstone columns fronting the Koninklijke Bibliotheek van België (Royal Library of Belgium) on their left.
Inside the library, things are only marginally better. A security check and brightly lit reception area, coat lockers and coffee dispensers, some haphazard chairs. Tucked away in a corner behind the information desk, a small single door opens. An assistant steps out and beckons me in. We descend into a warren of low corridors, ducking to avoid pipes. Curiouser and curiouser.
Some five minutes later, seated at a massive wooden table, I open a large folder and step boldly into the view of an Alpine valley. Having himself just entered the picture from the right, a cloaked man sits on a horse in the shade of a fully verdant tree, surveying the scene. To his left, a fenced path descends towards a bridge across a meandering river. A village—a church, barns and low-eaved houses—appears in the middle distance. Rocks, mountains and castle turrets draw an outline under scudding clouds. Cattle graze on meadows. Journeying men are dots on the road. Astride his horse, the traveller’s awe is unmistakeable.
This is the Large Alpine Landscape, a print based on a drawing by Pieter Bruegel, etched probably around 1555-56 by Johannes and Lucas van Doetecum and printed by Hieronymus Cock. Along with some eight thousand others, this print is preserved in the Royal Library’s print room —available to anybody willing to register as a day reader (5 EUR) and submit an online request (www.kbr.be/en) to view any print registered in the catalogue: an “open sesame” to the limitless horizons of vicarious travel.
Which Bruegel himself, the painter of distantly biblical scenes amid Flemish provinciality, of myth masquerading as the every day, would surely have welcomed. And this is why it’s his work that I’ve asked to see. Not that of more worldly artist-travellers such as Goya or Daumier, Velasquez or Piranesi, but of a smocked and untidily bearded artist (according to the one existing likeness) buried so deeply in locality that not even his place and date of birth are known. Just the outlines of a career sketched around an apprenticeship in Antwerp ca. 1550, congress with contemporary intellectuals, a move to Brussels, a marriage, sons, an early death in 1569: a modest life foregrounded against a backdrop of political and religious upheaval.
And then, improbably, there is this one journey. One single expedition (on foot, on horseback?) as far south as Sicily and Rome, probably undertaken in the spirit of a grand artistic tour from 1552-54. Imagine him, this great observer of human folly, leaving his native flatlands with their wet, pressing skies and moving southwards into the sun. River valleys, foothills and slowly unveiling, the spectacular otherness of the Alps.
I think that he would always have been looking. If he sketched as he went, little evidence remains. Only a couple of on-site drawings. The “I, the artist, was here” is not a measure of quality. Instead, he memorizes contrasts, notes topography, creates pockets of detail as his horse picks his way into the spread of foreign landscapes. The heft of a way-side oak, the deep shade of a crevice, rocks that touch the sky become pieces waiting to be reassembled on a thick sheet of paper pinned to a board in a wood-beamed workshop. A drawing taken through streets filled with noise and dirt to the printmaker. Five hundred years later, I share the wonder of this one escape.
Scanning the print, I lean in to pick a beaming, luminescent daisy. Or a deep blue gentian, tucked away amongst blueberries and low scrubbing plants. Sunshine on a cloudy day.