An Anonymous River God Has a Few Thoughts for Youth

---in memory of Italo Calvino

 

 The monumental old man sitting in the ruins can find no peace except in the rubble of what was. Even here, comforted by decay, he is restless. He grips a staff and a toppled urn for support, but his torso twists and flexes, his hair flows in an unseen wind, he stares off at an unseen horizon. A great torsion inside him wants to unburden itself but cannot.


A youth has wandered by and stopped to watch, fascinated. It's not that the man is speaking (his mouth appears shut) but the air he has, the sense that he is about to hold forth. The young man makes himself comfortable on a huge chunk of rubble and waits patiently. Nearby, a fragment of an ornately carved frieze gives him something to contemplate when he takes his eyes off the old man's face. What is to be learned? Can he tell what once this was, how the carving came to be so involute or came to fall?


From the distance, a woman carrying a bundle appears on the scene. She has caught sight of the two men but seems headed in a different direction, perhaps to do some laundry in a stream.



Who is the old man in this picture of Pannini's? Keep your eye on the urn he uses to support himself, an urn from which one can imagine (one cannot see for sure) the thinnest silver trickle of water flows. See closeup below:


Consulting an earlier painter whose work Pannini knew may give us a clue about the old man's identity. Nicholas Poussin, the greatest painter of the 17th century, lived and worked in Italy most of his life. Several of his most important canvases feature a hirsuite old man near the edge of the picture brooding over an overturned urn, from which flows a stream of water. The figure is usually nude and stretched out on the ground in a relaxed pose, half-sitting and half-lying. Sometimes he wears what appears to be a laurel wreath around his head. And sometimes not only an urn is nearby but other symbolic (iconographic) items---a cornucopia's horn brimming with flowers, a dog-sized sphinx lying on its haunches.

These old men are river gods. The iconographic sign that identifies them is the urn spilling water. The cornucopia signifyies the abundance a river gives the land; the presence of a sphinx indicates the River Nile. Such figures are common in fountains, sculpted in marble, but also appear in paintings.

(Click here for examples of historical Italian fountains that use this motif, part of a site selling modern fountains for use in home gardens and other areas.)

 

 


[Click here for more on Nicholas
Poussin's use of river god iconography and its relation to Pannini, including a look at its role in Poussin's famous Et in Arcadia Ego I painting.]


Pannini's use of standard river god iconography shows important parallels and contrasts to Poussin, or rather brings forward an aspect of Poussin's symbolism that lies in the shadow. For Pannini's river god is unidentifiable, is associated with no narrative and no specific river. He brings the generic qualities of the river god to such a level of abstraction and mystery that he can barely be identified as a river god except for the most general aspects of his pose, his placement, and his urn.
In some of Pannini's other works this river god figure is used more conventionally, as a marginal figure commenting on the action or serving as a marker of locale.


In the original picture at the top of this page (also reproduced below for your convenience), however, Pannini's use of this icon is stunningly indeterminate. The youth sits in front of the river god, expectant but also befuddled: the old man's once secure meaning (symbolism, iconography) is now in question. Paradoxically, this shift is most marked by a physical shift of the river god from the margins of a mythological or historical canvas' narrative to its center. What once was a stable set of inherited meanings passed down through time has now in Pannini become an incertain inheritance, an uncertain set of meanings and an uncertain tradition: the opaqueness of the river god's meanings, his need to be questioned, now has become the main source of drama in the landscape. It is as if he is a huge chunk of mythological narrative fallen in a desolate landscape, a sign of the impending ruin of allegory and iconography.


The youth who faces him may ask him questions about how this old figure got there, or how the ruins that surround them came to be. In asking such questions he is also asking about the ruin of meaning itself, how in time's flow all monuments and all sign systems become rubble. Perhaps the anonymous river god's anguish, the reason for his twisting torso, is that he cannot tell this story or maybe even remember it, try as hard as he might to grasp it. He just hears the sound of water flowing weakly from the urn---water that's not even seen in Pannini's picture, only implied. In Poussin the river god represents all that exists before and after narrative, before and after all experiences individual shepherds in Arcadia have with love and death. He is also the fount of all figuration, of all possible symbolic meaning juxtaposed against the shepherds' individual acts of reading. But as Pannini revises Poussin, the river god now seems to flow with the power of emptiness, erasure, silence, the decay of all prophecy except the prophecy of ruins.

The young man leans forward, straining to hear. The river god seems eternally about to speak.


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