I’m sitting in my kitchen, waiting for a block of stone. The stone is going to be the base for a sculpture I’ve been commissioned to make for a church. It’s not a huge bit of stone, but it probably weighs the same as two washing machines. When I tried to fetch it from the stone yard the other day, the quarry men, chalky with dust, told me that it was too heavy for my Honda. They said they’d bring it in one of their trucks. I’ve been waiting for weeks to get this stone.
The last time I carved a piece of stone was twenty years ago, when I was at art school. It was a torso: dancing or in the moment of escape. It was hard work. Back then I remember thinking I’d never tackle stone again, unless I knew exactly what I was going to do with it. The dust gets everywhere. You have to wear a mask and goggles and it’s hot, sweaty, loud and monotonous. This time round, I could have contracted a stonemason. But as I do know exactly what I want and what the stone will be used for, and I’m a sucker for punishment, I thought I’d do it myself and re-examine what I knew back then. And the first lesson, it seems, as I sit here twiddling my thumbs, is patience.
It seems to me that there is a similarity between the concentrated waiting that comes before starting to write and what takes place before carving a shape from a lump of stone. There’s a weighing of thought and feeling, allowing calculations and deliberations to settle and mix and form coherence: pondering – which has its root in the Latin word for weight or mass. The end product, whether book or sculpture, is equal to the mass of the pondering multiplied by the shedding of light, squared. I find myself thinking about Giulio Camillo, the subject of my book A Search for the Source of the Whirlpool of Artifice.
The stone’s arrived. Two guys from Hunter and Clark brought it. It came the day before I had to go away to do some work abroad. So I had to leave it, waiting there in the garden in the sunlight with a shadow pattern of leaves. Now I’m back. But it’s Tuesday and the shop where I can buy the right tools to carve it is closed today.
My thoughts turn back to Camillo. It’s not as if everybody adored him. Sometimes it was the opposite: he was reviled and laughed at, a big fat buffoon. Even his most stalwart allies thought he was over-ambitious. He’s is an unlikely pin-up.
Camillo was an Italian philosopher, an astronomer and poet. Born near Venice around 1480, he was contemporary with Copernicus, Titian and Erasmus. He wrote and taught in Venice and Rome, and then, earning the patronage of the King of France, spent time in Paris. He was known to be constantly engaged in his plans for his magnum opus: the ‘Theatre’.
In Milan, in 1544, three months before he died, Camillo revealed his ideas about the Theatre to a trusted friend, who transcribed everything that he said over the course of seven days and nights; an apocryphal tale has it that they were lying on adjoining beds when they did so, in emulation of the philosophers of antiquity. Six years later, in 1550, in Florence, the fruit of Camillo’s work was published by Lorenzo Torrentino in a slim volume called L’ Idea del Theatro.
What exactly was Camillo’s Theatre? Not what we now think of as a theatre, that’s for sure. Rather, it was a kind of celestial map, an astrolabe of memory, a historical compass. It embraced times past – what Camillo called the ‘Golden Age’ – with the here and now; it aimed to combine the elements of ‘hyle’, or primary matter, with all that is manifest, from asses and cannon balls to windmills and honey bees; it encompassed everything from the differentiation of species to the effects of heat, light and generation.
The sole perceiver in Camillo’s Theatre looks at a pantheon of imagery, like being in an immense art gallery or at an internet portal. Based on the framework of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom and on the seven planets, the Theatre fanned out, comprising a grid of hundreds of images designed to trigger the memory, like a Cartesian graph made not of numbers but of metaphors and myths. The sun, in Camillo’s Theatre, has pride of place. A matter of months separates the dictation of his ideas and the publication in Nuremberg of Copernicus’s On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.
He pictures the world as a living organism in which every element, from the planets to the rocks, trees, rivers, even to the hairs of our heads is connected through ‘heavenly streams’ that are flows of celestial love. His work, in this respect, follows Dante, who suggested, two centuries earlier, that the universe was impelled to motion by love.
Through studying Camillo, I was led on a journey that brought me from art to science, though I hadn’t anticipated it. L’ Idea del Theatro is a scientific work and so I looked at it in the context of Renaissance astronomy, comparing his work to that of magician astronomer Pietro d’Abano, poetical scientist Giovanni Pontano, textbook scholar Sacro Bosco, and celebrated author of a revolution, Copernicus. It was exciting to find similarities in aspects of language and methodology, though these men inch in degrees and perspectives from spells and astrology to angles and mathematics.
The humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus, who distrusted the burgeoning astronomy of the time, was not one of Camillo’s fans. He lampooned his methods and castigated his Theatre, saying it would prove as great ‘a tragedy to study’ as ‘Luther produced in religion’.
The other work that I probed, to help make sense of Camillo, was Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, (The Strife of Love in a Dream) by Francesco Colonna. It’s part garden design manual, part erotic novel, part crossword puzzle, part alchemical guide. Carl Jung analysed this strange amalgam in terms of archetypes and the unconscious.
The strong similarities between Camillo and Colonna’s ideas and methods helped me to unravel Camillo’s perspective and mindset. For both authors, the image is essential. Both enjoy reading the signs made in God’s book of nature. Camillo used image to construct his theory of science, although perhaps it’s more accurate to say that for him science and image are the same thing – how the world is put together is the same as how we look at it.
I set my hands on the stone today. Its stillness and heaviness moves me. Soft sandstone, very pale. I chipped away at the edge with an old, bluntish chisel. I don’t think it will be too difficult. I went to the store and got tools, and I sharpened them. I can tell my mood by how I sharpen tools. Ninety-nine per cent of the time I can’t and I get the edge wrong. But sometimes, it just works. Today was one of those days. I think it was because of the stone, its dust in my pores.
What was it Camillo said about the preacher? The breath of the holy man can move the trees. Speech has a power beyond itself, has the touch of fire or a subtle wind. How would he view all those particles of stone dust? Are they the becoming of the stone?
Camillo believed the animal, vegetable and mineral worlds are related and that we are co-respondents in a reciprocal relationship with all creation. We are at the centre of overlapping worlds. When love shoots out from our centre, it’s answered by love. When we unleash power, we find it reflected in everything around us. His eco-system is built on the commerce of spiritual exchange: in return for acting as conduits of heavenly love, we earn our autonomy. Paradoxically, it’s the chains of connection that set us free.
Did I say carving the stone would be easy? Well I was wrong. The first day went okay. But by day three my angle grinder and my own old bones were starting to complain. I find it hard to imagine how stone was ever carved without the aid of power tools. Nevertheless, I still love the stone’s resistance.
For Camillo, matter, space and time are inextricably linked together. An image often occurs in his Theatre that helps to demonstrate the idea: a young girl with hair raised up to heaven. A few years ago, when I was illustrating the motifs from Camillo’s text, I used, for the image of the young girl, an old black and white photograph of a girl who worked in a factory in the Midwest of America at the turn of the century. She was barefoot, one hand in the pocket of her smock, standing beside a long row of spindles. She stared at the camera with a look that’s tricky to describe; determined, honest, sad, bold, innocent. I altered the photograph to suit my needs, but the integrity of the image of the anonymous girl herself never changed. She became my leitmotif.
Camillo says that the young girl is meant to symbolise strength and vigour and trustworthiness. Streams of energy flow from the hair of the girl to the sky and likewise pour through the heavens into her mind and body. As though she is alive with electricity, every hair on the girl’s head is in reception of the divine flow; by being receptive, the matter of the young girl’s body becomes its transformer.
The stone’s done. I exchanged the angle grinder for a newly reconditioned one at the store, as in fact the old one had given up the ghost. The remainder of the carving was much more straightforward.
Nobody knows whether Camillo’s Theatre ever actually existed as a physical object. There were rumours that he had made something from wood, but the sources are contradictory. In any case, whatever it was, he never seemed to finish it; it was always only almost complete, just awaiting that extra bit of funding or the right weather or location. He was sorry but he couldn’t work on it today, because he was busy travelling, or he had a bad knee, was communing with lions, the King, his fans, the Pope. But the value of Camillo’s Theatre was more as a philosophical tool, rather than as a material entity. It was about how we observe the relationships of matter, space and time. And the viewer, or the reader, of the Theatre was the key to its function. In a sense I think that Camillo imagined the viewer as almost mass-less, an almost-zero with vision, as Being with Eyes, as knowing. Everything else in the Theatre – apart from the witness – was everything else in the world, and all its history. In witnessing the Theatre, Camillo imagined that the viewer would comprehend all of time within a moment, all of space in one coordinate. Without the witness, the one who knows, the Theatre was nothing.
I can still feel the little pricks of stone dust over my skin and the dry taste of stone in my mouth, it’s still in my hair. I celebrated the stone’s carving with a bottle of beer in the sunshine with a friend.