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Naumachia in the Courtyard of the Palazzo Pitti held on 11 May 1589 and Other Adventures in Froth
Orazio Scarabelli

Pruned turned 3 yesterday. To mark the start of Year 4, we return briefly to our first post, specifically to the referenced book edited by Joy Kenseth, The Age of the Marvelous, because, should it need to be disclosed, the Marvelous has been the overall theme of this blog from its inception and Kenseth's volume our editorial guide. We dredge, in other words, the interweb ether for “anything that lay outside the ordinary” and has “the capacity to excite the particular emotional responses of wonder, surprise, astonishment, or admiration.”

In the chapter written by Mark S. Weil, we see the above etching of a naumachia, or mock sea battle, in the flooded courtyard of the Palazzo Pitti. Staged as part of the festivities of 1589 celebrating a Medici marriage, it was “intended to amaze invited guests with their visual effects and to impress them with the wealth and power of the court.”

As illustrated by Orazio Scarabelli, eighteen Christian and Turkish ships do their stylized dance in front of a miniature fortress. Oars and sail masts interlock like the limbs of Busby Berkeley showgirls. Voluptuous hulls ram into each other in diagonal confusion. The once solid ground is now a vacillating carpet of faceless actors performing on cramped, presumably cacophonous pageant floats. Man, which had just been fleshed out and deified by the likes of Michelangelo, reverts back into the murky crowd. It's Mannerist mayhem in the bowels of Renaissance clarity.

And could you believe that that wasn't even the showstopper? Weil quotes Alois Nagler describing the program before this naumachia:

The greatest excitement was caused by a garden which, propelled by invisible forces, moved into the courtyard and unfolded on all sides to the tittering of birds. In the garden were imitations of towers, fortresses, pyramids, ships, horsemen, and animals all made out of greenery. A cloud of birds swarmed up before the Grand Duchess and one of the animals landed in the bride's lap, a good omen.

Weil, unfortunately, doesn't provide an image, if there is one.

In any case, the staging of a naumachia has not gone entirely out of fashion. If we don't count military exercises in such anxious terrains as the Taiwan Strait, the Sea of Japan and the Persian Gulf, the most recent one, of similar monumental scale, was carried out for the opening ceremonies of the Barcelona Summer Olympics in 1992.


We see the Mediterranean Sea rendered as a pointillist foam of humanity, each singular speck wearing a costume that seems to have been repurposed from loose tiles at Gaudí's Park Güell into gigantic Pringles. However individualized each one may appear up close, seen from the bleachers they coagulate into a kind of anti-humanist whole, flowing and ebbing in tandem, self-organizing, as if unconsciously following the physics of hydrology. They inundate. They make waves. They shudder as though whelmed by rough weather.

Navigating this simulated froth are the two belligerent sides of the fake naval war. On one side are the monstrous inhabitants of the deep, such as the Hydra with its inflatable tentacles vigorously flagellating in the currents. Other beasts reside here, too. There is plague and hunger and maybe even boredom, but which of the three is — or whether all of them are — theatrically evoked by The Giant Virus-like Spiky Ball and The Teeming Shoal-Army of Knives is difficult to pinpoint.

On the other side are the heirs of Hercules, adventurers exploring the undiscovered contours of this temporary landscape. They wear dominatrix costumes and act in very broad strokes, but again, whether these details are intended to scale their performance for the jumbo television screen and the exaggerated dimensions of the stadium is hard to know. Nevertheless, these heros win the battle, or at least survive the attacks. To commemorate their victory over Evil, they found a city that would later grow into Barcelona.

Their ship, meanwhile, is constructed out of Cor-ten steel; that is, we think it's Richard Serra's favorite medium. Otherwise, it's something metallic, an expression of Catalonia's industrial virility. This is the Olympics, after all, and everything about this twentieth-century naumachia is practically drowning in symbolism.

If one were to pursue an extended political reading of this elaborately staged spectacle, one can make a case that it's a subversive call for an independent Catalonia. Barcelona, the choreographers argue, has its own creation story, its own mythology and even its own national epic akin to the American Civil War and the French Revolution. Before Franco, Ferdinand and Isabella, the Moors and even the Romans, the city already had a history. Moreover, you will not find here bullfighters or flamenco dancers wearing their peinetas and maniacally clucking their castanets — which at the turn of the 19th century were arbitrarily co-opted and standardized as the national identity; in Catalonia, that blood sport and those quaint customs might as well be of English origins. And you will not see here evidence of Andalucia, which apparently is the hegemonic national landscape. Instead, in this corner of the Iberian peninsula, you'll encounter a foreign landscape, a sea-drenched terrain (until recently, that is) populated by the worldly love-hybrids of Picasso and Jean-Paul Gaultier.

Since we are talking about the Olympics, all of these lead us to wonder: will there be a naumachia during the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Games?

Beijing National Stadium

After Barcelona, the next three Olympics had their own watery musical. Atlanta evoked the swamps of the South; Old Man River made an appearance. Sidney told the creation story of Australia, who, like Aphrodite, emerged from the sea. And in Athens, the Mediterranean Sea was rendered again, that time with real water. If Beijing were to follow precedence, spectators would be privy to a hydro-extravangaza. After all, China is building the biggest water project in the history of the world; staging a naumachia would be a walk in the park.

Returning to the mock sea battle at the Palazzo Pitti, Weil remarked that the production “served to reinforce political dogma, such as the superiority of Christian forces over those of the Turk.” So will the Beijing festivities also “reinforce political dogma?” The answer, of course, is that they will. You can be sure that naumachia or no naumachia there will be propaganda to be broadcast from Herzog & de Meuron's stadium to an audience in the billions.

Or next door inside the frothy facade of the aquatics center.

Beijing National Aquatics Center

Lined around the flooded courtyard, the Chinese will see their divers and swimmers herald their official re-entry into the world stage as a muscular nation. The rest of us will simply be impressed by the show of wealth and power.

Adventures on the Continental Shelf
  • Les
  • June 10, 2008 at 6:44:00 PM CDT
  • Congrats on your 3rd. I have enjoyed your posts for sometime and hope that you continue with your good work.

  • Tracey
  • June 11, 2008 at 12:12:00 PM CDT
  • Wow, interesting post! Happy birthday to Pruned!

  • Anonymous
  • August 23, 2008 at 7:02:00 AM CDT
  • reminds me of the fun, when in the 18th century the piazza navona was flooded to bring refreshing joy to the people

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