Andreja Brulc's Blog

Illustration: The Nonexistent Knight / Book Cover / Italo Calvino

Posted in Books, Illustrations by andrejabrulc on 30/03/2014

IC_neobstojeci vitez_jacketThis paper cut-out illustration was made for the book cover of the Slovene translation of The Nonexistent Knight (Il cavaliere inesistente), written by the Italian author Italo Calvino (1959) and published by Beletrina (2014). The novel – together with The Cloven Viscount (Il visconte dimezzato) (1952) and The Baron in the Trees (Il barone rampante) (1957) – forms a ‘heraldic trilogy’ titled as Our Ancestors (I nostri antenati) (1960). The Nonexistent Knight is an allegorical fantasy novel – the theme explores the questions of identity, integration with society, and virtues through the adventures of a medieval knight called Agilulf.

The source for the plot

The plot of the narrative is strengthened by the material drawn from the medieval literary cycle known as the Matter of France. The cycle developed from the Old French chansons de geste [‘songs of heroic deeds’] – a medieval narrative, a type of epic poetry that flourished between the 11th and 15th centuries and that celebrated the legendary heroic deeds, such as The Song of Roland (La Chanson de Roland). The Song of Roland is the oldest surviving major work of French literature (Oxford manuscript, mid 12 century), which, together with the Spanish Poem of the Cid (Cantar de Mio Cid) (1195–1207), represents the most outstanding example of the chanson de geste. The cycle, also called the Carolingian cycle, is a body of literature and legendary material associated with the history of France during the time of Charlemagne – a Christian King of France (from 768) and the first Holy Roman Emperor (800–814) – and his twelve fictional paladins (12 Peers). The cycle praises their ‘heroic deeds’ accomplished through various military campaigns against the Moorish invasion of the Christian Carolingian Empire from the Muslim Spain (Umayyad Moors of Al-Andalus), particularly recalling historical events such as the Battle of Roncevaux Pass (778) in the buffer zone of Marca Hispanica. The plot also references the Renaissance epic poem of Ludovico Ariosto‘s Orlando Furioso (1516).

IC_neobstojeci vitez

The theme of the narrative

The story, which relativises different ways of existence in the world through a network of intertextual citations and inimitable wit, is set into the imaginary Middle Ages, but the imaginary world is not far from the reality of modern man. Agilulf is one of the twelve paladins in the military service of Charlemagne out of his ‘goodwill and faith for the holy cause’. As a knight, he exemplifies virtues of chivalry, piety and faithfulness through his heroic deeds – he thus serves as a role model to those (e.g. Rambaldo) who aspire to knighthood and as an object of envy to those paladins unable to surpass his excellence. The narrative represents him as a righteous, perfectionist, faithful and pious knight – his only problem is that he exists as an empty suit of white armour. Inside his empty armour, which is always shiny and immaculate on the outside as seen by the others, is an echoing voice that reverberates through the metal. But the knight cannot exist without his armour (i.e. his identity) – if he removes the armour, he is no longer a paladin, while the other knights can remove their armour, because in fact they are not ‘true’ paladins. Towards the end of the story, in order to destroy Agilulfo, the other paladins deny his deeds – unable to fight the forced oblivion, Agilulfo, therefore, vanishes leaving only his armour. After he is vanished, his shiny armour, now appropriated by Ramboldo, turns to be opaque and dirty. His servant Gurdulù, on the other hand, is a complete contrast to his master. He does exist, but his is unaware of his existence – his identity, depicted in most bizarre forms and in chaotic situations, is overgrown with everything that he sees, feels and experiences from the outside world.

The identity of Agilulfo, therefore, exists only as the fulfilment of the rules and protocols of knighthood. It has been argued that such a theme set in an imaginary medieval world is exploited as a metaphor that is strongly connected to modern conditions – according to Margareth Hagen, Agilulf has been described as “the symbol of the ‘robotized’ man, who performs bureaucratic acts with near-absolute unconsciousness” [‘La seduzione del cavaliere inesistente’ in Romansk Forum 2002, 16:875–885]. The romance satirises Agilulf as the ideal man yet nonexistent – as the reader progresses through the story, one realises that most of the story is being made up by Sister Theodora, who, as a nun, is writing the story and drawing the map of the knight’s adventures as her own penance tucked away in a monastery. In the end, she understands that such a perfect knight could only exist in one’s imagination.

Making of the illustration

My illustration concentrates on two elements only: the knight and the imaginary landscape. My main source of inspiration, bearing in mind the adventures of the knight in the landscape, was drawn on the famous Italian medieval wall painting in Sienna – a huge fresco of the equestrian Portrait of Guidoricco da Fogliano, painted by Simone Martini in 1330 in the Sala del Mappamondo of the Palazzo Pubblico, as part of the fresco cycle called ‘Castelli’ commemorating the castles conquered by the Republic of Sienna. While reading Calvino, I could not resist but create an imaginary parallel of his knight to Martini’s condottiere. The fresco of this professional military leader, shown in profile in order to emphasise ‘the ideal image’ of the sitter as was the norm in Italian portraiture at the time, celebrates his conquest of the castles of Montemassi and Sassoforte in 1328 in the service of the commune.

Simone Martini_Guidaricco de Foliagno

The description of Agilulf’s armour – anachronistic to the time of Charlemagne as the white armour, a form of plate armour, was fully developed only by 1420 and was popular among the late Medieval and Renaissance knights – constantly recurs throughout the narrative as soon as the knight comes on the scene. I used an old engraving showing a Renaissance knight on horse, which perfectly fits with the description. Just like the condottiere, Agilulf is a well-composed perfect knight of excellence strolling calmly through the landscape, full of self-confidence and with no obstructions from the outside world. The most outstanding detail of his armour that impressed me most is the plume on top of his helmet described as: ‘the plume made of feathers, from who knows which Oriental rooster, which changes to all colours of the rainbow’! Whether or not one would read this statement as politically incorrect, I took it literally. But rather than making the plume turn into 7 colours of the rainbow, I turned the top of the knight’s lance into the flag of typography – the author and title – using the font Memoriam that flamboyantly emphasises the idea of the flag as if moving in the wind and making some letters change into the 7 colours of the rainbow.

Granada_Book of Navigation_Piri Reis_1521-1525With regard to the imaginary landscape, it seems obvious that the background colour of the landscape, and the shapes of hills and architecture, in my illustration resemble the stylised treatment of the landscape in the Sienese fresco. But my visual thinking developed further from the fresco that shows the landscape from the frontal view. In order to emphasise the map drawing of Sister Theodora, I imagined that the landscape must be seen from the bird’s-eye view – a flat world as depicted in the mappa mundi of the Middle Ages. My inspiration for the landscape topography, therefore, in many ways resembles the detail of Granada, a fragment from the first pre-modern world map of 1513, compiled by the Ottoman admiral and cartographer Piri Reis and published in his Book of Navigation (Kitab-ı Bahriye) (1521–25).

However, at this point of the process, I remembered my old visual diary from the trip to Rajasthan (India) in 2004 and various doodles of the landscape of Jaipur, topped with hill forts and walls marked by battlements (a parapet with crenellation) (photos below). So, instead of placing the knight in a detailed but imaginary landscape of medieval Europe, the concertina with a paper cut-out silhouette of the Jaipur hills became the final source for my illustration showing the bare but imaginary landscape – an ideal setting for the perfect but nonexistant knight. It is, however, likely that Martini’s treatment of landscape subconsciously sprang to mind during my adventures in Rajasthan!

Indian Sketchbook_Jaipur Forts_2004

015_Jaigarh_View of Jaipur hills

013_Amber Fort_Surrounding Hills

020_Jaigarh_View of Jaipur hills

 

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