As Above, So Below: A Novel of Peter Bruegel

As Above, So Below: A Novel of Peter Bruegel

by Rudy Rucker

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Peter Bruegel's paintings---a peasant wedding in a barn, hunters in the snow, a rollicking street festival, and many others---have long defined our idea of everyday life in sixteenth century Europe. They are classic icons of a time and place in much the same way as Norman Rockwell's depictions of twentieth-century America. We know relatively little about Bruegel, but after years of research, novelist Rudy Rucker has built upon what is known and has created for us the life and world of a true master who never got old.

In sixteen chapters, each headed by a reproduction of one of the famous works, Rucker brings Bruegel's painter's progress and his colorful world to vibrant life, doing for Bruegel what the best-selling Girl with a Pearl Earring did for Vermeer. We follow the artist from the winding streets of Antwerp and Brussels to the glowing skies and decaying monuments of Rome and back. He and his friends, the cartographer Ortelius and Williblad Cheroo, an American Indian, are as vivid on the page as the multifarious denizens of Bruegel's unforgettable canvases.

Here is a world of conflict, change, and discovery, a world where Carnival battles Lent every day, preserved for us in paint by the engaging genius you will meet in the pages of As Above, So Below.

At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429939485
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date: 11/15/2003
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 323,375
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Rudy Rucker is a mathematician, computer scientist, professor and writer who has twice won the Philip K. Dick Award for best SF paperback original, and has published a number of successful popular books on mathematical subjects, including The Fourth Dimension and Infinity and the Mind. He lives in Los Gatos, California.

Rudy Rucker is a writer and a mathematician who worked for twenty years as a Silicon Valley computer science professor. He is regarded as contemporary master of science-fiction, and received the Philip K. Dick award twice. His thirty published books include both novels and non-fiction books. A founder of the cyberpunk school of science-fiction, Rucker also writes SF in a realistic style known as transrealism. His books include Postsingular and Spaceland.

Read an Excerpt


Mountain Landscape

The French-Italian Alps, May 1552

Peter Bruegel was looking at his first mountain, a steep, rounded foothill at the edge of the Alps. He and his friend Martin de Vos had never seen anything like it.

"The land swoops right up into the air," said Bruegel. He was a tall young man with a high brow, a big nose, and alert clear gray eyes. "Just like it's supposed to."

"Like a great ocean wave," said de Vos. He leaned on his long staff, peering out from under the low brim of his hat. He had a snub nose and a cheerful smile. "It was worth coming all this way from Antwerp."

"Do you notice how the mountain's flank tilts up towards us?" continued Bruegel. "It's like we're looking down at it from the sky. With everything spread out next to each other. All there for us to see." He stepped off the stony road into the green grass and held out his arms as if to embrace the landscape before him.

It was a rain-kissed afternoon in May. Puffy little clouds were scattered across the watery blue sky, some hanging so close to the ground that Bruegel could almost touch them. A small river ran beside the road, lit just now by a patch of sun. Slanting gray streaks of rain caressed the green mountain. Bruegel felt as if his heart were blooming.

"I have to draw this," he told de Vos. He shrugged the strap of his satchel from his shoulder, peeled off his skirted jerkin, and sat down cross-legged upon it. He found ink and pen and a bottle of water in his satchel, and pulled a sheet of paper out of a special flap in his jerkin's lining. All the while he was staring at the mountain. "It's quite unlike what we've seen in paintings back in the Low Lands, Martin. Different than what we've been taught. It's less contorted, more like a living thing. It's saying hello to me."

De Vos smiled and sat down to watch his friend begin making tiny brown ink marks on his paper. Rather than drawing a scene with long continuous outlines, Bruegel preferred to nibble away at the edges of things with an accumulation of dots and strokes. The progress was steady and surprisingly rapid.

Some other travelers passed by, distracting de Vos. This was a busy road, with any number of merchants moving their goods back and forth between Italy and Northern Europe. Beyond the little mountain before them was one of the few passes where a wagon could get through the Alps.

"I'll meet you at that monastery by the mountain's base," said de Vos, looking off down the road. "See it? I'll warrant we can find food and lodging there."

"Be sure and tell them that we're guild artists," said Bruegel. "Maybe we can make something for them instead of paying cash."

"They might want to own the drawing that you're doing right now," suggested de Vos. "It's off to a nice start, I'd say."

"The monks won't want a plain nature sketch," said Bruegel. "If I were to offer them this drawing, I'd need to add something Scriptural."

"Joseph and Mary on the way to Egypt," suggested de Vos. "The hermit St. Anthony. The repentant Mary Magdalene taking a piss."

"I'd like that," said Bruegel, smiling. He was known among his friends for his fondness of sketching people in their private moments. "But the monks are surely beyond such low concerns. I imagine they're educated men. Humanists, perhaps. I could add some Classical figures for them. Mercury and Psyche in the sky. Or Daedalus and Icarus."

"Well, in any case be sure to draw their monastery!" said de Vos. "But leave the figures for when you've found your patron."

"Good idea, Martin," said Bruegel. "Meanwhile, less of you and more of my pen and this mountain. They're talking to me."

"All I hear is the bells of the monks' cows," said de Vos, rising to his feet. "Fat cattle mean good cheese. Bread and cheese and ale and some dark-green mouse-ear lettuce. It's the season for radishes too! There's quite a few buildings over there beyond the monastery. It looks like a regular village. Maybe I'll find a young widow with a hungry eye." De Vos had little more experience with women than Bruegel, but he liked to talk big.

He stepped down to the river and splashed some water on his face. He scrambled back to the road, gave Bruegel a cheery wave, and walked off whistling. Bruegel continued to draw, sinking into a kind of conversation with the mountain.

Whenever Bruegel concentrated on objects they seemed to talk to him. The quill pen told him how stiff it was and how it loved to be dipped in ink. Its squeaks were as the faint honks of a goose. The sepia ink spoke of the squid and cuttlefish sacks it came from, of water and writhing tentacles. The paper stretched itself out like a dog in the sun; it sighed with satisfaction at being scratched.

Most of all, though, it was the mountain that spoke to Bruegel.

"I'm alive too," the great mound said. "I move slower than you, but yes, I roll and turn within my sweet green skin. See the cleft at my top? Like the tip of your prick. I leak a stream from there and it's of a marvelous purity, refined by my mineral body. Be sure to sketch in the rim of my stream's gully, Peter. I used to be much taller than the younger mountains beyond me, so make me the highest thing in your picture. I'm old and wise, but on this summer day I feel young. The trees on my flanks are feathered with leaves that shelter all manner of birds, beasts, and men. I'm glad that you're drawing me. Yes, I have a dent halfway up, so shade it dark like that, good, and right before the ridge I'm a bit flat, so the bumps you make for trees should be closer together there. Fine. Leave the paper blank where the sun's very bright upon me, that's perfect. And now fill in that tangle of trees that march up my gorge — I'm lovely in there, Peter, you should walk up onto me and see."

After an hour of this, the pleasant mountain had been well depicted. Now Bruegel drew the monastery as well. It had a tidy Gothic chapel, a stone refectory, and a long two-storied wooden residence house with a red tile roof. Just like the mountain, the building spoke to Bruegel as he sketched it, talking about right angles and perspective, about monkishness, and about the joy of having windows. And then the sketch was done.

Bruegel sighed and stretched, got to his feet, and looked down at his new drawing, its corners weighted down by little stones. The sun was low in the sky behind him, glazing the world with shades of gold. How lucky he was to be an artist, a guild member in good standing. If all went well — and surely it would! — he'd come into his own before much longer. He'd have his own studio, a string of wealthy patrons, apprentices to make up his paints, and a fine house in the center of Brussels. All this assuming — and here lay Bruegel's great worry — assuming there was a market for the things he saw, and for his way of seeing them.

Seeing, seeing, seeing — very nearly the sum of what he did. So often he was the onlooker, off to the side of the street fairs and artists' gatherings in Antwerp, alone with his eyes and the pictures in his head. Peter the Watcher — more than one woman had called him that, and not as a compliment. Someday he'd have his studio, and his patrons, and his house; he'd have a wife and a family and he'd be a watcher no more.

Even as he reviewed these overfamiliar thoughts, Bruegel was examining his drawing, feeling each bit with his eyes, looking for any weakness or excess. Now and then he stooped to make a hook or a dash with the nib of his pen. Soon he was done. The picture was outside him now, born into the world, leaving a hole he could only fill with the next picture to come.

He put away his ink, pen, and paper and walked down the road, observing, as always, the way that a landscape sprang into a new kind of life when he moved through it. Bruegel savored the suave way in which the world's perspectives rotated: the nearby trees turned as if on spindles; the fields and orchards constellated themselves into new alignments; and the most distant landmarks seemed to sail along with him, keeping pace with his passage. The world danced a stately jig about you, if only you watched.

The little road arced away from a bog by the river and passed through a wet field crisscrossed with streams. The peach-colored clouds were reflected in the scattered patches of green water — exquisite. The road swung back to a ford in the river beside a couple of farmhouses. Behind Bruegel were Nice, Provence, and the setting sun, ahead of him lay the Alps, the Po Valley, Lombardy, Parma, Florence, and Rome. Some cattle stood in the river drinking water, with a peasant boy watching over them.

Bruegel had his own memories of tending cattle for Graaf de Hoorne, the nobleman who owned the estates where he'd been raised. Long, peaceful days those had been, off on his own with some bread and cheese, keeping the cows from the crops, leading them to good pastures, herding them home at night, with no company save a dog or, on the best days, the merry Anja. Sometimes, to make Anja laugh, he'd drawn faces with a muddy stick upon a cow's great, round side. Naughty Anja, more and less than a sister — where was she now? He'd never seen her once since they'd sent him away from the village. Out to seek his fortune. And here he was at the Alps, seeking ever farther afield.

Bruegel tipped his hat to the boy and picked his way across the water. A line of cypresses grew along the uphill road to the monastery. The trees' tops blended into one long worm, and the bare trunks twisted down like legs. Viewed as one great chimerical being, the line of trees was a caterpillar. Bruegel walked up the slope; he was happy to be finally starting up the slope of an Alp. According to de Vos, this was the route that Hannibal took up through the Alps in ancient times. Bruegel tried to visualize the Moorish troops and their elephants.

There had been an elephant in Antwerp last year, the property of a financier. But Bruegel had been off working as an artist's assistant in Mechelen right then, and before he could get back to Antwerp to perhaps sketch the elephant, the hot-blooded beast had died of the damp winter cold. The financier's partners had eaten the monster in a banquet that was a nine-days' wonder. Bruegel had only managed to see the tusks and a bit of the skin; perhaps he'd finally see a whole elephant in Rome.

At the top of the rise he found three low covered wagons standing in the monastery courtyard. It seemed that the monks ran an inn with the sign of a White Stag. Looking past the monastery, Bruegel saw that the village was larger than he expected, with perhaps as many as a hundred houses. It must have been a local holiday, for everyone was outdoors, noisy as Carnival. They were rushing about in ragtag groups, chatting and whooping, ever more of them streaming into the village for some unseen event higher up the peaceful mountain.

"Peter!" It was Martin de Vos, sitting out on a stone bench in front of the inn. He was holding a large white radish and a pot of beer. He looked uncharacteristically gloomy. "I've got beds for us in the common sleeping room. The Brothers have declared a firm lack of interest in our art, but I've haggled them to a very reasonable cash fee for our stay. Beer, supper, and morning porridge included." This sounded like good news, but de Vos was upset about something.

Bruegel sat down at his side, took a bite of the radish and a gulp of the beer. "Here it is," he said, getting out his drawing. "What's set the villagers a-buzz?"

"An 'Act of Faith,'" said de Vos with a great sigh. "It seems there was an old couple who lived next to the monastery's estate." He pointed. "In that stone hut right over there where the village begins. See how the door's been kicked in? The Brothers arrested the couple last week — they were named Joseph and Marie, of all things. They were deemed a sorcerer and a witch by the prior of the monastery, a Father Lorenzo. The ecclesiastics staged a quick trial, and today the villagers buried Marie alive and hung Joseph by the neck. The Golgotha is somewhere up in that woodsy valley upon your hill. The peasants have been straggling down for the last hour. Quite a festival they've made of it." De Vos took Bruegel's drawing and pointed to a spot on it. "I think the gibbet will be just about there. We'll have a look on our way to the pass tomorrow. Joseph the alchemist will still be dangling. Perhaps you can sketch him."

Bruegel experienced the quick phantasm of an imaginary smell as distinctly as if his foot had just skidded through a patch of human waste. The thought of hanged men always brought to mind this one particular stench. It came from three years ago, when he'd still been the apprentice of Master Coecke. They'd been in Brussels making a great faux-marble arch of wood and canvas to celebrate a state visit by the Habsburg Emperor Charles V and his foppish son Philip. To add to the pomp of the reception, an exemplary heretic had been hung upon a gibbet to one side of the arch, a stocky weaver who'd made so bold as to own a printed copy of the Bible. Windy spring weather was in play, and the man's corpse was continually dripping a sharp-stinking brown fluid, the drawn-out evacuation of his watery bowels. The body was so close to the arch that, over the course of any given day, the fitful breezes would noticeably besmirch the vibrating cloth of the Emperor's hollow mock monument. Charles V's arrival kept being delayed, so Bruegel had to repaint the same panel four separate times, surrounded by the astounding smell of the hanged man.

"What folly," said Bruegel, reflexively rubbing his long, straight nose. "An alchemist?"

"An indifferent one. He used up too much of the prior's gold, it seems. And his wife was said to have made a potion to help a woman drive off an unwanted quickening of her womb. But I fear the central issue was quite mundane: a long-running dispute over grazing rights. Joseph and Marie's bit of land has joined the Church's holdings now. Prompt pontifical justice, just like back in the Low Lands. Can you remind me why we're going to Rome, Peter? To the rotten lair of the foul maggots who inflict the Inquisition upon us?"

"Shut your crack," snapped Bruegel, giving a quick look around. "Do you want to get stretched as well?" He got to his feet and tucked his picture back into his jerkin. "I'm going inside."

"Bring me another beer," said de Vos, tipping up his mug.

"Get your own, fool. If you're to hang, I barely know you." For the moment, any fondness he had for de Vos was gone. Bruegel felt tired, hungry, and beset by folly on every side. Without any further look at his companion, he headed into the inn.

It was a surprisingly airy room, with a high ceiling and tall windows in the walls. The windows glowed with orange and purple from the setting sun. Their casements were open and an evening breeze wafted in. A tonsured brown-robed monk tended a great wooden vat of beer. In here, all was order and peace. Bruegel took a deep, shaky breath, calming himself. He approached the vat.

"You are the other artist from Antwerp," said the monk in Latin. He was a portly man with sharp eyes. Bruegel knew a little of the international language, and he answered "Sane" for "Yes."

The monk topped off a mug whose foam had been settling, and handed it to Bruegel. "Your companion's already paid for your food and lodging. Sit down anywhere you like, and one of the novices will bring you some bread, cheese, and radishes."

Bruegel walked towards a long table with some men who were talking a Low German dialect which was close enough to Flemish for Bruegel to understand. Seating himself, he recognized one of the men. It was the young merchant Hans Franckert, a fat, powerful fellow with a wide, slitlike mouth. Though Franckert was originally from Nuremberg, he'd moved to Antwerp and become a citizen several years ago.

Franckert was a convivial man known for carousing with artists. He was often seen, for instance, at the gatherings of the Violet Chamber of Rhetoric. The so-called Chambers of Rhetoric were street-theater groups — they performed plays and skits at festivals, using their own scripts, costumes, and backdrops. As a matter of pride, nearly every crafts guild had an associated Chamber of Rhetoric — no less so the St. Luke's Guild for artists. The Violet Chamber's meetings were fecund with wordplay and creative ferment — small wonder that Franckert enjoyed them. The more calculating of the artists viewed the meetings as a good place to scout for patrons — or for friendly women. Though Bruegel would have liked to be one of these fishers of men — or of women — he inevitably ended up at the fringes of the Chamber's gatherings — watching. Though Franckert was only five years older than him, he'd never actually spoken to Franckert before. Somewhat to Bruegel's surprise, the merchant knew him.

"Peter Bruegel!" exclaimed Franckert, raising his beer. "You were the apprentice of Master Coecke, were you not? He was a mighty artist; may he rest in peace."


Excerpted from "As Above, So Below"
by .
Copyright © 2002 Rudy Rucker.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. Mountain Landscape The French-Italian Alps, May 1552,
2. The Tower of Babel Rome, July 1553,
3. The Battle of Carnival and Lent Antwerp, February 1556,
4. The Fall of Icarus Antwerp, February 1556,
5. Luxuria Antwerp, March 1556,
6. The Peasant Wedding Antwerp, September 1560,
7. The Parable of the Blind Antwerp, August 1561,
8. Dulle Griet Mechelen, April 1562,
9. The Sermon of John the Baptist Antwerp, October 1562,
10. The Peasant and the Birdsnester Brussels, November 1562,
11. The Adoration of the Kings Brussels, May 1563–December 1564,
12. The Hunters in the Snow Brussels, January 1566,
13. The Beggars Antwerp, August 1566,
14. Lazy Lusciousland Brussels, January–August 1567,
15. The Beekeepers Brussels, June 1568,
16. The Magpie on the Gallows Brussels, January–September 1569,

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As Above, So Below 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
LTFL_JMLS on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Made me want to look at color reproduction's of Peter Bruegel's works. The ones in the book weren't very good.
gregory_gwen on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Made me want to look at color reproduction's of Peter Bruegel's works. The ones in the book weren't very good.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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