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How Roelandt Savery gathered together the wonders of the natural world

Using what he encountered both in art and on his travels, the Flemish painter produced pictures that froth with creation.

By Michael Prodger

The dodo was first recorded by Dutch sailors in 1598 and last sighted in 1662: from discovery to extinction took just 64 years. Where then did John Tenniel see the bird that appears so memorably in his 1865 illustrations to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? There were no existing stuffed specimens and although there was a dried dodo head and foot in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, that wouldn’t have been enough. Tenniel turned instead to a painting known as Edwards’ Dodo (named after the 18th-century ornithologist who owned the picture), which showed a bird painted with meticulous detail in 1626 by Roelandt Savery. And where did Savery, a Flemish artist who never ventured further south than Prague, let alone as far as Mauritius, find his bird? Most likely in the menagerie of the Holy Roman emperor and indefatigable collector Rudolf II.

The dodo appears, like a calling card, in at least a dozen paintings by Savery (1576-1639). The comical bird, however, was just one element in his fascination with the wider natural world. Savery’s patron Rudolf II had the most celebrated Wunderkammer – cabinet of curiosities – of the age, filled with natural specimens, minerals and gemstones, and ethnographical items, as well as precious metalwork and rarities of every kind. It was housed in Prague Castle and complemented Rudolf’s teeming gardens and his menagerie (the emperor allowed a lion and a tiger to pad round the castle, and paid compensation to mauled servants or, if they were beyond saving, their families). Savery had no need to travel the world in search of wonders – Rudolf had collected them for him.

Savery was not a Prague native but was born in Kortrijk (Courtrai), 50 miles west of Brussels. His family were Mennonites and when the Spanish overran Flanders they fled first to Bruges and then, around 1585, to Haarlem. Savery’s initial artistic training was with his brother Jacob and they moved together to Amsterdam in 1591. Jacob was a highly skilled artist who was not above a bit of sleight of hand. In the 1590s he produced a group of drawings of Alpine views that he signed “Pieter Bruegel” (Bruegel had died in 1569) and dated: they were good enough to pass as originals until 1986. Roelandt’s apprenticeship as a landscapist was completed with Hans Bol.

After Jacob’s death in 1603, Roelandt moved to Paris and was then summoned to Prague by Rudolf, who was in search of a painter who could emulate Bruegel, his favourite artist. There Savery joined the emperor’s polyglot and polymathic court, which included the astronomer Johannes Kepler, the inventor of logarithms Joost Bürgi, and Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the painter of ingenious heads composed of fruit, flowers and fish.

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Savery was under the emperor’s eye and in 1606 was sent by him on a long walking trip into the Tyrolean Alps to make topographical drawings of the rock formations and peaks that he could later turn into pictures. Rudolf’s collecting mania was such that he even wanted to possess the mountains.

The task was suited to Savery’s observational skills, which he put to use closer to home too. His sketchbooks record numerous aspects of Prague life, from figure studies and carefully annotated depictions of costumes to street scenes and drawings of the city’s bridges and houses – both grand and decrepit. As if in emulation of his brother, and affirmation of Rudolf’s artistic instincts, some of these “naer het leven” (from life) drawings were also long attributed to Bruegel.

Although it seems that Rudolf wanted landscapes, Savery’s real topic was fecundity. Using the sights he had encountered both in art and in his Alpine wanderings, he produced pictures set in nature that froth with creation. Some nominally show biblical or mythological scenes such as the Flight into Egypt, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden or Orpheus charming the animals, but the subjects are an artistic fig leaf. What he depicted in all of them was nature in riot, pictures stuffed with either vertiginous crags and impenetrable forests or a superabundance of animals and birds.

In this he may have been aping the emperor’s own interests, and there is certainly a strong link with Arcimboldo, who in 1591 had painted Rudolf as Vertumnus, the Roman god of the seasons, with apples for cheeks, a pear for a nose, cherry lips and peapod eyebrows. Savery would have known the painting and, while ignoring the sophisticated joke, made his own paeans to nature’s profligacy – and by inference, the power and munificence of an emperor known for his interest in alchemy. Here was base matter transmuted.

When Rudolf was deposed by his younger brother Matthias, Savery spent a year in the new ruler’s service before returning to Amsterdam around 1613 and then Haarlem before settling in Utrecht with his nephew and assistant, Hans Savery II. His home and celebrated flower garden became a meeting place for local artists and, using the paintings he had made in Prague as models (he made 23 variations of the Orpheus story), Savery developed a highly lucrative practice in the city. His renown was such that in 1626 the Utrecht government paid Savery 700 guilders for a painting containing “all the animals of the air and the earth”, intended as a present for the wife of the Stadholder.

Savery’s eminence faded, however, possibly exacerbated by failing mental health. He was forced to sell his properties and in 1638 he was declared bankrupt and died the following year. By which time, according to Arnold Houbraken, a compiler of artists’ biographies, he was insane.

This painting, Landscape with Birds, was made in Utrecht in circa 1628 and is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Mixing the real and the imaginative it is typical of the landscapes that he developed in Prague, inspired in part by the work of an older Fleming, Gillis van Coninxloo. The landscape is non-specific but is composed of observed elements – Savery made numerous sketches of twisted and leaning trees and scruffy hillocks and banks – and the ruins may be based on drawings by Jan Brueghel, who had visited Rome and Naples in the 1590s and who was in Prague in 1604 when Savery first arrived. The little floral still life next to the dodo in the bottom right-hand corner was borrowed from the stand-alone flower paintings that formed another part of his output.

The birds themselves comprise an encyclopaedic gathering. More than 20 species from different regions of the globe are part of an unlikely assembly in this dreamy European landscape. Ostriches from Africa stand above a cassowary from New Guinea, a turkey – a bird brought back from the Americas by the Spanish only a century earlier – mingles with parrots, spoonbills fly over pelicans, cranes keep company with a peacock, alongside more common fowl. Many of the members of this flock were birds Savery had seen in Rudolf’s aviaries.

There is a rich symbolism attached to animals and plants so it is tempting to look for allegories in such a painting. Savery, however, was not that sort of artist. “All must have prizes,” says the dodo in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and this picture – so rich, so wondrous, so joyous – was meant as a prize for anyone who saw it.

[See also: How Mary Swanzy brought colour to cubism]

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This article appears in the 16 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s War Goes Global