chapter  1
42 Pages

The Vanishing Castle in King Lear

In Forest Fire (c. 1505), a painting at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the Florentine Piero di Cosimo (1462-1521) depicts a forest fire, which scatters domestic and wild animals. The flames consume trees and bushes, and smoke reaches up to the clouds. Flocks of birds fly overhead or seek safe trees to perch upon. Animals flee in different directions; whereas others stand as in a daze or seem unaware of danger. A shepherd guides farm animals back to a cottage, where excited human figures gesticulate. In his analysis, Richard Turner writes: “A freak of nature, a forest fire, governs activity in this world.”3 He suggests that a copse of trees blocks the view and directs one’s eyes to the central area, where the fire “rages,” and “From here, the line of vision is forced to shoot off towards the horizon on two different tangents.”4 Turner writes of a “paradox that permeates much of Piero’s work,” combining the sinister threat posed by the fire, and the “disarmingly naïve” presence of a man moving “about the landscape as King of the animals but little better than an animal himself. This world of flame, soot, and death is presented in clear and forceful imagery, so that the least thought of the nostalgic or delicate is throttled within us.”5 The great visual impact of the painting depends on creating both a sense of order, represented by the cottage, and images of turmoil, represented by the fire, the scattering of the animals, and the admixture of both docile livestock and wild fauna.