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A City on a Hill — El Greco’s View of Toledo and Peter Schlör’s Mistretta

by Dr. Daniel Spanke, Kunstmuseum Stuttgart, Germany

A city on the hill, it seems, is always a little closer to heaven. Far from being hidden, it shines forth like a beacon for miles around. Most hilltop settlements were of course put there for strategic reasons; yet as a symbol of earthly aspirations to the divine, the sight of them alone can acquire an almost religious intensity.

Toledo
By the time El Greco painted his View of Toledo shortly after 1600, the city built high above the river Tajo was no longer the Spanish capital – Philipp II having decided some forty years earlier to move his court to Madrid – although it was, and still is, the seat of Spain’s highest ranking bishop, the Primate of Spain. El Greco, “The Greek” arrived there from Rome in 1577 and remained there as a painter for both ecclesiastical and aristocratic patrons right up until his death in 1614. His View of Toledo does not in fact show much of the city at all. The castle on the hilltop on the right may appear to be the highest building, but is in fact surpassed by the spire of the cathedral lower down the hill. What El Greco shows us is more a skyline than a view of the entire city. The road down to the river, for example, which could be crossed only via Toledo’s fortified bridge, is lined with a single row of buildings, fortifications, city walls and towers half hidden from view behind the hilly terrain, while the city itself should of course continue to the right. The artist’s choice of portrait format makes Toledo look rather like the band of a crown, for while the chain of buildings marks the crest of the hill on which the city itself is perched, this elevation is in turn set against the higher, albeit much more distant, hilltop at the center of the picture. By artfully staggering heights, in other words, El Greco succeeds in embedding Toledo in the landscape of Castile. The terrain narrows dramatically as the two lines of perspective converge at the bridge over the Tajo and then divide again, opening up a vista of a hill topped by a palace and an even higher cathedral spire, both of which are in turn dwarfed by a foreboding halo of scudding black clouds.

The entire composition is highly dramatic, as is the atmosphere generated by the appearance of Toledo torn between the dazzling light and brooding darkness of a thunderstorm. Dramatic, in this case, also means that the constituent elements of the composition do not merely exist, but are made to form a series of contrasts too: the solid bulk of the palace and spindly frailty of the cathedral spire, the built-up hill on the right and almost bare mountain in the center, the ascending line of fortifications on one side of the bridge and single, turreted tower on the other, the black of the thunder clouds and dazzlingly white contours of the lightning-illuminated buildings. The effect of these contrasts is to generate an ongoing rivalry between the various elements. It is as if the luminance of the clouds and blackness of the thunderstorm itself were each trying to cancel the other out. By painting such a sky, El Greco can indeed be said to have produced a work of abstract expressionism. The bright outlines of the buildings and black windows and doors they enclose make the great and glorious city of Toledo seem so spectral and incorporeal that one cannot help but fear that the entire scene may disappear in a flash. The real hero of the piece, however, is of course the sky – the heavens on which the fortunes of the city, and indeed of the whole earth, appear to depend, the heavens heralding the end of the world and the glory of new life.

Which of us has not experienced the apocalyptic fear that the elemental play of forces during an electric storm can evoke – that irrational feeling that the fury of the heavens is in some way personal, that it is “on my account the heavens are raging; I am the one to be destroyed.” In El Greco’s painting, triumph and the threat of imminent death are intricately intertwined in a way that would become typical of the age of Baroque that began around this time – an age in which the splendor of life was experienced above all as a pale and permanently imperiled reflection of the glory yet to come.

and Mistretta
Mistretta, unlike Toledo, is an unimportant little town, situated on a picturesque hillside on the north coast of Sicily, not far from the provincial capital of Messina. Nearly 400 years after El Greco painted his View of Toledo, Peter Schlör took his camera and set off on a journey through the Sicilian countryside, taking photos of anything that happened to catch his eye and seemed worthy of being immortalized in a photograph – including Mistretta. Clearly the motivation for creating images has changed significantly over the centuries: Whereas there must have been something compelling about the View of Toledo for El Greco, who knew his own fortunes to be just as dependent on the heavens as were those of the city he had elected to make his home, Mistretta is not Peter Schlör’s town at all, but rather a motif that the photographer – himself a native of Mannheim – was at liberty to choose according to purely artistic criteria.

The artist’s much looser ties to his subject are apparent in his somewhat detached of it. For although the viewer’s vantage point is clearly within the town itself, which extends as far as the lower margin of the photo, the roofs of the houses below us are so deeply immersed in darkness that Schlör effectively leaves us floating in mid-air and by doing so creates an unbridgeable distance between us, the viewers, and his subject. He also reduces his image of Mistretta to that narrow strip of houses which, being on the crest of the hill, is still bathed in bright sunlight, even when the rest of the town has been plunged into darkness. Looming behind these houses is an inky black range of mountains, while in front of them, the bright strip of sunshine ends equally abruptly in a gloomy sea of roofs. The lowest strip of all, which is also the one that is immediately below the viewer, also has a compositional function inasmuch as the roofs it contains are positioned at such an angle that they cannot help but lead our eyes right into the heart of the picture. The second strip dotted with block-like houses, however, is cut off from the brightly lit skyline behind it by a band of impenetrable black, as if there were no imaginable way of getting from one to the other.

Unlike El Greco’s View of Toledo, whose jagged diagonals force the eye to zigzag across the canvas, Peter Schlör’s composition is rigorously horizontal. Whereas the choice of portrait format alone enabled the Baroque master to concertina his city panorama into a very narrow and dramatically focused frame, Peter Schlör allows his city on a hill to spread silently and serenely sideways. The compositional contrasts in El Greco’s painting cause its constituent elements to drift apart. The centrifugal forces generated in this way at the same time relativize the subject, which because it is being constantly rearranged loses all cohesion. Although Peter Schlör’s photograph is also rich in contrasts, especially that between light and dark – his palette ranging from liberal quantities of the most intense black to sparingly applied white – , it is above all the very impassability of his uncompromisingly stratified view of Mistretta that focuses the subject to the very highest degree. The viewer’s eye can indeed be equated with the camera lens and because its exact vantage point cannot be pinned down, the viewer has no choice but to gaze into the distance, to focus on the skyline of the town that Schlör renders as a strip of sunlight. The sky is not the hero of the piece in this case; the somewhat subdued cloud cover merely lends formal emphasis to the hilltop castle on the left and in doing so provides a counterweight to the most brightly illuminated building in the town saddling the hill on the right.

For Peter Schlör, composition is a vehicle for abstraction: In this image, for example, both the countryside and the town merge to become an aesthetic phenomenon. This aesthetic view has of course always been central to the landscape or cityscape genre as a culturally defined manifestation of pictorial seeing: Neither city dwellers nor those who live in the country view where they live in aesthetic terms; not until the advent of Modernism did this aesthetic view – and the individual doing the viewing – acquire full sovereignty. The travelers who once had to struggle to get from one place to another have long since been overtaken by tourists who seek out what is strange and unusual precisely in order to have this experience. And these days it is the tourists rather than those who are truly involved in a place – meaning residents such as El Greco – who are creating the images.

In an age of sophisticated digital photography, Peter Schlör’s decision to work in black and white should be interpreted not so much as a harking back to the early days of classical photography as a choice of the more abstract medium and as such an active assertion of his independence. The artist could even be said to underscore his sovereignty over the view he has turned into an image by enclosing that image inside a large white frame and placing a second frame containing just a small extract from the panorama next to it. Even in the larger of the two works, Schlör uses light to focus on just one part of the total, namely on that narrow strip of the hilltop town of Mistretta that is bathed in sunlight. That this concept is in fact an artistic strategy becomes evident in the act of doubling. Viewed as an island in an expanse of white, the small but distinctive group of houses inside the second frame is inevitably compared with the larger view beside it, even though it is indeed a composition in its own right. In the medium of photography in particular, this repetition casts doubt on the image as a kind of “window in the wall” and renders it a construct rather than a given.

The pictorial world of Schlör’s Mistretta is constantly under threat: The strip of sunlight is an ephemeral effect that is in any case already shot through with deep black shadows. The blackness of the picture – the anti-picture, as it were – could be equated with the permanent threat of death. Yet unlike El Greco’s painting, which encapsulates the painter’s typically Baroque skepticism concerning the permanence of all things earthly, Peter Schlör’s Late Modernist picture seems if anything to posit a means of overcoming the ephemerality of the world.

Daniel Spanke | 2006