Music is a second language for Andrea Battistoni, who grew up in Verona, Italy, with a pianist mother and an opera-loving father. He began as a reluctant musician. He found his purpose when, at age 15, he was struck by the power of an orchestra, which he describes as “an instrument made of musicians”. Since then he’s become the youngest conductor to debut at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, with a 2012 production of Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). He conducted a 2019 production of Madama Butterfly with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and a May 2022 version of Mefistofele at Arts Centre Melbourne. He’s currently rehearsing for Il Trovatore, which opens this month at the Sydney Opera House. The Garden of Earthly Delights, the 1490-1500 triptych by Dutch/Netherlandish artist Hieronymus Bosch, has remained his artistic touchstone.
You’ve long been drawn to The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, who is known as one of the most morally complex of the northern European painters. When did you first come across Bosch’s work?
I was very lucky when I was young because my parents are very passionate about travelling. We travelled through all the capitals in Europe and became very familiar with museums. I noticed that among painters that were attracting my attention from an early age, Bosch was one of the most interesting to me.
Recently, I read a very interesting book [Bosch by Wilhelm Fraenger] focused on an interpretation of The Garden of Earthly Delights. I became very obsessed with this piece of art, which I haven’t yet had the chance to see live. Basically, this triptych, or group of paintings, is a very powerful machine for imagination. I became so fascinated that I ordered a replica of it that I’ve hung in front of a working desk in my studio. If I get stuck when I’m composing, I look at it and, all of a sudden, my imagination starts to work again. I feel like I have a relationship with this painting and it helps my creativity very much.
Previously, devotional paintings weren’t as strange as The Garden of Earthly Delights. It’s unlike anything of its time.
It’s a Surrealist painting hundreds of years before Dali! When closed, it shows the third day of creation in the Bible. It is black and white and grey. We have this explosion of energy in the central panel. It is about the artist as a creator of worlds.
The Garden of Earthly Delights is really a study of ecstasy and lust and pleasure as well as the consequences of sin. One panel portrays Adam and Eve in paradise; the other shows young nudes cavorting in a garden. The third depicts hell as a place of fires and disembodied ears. What do you admire about it?
I think that there is a moralistic idea behind the commission of this piece. But I like to think that the first purpose of this painting is to give its audience the possibility of reacting to it without giving too many explanations. I see a parallel with music. You have to approach it with a free mind without trying to figure out the message of the work.
You can read it as a moral allegory and also the other way – it is quite an erotic painting as well.
That’s why we can have two interpretations. You can look at it as if it was intended to be read in chronological order, from left to right. Original sin brings lust, a vital but cursed part of human life, and if you surrender to this instinct you go to hell. But I read in the book that Bosch may have been part of a sect, the Brethren of the Free Spirit, who could have been behind the commission of this piece, and the story is no longer read from left to right but converges into the centre. The central panel becomes the representation of an ideal community that can integrate lust and sex as part of a free society where nobody needs to hide anything and everything is open. Nobody looks very worried. Of course, we have hell. But heaven can be here and now.
I love the reading that it depicts a kind of utopia. Some critics believe that it is a celebration of the Renaissance.
There are pictures of exotic animals, there is a giraffe hanging around, there is a precise representation of certain plants. It is a painting, but it is moving at the same time.
It is so rich – which is why I think it has inspired artists for centuries. In the painting, a group of figures nibble on a giant strawberry; in another, a figure is strung up on a harp.
It’s really about the free power of human imagination. Gustav Mahler said, “Every symphony I create should encapsulate a universe.” So, to try to follow Bosch in his wild journey is to try and discover something about ourselves and, also, of human beings at the time.
Bosch’s hell is populated by torture machines that look like musical instruments. At the time, the musician [occupied] a borderline position between heaven and hell. Music was supposed to be confined to the church as sacred singing. That’s why we don’t just see the harp, we see the hurdy-gurdy, which was a typical instrument for dancing at the time. The hurdy-gurdy was able to play two or even three musical lines, pure music without any relationship to sacred texts. It was a forbidden instrument that excited the spirit. That’s why there are so many musical instruments in the hellish part of the painting. It tells us much about the power of art.
It’s this idea of art being transgressive. You recently composed a flute concerto for the Tokyo Philharmonic inspired by The Garden of Earthly Delights, a piece that is as mysterious and expressive as a painting itself. How did you translate Bosch’s vision?
Everything started at the request of my friend [the flautist] Tommaso Benciolini, who wanted a new flute concerto. I was reading about the history of the Bosch painting and I thought I would put on paper the reactions I experienced. All the panels were portrayed in the piece and I really felt like a painter myself. I love when a composer is able to paint on sounds and use his orchestra as a canvas to create different atmospheres.
The flute is strange because it is not the first instrument you think about when you think about a concerto. I really wanted to create this big musical journey for the flute.
What I wanted to portray with the little shrieks is the sound of the owl [in the painting]. The owl is a very mysterious and dark animal – in classical mythology, it is the bird of wisdom and the bird of the witches. It is danger and enlightenment at the same time. The more we know, the more we imagine, the more life becomes dangerous because we have to confront our own ideas.
The trajectory, for me, was not concluding in hell but in the central painting where there is this source of wild freedom. At the end of the journey, it is like the viewer of the painting steps back little by little and goes back to everyday life. We are not an active part of that central panel. But one day we will be.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 9, 2022 as "Andrea Battistoni".
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