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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The large tower of Babel by Peter Bruegel : its precedents and antecedents in the artistic imagination and in archaeology Fawcett, Thomas Derek


This thesis was originally commenced with the intention of examining the various artistic representations of the Tower of Babel, then comparing them with possible sources of inspiration such as the Biblical account, Herodotus, and the original (as now revealed by archaeology). So far about two hundred and thirty illustrations have been found, mainly in the form of manuscript illuminations, frescoes, mosaics and paintings. As this piece of research would run into several large volumes, it has been decided to concentrate upon a most outstanding example, that of the painting executed in 1563 by Peter Bruegel which is usually referred to as his "Large Tower of Babel". The precedents and antecedents of this painting have been studied and special attention given to influences such as the medieval traditions of allegory in literature and symbolism in painting. Because of the use of symbolism by Bruegel in much of his painting, an attempt has been made to ascertain whether or not the religious or political motives often connected with this are present-and the conclusion reached is that to some extent they must be. There is at present very little in the way of detailed description of the painting by art historians, and so attention has been given to this, accompanied by a search for sources of Bruegel's inspiration. One result of this has been the discovery that Qiulio Clovio provided some ideas for the painting and himself collected another larger example not now in existence. The description by Vasari would suggest that the subject was something of a wonder in Rome in the 1550s, thus providing another cogent reason for Peter Bruegel's interest in it during and after the time of his visit to Italy. It is concluded that the particular form which Bruegel's tower takes is mainly the cumulative result of his own powerful imagination, the ini alginations of his contemporaries and predecessors, combined with literary detail available from Herodotus and to some extent the Biblical account. While travellers' tales of Middle Eastern towers such as Samarra abounded, it seems unlikely that much of the original tower at Babylon remained to be observed, even if it were recognized in Bruegel's time. With the influence of the archaeological facts available to us today at nil then, comparatively speaking, the thesis section of detailed research into the actual form of the original tower becomes only of interest for the sake of comparison with the artistic form - and as a corroboration of Herodotus' important account. It therefore very properly becomes an appendix.

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