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Castrovalva

While living in Italy, Escher spent virtually every spring undertaking long journeys on foot through a region of Italy. In those days, mountain walking was still a real adventure, much more so than today. Guides containing detailed information about elevation changes, terrain and grading are available everywhere. In Escher’s day, hillwalking was a more serious undertaking.

Sometimes he ventured out on his own, on other occasions he was accompanied by a friend or friends. They travelled as gentlemen; after particularly arduous ascents, they would hire the services of a local man and a pack donkey, or a mule. In 1929, Escher and a friend, the Swiss painter Giuseppe Haas-Trivero, embarked on a journey through Abruzzo, the mountainous region to the east of Rome. Escher was planning to produce an illustrated book of Abruzzo and its towns. This never materialised, but he did manage over the years to create a number of drawings on which he based prints, depicting the towns of Abruzzo .*

These long walks were an important outlet for Escher. They liberated him from his daily preoccupations and were a tremendous source of inspiration. He devoted much of his time during these tours to drawing. These drawings were subsequently turned into prints: a woodcut, or a lithograph. There is something unusual about all of these prints, a fact that was not lost on Escher’s contemporaries. Although they do not represent reality, they do evoke the same feelings as those experienced by visitors. For Escher, these ‘creative adaptations’ of reality are an essential way to share his experiences and feelings about the landscape. In the lithograph Castrovalva, a number of notable diversions from reality can be observed.

Castrovalva is an ancient toll-collecting town. It is nestled between two mountain ranges. Anyone heading to Rome from the Italian coast or even from some northerly regions of Italy, as well as those travelling further south, would have travelled through Castrovalva. It was only after national unity was declared that tolls ceased to be collected . Because there is little space for building high up on the hillside, the little town soon swelled to capacity. I took a photo in 2006. Due to ongoing afforestation of centuries-old agricultural land, it is no longer possible to take a photograph of Castrovalva that resembles Escher’s print.

M.C. Escher, Castrovalva (detail), lithography, 1930
Castrovalva in 2006

Escher evidently omitted quite a few houses. This is where reality differs from art, as I alluded to above. Escher depicts the little town perched high atop the hillside, towering over Anversa, deep down in the valley. In addition to the sparsely built townscape, the second notable feature in Escher’s print is the curved wall of the little town of Anversa, shown in the bottom of the lithograph. In Escher’s representation, Anversa appears to cling to the sheer slope of the mountain.

Of course, this is not an accurate representation of reality. Whichever way you look at it, nowhere does this curved, almost semi-circular wall cling so tightly to the hillside as in Escher’s print. By linking up the sheer slope with the little town of Anversa , and by making the hillside appear even steeper than it is in real life, Escher reinforces the impression of great heights and dangerous depths.

What is actually happening in this lithograph? In the bottom-left corner, Escher has “planted” a bunch of thistles. In relation to the rest of the print, the plants are enormous. They lead the viewer’s gaze to the trail between the two places: Castrovalva high on the hilltop and Anversa deep in the expansive valley below. At that point, the viewer has to make a decision: either to look up or to look down. If you look up, your eyes will wander via Castrovalva to Cocullo, the little town far away in the distance, and from there return via the sloping valley lines to Anversa and back to the thistles. The viewer is in essence making a circle.

The second option is to look away from the thistles to Anversa and into the distance. This usually returns the viewer’s perspective to the thistles , before focussing his or her attention on Castrovalva and the clouds. In the second perspective, the viewer intuitively emphasises the two lines moving in opposite directions: the first leading down and the second heading up. In both movements, the viewer links up the images depicted in the distance with those in the foreground, creating a horizontal sense of depth. In addition, the steep face of the mountain on which Castrovalva is perched and to which Anversa clings on, creates a vertical sense of depth, from high to low.

By exaggerating scale – “just that little bit steeper, just that little bit bigger”, and by adding a focal point in the foreground, thus making objects in the distance look farther away – Escher allows the viewer to share his experiences and feelings. “Wow, this is amazing! It’s so far away! It’s so steep! And it’s so deep!” Having visited Castrovalva in person, I can speak from experience. On one particular occasion, as we were returning from a long walk, we saw large white clouds penetrating the valley just as in Escher’s print.

It is wonderful to be able to relive that experience, almost eighty years after Escher visited Castrovalva. As far as I am concerned, the fact that art distorts or even violates reality is not important. A work of art has its own set of rules.

During their visit to Castrovalva, Escher and Haas-Trivero were arrested by the carabinieri during a night-time raid. A few days earlier, there had been a failed assassination attempt on Mussolini. According to villagers past and present, those two strangers must have known something about the plot. Why else would they be visiting this desolate region? They were taken to the police station in Anversa for questioning. Escher was well-connected, and it appears that his threat to notify influential contacts in Rome secured them their freedom.

Below are two photos of the house and the street where they stayed. They were taken in the harsh winter of 2012 by Ingrid Van der Kamp, who has a home in Castrovalva with her Italian husband.

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