Antonello de Messina, Saint Jerome in his Study (1460-'75)
In our genres of speculative fiction--fantasy, science fiction, slipstream, the weird and fabulistic in all their many strokes of invention--we have devised advanced strategies for "world building." Not to replace or displace the World, but to understand it better, to improve it in some small way by bringing back what we saw and what we learned Beyond the Fields We Know.
I wonder when the urge to travel outside the World first hits those of us who write speculative fiction (or "Fantastika," to use John Clute's term). For me, the desire has simply always been with me, but I can pinpoint the first times I thought about the desire, when I recognized its power and began to name it. I was a boy, less than ten, poring over books full of pictures by European Renaissance painters, captivated by the gorgeousness of oil paint, the lushness of draping fabric and sheen of angel wings, rays of the sun, gilt scrollings, birds brilliantly plumaged, the glory and strangeness of the stories depicted. But most of all I found myself curious about what might lie beyond the scenes portrayed, by glimpses the painters provided (in a seemingly off-hand or indifferent way) of a world outside the garden (but don't be fooled, the artists poured their souls into the vedute), views that coolly teased and drew me on.
Like Saint Jerome, I sat in my enclosed study, within the order of the World, surrounded by known things and the symbols of known things. Yet enclosure is no necessary prison; follow Saint Jerome's gaze to the book, as it skips then towards the southwest corner of the picture, and focus on the window set into the wall, beyond which is a landscape. Oh, there it is...the landscape into which I want to go, forsaking the Book of the World for the Alphabet of the Unknown.
Antonello de Messina, detail from the painting above
It takes a while to find the way through the window, as the Renaissance painters knew. First you zoom in too far back, then in too close, losing perspective, seeking to center the road while it evades your feet.
Carlo Crivelli, Annunciation with Saint Emidius (1486)
When you begin to triangulate, to place the way right in front of you, to enlarge the little side window into an open archway, you can find yourself drifting backwards. After all, it is hard to leave the World, with its endless delights and wonders and stories stranger than water.
Pinturicchio, The Annunciation (1501)
When at last you center the view and open the window, you begin to approach the outside, you begin to see others out there. Are they...
Rogier van der Weyden, St. Luke Draws The Madonna (c. 1440)
...pilgrims like you, or at least dilettantes on an afternoon's picnic excursion...or are they denizens of the Other World, come in close to ours, like dolphins in the surf? Who built those houses, that bridge, the ship at anchor in the river?
Jan van Eyck, The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (c. 1435)
Sooner or later you realize that the view itself has changed (perhaps the parti-colored wings of Gabriel have amazed you), something in the air is more lucid yet also more aslant-- look carefully at the scenes under each arch window in de Credi's Annunciation below (each is a slice of a different world, the angles and atmospheres not aligned, the perspectives askew).
Lorenzo de Credi, The Annunciation (c. 1480)
You summon the nerve to come closer, yet still you hover and hesitate on the border, a pear held upside down...
Bernaert van Orley, Madonna with Child (c. 1520)
...a final draft before setting out...(from the Lady who must be floating just outside our window, looking in at us, in our chambers far above the ground)...
Quentin Metsys, Marie-Madeleine (c. 1517)
...and then you are on your way...
Hans Memling, Saint John Altarpiece' detail (1474-'79)
...equipping yourself for the journey...
Pietro Perugino, The Delivery of the Keys (1481-'82)
...a journey that takes you far away...
Benozzo Gozzoli, Procession of the Magi (1459-'61)
...far away, but not alone, and with knowledge of the path back.
Paul Bril, Imaginary Mountain Landscape (1598)
[As always, no copyright infringement is intended; all images have been located on the Web and are believed to be in the public domain; this is a non-commercial use].