At the start of this marvellous, engrossing and illuminating study, Julian Bell poses a simple question, one that will recur throughout the book: “What is nature?” Easy to ask, yes, but not so easy to answer. The word “nature” itself comes, of course, from the Latin natura, which Bell translates as “having-been-born-ness”, and which he allies with “physics” from the Greek physis, “‘whatever grows’ or ‘whatever has a body’”. This version of nature he sets against the godly supernatural, and against the mind and consciousness.
By now we are on page two. However, we should not be daunted. Things will become simpler as we go on. Given the author’s Bloomsbury antecedents –he is the son of Quentin Bell, the art historian, nephew and biographer of Virginia Woolf – we might expect, we might dread, a precious style and an impregnable self-regard. Not a bit of it. Natural Light is as light and natural as its subject warrants, a “mystery journey” on which we will encounter wondrous sights and uncover troves of treasure. It’s even funny, in places.
Adam Elsheimer will not be a name in every household. Yet he influenced some of the greatest artists of his day and of following days. These included Rembrandt and Rubens, as well as, fascinatingly, the court artists of the Mughal empire. The young Samuel Beckett, Bell notes, put it as succinctly as we would expect when in 1936 he wrote to a friend that “Elsheimer is the man”.
This is the painter of whom Bell writes: “I want to bring out not only the lyricism and humanity of his pictures, but the complexity of his thinking and the ways in which it bears on the debates about nature that were circulating in his era.”
Elsheimer was born in Frankfurt, and spent most of his brief working life in Rome, where he died in poverty in 1610 at the age of 32. One of the many remarkable aspects of his paintings is their size. Most of them are, as the author has it, “rather less than the width of an average iPad screen”. In Rome he was known, so an English traveller recorded in slightly shaky Italian, as the diavolo per gli cose piccole, the devil for little things.
After a short introduction, Bell devotes his first chapter, “Behind the hill”, to a tiny, 225mm-wide image titled Aurora, painted, as were so many of Elsheimer’s jewel-like masterpieces, on a copper sheet, prepared by being sanded and then rubbed with garlic juice – what would the world be without garlic? It presents an Italianate landscape over which a cloud-flecked gold and azure dawn is breaking. It is, Bell writes, “a painting attentive to a state of mind, and how that mood is tied up with certain conditions of time, light and space”.
But all is not quite as it seems in this glowing, prelapsarian scene, or, at least, all is not as it once was. In 1974, Bell tells us, an art restorer, Knut Nicolaus, published the results of an infrared investigation he had made of the copper sheet. This showed that originally an ash tree growing on a hillside above the distant, glowing campagna was not a tree but “the silhouette of a giant thrusting his brute head and shoulders over the hillside with questing, threatening purpose”. It is Polyphemus, the one-eyed giant murderously furious at the fleeing pair of lovers Acis and Galatea – the latter the giant’s unattained love-object – who appeared in the lefthand corner of the picture and were later erased.
Why the pentimento? Elsheimer had set out to illustrate one of the more violently sexual of the Greek myths. “At some point he determined, however, that… the imminent violence defaced and traduced the bright dawn. Light and space, on reconsideration, would suffice.” Here we have the central theme of the book, which is the way in which painters at the start of the 17th century, with Elsheimer among the vanguard, began in earnest to allow landscape alone, with only diminutive human figures or none at all, to express the painter’s aesthetic intentions. With Aurora, Bell writes, “the possibilities for landscape… take an unfamiliar turn”.
Before, most artists and their patrons would have agreed with Michelangelo, that a picture without figures in it lacked “substance and vigour”, and could be not much more than amiably decorative. Elsheimer and his circle in Rome, however, pushed the human agent more and more to the periphery, and often out of the frame altogether. This was not meant to diminish the peopled aspect of pictorial art, but to attempt to investigate intimately what it means to be human and in nature, or even against or at the mercy of nature, in the sense of Edmund Burke’s “sublime”.
In this endeavour, Elsheimer was encouraged and supported by contemporary advances in “natural science”, in particular the astronomical discoveries being made by such savants as Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler and, especially, Galileo Galilei. The development of the telescope was showing that the Aristotelian conception of a fixed and unchanging universe was no longer tenable. New stars could appear, Jupiter had moons, the Earth is not the centre of everything. All is movement, all is change – as the pre-Socratics told us long ago.
So keenly alive was Elsheimer to the new astronomy that in what was to be his final work and surely his greatest masterpiece, the Flight into Egypt of 1609 – another diagonal setpiece, like Aurora – the tremendous night sky, which dwarfs the human figures in the scene, depicts the real sky, with its actual moon, stars and planets. In the Flight, Elsheimer takes on the world’s immensity. Bell writes: “Abandoning, perhaps” – that “perhaps” is not insignificant – “his attempt to address the social and political world… he now resolved to address instead the cosmos.”
• John Banville’s most recent novel is The Singularities (Knopf)
• Natural Light: The Art of Adam Elsheimer and the Dawn of Modern Science by Julian Bell is published by Thames & Hudson (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply