The tranquillity of the Campagna – the countryside around Rome – stretches far into the distance under a soft golden light. Muleteers, who lived by transporting goods on the backs of their patient mules, move at a leisurely pace across the mountainous landscape, its paths winding in and out of rocky outcrops down to the misty valley.
The sun catches the white sleeves, collar and stockings of two men – making them a focus of the picture – as they stop for a rest and a chat in the shade close to us. But all is not quite as perfect as first appears. The mule behind the herdsmen carries heavy rolls hanging from a cumbersome wooden saddle. His head droops and his legs are painfully thin. Although Both paints the countryside as a romantic idyll he makes sure that, for a discerning eye, the realities of life in the Italian hills are visible.
The tranquillity of the Campagna – the countryside around Rome – stretches far into the distance under a soft golden light. Muleteers, who lived by transporting goods on the backs of their patient mules, move at a leisurely pace across the mountainous landscape. Its paths wind in and out of rocky outcrops down to the misty valley. The fine leaves of silver birch trees make a filigree pattern against the rolling clouds, tinged almost lemon yellow from the sun.
The sun also catches the white sleeves, stockings and collars of two men as they stop for a rest and a chat in the shade close to us. One squats on a boulder. The other leans towards him, one leg hoisted up, his chin resting on his hands clasped on his stick. The tree close to us that rises up to disappear out of the picture and the dark shadows of the hillside on the right hem the two men in, so that the eye is drawn to them. Surrounded by their goats, these are the herdsmen in the title of the painting.
But Both doesn‘t let us linger in the shade with the herdsmen. The upward slant of the single tree and its neighbouring sapling is echoed by the diagonal line of the path. It takes us from the standing herdsman’s hat up to the mule, to the tower in the distance, up to the cliff face of the hill beyond, before it runs down gently to the lake glinting in the sun. Both, who had spent three years of his youth in Rome, had made many sketches of the Italian countryside before he returned home to turn them into a series of romanticised pictures that were swept up by a Dutch audience, fascinated by scenes of a landscape and an atmosphere so different from their own.
But all is not quite as perfect as first appears. The mule behind the herdsmen carries heavy rolls hanging from a cumbersome wooden saddle. His head droops and his legs are painfully thin. His muleteer leans on a stick, struggling with the climb. Both places them against the light background of the sandy path to make sure these details can be seen.
The fastest moving thing in the picture is the waterfall tumbling down the steep hillside on the right into a rocky pool where a man drinks the fresh, sparkling water from his hat. Both makes no attempt to make him an idealised classical figure: his arms are fairly muscular, but his torso is scrawny and the muscles slack – this is no Adonis of the Roman countryside but a peasant with a hard life.
So although Both paints the countryside as a romantic ideal, his peasants are not. He makes sure that for a discerning eye, the realities of life in the Italian hills are visible. This earned him criticism from Italian artists such as Salvator Rosa, who disliked his portrayal of ’barbaric' peasants. But Claude, the great landscape painter who lived in Rome at the same time as Both, collaborated with him. His work served as an inspiration to Both during his stay in Rome and after his return to the Netherlands.
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