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Monday 14 January 2013

Velazquez and Tycho Brahe – an unusual juxtaposition?

Having recently been in Brisbane and had the opportunity to visit the exhibition ‘Portrait of Spain : Masterpieces from the Prado’, at the Queensland Art Gallery, my attention was captured when I read a review of a new YA novel, Jepp, who defied the Stars (Katherine Marsh, published 2012).  So I ordered and read my own copy (of course).

The Prado exhibition displayed, among many others, several works by Spanish court painter, Velazquez (1599 – 1660), depicting the Habsburg court of his time.  Notable among the Velazquez portraits were several featuring the dwarves employed as entertainers and curiosities at the court. Jepp, the hero of the novel, is a dwarf, not employed in the Spanish court, but in the court of the Infanta (Princess) Isabella Clara Eugenia, ruler of the Spanish Netherlands from 1598 to 1621.

Tycho Brahe

At this period in history, astrology and star charts provided a structure through which a person could understand his or her personality and possible future – believers in this structure considered they had little or no capacity to set a direction for themselves, or influence their lives. (If you read your stars each day in the newspaper, do you still have vestiges of this belief?)  Jepp, however, is portrayed as a strong personality with a capacity to resent his life as the ‘buffoon’ whose function is to be a mere toy at the court, always subject to the vagaries of the powerful courtiers.

Court Dwarf - Velazquez

His sudden removal from the court at Coudenberg and exile to Uraniborg (the home and astronomical observatory of Tycho Brahe, who developed his own model of the universe without the use of a telescope) was initially very disturbing for Jepp but his intellectual capacity and strength of character enabled him to make a home and future for himself – he ‘defied the stars’ and controlled his own destiny.

The novel is engaging in its focus on a community with a very different outlook on so many aspects of life – it seems that Jepp and other dwarves at the royal court were really owned, not employed, and the undoubted luxury of their lives did not make up for their lack of self-determination.  The contrast between the rigid court at Coudenberg and the more open community at Uraniborg is well drawn.  It’s not a simple read – many aspects of the story will need research and discussion to develop appreciation in the reader, but older teenagers and their teachers and families will be glad if they make the effort.

And here’s a question for you – when you read this book (I hope I’ve piqued your interest in it!), why did I get annoyed EVERY TIME I saw the word ‘auger’ (and I saw it and its derivatives quite often…)?

Patsy Jones

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