Yearning, Sorrow & Desire – The Capriccio of Monsu Desiderio and Descendents

Daniel Mirante

Added on July 20, 2021

Monsu – (a term from northern Italy) meaning ‘mister’, ‘sir’. Desiderio, a boy’s name, of Latin and Italian origin, and the meaning of Desiderio is “yearning; sorrow; desired”.

Monsu Desiderio is known for a type of art imagery called capricci – architectural fantasies. Monsu Desiderio is not one man but two and maybe more, who are thought to have collaborated within the same workshops. French artiststs François de Nomé (1593–after 1620) and Didier Barra  (1590-1656) – and a third artist, name unknown- have all been attributed to this mythic singular ‘Monseur of Yearning, Sorrow & Desire’.

Men Amongst Ruins

Yearning, sorrow, desire, are perfect appellation for capricci – describing well the kind of solace or pleasure found in ruins. Capriccio places together monumental buildings, archaeological ruins and other architectural elements in fictional and often fantastical combinations. These images may also include ‘staffage’ (figures) both living and statuesque.

Ruins hold an enigma for artists concerned with the psycho-archeology of culture. Capricci is a yearning for the archaic, it is also a kind of solace for the broken-hearted who feel they are born to times where the ruins are not physical, but symbolic.

Speaking of Filippino Lippi, art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) emphasized the “strani capricci che egli espress nella pittura” (the “strange caprices that he expresses in his paintings”). Raffaello Borghini (Il Riposo, 15844) distinguishes between an inspiration drawn from others and that intrinsic to the artist: a suo capriccio.

Contemporary Capriccio

We may employ a reverse chronology and go sequentially backward in time, to chart and understand the long influence Capricci has cast to the present day.

If we consider painters alone, the visionary painters proceeding from the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism appear to be the most direct genetic descendents of the yearning, sorrow and desire. It was Albert Paris Gütersloh (1887–1973), in a foreword to the Russian catalog of the work of Ernst Fuchs (1930–2015), who explained Fuchs work as ‘the disjected membra of the Catholic Imagination’. Here was evoked the image of a man amongst the ruins in post-war Vienna, attempting in the art to psychically process the existential shock of the destruction, both physically and psychically, of traditional Europe.

This resonates with a sentiment by Joseph Cambell:

There are mythologies that are scattered, broken up, all around us. We stand on what I call the terminal moraine of shattered mythic systems that once structured society. They can be detected all around us. You can select any of these fragments that activate your imagination for your own use. Let it help shape your own relationship to the unconscious system out of which these symbols have come.

— Joseph Campbell Thou Art That (p. 86)

Capricci in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Two or three of contemporary cultures’ science-fiction and fantasy mainstays involve ‘depth charge’ backgrounds of long histories, sub-created by the writers, and often based upon european history and global archeology. The Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R Martin (on screen known as ‘Game of Thrones’) features many capricci set-pieces, from the ruins of Valeria to and the destruction of Kings Landing. The Alien franchise, including Ridley Scott’s prequel ‘Prometheus’ involves ruins of primordial extraterrestrial civilisations. The Expanse book series also explores the themes of men amongst the ruins, in this case large scale civilisational cultures that vanished long ago in a cataclysm.

Overlooked Capricci – Pulp Authors

These mainstream fantasy stories proceeded from earlier ‘pulp’ roots, in the works of authors such as Robert E. Howard (1906–1936), author of Conan and Kull the Conqueror,  and H.P Lovecraft (1890-1937) author of Mountains of Madness, Call of Cthulu. Both authors employed Capricci to lend depth and resonance to their stories. These literary works have been often overlooked because of their pulp mileu, despite the massive influence they now can clearly be seen to have had.

Surrealist Capriccio

The Surrealists explored fantastic Capriccio. The abstract early works of Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) ‘Archeologists’ series show the soul of the artist clearly saturated with the echo of ancient Greece, where the artist was born. The skelaton and femme fatale staffage of Paul Delvaux (1897-1994) perhaps reflects most transparently the long influence of ‘Monsu Desiderio’.

Max Ernst (1891–1976)  frottage ‘The Whole City’ (1935) and decalcomania ‘Europe After the Rain’ (1941), now stand out as powerfully prophetic, heavy with foreboding of the ungraspable and horrific magnitude of destruction brought by World War II.

We will stop here with tracing the lines, but Capricci certainly runs through the Hudson River School of Amerian painting (Thomas Cole for instance) Victorian painting of John Martin, Francis Danby and Turner, Romantic painting French academic ‘history’ painting and Northern Mannerism. Perhaps the most quintessential Capricci of all is the eternally revisited theme of the Tower of Babel, which Flemish painters appeared to revel in.

The Enduring Pleasure of Ruins

The pleasure of ruins is not simply in the destruction, but in the integrative quality of acknowledging the civilisational cycles that have come and gone and which we continue to find ourselves within. Sentimentality is a kind of remembrance of ancestors, and of the tectonics of our own culture. By encountering ‘the past’ we also stretch our consciousness to consider ‘deep time’ – unfathomable and awe-inspiring civilisational cycles across thousands of years that lay ahead for humanity, who’s ‘future people’ will flower in the ruins and shells of the present time.

Daniel Mirante is a painter, historian, scholar, teacher and writer.

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