The rock becomes a spring, the deserts flower Before these wanderers, as they march to take The constant empire of the unknown hence.
– Charles Baudelaire, “Les Bohémiens en voyage,” translated by Naomi Lewis
Baudelaire’s “Les Bohémiens en voyage” (Gypsies on the Road) takes Callot’s etching as inspiration, transposing the artist’s visual motifs into poetic themes central to his volume of poetry Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil): people on the margins, and the theme of the journey. Features of the etching appear most clearly at the beginning of the poem, with its traveling beggar women, children, and armored men. But the concluding tercets translate Callot’s scene of itinerant Bohemians (also called Egyptians, beggars, nomads, or gypsies) into an allegorical dimension. Here, imagery from nature, myth, and the Bible transform this little “tribe’s” travel into a journey shared, at least in part, by us all.
From edge to edge, a group of travelers traverses the horizontal expanse of this sheet. The emptiness of the background situates the caravan nowhere in particular, and the faint traces of a town in the lower distance serve less as a marker of a place than as an indicator of the horde’s placelessness. Plume-hatted men bearing weapons and shawled women tending children surge forward carrying their worldly possessions. Two children near the front even wear pots and pans. Guided by the pointing hand of the spear-bearing leader of the pack–his finger just breaks the border of the image–the group ventures toward an unknown realm beyond the page. Yet while they process forward, a young boy looks over his shoulder and directs our gazes to a past realm they’ve left behind. Ever on the move. These “Bohemians” are better known as Gypsies or Romani, a people driven into nomadic existence, discriminated against, and marginalized for centuries. The inscription characterizes them, paradoxically, as poor beggars full of good fortune. Its reference to them “carrying only future things” likely alludes to the convoy’s many children, the rootless prospects for their own continuity. Is it possible to see these people as anything but migrants?
Carolina Mangone, Assistant Professor, Art and Archaeology
Jules Lieure, Jacques Callot: catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre gravé (San Francisco: Alan Wofsy Fine Arts, 1989).
Édouard Meaume, "Volume 2," Recherches sur la vie et les ouvrages de Jacques Callot, suite au Peintre-graveur français de M. Robert-Dumesnil (Paris: V.J. Renouard, 1860).