Illustrations from the Clavis Artis

Written over a Dragon Skin

in Art/Historic artefacts/Latest/Magick/Music

Nino Rota, an acclaimed composer best known for his award-winning film scores for Fellini, Zefferelli, Visconti, Coppola, collected occult manuscripts since a child.

When he died in 1979 a copy of ‘Clavis Artis’ was discovered among his personal effects. His copy is one of only two illustrated editions of the manuscript held at repositories and made available through digitisations.

The alchemical manuscript is thought to have been produced in the late 17th or early 18th century although the pages state it was written 1236 AD. It also attributes authorship of the text to Zoroaster who claimed he wrote over ‘a dragon skin’.

Some say that the text is by Abraham Eleazar, an occultist who wrote L’Uraltes Chymisches Werk in 1735. The manuscripts’ imagery clearly draws on pictures from works by Nicolas Flamel, the alchemist who allegedly found the Philosopher’s Stone.

A naked woman stands on a crescent moon, its face towards the ground. behind her a snake with a dragon tongue licks the sun. A dragon and a snake are looped in an eternal circle, their mouths round each other’s tail. A soldier wearing a winged helmet holds a standard with the characteristic intertwined snakes of the power symbolism of ancient Roman.

Baths and pools are an important part of the alchemical process, a place where fusion happens, creatures genetically splice. Wine and blood are important liquids alongside spring water from special sources.

A three-headed dragon reaches its heads towards the sun, drinking in the sunlight. Another hybrid creature wears a crown on one of its three heads, dog heads on a wingless griffin body.
In a violent and dangerous moment a woman is attacked by three snakes as a dragon attacks her from air.

Mermaids are popular in contemporary culture but snake women are less of a Disney favourite, having become associated with evil rather than with positive energy. The snake woman holds its darker, powerful notes and protective imagery. Mermaids have become a symbol of youth, snake women are less fixed in the looking glass as attractive, beautiful young women concerned with courtship. In Minoan culture a popular figurine is the ‘snake goddess’ or ‘snake priestess’. The figures are relatively realistic and each hand holds a snake. The mythology of ancient Crete is interpreted through the archaeological remains interpretation is flexible. But the snake in Minoan and later Greek religion appeared as a protector of the house, as it is in Latvian mythology. It signified wisdom and was a symbol of fertility within the Dionysian cult. Snake venom is not only a powerful poison but also medicine.

The most distressing imageries in the ‘Clavis Artist’ are of child murder. In one image a woman kneels while two soldiers kill two infants, head down over a bath. Defenders of the moral position of alchemy may claim such imagery of sacrifice is as symbolic as  the dragon with three heads. Perhaps this picture no more illustrates real behaviour than the violent performance of an episode of Game of Thrones. The television TV show is an epic fantasy through which reality peeks through, occasionally. The alchemy ritual depicted in ‘Clavis Artist’ is symbolic, that the ritual is symbolic. Why should this be real? The creatures are clearly fantastical. But speculation continues.

Did Nino Rota’s interest in the occult power his acclaimed compositions? In an interview in 1971 he claimed Mussorgsky as an important influence since Rota was a boy. Mussorgsky’s ‘Bald Mountain’ music depicts through sound a witches’ sabbath on St John’s Eve, written by Mussorgsky the piece on the eve of St John, 23 June 1867. Rota’s work is melodramatic, full of emotive crescendo and diminuendo echoing Mussorgsky’s drama.

Rota’s composition for Fellinis’ ‘Nights of Cabiria’ has an energy, a gaiety and tragedy that compliments the performance of Giulietta Masina in the lead role that inspired ‘Sweet Charity’. The music evokes hope from within tragedy, a revolution of the heart. To ascribe esoteric manuscripts as an influence is going too far, but to think more symbolically, the process of making artistic gold from tragedy is an enormous, if very general, part of his composition, part of this collaborative art of music and film.

What looking at alternative mythologies and different stories to the dominant narratives can do is shake up ideas and hearts and tease out qualities that are otherwise hidden. Those who seek out a variety of stimulus can only gain creative energy. These symbols continue to impress, and when embraced, stimulate artistic production.

Those who treat their artistic process with ritual and special value will increase their powers of creativity. Invoking the supernatural and extraordinary helps empower art, and this works in many ways. It is invigorating to sing on top of a mountain, or perhaps write ‘over a dragon skin’, simply as an visionary aid.

Nino Rota had an open mind to sound and to source material. He openly imitated and absorbed, using humour and defying genre. His film music references motifs from so many areas. Yet it also has a subtlety, perhaps it’s not always hummable and repeatable. One of the most important film composers, having scored ‘The Godfather’, ‘The Leopard’, the Zefferelli Shakespeares, nearly all Fellini movies and for more than 140 Italian movies his work closely works with the emotional arc of character and scene. It’s affectionately done, a friend to the stories told. It is ironic, but attached to the emotion of the story, not indifferent.

Fellini said of his friend the composer, that Nino Rota ‘was someone who had a rare quality of belonging to the world of intuition. Just like children, simple men, sensitive people, innocent people, he would suddenly say dazzling things. As soon as he arrived, stress disappeared, everything turned into a festival atmosphere; the movie entered a joyful, serene, fantastic period, a new life.’

Trailer for a docufilm of Nino Rota showing him writing on his piano and in which talking about his relationship with Fellini’s films. From laVerdi.

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