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Understanding the sublime architecture of Bloodborne

Much of the impact of Michelangelo’s art comes from its exaggerations. With his painting of the Cumaean Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, for instance, Michelangelo realized the prophet in a way that’s likely to betray our expectations. Rather than being the young, soft-skinned woman of other contemporary painters’ depictions, this Sibyl has a boulder-like body that supports the small head of an elderly woman, her brow crinkled in concentration. Even if we’re unaware of the historical context and Michelangelo’s thought process, we can respond to this painting with an unusual interest, in part because Michelangelo took the liberties to create a figure who seems both mortal and superhuman, feminine and masculine.

Since Michelangelo’s art and that of certain other European artists didn’t fit very neatly into the larger stylistic trends of the 16th century, and because it exhibited “unnatural,” distorted qualities, art historians have tended to label it as Mannerist. In truth, and as historian John Summerson wrote, mannerism is more of a mood than a shortly lived style; a layer added onto an expression that warps its vocabulary into more ambiguous and irrational shapes. It’s a sensibility that arguably precedes, and continued after, Michelangelo’s and his contemporaries’ time, and one that allows us to call Michael Graves’ Portland Building (among other things) a mannerist work, despite the fact that it was built in the 1980s. If we look at the front of the building, we can see how Graves bizarrely manipulated traditional elements. The keystone that usually hangs over an entrance has been amplified and flattened into a reddish trapezoid that has black bands running through it. Similarly, the columns that might bracket an entrance’s sides are instead vertical bands grouped in front of a gigantic domestic window, with their capitals, or tops, reduced to triangular projections which don’t support anything.

It’s this warped mood which defines the tone of Bloodborne‘s world, and its central environment, the city of Yharnam. Like director Hidetaka Miyazaki and company’s previous titles, Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, Bloodborne involves the player in a sublime romance with pre-industrial European architecture. As broadly as mannerism can be described, then, it makes the most sense to place Bloodborne within this particular European lineage.

To get a grasp on what this means, we need to return to Michelangelo, who was as imaginative an architect as he was anything else, and there’s no better example of mannerist elements at play in his work than the Laurentian Library’s vestibule. At first glance, it may seem like an attractive but unremarkable room: essentially a cube with sparsely decorated walls and a staircase. A closer look reveals a number of oddities. Subsidiary staircases have been added to the main one, even though this offers no practical benefits. Consoles—the sloping forms beneath the coupled columns—typically serve a supportive role and are set high up. Here, they’ve been pushed to the bottom level and into the corners, and hold up nothing. There are also the aedicules—the framed recesses with the curved and triangular hoods—that neither house sculptures or admit views beyond them. Michelangelo molded the “rational” language of classicism, largely founded upon the rediscovery of Vitruvius’ treatise, De Architectura, to create an “irrational” space.

Bloodborne involves the player in a sublime romance with pre-industrial European architecture.

Just a year before construction of the Laurentian Library started, the construction of painter and architect Giulio Romano’s suburban palace, the Palazzo Te, was begun. It’s specifically in the building’s inner courtyard where we find something more romantic, obviously strange, and overextended. A keystone over the main archway has been blown up, and reaches over the pediment like a tongue. Emboldened stonework of varying size and texture inconsistently lines the walls, with some spots left barren. And certain triglyphs—those tablets near the roof with trios of grooves—are sunken, as if they’re about to fall out of place. Romano was tapping into a desire that expressed itself most enthusiastically during the Gothic revival of the 1700s (a period to which Bloodborne is no stranger), when all sorts of artists lusted after an irregular and fanciful past, to the extent that artificial ruins were erected.

Roughly two-hundred years after the Library and Palazzo, Giovanni Piranesi was producing architectural imagery that moved between archeology, civic proposals, and pure indulgences of the imagination, all united under a Roman roof. The most significant of these images, for the extent of their popularity, are the “Carceri d’invenzione”: vast, rusticated networks, entangled in a perpetual sense of transitoriness. Wild as these visions are, they are predated and partly influenced by the theatrical designs of the Galli di Bibiena family, wherein enormous baroque structures intersect at odd angles and recede with the extensiveness of landscapes.

Unlike those backdrops or even Michelangelo’s work, though, Piranesi’s prisons—crudely masoned, fragmented, providing no comforts, and spotted by minor, shaded figures—dig at a deeper notion. They confront us with a worldview that disassembles the European Renaissance’s anthropocentrism, exemplified in Perugino’s painting, “Delivery of the Keys, whose symmetries and centralized perspective assure us of a fundamental, logical order in which humans play a part. Conversely, to look at these prisons and their inhabitants is to sense that this world’s forces are guided by the architecture and its mechanisms, rather than by the people who’ve been reduced to objects themselves.

All of Miyazaki’s Souls games are, to varying extents, thematically involved with humanity being overtaken by forces larger than itself. A scourge of demons ravages the kingdoms of Demon’s Souls subsequent to the appearance of a mysterious fog; meanwhile, Dark Souls’ humans are outcasts from the start, collectively a figure trying to light a match in a howling storm, and doomed to a sort of heat death. And in Bloodborne, patriarchal institutions have dragged the rest of the populace along with them in divergent, and ultimately destructive, bids for enlightenment. Each game also sets its existential decay in high relief against grand spaces, juxtaposing mortality and fallibility with the immortalizing and hagiographic effects of monumental architecture. Demon’s Souls has its medieval fort, the Boletarian Palace. Dark Souls has Anor Londo, a variant of Mount Olympus. Bloodborne has the city of Yharnam, a spiny bed of superimposed structures.

What makes Yharnam so different is that it is not separated into its own “world” as the Boletarian Palace is, nor is it elevated and isolated like Anor Londo. Instead, it serves as the narrative locus, both where the player begins her journey and where she most acutely bears witness to the ongoing collapse of a civilization. The scant few civilians who are not out for your blood hide behind locked doors and curtained windows, speaking out with mockery, fear, and anger. Torch- and plague-bearing men wander the streets in groups and vocally condemn the player for their collective misfortune. On the city’s rural outskirts, women mourn at toothy clusters of tombstones and twirl about by their lonesome. These scenes mark a willingness by From Software to get closer to the effects of a catastrophe than they have before.

Having a sharper lens on the common people is only half of the picture, though. There was a manageably sized fanciful principle at play when Michelangelo chose to relocate those consoles. But in Yharnam—the environmental protagonist in Miyazaki’s evolving theme of humanity’s collapse despite (or due to) its ambitions—that principle has exploded into a dense, fractured mountain of anomalies. It’s here that Bloodborne’s mannerist essence can be found. Crocket-coated gothic spires, normally reserved for a church’s pinnacles, punctuate the railing on a great bridge. A clocktower lurches further out the higher up it goes, as if its foundation has been inverted. Below a fenced off area, an ornate gable rises from the ground.

But more profoundly, it’s an essence found in the degree to which the architecture as a collective entity clamors for space, so eager to become something absolute and grand that it threatens to collapse into nonsense—much like Piranesi’s carceri, or even his first series of etchings, the Prima parte di architettura e di prospettiva. As spires are piled onto innumerable balustrades, arches, and buttresses, Yharnam reaches a plane of feverish obsession that echoes the cosmic communion this civilization pursued to its ruin. Order has been sacrificed for contact with the sublime and a chance to explore the mind’s uncharted labyrinths. Perhaps nowhere is this felt more distinctly than in the latter portion of Yahar’gul, an enclosed area of Yharnam, where interior and exterior walls are laden with emaciated statues — or rather, as the player may come to suspect, petrified civilians — whose mouths gape in silent screams and arms stretch towards some absent salvation. It is as if, along the way, the city came alive to absorb its people, both preserving them and negating their existence.

The sublime is an elusive concept 

The impulse here might be to see Bloodborne along the lines of a moralistic warning against hubris, lest we suffer the consequences, à la the Tower of Babel narrative taken on its least interesting terms. More than a didactic project or a tooth-baring of the Souls games’ mechanics, though, Bloodborne is a honed iteration of Miyazaki’s fascination with systems of mystery and a modern revival of a myth: that of architecture as a parallel to the natural world, through which sublimity can be found. What is sublimity, though? Edmund Burke described it as “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling”; and, in the Critique of Judgment, Immanuel Kant speaks (hypothetically) of entering St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and feeling “the inadequacy of [one’s] imagination for presenting the ideas of a whole, wherein the imagination reaches its maximum.” Perhaps sublimity is what Vladimir Nabokov spoke of when, in an interview, he mentioned “the marvel of consciousness.”

The sublime is an elusive concept. It’s a formlessness expressed through forms—the starry heavens above, the ocean’s crested greyscape, or a mosque’s kaleidoscopic interior—that suggests the infinite. When Bloodborne touches upon human limitations, it does so not to wag a finger, but to contextualize existence within the immense question mark that is the universe. One bit of text in the game speaks of beasts—people altered by medical experiments—seeming to be caught up in a rapture when burned alive by unaltered humans; another refers to the euphoric invigoration Hunters (one of whom you guide) feel when showered in the blood of their prey. These sorts of anecdotes, oddly and inescapably, mirror the experience of traversing Yharnam: immersed in a mannerist flood, both enraptured by its obliterating massiveness and overfed on its excesses. As the city reaches up to the sky and also appears ready to collapse under the weight of its breathless permutations, it recalls the apocalyptic words of the artist Jean Fautrier: “something which can only destroy itself” must do so “in order to reinvent itself.”

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Image of Laurentian Library acquired via Celsus: A Library Architecture Resource. Image of “The Smoking Fire” by Giovanni Battista Piranesi used fairly as public domain. Image of “Parte di ampio magnifico Porto” by Giovanni Battista Piranesi used fairly as public domain.