Ship of Fools: Brazil’s Government in Meltdown


2015-12-19 By Kenneth Maxwell

The current situation in Brazil reminds me of the allegory of the Ship of Fools painted at the beginning of the XVI century by Heronymus Bosch and based on the satirical poem by Sebastian Brandt: A vessel seized by its deranged and oblivious passengers and bound inexorablyf or the paradise of fools.

With President Dilma Rousseff, vice-president Michel Temer, and congressional president Eduardo Cunha, all locked in a bitter battle, each with their own political survival and historical reputation at stake, each seeking to avoid (or to promote) the impeachment of the Brazilian president.

But all are doomed to lose much more than they can ever gain from the whole sorry imbroglio.

And in this Brazilian “Ship of Fools” they are surrounded by an incredible Bosch like assortment of fallen angels, demons, damned souls, and drunken priests, and a gallery of greedy, short-sighted, manipulative, and corrupt politicians and businessmen.

President Rousseff whispers to former Presdient Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Lula).
President Rousseff whispers to former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso

Next February, in commemoration of Bosch’s death in 1516, the Noordbarbantz museum in ‘s Hertogenbosch, in the Netherlands, will bring together 20 of the 25 surviving Bosch panels.

The exhibition will not have “the garden of earthly delights” from the Prado Museum.

Which is a great pity.

I would visit the Prado whenever I could while I was a student in Madrid in late 1963.

I stared with rapt fascination at the endlessly strange, marvellous, and phantasmagoric creatures who populated Bosch vision of heaven and the netherworld.

The Musée du Louvre in Paris holds the original oil on wood fragment of the triptych of “The Ship of Fools”.

Little did I realize at the time just how relevant Bosch’s depictions would be to the political battles in Brasilia in late 2015.

The Plano Piloto, elaborated by Lúcio Costa in 1957,  was intended to create a  new capital of Brazil which would be symbol of a country of progress, that would take off into the clear blue skies of the future.

It was not envisioned at all to become a Ship of Fools with no direction, navigating in a river of mud, and with its political institutions rarely so discredited.

From the patriarch of Brazilian Independence from Portugal in the 1820s, José Bonifácio’s, vision of a capital in the center of the country, unifying north and south, east and west, to the current Brasília, the great project of national unification has become a cockpit of dispute of parties whose leaders once struggled together for a better, more just, more equal, and more democratic Brazil.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC) and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Lula), both of them once friends and colleagues in the democratic struggle, each of them two term democratically elected presidents, each in their different ways, men who did much to make Brazil a better place, have long since become bitter and competitive enemies.

They stand now on each side of the divide over the efforts to impeach the Brazilian president.

And while this sorry spectacle unfolds Brazil is gripped by political gridlock, and the country falls everyday inexorably into a greater economic depression, and within an international economic environment, with collapsing oil prices and an economic slow down in China, ever more unfavorable to Brazil.

Michel Foucault, in his “Madness and Civilization”, used the allegory of the Ship of Fools, to demonstrate how the thought of the late XV and early XVI centuries symbolized the prominence of the madness as the “vertiginous foolishness of the world and the mediocre ridiculousness of men”.

The imaginative landscape of the Renascence, with its protagonism of the mad men, unfortunately looks frighteningly like the current political battles in Brazil’s capital.

In the center of Bosch’s Ship of Fool, there’s a big piece of bread, disputed by hungry men and women with  mouths wide open.

The question today is who is going to bite the biggest piece of bread in Brasília?

Editor’s Note: As Dr. Maxwell notes the original painting of the Ship of Fools is to be found in the Louvre.

The museum describes the painting as follows:

A mysterious painting

Born into a family of painters at ‘s Hertogenbosch, Jheronymous Bosch must have learned his trade in the family studio.

Little is known about him, and our knowledge of his development is based on the study of his paintings.

He initiated a satirical and fantastical genre of painting peopled with monsters and imaginary figures, and steeped in nordic proverbs that would later inspire painters such as Bruegel the Elder.

The painting in the Louvre, the only work in France clearly signed by the painter, is a magnificent example of his work.

An unusual journey

A group of ten people are gathered in a boat. The main group is comprised of a Franciscan friar and a nun playing a lute.

They are seated facing each other.

Their mouths are wide open as if singing, but they appear in fact to be biting, like their companions, a pancake hanging from the mast of the little boat.

This is an allusion to a folk custom, which consists of eating a hanging pancake without using one’s hands.

Behind them are seated the two boatmen.


One of them has a giant ladle instead of an oar.

The other balances a glass on his head while brandishing a broken jug on his oar.

On one side, a woman readies herself to strike a young man with a jug. He is holding a flagon that he trails in the water.

On the other end, sitting on a makeshift rudder, a little man in the dress of a fool drinks from a cup.

Next to him, another leans over to vomit.

The whole scene is dominated by a mast topped with a bouquet of flowers in the middle of which can be seen an owl or a skull. Above floats the royal flag of France with the muslim crescent moon.

A roasted goose is strapped to the mast. The joyful group appear adrift; a vast landscape in the background stretches toward infinity.

Souls adrift

It has been suggested that this unusual scene is an interpretation of The Ship of Fools, an allegory by the humanist Sebastian Brant, published in Basel in 1494.

This work was illustrated by woodcuts showing ships loaded with fools drifting toward the “fool’s paradise,” called Narragonia.

The sequel, The Ship of the Mad Women, by Josse Bade, has also been proposed as a source of inspiration.

Nonetheless, in the illustrations to these books, the fools are clearly recognizable from their costumes and bonnets, with the ears of asses.

In Bosch’s painting there is only one such figure, and he appears as if to clarify the meaning of the painting.

It is probable that a work which depicts people drinking and delirious, obsessed with food and drink, is a satire on monks and an ironic criticism of the drunkenness that deprives them of their reason and their souls.

The monks are here represented by the religious figures in the foreground.

Anger, a consequence of a predilection for drink, would explain the woman’s gesture as she strikes the young man with her jug.

The dissolute clergy thus allow the boat of the Church to drift, neglectful of the soul’s health and well being.

This aspect, representative of criticisms promulgated during the Reformation, appears to be embodied by the man in the water who hangs onto the boat while everyone remains oblivious.