Critics did not love 2004 film The Libertine, starring Johnny Depp as dissolute 17th century poet and court favorite John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester. The Guardian faulted its grim tone and historical inaccuracies and called it “grimy and pretentious.” I disagree with this take, but a fondness for Rochester (and for the period in general) biases me in the movie’s favor. Additionally, as some admiring critics pointed out, dour scripting aside, the film’s depiction of 17th century London is indeed most convincing. You can almost feel the muck that clings to everything, and smell the rank stench of body odor barely covered by perfume. Writer Katherine Ashenburg has called the 17th century “probably the dirtiest century in Western history” (London didn’t clean up for another couple hundred years), and The Libertine takes pains to bring the period’s filth to vivid, stinking life.
Which brings us to another authentic recreation of 17th century London, one we’ve featured here before and that you can see again at the top of the post. Designed by six plucky students from De Monfort University, the three-minute CGI tour through the city’s sooty Tudor streets before The Great Fire of 1666 resembles a video game; but it also gives us a persuasive sense of the city’s scale, layout, and, yes, it’s griminess. In our previous post, we quoted Londonist, who noted, “Although most of the buildings are conjectural, the students used a realistic street pattern [taken from historical maps] and even included the hanging signs of genuine inns and businesses.” Though its unsanitary streets are empty, one can easily imagine walking them in this prize-winning animation. Less inviting, however, are those 17-century London streets at night in another, eight-minute animation below, created by another De Montfort team called Triumphant Goat.
Braziers and lanterns glower in dank alleyways, a foreboding haze hangs in the night air, hand-drawn wanted posters adorn the walls, and pools of muddy water collect among rough cobblestones. Here, I can imagine Johnny Depp’s Rochester picking his way along a dusky side street, headed for some clandestine assignation with a stableboy or scullery maid. You can read about the making of this nighttime scene here, where team member James Teeple discusses the research methods and technical objectives of the project, in terms that make it sound as though this is one level of a video game, although it isn’t clear what the game is about. “We really pushed the idea of this being a Historical recreation,” writes Teeple, “so that meant too much creative license was a bad thing in our eyes.”
Finally, in the video below, we see a brightly-lit tour of St. Paul’s Cathedral, beautifully rendered, if overall a less polished presentation than the two tours above. This animation was presumably created by De Montfort design students as well, though there’s little information on its Vimeo page. Though the city was significantly redesigned after the 1666 fire, in these first two animations especially, we get a sense of the city Samuel Johnson described seventy years after that great conflagration as a place where “malice, rapine, accident, conspire, / And now a rabble rages, now a fire.”
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
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