The Uses and Abuses of Art History

Princes and Artists: Patronage and Ideology of Four Habsburg Courts 1517-1633

by Hugh Trevor-Roper
Harper & Row, 176 pp., $20.00

The Struggle for Stability in Early Modern Europe

by Theodore K. Rabb
Oxford University Press, 186 pp., $3.00 (paper)

The Baroque Age in England

by Judith Hook
Transatlantic Arts, Inc, 207 pp., $19.50

History which ignores art or literature is jejune history, just as a society without art or literature is a jejune society, and, conversely, art and literature which are studied in detachment from history are only half understood.” This ringing declaration of faith (to which I subscribe in full) is to be found in the preface to Professor Trevor-Roper’s new book, Princes and Artists. And, in principle, most art historians will surely welcome the arrival in their midst of a scholar who may be, in his own words, “a plain historian,” but who is also a superlative writer capable of ranging across cultures as well as continents and centuries in the most informative and exhilarating manner.

In principle, yes: in practice, however, they may be somewhat disconcerted by these republished lectures, which are concerned with the art patronage of four Habsburg courts between 1517 and 1633, including those of Emperor Charles V, his son Philip II of Spain, the Emperor Rudolf II, and the “archdukes”—Albert and Isabella—who ruled in the southern Netherlands. Because the issues involved are serious ones, it is worth examining them in some detail; and, at the risk of boring readers, I find it necessary to my argument to begin by pointing out some of the surprisingly large number of mistakes (sometimes trivial and sometimes highly significant) rather than to follow the conventional practice of keeping these to the end and making a brief note about the desirability of correcting them in some future edition.

Titian (the finest painter who worked for Charles V and Philip II) had two sons and not one—this would not matter much were it not for the fact that Titian’s attempts to cope with the dissolute behavior of Pomponio (whom Trevor-Roper has eliminated) tell us much about his own character and circumstances. Titian’s close circle of intimates (the so-called “triumvirate”) consisted of himself, Aretino, and the sculptor and architect Jacopo Sansovino—not Pietro Bembo, and this really does matter. Charles V could not gaze both at Titian’s Gloria and his Last Judgment in his apartments at Yuste as these are merely two different names given to the same picture. El Greco was not employed to clothe the naked figures in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. Caravaggio did not scandalize the Church and infuriate the established art critics—there were no established art critics in early seventeenth-century Rome, and although it is true that a very few of his altarpieces were rejected he was, until the end of his life, ceaselessly being pressed to paint for churches in various parts of Italy. The Jesuits did not “impose their new Italian architecture” on Flanders….

At this stage a critic may wish to return to the preface once more and reread those few words where Trevor-Roper seems to hesitate for a moment before venturing into the realm of art history, “that fascinating but perilous labyrinth of bristling poleaxes and flickering stilettos.” Surely the critic also should hesitate before, with what may appear to be pedantic and unwieldy gracelessness, he fumbles not with a stiletto but with a very blunt instrument. The book, after all, is enjoyable to read; it contains many worthwhile insights; and—one acknowledges with a sinking feeling—no art historian now writing would have the virtuosity to survey the field with such imagination. But, in fact, no responses could be more damaging to the interests that Trevor-Roper himself has at heart than bland and (by implication) patronizing approval or a shocked retreat behind “No Trespassing” notices. So the critic should emerge and try to see what has gone wrong.

Imagine a book, devoted perhaps to the fate of the English gentry in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which sets out to make use of evidence drawn from literature to substantiate its case. During the course of it there is a passing reference to Shakespeare bequeathing his “third best” bed to his wife—a misprint, of course; but what about the lines a few pages later devoted to the famous literary partnership between “Beaumont and Webster” which led to that remarkable comedy A New Way to Pay Old Debts? There would be a strong temptation to follow the example of Paolo and Francesca and give up reading for some other activity.

The point I am making is not just the obvious one—about which no disagreement is possible—that accuracy is desirable in itself (though of course it is never wholly attainable). It is not even that inaccuracy somehow seems to the homme moyen cultivé to be less offensive when applied to the visual arts than to literature. It is rather that a nonjejune history which (rightly) seeks to embrace a consideration of those arts must—if it is to win acceptance—treat what is known about them, and what can be deduced from them, with a very high degree of respect if they are to yield evidence of any value. I would therefore argue that it is not dryly pedantic to point accusingly at the errors in this book, because in fact they are symptomatic of a misguided approach to the whole theme under discussion.

What is that theme? We return to the preface again: “The artists whom these [Habsburg] rulers patronised reflect these changing attitudes [to religion and the great ideological crisis of the period]; and a consideration of those artists, and that patronage, in their historical context, may, I hope, illustrate a crisis of society and a chapter in the history of ideas.”

To see the process in action we can turn to the chapter on Philip II of Spain. The portrait of the King is memorable and (to me) very persuasive: it is most artfully built up so that we gradually come to know this “anaemic” and “secretive” ruler who is so unlike his enlightened father whom he venerates, and who is so ragingly egotistic, so obsessed with work and detail. “To stand firm in defence of ancient values, ancient austerity, Roman simplicity, that was the philosophy of Philip II. It was a philosophy which he applied in art, and in architecture….” Duly warned what to expect, we flick through the plates of this well-illustrated volume, and find ourselves looking at Titian’s Venus with the Organ Player: a young man turns away from the organ on which his hands still rest and gazes, with grave and dignified satisfaction, at the sexual parts of a naked Venus who reclines on a couch behind him. “The organ player,” Professor Trevor-Roper tells us, “has the features of Philip II.”

Were this true it would be distinctly odd for such a defender of “ancient austerity” (it would, in fact, be distinctly odd for any prince, let alone a Spanish prince, at any time, let alone in the sixteenth century) to have himself—or allow himself to be—painted in such a compromising situation. It is, of course, not true, for the picture reproduced in this book shows a young man who bears no resemblance whatsoever to Philip: on the other hand, there does exist, in Berlin, a similar composition in which many art historians have repeatedly claimed, and still claim, that the organist portrays the young prince. For what it is worth, I find this identification quite implausible—but in any case it is surely astonishing that Professor Trevor-Roper should refrain from any comment on the implications of a picture which appear to be so much at variance with the philosophy of the personality he has outlined for us.

Trevor-Roper does, of course, refer to the poesie, the paintings of scenes derived from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which, in the eyes of posterity, constitute the most beautiful outcome of the King’s patronage of Titian; but the very nature of his argument compels him to play down their significance to an extent that is seriously misleading in any account, however brief, of that patronage. And it is at this stage that the reader is forced to wonder whether the whole subject has not been approached in the wrong way.

Let us suppose that instead of starting from the assumption that Philip must have applied the philosophy that has been detected elsewhere in his personality and activities to his patronage and collecting of art, Trevor-Roper had first looked at and thought more carefully about the art involved—the magnificent Titians, for example; and had then—as it were—tried to work backward. Various questions might have suggested themselves, and he refers to one of them in his preface—“there are periods when art is, or seems to be, detached from the ruling ideas of the time”—only to dismiss it immediately as far as this period is concerned. He is probably right to do so though it is not altogether easy to trace any “intimate connection” between Titian’s Rape of Europa (in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston) and the ideas of Philip II and his court, as here presented. Could it then be that Philip’s love of art and his philosophy were indeed intimately connected, but were antithetical? Professor Trevor-Roper raises just this point most tantalizingly when he speculates about the King’s great admiration for the bizarre pictures of Hieronymus Bosch. He wonders whether Philip’s “love of order and formality spring really from an inward turbulence which that order was needed to repress, but which these consecrated fantasies served to purge,” but he comments only that “I shall not try to answer this question.”

Could it not in fact be that such questions complicate a relatively straightforward issue, and that—as far as contemporary art was concerned—Philip was disposed to admire what was best in Italy? In that case we would have to look again at Trevor-Repor’s whole astonishing treatment of the Escorial, which forms the core of this chapter. Trevor-Roper rightly stresses the extreme personal interest taken by the King in this building, and the extreme importance it had for him, but he interprets it in a manner which is sensationalist, to say the least.

Charles V, we are told, had, with his Flemish background, loved “the composite ‘plateresque’ style, with its mingling of gothic and classical, of Flemish decoration and Italian form.” He may have done so, but it is curious in that case that the magnificent palace that was designed for him in Granada should have been so very Italian in style. To Philip, on the other hand, “the plateresque…savoured too much of frivolous Flemish liberty; and with one firm order he extinguished it throughout his dominions.”

Now it is perfectly true that historians are agreed that the building of the Escorial marks a relatively new and austere phase in the development of Spanish architecture, but is there the remotest hint anywhere to suggest that there is an ideological basis for the encouragement of this? Is it not far more likely that Philip, like so many other rulers and connoisseurs, was keen to keep abreast of a purified Italian manner? Why should the “geometrical severity of the Escorial” have been “the architectural corollary of the fierce autos de fe of Seville and Valladolid?”

Is there some general equation between geometrical severity and the treatment of heresy? And who on earth constituted the “frivolous subjective school of ‘mannerists”’ who, in the 1560s, were attacking Roman gravity, Roman decorum?

I have raised these issues because they exemplify to me an attitude to cultural history which is fundamentally misconceived, though very widely practiced (no doubt also by myself). The historian seeks to find in the visual arts an exact, almost simplistic, equivalent to the ideas he has formed (whether rightly or wrongly) about the nature of the patron or the “spirit of the age.” The arts themselves are not weighed in the balance in determining that idea, but merely express or illustrate it, and where the artistic evidence is inconvenient it has to be played down.

The same attitude can be found in The Struggle for Stability in Early Modern Europe, a remarkably interesting recent book by Professor Theodore Rabb, which covers some of the same period surveyed by Trevor-Roper. I am wholly unable to judge the merits of his thesis that “Europe entered a new era very roughly during the middle third of the [seventeenth] century;…between, say, the early 1630s and the early 1670s…there was a change in direction more dramatic and decisive than any that occurred in a forty-year period between the beginnings of the Reformation and the French Revolution.” I am concerned only with the evidence from the visual arts on which Rabb frequently draws to support his case, and the way in which he makes use of that evidence.

In the very opening pages we are asked to contrast two ages: that of the taste of Rubens and that of the taste of Claude (among many other names chosen from the sciences, literature, and politics) as “a quick impressionistic index both of the new sensibility and of the new social and political relationships.” Claude turns up again later as demonstrating “the first indication of the changed aesthetic”—that is to say, the metamorphosis by the end of the century “of the great themes, the swirling drama, that energized the work of Rubens and his contemporaries…into the sweet, genteel, and ornate world of aristocratic Courts; bright colours had given way to pastels.”

The comparison seems to me to be bewildering—not because anyone would deny that Rubens and Claude are very different kinds of artists, but (on the contrary) because Rabb seriously proposes to postulate, even impressionistically, so wide a spiritual and cultural change through contrasting two painters whose aims, interests, and achievements were so radically dissimilar. Supposing that instead of Claude, Professor Rabb had asked us to consider the far more relevant case of Le Brun. Could he claim that his decorations at Versailles are “sweet and genteel”? Rabb refers to Le Brun only to single out the “splendid dignity” of his portraiture: there is not even a hint that his allegorical representations of Louis XIV are at least as megalomaniac—if not more so—than anything that Rubens had conceived for European sovereigns in the earlier part of the century. We are also told that “Le Brun was still at work in the 1690s, a few years before Watteau emerged as the leading figure at Versailles.” Le Brun died on February 12, 1690—but this hardly matters. What is crucial is that Watteau did not emerge as the leading figure at Versailles (he probably never went there), but at Paris. He was never patronized by the court or even the aristocracy, but by a circle of rich bankers, picture dealers, and civil servants.

It is, of course, perfectly true that the quality of painting declined markedly toward the end of the seventeenth century: there was no one to compare with Rubens and Rembrandt, Poussin and Velazquez; but I find it impossible to believe that the decades which saw the astonishing Baroque vaults of the Gesù and S. Ignazio in Rome, the unparalleled magnificence of Versailles, and Rigaud’s state portrait of Louis XIV showed all that much diminution of “power and exuberance” compared to what had gone before. Indeed, if we turn to architecture (which Rabb barely discusses), the situation is surely reversed. In England one has only to compare Inigo Jones’s small and elegant Queen’s House at Greenwich with the flanking wings of Wren’s royal hospital which so majestically dominate it or to turn to the country mansions of Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh;* in France, there is Versailles; in Vienna, the splendid palaces of Lukas von Hildebrandt and Fischer von Erlach.

Professor Rabb believes that the “resolution of the crisis” in seventeenth-century Europe came about—at least in part—because of a revulsion from the horrors and excesses of the Thirty Years War, and that “the best evidence, once again, comes from art,” though he is extremely tentative in his conclusions. I am not persuaded by the evidence he adduces. There is, for instance, the case of Rubens, whose well-documented passion for peace is emphasized also by Trevor-Roper. We need not doubt that this passion grew ever stronger as the terrible wars continued, but in pointing to the changing subject matter of Rubens’s paintings, Professor Rabb does not mention that the triumphantly militaristic picture of Ferdinand of Austria at the battle of Nordlingen was painted in 1636, seven years after the Peace and War which the artist presented to Charles I and on which Professor Rabb lays so much stress.

Indeed, where (as in the case of Rubens) Trevor-Roper and Rabb cover the same ground, I find Trevor-Roper very much more convincing. He demonstrates very sensitively that the peace that Rubens so longed for was a peace very closely linked to the interests of the Habsburgs. Above all the whole theory behind Trevor-Roper’s book—and it is nowhere better exemplified than in his pages on Rubens—is surely unassailable. Not only do artists not work in a vacuum, but they work for specific patrons in specific circumstances (though, as he points out, Rubens—like other great artists—used his patrons as much as they used him). It is partly for this reason that I find Rabb’s comparison of Rubens and Claude so unhelpful when it is called upon to indicate a profound change in the spiritual climate of two succeeding ages (for analogous reasons I wonder whether a historian of science would be any more convinced by the lessons that are drawn by Professor Rabb between the reception of Galileo and the reception of Newton).

I am equally baffled by most of Professor Rabb’s other artistic evidence in support of his theory of a general revulsion from war. If, as he claims, late pictures by Rubens of The Rape of the Sabines reflect “anti-war sentiments” and also provide “a classic instance of settlement and resolution,” why should he find it “not irrelevant that the subject of the Sabine Women is attached particularly to this period of the history of painting”—i.e., from 1580 to 1630—and should then disappear from favor at the very moment when antiwar sentiments might be expected to be moving to a peak. However, this whole section should probably be jettisoned, for the standard iconographical guide to the period gives no real backing to Professor Rabb’s theory, and as for Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabines of the 1580s (which he specifically refers to) we know that the sculptor “fashioned the group for no other reason than to demonstrate the excellence of his skill and without proposing to himself any particular subject matter.” Various mythological titles were suggested to him before a friend finally proposed that “the Rape of the Sabines would fit better and that story being judged suitable lent indeed a name to that work”—this hardly suggests that Giambologna expressed any feelings he may have had about war and peace in his sculpture.

In the bad old days historians used to tag a hurried chapter devoted to “Art, Literature and Science” on to the end of their long and thoughtful discussions of such serious issues as War, Politics, and Economics. I cannot emphasize too much how infinitely more desirable I find the motives—even the general approaches in the widest sense—of the two very distinguished historians whose books I have noted here, and how very much I hope that my very strong reservations about their methodologies will not be taken to imply that a reconsideration of the relations between “plain history” and art history is not vital in the interests of both. For I agree with Trevor-Roper that “the great art-historians, or at least those who have meant most to me—Jacob Burckhardt, Carl Justi, Emile Mâle—have been historians in the widest sense: historians not of art only, but of men and ideas.”

  1. *

    The background to these buildings is very seriously and illuminatingly studied in a third art historical book written by a “plain historian”—The Baroque Age in England by Judith Hook. This provides a well-informed account of the social and political setting within which English architects of the late seventeenth century produced a restricted number of masterpieces. The unpretentious and balanced approach is so rewarding that although I have some reservations about conclusions (and, occasionally, accuracy) I warmly recommend it to anyone concerned not merely with the intrinsic interest of the subject but also with some of the wider issues raised in this article.