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Great Walls

When Leonello invested in tapestries, by contrast, he covered his walls with images from the world of later medieval romance. Even his beloved tapestries of Hercules founding the Olympic Games and Amazons jousting, the ones that della Strada and his masters liked so much, were populated not with muscular classical figures in historically correct armor but with contemporary figures. The Amazons appeared as stately court ladies, whose magnificent, polygonal hats and splendidly brocaded dresses clashed violently with the helmets and spears that one or two of them languidly held. Other patrons of cutting-edge humanist culture, such as Federigo da Montefeltro and Ludovico Gonzaga, showed a similar readiness to decorate their walls with an imagined past very different from the one to be found in their libraries.

These were the connoisseurs who set avant-garde closets at the center of their newly built worlds: studioli lined with intarsia panels, each one of which dem- onstrated more crisply than the last how the new rules of perspective and foreshortening applied to globes, books, and musical instruments. But they swathed their corridors and great halls with tap- estries whose surfaces were crammed with figures of equal size rather than laid out in a space defined by a vanishing point, and whose makers showed no interest in creating human bodies that seemed to be three-dimensional or in dressing historical or mythical characters in the appropriate clothing and armor. In the private chamber, space was neat, orderly, constructed, classical; outside it, horror vacui and the Gothic held illimitable dominion over all.

One contemporary text—a controversial one among historians of tapestry—suggests how the contradictions in these collectors’ protocols began to attract attention. Early in the 1460s the Milanese scholar Angelo Decembrio completed a set of dialogues, entitled De politia literaria, in which the Este prince Leonello, his teacher Guarino of Verona, and other scholars and courtiers, mostly from Ferrara, discussed a wide range of literary and historical questions. In the course of a dialogue on art, which Michael Baxandall edited and translated in 1963, Decembrio had Leonello d’Este condemn Flemish tapestries. Their makers, the erudite prince disdainfully pointed out, “are far more concerned with the opulence of color and the frivolous charm of the tapestry than they are with the principles of painting.” Instead of following the true stories of the ancients, moreover, they depicted “popular absurdities,” like the story of “the discovery, centuries after, of Trajan’s head with its tongue still pink and living, because it had always told the truth.”1

Yet the historical Leonello, as we have seen, loved and eagerly shopped for exactly the sort of tapestries that Decembrio’s character rejected. It seems clear, as Thomas Campbell’s learned catalog points out, that Decembrio misrepresented what the Este and those like them felt. Just as Italian collectors loved Flemish oil painting—and just as they admired and emulated the chivalric bearing and superb horsemanship of the Burgundian rulers of Flanders—so they saw traditional tapestries as attractive, despite, or even because of, their traditional forms and nonclassical content. Otherwise it would be hard to explain why they invested so heavily in tapestries—more heavily, indeed, than they did in any other form of visual art.

Over time, however, Italian collectors and artists clearly did begin to pick flaws in Flemish tapestry, and they did so just as Decembrio had predicted. They objected not to the techniques its makers used but to the visual conventions they adopted and the subject matter they preferred to represent. Well before the end of the century, Italian artists began to receive commissions to produce sketches and cartoons—the full-sized working drawings that tapestry weavers followed as they worked. In the same years, Flemish tapestry makers began to settle and practice their craft in Italy.

In the years around 1500, the role of tapestry underwent a metamorphosis. A luxurious commodity, long beloved of north European aristocrats and more recently appropriated by nouveau riche Italian consumers, tap-estry turned into a cultural transmission system. The ateliers of Brussels—which came to dominate production in this period—turned into a kind of artistic Clapham Junction, through which Italian ways of seeing and representing the world, imagining the past, and preserving great events against oblivion switched tracks and came into the hands of northern artisans and artists, and ended by transforming their practices as well. And yet, tapestry was more than a sys-tem, a semiconductor that transmitted new aesthetic and historical charges across remarkable distances and at astounding speed. It was also an artistic medium, one practiced with passion and transforming energy by Raphael, Giulio Romano, and many others.


The collection of Renaissance tapestries that confronts visitors in the Metropolitan Museum’s Tisch Galleries takes so many forms, and reveals so many individual talents working with iconographic traditions and technical media, that any summary must fall short—especially when one bears in mind the epic scale of the original series from which, in most cases, only one, two, or three samples can be shown, if indeed the full series still exists. When looking at the vast visual panegyric to justice that fills one whole wall, every inch of surface filled with an ancient worthy or an architectural detail, one is simply overwhelmed. Too much, one thinks, did not begin to be enough for these artists of wildly productive imagination. One’s eye, overstimulated by colors, textures, faces too many to process, inevitably dims.

Perhaps that is why some of the smaller, plainer tapestries made in the early Italian ateliers seem more striking than their enormous neighbors. In these one can observe the new aesthetics inserting itself into an old medium. A Lamentation, long ascribed to the Ferrarese artist Cosmè Tura, shows the body of Jesus deep in rigor mortis, every muscle and bone standing out. The bleak countryside in the distance and the strongly distinctive, chiseled faces of the mourners give the work a searing emotional power that Leon Battista Alberti described as the chief end of painting—and that the notion of tapestry, as we usually think of it, does not evoke. A faded but fascinating Annunciation, designed by someone in the circle of Mantegna, shows that the weavers could represent many different colors and textures of cloth, from the plainest angelic robe to the most sumptuous brocade—but also marbles of many different kinds, a distant cultivated landscape, and a close-up peacock’s tail. Here tapestries take on the look—and do the job—of the most advanced paintings.

At the heart of the exhibit appear the spectacular Brussels tapestries of the sixteenth century—particularly Raphael’s tapestries for the Sistine Chapel, and the preparatory drawings and cartoons from which their weavers worked. Commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515, these are stunningly complex and dramatic works. The woven trompe-l’oeil borders, simulating porphyry, that frame these compositions and the Mantegnaesque bas-reliefs beneath them are virtuoso feats, as cloth convincingly imitates stone. And the central scenes—above all the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus—combine, as Raphael always could, elegantly balanced compositions with irresistible drama. These tapestries were clearly intended to challenge comparison with the fluency and richness of Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling. Yet they are challenged in their turn by Giulio Romano’s Puttini, with its magnificent, almost organic barque of Venus, a floating bower that celebrated the prosperous rule of the Gonzaga of Mantua, and its putti brilliantly emulating—and sending up—the heroic attitudes of Raphael’s heroes—not to mention his tight, dramatic Massacre of the Innocents, or the massive, almost sculptural elephants, oxen, and camels of his Triumphs of Scipio.

Tapestry had always captured—often in historical or mythological form—some features of contemporary life. It had a special capacity to evoke the grandeur of triumphal processions, if not their carefully staged movements through capital and provincial cities. Many tapestries did just that, permanently recording the sublimely temporary arts of pageant masters and float builders. But the size and the complexity of tapestries also enabled them to portray the chaos and disorder of battles.

In the sixteenth century, artists fused these traditions to make their works the concrete records, vivid and visual, of great contemporary events. Giulio Romano’s Deeds and Triumphs of Scipio created “a new model for the depiction of grand narrative subjects on an epic scale.” Netherlandish artists developed this further, sometimes apparently in dialogue with Giulio. The astounding Bernaert van Orley, whose spectacular tapestries of the life and Passion of Jesus reveal the intensity with which he had mastered every lesson Dürer had to teach about foreshortening, perspective, landscape, and physiognomy, also wove a new kind of military art. His panorama of the Imperial troops taking the French camp at the Battle of Pavia in 1525 omits nothing—from the fear and fury of soldiers about to die in the killing zone that has formed just outside the camp to the striking calm of the female camp-followers leaving the French tents, riding sidesaddle or walking deftly on thick shoes, one of them cuddling a long-haired dog.

Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen’s Sack of Tunis, with its precise rendering of an alien cityscape in the background and dozens of figures standing, strolling, and struggling in the foreground, achieves a similarly complex effect: distance, disorder, and sorrow. Vermeyen visually qualified his vision of a Christian triumph, adorned by a suitably celebratory Latin inscription, by inserting into the left foreground a vivid slice of the horrors of war: a North African woman being forced into a boat, where other captives sit, by a European soldier. Series like these served as the newsreels of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—and captured more than the triumphs of their patrons.

Tapestry had always been fun. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries it bloomed with an Ovidian profusion of flowers, plants, and animals. The new tapestries of the Renaissance also gave ample room for the practice of visual humor. Grotesque faces and figures, animals and demigods—which became a central subject of classicizing art, especially after the discovery, late in the fifteenth century, of Nero’s Golden House in Rome, with its painted decorations—pullulated on borders. Sometimes they took over the central fields of tapestries, like the Grotesque Spalliere designed for the Medici by Francesco Ubertini. Here a tapestry metamorphosizes into a one-dimensional Kunst- und Wunderkammer. Animals, real and imaginary, and every bit as distinctive as the traditional unicorns, continued to play their parts—nowhere more wittily than in Pieter Coecke van Aelst’s tapestry of Perseus and Andromeda. Here a large but snaggle-toothed dragon gapes in infectious horror as the hard-bodied Perseus, a sash streaming behind him, flies downward past him, brandishing his sword. Unconvincingly chained, Andromeda calmly watches, her perfect profile and her soft pink body displayed to the best possible advantage. It would take a heart of stone to see the monster cringe without feeling sympathy. Even Andromeda somehow seems to agree.

But fun could also take new forms, as in one of the stars of this show, Hans Vredeman de Vries’s astonishing throne baldachin from Vienna. This small but spectacular work, the tapestry back and canopy of a throne, has been displayed only once in the last century: its reds sizzle, even now. Vredeman de Vries’s design interweaves with bravura eclecticism the mythological and the grotesque, the dramatic and the simply astonishing. A feat of perspective by a master of geometry, the back tells the story of Persephone, who sits with her husband Pluto in an alcove, framed by a stunning sprawl of gods, plants, and grotesque faces. But the mythological heroine’s Solomonic fate, as she splits her year between her husband in the underworld and her mother above, proves far less dramatic than the baldachin’s canopy. This woven surface bears one of the sixteenth-century’s most elegantly realized architectural fantasies—a trompe-l’oeil dome, consisting of three series of columns, with open sky at its top. Stand under Vredeman de Vries’s tapestry dome, and your spirit flies upward to the open sky he so convincingly duplicated.

The Metropolitan exhibition makes its central points clearly and well. Tapestry, especially in the period between the rise of Brussels and the religious wars that broke out in the 1560s, became a central form of Renaissance art. Like other art forms—notably many frescos and large-scale sculptural programs—it was collaborative. The artist might refine his vision from one sketch to the next, and then again when he blew up his design to make the final cartoon (if indeed he made his own cartoon, which not everyone did). But the men and women who plied the shuttles would ultimately interpret his vision, and only their deft fingers could realize his illusions of space, form, and texture. Like other art forms, tapestry proved less a School of Athens than a forum of continual struggle, where pupils attacked their masters, northern and Italian artists struggled to emend and alter established conventions of form, composition, color, and texture, weavers claimed—and often failed to receive—recognition, and patrons made the practice of art both possible and miserable.

Still, one would like to know what the patrons actually thought and felt when they spent vast sums to deck their walls with colored cloth. Clearly, tapestry did something for them. It helped to create the effect of “magnificence” that emperors and kings sought to project when they received ambassadors, and that popes tried to evoke when they attended mass in the Sistine Chapel—that “illusion of power” which, as Roy Strong showed in a classic book, court architecture and etiquette, masques and meals were all intended to create, as the components of a politically charged Gesamtkunstwerk.2 Frances Yates even argued, in a detailed iconographic study with the compulsive interest of a detective story, that one set of sixteenth-century tapestries was designed to restore peace to a Europe torn by religious war.3

But how much attention did patrons—or visitors—actually accord to tapestry? How far could this one set of signals, however powerful, stand out amid the ambient cultural noise? The engraver Frans Hogenberg knew something about this. In his image of the abdication of the Emperor Charles V—an impression of which, blown up, fills the first wall that a visitor sees—the court dignitaries stand stiffly, flanking the Imperial throne, and looking firmly away from the tapestries behind their backs, toward the audience, as one might expect in this ritual context. Did most people find more in tapestries than visual elevator music in the best taste of the time—more than we find now in the kitschy gauntlet of classicizing porn and tear-jerking melodramas by Puvis de Chavannes, Bouguereau, and Bastien-Lepage that we must run in order to reach this show?

Yet some tapestry designers—like the artist and antiquary Pirro Ligorio, who devised a splendid set of illustrations from the life of Hippolytus for the Tivoli villa of his patron, Ippolito d’Este—hoped for more. Ligorio, as Lina Bolzoni has shown, recalled in the manuscript in which he described his work that “the ancients had the custom of keeping and looking at images as local memory.” As a statue of the young Alexander had recalled his deeds to Caesar, deeply affecting the Roman conqueror, so Ligorio’s tapestries would turn the cardinal’s villa into a theater of memory—a work designed to inspire, as well as to celebrate, its owner.4

Some patrons, at least—like the Gonzaga brothers, Federico II, Ercole, and Ferrante, clearly appreciated the sumptuous materials, up-to-date design, and “copiousness” of the tapestries they commissioned, and sometimes became involved enough with their production to visit the weavers’ ateliers.5

Tapestries could be read in detail or skimmed in passing, minutely examined or glanced at—and probably were. Contemporaries must have seen and reacted to these seductive, splendid works in many different ways. Not the least service of this exhibition is that it leaves the visitor wishing to know even more about both tapestries’ makers and their patrons.

  1. 1

    Michael Baxandall, “A Dialogue on Art from the Court of Leonello d’Este,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtaulds Institutes, Vol. 26 (1963), pp. 316–317 (translation slightly altered).

  2. 2

    Roy Strong, Splendour at Court: Renaissance Spectacle and Illusion (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973).

  3. 3

    Frances Yates, The Valois Tapestries (Warburg Institute, 1959).

  4. 4

    Lina Bolzoni, The Gallery of Memory: Literary and Iconographic Models in the Age of the Printing Press, translated by Jeremy Parzen (University of Toronto Press, 2001), pp. 232–235; for the source that Bolzoni uses (and emends), see David Coffin, The Villa d’Este at Tivoli (Princeton University Press, 1960), p. 155.

  5. 5

    Clifford Brown and Guy Delmarcel, with Anna Maria Lorenzoni, Tapestries for the Courts of Federico II, Ercole, and Ferrante Gonzaga, 1522–63 (University of Washington Press, 1996).

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