Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 563 pp., $75.00; $55.00 (paper)
Three hundred years ago, the good and the great ate their meals, danced their minuets, and carried out their plots surrounded by tapestries. Splendid hangings, woven by skilled artisans working, inch by inch, to designs drawn up by artists such as Raphael, Rubens, and Van Mander, were a passion—even an obsession—for the monarchs of the Baroque. Kings and prelates proved their virtue and displayed their power, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, not only through the armies that enforced their writs and the buildings, statues, and paintings that embodied their taste, but also through the tapestries that hung all around them.
These defined the theatrical spaces in which great men and women performed the rituals of power. When the processions of the Counter-Reformation Church moved up the Borgo Pio in Rome, they passed between building façades hung with Raphael’s vast series depicting the Acts of the Apostles. When French coronations took place at Reims, the cathedral chapter softened the stone interior of their church by hanging tapestries under its great windows. And when princes, ambassadors, and courtiers mingled in the vast, city-like palaces of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they lodged and banqueted in rooms in which tapestries played two roles at once. Complex and absorbing works of art, tapestries delighted owner and onlookers with historical panoramas of courage and justice and entertaining scenes of hunters in the field. Highly practical furnishings, they also hid damp walls, retained the heat of fireplaces, and blocked the gusts of air that found their way through windows. At once a luxury and a necessity, high art and costly craft, tapestries covered, if not the whole world, at least the world of court society.
Thomas P. Campbell—curator of the Metropolitan Museum’s spectacular exhibition “Tapestry in the Baroque: Threads of Splendor,” as of its luminous predecessor in 2002, “Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence”—makes clear, both in this show and in the catalog that accompanies it, just how much tapestry mattered to early modern Europe’s most lavish patrons of the arts. Kings and officials competed to buy designs from the best artists and import the finest artisans and materials to realize them. Charles I of England, an eager collector who famously lavished money on the high arts of painting and sculpture, spent as much on tapestries as he did on paintings. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the British court owned some two thousand tapestries, while rival royal houses, less extravagant but not less greedy, owned several hundred each. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the minister who turned the government of France under Louis XIV into the smoothest, most efficient version of an absolute state that Europe had ever seen, found it natural to spend time and money reconfiguring the French tapestry workshops at the Hôtel des Gobelins in Paris. For tapestry, as he went on to prove, offered an ideal medium, vast in scale and dramatic in effect, with which to celebrate the glorious achievements of his monarch …