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The Wonders of the Loom

Tapestry in the Baroque: Threads of Splendor

Catalog of the exhibition edited by Thomas P. Campbell
an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,October 17, 2007–January 6, 2008; and the Palacio Real de Madrid, March 6–June 1, 2008.
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.

Yet this vital province of the vast continent of Baroque art has been difficult to appreciate, and impossible to survey, until recently. Good tapestries were hard to get and even harder to preserve and maintain. Precious but vulnerable to dirt, damp, and their own weight, they had to be stored with care. State offices charged with their upkeep looked after them and brought out the proper ones for each public occasion. When the age of revolutions smashed the elaborate bureaucratic machinery of the early modern states, interconnected sets of tapestries, each enormous, were pulled from storage and many of them broken up for sale. The world of glowing colors and rich textures they depicted became less familiar even to the well-informed than the frescoed walls that remained accessible to travelers and the Old Master paintings that filled the rooms of historically organized modern museums. It takes a huge investment—in space as well as money and skill—to bring the world that once hung on the walls back to life.

Fortunately, the Metropolitan Museum has once again been able to muster the necessary resources, and the result is another revelation. “Tapestry in the Baroque” presents spectacular and surprising works of art, tells a fascinating story about the development of an art form, and raises difficult questions about the meanings and uses of the arts in court society. In room after room, massive and dramatic images strive for every effect of High Renaissance and Baroque art. As “Tapestry in the Renaissance” made clear, the medium of tapestry captivated and inspired the greatest artists of the High Renaissance. For centuries, the craftsmen of the Low Countries had covered palace walls across Europe with their glowing, busy evocations of mythical heroes and magical gardens.

Around 1500, patrons and artists discovered in this difficult but dynamic medium a way to display the new artistic accomplishments of the High Renaissance. Weavers could set scenes into richly worked frames that helped to produce an illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface. They could render the dramatic encounters of finely proportioned bodies. And they could tell the stories, ancient and modern, that painters had learned to depict on a grand scale in frescos. Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and their rivals drew and painted cartoons, and the weavers realized their experiments in perspective and foreshortening, anatomy and drama with a skill that made all artistic subjects, from heroic panoramas of battle to quiet scenes from the life of the Savior, seem possible.

The artists of the late sixteenth century and after seized as eagerly as their predecessors had on the special possibilities of the loom. At the start of the Metropolitan exhibition, the viewer encounters an early-seventeenth-century tapestry, probably designed by the Flemish painter and writer Karel van Mander the Elder. Inside a frame of vines and flowers, a turreted country house appears, but off center, at the right. Beside it lies the true subject: one of the Mannerist gardens of the sixteenth century—those paradises of paradox, with their handsome paths and hedge mazes, ornate fountains and mysterious grottoes, and beds of real-looking flowers that squirted water in the face of anyone incautious enough to bend over for a sniff. Seen from an artfully chosen aerial perspective, Van Mander’s garden seems at first an indecipherable puzzle in greens, browns, and blues. But patience is generously rewarded. Slowly figures and stories emerge: gardeners work, elegant men and women talk, and a magnificent fountain, far more elaborate than any real one, plays.

Every detail charms—especially the too-much-is-not-enough fountain, which retells the story of Diana and Actaeon. A heroic nude Diana, crowned with a crescent moon, blows her huntress’s horn; dogs, horses, and wild animals struggle and squirt water; and a strolling couple examine the scene with a mixture of curiosity and erotic tension. Next to them, a real, rather than sculpted, dog squats on the path, extruding a neat brown turd—and provokes the onlooker to think twice about where nature ends and art begins, in the garden and on the hanging.

At the other end of the show, an equally vivid tapestry depicts Louis XIV’s 1664 meeting, very much indoors, with Cardinal Flavio Chigi. The cardinal came to the palace of Fontainebleau to apologize to the King for an incident that had taken place in Rome two summers before, when the Pope’s Corsican guards had besieged the duc de Créani, a servant of the French ambassador, in Palazzo Farnese, and even killed one of the French pages. Jean Lefebvre, who wove this tapestry at the Gobelins workshop from designs by Le Brun and Van der Meulen, evokes a world as magically precise and mysterious as Van Mander’s garden. Lefebvre deftly renders colors and textures: the purple silk of the cardinal’s robes and hat, the velvets and laces worn by King and courtiers, the richly decorated wallpaper and paintings, and the sumptuous hangings of the royal bed.

But the chief glories of this tapestry are the courtiers’ heads, and their adornments. Lefebvre depicts spectacularly curled and powdered wigs, hair in many forms and colors, and the King’s magnificent hat with a deeply textural ingenuity that takes maximum advantage of his medium. At the same time, he offers sharp, effective portraits of the participants, who stand or gesture, listening or whispering, as the cardinal reads his apology to the King. The tapestry is not perfectly accurate: at least one contemporary observer became furious when he noticed that it portrayed a nobleman, unthinkably, with his hat on in the royal presence. But like Van Mander’s garden scene, it shows how vividly tapestry could evoke just about any imaginable subject, from the cheerful business and murmuring waters of a country estate to the hushed formalities of court diplomacy.

The accomplishments of these designers and weavers are, in some ways, even more astonishing than those of the High Renaissance, for the world in which they lived and worked was brusquely shaken by a seismic crisis in the middle and later years of the sixteenth century. In Brussels and Antwerp, Calvinist preachers and crowds demanding the right to practice their religion confronted an administration bent on putting the religious genie back in the bottle. In 1566, Protestant iconoclasts destroyed vast quantities of religious art. Soon the armies of the Netherlands’ Spanish overlord, Philip II, retaliated. Like France, the Low Countries became the setting for one of Europe’s first ideological wars—one that lasted for decades. Shops were looted, looms broken, workmen scattered. For a time it seemed impossible to muster the resources of material and skill that had made it possible, in a more patient age, for highly skilled workmen who could finish no more than a square meter in a month to turn wool and silk thread into vast panoramas.

Artists and artisans coped. The shop in Delft that realized van Mander’s Mannerist garden employed workmen who simply were not skilled enough to create vast, almost uniform blocks of color—but who could carry out his busy, endlessly detailed garden design. Others applied the old skills to new ends and in new places—for example, in a sumptuous red baldachin, or throne canopy, thronged with handsome historical and allegorical figures, made for the rulers of Denmark in 1585–1586, or in a rich table cover woven in Amsterdam, decorated with minutely rendered flowers and vivid vignettes from the story of Joseph and his brothers. Some of these smaller pieces are as charming as the grandest creations on display. Among them are the painterly altar frontal and the magnificent cope, or capelike vestment, thickly populated with dancing angels and dignified patriarchs, designed and woven in Florence in the 1590s for Pope Clement VIII, and the richly colored allegory of Night produced in Munich in 1614, in which flames, emerging from the hand and head of the crone who represents Night, illuminate a handsome, sleeping figure of Day, while an owl broods above him (see illustration on page 60).

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