Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Luxury Arts of the Renaissance

Luxury Arts of the RenaissanceLuxury Arts of the Renaissance by Marina Belozerskaya
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the first discoveries I made as an undergraduate Bachelor of Humanities student is that there isn't enough time in the world to learn everything you would want to learn about art. So, for three years I soaked up as much as I could, studying painting technique, critiquing cinema, memorizing music pieces, learning a bit about dance and a lot about history and the philosophy of aesthetics.

One thing I did not learn was that, despite our modern focus on Renaissance painting and sculpture, those who lived at that time considered these "high arts" to be . . . well, not so high as we think of them. While no one can discount the marvel of innovation that Renaissance sculptors and painters brought into the world of art, Belozerskaya argues that, for those contemporary with the art that was being produced, painting and sculpture played second fiddle in the royal courts.

One could easily guess that precious metals and precious stones were valued highly by the nobility for their portability and their ability to maintain worth over time. What might not be so obvious is the high esteem in which tapestry, decorated armor, and music (written, sung, played, or even danced to) were held. Belozerskaya uses a series of contemporary sources to prove the thesis and does so convincingly. One of the more intriguing uses of evidence is the use of Charles Le Brun's tapestry Visit of Louis XIV to the Gobelins Workshope, 15 October 1667, which shows nothing other than Louis XIV shopping for tapestries at said workshop. A brilliant bit of meta-advertising on the part of the Gobelins workshop, no?

The book itself is a bit of luxury. It is illustrated throughout with beautiful color photos of tapestries, etched armor, automata, serving vessels, and even a bejeweled crystal marten head, which was ostensibly attached to a fur and worn to special occasions. PETA would not have survived long in the Renaissance.

And what is the point of all of this spectacle? It is to stun the senses of both subject and foreign dignitary alike, to impress upon the mind that whatever noble is enveloping you in this carnival of earthly delights is powerful enough to ensure stability and shelter from whatever vicissitudes might present themselves. "Don't worry," the possessor of these wonders seems to say, "you are in good hands. You're safe with me".

In perfect academic fashion, Belozerskaya leaves her thesis for the end, though it would have been nice to know at the very beginning of the book. So here you are:

"Single objects preserved in museums today, be they tapestries or gold statuettes, suits of armor or illustrated books, cannot bring back to life the richly textured procession of kings, courtiers, and citizens decked out in their finery, slowly moving through streets noisy with excited crowds, the sounds of trumpets, and the ringing voices of actors . . . The sensory overload brought on by overlapping layers of luxury creations was part of the alchemy that marked the realm of the great and distinguished momentous events from mundane routines.”

Ironically, this sumptuous feast for the eyes and mind can be yours for absolutely free as a google book. Google: building democracy one book at a time.

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Addendum: Other links to Getty's fine books and how you can use them for nefarious purposes can be found here.

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