February 1, 2010

The King is Dead

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Status-seekers vie for popularity and power; political marriages complicate family trees, loyalties change with the seasons and mistresses are a dime a dozen. All things Italian are totally en vogue, there’s a war on and, by the way, no one’s taken a bath yet this year. It’s 16th-century France, of course, and the Johnson Museum’s exhibition An Earthly Paradise: The Art of Living at the French Renaissance Court aims to capture the era in all its opulence and cruelty.

Surprisingly, the show falls short of doing so: It misses opportunities to talk about the courtier’s everyday intrigues and often focuses, rather, on the dry details of his environment. Illustrated volumes of royally commissioned palaces and gardens certainly demonstrate the influence of Italian architecture on French style, but don’t tell the viewer anything about the people who actually inhabited these spaces. Small books of poetry, even vaguely erotic ones, are hard to imagine in the hands of real courtiers. An encyclopedia of French kings might have made a great coffee table book, but seems particularly impersonal and institutional. Although the danger of publishing any literature in opposition to the throne or the Catholic church explains the shortage of this kind of material, the show’s curators discuss the Wars of Religion between the Catholics and Huguenots, which spanned almost forty years, only briefly and usually in passing. A subject it seems the exhibition would be foolish not to pursue, François I’s highly-educated and reformist-minded sister Marguerite d’Angoulême, falls by the wayside after only a mention or two.

There are some standouts in the gallery, however. The first of these is a painting (the only one in the show) called Two Gentlemen of the Order of the Holy Spirit. Its diminutive size and smug, pompous subjects clash hilariously, and the museum’s text on the piece provides the viewer with their likely identities, their roles as “archi-mignons” of Henri III, and his orchestration of several intermarriages between their families in order to fine-tune their loyalties. The haziness with which the text addresses the fact that they were the “second generation” of Henri’s preferred courtiers leaves the viewer wondering what grisly fate met the unfortunate first generation.

Two books, The Book of the Courtier and The Art of Gymnastics, are wonderfully easy to imagine in the possession of a power-hungry courtier. The former, which was widely circulated in its time and is still well known today, is an imaginary discussion between several members of an Italian court on the proper protocols and behaviors of the ideal courtier. It is, in a way, an early how-to or self-help book – as is The Art of Gymnastics, which refers to classical standards of exercise in order to instruct the French Renaissance man on his own physical fitness.

In addition, there is Leda and the Swan, an engraving that has both a sexy story and an interesting role in Renaissance French-Italian relations. François I was never able to get the notoriously cantankerous Michelangelo to work for his court; however, one of Michelangelo’s students brought his painting of Leda and the Swan, on which the engraving is based, into France. French kings were very fond of hanging images of scantily clad women in their bathhouses and this print, which features a nude Leda kissing Jupiter disguised as a swan, was just the ticket. Another Italian import, a fragment of Petrarch’s tunic unearthed from his tomb by a “deranged monk,” makes a nice, if morbid, commentary — and one that is far more political than interior decorating — on the appropriation of the Italian masters by their French conquerors. Interestingly, the great works of art — including the Mona Lisa — that did not molder, peel, and disintegrate in François’ steam room later became the core of the collection of the Louvre.

An Earthly Paradise is an unusual disappointment from the Johnson’s print collection. It relies more heavily than usual on its accompanying text than on the art itself to make its points, and unfortunately it is nearly impossible to read all of these texts because of the maddeningly distracting Renaissance choral music playing in the background. It is definitely worth a look for the flashier objects on display but much of the show’s material seems like mere filler, selected for display out of convenience rather than importance to the exhibition’s message. The show’s artifacts are, above all, historical rather than personal and, as Henri III’s first generation of archi-mignons can attest, everything was personal in the French Renaissance court.

Original Author: Sarah Carpenter