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: A Gift of Tapestries


Joseph Breck



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Two tapestries of exceptional importance have been presented to the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts by Mrs. Charles J. Martin and are now on exhibition at the Institute. This generous gift of two marvelous examples of the weaver’s art, unsurpassed among their kind by any examples in either public or private collections in this country, constitutes the first step toward the formation of a collection of tapestries which, as announced in the January Bulletin, will be assembled and presented, as acquired, to the society by Mrs. Martin in memory of her husband, the late Charles Jairus Martin. It is the donor’s intention that in time the principal periods in the history of this fascinating branch of the decorative arts shall be represented in the collection by examples of the highest order. Certainly the two pieces just presented establish a standard of excellence which leaves nothing to be desired. It would be impossible to find more characteristic or beautiful examples of the two periods thus represented; the Gothic age in the second quarter of the XV century, when the art of tapestry weaving reached its highest level, and the period of the Italian Renaissance in the full development of the XVI century.The Gothic tapestry (measuring 11 feet 2 1/2 inches by 10 feet 9 inches) was woven in the ateliers of Arras around 1450, and represents sumptuously dressed ladies and gentlemen hunting with falcons. (Illustrated on cover.) In the XV century hunting and hawking, the latter also called falconry, played a significant part in the social life of the nobility. These sports and the ability to pursue them in a generous and polite fashion set the nobility apart from the commoners and formed the chief topic of conversation when war did not call from the slaughter of animals to the slaughter of men. Falconry is an ancient sport. It appears to have been known in China four thousand years ago and at an equally early date in the valleys of the Nile and of the Euphrates. The references to in Aristotle, Pliny and Martial are definite. It was probably introduced into England from the Continent in the IX century and was followed there down to the middle of the XVII century with greater ardor than any other sport. Falcons were allotted to men according to their rank; to the emperor, the eagle and the vulture; to kings, the gerfalcons; to earls, the peregrines; to yeomen, the goshawks; to priests, the sparrow hawks; to servants, the kestrels.In the middle of our tapestry near the top are seen two falcons in action pursuing a heron that has fallen beneath them. When the heron was first seen in the distance the falcon was sent after it. Quickly the heron noted the falcon and began to rise almost perpendicularly, in which the heron excels because of its light body and large wings. Then the falcon circling in large rings but flying much more rapidly because of its greater strength, finally mounted above the heron and turned upon it. If the falcon missed and fell below the heron it was necessary once again to make the ascent in large rings. At last the falcon seized the heron in its heavy hooked claws and brought it home.One of the most necessary implements in falconry is the lure, used to recall the falcon. The personage in the upper right corner of the tapestry is waving a lure in his left hand. The lure is a pair of wings attached to a cord. To the lure the falcon has been trained to return because he is accustomed to find food there. The training of falcons is long and elaborate and many manuscripts and books on the subject have been published. The mode of carrying a falcon upon the gloved hand is illustrated by several of the personages in the tapestry. It should be noted that the falcons are carried not on the left hand in the European manner of the XVI and XVII centuries, but on the heavily gloved right hand, in the manner of Persians and other Orientals, a suggestion of Oriental influence which is further emphasized by the richly patterned costumes. Several of the falcons are still on a leash; one has just been released and thrown up into the air while another is having the hood removed from its head.The costumes illustrate the extravagant fashions which prevailed in the middle of the XV century, when there was great competition in dress between the bourgeoisie of the town and the nobility. So long as the bourgeoisie dressed above their station, it was next to impossible that the female aristocracy should not endeavor to eclipse their humble rivals. Their trailing gowns were bordered with fur and velvet made of gorgeously patterned stuffs. On their heads they wore fantastic bossed cauls drawn high on each side of the face so that the headdress assumed the shape of a heart. A butterfly effect was produced by veils which flowed from wires set in the cauls. Hardly less ornate were the costumes worn by men, the girded jackets with enormous sleeves and the large turbaned headdresses and jeweled collars. High shoes were worn, laced on the inside, red in color like the stockings or tights that covered the legs above. The shoes were pointed but not so extreme as in the periods before or after.The subject and costumes recall at once, to anyone at all familiar with the history of tapestries, the famous Hardwicke Hall hunting tapestries, lent by the Duke of Devonshire to the Victoria and Albert Museum. These Hardwicke Hall hunting tapestries have been justly called the “finest of the XV century in England.” Two of them, fragments of larger pieces, deal partly with the sport of falconry, but less completely and vividly than does the tapestry under discussion. One of them shows a lady on horseback, the marguerites on whose dress and the letter M on the trappings of whose horse identify her as Margaret of Anjou, wife of the English King Henry VI (1422-1461). These celebrated hunting tapestries belonging to the Duke of Devonshire formerly ornamented the walls of a great room in Hardwicke Hall, Derbyshire, but were removed from there in the XVI century and cut to adapt them to walls pierced with windows in a new location. Taking into consideration the similarity in size, subject, costume and style of representation, it is not at all impossible that the tapestry given by Mrs. Martin may have belonged originally to this celebrated set. Unquestionably the tapestry was woven in the same atelier and from cartoons by the same artist who, it may be remarked, probably drew his inspiration from some illuminated manuscript on hunting. Our tapestry, evidently a part of a still larger tapestry, which at this time were often woven of great length so that they would cover the entire wall of a banqueting hall, may have been separated from the other pieces of the set when they were divided at the time of their removal from Hardwicke Hall in the XVI century. Whether or not it can be established that our tapestry formed part of the Hardwicke Hall tapestries, the fact is evident that it is identical in style and execution with these famous tapestries. It would not, indeed, be an exaggeration to state that our tapestry may be called the most important early Gothic piece in America.Tapestries of this period, in need hardly be stated, are among the rarest of art objects, although tapestries were produced in great numbers during the first half of the XV century in Arras. They were the treasured possessions of kings and great noblemen, but the ravages of war and accidents of time have destroyed, for the most part, these beautiful memorials of a far distant age. In fact, the discovery of a Burgundian tapestry of the period represented by the Institute’s new accession is a matter of world-wide interest. Tapestries of this period in America are very few in number. There are, for example, the Esther and Ahasuerus tapestry in the Hoentschel collection lent by Mr. Morgan of to the Metropolitan Museum, the three fragments of tapestries known as the Giving of the Rose, and the set of the Sacraments in the same museum. In other collections are hardly more than one or two pieces. None of these surpasses in historical importance or intrinsic beauty the marvelous tapestry which will make, hereafter, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts a pilgrimage shrine to all lovers of tapestries.Little has been said of the aesthetic merit of this tapestry because it must be seen in all its glowing beauty of color to be truly appreciated. The greens and browns of the foliage form an agreeable contrast with the rich crimson and blue of the costumes, relieved by passages of green and violet. The coloring is remarkably well preserved, and, perhaps better than in any other tapestry of this period, gives us an idea of the strength and harmonious coloring which characterized the greatest products of the Gothic period.The second tapestry given by Mrs. Martin dates about one hundred years later than the Gothic example. It was woven about the middle of the XVI century at Florence in the celebrated Medici Atelier founded in 1537 by Cosimo I. It bears in the selvage the mark of the Florentine manufactory and of the weaver, the well-known Jean Roost; a Flemish weaver who came from Brussels to conduct, together with Nicholas Karcher, the work of the Arazzeria Medici. His mark, which will be found in the lower left hand corner of the tapestry, is a punning device, a roast of the meat turning upon a spit. The tapestry was woven for the Salviati family whose arms appear in the upper border.The subject of the tapestry is taken from the opening verses of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The scene represented is the appearance of Virgil to Dante. In the In the foreground are three symbolical animals; the panther, the lion, and the she-wolf, who brought fear to the heart of the poet lost in the forest. Particularly beautiful is the drawing of the foliage. The borders of the tapestry are extremely interesting in their design, consisting of grotesque and small scenes in cartouches. Shades of yellow and green and orange predominate among the colors. It is often very difficult, if not impossible, to determine the artist from whose cartoon a tapestry may have been woven. It is clear, however, that in the present case an artist of marked ability has supplied the cartoon. On evidence of style, we may assume that this artist was Francesco Rossi de’Salviati who, with Bronzino and other Florentine artists of the High Renaissance, provided many cartoons for the weavers of the Arazzeria Medici. Salviati was born in Florence in 1510 and died in Rome, November 11, 1563. He was the pupil of Bugiardini, Bandinelli, Brescianino, and about 1529, of Andrea del Sarto. He worked in Florence, Rome, Venice, and, for a short time, in Paris. He was called Salviati because of the patronage which he received from this celebrated Florentine family. The fact that the tapestry was woven for a member of this family further strengthens the belief that the cartoon was probably by Francesco Rossi.The subject is an unusual one in tapestries. In fact, the present writer does not recall having seen another example. In the XVI century, however, there was among savants and artists a great revival of interest in the immortal work of the great Florentine poet.The tapestry is in perfect preservation, and is of remarkably large size, measuring 16 feet 7 inches in height by 15 feet 4 inches in length. Tapestries of the Italian High Renaissance are not frequently met with in American collections. The Institute’s new accession is far and away the most important example of its example in the country. Indeed, it can only be compared with a few of the finest examples still preserved in the great public collections in Florence.Perhaps no field of art collecting offers greater difficulties than that of tapestries. Few tapestries of these early periods have come down to us. For the most part they are treasured as great national possessions in European collections. The people of Minneapolis may, consequently, be very proud that through the generosity of Mrs. Martin their new art museum has been enriched with the gift of two tapestries which are second to none in importance or beauty.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Hunting Party with falcons, Burgundian tapestry, about 1450, gift of Mrs. Charles J. Martin
  2. The Meeting of Dante and Virgil, Florentine tapestry, about 1550, gift of Mrs. Charles J. Martin
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Source: Joseph Breck, "A Gift of Tapestries," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 4, no. 6 (June, 1915): 54-58.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009