PROPERTY OF A GENTLEMAN
The existence of this tapestry is remarkable. As a rare historical document of the events of 1520, it appears to be one of only a handful of remaining visual accounts of the meeting that was produced in the 16th century. Booklets were printed in Paris in the summer of 1520 for those who could not attend; every level of society wanted to participate in and preserve the famous event for posterity. None of these leaflets appear to exist, nor do any physical remains of the Field itself. A painting of the meeting (circa 1545) is in the British Royal Collection (see fig.1 for a reproduction by James Basire) and it illustrates a synthesis of the various events that took place. In addition, the walls of the Hôtel de Bourgtheroulde in Rouen, which was built by the noble family Le Roux, is decorated with five limestone bas-reliefs documenting significant moments of the royal meeting (fig. 2).
The Hôtel de Bourgtheroulde was built by William II Le Roux, lord of Bourgtheroulde, beginning in 1501. Upon his death in 1520, the house was inherited by William III, abbot of Aumale, and the reliefs were commissioned. William was among a small group of clergymen who was entrusted with the negotiations of an accord between François Ier and Pope Leo X, 1515-1516, and he was later invited to attend the events in the Val d’Or. His close association with the King explains why he chose this subject with which to adorn the walls of his home. Throughout the 16thcentury, the hôtel served as host to important figures including Cardinal Alessandro de 'Medici.
This tapestry portrays a richly attired gentleman in a red costume ornamented with gold. He faces his enemy who seems to have already suffered in combat, judging from his cap on the ground. Next to the combatants are two aids. The scene is surrounded by a fence separating the sport from the spectators. King François I er is observing the games from the balcony above while leaning on a luxurious cloth of gold. The woman, perhaps his mother Louise de Savoie, places her hand on the shoulder of a courtly gentleman who holds a falcon. The gentleman may be the Connétable de Bourbon, the director of combat for the celebrations. To his right is presumably Queen Claude of France who shows him a ring, the prize of the event. Two trumpeters sound their instruments from which hang banners with the arms of France. The panel seems to have been reduced some time before the 20th century and the right half of the weaving would have included the King and Queen of England and their entourage, also observing the scene from the gallery.
A tapestry in the Rijksmuseum described as “probably Tournai....circa 1525-30” has related borders of stylized vases, candelabra, foliate and scroll motifs on a rose-coloured ground, combined with partitioned corners with a blue ground. The quality of the weaving and the faces of the figures are also comparable to early 16th century hangings from the Southern Netherlands (Cavallo, op.cit., p. 592). A group of Tournai tapestries depicting scenes of country life, such as the Wood Cutters and La Jeu a la main chaude (Göbel, op.cit.,nos. 254-255), incorporate millefleur grounds with groups of figures nearly floating over the flowers. The faces are simply outlined but individualized and there is attention to detail in the clothing and the backgrounds. It is likely that the present weaving, due to the design as a whole, including the border which appears to be original to the panel, was produced in Tournai.
The present tapestry is compositionally transitional. The visual richness of the weaving with its complex patterns of fabrics displayed and lushly verdant millefleur ground, combined with the arrangement of the figures, somewhat self-contained and in tiers close to the picture plane, are typical of late 15th century Gothic weavings. However, here the figures fill an actual space creating an illusion of depth and perspective which was a Renaissance development in tapestry design.
In his Histoire des choses mémorables advenues du règne de Louis XII et de François I, depuis 1499 jusqu'en l'an 1521, Robert de la Marck, Seigneur de Fleuranges provides details of the events, noting that wrestlers from France and England came forward and wrestled in the presence of the Kings and the ladies. In fact, both sovereigns expressly ordered wrestling for the closing event and their participation is documented in Le Marck’s lists of the names of the adversaries taking part in the games. At the closing of the events, it is recorded that Queen Katherine ordered prizes, such as jewels and rings, to be awarded to the victors and to both kings (Russel, op.cit, pp.131-132).
From various historical accounts, we also know that the games came to an abrupt end when Henry VIII challenged François Ier to a wrestling match during which the French monarch threw the English King to the ground. This intriguing tapestry illustrates a wrestling contest between a Frenchman and Englishman. The Frenchman in red is unmistakably dressed like the king, together with his jeweled and feathered hat. While the other wrestler is not dressed like a monarch (i.e., Henry VIII), the scene may be an allusion to the famous match between the two kings.
In the end, the meeting was unfortunately fruitless politically. François and Henry did not sign a treaty, and some weeks later Henry signed a treaty of alliance with Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Within a month, the Emperor declared war on France, and England had to follow suit.
The armorial shields on the tapestry remain unidentified. While three of them are rewoven, probably when the piece was reduced, one of them seems to have some early threads. It is likely that the present arms are duplications of the original devices or that they were modified when the ownership of the tapestry changed, a common the practice with textiles and other decorative arts.
The source of the commission for this tapestry is not known, although it must have been created for a wealthy nobleman and probably someone within the French court. The Rouen limestone reliefs were produced for Le Roux after the summer of 1520, not only to serve as an historical record but also to confer prestige on the family. The commission of this rare tapestry, illustrating the legendary historical episode of Anglo-French reconciliation and extravagance, was an opportunity for an individual of noble standing to curry favor with and celebrate the glory of the court.
The weaving belonged to le comte Georges de Monbrison (1830-1906), an erudite man and avid collector of Renaissance paintings and decorative arts. In 1865, Monbrison inherited the family château de Saint–Roch and employed the celebrated decorator Edmond Lechevalier Chevignard to furnish it. Some of the contents of the château were sold at auction in Paris in 1904, including several tapestries, but the present weaving was not in that sale. It was probably sold directly to Wildenstein & Co., before 1905, where it is listed in their archive. Monbrison favored all things Renaissance and surrounded himself with exceptional examples from the period, including portraits by Jean Clouet and Corneille de Lyon. The image of François Ier in the present tapestry is clearly dependent upon the famous portrait of the King from the Clouet’s atelier, circa 1525, now in the Louvre (fig. 3).
Tapestries were the preeminent figurative art form in the courts of Europe from the Gothic period onward and they were also one of the most expensive. They were used as decoration, propaganda and were given as lavish gifts. Records indicate that Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey, both avid collectors of tapestries, hung multiple weavings in their temporary palaces at the Field of Cloth of Gold as a show of the magnificence of the English court. Wolsey furnished his English palaces with rich tapestries and included in his numerous acquisitions were two sets of Triumphs of Petrarch. Campbell notes that it is possible that one set was made for the Field of Cloth of Gold meeting (op.cit., p.149). Another set of reliefs that decorate the Hôtel de Bourgtheroulde in Rouen illustrate allegories from the Triumphs of Petrarch. The allegories may have personally resonated with both Wolsey and Le Roux resulting in the commission of the set of tapestries and the reliefs. By about 1500, Petrarch’s famous Triumphs (I Trionfi) were translated into French for the King. Furthermore, the designs for the tapestries were based on illuminated manuscripts presented to Louis XIII by the archbishop of Rouen. It is tempting to suggest that because Le Roux was in the Val d’Or and would have visited Wolsey’s rooms, the idea of using The Triumphs on the façade of his home derived from his time at the Royal meeting.
Campbell (op.cit.) reflects on the event and its lasting effect on tapestry production in Europe: “…[T]he display was truly remarkable. As such, it seems to have raised the bar for European court splendor and must have played a key part in fueling the enormous expenditure that Henry, François and Charles V were all to commit to tapestry patronage during the following decades (Campbell, op.cit).
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