The Triumph of the City


 









The High Renaissance
 
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S
chool of Fontainebleau
 


Antoine  Caron


 

 

                
  
Fontainebleau school

[Fr. Ecole de Fontainebleau].

Term that encompasses work in a wide variety of media, including painting, sculpture, stuccowork and printmaking, produced from the 1530s to the first decade of the 17th century in France. It evokes an unreal and poetic world of elegant, elongated figures, often in mythological settings, as well as incorporating rich, intricate ornamentation with a characteristic type of strapwork. The phrase was first used by Adam von Bartsch in Le Peintre-graveur (21 vols, Vienna, 1803–21), referring to a group of etchings and engravings, some of which were undoubtedly made at Fontainebleau in France. More generally, it designates the art made to decorate the château of Fontainebleau, built from 1528 by Francis I and his successors, and by extension it covers all works that reflect the art of Fontainebleau.  With the re-evaluation of MANNERISM in the 20th century, the popularity of the Fontainebleau school has increased hugely. There has also been an accompanying increase in the difficulty of defining the term precisely. 

 

 

 

Antoine  Caron

(b Beauvais, 1521; d Paris, 1599).

French painter and draughtsman. He started his career modestly in his native city, then a relatively important artistic centre, where he painted some religious pictures (e.g. the Resurrection; Beauvais, Mus. Dept. Oise) and designed cartoons for stained-glass windows; both demonstrate his innate taste for decorative work. Caron was later active in the workshops at Fontainebleau, and his name appears in the royal accounts of Henry II between 1540 and 1550. He later became court painter to Catherine de’ Medici, the Queen Regent (1560–63). Besides Jean Cousin the younger, he was the only French artist from this period with a recognizable artistic personality and was an important witness to the activities of the Valois court during the reigns of Charles IX (reg 1560–74) and Henry III (reg 1574–89) and the violent Wars of Religion (1562–98) between Catholics and Huguenots. Like his royal patrons, Caron was an ardent Roman Catholic; he was connected with the Catholic League and a friend of its poet and pamphleteer, Louis d’Orléans.


 

An Allegory Of The Triumph Of Summer
 

 
             
             
          
 


Antoine Caron


Caesar Augustus and the Tiburtine Sybil

c. 1580


Faith in the magic of festivals


 

   


Caesar Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyl
1575-80
Oil on canvas, 125 x 170 cm
Musee du Louvre, Paris
 

   
 



A bizarre architectural landscape on the banks of the Seme provides the setting for an opulent festival hosted by Henry III of France. Antoine Caron (1521-1599) renders the event, centred around the staging of a mystery play, in a manner which is both artificial and assiduously attentive to detail. The painting (125 x 170cm) is in the Louvre, Pans.


 

 

Amidst the storm of civil war, and notwithstanding its chronic shortage of funds, the French court stages a festival. Several events arc shown simultaneously in progress in the extensive grounds of the Tuilencs by the Seine, a setting alienated here by antique columns and circular temples. In the background on the left two knights in full armour joust in a tiltyard, while a barge, carrying a large number of musicians and singers, draws near to the nverbank.
However, the majority of figures in the painting are shown watching a play performed on an estrade, acted by persons in Roman costume. It is probably the "Mystery of the Incarnation and Birth of Our Saviour and Redeemer Jesus Christ". In a key scene of the play the Roman Emperor Augustus - here seen kneeling in a purple gown and laurel wreath, while three of his soldiers look on - meets the wise Sybil of Tibur. He asks her to predict the fate of the Empire, whereupon she points at the sky, where the Virgin Mary and Infant appear in a nimbus. Christ is thus presented to the pagans as successor to the Roman emperor and Eord of the Universe.
The mystery play, first performed in Rouen in 1474, was revived in Paris in 1580, for its mixture of antiquity and Christian piety was much in keeping with contemporary taste. Anything Roman or Greek was likely to appeal during the late Renaissance, and the work's religious slant undoubtedly satisfied the Catholic party dominating court and capital.
But the real star of a court festival was always the sovereign himself, whose intention was to demonstrate his own power and the glory of his house. It was this, more than anything else, that Antoine Caron had been commissioned to paint, by order of the Queen Mother, Catherine de' Medici.
 

 



A powerful Florentine, larger than life
 
 

 

Caesar Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyl (detail)

 

 

Though the sovereign was the centre of attraction at a courtly festival, the larger-than-life figure at the centre of Caron's painting is a woman, the Florentine Catherine de' Medici. Though by 1580 she had lost the regency, she was still one of the dominant personalities at the French court. Her position as queen and mother had helped her determine the course of French politics for two decades.
According to her own testimony, her sole motive in wresting power in 1559, following the death of her husband at a tournament, was to defend her children's inheritance. Her seven children were "the most important thing in the world"; with her love of family she was, in effect, a real "Italian mamma". Officially, her sons Francis II (1559-1560) and Charles IX (1560-1574) wore the crown, but both were tubercular and neurotic, one dying at 16, the other at 24. Catherine attended to their affairs of state, and was rarely squeamish in the methods which she employed. She had few qualms about murdering her opponents when interests of state or the progress of the Valois dynasty demanded it, and she shared much of the responsibility for the deaths of thousands of Huguenots killed at the St. Bartholomew Massacre of 1572. But it was also thanks to her that there was a French state left to speak of when her third son, Henry III, ascended the throne in 1574.
France had been torn asunder by the Reformation: while the Huguenots fought for religious freedom, another militant faction attempted to wipe out heresy in the name of the Catholic majority. Catherine herself was inclined to be tolerant, and she was tireless in her efforts to arbitrate be-teen the two parties. She extracted countless compromises, made them sign peace treaties, but civil war usually broke out before their signatures had dried on the paper. Thus France sank into anarchy and poverty.
If a pamphlet written in 1573 is to be believed, it was Catherine herself who was responsible for all this misery: after all, disaster was all that could be expected from the government of a woman, nay, a foreigner, the "daughter of an Italian grocer".
By 1580 Catherine had lost her political power, for her third son, Henry III, was less inclined to heed her advice than that of his proteges. Though firm in other matters, Catherine had nonetheless condoned his behaviour, for she idolized this son more than any other, and was prone to illusions about his abilites. However, once forced into negotiations with the warring factions, even he made use of Catherine's diplomatic skills. She had learned how to lead, how to use the passions and interests of others to her own benefit. In so doing, she enlisted the persuasive powers of some 300 alluring maids of honour. Known as the Queen Mother's "flying squad", they succeeded more than once in taming rebel leaders who were susceptible to feminine charms. In Caron's painting, however, the three ladies sitting at the feet of Catherine, who is not shown in mourning for once, are merely caressing their lapdogs.

 

 



The king's favourites compete


 

 

Caesar Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyl (detail)

 

 

To further her political aims Catherine de' Medici not only enlisted the charms of her ladies-in-waiting, but was equally skilful in her use of festivals. The purpose of these, however, was not only to display the pomp and power of the ruling house. From her father-in-law, Francis I, she had learned that "two things are necessary in order to live in peace with the French ... One must keep them happy, and set them some sort of exercise to keep them occupied ..." The latter, as Catherine went on to tell her son, "prevents them from engaging in more dangerous activities".
In order to prevent quarrelsome sectarian leaders from inciting their followers to further bloodshed, the Queen Mother kept them as busy as possible with feasts, court balls and masquerades; she even organized snowball-fights between Catholic and Protestant nobles.
Tournaments were often the climax of such festivals, the risk and danger of martial displays providing their combatants with ample opportunity to work off surplus energy and aggression. Henry Ill's favourites, sporting young men disparagingly referred to as mignons (catamites), were particularly avid participants. It is in their company that Henry III, the last of the Valois dynasty, is seen following the |oust from an elegant stand. In 1580 Henry was only 28 years of age, the victim, like his brothers, of tuberculosis. Like them, too, he failed to provide his country with an heir. Pendulating between scenes of wild debauchery and the pious observance of his spiritual exercises, he felt most at home in women's clothes in the company of his foppish entourage. A detail from the world of fashion, the black beret with the white feather, confirms that Caron's painting dates from c. 1580.
In the hope of lending prestige to an otherwise unpopular monarch who commanded little public respect, the festival had recourse to all kinds of symbols and allegorical motifs. Comparisons as flattering as they were undeserved were drawn between the king and antique greats such as Caesar Augustus, or even gods.
Theologians, philosophers and humanists concocted the ideological flavour of the festival programme, selecting suitable images and deciding even minor details, so that even the confectionery served as a dessert was designed in such a way as to illustrate a mythological theme. In 1581, they had the sorceress Circe, together with a retinue of monsters and sea-deities, dancing on her enchanted island to the music of ten orchestras. During the fireworks that concluded the spectacle, Jupiter, the father of the gods, and Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, descended to earth and, kneeling before Henry III, paid homage to "the authority, wisdom and eloquence of the great king". According to the report of one contemporary, the gods then went on to proclaim that the King owed these virtues to "the wise advice of the Queen, his mother". The event is supposed to have swallowed up 400,000 thalers and been seen by some 10,000 spectators at a single showing.

 

 



A genuine palace in an artificial setting

 

 

Caesar Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyl (detail)

 

 

Translation of the festival theme into practice occupied whole teams of artists for months at a time, and these were always the best available. On 15th September 1573, for example, when the future king Henry III celebrated his "joyous and triumphal entry" to the city of Paris, the decoration of the capital and direction of festivities were entrusted to the poet Jean Dorat, the sculptor Germain Pilon and the painter Antoine Caron.
The festival team would usually include an architect; indeed he usually led it. Ever since the Italians had rediscovered Classical antiquity and embellished their towns with Renaissance palaces, building had ranked as "the queen of the arts". Building fever broke out in France, too, with the palaces at Fontainebleau and on the Loire emulating Italian design. It went without saying that a court festival required a Roman setting, even if the latter was constructed of wood, plaster and painted canvas.
Architecture also dominates Caron's painting; the natural world is practically absent. Whether erected to grace a particular festival or merely the artist's invention, his Classical edifices are laden with symbolic significance and flattering allusions to the monarch. The circular temple, designed after the Roman "tempietto" of the Renaissance architect Bramante, proclaims the king's fame. The obelisk next to it was a monument to his everlasting glory. The shield between two overladen, spiral columns on the pedestal in the foreground praises the "Pietas Augusti", the piety of the Emperor. To Caron's contemporaries, columns were symbols of power and grandeur.
Several triumphal arches have been adapted to provide elegant stands for spectators. Two of the arches are decorated with horses; the festival grounds were situated near the royal stables.
At the centre of the pseudo-antique townscape stands the real, newly-built town palace of the Queen Mother, who was obsessed with building. She had officially inaugurated it - with a festival of course - in 1573. It was built on the site of a former tilery ("Tuilerie") outside the old town walls, by which it was joined to another new royal residence, the Louvre. On the right is the Seine and Paris itself.
The Tuileries building with its twin gables appears in so many of Antoine Caron's paintings that it could almost be described as his trademark. Caron learned his craft at Fontamebleau, the primary centre of Renaissance art in France, and, following the death of his Italian master, climbed to the position of "valet and painter to the Queen Mother". Forgotten for two hundred years, Caron has regained his renown as one of the leading artists of the School of Fontainebleau.
With their strange blend of the real and ideal, their utterly disproportionate, elongated figures set against the starkly contrasting accuracy of Caron's architectonic perspectives, the ten paintings ascribed to the artist today are at once captivating and disconcerting; they epitomize the bizarre, dreamlike artificiality of School of Fontainebleau mannerism.

 

 




Breasts that spout pure oil

 

 

Caesar Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyl (detail)

 

 

In the "Mystery of the Incarnation and Birth of Our Saviour and Redeemer Jesus Christ" mention is made of a well. The Sybil has hardly had time to show the Emperor the future ruler of the world in the heavens, when her black ser-vant Sadeth, shown sitting at her feet, reports that another of her prophecies has come true. As she predicted, a Roman well had begun to provide pure oil instead of water - "like a beam of golden sunlight". Caron - a breast fetishist like most painters associated with the School of Fontainebleau - shows oil spouting from the breasts of a figure standing on the well, who, naked, with a shining mirror balanced on her head, may symbolize (prophetic) Truth.
Various other statues can be seen in Caron's painting, several of which - particularly those that fit the category of the "ideal mother" or "wise woman", images with which she liked to be identified - probably resemble Catherine de' Medici. Among the latter were the Sybils, the ten legendary prophetesses of the ancient world. Their name means "god's decree", and their arcane books were consulted by the Roman senate at times of crisis. Next to her bed, the Queen Mother kept the medieval imitation of a book of this kind, a collection of obscure proverbs, together with a calendar and several engravings with architectural motifs. People all over Europe from Pans to Prague were reading the "Sybilline Books", as well as works by Nostradamus and Regiomontanus, hoping for knowledge of the future, or advice on how to get on in the present.
There seems to have been a powerful need for this at the time, a sense of uncanny powers at work, invisible forces conspiring to trap unwitting, helpless victims. To discover their fate, people consulted not only ancient books, but the stars.
One of Antoine Caron's paintings shows Astronomers Studying an Eclipse. However, the observatory which Catherine de' Medici had built next to her town palace is more likely to have been frequented by astrologers than astronomers. It was not without reason that the edifice was referred to as a "horoscopic column".
Astrologers, magicians and necromancers were naturally consulted when the plans were laid for a festival. People sought recourse to the supernatural not merely as a means of fathoming the occult forces that determined reality; they also hoped to harness such forces to their own ends, to influence events and effect political change. At its most destructive, this might involve casting spells on their enemies; in more positive terms, it meant organizing a triumphant festival. Choosing the right day of the year, or selecting suitable artwork, whether from the realms of music, painting or architecture, were tasks whose magical dimension was self-evident.
Thus the Queen Mother and many of her contemporaries were convinced that a link existed between the performance of the tragedy Sophonisbe at court in 1556 and the death of Henry II and outbreak of sectarian troubles soon afterwards. Thenceforth, Catherine prohibited the staging of dramatical works with unhappy endings, instead putting her trust - more or less in vain - in the benificent magic of harmonious festivals. Perhaps there was more to Caron's picture than a record of the event for posterity; it is possible that the picture itself was intended as a magical charm.

 

 

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