Catherine de' Medici's patronage of the arts  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Catherine de' Medici believed in the humanist ideal of the learned Renaissance prince whose authority depended on letters as well as arms. She was inspired by the example of her father-in-law, King Francis I of France, who had hosted the leading artists of Europe at his court, and by her Medici ancestors. In an age of civil war and declining respect for the monarchy, she sought to bolster royal prestige through lavish cultural display. Once in control of the royal purse, she launched a programme of artistic patronage that lasted for three decades. During this time, she presided over a distinctive late French Renaissance culture in all branches of the arts.

An inventory drawn up at the Hôtel de la Reine after Catherine's death shows her to have been a keen collector. Listed works of art included tapestries, hand-drawn maps, sculptures, rich fabrics, ebony furniture inlaid with ivory, sets of china, and Limoges pottery. There were also hundreds of portraits, for which a vogue had developed during Catherine's lifetime. Many portraits in her collection were by Jean Clouet (1480–1541) and his son François Clouet (c. 1510–1572). François Clouet drew and painted portraits of all Catherine's family and of many members of the court. After Catherine's death, a decline in the quality of French portraiture set in. By 1610, the school patronised by the late Valois court and brought to its pinnacle by François Clouet had all but died out.

Beyond portraiture, little is known about the painting at Catherine de' Medici's court. In the last two decades of her life, only two painters stand out as recognisable personalities: Jean Cousin the Younger (c. 1522–c. 1594), few of whose works survive, and Antoine Caron (c. 1521–1599), who became Catherine's official painter after working at Fontainebleau under Primaticcio. Caron's vivid Mannerism, with its love of ceremonial and its preoccupation with massacres, reflects the neurotic atmosphere of the French court during the Wars of Religion.

Many of Caron's paintings, such as those of the Triumphs of the Seasons, are of allegorical subjects that echo the festivities for which Catherine's court was famous. His designs for the Valois Tapestries celebrate the fêtes, picnics, and mock battles of the "magnificent" entertainments hosted by Catherine. They depict events held at Fontainebleau in 1564; at Bayonne in 1565 for the summit meeting with the Spanish court; and at the Tuileries in 1573 for the visit of the Polish ambassadors who presented the Polish crown to Catherine's son Henry of Anjou. Biographer Leonie Frieda suggests that "Catherine, more than anyone, inaugurated the fantastic entertainments for which later French monarchs also became renowned".

The musical shows in particular allowed Catherine to express her creative gifts. They were usually dedicated to the ideal of peace in the realm and based on mythological themes. To create the necessary dramas, music, and scenic effects for these events, Catherine employed the leading artists and architects of the day. Historian Frances Yates has called her "a great creative artist in festivals". Catherine gradually introduced changes to the traditional entertainments: for example, she increased the prominence of dance in the shows that climaxed each series of entertainments. A distinctive new art form, the ballet de cour, emerged from these creative advances. Owing to its synthesis of dance, music, verse, and setting, the production of the Ballet Comique de la Reine in 1581 is regarded by scholars as the first authentic ballet.

Catherine de' Medici's great love among the arts was architecture. "As the daughter of the Medici," suggests French art historian Jean-Pierre Babelon, "she was driven by a passion to build and a desire to leave great achievements behind her when she died." After Henry II's death, Catherine set out to immortalise her husband's memory and to enhance the grandeur of the Valois monarchy through a series of costly building projects. These included work on châteaux at Montceaux-en-Brie, Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, and Chenonceau. Catherine built two new palaces in Paris: the Tuileries and the Hôtel de la Reine. She was closely involved in the planning and supervising of all her architectural schemes.

Catherine had emblems of her love and grief carved into the stonework of her buildings. Poets lauded her as the new Artemisia, after Artemisia II of Caria, who built the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus as a tomb for her dead husband. As the centrepiece of an ambitious new chapel, she commissioned a magnificent tomb for Henry at the basilica of Saint Denis. It was designed by Francesco Primaticcio (1504–1570), with sculpture by Germain Pilon (1528–1590). Art historian Henri Zerner has called this monument "the last and most brilliant of the royal tombs of the Renaissance". Catherine also commissioned Germain Pilon to carve the marble sculpture that contains Henry II's heart. A poem by Ronsard, engraved on its base, tells the reader not to wonder that so small a vase can hold so large a heart, since Henry's real heart resides in Catherine's breast.

Although Catherine spent ruinous sums on the arts, most of her patronage left no permanent legacy. The end of the Valois dynasty so soon after her death brought a change in priorities. Her art collections were dispersed, her palaces sold, and her buildings were mostly left unfinished or later destroyed.




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