Bartholomeus Spranger (1546–1611), who is best known for his depictions of amorous couples in impossible positions – if he is remembered by the general public at all – created his own Mannerist aesthetic. According to Sally Metzler, adjunct associate professor at Northwestern University and guest curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Spranger’s distinctive “Prague Mannerism” results in part from his exposure to alchemic philosophy and the occult during his employment by Emperor Rudolf II in Prague. The artist’s complex compositions, arcane subject matter, and lascivious figures delighted his eccentric patron, whetting the voracious collector’s appetite for esoteric and erotic images. Yet while Spranger’s paintings hung hidden from public view in the Prague castle, his designs gained international fame through prints produced by over 20 engravers. Spranger’s aesthetic would influence countless artists, including, most notably, Hendrick Goltzius and Peter Paul Rubens.
This beautifully illustrated publication accompanied the first one-man exhibition devoted to Spranger, displayed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. A much-needed English monograph on the artist, the sizeable tome features a brief introduction, a fifty-page biographical essay, and a fully-illustrated catalogue raisonné of 232 objects, divided into four sections by medium: paintings, drawings, etchings, and related prints.
Opposite the author’s introductory remarks, a map indicates Spranger’s circuitous path to Prague. In the “Life” essay, Metzler cleverly uses locations throughout Central Europe as her framework for navigating Spranger’s biography and for tracking the development of his distinctive style – one of the central goals of her text. Guided by geographic subtitles, readers journey from Antwerp, where Spranger was born in 1546 and learned to paint landscapes in the Northern tradition, through Paris, where he briefly trained on his way to Italy. During the decade that he spent south of the Alps (c. 1565–1575), Spranger studied Italian Mannerists, especially Parmigianino, and worked for both a cardinal and a pope. When he left Rome, he took with him a souvenir from his mentor Guilio Clovio, the accomplished Croatian miniaturist and imitator of Michelangelo; Spranger adopted Clovio’s technique for recreating Michelangelo’s monumental figures in miniature. After his employment by Emperor Maximillian II in Vienna, Spranger went on to work for Rudolf II at his court in Prague, where he would spend the bulk of his career, arriving in the imperial city in the autumn of 1580 and dying there in 1611. As Metzler ushers her readers to the locales central in Spranger’s life narrative, she makes occasional detours to discuss the artist’s influential mentors, peers, and patrons. Enriching the landscape of the “Life” essay and her audience’s understanding of Spranger’s historical context, Metzler also describes the religion, politics, and artistic culture of important cities. An engaging storyteller, Metzler employs dynamic rhetoric that enlivens her encyclopedic account of the artist’s life.
One particularly strong feature of this publication is the extensive, meticulously documented catalogue entries. For each object, Metzler provides a descriptive commentary along with information regarding the work’s provenance, related literature, and associated copies. For each inscribed print, she includes transcriptions and translations. Like the “Life” essay, many formal descriptions of the objects feature references to geographic locations related to stylistic developments in Spranger’s career; this connection provides consistency between the biography and catalogue entries. In fact, Metzler artfully uses the catalogue to her advantage by dovetailing the information in the commentaries with that provided in the biography. Unfortunately, reading this cumbersome monograph requires alternating between the “Life” essay and the lengthy catalogue.
Despite Metzler’s herculean task in writing commentaries on each of Spranger’s works, the descriptions of many of the most salacious images are far too timid (see, for example, Cats. 28 and 64). Vague, matter-of-fact generalizations such as, “The work is replete with eroticism and sexuality” (p. 136), accomplish little. Considering the subtitle of the monograph, “Splendor and Eroticism in Imperial Prague,” this reviewer anticipated a bolder, more critical examination of the artist’s erotic works. Regrettably, Metzler includes few interpretations of Spranger’s characteristic eroticism. Instead, the author’s strongest intervention appears in a brief section (pp. 49-51) on alchemy in the “Life” essay and in occasional commentaries that suggest alchemical symbolism in select works (see, for example, Cats. 68 and 144). Those fleeting paragraphs where Metzler links the merging of entwined male and female bodies with alchemical symbolism are compelling, but her 1997 dissertation already focused on those alchemical aspects of Spranger’s oeuvre. The artist’s religious, political, and allegorical works – of which there are many – receive similarly cursory analysis, suggesting that Metzler remains less interested in the “splendid” and the “erotic,” than the “alchemical” and the “aesthetic.” Though a less exciting caption, “The Complete Works” makes a more accurate subtitle for the volume. This discrepancy between the book’s content and its suggestive title is disappointing, but probably increased attendance at the exhibition.
Metzler’s thorough – though not exhaustive – publication will surely act as the springboard and the go-to reference book for all future scholarship on Spranger. The author’s decades-long engagement with this understudied artist rewards specialists with an invaluable resource on rich material, and provides general audiences with an enjoyable, informative read. Yet it is clear that art historians still have much to consider about Spranger’s “Splendor and Eroticism.”
University of Pennsylvania