Almost as soon as he succeeded his father, William IV (1493-1550), Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria (1528-79), cousin and in-law of the Habsburgs, transformed the Munich court into a center of patronage and collecting. He founded the court library and the Kunstkammer, following them with the Antiquarium, a collection of Roman (and supposedly Roman) sculpture placed in its own, purpose-built structure. Not surprisingly, one of Albrecht’s advisers, Samuel Quiccheberg (1529-67), authored the first theory of collecting.
Thanks in part to current scholarly interest in theory and in collecting, Munich’s ducal court has recently been the focus of several fundamental publications that make source material more widely available than ever before. Going online to the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek to click through ducal manuscripts, such as the Kleinodienbuch of Duchess Anna (Cod. icon. 429), brings home the extreme luxury of Albrecht’s court and demonstrates how art history is enriched by our greater awareness of objects that Renaissance patrons most valued, but that modern scholarship has tended to neglect.
Among such later ignored, but once prized, objects are tapestries, and Albrecht shared the interest of other Renaissance princes in these luxurious weavings of wool, silk, and precious metal thread. Katja Schmitz-von Ledebur makes this clear by publishing (pp. 16-18) a 1571 inventory that opens with series of large tapestries, mostly narratives but also including ‘twelve pieces with the Bavarian arms, among them ten very large’ (p. 16: ‘zwelf stuckh mit Bayrischen wappen, darunter sind zehen gar groß’). There are other armorial works; ‘seventeen dorsals with verdure’ (p. 17: ‘sibentzehen spalier mit laubwerch’); and tapestries described as being used for covering tables, benches, beds, coaches, and sleighs, but nevertheless decorated, for example with ‘a bowl of fruit in the middle’ (p. 17: ‘hat in der mit ain schissl mit früchten’) or ‘all kinds of animals’ (p. 17: ‘von allerlay thiern’). The inventory records pieces from the Netherlands, Hungary, Turkey, and an old one, dated 1493, that had been made in Munich.
Among the over 160 tapestries are ‘seven pieces [with] planetary stories, each six Brabant ells high’ (p. 17: ‘siben stuckh von der planeten histori, jedes sechs Prabanntisch elln hoch’), the series that forms the topic of this study based on Schmitz-von Ledebur’s dissertation (Bonn, 2000). Listed in inventories of the Ducal Residence in 1638 and 1707, but not in 1769, Albrecht’s planetary tapestries went from Schloss Nymphenburg into the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in 1858. The ‘planetary stories’ show each deity riding across the sky above a scene depicting activities associated with him or her. This composition conforms to the standard type, but, as Schmitz-von Ledebur demonstrates, in this case it ultimately derives from the 1531 woodcut series attributed to the Nuremberg artist, Georg Pencz (1500-50). The author also shows the importance of these prints to numerous tapestry series, which with passing time somewhat disguised their debt to Pencz through increasingly Italianate figures and composition.
Schmitz-von Ledebur’s chief aim is to date the Munich tapestries to the 1550s and to argue for their close connection to Michiel Coxcie (1499-1592). Civic marks prove that the tapestries were made in Brussels, and their weavers’ marks place them in the same shop as other pieces, but Schmitz-von Ledebur is dealing with a complex problem. Since the works make their first documentary appearance in that 1571 list, she has no written records to use in her argumentation and must rely on a rigorous formal analysis, asking several questions: what visual sources did the designer use? how did he group his figures and place them in each composition? are there comparable pieces of known date? to what period does the design of the borders correspond? The borders are particularly important to her argument, but her concern with dating the works pervades much of Schmitz-von Ledebur’s book.
Before she builds her convincing argument, Schmitz-von Ledebur provides a series of overviews that add to the reader’s understanding of the tapestries. This is a carefully structured book, with one section seamlessly leading to the next, and it includes technical data on each piece, as well as a listing of archival material that will ease the task of future researchers. Putting Albrecht forward as their patron, the author examines astrology and astrological imagery at the duke’s court (perhaps too briefly) before she proceeds to a discussion of the Planetenkinder theme in art history. The most exhaustive chapters she devotes to individual tapestries. Each opens with an iconographic survey of the planetary god in question. Schmitz-von Ledebur then carefully reads each tapestry’s composition, pursuing even the smallest details and linking individual figures and actions to specific visual sources. Her iconographic discussion includes an analysis of the cartouches lying in each tapestry’s borders, and she shows that the subject extends beyond the main composition.
Schmitz-von Ledebur thus demonstrates methodical looking, and reading these sections of the book can be hard going. Despite the black-and-white illustrations accompanying the text, one continually wishes to see the tapestries themselves, even as the author’s careful descriptions also cause the reader to wonder how the tapestries’ original audience looked at them. Did the designer of these very large works, each of them over four meters in height, mean for viewers to approach them, to look at them up close, to delight in the wealth of detail in the multiple levels of the composition? Schmitz von Ledebur does not deal with this question, leaving it to others, but her book will be the one to which those scholars will first turn.
Miriam Hall Kirch
University of North Alabama