Probably no other subject from the early years of emerging “secular” art in the Low Countries recurs as frequently as folly in all its guises. And, of course, no text of the early sixteenth century did so much to spark a sense of folly as a fruitful counterpoint to spirituality and virtue as Erasmus’s Praise of Folly (Basel: Froben, 1516), written as a jeu d’esprit for the author’s close friend and Christian humanist peer, Thomas More (indeed, Moria, Greek for Folly makes a perfect allusion to More’s name as a scholarly insider joke). This much is well known, and thirty years ago I devoted quite a few pages to the echoes of Erasmus on Quinten Massys’s pioneer genre paintings in Antwerp as well as on the rederijker verses of local authors in that emerging city. But the topic remains a hardy perennial, and the long influence across sixteenth-century culture by Erasmus rewards further attention.
Hence this volume, a rather luxurious and elaborate French translation of the text, accompanied by well-chosen color plates from all over Northern Europe (France is naturally included along with Germany, Flanders, and Holland), selected and discussed in an essay by Yona Pinson of Tel Aviv University. Their time span reaches from the fifteenth century (Rogier van der Weyden, Bouts, Memling, Joos van Ghent) well into the seventeenth century to include Jan Steen at its latest reach. Most will be familiar (Bosch, Massys, Bruegel, and Cranach are prominent), though a number remain anonymous. There are also some surprises as well as up-to-the-minute inclusions, notably Bruegel’s recently rediscovered canvas, St. Martin’s Day (Prado, Madrid). One highlight is the inclusion at the appropriate parts of the Erasmus text of the marginal drawings by a young Hans Holbein II for a volume owned by schoolmaster Myconius (Oswald Geißhüsler) and shown to Erasmus himself in Basel publisher, Johannes Froben. In response, the scholar wittily responded about his own image as an author that “if Erasmus still looked like that he could readily get a wife.” These marginal images (now in the Basel Print Cabinet) have been well examined in Holbein drawing literature, in particular by Christian Müller in his 1996 catalogue and in a dissertation (University of Washington, 1981; Garland reprint 1986) by Erika Michael.
There might well be some question about the audience for such a volume, since Erasmus has been translated into all major European languages, and this slipcased tome is not a bargain. A colophon explains that the Institut Diane de Selliers is dedicated to “la recherche en histoire de l’art” and to aid in research and to enhance the value of works “du patrimoine de l’humanité.” Pinson’s valuable service to the French or Francophone intellectual community is to bring Erasmus’s legacy into focus to a wider public. Of course, art historians will probably turn first (or find easier access) to Georges Marlier’s Erasme et la peinture flamande de son temps (1954), or more recently to the valuable Rotterdam catalogue by Peter van der Coelen (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, 2008), with its essay “Praise of Folly” (213-229, nos. 98-120), where many of the same images appear, albeit those closer to Erasmus’s lifetime (mostly Netherlandish but also including Cranach). Now to that literature – and to the references in the Rotterdam essay – one can add this volume and the brief essay by Pinson, “Le genre satirique au XVIe siècle” (31-41) but also her choice of images and marginal notes on every picture. HNA members will find this compendium a helpful starting point for assessing Erasmus’s text as a work for the “patrimoine de l’humanité,” especially for the North in the sixteenth (and even seventeenth) century.
University of Pennsylvania