In today’s world Hans Vredeman de Vries (Leeuwarden 1526 – Hamburg 1609) would probably be much in demand as an ‘in-designer’, but in his own day he enjoyed a more diverse reputation: as painter, draughtsman, engineer and architect. Like no other he appreciated the importance of disseminating his designs, illustrated books and print series. His most influential publication is undoubtedly the Perspective (Leiden, 1604-5), described by Carel van Mander in his biography of the artist as ‘a very beautiful book about architecture’; it deservedly earned its place in the libraries of scholars, architects, and artists such as Rubens. The book’s seventy-two imaginary and increasingly complex architectural designs for colonnades, courtyards and loggias account for Vredeman’s fame. Based on the principles of central perspective, his painted and drawn designs are accompanied by explanatory texts which make the perspectival complexities easier to understand. Vredeman was influenced by Serlio’s designs for theatrical stages and scenery, and received decisive impulses from Giorgio Ghisi’s engravings after Raphael’s School of Athens.
Vredeman changed the face of Renaissance architecture north of the Alps. For in addition to his studies on perspective, his model-books and prints of ornamental designs as sources for the decoration of interiors and façades, as well as those on jewellery, vases and gardens, played a vital role in forming taste in Europe and beyond; already in the sixteenth century his influence was felt in South America. That he worked in some of the most prosperous cultural and mercantile centres of Europe also helps explain his widespread artistic dominance. Religious persecution forced Vredeman to leave Antwerp for good in 1585. His numerous years in exile saw him active in many places, including Wolfenbüttel, Braunschweig, Prague, Gdansk, Hamburg. By 1600 he had settled in Amsterdam, but having failed to be elected to the chair of Architecture and Perspective in Leiden in 1604, where the professors denounced his “decorative perspective” as of no consequence to an engineer or to architecture, he returned to Hamburg, where he died in 1609. Little remains today of his architectural and engineering achievements, but fortunately his many paintings allow us a glimpse of his architectural world, one peopled with delicate figures executed by artists such as Gillis Mostaert and Jan Brueghel.
Although his importance has never been questioned – Vasari called him a gran maestro – no overall study of Vredeman’s oeuvre existed. This has at last been rectified by the exhibition Hans Vredeman de Vriesand the Renaissance in the North and the accompanying publication. The first venue was the particularly apt setting of Schloss Brake in Lemgo, a castle built in the so-called Weser-Renaissance style that was inspired by Vredeman. Over 200 exhibits, often from obscure places, were assembled: prints, exquisitely colored engravings and a large number of original drawings, many exhibited for the first time, are shown next to the objects they inspired – a marriage car, furniture, mirrors, tiles, jewellery. But the most outstanding pieces must be the door of 1580 from the Town Hall of Antwerp (Victoria & Albert Museum), the magnificent Throne Baldachin tapestry of 1561 (both shown only in Antwerp), the tapestries from Vienna and all seven allegorical paintings from the Summer Council Room in Gdansk Town Hall (1594-95) that were described by Van Mander.
The lavishly illustrated catalogue offers a detailed and critical study of all areas of Vredeman’s career. Published in German and Dutch, the latter contains an additional study by Luc Verpoest on national identity and the reception of Vredeman’s style in nineteenth-century Belgium. The exemplary introductory discussion of Vredeman’s Vita (Heiner Borggrefe) is followed by numerous essays, including ones on prints (Ilja Veldman), ornament (Peter Fuhring), architecture and principles of construction (Petra Zimmermann, Pascal Dubourg Glatigny), festival architecture (Carl Van de Velde), engineering (Piet Lombaerde, Charles Van den Heuvel), decorative arts (Barbara Uppenkamp) and painting (Thomas Fusenig, Bernard Vermet). The catalogue section orders the works thematically – Vitruvianism, scenography and graphic works – and topographically – Antwerp and the various stations in Vredeman’s exile. Works by precursors such as Jan Gossaert and Pieter Coecke van Aelst as well as pupils and followers – Hendrik Aerts, Dirck van Delen and Pieter von Bronchorst are included. Particular attention is also paid to the important role of Paul (1567-1630), Vredeman’s son, studio partner and successor. Thomas Fusenig compiled an extremely useful list of those works by Paul not illustrated in the catalogue. It is unfortunate that this list, together with the provenance of the exhibited paintings by Hans and Paul, and a list of de-attributions is condensed into an minutely-printed appendix that requires a magnifying glass and considerable patience. But this is the only crib in an otherwise exemplary and lavishly-illustrated publication that documents a complex and varied oeuvre and raises awareness and understanding of the dissemination of styles and their ensuing influence on social and cultural development.
An exhibition in the Rubenhuis, De wereld is een tuin, addresses Vredeman’s considerable influence on garden culture in his own time and later. In Dutch only, with contributions by Peter Fuhring, Krista De Jonge, Chris De Maegd an Ursula Härting. Ghent/Amsterdam: Ludion, 2002. ISBN 90-5544-420-0.
(translated from the German by Fiona Healy)