Occasionally a publication elicits envy for its scholarly scope and depth: Imitation and Illusion, beautifully illustrated, is such a book.
Applied brocade is a very specific technique of decoration that imitates fashionable gold-brocaded luxury textiles of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. To produce applied brocade, a sheet of tin foil is beaten within a mold engraved with a chosen brocade pattern. While still in the mold, the tin foil is filled for support, and after drying the filler, the tin foil – now in relief – can be taken out of the mold. The front side can now be gilded, and often the parts of the pattern that imitate velvet are painted in. Several sheets could be placed together in a systematic repeat of the pattern to suggest a continuous, gold-brocaded textile. In similar fashion repeated separate ornaments of applied brocade – for example stars or leaves – could be placed over a painted garment on a panel, on a sculpture, or on an architectural interior.
This complex technique of producing applied brocade vanished after the sixteenth century. The process and its uses, rediscovered in the 1960s by Mojmir Frinta, have since received steady attention, mostly in the form of case studies. Analyzing numerous and varied brocades, Geelen’s and Steyaert’s book provides a much-needed comprehensive study. The volume proceeds from a detailed survey of available literature in the Introduction, to the history and European diffusion of the technique in the first two chapters. Chapters Three and Four reveal methods and recipes for producing applied brocades, describing their different types, sizes, reliefs, and designs. Chapters Five and Six chart different works of art with similar brocade patterns, and Chapter Seven proposes reasons for the artistic choice to apply brocade.
The second part of the book focuses primarily on technical matters. Chapter Nine describes different gold-brocaded textiles that were imitated through applied brocade. In collaboration with technical specialists, Chapters Ten and Eleven discuss scientific methods that have been used to study different applied brocades: examination under magnification; X-radiography; and cross sections of the applied brocades.
The third and last part – two-thirds of the entire text – offers a meticulously systematic catalogue of all applied brocade found on fifteenth- and sixteenth-century works of art from the Low Countries in Belgium and beyond. Geelen and Steyaert’s book will appeal to scholars in a variety of fields, including art history, textile history, and conservation.
Admittedly, the order of presentation is unclear. For example, the discussion of the terminology around “applied brocade” that begins in Chapter Four, would have been better placed earlier. Nonetheless, this book offers a fascinating technical study of applied brocades in Netherlandish art.
Esther van Duijn
University of Amsterdam