Documentary source volumes offer a great resource for the study of Renaissance artists, but they also pose challenges. Compilers of such volumes face not only the labor of transcribing and editing primary sources but also the troubling question of selection criteria. Those who consult the finished volumes must recognize the project’s inherent incompleteness and must attend closely to the wording of the primary sources, lest the synopses by modern editors bias their reading.
Most source volumes about Renaissance artists feature Italians, such as Duccio, Masaccio, Raphael, and Baccio Bandinelli; a notable exception, as ever, but much criticized is The Rembrandt Documents (1979). Of course, source summaries also appear within monographs on artists like Frans Floris, for whom Carl Van de Velde assembled 200 documents in the appendix to his 1975 catalogue. Yet documents in monographic catalogues, due to restrictions of space, rarely receive the same editorial attention. Thus, when the ambitions of the catalogue raisonné, Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010), outgrew the space of a single volume, curator Maryan Ainsworth and her research team conceived a fortuitous solution: the first independent book of documentary sources devoted to a sixteenth-century Netherlandish artist. The resulting reference work expands the corpus of Gossart documents to 140, compared to the mere 68 listed within the 1965 catalogue of the only previous monographic exhibition devoted to the artist.
The surviving documents attesting to Gossart’s life and oeuvre are rich and varied, and undoubtedly deserve close attention. This volume’s contents span not only payment accounts and inventory entries but also archival references to the artist’s patrons and family as well as humanist praise by the historian Gerard Geldenhouwer, secretary to Gossart’s most important patron, Philip of Burgundy. Sytske Weidema has gathered documents relating to Gossart’s surviving works as well as important commissions of lost works. Other documents, either previously unpublished or only briefly cited, also appear. They include reference to a payment that Gossart received for his contribution to Isabella of Austria’s funerary monument (Doc. 27), or the fate of Gossart’s son Pieter after his parent’s death (Doc. 49). One wonderful snippet from an early seventeenth-century dialogue by the Veronese poet Francesco Pona (Doc. 85), discovered by Stijn Alsteens, shows – in ironic juxtaposition to Lodovico Guicciardini’s oft-cited assertion (Doc. 53) that Gossart derived his knowledge of the nude figure from Italy – an Italian’s admiration for the northerner’s mastery of human anatomy. Archivist Peter Blom of the Zeeuws Archief in Middelburg discovered that Gossart likely had three children, one son and two daughters, who handled the estate of paintings and cartoons left behind upon their father’s death (Docs. 42-43).
Of course, details about Gossart’s family shed no direct light on his oeuvre, thus readers hoping for major new discoveries about the artist’s commissions will be disappointed. Yet the overall documentary record of this volume still remains valuable. Gossart doubtless moved dexterously among the most prominent Netherlandish noble patrons and was prized not only for his paintings but also for his designs for major architectural commissions. In this respect, Van Mander’s biographical anecdote that recounts Gossart parading before his patron in only a paper robe – albeit one painted as the finest damask cloth – rings true in essence.
Yet in its editorial handling of individual documents, the volume is less satisfying. Weidema does provide extended new transcriptions of key archival documents like those relating to Philip of Burgundy’s ambassadorial mission to Rome, where Gossart famously accompanied him (Docs. 2-3). Many entries are also complemented by photographs of the original manuscripts, sometimes extremely helpful; for instance, the document recording Gossart’s restoration of several costly older paintings in Margaret of Austria’s collection is represented by an excellent reproduction of the original text, even more welcome given the sloppy mis-citation of this source in earlier scholarship (Doc. 22). In other cases, however, the photographs are so small as to be effectively illegible.
Editing of Latin sources is frustratingly inconsistent throughout. While it would be impossible to adapt the vernacular sources to modern spelling, one can, for the sake of legibility, easily adjust for common use ‘i’ for ‘j’ and ‘u’ for ‘v’ in sixteenth-century Latin when making a modern transcription, yet this practice is strangely adopted here for some texts but not for others. The same sporadic treatment occurs in the use of brackets to write out abbreviations in the original text. Some transcriptions are littered with brackets, yet other important abbreviations are left unattended; for instance, in the notable inscription from Philip of Burgundy’s lost funerary monument (Doc. 34), the “B.M.” and “P.C.” stand for “patrono B[eatae] M[emoriae] Joannes Malbodius et Gerardus Noviomagus P[onendum] C[uraverunt]” (“Jan Gossart and Gerard Geldenouwer erected [this monument] in the blessed memory of their patron”). Occasional typos appear throughout, especially “saedum” (not a Latin word!) instead of “saeclum” in the opening line of Dominicus Lampsonius’s famous poem in praise of Gossart’s art (Doc. 65).
As mentioned, selecting documents for source volumes is difficult, but one might also question some editorial choices here. By privileging only those documents that cite Gossart’s name directly, several significant sources are omitted. One critical example, Geldenhouwer’s 1515 poem praises Philip of Burgundy’s artistic patronage without referring directly to Gossart or his works but nonetheless reveals the discourse surrounding his artistic production at court (Prinsen, Collectanea van Gerardus Geldenhauer Noviomagus, 1901, pp. 175-6). Another is Rémy du Puys’s detailed description of the triumphal chariot, with its “antiquitez poeticques,” that Gossart designed for Ferdinand II of Aragon’s 1516 funerary procession (Les exeques et pompe funerale, 1516, fols. c1r-c2r). Weidema does cite Geldenhouwer’s brief mention of this chariot and attribution of the design to Gossart, though she curiously omits an entire sentence in the middle of the Latin passage (Doc. 9). A transcription of Du Puys’s text could comprise a separate entry alongside that of Geldenhouwer.
Each document entry in the volume also receives brief editorial commentary, often informative but occasionally misleading. When discussing Geldenhouwer’s 1520 description of a newly decorated room in Philip of Burgundy’s palace, Weidema quibbles over whether the Latin word “adornavit” means that Gossart himself painted the works on display there or merely designed the installation (Doc. 10), but Geldenhouwer’s own literary motivations for this choice of word have nothing to do with art-historical concerns. My own forthcoming book on Gossart will discuss the humanist documents relating to the artist and his milieu in much greater detail.
Alternately, an important document entry on the 1529 inventory of works from Philip’s palace errs in the opposite direction (Doc. 33). A list of works possibly by Gossart includes “een bort geschildert up doeck by Jeronimus Bosch,” far more likely to have been painted by the latter rather than the former. Other inventory entries are listed entirely apart from the context of the original palace rooms where they were found. For this source, one would better consult the full transcriptions of the inventories in Sterk’s still very important study of Gossart’s patron (Filips van Bourgondië, 1980).
Anna Koopstra, who worked extensively on the Gossart exhibition, closes the volume with two essays that lay out the complicated documentary history of Gossart’s renowned (now lost) Middelburg Altarpiece and his so-called Salamanca Triptych. Koopstra’s essays reveal just how little we can say about either work for certain, whether about the iconography of the Middelburg painting or the commission of the wonderful wings that survive today in the Toledo Museum of Art. Still, the documents reveal that Gossart’s cartoon for the Middelburg Altarpiece was enshrined in Tongerlo abbey, most likely already in the early sixteenth century, a reminder of just how much this artist’s work was esteemed (p. 154). It also reminds us that our best documents remain the works themselves. In short, Jan Gossart: The Documentary Evidence will long remain an essential point of reference, but one to be consulted wisely.
Washington University in St. Louis