Marisa Bass has written an important reinterpretation of Jan Gossart’s mythological nude paintings, an erudite and valuable contribution to the recent wave of scholarship on the artist. Her research upends the prevailing view of Gossart, first formulated in 1567 by Guicciardini, that the artist was responsible for bringing from Italy to the Netherlands the knowledge of painting mythological nudes, based upon his 1508 trip to Rome with Philip of Burgundy. Bass sets forth her contrary position at the outset: “the presumption of causality between the two pillars of Gossart’s fame – his Roman drawings and his mythological paintings – has resulted in a profound misunderstanding of his engagement with antiquity” (3).
Philip of Burgundy, Admiral of Zeeland, settled on the island of Walcheren in Zeeland, where he renovated his inherited palace at Souberg and, gathereding around him an intellectual and artistic court circle, composed principally of the humanist Gerard Geldenhouwer, his secretary, and Gossart, his court painter. Like other Netherlandish humanists of the time, passionate about antiquity and driven by burgeoning, incipient nationalism, Philip, Geldenhouwer, and Gossart sought to uncover and reclaim the local and regional remains of Roman history and to create modern works that would draw attention to the distinguished Netherlandish past, while also establishing a new Netherlandish renaissance. Bass makes a convincing case for Gossart’s mythological nudes as central to this enterprise. Rather than an imitation of Italian models, Gossart’s paintings represent part of the effort to showcase a separate, distinctly Netherlandish antiquity.
A listing of some of the discoveries and humanist claims from these years highlights the historical and literary milieu informing Bass’s account. Coins and a bronze Minerva statue had been discovered among the remains of the Roman town, Roomburg, outside Leiden; a Roman tomb was discovered outside Brussels in 1507; Roman inscriptions were found near Utrecht; and in the Leuven University library, Geldenhouwer discovered a written Roman epitaph honoring a Batavian soldier, believed to have been written by Hadrian. Geldenhouwer, in fact, was one of the earliest chroniclers of the history of the Batavians. In 1520, a storm exposed the ruins of Brittenburg castle, near Leiden, believed to have been built by Caligula to launch an attack on Britain. For the court at Souberg, the greatest discovery was made by Philip himself, when in 1514 he found a stone altar on Walcheren dedicated to Hercules Magusanus, evidence of a local Hercules cult in Roman times.
Though Bass naturally touches upon most of Gossart’s mythological paintings and prints, two works in particular command her greatest attention. The large Berlin Neptune and Amphitrite, reinterpreted by her as Neptune and Zeelandia, is signed and dated 1516. It was commissioned by Philip (his name and motto are inscribed in the upper right metope), and it would have constituted a centerpiece of his antiquities collection at Souburg. The figure of Neptune has always been understood as referencing Philip in his role as Admiral of the Sea, and his nude female companion as Amphitrite, his wife. Bass argues that the female figure, however, would more logically have played a corresponding role to Neptune if she, like him, signified the sea, specifically as a personification of Zeeland. Intertwined together, Neptune and Zeelandia stand atop an island-like pedestal surrounded by a thin pool of water on the floor. The circular stone inlay in the pedestal’s top further evokes an island form. Bass correlates the painting’s island emphasis with the newly-discovered writings of Julius Caesar, Pliny, and Tacitus about ancient Batavia, which they described as an island.
While Neptune is Gossart’s first extant foray into mythological genre, his final surviving mythological painting is the 1527 Munich Danaë, painted three years after Philip’s death. At this juncture Philip’s circle of humanists had disbanded, and the colder winds of the Reformation were transforming the cultural climate. Who, at that moment, would be the likely patron for Gossart’s erotic, unprecedented depiction of Jupiter’s lover? Bass’s answer is Adolph of Burgundy, Philip’s grandson and successor as Admiral of Zeeland. Though not a new suggestion, thise identification of Adolph as the patron is here built here upon a novel reading of the picture’s iconography.
In the Munich painting, Danaë is rendered as a sensual, nearly nude figure. The fall of Jupiter’s golden shower draws attention to the area of her womb, as does the convergence of the picture’s perspective lines. This womb emphasis is interpreted as intentional, a metaphor for artistic inspiration and the act of painting itself. Moreover, Danaë’s unusual upright, sitting position mirrors the bodily position in which Northern women gave birth, using a special birthing stool for the purpose. Bass links this womb/birthing stress to a key figure at Adolph’s court, the humanist and doctor, Jason Pratensis. He was an advocate of reproductive health, writing a 1524 treatise, On the Womb. Among other novel attitudes, Pratensis regarded sensual images as suitable for the homes of married couples hoping to conceive children. Bass ponders whether such a context might have provided an alternative impetus for the creation of Gossart’s erotic, mythological painting, at a time when older humanist projects were being challenged by rising moralism and religious debate.
Built upon her impressive facility in reading Latin humanist and antique texts, from which much of her literary evidence derives, Bass has reconstructed a critical episode in early sixteenth-century humanist culture and Netherlandish identity formation. This setting has guided her perceptive rereading of Gossart’s mythological works, resulting in a richer and more accurate understanding of the motivations and meanings of these paintings, and a more precise profile of Gossart’s historical significance, in addition to clarifying the reasons for his singularity among his Netherlandish peers. This is quite a lot for a slender book to accomplish, but Bass has carried it out with great elegance.