Dagmar Eichberger’s seminal study on Margaret of Austria, regent of the Low Countries (1507-1530), as a collector, has set a new standard in the study of Netherlandish court art of the Early Modern Period. It is part, rightfully so, of a major series of studies on the history of the Burgundian ‘long’ fifteenth century, called Burgundica and edited by the noted historian Jean-Louis Cauchies of the Centre européen d’études bourguignonnes (Brussels). Started during the author’s stay at the University of Melbourne, it was finally presented as a ‘Habilitationsschrift’ to the University of Saarbrücken.
Eichberger’s work offers new, and often very detailed, answers to old questions. Her study is admirably thorough in its overview of older and newer literature; she knows the source material very well and is thus able to exploit it fully. The perspective chosen here is that of female collecting, a rapidly developing field in which the author is a major player. The Introduction offers an excellent status quaestionis on this point, as well as a useful overview of the historiography. The first chapter establishes Margaret of Austria’s multiple identities: as a princess belonging to a dynasty proud of its Burgundian ties, the Habsburgs; as a noble widow, officially free of the demands of the marriage market; and as a regent. These multiple identities reflect themselves in the composition of the collection, as the many subtly analyzed case-studies in the following chapters show. The author examines two fundamental aspects of Margaret’s self-representation: heraldic motifs on the one hand and portrait types on the other. The latter sub-chapter offers, amongst others, an interesting interpretation of the image of Margaret as Caritas/Iustitia.
The second chapter reconstructs the Palace at Mechelen (Hof van Savoyen) as locus of the collection. Architecture and collection must indeed be viewed as an undividable and significant whole. The spatial organization of the residence corresponds to the requirements of the court ceremonial. The location of a particular object in a particular space is not a neutral given, as the author will go on to prove in her detailed analysis of the contents of the petit cabinet and cabinet emprès le jardin in Chapter VII. Chapters III and IV take up particular aspects of Margaret’s self-image through the objects in her collection. Chapter III, on art in the service of dynastic interests, concentrates again on heraldic and genealogical themes: the portraits in Margaret’spremière chambre, a portrait gallery avant la lettre which highlighted her ties with the houses of Habsburg, Burgundy, Spain and Tudor, and secondly, the portraits, books, and exotic objects in the library, which also served as a representational space. Chapter IV is dedicated to Margaret’s piety and its reflection in the religious part of her collection, chiefly located in the chapel and her official bedchamber. Suffice it to mention here the author’s discussion of the famous diptych of Juan de Flandes and his workshop, a showcase of the regent’s devotion to the Passion of Christ, and her account of Marian devotion in Mechelen and in Brou.
The fifth and sixth chapters play a pivotal role in the book, since they address fundamental issues: the problem of ‘Renaissance’ culture in the Low Countries, and linked to that, stylistic pluralism and connoisseurship at the northern courts c.1500. The question whether Margaret of Austria was a ‘true’ princess of the Renaissance (i.e. a true lover of Italian art), is present throughout much of the older literature. Dagmar Eichberger offers a much more nuanced view on the problem, stressing instead that cultural diversity and internationality were the true characteristics of a ‘modern’ collection in the court milieu of the time. On the subject of stylistic pluralism in the architectural field, though, we would have liked a more direct response to Matt Kavaler’s contention that the ‘new art’ – the Flemish version of flamboyant architecture, cf. Brou – was seen as equivalent to the ‘antique art,’ as works in the Renaissance idiom are called in contemporary sources, and was especially appreciated because of its complexity of form (Ethan Matt Kavaler, “Renaissance Gothic in the Netherlands: The Uses of Ornament,” The Art Bulletin, 82 (2000) 2: 226-251). There is also no evaluation of the architecture of the palace itself, which shows no obviously ‘antique’ features (most of the present ones are due in fact to Blomme’s restoration of the 1880s).
In the next chapter, the detailed analysis of the most precious and personal part of Margaret’s collection, kept in her private cabinets, abundantly illustrates her personal taste. The book concludes with an evaluation of the collection within the context of the development of the modern Kunst- and Wunderkammer (Chapter VIII). As a collector, the regent indeed belongs to the avantgarde of her time.
There are several reasons why Dagmar Eichberger’s work should be required reading for all historians interested in the subject. For the history of female collecting in the Low Countries during the sixteenth century, this book is in fact a first. Although a good start was made, in 1993, with the exhibition catalogue Maria van Hongarije 1505-1558. Koningin tussen keizers en kunstenaars. Eds Bob van den Boogert and Jacqueline Kerkhoff. Zwolle: 1993 [Rijksmuseum Het Catharijneconvent, Utrecht; Noordbrabants Museum, ‘s-Hertogenbosch], its section on court culture lacked coherence and did not always include the latest research (especially on court architecture). Now is the time to have another look at Mary of Hungary’s collection, in many ways as innovative and original as her aunt’s, and especially at its links with her predecessor’s collection. There seem even to be interesting parallels with her grandniece, the Infanta Isabella of Spain, Philip II’s daughter (see Margit Thøfner’s recent studies on Isabella’s self-image). For the architectural historian, the second chapter of Dagmar Eichberger’s study on the Mechelen palace constitutes a model of its kind. The book also offers an excellent view of Habsburg court culture in the Low Countries in general. Regrettably, as the author stresses on p. 409, comparison with other contemporary Netherlandish collections is not possible as yet; Erard de la Marck, Jean Carondelet, Hendrik III of Nassau, Menc’a de Mendoza, Filips of Cleve, Antoine de Lalaing are not yet known as collectors. This assessment, in fact a research program in nucleus, will hopefully have to be modified in the near future: Menc’a de Mendoza, for instance, is now being studied by a multidisciplinary team under the aegis of the Getty Research Institute.
Krista De Jonge
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven