Goldstein’s book is the third volume on Bruegel published by Ashgate in as many years (Margaret Sullivan’s 2010 Bruegel and the Creative Process, 1559-1563, reviewed https://hnanews.org/hnar/reviews/three-books-pieter-bruegel; and Todd Richardson’s 2011 Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Art Discourse in the Sixteenth-Century Netherlands, to be reviewed). In this case, however, the title of the book feels like a misnomer, since the author’s primary contribution is to trace the emergence, function, and material culture of the sixteenth-century Netherlandish dinner party. While Goldstein discusses paintings by Bruegel documented in two Antwerp dining rooms – those belonging to Jan Noirot and Niclaes Jonghelinck – the strength of the book lies in its reconstruction of the visual, performative, and material aspects of early modern dining culture.
The first chapter analyzes the early sixteenth-century dining room of Mechelen humanist Jerome de Busleyden. Goldstein characterizes de Busleyden’s dinner parties as “the realization of a humanist dream” (13), tracing his connections with such figures as Erasmus, Thomas More, and Pieter Gillis and detailing the range of images and objects on display in his palatial dining room. Here, Goldstein can draw on the remarkable survival of the Hof van Busleyden dining room’s suite of wall paintings, which include The Feast of Balthazar and The Banquet of Tantalus, as well as de Busleyden’s documented links to Erasmus and his famed 1522 text, the Godly Feast. There the words of Eusebius, Erasmus’s fictional host (“Feast your eyes, feast your mind,”) embody this chapter’s argument, as Goldstein deftly amasses evidence for de Busleyden’s dinner parties as a cultural nexus where the appreciation of antiquity and material luxury met.
The next chapter abruptly jumps fifty years forward in time to address the dining room of the Antwerp Mint Master Jan Noirot. Goldstein argues that Noirot was interested primarily in the opulent trappings of the humanist dinner party, rather than sharing de Busleyden’s philosophical interest in the convivium tradition. Unfortunately, the question of how the dinner party was transformed from a humanist event to social, or even corporate, performance is left relatively unexplored. Goldstein’s focus remains on the particular nature of the Mint complex, and Noirot’s home within it, as a public and private space. Goldstein argues that collecting art was particularly valued among higher-ups at the Mint, with the institution even employing a painter (the otherwise undocumented Henrik Schillemans) to produce wall paintings and other decorative features. Art allowed Noirot to perform his social and career aspirations. According to Goldstein, Noirot’s reluctance to sell his paintings by Bruegel, even under extreme financial duress, indicates the importance of “keeping up appearances.” (60) This is an intriguing argument, but as the author herself notes, Noirot held no dinner parties for roughly four years preceding his 1572 bankruptcy, so it is unclear who viewed Noirot’s paintings during this period and under what circumstances.
The third and fourth chapters offer a broader view of mid sixteenth-century Netherlandish dining culture, beyond the case studies of de Busleyden and Noirot. Chapter 3 connects the peasant subjects of many surviving tafelspelen, table plays often performed at dinner parties, to Bruegel’s well-known peasant scenes. Goldstein argues that the social space of the dinner party enabled guests both to embody the socio-economic Other and to stress their differences from the peasant. In Chapter 4, Goldstein surveys a rich assortment of material goods – ceramics and glassware, hearth tiles, and spoons – depicting classical and religious subjects, as well as festive peasants. Majolica is conspicuously absent in her ambitious review of the material culture of the dining room. While she concludes that there is no strict typology for the early modern Antwerp dining room, Goldstein does propose that peasant imagery held a dominant role (125).
The book’s final chapter considers the dining rooms of Italian merchant Gaspar Ducci in Antwerp, Niclaes Jonghelinck’s suburban pleasure villa Ter Beke, as well as others farther afield, at the Fugger and Farnese palaces. Goldstein connects the aims and functions of these geographically diverse spaces, arguing that paintings in early modern dining rooms offered “signs of status” and that the dining room was a space where “abundance, or the appearance of it, existed in all areas.” (145) Given the scope of her examples, it would have been helpful if the author offered some comment on the question of national or regional dining cultures – for example, did the fashion for Venetian glass and classicizing wall paintings in dining rooms align with a broader interest in emulating Italian villa culture in the Low Countries?
Pieter Bruegel and the Culture of the Early Modern Dinner Partysheds light on the rich culture of the table in early modern Antwerp, suggesting the importance of this material evidence for viewing Bruegel’s scenes of peasants at work and at play. Although Bruegel’s paintings themselves often recede from view, methodologically Goldstein’s holistic approach to the space of the dining room is a rewarding strategy. Indeed, a current research project at the University of Antwerp, led by Bruno Blondé and Peter Stabel (De materialiteit van manieren en de gemanierdheid van de materialiteit. Tafelen en tafelcultuur in de laatmiddeleeuwse en vroegmoderne Zuidelijke Nederlanden) seeks to mine related material in order to trace the evolution of “table manners” and bourgeois identity in the early modern Low Countries. The early modern dinner party brought together food, drink, paintings and other highly decorated objects, plays, and music. Goldstein offers a model for how scholars of all disciplines can begin to reconstruct and analyze such complex spaces.