This volume addresses the interchange between what is often described as the native or vernacular tradition in Antwerp and the foreign or classical one as it was imported into that city. This compilation comprises fourteen extended contributions to a symposium at the University of Groningen (January, 2008), plus commentaries and a useful introductory overview by conference organizer Bart Ramakers. The visual arts, the literary arts, music, and particularly the plays produced by the chambers of rhetoric are all examined within this duality. The volume is a welcome addition to the bibliography of sixteenth-century Antwerp, especially since a major monument of Antwerp culture, the texts of the spelen van sinne, the allegorical plays performed at the 1561 landjuweel, are now available in a modern edition. That ambitious competition among Brabant rederijkersprovides a useful barometer of rising tensions in a rapidly shifting urban climate. Given constraints of space, I will concentrate on those papers that I think give the art historian wider purview of this context.
In her “Lost in Translation? Thinking about Classical and Vernacular Art in Antwerp, 1540-1580,” Joanna Woodall suggests the process of translation as a useful metaphor for examining the relationship between the two poles. Sixteenth-century Antwerp was “the most polyglot metropolis in the West” (5), yet was brought to its knees during the iconoclastic riots of the Wonderjaar of 1566. Afterwards, both the classical and vernacular idioms survived, although under repressive Spanish rule the relationship between the two is confused. Focusing on Bruegel’s Fall of Icarus, Woodall concludes that the middle term between Icarus and the plowman on that canvas might be marked by the partridge positioned on the bank between the two, a metaphor for “ambivalent cunning” hidden in material nature. In the sixteenth century, “cunning” as Jeroen Vandommele notes in his contribution, signified knowledge, or the capacity to acquire knowledge. Woodall, then, posits an oscillation or fluctuation between these two poles of knowledge. Most of the essays speak to that metaphorical pendulum, yet not always with the sense of flux.
Not surprisingly, the contribution closest to Woodall’s “ambivalent cunning” also addresses Bruegel’s compositions: Todd M. Richardson’s “Pieter Bruegel and the Art of Vernacular Cultivation.” In a sensitive analysis of the Vienna Peasant Dance – revisited in his subsequent book – Richardson shows how Bruegel directs the viewer’s gaze from the foreground to a telling background detail with the pictorial manipulations of Italian artists that successfully convey their historia. The viewer not only negotiates the appropriate equilibrium between revelry and self-control for the pictured peasants, but also finds an analogous dilemma in the personal experience of the panel in its social setting within a wealthy patron’s villa.
Caution was the operative mode in Antwerp at mid-century. When the Violieren, the Antwerp chamber that would host the 1561 landjuweel, submitted 24 possible topics for the spelen van sinne to regent Margaret of Parma, only three were accepted. Of those the Violieren chose perhaps the most conservative one,“Dwelck den Mensche, aldermeest tot Consten verwect?” usually translated as “What incites mankind most to the arts? Judging by the announcement on the invitation, the Violieren expected conservative answers as well, “All good arts,” the invitation continues, “injure no state, say no trifles/ but lead to Wisdom, Charity and Unity.” Several authors explore the cautionary stance of various texts from the 1560’s, yet find signs of dissent. Jeroen Vandommele takes his cue from an English merchant, Richard Clough, whose 1561 letter translates the topic as “Whatt thinge doeth most cause the sprette [spirit] of man to be desyrys of conyng.” As already noted, Vandommele observes that to the sixteenth century “conyng,” our “cunning,” denoted knowledge or the capacity of acquiring knowledge. This allows him to read the spelen van sinne from an epistemological perspective. He concludes that to the rederijkers and their audiences gathering knowledge of the material world is by no means purely secular, but rather, in the tradition of St. Augustine, the medium that gives insight into God as the Divine Creator. Despite this conventional attitude toward the pursuit of knowledge, in two of the plays he recognizes the influence of Calvin’s Institutes.
Like the partridge that tempers its flight, never flying too high, the rederijkers consistently interspersed their classical learning with didactic or devotional themes. Femke Hemelaar offers a useful overview of Antwerp rhetorician Cornelis van Ghistele’s translation of Virgil into a familiar rederijker format. As Ramakers points out in his introduction, Van Ghistele saw no inconsistency in adapting the Roman poem into the moral instruction typically found in the spelen van sinne. Of particular interest to art historians are two contributions devoted to Willem van Haecht, the factor, or leading poet and playwright of the Violieren. Ramakers examines the factor’s three apostle plays, which dramatize events of Paul’s life from his miraculous liberation from prison to his preaching in Rome. He characterizes Van Haecht as a painter with words, one who expertly mines possibilities inherent in his medium. The plays were first performed in 1563 and 1564, on the eve of the iconoclastic fury, and Van Haecht, who converted to Lutheranism and also supported William of Orange, fled the city after the riots. Here, however, Ramakers shows him to be a multi-faceted author who presents Paul as the ideal rhetorician counseling prudence in the face of adversity.
Yvonne Bleyerveld introduces several didactic allegorical engravings, devised by Van Haecht and designed by such leading artists as the Wierix brothers and Maarten de Vos. Published between 1576 and 1580, between the Pacification of Ghent and the fall of Antwerp to the Spanish in 1585, they were issued during a brief period of political and religious tolerance, when Van Haecht, newly returned to Antwerp, could express his previously forbidden political and religious bent.
In the opening chapter, in response to Woodall’s address, David Rijser suggests that our established polarity between the vernacular and the classical might misrepresent the situation in Northern Europe and Italy, and that the classicism we associate with the High Renaissance was both eclectic and synthetic, despite the goal of linking the present with the storied past in Greece and Rome. The 1527 Sack of Rome disrupted that dream of incorporating the past into the living present. Rijser contends that in the face of a devastated Rome, Frans Floris’s Feast of the Gods proposes Antwerp as the new home of the Olympian gods. His bold argument meets the conference directive to reconsider our conventional means of envisioning those two poles of sixteenth-century art in Europe This volume responds compellingly to that challenge, and initiates a significant re-plotting of this critical period.
Nina E. Serebrennikov