Margaretha Rossholm Lagerlof Fate, Glory, and Love in Early Modern Gallery Decoration: Visualizing Supreme Power.
This richly illustrated book presents four case studies of galleries, three of them well known: the Gallery of Francis I at Fontainebleau; the Farnese Gallery; and the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Not so well known, but an apt and welcome addition, is the Gallery of Karl XI in Stockholm. Essentially corridors meant to lead from one place to another in a palace, galleries developed into true showpieces that dazzled viewers with gigantic numbers of images in multiple media. Such overladen spaces were seen as powerfully linked to the person of the ruler, as becomes evident in the length of time under investigation here, from the second quarter of the sixteenth century to the late seventeenth century. Lagerlof's interest, the focus of her book, is the exploration of how these spaces worked with images and media to communicate messages to viewers. Particularly where mirrors were built in, as at Versailles and Stockholm, the closeness of the gallery to art theory and indeed to ideas of rulership emerges. Because such spaces were confusing even without mirrors, Lagerlof argues that the demand on the viewer to construct meaning was a deliberate and important element of each gallery. As a space, the gallery was itself so flexible that subsequent rulers could easily adapt it to their own needs.
Lagerlof structures her book chronologically, beginning with Francis I and the theme of changing fortune in the Fontainebleau gallery (1530-39). She briefly discusses the evolution of the gallery, including the many alterations made to it that complicate its analysis, and she recognizes the recent important contributions of other scholars to the interpretation of this difficult space. This gallery is the most private of those she discusses, accessible only to Francis or to those he invited into it. Its meaning was also deeply personal and connected to tragedies in the king's life. Spatially, the gallery was vertically sandwiched between lower rooms in which the king's collections were on display and the rooms above housing his famous, beautifully bound library. The supposedly antique sculptures the gallery originally held are gone, but there is enough left of the Mannerist decoration for Lagerlof to demonstrate how the space embodied the sacred, esoteric nature of the French king on the one hand and on the other the thick layers of meaning associated with Francis's imagery. If we did not already know this particular king's love of arcane, humanist symbolism, we might find Lagerlof's reading forced. However, her sensitive and careful observation of even small details combine with her knowledge of the king's interests and biography to convince the reader.
Lagerlof's second chapter opens less densely as she sets the historical and conceptual stage for her discussion of the theme of love in the Farnese Gallery (1597-1608). The occasion for decorating this gallery with the Loves of the Gods was a family wedding, but Lagerlof connects the ambiguity of the paintings to the crisis represented by the burning of Giordano Bruno only a short distance from the palazzo. As she shows, however, the gallery can equally be seen as a response to a crisis in art, undergoing transformation (and censorship) in the wake of the Counter-Reformation. Here, as in Fontainebleau, frames and scale play major roles, but in this gallery, the most important section is the vault, completely executed in illusionistic fresco. The patrons of the gallery, Cardinal Odoardo and Duke Ranuccio Farnese, were powerful men who did not possess the illustrious lineage of their French royal predecessor, but like Francis they had their artists include symbols--imprese--referring directly and obviously to them. Also like Francis, they kept humanists in their employ to guide them in their collecting and to guide their artists in their decorating. Unlike foreigners, though, to the Farnese classical imagery was a means of tying themselves to the goddess Venus and the ancient roots of their city, Rome. Almost since its inception the Farnese Gallery has been interpreted as a Neoplatonic meditation on love, but humanists of the Counter-Reformation saw this differently from Renaissance authors. Moreover, the painter, Annibale Carracci, self-consciously, openly, and repeatedly referred to Renaissance models, but put these in wholly new contexts. Lagerlof underscores the tension of the paintings, stating that they are "almost spitting in the pope's face" (126), their messages about human desire toned down by the decoration of the walls. To be shocked, the prude of circa 1600 would have had to look up into the vault.
The Farnese Gallery was one of the models for the Hall of Mirrors (1678-84), the subject of Lagerlof's third chapter on omnipotence. Louis XIV diverged from his Italian sources and from Francis I in demanding that the paintings in this gallery should be dedicated to his own triumphal reign. This was not to be disguised in classicizing allegory, although Louis appears in classical armor. Lagerlof emphasizes the king's physicality, pointing out that in the paintings he is dynamically posed and never distorted by foreshortening, in contrast to other figures. This king and this grand corridor in his brand-new palace/seat of government were not hidden at all from view, to be revealed only to selected viewers. Indeed, concerns with reaching a wide audience influenced the language in which painting inscriptions were written--French, not Latin--and led to publications in which the iconography of the room was explained, in part to counter the spread of negative attitudes towards Louis. Lagerlof again presents her reader with close descriptions of frames, and she draws a parallel between the unreal worlds of the paintings and the reflections in the mirrors along the walls. For her the mirrors hold an "unfulfilled promise" (188), since the viewer does not see the king and his deeds in them. But surely this promise was fulfilled for the gallery's original audience, to which this most theatrical of all monarchs once displayed himself in this very room. During Louis's lifetime, the king in the Hall of Mirrors may have seemed not just omnipotent, but omnipresent.
The Hall of Mirrors served as a prototype for the final gallery Lagerlof discusses, the one begun under Swedish King Karl XI and completed after his death and a devastating fire (1694-1702). Lagerlof opens with a ravishing description of the space during the evening of the summer solstice. Lagerlof's intimate knowledge of the gallery--she is a professor of Art History at Stockholm University--lends credibility to her emphasis on light in the room and how it changes across the year, influencing the viewer's reception of messages. The gallery faces north and is flooded particularly on the summer solstice by the sunlight that is absent for so much of the rest of the year. This, Lagerlof explains, is not accidental, but results from Karl's personal, Nordic symbolism that tied him both to the Pole Star and to the bright summer nights of his kingdom. Lagerlof further demonstrates that under Karl the kingship of Sweden first became truly autocratic and that, like Louis XIV in the Hall of Mirrors, the image of the king informs the gallery both metaphorically and literally. His architect, Nicodemus Tessin, had traveled to France and studied Versailles closely, and he plays a major part in Lagerlof's interpretation. He influenced the importation of French artists to work on the palace. Particular paintings are close models of those in the Hall of Mirrors, while sculptors based their work on examples by Bernini. And yet the two galleries achieve different effects due to their lighting conditions and especially to the prominence of white stucco sculpture in Stockholm. As in other galleries Lagerlof has discussed, such details add to the messages the space broadcasts, particularly those about the royal couple, both deceased by the time the room was finished.
Lagerlof pulls her four examples together in a concluding chapter that returns to her theoretical base. She sees the galleries as performative spaces, influenced not simply by the imagery but also by shape, size, and the light that is so much a part of her chapter on the Stockholm gallery. She peels the rooms apart to reveal their semiotic systems, much as she intimates in her introduction.
In so doing, what Lagerlof also does is underline the totality of these galleries. Architecture, especially when conceived as it was in galleries, as an enveloping ensemble of structure, painting, sculpture, and frame, is the most difficult of the arts to describe in text. Anything so truly three-dimensional and even four-dimensional fights against being reduced to the flatness, the sequential nature of writing and reading--and architecture usually loses that fight. It is greatly to Lagerlof's credit that she nevertheless brings these places to thought-provoking life.
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|Author:||Kirch, Miriam Hall|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2015|
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