Life's rich tapestry


For the rich and powerful, art can be a display of wealth and power - but also a source of dialogue, says Lisa Jardine in her A Point of View column.

In a carefully-judged piece of cultural diplomacy timed to coincide with the Pope's visit this week, the Vatican has lent the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (of which I am a trustee) four of the huge tapestries from the series The Acts of the Apostles, commissioned by Pope Leo X at the beginning of the 16th Century.

They are displayed for the first time side by side with the full-size preparatory drawings (or cartoons) by the artist who created the Biblical scenes they depict, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino - better known simply as Raphael. The keen art-collector Charles I acquired the cartoons while he was still Prince of Wales in 1623, and they have been on loan to the V&A from the Royal Collection since 1865. Even Raphaël himself never saw his designs and the tapestries together, since the Acts of the Apostles series was not completed till after his death in 1520. Nor is this a juxtaposition we are ever likely to see repeated - both the tapestries and the cartoons are judged to be too fragile to be moved more than once in a lifetime.

In his account of the life of Raphael, his contemporary, the early art-historian Giorgio Vasari, vividly conveyed the reception of the finished product: "After they had been completed, the tapestries were sent back to Rome. The work was of such wonderful beauty that it astonished anyone who saw it to think that it could have been possible to weave the hair and the beards so finely and to have given such softness to the flesh merely by the use of threads.'"

In fact, it is difficult to capture in words the power of these magnificent woven works of art. Even five centuries after they were manufactured, in the workshops of the van der Moeyen tapestry-makers in Brussels, by skilled weavers working under the direction of the tapestry designer Pieter Coeck van Aelst, the visual effect is dazzling and the sheer scale breathtaking. The reds and precious threads still glow. The reflections in water are still sharp and convincing. Each work is slightly bigger than a London double-decker bus, and the figures of the apostles - bent to pull up the nets on a boat on the sea of Galilee, or standing in amazement, hands raised in prayer before the risen Christ - are several times larger than life.

Image caption, Raphael's Christ's Charge to Peter made a big impact in the 16th century

It is easy, though, to see, standing beneath them, why large-scale tapestry sets were understood in the first half of the 16th Century to be works of art well-suited for the job of proclaiming the power, influence and cultivation of their owner on the international stage. Pope Leo X was the second son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, ruler of the Florentine Republic and head of the Medici banking firm. He knew a thing or two about how to use ostentatious expenditure to make an impact. Others were quick to follow his example.

As part of the preparations for an unprovoked military attack on Muslim forces in North Africa in 1535, the Hapsburg Emperor Charles V hired the same Pieter Coeck van Aelst and the artist Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen from Haarlem in the Netherlands to travel with his military retinue and record the progress of the campaign for propaganda purposes. By late July the Imperial forces had conquered Tunis. The campaign was - as Charles V had hoped - a surprise victory over the increasingly invulnerable Muslim forces, and a blow to the international prestige of the French king, Francis I, who had declined to be drawn into a North African war.

On Charles V's return, no expense was spared in creating a magnificent tapestry series, The Conquest of Tunis, based on Coeck's and Vermeyen's eye-witness drawings, and a room in the imperial palace at Toledo was constructed to house the twelve panels of the series. Thereafter they often travelled with the Emperor - carefully rolled, and stacked on purpose-built wagons - to be unfurled on the occasion of a state visit, to remind those attending an Imperial gathering of the awesome power of the Habsburgs.

Given the success of tapestries as symbols of wealth and power, their manufacturers were quick to notice that it might be worth approaching those great heads of state who had not yet placed an order. In 1533, Pieter Coeck van Aelst travelled to the Court of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople), sponsored by the van der Moeyen Flemish tapestry-weaving company. According to a contemporary German chronicler: "The van der Moeyen firm intended to establish a trade and make rich carpets and hangings for the Great Turk, and to this end they employed Peter Coeck to paint divers things to be shewn to the Turkish Emperor."

The idea was to interest Suleiman in commissioning his own, competing tapestry series on a grandiose theme of his choice. The van der Moeyens were prepared to underwrite the costs of such a venture, confident that if one imperial ruler was told that a particular art object was the coveted possession of a rival, he could be relied upon to commission an equivalent one for himself.

The Istanbul trip shows how in the 16th Century the contest for art works amongst wealthy enthusiasts was extended to include supposedly utterly hostile, alien imperial powers to the East. Purveyors of gems, gold and silverware, paintings and statuary, knew that where luxury goods were concerned, the Sultan, the Pope and the Habsburg Emperor were happy to emulate one another to acquire costly objects which would signal to the world that where lavish expenditure was concerned, each was a match for the other.

Coeck spent a year in Istanbul, making many drawings of ceremonial events at the court. He became a great favourite with the Sultan. At the end of the year, we are told, he returned to Europe a wealthy man: "By the royal bounty of Suleiman's own hand, Pieter was dismissed with honourable gifts, a ring, a jewel, horses, robes, gold, and servants, which at Brussels he converted into an annual pension."

The Ottoman tapestry commission was, however, never completed. Instead, Coeck turned his exquisite drawings of the Sultan and his Court into a series of woodcuts which he published extremely successfully in Antwerp in 1553 under the title The Customs and Habits of the Turks.

Image caption, The Healing of the Lame Man will be on display at the V&A

So while the Medici Pope was busy broadcasting his wealth and power through ostentatiously commissioning art-works appropriate to his position as head of the European Christian Church - among them Raphael's Acts of the Apostles - the Habsburg Emperor was doing the same in his capacity as Europe's greatest military power, and the Ottoman Sultan was being encouraged to do likewise as the "magnificent" ruler of the vast Islamic Ottoman Empire on Europe's eastern flank.

And although in the end the tapestries were perhaps not to his taste, Suleiman the Magnificent did have a spectacular golden helmet designed for himself by goldsmiths in Venice in 1532. The helmet was encircled by four crowns, each studded with gems and pearls, topped with plumes in a crescent-shaped mount, and completed with a head band decorated with pointed diamonds and an ornate chin-strap. This extraordinary piece of headgear, incorporating 50 diamonds, 47 rubies, 27 emeralds, 49 pearls, and a large turquoise, was valued at 144,400 ducats - that's several million pounds in today's money. This included the cost of an elaborate, velvet-lined gilt ebony case.

Ottoman convention dictated that the Sultan always appeared in an ornate, jewel-bedecked turban - he never wore a helmet. But in the very year in which he acquired it, the Venetian helmet - which according to contemporary observers "bore a striking resemblance to a papal tiara" - was paraded around the walls of Vienna, when the Emperor Charles V found himself besieged there, as his Ottoman rival swept across Hungary, to threaten Europe itself with conquest. In the event, the Hapsburg forces defeated the Ottomans, stopping Suleiman's westwards march. But his displays of costly magnificence struck dread into the hearts of ordinary Europeans.

In their day tapestries were part of an international contest in artworks between rich and powerful rulers across the Christian and Muslim worlds. Their enthusiasm for emulating one another in acquiring gorgeous Renaissance things - often commissioned from the same artists - kept a conduit for dialogue open between them, in spite of their ideological and doctrinal differences. Last week's handing over by the British Museum of the precious sixth-century Cyrus Cylinder to the National Museum of Iran on a four-month loan, is perhaps an example of how we might go about building equivalent cultural bridges today.

Raphael: Cartoons and Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel is at the V&A from 8 September to 17 October 2010

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