Woven Theaters of Nature: Flemish Tapestry and Natural History, 1550-1600

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Chambers of Flemish tapestry served as prestigious, portable decoration for early modern courts across Europe. In the second half of the sixteenth century, a number of noble patrons commissioned tapestries that prominently featured highly naturalistic zoological and botanical imagery. Drawing upon zoological treatises, medical and physiognomic literature, fables, printed emblemata, accounts of staged animal combats, and a variety of other sources, this dissertation offers a new interpretation of three cycles of animal tapestries that survive relatively intact. The study explores how the production, export, and display of animal tapestries, a largely overlooked genre, coincides with the beginning of a fundamental transformation of European natural knowledge, and with a burgeoning interest among sixteenth-century rulers in practices of natural history (defined as the acquisition, study, and display of natural objects and representations of them). The first chapter analyzes a set of ten grotesque spalliere commissioned by Cosimo de'Medici (1519-1574) from his own newly-founded workshops in Florence. The chapter reinterprets a puzzling band of naturalistic marine specimens found within the grotesques in light of an early modern discourse that cast nature as an artisan, and demonstrates that chambers of tapestry, like cabinets of rarities and illuminated albums of natural minutiae, could function as courtly theaters of nature. The second chapter examines the purchase by Polish king Sigismund II Augustus (1520-1572) of a massive unified series of Flemish tapestries, 138 of which survive at Wawel Castle in Cracow. As a large but seamless indoor garden, the series illustrates the most important account of the progress of natural knowledge in the early modern period: the biblical narrative of Creation. The third chapter takes up a set of seven tapestries now displayed at the Borromean palace of Isola Bella, which depict violent combats between feral predators and prey. The tapestries, which belonged to several prominent ecclesiastics before 1700, employ zoological imagery to illustrate the unruly presence of the humoral passions both in nature and within the postlapsarian human body. Early modern natural history illustration is often equated with paper images of flora and fauna: species represented individually in woodcuts in printed catalogues, or in watercolors collected into albums. This dissertation demonstrates that chambers of fine Flemish tapestry - splendid moveable environments for courts - likewise served as a medium for aristocratic patronage of natural history in the period. The study is a re-examination of three cycles of sixteenth-century tapestry renowned for their zoological iconography, through the lens of recent scholarship on natural history patronage at European courts, scholarship which has clarified the uses and appeal of natural history in courtly settings yet ignored the medium of tapestry almost entirely

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  • 08/27/2018
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