Saturday, May 14, 2022

Party Central: L'Art de la Fête à la cour des Valois

Renaissance courtiers loved a good party. Fêtes, or celebrations, at court lasted for days and included any number of events: lavish banquets, jousts and mock battles, dramatic spectacles, elaborate costume balls. Festive gatherings served a multitude of purposes: impressing visiting dignitaries, marking births and marriages, commemorating important victories, displaying the skills and ingenuity of court artists--and, of course, manifesting the munificent generosity of the king.

Above and beyond their political purposes, parties were just plain fun. 

Photo credit: Cleveland Museum of Art 

Despite the frequency and extravagance of Renaissance court festivals, however, they are difficult to document. Parties are, after all, ephemeral things: the food is consumed, the decorations discarded, the music fades away. Before the invention of photography, it was impossible to capture such events in real time. Modern historians must rely on written memories and rare artifacts as they attempt to reconstruct the look, activity, and tenor of celebrations at the Renaissance court.

A current exhibition at the Château of Fontainebleau, the primary residence of François I and a favorite of his son Henri II and grandson Henri III, attempts to recreate the Renaissance celebration for modern-day visitors. L'Art de la fête à la cour des Valois, which runs through July 4, presents over one hundred works, many lent from international collections, in an attempt to capture these festivals in all their splendor and document the extensive behind-the-scenes preparation that glory required.

Organized by curators Oriane Beaufils and Vincent Droguet, the exhibit includes paintings, tapestries, parade armor, costume sketches and commemorative pamphlets from celebrations across several reigns. From the most solemn to the most extravagant, Renaissance celebrations were living, moving, breathing works of art that sprouted from the ingenuity of some of the greatest artists of the time: Rosso Fiorentino, Francesco Primaticcio, Robert Delorme, Antoine Caron, and poet Pierre de Ronsard. The collected works at Fontainebleau resurrect the decorations, program, and costumes of some of the Valois court's most magnificent events.

Masquerade balls were central to Valois celebrations. Sketches of costumes designed by court artist Primaticcio for events like the festivities surrounding Emperor Charles V's state visit to Fontainebleau in 1539 (I blogged about that here) survive to this day. 

Photo credit: Musée du Louvre

Photo credit: Musée du Louvre

In order to recreate the feel of the fête for modern visitors, the Château engaged the costume workshop of nearby Disneyland Paris to render two of Primaticcio's sketches into life-sized garments. These faithful, fanciful costumes stand on display in the Château's ballroom, site of so many Valois parties. If you can't make it to the salle de bal in person, you can view the recreated costumes here, courtesy of La République de Seine-et-Marne., a French art history site, has an excellent written preview of the exposition, as well as an engaging short film animated by Oriane Beaufils herself. Her enthusiasm for the subject is palpable.

As much as I'd love to view the exposition in person, I must content myself with the printed catalogue, which I expect to arrive next week. I'll share about it soon. In the meantime....

Party on!

(You can find more about the exhibit on Twitter under the hashtags #PartyLikeaValois and #FeteAFontainebleau.)

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