Wednesday, January 25, 2023

French Renaissance Treasures at San Francisco's Legion of Honor

It's always a thrill to discover sixteenth century artifacts in twenty-first century America. This past weekend, I visited one of San Francisco's art museums, the Legion of Honor, for the first time in years and was surprised at the number of French Renaissance treasures in the collection. The museum has a wide variety of Renaissance works on display, from furniture to tapestries to paintings and enamelware. 

We'll start with the walnut armoire à deux corps, a seemingly requisite item of any sixteenth-century furniture collection. These large, heavy cabinets served as storage closets for linens, tableware, and personal items. They typically featured four compartments, two upper and two lower, accessed by doors. A pair of drawers can separate the upper and lower sections. 

The wealthier the purchaser, the more elaborately carved an armoire would be, with vines, arabesques, and mythical creatures adorning the cabinet in grand profusion. Although this one, dated circa 1580, is on the plainer side, it features an interesting display of geometrical perspective on the door panels. 

The carved panels create the illusion of a room of vast depth and height, its different floors supported by pillars and lit by arched windows. The blocks behind the central pilaster have a pocked appearance, mimicking the rough surface of stone. It is a beautiful piece of furniture, one any wealthy merchant or nobleman would be proud to own.

Beside the armoire stand two carved wooded chairs called caquetoires. This name derives from the French verb caqueter, meaning to chat in a relaxed social situation. Caquetoire chairs feature a trapezoidal seat and outward curving arms, the better to accommodate the voluminous skirts worn by Renaissance women. The chairs are lightly built, allowing them to be drawn up close to a bed- or fireside. Seats and back were sometimes covered; Catherine de Medici's 1548 inventory includes "small caqueteuse chairs with tapestry." The examples at the Legion of Honor date from around 1550. I had never heard of a caquetoire before and was happy to learn about them in this article.

The final piece of furniture on display was an elegant cassone, or bridal chest. This one, carved in walnut, was constructed in Italy around 1550. A cassone was a status piece, commissioned by the family of a wealthy bride and filled with her personal goods. Placed in the bridal suite at the foot of the bed, it could serve not only as a storage box but as a place to sit. Flat-sided fifteenth century cassone painted with mythological scenes eventually gave way to intricately carved and gilded works like the one below. I found it moving to stand next to this piece and imagine a sixteenth-century bride filling it with new gowns and linens, eager to begin life as a married woman--or, perhaps, dreading union with a man she hardly knew.

The Legion of Honor collection also includes two tapestries. The first, dating from about 1470, is called Rabbit Hunting with Ferrets and depicts exactly that:

It took me a while to find a ferret, but I finally located one at the bottom, towards the left. A hunter introduces the ferret into a rabbit burrow, presumably to frighten the rabbit out through a different hole, where it is caught in a net--a late medieval version of "out of the fire, into the frying pan." The result is the same--rabbit stew.

The second tapestry was woven in Brussels around 1535. Triumph of Justice is one of seven panels from a series called The Triumph of the Seven Virtues. This series features allegorical depictions of the three theological virtues (Faith, Hope, and Charity) and the four cardinal virtues (Justice, Prudence, Fortitude, and Temperance). Such series were meant not only to delight the senses (and warm cold rooms!) but to provide moral instruction.

The Legion of Honor owns two other panels in the series (Triumph of Fortitude and Triumph of Prudence). The three tapestries had been stored, rolled up, for twenty-five years in the museum basement and had to be painstakingly restored before they could be displayed. The process took six years; Justice was the last one finished. The National Museum of Scotland owns a Triumph of Prudence and has posted an informative video about the repair and conservation of the tapestry on its website.

Needless to say, I had a wonderful time "geeking out" at this display of amazing artifacts. My delight soared when I discovered a large collection of enamelware--a Renaissance speciality that I take a particular interest in and that will be the subject of my next post.

No comments: