Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Catherine Nutting: “Bruegel’s Dinner Party”

Catherine M Nutting

Book Review

Claudia Goldstein. Pieter Bruegel and the Culture of the Early Modern Dinner Party. Ashgate (Surrey, UK, 2013), 188pp. ISBN: 978-0-7546-6732-2. $98.96 (USD).

1> Claudia Goldstein’s book links Pieter Bruegel’s peasant paintings with the sumptuous displays of wealth characteristic of the Early Modern dinner party. In the 16th Century, Antwerp and its environs were rebuilding, and the art and luxury items commissioned for the domestic interior had to help construct their patrons’ evolving identities. Goldstein combines ideas about conspicuous consumption and the performativity of art and material culture to argue that the dining room, the most decorated space in the 16th-century Antwerp mansion, was intended to communicate wealth and prestige. To paraphrase Goldstein’s words, “Dinner parties are described in literature from the ancients to Erasmus as intellectual gatherings where conversation is inspired by the images on the walls and by fellow guests, and where visual and literary references are the subject of lively, but serious, banter” (…) but by mid-century the “wealthy non-noble class that dominated the city” was “not as curious about humanist pursuits,” resulting in social rather than intellectual themes for hosted dinner parties and their accoutrements. (p4)

2> In the first of five chapters, Goldstein discusses the case of Flemish Councillor and art collector, Jerome de Busleyden (c1470-1517), whose intimate dining room set the scene for a lively fellowship of Antwerp humanists and travelling academics. In particular, the mansion that Busleyden had built in the city of Mechelin contains a small heated room, or stoove, entered off the large banqueting hall. Paintings of the banquets of Tantalus and Balthazar mark this space as a dining area, while the fire-related scenes of Phaeton and Mucius Scaevola perhaps pointed to the room’s cosy temperature, heated through its proximity to the kitchen. Many of the original wall paintings in Busleyden’s stoove survive, and Goldstein draws on period correspondence, for example by Desiderius Erasmus, Thomas More and Pieter Gillis, to argue that these classical images visually asserted the room’s purpose: that the 16th-century humanists model their friendly conversation on that of the classical convivium.

3> Chapter 2 is a close look at the 16th-century dining room of Jan Noirot who, despite being on the road to bankruptcy, refused to sell his five Bruegel paintings. Noirot was Master of the Antwerp Mint, an impressive site of metallurgy workshops, staff domiciles, and civic offices, and the headquarters of the Mint Consortium that linked the mints of Flanders, Bruges, Holland, and others. The fascinating aspect of Jan Noirot’s unfortunate bankruptcy in 1572 is that it resulted in a room-by-room inventory and several sworn testimonials that are preserved in Belgian archives. These show that Noirot’s dining room boasted expensive linens, crystal glasses, gilded tableware, and four of his fifty paintings, including Pieter Bruegel’s Winter Landscape, Peasant Kermis, and Peasant Wedding.

4> According to Goldstein, Noirot was less interested in seriously recreating the humanist intellectual programme than in maintaining the appearances of wealth and social status, and the dining room was the preferred location to perform this façade, a theme she expands upon in Chapter 3. This short chapter, “The Dinner Party as Performance,” applies foundational performance theory to the table-plays that were enjoyed at Early Modern banquets and special events. Goldstein describes two in particular, “A Peasant with Eggs” and “Big Hunger and Good Appetite.” Many of these 16th-century table-plays had peasants as their subjects, as did Noirot’s Bruegel paintings, and Goldstein situates them within the “world turned upside down” trope that could offer viewers entertainment and a sense of superiority. Having the Bruegel paintings as a backdrop to his gatherings allowed Noirot to “perform” an elevated economic status.

5> Chapter 4 considers the varied material culture of the 16th-century Antwerp dining room. It looks closely at stoneware and pewter drinking jugs from the Antwerp Museum Vleeshuis, and at the fopglazen crystal that was designed for drinking games. These and such domestic objects as the hearthware and table bells preserved in the Museum Mayer van den Bergh would have set the backdrop for the Early Modern construction of identity within the domestic interior. As Goldstein explains, the audience for these mugs, spoons, salt cellars, and painted tiles was a shifting target. The domestic interior is a complex and dynamic environment, the material of which can be repositioned and repurposed to communicate various interests and complicated identities.

6> The final chapter, “Antwerp and Beyond: Envisioning the Early Modern Dining Room” applies Goldstein’s theme of performative material culture to the homes of three merchants in Antwerp as well as four country houses in the suburbs. Many of these Italianate villa-style speelhuys or “playhouses” were built or refurbished between the 1542 Dutch attacks on estates around Antwerp, and the disastrous 1585 closing of the port of Antwerp. Goldstein shows that 16th-century residents of Antwerp placed great store in social events, wedding feasts, and all manner of parties, enjoying socializing in their leisure time. The dining room was a prime location for receiving guests, and its paraphernalia contributed to the festive air while simultaneously highlighting the prestige of the hosts. One example of this is the disguised family portraits by Marten de Vos in Gillis Hooftman’s dining room, but people also signalled their social allegiances through classical images, paintings and sculptures of the Virgin and saints, portraits of foreign or local leaders, and other visual markers. (p129) The book concludes with a mention of the visual language that Flemish artists exported internationally, focusing on paintings of food sellers, these images of carefree abundance serving as cultural currency when displayed in domestic dining rooms in combination with luxury objects.

7> In Pieter Bruegel and the Culture of the Early Modern Dinner Party, Goldstein has taken on an important topic. The production and consumption of visual culture in Early Modern Antwerp would increasingly influence other artistic traditions, including the Dutch Golden Age, as Flemish artist families fled war and poverty, taking their talents and knowledge with them. Goldstein profitably reconsiders the 16th-century reception of images in the light of diverse patron motives and the performative function of material culture itself. However, this potentially fruitful approach would have been better supported through further analysis. For example, to characterize Bruegel’s patrons as opportunistic and self-serving (p5, 145) arouses the reader’s interest in further explanation. A positive (patronage of worldly goods) does not always prove a negative (disinterest in humanist intellectual discourse). Identity is so complex, and reasons for collecting are so multifaceted, that delineating household contents does not provide sufficient evidence for the claim that patrons were interested almost solely in appearances. Including a Conclusion might have allowed Goldstein more scope to bring her arguments home. An intriguing aspect of the book is the information in the detailed object lists and other archival documents, which raise many fascinating questions. One interesting example is the section on Noirot’s wife, where Goldstein shows that different members of a household could have divergent relationships with domestic objects. Students of the Early Modern domestic interior will also be served by the bibliography’s inclusion of the secondary literature going back to the 1950s. Goldstein’s descriptions of the splendour and abundance of the Antwerp domestic scene are a feast for the reader’s mind. Her beliefs that meanings are multivalent, that material culture is activated through its display and use, and that dinner guests can be explained in part through performance theory, make The Early Modern Dinner Party a convivial read.

Catherine Nutting is an instructor at the Vancouver Island School of Art, a PhD candidate in Art History at the University of Victoria, and a Research Fellow at UVic’s Centre for Studies in Religion and Society. Her current research and teaching projects include Early Modern Italian and Flemish art and visual culture; the convergence of art practice and theory; and historical and contemporary World Arts.

Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,
Volume Seven (2014): Genres & Cultures

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