What a fascinating, fine work of irony this is! The authors claim to "challenge the view that Renaissance culture defined itself in large part against an exotic, dangerous, always marginal East" and to correct this misapprehension by revealing "a remarkably equal exchange between Renaissance Europe and the Ottoman East"; their clearly stated goal is to heal a great divide. Yet they end by creating another: between themselves and all other historians, who seem, in the authors' minds, to have joined together in a willfully blind conspiracy to keep East and West separate.
Despite their construction of straw figures whom they must constantly assail, the authors' choice of subject matter and actual analyses thereof are intriguing and frequently illuminating. If the reader can slog through the often bellicose language in the introduction and conclusion of the book (and, to a lesser extent, of each chapter), Jardine and Brotton can provide insight into ideas of empire, competition, and cultural constructs.
What is the burden of their polemic? Because they present "a historical pursuit of ideas and representations across disciplinary and geographical boundaries," they believe they are writing a book that is "not a 'history' in a conventional sense," because it goes beyond "conventional boundaries of named disciplines" (7-8). Given that art history, which figures prominently in the book, and even stodgy old regular history, have in the last 30 years produced scores of works that break down disciplinary, temporal and geographical boundaries and that, furthermore, pursue ideas and representations in a wide variety of contexts, it is difficult to believe completely in the novelty of their undertaking.
My skepticism grows when I read their analysis of a Bellini portrait of Mehmet II. The identity of both painter and subject were not certain until very recently, because it depended upon "a restored Western understanding of the time spent by Bellini in Istanbul as one of the Sultan's court artistsÉ"(9). Why "Western" understanding? Why not simply "understanding?" There's no suggestion that any Eastern scholars had identified the portrait accurately either.
Well, because that position would not suit the authors' purposes. They demand, "Who knows what unfamiliar cultural identities we will discoverÉ. Once we have breached the boundaries of our own historical prejudice?" (10) Perhaps I'm naïve, but I've always been willing to admit the vast scope of my own ignorance, and to concede, without a fight, that civilizations arising from someplace other than the relatively small subcontinent of Europe have been able to create great art, intellectual schema, and culture in general, and that cultural and material exchange has, to greater and lesser extents, occurred throughout recorded history. Later in the book, Jardine and Brotton claim, "We undertook to dismantle Renaissance Man as constructed by Burckhardt and Freud" (61). If it were 1903, we might applaud such initiative, but in 2003, is not critical evaluation of these dated constructs a given? Would any serious Renaissance scholar uphold them?
Lastly, in the closing pages, the authors elide East and West with West and West: "We have shown that in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, East and West met on much more equal terms. Indeed, it was the East the provided Europe with some of its most enduringly potent symbols and images. Over the succeeding century, East met West in strenuous and constructive competition, from which many of the most familiar and perhaps reassuring elements of our modern cultural currency are derived. Yet in Bosnia and Kosova - to take the most obvious recent examples - the rediscovery of the historical intermingling of Eastern and Western cultures, mentalities and ways of life has resulted in a tragic emergence of crude, Burckhardtian ethnic essentialism" (184). Because Jardine and Brotton have slid easily from Byzantine to Muslim cultures as "Eastern" during the course of the book, this last observation strikes me as a rather obvious attempt to return, without explanation, to their earlier frame of reference, just to drag in a modern, highly complex ethnic and religious struggle as if it somehow validates the authors' historical analysis concerning very different actors.
Once we step away from the malformed framework of the book and enter the substance of the three long chapters it contains, the outlook brightens significantly. The authors have chosen to focus on two easily duplicated and portable objects, portrait medals and tapestries. In Chapter 1, "Exchanging Identity: Breaching the Boundaries of Renaissance Europe," they examine the exchange of images between Byzantium and Western Europe in images found on medals. The analysis of The Ambassadors raises questions of competition for empire among Francis I, Charles V, and the Portuguese, focusing on the objects placed in the center of the picture between the two figures. The authors conclude that "shared acquisitive (mercantile) drives of Ottomans, Italians and Portuguese brought these territories together in light of a shared political and commercial goal which the official state narratives were happy to allow, but not to sanction publicly" (60).
Chapter 2, "Telling Tapestries: Fabricating Narratives of Conquest," opens with the statement that "the large-scale tapestry series became a symbolically over-determined artifact upon which the political hopes and aspirations of the imperial courts of the period were repeatedly projected." These enormous objects were "increasingly appropriated to support a far more exclusive and aggressive vision of European 'civility'" (63). Jardine and Brotton wish in part to rehabilitate the tapestry as a costly and important part of European artistic production (70-71); they also manage to argue convincingly that a dialogue existed among tapestries as well as among royal personages, with images from one series being appropriated into another, or rival powers commissioning copies of each other's tapestries. The small size of the reproductions leaves the reader unable to grasp the full scale and grandeur of these objects, but the analyses are fascinating nonetheless.
Some of the more grandiose and abstract claims attached to these tapestries fail to convince, however. Describing Acts of João de Castro, the authors claim that they "offer increasingly strident images of imperial authority which cash in their two-way legibility between East and West in favour of a more overtly aggressive image of military superiority and territorial possession over and against East." Without explication of the images, we are left to either take or leave this statement. One fascinating snippet reveals that the draughtsman from the Tunis series went as an agent of van der Moyen tapestry firm, makers of the Scipio tapestries purchased by Mary of Hungary, to try to establish custom at Ottoman court. There he produced a cartoon engraving of Sultan Süleyman II, "powerfully broadcasting the military might and imperial grandeur of the Ottomans" (120).
Jardine and Brotton seem somewhat taken aback to observe, "These cycles all announce urgent and aggressive claims to authority, whether imperial, religious or commercial dominion over those who viewed [them]" (121). Well, of course they did! Why else would they be commissioned? And it is then most puzzling to read on the same page, that "[W]hile many of these tapestries share close iconographic similarities, as has been pointed out by several art historians, our concern here is to emphasize the political distinctions that led to significant differences in the ways in which such items were commissioned and displayed, as a way of complicating standard iconographically based readings of such cycles." If that was the authors' goal, they failed; what they show are the similarities among creation and themes of tapestries, and the ways in which political figures deployed them.
Finally, even if we accept the argument presented in this chapter that the conflation of Turks and Protestants was common, we can hardly refer to the Hapsburg court's "devastating deployment of the Tunis tapestries at Philip II's wedding to Mary Tudor" (130), given the course of subsequent events in England. If the purpose were indeed to intimidate his new wife's Protestant subjects and to announce a marriage most English people disapproved of, "gauche" would seem a better adjective. Phillip II's purpose in displaying the tapestries may have been to intimidate, but he failed miserably. The authors here seem to be confusing depictions with reality.
Similarly, I am willing to concede that Frances Yates's analysis of the Valois Tapestries as a Protestant plea for help which models a world of religious peace and festivity may be overly rosy, and even that the tapestries are "much more aggressive images of dynastic power than Yates would concede," designed "to broadcast the power of their owners, not provide 'politique' advice, as Yates suggests" (126). I cannot agree with the statement, however, that, "[V]iewed from this perspective, they become deeply threatening" (127). No. A knife at my throat is deeply threatening; a series of tapestries may be intimidating, even disturbing, but rulers have often had to project images of themselves, their subjects, and their enemies as powerfully as possible to make up for their lack of real authority and ability to enforce such distinctions and obedience. The terrifying aspect of the tapestries is especially questionable since "No documentary evidence has survived to tell us how the French courts used the Valois Tapestries in the aftermath of their productionÉ" (130). Jardine and Brotton's reading of the tapestries is plausible, but without context; it is detached from any real "terror" (overstatement again) any real Huguenots felt.
The final chapter, "Managing the Infidel: Equestrian Art on Its Mettle" puns nicely on the medals that the authors return to, and introduces a final motif, the horse, as a profitable subject for examination of East-West exchanges. Despite the usual overstatements of "devastating and terrifying effects" (155), here, as with tapestries, the authors fruitfully explore the acquisition and breeding of horses, which carried very definite Eastern associations, given that "the supply and quality-control centre was located in the heart of the territories of the Ottoman and Persian empires" (148). The horse was a high-status item, and increasingly important in warfare, carrying a lightly-armored knight with sword, dagger, and pistol. One of Queen Elizabeth's courtiers strongly advised her to begin a horse-breeding program in England, with stallions from Germany and Friesland, as well as German saddlers and makers of greaves and shoes, tailors, blacksmiths, and a few saddlers. Sensible advice that, as was the knowledge that crossbreeding strengthens stocks. The authors now pounce on a seeming contradiction here, because the same courtier also stated, "There is nothing which more weakens the strength of a kingdom than forces of foreign soldiers, and especially horse" (156). Does this betray "an underlying anxiety" (159), as the authors claim, or are the authors conflating ideas of breeding and foreign blood with those of having to pay these foreign soldiers off, as the original quotation clearly states when viewed in context? Despite these questions and criticisms, the chapter certainly succeeds in raising our awareness of both the horse and depictions thereof as valuable objects of cultural analysis.
Some production and editorial decisions mar the work: in order to keep the book priced reasonably, its many reproductions are so small that often a magnifying glass is necessary to see particular details the authors examine. The most fascinating analysis in the entire book, that of Holbein's The Ambassadors, asks us to focus on a black-and-white photograph no bigger than a standard Post-It note. It is also puzzling that the Dürer image used to depict the new warrior, "armed with pistols" shows a knight with lance, sword, and dagger - but no pistol clearly visible (156). The authors' use of "sneaky quotation marks," the single '' used to indicate some degree of distance or skepticism towards the item within (as in 'cleanse,' below) grates after a while. I would much prefer authors use words to specify exactly what stance they are taking towards questionable terms or ideas rather than segregate them generically. The words "humane" and "triumphalist" also become irritating, repeated as they are throughout the book, and in ways that do not always fit their dictionary definitions. Lastly, I am puzzled by the translation of Fortunam virtute devicit as "Victory of Virtue over Fortune" rather than the more accurate, and more powerful, "He conquered fortune by virtue" - particularly as their point is that Francis I of France manipulated received iconography to make himself appear as majestic as possible.
In the final analysis, it is difficult to share the authors' optimism that identifying the desire to "'cleanse' European civilization of its barbarous other" as "a short-lived misprision, traceable, as we showed at the outset of this study, to a particular cast of mind at a particular historical moment" will lead to a diminution of racial, ethnic, religious, or social prejudices either in the West or in the East. Though "Our shared histories mean that we inhabit a cultural environment rich with possibilities for future fruitful collaborations and contestations" (184), such a shared heritage has not necessarily led to greater mutual toleration or respect across or within East or West. Only if we share the Socratic ideal that no one does evil knowingly can this statement prove true.