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23.12.11 Tomasi, Écrire l’art en France au temps de Charles V et Charles VI

23.12.11 Tomasi, Écrire l’art en France au temps de Charles V et Charles VI


Michele Tomasi’s masterful book examines what a consideration of late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century chroniclers of royalty and nobility can teach us about the arts during the reigns of Charles V and Charles VI. He concentrates on discussions of the arts in texts by Froissart and Michel Pintoin, the Religieux of Saint-Denis, and supplements them with others ranging from Pierre d’Orgemont to Christine de Pizan. Asking different questions than those who have used these accounts previously to discuss the arts, he uses an approach inspired by Michael Baxandall, but flips it to explore what arts caught the attention of chroniclers and how they employed language to describe them. He believes that “professional writers had a knowledge and mastery of the language that was sufficient to allow them to adapt it to the need to express an experience” (12) and asserts that “sometimes these authors carry out lexical transfers from sectoral domains, or on certain occasions they use terms in meanings which are not those which prevail in their circles: I see in this the proof that the reality which surrounds them and which they talk about, far from being perceived only through enslaving language structures, stimulates their exploration of the possibilities of language.” (12) He also acknowledges the influence of Bernard Guenée’s work on his research by drawing attention to Guenée’s exploration of ways in which the lexicon used by authors provides access their thought about the world they inhabited. Tomasi wishes to mine these chronicles to find evidence about the oral exchanges that generated figural programs and artistic expression and to understand the reception of arts by these chroniclers’ contemporaries from about 1360 to 1420.

His first chapter explains his choice to focus on the writing of Jean Froissart and Michel Pintoin and to describe their value as witnesses. Froissart’s vernacular chronicle evolved in stages over the period that he worked for diverse international patrons, and it was likely completed by another author after his death ca. 1403-1404. In contrast, Pintoin’s Latin chronicle, written over years in the ambient of Saint-Denis, reveals his ongoing contacts with members of the French court. Tomasi uses Christine de Pizan’s biography of Charles V and the portion of Pierre d’Orgemont’s continuation of the Grandes chroniques de France recording the life of Charles V selectively to nuance readings of Froissart and Pintoin. He tested the reliability of one description by Froissart vis à vis Pintoin and Pierre d’Orgemont and concluded that unlike them, Froissart did not have access to official documents. Thus, Froissart’s utility would be to provide a sense of what people valued, rather than precisely describing what they actually owned.

The second chapter deftly uses the chronicles to isolate the language used to describe sculpture, painting, and architecture and to show the “convergence of perspectives between chroniclers and the milieu of their protectors and readers (57).” He teases out evidence for the social function of the works. Among other insights, he considers the noble reception of three-dimensional statues. He shows that secular statues were rarely mentioned but that religious statues were used in prayer, incited viewers to pray for the dead, were given as ex-votos, and occasionally were animated. He reads the chroniclers against the evidence provided by documents, and he also finds scattered evidence for the political usage of sculpture. Paintings were rarely mentioned by Froissart or Pintoin; most writing about that genre focused on portraits as part of marriage negotiations and on the usage of heraldic paintings. Iconographic programs were rarely discussed. Discussion of architecture by the chroniclers reveals how conscious they were of new practices. For instance, the descriptions of princely residences show both the aesthetic appreciation of their military function as well as their materiality, and the importance of private spaces in residences and gardens. Tomasi also uncovers an awareness of urban decorum. He reads Froissart and Pintoin alongside Gilbert de Metz, Eustache Deschamps, and the anonymous Songe veritable texts and traces aspects of architecture that evoked viewers’ admiration and how similar elements could be seen as arrogant displays when used by someone of inferior rank. He points out that Froissart did not have access to and knowledge of architecture comparable to Pintoin, Christine de Pizan, or Pierre d’Orgemont. Nonetheless Froissart was still useful when Tomasi concentrated on the secular “convergence of perspective between chroniclers and the milieu of their protectors and readers” (57).

Tomasi’s third chapter considers the media that ranked the highest in the late medieval hierarchy of the arts: textiles and metalwork. Both garner extensive commentary in both Froissart and Pintoin’s chronicles, and Tomasi seeks to understand the use of language to describe the media. One of the usages he analyzes is the idea of estat tenir. He analyzes the importance of the materiality and quantity of gifts and their ritual presentation. The complexity of the chroniclers’ descriptions clearly recognizes social hierarchies as codified in gifts, and Froissart in particular understands personal relationships established by gift giving. Analysis reveals how gifts given in one court to representatives of another were reciprocated in kind and the audiences for ceremonial gift-giving understood the value of material and quantity of plate. Tomasi uses Christine de Pizan’s and Philippe de Mezières’s discussions of orgueil to reveal that there is a decorum to gift giving that could easily be overstepped. Both Froissart and Pintoin deployed a restricted set of terms to describe gifts; Froissart uses “rich” and “expensive” and Pintoin uses “inestimable value,” “precious,” and “sumptuous.” The relativity of terms calls for careful reading of context. For example, opus saracenicum (45) refers to an architectural technique originating in East in discussion of architecture, whereas in discussions of textiles it refers to actual Islamic textiles or emulations of them. Tomasi observes that both chroniclers observe the clothing of the nobility carefully. They describe its material and its origins, and often employ terms also used in princely inventories, such as fin and délie (“transluscent”). Through the analysis of descriptions of exchanges at Leulinghem (Pintoin) and Nicopolis (Froissart) Tomasi shows that the chroniclers were observers of narrative tapestries which were highly valued.

The fourth chapter considers the aesthetic appreciation of the arts and vocabulary used to describe them. He shows that ephemeral arts were central components of spectacle and valued by a broad audience. In a consideration of vocabulary, he shows, for instance, that the terms “beauty,” “richness,” and “nobility” were used by Froissart, Christine de Pizan, and Pierre d’Orgemont, but not by Pintoin, who had a divergent vocabulary for aesthetic appreciation. Words like gratus or plasir also appear in archival sources suggesting that they were current in language of the nobility; he observes that plasir’s lexical sphere also associated it with beauty and richness, nobility, and the notion of order. Froissart in particular uses terms that suggest a response that goes beyond pleasure: merveilles spark an intense reaction and wonder emerveillement is even stronger. His reading of the word estrange (115-120) is particularly rich as an example of how carefully modern readers need to be in evaluating late medieval sources. Its meaning as foreign, hostile, or bizarre varies; the use of the term in the sense of “bizarre” was most common in inventories of the Valois, where it was used only for artifacts such as valuable textiles or metalwork. However sometimes things termedestrange in this context were also of foreign or temporally displaced origins. In this case the broader semantic meaning comes into play. He uses Christine de Pizan as an example and observes that she uses estrange in different ways in her biography of Charles V and her Livre des trois vertus. He suggests that it might be worth exploring whether the word’s meaning may vary by literary genre. He concludes that based on his research thus far, the term estrangeté refers to close contemplation by an elite group of connoisseurs of objects that embody preciousness, beauty, and exoticism; in contrast merveille refers to theatrical spectacle of ephemeral arts addressed to a large public (120).

The fifth chapter seeks to do two things in order to balance the perception of texts. First, he draws attention to certain fundamental traits in Michel Pintoin’s writing to restore his specificity as an author. Second, he examines how authors treat the same event or episode in which the arts play a role. Examining the extended passages describing the meeting at Leulinghem; in which Pintoin was part of John of Berry’s retinue; the diversity of points of view in accounts of the gifts exchanged between the courts of France and the sultan during the crusade of Nicopolis; and the meeting at Ardes negotiating the marriage of Isabelle of France and Richard II, covered in great detail by Pintoin, he considers such factors as access and the chroniclers’ personal interest. He concludes with an account of the entry into Paris of Isabel of Bavaria, an experience shared by Pintoin and Froissart in which they probably had equal access but different interests. In their accounts of the entry, both describe new festivities, but Pintoin pays special attention to descriptions of ceremonial, whereas Froissart carefully identified the participants. Tomasi concludes “Froissart, Pintoin, Pierre d’Orgemont speak with a very recognizable voice, but through their own timbre we can hear in what unites them, the voice of the aristocrats they frequented and whose view of the arts they reproduce” (146).

Finally, the conclusion of this excellent book summarizes Tomasi’s discoveries and points the way to future avenues of research. He reinforces how important the questions are regarding the language used to describe art and the terms applied to art, artists, and commissions. He warns that contexts are important and that words are socially situated and often their nuances and meanings shift even within one author’s usage. He then outlines potential avenues of research that might explore such questions as the language used in familial inventories, citing a project by Susie Nash already underway for Valois inventories; the use of terms like engin across literary genres; and a comparative study of the lexical patterns of chronicles over the longue durée as, for instance, extending the study to analyze Burgundian chronicles made for Philip the Good and Charles the Bold.