Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 22, 2009
Lisa Monnas Merchants, Princes and Painters: Silk Fabrics in Italian and Northern Paintings, 1300–1550 New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. 352 pp.; 150 color ills.; 100 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780300111170)

In recent decades, medieval and Renaissance textile scholarship has received greater recognition and appreciation by the art-historical community. One of the latest publications to add to this developing field is Lisa Monnas’s new book. One of the first things to note about this impressive volume is the abundant number of superb color images—they are truly breathtaking. Aside from the remarkable aesthetic attributes of the volume, Monnas’s detailed study investigates the cultural and artistic connections between silk textiles and fourteenth-, fifteenth- and sixteenth-century paintings in which silk fabrics are represented. In addition to relating extant textiles to the paintings, Monnas examines surviving contemporary documents such as diaries, letters, chronicles, theoretical treatises, artists’ handbooks, and royal, papal, and ecclesiastical inventories from Italy, England, and the Low Countries.

The introduction explores the cultural value of silk in Europe. Those wealthy enough to afford such a luxury were acknowledged for their high status in a society that enforced sumptuary laws. Monnas goes on to survey the production of silk textiles in Italy from 1300 to 1500, focusing on the principal centers of manufacture in Lucca, Venice, Genoa, and Florence. Although Italian sericulture was plentiful, the high demand necessitated that raw materials be imported from Iran, Syria, Palestine, and the Iberian Peninsula, as well as areas near the Black Sea and the Balkans. Silk workshop organization is discussed, as is the marketing of silk in foreign countries. The major trading centers abroad—Paris, Avignon, London, Bruges, and later Antwerp—were crucial to the success of the silk industry. The chapter closes by outlining some of the issues involved with dating surviving fabrics and identifying a specific center of manufacture. The process of attribution can be based on the style, iconography, and technical aspects of a textile fragment. In addition, there are occasions when extant textiles can be linked to paintings and textual documents. While paintings offer important visual evidence about silk textiles—the representation of different weaves, colors, and motifs—scholars must be aware that the depiction of silk textiles in a painting was contingent upon the availability of actual textiles to artists, their use and modification of stock textile patterns, iconography, as well as the demands of the patron.

Nine chapters follow the introductory one, in addition to eight appendices and eight tables. Readers not conversant with the historical and modern technical terms of textiles will want to become familiar with appendix 1, which is subdivided into nine sections that define terms related to weaving, looms, fabric types, weave types, historic dress—both secular and ecclesiastical—and painting techniques. Monnas also provides the various measurement and monetary systems used in Italy, England, and the Low Countries. The other appendices include archival documents, terminology, and genealogical tables.

Chapter 1 addresses the issues posed in its title: “Who Wore Silk? The Price of Silk Fabrics, Artists’ Clothing and Studio Props.” Besides the cost of labor, the price of silk textiles was dependent upon such factors as the price and quantity of raw materials, the quality of dyestuffs, the inclusion of gold or silver threads, and the complexity of the weave—tabby weave taffeta, for instance, was five times more expensive than voided satin velvet. Furthermore, the intrinsic monetary value of silk meant that it was a precious capital commodity that could be bequeathed, pawned, or sold. Monnas explains that as artists became more affluent during the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, they had more opportunities to own silk; this was especially true for court-appointed painters, such as Jan van Eyck, Andrea Mantegna, and Giulio Romano. Other artists, such as Albrecht Dürer, actually received silk fabrics—usually velvet or damask—as presents or payments for their work while in the Low Countries. These accounts and others reveal that the amount of silk articles an artist may have owned was limited compared to their wealthy patrons; Monnas argues that it is doubtful that they stocked magnificently rich silk fabrics in their workshops to be used as studio props. Nevertheless, artists had other ways to study silk fabrics without possessing them. For instance, artists could observe silk clothing during liturgical services or while visiting commercial silk shops, and court artists were exposed to the lavish fabrics of their patrons.

Chapter 2 explores the role of painters in the design of woven silk fabrics. Bona fide silk designers such as Baldo Franceschi and Giovanni d’Antonio supplied designs to the weavers, typically on a contractual basis. There were also instances when silk designs were created by more mainstream artists such as Jacopo Bellini, Pisanello, and the court artists Gilbert Prince and Jacopo da Montagnana; their drawings would certainly have been adapted by either contracted silk designers or weavers to ensure that they could be successfully realized in the medium of woven silk. Overall, Monnas’s examples reveal that artists had varying degrees of knowledge about the designing of silk textiles.

The depiction of lampas silks in fourteenth-century Sienese and Florentine paintings is examined in chapter 3. Monnas’s analysis sheds light on the ways in which these artists approached the representation of cloth of gold in their paintings. Simone Martini, Bernardo Daddi, and Orcagna employed two main techniques to achieve the luminous, reflective qualities of cloth of gold in their paintings: mordant gilding and sgraffito. Monnas makes stunning comparisons and connections between paintings by these artists and extant pieces of silk. For example, there is an in-depth study of the depictions of silks in Simone’s Maestà (1308–11) and how he used gold leaf as a foundation material for his sgraffito patterns. His technique accurately recreates the refracted texture of the gold in the tartar silks that were reserved for the most honored religious figures. Monnas contends that the accurate representation of textiles was not the primary objective of these artists; instead, iconography and aesthetics were paramount concerns. Artists employed colors, textures, and patterns to convey a specific mood. While these painters occasionally worked from firsthand observation of actual textiles, they also relied heavily upon stock designs, which were modified and even combined to create new designs.

The book then takes into account, in chapter 4, the representation of velvet in paintings made in Italy and the Netherlands during the first half of the fifteenth century. Works by the Italians Gentile da Fabriano, Masolino, and Masaccio are stylistically and technically compared to Northern paintings by van Eyck to demonstrate the differences in the technical approaches of artists in the South and the North. While the techniques varied from artist to artist, Italian painters generally made use of metal leaf (gold or silver) that was then overlaid with semi-transparent colored glazes. A prime example is the gold-rope border of the orphrey worn by Saint Nicholas in Gentile’s Quaratesi altarpiece (1425; figs. 98 and 99). By contrast, the gold threads in the orphrey of Saint Donatian in van Eyck’s Virgin and Canon van der Paele (1434–36; figs. 101 and 119) are depicted without the use of gold; rather the artist’s highly skilled application of oil paint creates the illusion of real gold fabric. While both artists aimed to reproduce the texture of silk textiles, Gentile handled the representation more literally than van Eyck, who instead shows the contours, textures, and reflections of the fabrics as if they were being worn by the figure at a specific moment in time.

Chapter 5 explores the sources of textile design, and how designs were transmitted in painters’ workshops during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Although some artists were able to directly study a real piece of fabric in the painting process, the majority relied upon secondary sources to create convincing reproductions. Monnas asserts that an investigation into the pictorial representation of silks—particularly the repetition and alteration of textile patterns—supports the belief that painters used stock pattern books. For example, the strawberry patterns found in three paintings from the workshop of Rogier van der Weyden vary in the depiction of the weave and details of the design. Monnas argues that artists in Rogier’s workshop did not record the strawberry pattern from a tangible piece of fabric that had been draped in various ways; rather, the changes in the depiction of the strawberry design suggest that artists instead depended upon model books with simile drawings.

Monnas’s further examination of silks in Italian paintings from the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries in chapter 6 reveals that artists relied upon pattern books with stock examples. As a result, designs of certain patterns remained popular in pictorial conventions for several decades, often complicating the issue of dating surviving silk fabrics. To make her case, Monnas considers the works of several artists, including Fra Angelico, Carlo Crivelli, and Marco Marziale.

In chapter 7, Monnas explores the portrayal of silk textiles in portraiture and shows how these representations of silks help date surviving fabrics. Examples are drawn from the works of painters active in Venice, Florence, and England. The silk fabrics represented in Giovanni Bellini’s portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan (ca. 1501–4; figs. 209a, 209b) and Agnolo Bronzino’s portrait of Eleonora di Toledo (ca. 1545; figs. 199, 216) are remarkably similar in weave, color, and pattern to extant samples of silk (figs. 210 and 215, respectively), leading to more secure dating of the samples.

The concept of “reading” silk textiles in paintings is addressed in chapter 8. Monnas discusses the meanings of symbols, particularly animal patterns such as the eagle and the pelican. She dismisses earlier claims that these motifs were simply decorative; rather, she maintains that artists drew upon the multivalent aspects of symbols to create a more complex narrative. For example, the pomegranate motif in textiles could be depicted in either secular or religious scenes (figs. 241, 242); artists would simply make modifications so that the symbol could be easily integrated into different types of subject matter. Silks represented in biblical scenes often included pseudo-Arabic, Kufic, or Naskhi scripts to create a sense of exoticism; painters referenced textiles with geometric Hispano-Moresque patterns or textiles imported from the Levant, such as tiraz fabrics and gossamer-fine silks. In courtly settings, the function of cloth of estate, processional canopies, and other textiles, such as pile carpets and damask silk runners, was ceremonial; their inclusion (either real or depicted) in courtly affairs reinforced the power and authority of the nobility. Examples in illuminated manuscripts and mural paintings provide scholars with a deeper understanding of how textiles were used in the sphere of the courts.

Chapter 9 revisits some of the themes touched upon in earlier chapters—the use of animal-patterned or pomegranate motifs in silks—to illustrate how the representation of these types of silks, and others, continued in the medium of painting for decades, if not centuries. Paintings by Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyke demonstrate the longevity of certain silk patterns.

The book’s epilogue examines the various agencies that fueled the nineteenth-century Arts and Crafts movement in England. The illustrated volumes of textiles patterns produced by Friedrich Fischbach and Sydney Vacher served as sourcebooks for William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, and John Henry Dearle. In addition, these artists drew from textile collections and medieval and Renaissance paintings—like those studied in Monnas’s book—to revive textile patterns in new forms of fabrics, including printed cotton, woolen cloth, and silk damask.

Monnas’s book is a significant contribution to the fields of art history and textile scholarship. Her detailed approach and varied use of pictorial evidence, surviving textile fabrics, and abundance of supporting archival documentation present a broad and detailed understanding of the function and illustration of silks from 1300 to 1550. However, a few criticisms might be made. First, there are sections of the book that, while valuable, are perhaps beyond the scope of the original study (namely chapter 9 and the epilogue); the book could thus have been shorter and still effective. Second, chapter 8 would have been more beneficial to the reader had it appeared after chapter 1, since it explores how illustrated textiles functioned in paintings during the period under review. This would have provided a broader context for the subsequent chapters. Otherwise, Monnas’s book offers a wealth of insightful research that will foster new questions and facilitate important methods of scholarship.

Kate Dimitrova
Associate Professor, Art History, School of Art & Design, New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University

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