FINAL DAYS: Valois Tapestries at the Cleveland Museum of Art Reveal Intrigue and Artistry
Perhaps the most mysterious of the important surviving Renaissance tapestry series are the Valois Tapestries, woven with wool, silk, and precious metal-wrapped thread. Six of these glittering and glorious tapestries are on view for the first time in North America in the CMA exhibition Renaissance Splendor: Catherine de’ Medici’s Valois Tapestries, which closes on Monday, January 21.
Commissioned by Catherine de’ Medici, queen mother of France, the Valois Tapestries include life-size, full-length portraits of Catherine and members of the French royal court, including her husband and children. The exhibition explores the tapestries’ role as an artistic and political statement involving two of the most powerful European dynasties of the Renaissance — the Valois and the Medici — and their respective power bases in Paris and Florence.
Here are some little-known but fascinating facts about the tapestries and the people they portray.
The Cast of Characters:
Catherine appears in her widow’s garb in each of the tapestries on view in Renaissance Splendor. She married Henri II of France in 1533 when they were just 14 years old. Henri II became king in 1547, and together they had 10 children, of whom seven survived. He died in 1559 following a jousting accident.
After Henri II’s death, three of Catherine and Henri’s sons successively became king of France: Francis, Charles, and Henry III. As queen mother, Catherine was influential during each of their reigns.
Although Catherine appears as a pious and respectable widow in the tapestries, rumors at the time abounded that she dabbled in sorcery and was not above employing poisoners to clear obstructive courtiers from her schemes.
Three of Catherine’s children — Marguerite, Hercule-François, and Henri III — interact amiably in the tapestries, but in reality the siblings plotted and intrigued against each other, leading to the temporary banishment and imprisonment of Marguerite and Hercule-François from Henri III’s court. Hercule-François and Marguerite stand together in Elephant.
Marguerite and her husband, Henri de Navarre, with whom she appears in Whale, are represented side by side in the tapestries. The marriage was meant to bring peace between Catholics and Protestants (Marguerite was Catholic and Henri was Protestant). In reality, the couple fought constantly and spent much of their married life apart.
Catherine’s favorite daughter, Claude, is not represented in the tapestries because she died prior to their creation. Claude’s husband, Charles III, Duke of Lorraine, can be seen in Whale.
Catherine may have commissioned the Valois Tapestries to mark the ascent to the French throne of her third (and favorite) son, Henri III.
From Creation to Conservation:
Each tapestry represents a party, known as a “magnificence,” hosted by the Valois family. The parties included performances such as ballets, jousting, or other war games. Art historians trace their creation to Brussels in late 1575 or shortly thereafter.
The Valois Tapestries’ design was one-of-a-kind — highly unusual for that period of time when weavers would reproduce a tapestry series multiple times from reusable cartoons (drawings). Because of weaving constraints, the weavers copied the cartoons with the images back to front and turned on their sides.
In the most organized and professional weavers’ workshops in Brussels, like the ones responsible for the Valois Tapestries, weavers worked at a completion rate of only one square meter (or yard) of tapestry per 1½ to 2 months. Four or five weavers would work simultaneously on the same tapestry, seated side by side on a bench at the loom.
The Brussels tapestry-weavers’ guild imposed strict rules, such as not allowing the use of animal hair in tapestries and limiting weaving time to daylight hours, no matter how urgent the commission.
Considering these tapestries are almost 450 years old, they are in extraordinarily good condition. Since being brought to Florence in 1589 by Christina of Lorraine, the granddaughter of Catherine de’ Medici, they have mostly been in storage. Despite this safekeeping by the Medici family and, ultimately, by the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, the textiles, by their nature, have suffered over time — dust, stains, and wear took their toll.
In 2016 US-based Friends of the Uffizi Gallery funded an ambitious conservation campaign to clean and restore these monumental and glorious works of art. The short film below captures conservators at work.