For all their excesses, the great royal houses of Europe (along with the popes) should be thanked for amassing superb art collections over the centuries. Even better for us commoners, revolutions and dynastic reversals have brought much of that art into the public domain. (All those treasures at the Louvre? Yep, and the building, too, which was once a palace.)
A shining example, literally, is "Threads of Gold," a group of eight 16th century tapestries once owned by Habsburg emperors, now in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum and on loan to the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.
The shine comes from a king's ransom in gold threads laced through the wool and silk in six of the eight tapestries on view. Even without that shimmer, they would be breathtaking in their workmanship, standouts in a venerable tradition.
Beginning in the 14th century, tapestries were among the most prestigious possessions of the wealthy in Europe. In addition to their beauty, they had practical applications, acting as insulation in cold stone castles and easily transported when a nobleman traveled. Hundreds of workshops in cities and towns across the continent produced them, but by the early 16th century, Brussels dominated. Among the best was the workshop of Frans Geubels, which made these tapestries between 1560 and 1570.
Like most tapestries, these were commissioned by royalty and present a narrative. Here it's the story, told in the eight tapestries, of Romulus and Remus, the twins who, according to legend, were suckled by a wolf and founded Rome (in that order but not as a cause and effect).
Mythic themes from antiquity were popular, especially those reinforcing the importance of the nobility. Romulus and Remus were especially loved; many tapestry sets telling their story were created during the golden age of tapestry production, roughly from 1500 to 1750. To contemporary sensibilities, it is a curious myth for glorification. Drama is always essential to a good yarn, but the violence of Romulus and Remus includes fratricide and two instances of rape.
The story has several versions, but in the most accepted one, the twins were the grandsons of Numitor, a ruler in what is now a part of Italy who was overthrown by his younger brother, Amulius. Amulius then made Numitor's daughter, Rhea Silvia, a Vestal virgin so his brother's family wouldn't produce male heirs. But the god Mars raped her and she bore the twins. Her uncle ordered them all killed, but kindly servants put the baby twins in a basket by the Tiber River, where their cries attracted the wolf, which nursed them. A shepherd and his wife discovered them and raised them until they were serendipitously reunited with their grandfather, Numitor. They overthrew and killed the usurping king, and the twins were given land by Numitor to build their own city. The brothers quarreled and Romulus killed Remus. He became a popular ruler despite that lapse, and his ascendancy explains the new city's name, Rome.
The museum in Vienna has one of the great tapestry collections in the world. The set it has loaned to the Ringling was originally a group of eight, but in the 1950s the museum had financial problems and sold two of them. So we have the remaining six, plus two from another set of lesser quality to round out the story of the royal twins.
A good part of appreciating them is in understanding how they were created. Each was woven on an enormous loom, worked by several artisans at once.
The weavers didn't come up with the designs; all the images were taken from large paintings mounted on a wall behind the loom that guided the weavers.
Those paintings were (and still are) called cartoons, a term we think of as relating to humor. The word came from the Italian cartone, or sturdy paper. By the 16th century, some of the greatest artists of the time were creating cartoons for royal patrons and the Vatican, and they were often prized as much as the tapestries they inspired. Cartoons by Peter Paul Rubens in the Ringling Museum are among its most treasured art, for example.
A set of tapestries of the size and detail on display took years to weave and could cost as much as a battleship. Study some of the details and you'll understand why.
Several parts of the story are compressed into a single tapestry, in some cases to move things along. In the first of the set, Mars Embraces Rhea Silvia (love the euphemism) is the main scene in which the bearded god, robed in a red cloak, symbolically places his hand on her belly. To the left is a smaller bit with Rhea Silvia, several months later, ashamed at discovering she's pregnant, being consoled by a handmaiden. Even tinier is the twins' birth, seen through a window in a castle tower. The sequence moves your eye around and up, then back again.
The detail the master weavers could tease from mixing the threads — a far less subtle material than paint — is remarkable. Get as close as you can to the works and you'll be lost in a puzzle of colors that, from a distance, blend together as bodies, clothing and landscape. The gold thread is used to specific effect. It's often woven to suggest dimension, such as the braiding on a sandal or embroidery on a hem, like the thick swabs of paint on a canvas known as impasto.
Though the weavers used many tones, the tapestries have a subtle tonality. It makes the use of red stand out, first in Mars' cloak and later on as the twins grow up. Romulus always wears it, as well as armor resembling that of his famous father. Remus is dressed like a shepherd. When the brothers defeat Amulius, Romulus presents his head to his grandfather as his brother looks on. The red denotes Romulus as the more warlike, and therefore victorious, brother.
And Romulus also concocted the scheme, as ruler of Rome, to deliver women to the predominantly male population of his city by luring villagers from nearby hills to a "combat spectacle," which became the Rape of the Sabine Women. The event, in which the women were abducted and forced to marry Romans, has been the subject of many sculptures and paintings through the centuries. It's portrayed here, too, with Romulus at the center, leading a young woman to a tryst in the woods. In deference to Emperor Matthias, who was paying for it and who probably identified with the founder of Rome, the woman looks pretty happy about the coming union.
It's a good yarn in every way.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.