Hunting the Renaissance

John Haber
in New York City

The Medieval Hunt: Le Livre de la Chasse

With its exhibition title, The Morgan Library announces that it is "Illuminating the Medieval Hunt," and so it is. Its miniatures take one step by step through a medieval pastime, just as they would have guided the duke of Burgundy and later the king of Spain. They outline a ritual as exotic and elaborate as the manuscript itself. Here it all is, from preparations for the hunt through its success.

If ever one wanted to know how to flay and dismember a stag, one had better seize the day. After conservation, the Morgan will rebind one of its great treasures, and one will never see so many of its pages again. Le Livre de la Chasse, Slaying the Boar (Morgan Library, c. 1407)

For all that, the exhibition title only begins to tell the story. Le Livre de la Chasse, or book of the hunt, offers prescriptions for an aristocratic age. It documents one art form, the medieval hunt, but it represents the final glories of another, the illuminated manuscript. At the same time, one can see a beginning. At the start of the fifteenth century, the Renaissance is about to unfold. Here, one can literally turn the page.

The medieval artist's book

Gaston Phoebus wrote Le Livre de la Chasse between 1387 and 1389, for Philip the Bold. The duke of Burgundy may have intended it for the instruction of his son, John the Fearless, but it became a far more popular item. Forty-six known copies survive, and other treatises on the hunt soon followed. Two of those copies have the same cycle of eighty-seven illustrations—one at the Bibliothèque Nationale in France and the one at the Morgan. John probably commissioned both around 1407, from painters now unknown. By the end of the century, the copy at the Morgan passed into the hands of Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile.

If Ferdinand and Isabella make one think of the New World, other signs of change are in the air as well. At the Morgan, three walls display just under fifty pages, along with a facsimile, so that one can imagine flipping through the rest. On the center tables and elsewhere, it exhibits other works on the theme of hunting, from as early as the eleventh century. They include the first printed editions of Le Livre de la Chasse, along with the first printed book on hunting and other examples of the new, reproducible medium. Culture was passing to a whole new, middle-class audience, as was so much else. In due course, a certain robber baron founded the Morgan Library.

For all that, the show is about a hand-lettered and painted book. I hate to single out a period of influence for the illuminated manuscript. Since its Renzo Piano expansion, the Morgan has displayed its huge, much older volumes that served as the center of church rituals. The Met is reconstructing its wing for Islamic art, so that one will see another golden age. The current show includes an Indian manuscript from as late as 1618. The artist's book is having a revival right now as well.

Still, the show is all about a critical moment. In northern Europe in 1407, illumination was advanced painting. Its fine line and bright but delicate colors defined the International Style, in accord with the ideals of the aristocracy. At the same time, it introduced the naturalism that burst out in oil painting a full generation later, with works like the Mérode Altarpiece now in the Cloisters. Even so, influential panels by Jan van Eyck, Hubert van Eyck, Petrus Christus, and others were to pass from hand to hand in private, almost like a book. The Netherlandish diptych often had the scale of an actual book.

In 1407 things were just getting under way in Italy, too, but in a different way. Lorenzo Ghiberti received the commission for the first of his Baptistery doors five years earlier, but they took another fifteen years. As with Ghiberti's sculpture, the Renaissance in Florence was born of a civic revival. Twice now, the Met has pleaded the case for illuminated manuscript as the origins of the Italian Renaissance, and twice it has failed. Fra Angelico used the translucent, pastel hues not unlike watercolor. Otherwise, however, he was a world away.

For Northern Renaissance painting, though, this was the cutting edge. In the early 1380s, a Psalter attributed to André Beauneveu shows the prophet Isaiah on a throne spreading wide, although not yet in true perspective. Le Livre de la Chasse has a similar throne and comes closer. The manuscript picks up some flowing, sculpted rocks that appear in a Book of Hours most likely from the Jacquemart shop around 1400. The form had its apotheosis with the Limbourg brothers in 1416, but van Eyck may or may not himself have added to a Book of Hours some time later. He had become official painter to the next duke of Burgundy.

Paring back to the Renaissance

Le Livre de la Chasse may sound remote, at least if your ideal hunting manual has fewer illustrations and more debts to the NRA. This is not hunting with buckshot in your companion's face or hunting to show voters that you love guns. The book's final section describes ways to sniff out, trap, and otherwise set up quarry so that one can quickly pick them off. It also describes these approaches as ignoble, unworthy not just of aristocrats, but of the animals themselves. In those last pages, they look noble, while the humans have the cramped, ugly scowls of the lower class—or maybe Dick Cheney on vacation in Texas.

The book's earlier, more glorious rituals may seem remote, too. First one must study each and every species in its habitat. Reindeer, wildcats, roe, bears, hares, boars, wolves, and badgers—all get their page, so that a proper hunter can attune to their behavior. Next one must train the hounds and spaniels, who will do most of the real work, while giving them adequate rest. Only then, in the book's third section, can noblemen set out for the hunt. Even so, the animals look more noble in defeat than the victors.

The book actually opens with a frontispiece added years later for Ferdinand and Isabella, with their coat of arms. It includes more saturated colors and more accomplished detail, such as a comical monkey peeking out from the grass. Twinned angels have the relaxed stance and solid limbs of art around 1500. A table of contents has neat bulleted points, as if added by a word-processing program. From there, one steps back into another time and place.

What makes that time and place so modern, then? Le Livre de la Chasse does not just build on the International Style, although it does that, too. Rather, it pares things back so that it can start afresh. The unity of style is all the more striking given that several artists must have worked on its pages. I mentioned some more famous and influential manuscripts, which push things to the edge, so that the hours and seasons can encompass the world. In Le Livre de la Chasse one sees not so much a richer landscape as a smaller one, the hunt, but rigorously observed.

It pares back everything but hunters and their prey. Trees and plants look reasonably accurate, and the artist's pen captures both outlines and highlights. However, they are pretty much all of a kind. Contrast that to the separate sheets for each species and each method of entrapment. They supply a basic stage set for coordinated action, and so does the landscape. Even the simple compositions resemble a theater.

Scene run maybe three rows of actors deep, before terminating in a high horizon. Often a decorative pattern, like a stage curtain, replaces sky. The basic square in depth echoes the frame, much as a modern stage and proscenium define a geometric volume, sometimes echoed by the structure of sheds, nets, or kennels. Within that volume, actors have their places, singly or in tidy gatherings to each side, like subplots. Nature here is architecture, like curved rocks that echo the arched backs of deer. A stage makes sense—for essentially a leisure activity, a lesson in life, and the book itself as a work of art.

A secular theater

The artists populate their stage with another feature of modernity, close observation. Realism here includes the ample depth for the action. In one scene, a city emerges from below a hill and below the horizon, foretelling a Renaissance landscape stretching to infinity. While people still walk on tiptoe, in the International Style, those bears sure bulk up. Primarily, though, realism means the study of behavior, whether human or animal. The book has less concern for anatomy than social patterns.

Its social psychology ranges from riders in pursuit to the meaner types with their nets. The dogs have a whole lifetime of behaviors, from work to play. I liked best, however, the first section, for the animals. Which will run free as individuals, and which will nurture each other in groups? Which indulge in play fighting, and which fight each other for real? To conduct the hunt nobly, on the animal's terms, "know your enemy"—but now art wants to know it all.

With a modern style, then, comes, unlike for another medieval masterpiece in the Crusader Bible, a modernization of subject matter—a secular subject matter. To some extent, that links Le Livre de la Chasse to the Middle Ages after all. Life went on back in the supposed Dark Ages. It took the Renaissance mind to organize things into perfect hierarchies of nature, humanity, and God. Still, this art shows the stirrings of a more secular age. The very fact of a hunting treatise rather than a prayer book says something.

Even in the Renaissance one takes for granted prophets, saints, and stories from the Gospels. In folk tales and older literature, hunting ties into a religious narrative, too. It can stand for the knight's quest for faith. The innocent animal can stand for Christ's sacrifice. A saint, Hubert by name, can have the vision of a Crucifixion in a stag's horns. One finds all of that in the other books in the exhibition—but not in this one.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and maybe for the first time in art a hunt is just a hunt. It is, however, still a theater. One could not possibly have action in 1407 other than moralized. Maybe one cannot avoid moralizing things even now. The book concerns the nature of nobility in the methods of the hunt, but also in its outcome. Capture and eat the right species, from the noble stag to the wild, pitiless board, and the nobleman takes on something of its nature—but Le Livre de la Chasse also embodies a morality based on emotional and intellectual connections with nature and with others.

A few months earlier at the Morgan, drawings from the Uffizi followed the sixteenth century in Florence. After powerful limbs by Michelangelo, one came to the powerful emotions of Pontormo and other early Mannerists, the polish and comportment of Bronzino, and the numbingly efficient output of Giorgio Vasari's studio. From younger artists in Vasari's factory, engaged in decorating the Palazzo Vecchio, one could even see hints of another paring back—this time for the Baroque. Every so often, artists seem to take a deep breath before moving on. In charting the course of the Renaissance, that show presented its end. "The Medieval Hunt" does the same, for the medieval manuscript and for the Northern Renaissance as well.

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"Illuminating the Medieval Hunt: Le Livre de la Chasse" ran at The Morgan Library through August 10, 2008, "Michelangelo, Vasari, and Their Contemporaries: Drawings from the Uffizi" though April 20.


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