- Blood, Milk, Ink, Gold: Abundance and Excess in the French Renaissance
Abundant garlands of fruits and flowers are typical of French Renaissance art, but until now their distinctive cultural meanings in sixteenth-century France have not been explored. Rebecca Zorach's lavishly illustrated study may have begun with the relatively modest aim to explore these meanings, but her monograph abounds with exciting new interpretations of an impressive range of cultural objects. As she argues, these symbols and images mattered [End Page 263] in the Renaissance, and contemporaries teased out, debated and transformed their meanings as they copied, developed and critiqued their use in new forms.
The study is chiefly occupied with works created for the 'high end' of town. While it might be assumed that many of the buildings, artworks, material objects, texts and tapestries she examines have been well studied, the art of the French Renaissance has received far less attention than that of Renaissance or Baroque Italy or Reformation Germany. Although the reign of Francis I promised a glittering era of royal magnificence, the religious tensions and civil wars that followed saw a shift in the direction and type of works produced. Zorach makes up for this deficit, and further includes analysis of the transmission of the relevant ideas as they were received, replicated or reworked in more widely circulating objects such as prints and coins.
Zorach's main thesis explores ideas and anxieties surrounding wealth and excess as they are conveyed in images and texts. She employs careful observation and interpretation and draws upon literary and cultural theories (sometimes adding an unnecessary level of complexity to the presentation of her ideas). She argues that under Francis I's patronage and possible guidance, artists created a vision of France as a bountiful, feminine landscape controlled by male labour and political order. The creation of diverse containers considered feminine, such as vessels and jugs, and displaying reproductive female bodies, all bellies and breasts, reflected this motif of fertility. This, Zorach argues, was a deliberate political creation of a secular mythology of Mother Nature, France, that could steer the country away from potential religious factionalism.
Each of her loosely chronological chapters takes a key liquid as the leitmotif for analysis, although these do not limit her discussion from ranging much more widely beyond its framing concept. In 'Blood', Zorach identifies key associations of land, nobility, generation and Christian sacrifice. A key text for analysis in this chapter is the Galerie François Premier at Fontainebleau, a notoriously complex work. Zorach places emphasis on multiplicity – of personalities who were involved in the gallery's creation, of national and intertextual influences, and ultimately of meanings. She suggests that it conveys a range of meanings, intended to be understood by different kinds of visitors: a suggestion offered some support by the fact that even contemporaries offered no clear consensus on its interpretation. At a closer level, Zorach focuses attention on the gallery's emphatic focus on male genitalia in scenes of circumcision and castration, which, she argues, develop a wider narrative of male sacrifice and loyalty to the good of the nation. Through an intricate [End Page 264] re-reading of the gallery in the context of Francis I's personal and political motivations, the nation's religious tensions, Rosso's own biography and the (later Calvinist) printer Robert Estienne's possible influence, Zorach offers a powerful new interpretation that crosses the frescos to the stucco side panels and friezes.
In 'Milk', Zorach highlights a different form of productivity, in connections between nature, production and particularly French agricultural production. This is a shift, she argues, from the masculine forms of the gallery to a more feminine iconography. Some of the artists explored here, such as sculptor Sambin and designer Thiry, trained at Fontainebleau. In these works, multiple breasts, pressed and squeezed, abound, and through them Zorach explores meanings ostensibly maternal and deeply philosophical but also highly erotic. Some of the arguments advanced...