Epic Arts in Renaissance France by Phillip John Usher (review)
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Reviewed by
Phillip John Usher. Epic Arts in Renaissance France. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. 272 pp.

Phillip Usher’s comprehensive book on the relationship between epic and the “sister arts” in Renaissance France coincides with a rebirth of scholarly interest in manifestations of epic in the period. While more focused works have been devoted to the relationship between epic and certain groups of paintings, for example, this is the first that undertakes a systematic study across the entire century, also taking into account the connections between epic and etchings, engravings, enamel plaques, prints, woodcuts, and architecture. Appropriately, Epic Arts does not merely offer a study of correspondences, but intends to show how “the sister arts appropriate, problematize, and make public, rather than just reproduce epic” (8).

The book is structured as follows. Chapter 1 covers royal (Fontainebleau) and aristocratic (châteaux d’Oiron and d’Ancy-le-Franc) galleries which correspond to the major ancient epic poets Homer, Virgil, and Lucan; chapter 2 deals with Etienne Dolet’s Neo-Latin epic and its French adaptation; chapter 3 with the production and reception of Ronsard’s Franciade; a fourth and final chapter covers the “textualization” of Parisian architecture and other artworks in France’s most well-known religious epic, Les Tragiques of the Huguenot Agrippa d’Aubigné.

This is an admirably researched and comprehensive study, a testament to the erudition of its author. Usher takes the reader on a tour of these fascinating chateau galleries—indeed, his style is often that of a guide taking us on a tour of the numerous paintings before us. And he asks appropriately, “when walking through the gallery, how would sixteenth-century visitors have understood what they saw?” (33). Such observations highlight both the strengths and weaknesses of his method. Usher is part of a long line of talented scholars at pains to explicate individually complex ensembles whose meanings still elude us to a considerable extent, and yet it seems [End Page 141] reasonable to expect him to propose a persuasive overall narrative about works conceived for very different patrons and at different times.

This latter challenge leads to complications in the organization of chapters one and two. In chapter one, Usher presents the galleries in what he considers to be more or less the chronological order (and prestige) of the ancient models that inspired them: Homer (Ulysses Gallery at Fontainebleau), Virgil (Galérie du grand écuyer at Oiron), Lucan (Ancy-le-Franc). However, since most of the Odysseus wall paintings at Fontainebleau date from 1555 to 1560 while the Virgilian ones at Oiron were made from 1546 to 1549, it seems odd to describe Oiron as “an extension of Fontainebleau” simply because “it is dedicated to two kings of France” (50). Not only does this obscure the different sources of inspiration (Homeric in the case of Fontainebleau, primarily Virgilian in the case of Oiron), but Usher misses an opportunity to see an evolution in terms of the larger debates on the reception of Homer and Virgil and the increasingly political and royal uses of Homer in the 1550s. Similarly, when Usher moves to consider Dolet’s Neo-Latin epic Fata in relationship to Ancy-le-Franc as “a kind of supplemental Fontainebleau gallery” (84), meaning not the Ulysses Gallery but the earlier Francis I Gallery, this seems fraught in terms of the larger discussion because both the Francis I Gallery and the event celebrated by Dolet, the Battle of Marignan, belong to an earlier period of sixteenth-century history than either the Ulysses Gallery (Henry II’s reign) or Oiron (end of Francis I’s reign).

Still, Usher’s focus on the connection between literature and the sister arts brings a refreshingly new perspective to the discussion of Pierre de Ronsard’s epic depiction of the Trojan origins of France, the Franciade, because instead of struggling “to understand how the text failed as a text,” he considers the poem’s reception, delineating “how it succeeded as part of a project spanning not only many decades, but also various art forms” (120). Indeed, this highlights the extent to which sixteenth-century writers and artists were less individual actors working on their own...


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