Nadine Orenstein, curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints and a co-curator of Grand Design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry, selected the printed works on display in the exhibition. Interestingly, Pieter Coecke van Aelst was not a printmaker, though he published several important printed books. I recently spoke with Nadine about Coecke's unusual print projects and how they reflect his unique style.
Sarah Mallory: As a curator of drawings and prints, how do you approach the work of Pieter Coecke van Aelst?
Nadine Orenstein: Pieter Coecke van Aelst is an interesting case because he didn't make any prints himself, which is the area I work on. So it was an exceptional body of material to approach because I had to look at it from the point of view of "What does this say about printed material in this period?" more than "What does this say about Coecke as an artist?" So I looked at Pieter Coecke in Antwerp at that moment (1520s–1540s); he was in a place that, I would say, was the major center of printmaking and bookmaking in Europe at that time. What was surprising in the end about Coecke is that actually he played a very active part in producing these printed materials—not only getting the all the woodcutters together and the typesetters, but he actually was the publisher. He went out himself and got permission to print these works, and that is something you really don't see painters doing during that period. He and his second wife, Mayken Verhulst, were clearly very active in producing and publishing these works themselves.
Sarah Mallory: How and why did you select the print works included in the Grand Design exhibition?
Nadine Orenstein: Basically, we took all the Coecke works in our collection and put them in the show. We had several examples of Coecke's unauthorized translations of Serlio's architectural treatises, so I included the three earliest copies that we had. And then, luckily, we also had his Customs and Fashions of the Turks, which is this big printed frieze that he created which was published after his death. Also luckily we have a copy of Coecke's The Triumph of Antwerp, which is a book that records the elaborate decorations that welcomed Prince Philip (the future Philip II of Spain) to Antwerp.
Sarah Mallory: Are these objects representative of Pieter Coecke van Aelst's large body of printed works?
Nadine Orenstein: Yes. The objects in the show represent most of the printed works he created. The one work we didn't put in is this edition of Vitruvius's De Architectura, which is incredibly rare. There are only two known copies. It is a tiny book with very few illustrations, and it seemed that it was not worth bringing in—not that exciting to look at. But we did put an illustration of it in the exhibition catalogue.
Sarah Mallory: Can you tell us a little bit about the large Customs and Fashions of the Turks printed frieze on display in the exhibition?
Nadine Orenstein: Customs and Fashions of the Turks is really an interesting piece because Coecke must have created the drawings for this piece around 1533, when he went to Constantinople, but this printed work was not actually published until 1553, three years after he died. His second wife, Mayken Verhulst, was able to see the project to completion.
Coecke went to Constantinople on an expedition organized by two tapestry merchants who wanted to sell tapestries to Süleyman I, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. We assume that during his time in Constantinople he absorbed all this fascinating material that he saw there, which he included in the frieze. While some people have misunderstood this frieze as the tapestry designs that they were going to present to Sultan Süleyman, this is clearly not the case. In addition, some people have perceived this frieze as a record of his trip to Constantinople, but it probably isn't that either; it is likely something based on his impressions and the records that he drew while he was there, observed through the eyes of a Western artist who is very familiar with classical poses.
Coecke also drew from all kinds of very Western artworks as he produced these images and putting these Turkish habits and customs in that guise. There were other friezes done before Coecke made this frieze, and there were also some very long prints made, but those were always processions. This piece is different from those because it is not a procession. It is rather several vignettes, or different scenes, and the scenes look very much like his tapestry designs. We think that, ultimately, these drawings were actually designs for tapestries that were never woven.
Sarah Mallory: Why, after twenty years, did he decide to use his drawings to make the printed frieze?
Nadine Orenstein: Coecke probably decided to repurpose these drawn designs into woodcut prints at a moment when there was a lot of interest in Turkish subjects and people were making books about the Turks. I think Coecke and his wife were trying to take advantage of that interest.
Sarah Mallory: Because he was rather entrepreneurial, right?
Nadine Orenstein: I think he thought, "Wow, this could be a big seller," and then when he died—probably in the middle of this project—his wife took it over and finished it up.
Sarah Mallory: Are there many known versions of this print?
Nadine Orenstein: It is very rare, and there are some examples. The thing is, there are many later impressions. Ours, which is nice, is probably not the earliest either; based on the watermarks in the paper, it seems likely that ours probably hails from the early seventeenth century. We think the earliest impression is in the British Museum. That one includes all the architectural borders, as well as the title and end plates that we do not have in our impression. The ones that have survived—which is rare, because it's a big thing that doesn't survive easily—usually have been pasted onto canvas or some other support and rolled up. Ours is unusually still in pieces. Something big like this might have been put on a wall, which would easily lead to its destruction.
Sarah Mallory: Can you tell us about Coecke's translations of Sebastiano Serlio's architectural treatises?
Nadine Orenstein: For me, this was one of the more fun discoveries while working on this exhibition. I didn't know much about these books until I began working on them. It is clear that Coecke was making pirated editions of Serlio's architectural treatises. Serlio was in Italy and producing books in Italian, and Coecke, somehow—someone must have sent him early copies of the books—thought, "You know this is the thing we need here in the North."
He had already done the translation of Vitruvius, so he knew that there were people interested in books on architecture. And Serlio's whole reason for making these treatises was to build on the Vitruvius manuscript. So Coecke clearly saw what the use of Serlio's book was, and that it was full of illustrations. He knew that it would be of interest not just for architects, but also for appreciators and connoisseurs of architecture. Through the books, you can learn all about the different kinds of column designs, about the ancient monuments of classical antiquity, and about (what was then) contemporary architecture. Coecke saw he was living in a place in which the architecture was largely late Gothic, and here was this volume about the elements of Renaissance architecture—how to make classical Renaissance architecture.
Sarah Mallory: Were people inspired to embrace the new style of architecture because of Coecke's (pirated) books?
Nadine Orenstein: I don't know exactly. I don't think it was only his book; it was in the air. There were works coming from Italy to the North all the time, and certainly many artists had been to Italy and brought back their knowledge of classical art, but this really was very important. It may have been the most prominent series of architectural books because there really weren't others like his, and his was certainly the most widely produced.
Sarah Mallory: What is your favorite work by Pieter Coecke van Aelst?
Nadine Orenstein: I really like that frieze because it is so unusual for him, but some of the tapestries I find so beautiful. When we were preparing for the show, I saw the tapestries as tiny photographs. Then, once they arrived, all of a sudden you could see them in person and they are enormous, beautiful, sparking, lush, and I just had no idea.
Sarah Mallory: Did you have any insights about Coecke?
Nadine Orenstein: Well, what I think was interesting was when we got all the material together—prints, drawings, paintings, tapestries—and saw how well they related to each other. Sometimes you bring an artist's work together and his paintings do one thing, his drawings do something else, and his prints something else. In Grand Design, you really see the same artist at work through the show. You see the same compositional motifs appearing in different media.
In the frieze, for instance, there are herms with pillows on their heads, and you find those same herms again in the tapestries. So you witness the mind of this one artist at work, which you don't always get in an exhibition like this. It worked out really well. Coecke comes to life once everything is in the same room. You see it at the end when everything comes together.