Curator Maryan Ainsworth relates the story of Jan Gossart’s travels to Rome in 1508–9 and how the ancient and Renaissance works he saw there influenced both his own art and the history of Netherlandish painting.
Maryan Ainsworth: Hello, I’m Maryan Ainsworth, a curator of European paintings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I’m also the curator of the current exhibition Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance.
Many people ask, “Who is Jan Gossart?” He’s not a very well-known artist, and one wonders, really, what is the reason for that. He’s an artist from the early modern period, from the Hapsburg Burgundian Netherlands—that is, the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, at a moment when that geographical area encompassed current-day France, Belgium, Holland, and even a little bit of Germany. Gossart is that artist who really comes halfway between the better-known artists Jan van Eyck and Peter Paul Rubens in the seventeenth century. And he’s a very, very important figure in the history of art, since he is among the earliest—if not the earliest—northern artist to travel to Rome with a specific purpose in mind. That was to make drawings after ancient Roman sculpture and monuments and to bring this information, through the drawings, back to the Netherlands, where he started to use this new style, incorporating it in his paintings, drawings, and even in his prints.
Why mount an exhibition devoted to this artist at this particular moment? Well, in recent times there’s been quite a lot of renewed interest on the artist and this seemed like a very good time to reevaluate the impact of his works on the art of the Netherlands in the early sixteenth century. He really was one of the first to begin to acquaint northern artists with the art of ancient Rome, and not only that, but certainly also with Italian Renaissance art that Gossart saw on his way to and from Rome on that important trip in 1508–9.
He didn’t go alone, of course. He actually traveled as part of the entourage of Philip of Burgundy, who was the bastard son of Philip, the duke of Burgundy. This was on a diplomatic mission for Philip of Burgundy to meet with Pope Julius II. The question at hand, and the reason for the diplomatic mission, was one of great urgency. It was to discuss with the pope on behalf of Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands, who should have the right to appoint church offices in that region of the north. Of course, Margaret of Austria wanted to have this benefit herself, as she could appoint family and friends and special diplomats in these offices, who of course would help to secure her power in that region. The pope, on the other hand, wanted this benefit himself for much the same reasons.
Fortunately, Philip of Burgundy and Pope Julius II got on famously, as Philip was highly cultured, a man of great military expertise, a humanist education, highly educated, and the two of them together enjoyed very much their discussions on ancient architecture in particular, and the books of Vetruvius, which explained the art of the ancient period. It was Gossart’s job during these days to make these drawings, not only for himself but also for Philip, as a kind of souvenir, in fact, of this trip that they made together.
It’s fascinating, I think, to consider just what was the state of art in Rome at the time, when they arrived, and what would Gossart have seen when he first started to look at these monuments? We today consider all of the works that are available to us now, but we don’t often pause to wonder exactly what had already been excavated at the time. The trip that they made, of course, was in 1508–9, and it’s marvelous to consider how extraordinary it would have been to encounter the Laocoön, an ancient Roman sculpture, marble, that was only excavated just two years prior to their trip. What great excitement there must have been in encountering this extraordinary sculpture when first entering the city. Contemporary Italian artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael had only recently arrived in Rome themselves. Of course Michelangelo was just beginning his work on the Sistine ceiling.
At the time so little had been done so far in the Sistine Chapel, and it was such a private area, that we can’t count on the fact that Gossart and Michelangelo in fact ever met. Imagine what a change there would have been in Gossart’s understanding of Italian Renaissance art at the time if he had only arrived about five years later—he would have seen quite a lot then of the Sistine ceiling.
Gossart, of course, must have traveled around quite a lot in the city of Rome. And yet, we have very few drawings left that document exactly what he saw. But if we look into what has remained—the wonderful drawing of the Spinario or of the Colosseum, or in fact of the Apollo Citharoedus statue, we can pretty much chart where he went. We can almost follow in his footsteps. The Spinario, for example, that famous bronze statue, as well as the great Hercules, which was a gilded bronze statue—both could be found, as today, in the Palazzo dei Conservatori. And we can see from the drawings that Gossart made that he viewed these two statues from below. The other one that he saw and documented by drawing the Apollo Citharoedus, happened at that moment to be in the family courtyard of the Sassi family, and it is there that Gossart encountered it and drew it, both for himself and certainly for his patron, Philip of Burgundy.
The art that Gossart encountered in Rome and those drawings which he brought back certainly informed his later work. And in fact, if we look at some of the paintings that he made even much later in 1525 to ’30, it is quite clear that the memory of that trip and the drawings that he made on it were still very much at hand, and part of his materials that he consulted as he made new paintings. For example, the wonderful Rijksmuseum Hercules Killing Cacus very much uses as a reference the great Laocoön statue. And Gossart copies the upper torso, but leaning the figure on its side in order to make the great figure of Cacus reclining on the ground. Or, if we look at the lifesize, monumental painting of Christ on the Cold Stone from Valencia, quite clearly Gossart was referencing the Belvedere torso that he most certainly must have seen and studied in Rome, even though we don’t have the drawing remaining within that small group that still has come down to us from the sixteenth century.
What we don’t know exactly is all of the souvenirs that the Philip of Burgundy’s entourage and Gossart himself would have brought back. Certainly this would—among the things that they would have brought back—be small Roman statuettes and even Italian Renaissance bronzes that also had as their reference point ancient Roman sculpture. All of this and in addition to that, certain prints and drawings after Italian works, after Raphael, would be part of the source material that he would use to translate this very important style of ancient Roman art, of antiquity, and of contemporary Italian artists into the modern northern style. It was a pivotal point in the history of Netherlandish painting, and certainly Gossart is the one who should be credited for this great shift in the history of art at the time.
The exhibition we have just been discussing—Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance—is on view at the Metropolitan Museum from October 6, 2010, through January 17, 2011.
This exhibition is made possible by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation, the Gail and Parker Gilbert Fund, Flanders House New York, and the Society of Friends of Belgium in America.
Additional support is provided by The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, Hester Diamond, David Kowitz, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, and Joyce P. and Diego R. Visceglia.
The exhibition was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in association with The National Gallery, London.
It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.