I’m off to New York City tomorrow for a big wedding, and although time is limited, I’ve got to go to at least one exhibition while I am there. I’m torn between the Morgan Library & Museum’s Edgar Allen Poe: The Terror of the Soul and an equally new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Interwoven Globe: the Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800. I think the latter is going to win out for two reasons: 1) the early modern period is my teaching specialization and; 2) it features textiles–materials, stuff–which is going to win out over literature any and every time. Anybody that has ever studied–or even casually glanced at–European paintings over this long period can see the increasingly liberal display of eastern textiles throughout the era, and most especially in the art of the Renaissance and Dutch Golden Age: this is material evidence of the “interwoven globe”. The value that was placed on eastern textiles, most prominently carpets, is indicated not only by their appearance but also by their placement; I use a lot of art in my classes, and inevitably my students always ask: why is that oriental rug on the table?
This famous painting, Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533; National Gallery of Art) is a perfect case in point. I use it to illustrate the ideal of the Renaissance Man: these two young French ambassadors, amidst the symbols of their expertise, with an anamorphic skull lurking in the foreground to warn the viewer against excessive worldliness, create quite the composition. There’s a lot to see and discuss, but inevitably my students ask why is that oriental rug on the table? Before they notice the skull.
Carpets from the Middle East appear in European works of art as far back as the thirteenth century, after the Crusades opened up this exchange, but they become a much more common decorative element several centuries later. Renaissance artists like Carlo Crivelli and Lorenzo Lotto used carpets frequently in their works, so much so that they even have distinct carpet patterns named after them. The presence of the carpet in these paintings immediately conveyed an image of wealth, education and achievement to the onlooker; it was a decorative (but certainly not unsubtle) way of conveying status in this aspirational age.
Lorenzo Lotto, Portrait of Giovanni Della Volta with his Wife and Children, 1547, National Gallery of Art & Husband and Wife, c. 1523, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia (the carpet is easily understood, but what about the letter and SLEEPING squirrel?)
Jumping forward to another aspirational era, the Dutch “golden age” in the seventeenth century, and carpets seem to be on every painted table, particularly those of Johannes Vermeer and Gabriel Mëtsu. They appear so often they start to look common, rather than like possessions of the privileged; Vermeer in particular is rather egalitarian with his carpets, which appear in the close proximity of several maids and even a prostitute. Before long, they’ll end up on the floor.
Johannes Vermeer, The Glass of Wine, 1658-1660, Staatliche Museen Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin; Gabriel Mëtsu, Man Writing a Letter, c 1662-1665; National Gallery of Ireland.
PS. In terms of exhibition souvenirs, I think I prefer the Interwoven Globe tee shirt to the Poe magnet. That clinches it.