bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Italian Culture and the Tudor Court

Posted in Renaissance Studies by bonaelitterae on 23 October, 2011

Step into the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace or, indeed, the equivalent space at Holyrood and you sense the self-imposed expectation that all should be of a certain standard, from the ironwork of the banisters to the heavy wood of the toilet doors. Have the opportunity to take a light lunch looking over the gardens of Buckingham Palace, and the same seems true not just of the permanent fittings but also of the food – the dainty smoked salmon sandwich or the amuse-bouche of mozzarella and pesto. There appears to be a projection of royal identity or, rather of certain values associated with that identity, even to those who are transient visitors, temporarily at the very edge of what in its loosest sense could be termed the court.

I mention this because on Friday, through the kind invitation of Kate Lowe, I attended a symposium on Italian culture at the Tudor court held (thanks to Lucy Whitaker) under the auspices of the Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace. It was followed on Saturday by visits to Windsor Castle and (for this I had to bow out) Hampton Court. The occasion marked a culmination of a collaboration between Queen Mary’s, London and the Royal Collection which saw a funded doctorate, now submitted, by Charlotte Bolland. But the event felt less like an end than a beginning: a conversation that helped take stock of what we already know but also what more there is to find, to define and to conceptualise. The event was organised with few papers and an emphasis on discussion, with about thirty participants around the table. It was structured by a set of questions, each thrown out by one of the participants – the result was, helpfully, both some answers and many more questions. So, what I want to provide is not a depiction of the topic but rather an overview of some of those issues that might be usefully researched in future.

I will begin with a set of questions that, while not often at the centre of discussion provided a theme that ran through the day. How often were products recognisable to their users as hailing from a specific place of origin? In our own generation, we might, for instance, rarely check the labels on foodstuffs – unless we are concerned about food airmiles or want to boycott some benighted country – but we would talk of Dutch Edam, French baguettes and Danish pastries. Was there a deeper sensitivity to origins in the sixteenth century? And, if so, were products considered ‘Italian’ or more specifically, say, Venetian (glass), Milanese (armour) or Cremonese (at the end of our period, violins)? These products could include animals – some of our discussion, prompted by Charlotte Bolland, considered the role of horses as diplomatic gifts and the self-presentation of the Gonzagas of Mantua as both the owners and the arbiters of the best equine specimens. Nor were these ‘products’ confined to the tangible; Lucy Whitaker raised the question of whether Italians were particularly associated, in sixteenth-century minds, with technical innovation. I would add the link made between Italy – particularly Rome – and eloquence in the pre-Reformation period. These affinities between place and product or practice could also lead us to a comparative question: were the cities of Italy, generally or individually, particularly associated with a greater number of ‘things’ than were other places in western Europe? However we were to answer that, we would have to recognise that the wider issue lying behind it would be whether there was any concern to achieve economic autarky or whether the commercial inter-dependence of Europe – and beyond – was recognised and welcomed. We also cannot pretend these issues are static: as reputations change and skills spread or migrate, so the perceived affinities must eventually shift.

That being the case, the first cluster of questions has to be balanced or combined with another: how far did individual products or practices bear witness to what might be called a melange of manufacturing? This could most obviously encompass the naturalisation of an activity – Sydney Anglo, in deliciously provocative mode, opened the proceedings by noting how few Italians were involved in the ‘italianate’ arts of war or of festivals and other courtly pastimes as practised in sixteenth-century England. We might also think of mediated influences — with France and Burgundy being the usual suspects paraded in this category. But this is an issue which envelopes other phenomena too. We heard from Maria Hayward of clothing that could be begun in one place, shipped north from the Mediterranean and finished in England. I would parallel this with examples of manuscripts written, for instance, by a Dutch scribe for an English patron in the littera antiqua bookhand favoured by Italian humanists, illuminated in a fashionable French style and then bound in England (I have in my mind’s eye some of the codices for which Erasmus’s favourite scribe, Pieter Meghen, was the copyist).

The key concept here is, of course, eclectic or hybrid and that is often seen as the defining characteristic of court culture. The question then becomes whether the court was eclectic because that was seen as the route to the best or whether being hybrid or cosmopolitan within the confined space of the court was itself seen as being best – was this hybridity for an aesthetic purpose or as an end of itself? Behind this lies issues of how far the court was a place best suited to judge the best, whether discernment of quality was itself an innate quality of those gatherings of the high-born and the highly promoted. That, in turn, can broaden into the wider question – court: trend-setter, fashion-victim or old fogey? The answer to that, of course, depends on the cultural material which one studies. In terms of textiles, for instance, we heard of the court’s tailoring as being at the cutting edge, so to speak. In terms of the production of books, I would say that, most often, the court was a participant rather than a leader. Our trip to the library at Windsor threw up not quite an exception to this but certainly a useful counter-example: an inventure of Henry VII’s reign, occupying several pages, written first in Latin, then in English, its administrative purpose signified by the uneven cut of the top of the folios (wavy rather than serrated), the whole presented as a small book with its original binding similarly indented at the top – a type of product that is so particular and, at the same time, so associated with the traditions of royal bureaucracy that it could only have been produced in the environs of Westminster. That is to say, the court could prove the ideal location for the creation of the singular, the cultural hapax legomenon or, put more bluntly, the oddball.

These issues lead naturally onto considerations of the relationship between the court and other activities. We were often reminded, particularly by Cinzia Sicca, of the importance of the mercantile world, as importers and as conduits of goods to the court. Was the court a parasite on the back of international commerce? Were, indeed, the court’s activities only possible in the increasingly metropolitan – though not necessarily increasingly cosmopolitan – world of London? Yet, the court itself was not one location with a static character. Leaving aside the issue of the court being used as shorthand for the royal court (no Skeltonian question of ‘which court?’ here), the king’s entourage was both movable and highly fluid. Part of its eclectic nature surely lay in that instability of presence with the toing and froing of international visitors re-shaping its identity and focus repeatedly. That process of visiting related to a highly pertinent question raised on the day by Margaret McGowan: the balance between ‘making’ and ‘doing’ in relation to court life. To put it another way, how far were the royal works of palace building themselves a prelude, the provision of a theatrical setting in which the performances that were the real work of the court took place? Do we do an injustice to court culture if we privilege the monumental over the ephemeral?

Cutting across all these issues, of course, are matters of periodisation. The Tudor century was, as Cliff Davies would remind us, no such thing – there was little consciousness of ‘Tudor’ to define it. We might instead see a simple way of dividing up the time to be the name of the monarch whose court it was, but that surely gives too much credit to the centre-point in defining the circle which, in fact, constructed the royal persona. Each scholar might detect different patterns: for my own part, I would see a continuity from the early 1460s to the early 1510s in terms of the Italian influences on royal diplomacy, while at the other end of the sixteenth century, there is (despite the change from English queen to Scottish king) arguably a continuity of interests from, say, the late 1580s to the early 1610s. Between those periods, further divisions might need to be made with, of course, the religious turmoil of the 1530s to late 1550s being necessarily a state of flux and uncertainty. But, then, such instability – the continual chasing of the butterflies of ‘fashion’, the blend of languid waiting and kinetic energy reminiscent of a departure lounge – these phenomena might be quintessential to the intrigue of the court.


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