The Golden Olden Days; the Renaissance Was a Time of Superb Craftsmanship, Says Richard Edmonds Who Picks out a Few Little Gems

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It was the English poet, Matthew Arnold, who decided to invent the word "Renascence". It was an attempt to give a more nationalistic flavour to "Rinascimento" or, as we know it today, Renaissance, a European movement which affected both social structures, philosophy, the arts in all their different forms, as well as discoveries in science and the New World.

The art of the courtier was a significant strand in the many movements which contributed to the shape of the Renaissance along with the glorification of the self in terms of portraits, sculptures and miniatures.

You only have to think of the glamorous portrayals of Elizabeth I and her successor, King James, to get the picture.

Shakespeare, Cervantes and Milton were emergent figures in literature along with Francis Bacon, Spenser and Wyatt. In the sciences it was Galileo who confronted the inquisition with his proof that the Earth was heliocentric, and the Renaissance painters from Leonardo to Michelangelo gave new and heroic dimensions to the human form whether you were a king or a slave.

And the Renaissance, of course, was the age of gold, exemplified in glorious swirls of power structures signified at the moment when Henry VIII met Francis I of France on the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520.

Gold provoked conflict in the New World and led to the decimation of the Incas and the Aztecs. It was the internal cause of the racial tension between Jew and Gentile in The Merchant of Venice , and the attempted manufacture of gold from base metal led many a foolhardy alchemist to the scaffold.

But for sheer exuberance the European Renaissance has always been seen as the golden age of sculpture, architecture, painting and drawing, and it still influences us today. These great movements are captured wonderfully in Treasures of the French Renaissance by Ivan Cloulas and Michele Bimbenet-Privat (Abrams: pounds 32). And never was pounds 32 better spent. Here are the jewels of this glorious time, the great castles, the wonderful enamel work and the fine paintings.

For those readers who plan to travel to the Valley of the Loire in the months ahead, the chateaux of Chambord, Fontainebleau, Chenonceau and Beauregard (a perfect name for a perfect building) are shown here in all their magnificence, their fairy-tale architecture mirrored eternally in tranquil lakes.

And if we consider that Charles I, as chief player in a masque was hoisted aloft with his queen in a cloud of glory to the roof of the Banqueting House in Whitehall, then we should remember that in the previous century pageantry, jousting in golden armour, extravagant theatre and the arts of the garden flourished in equal measure in France.

And what of the treasures of this time, some of which I saw in replica at the recent antiques fair at the NEC? From the end of the Middle Ages sumptuous glassware set out on the tables of the great and good, offered a sparkling alternative to pewter. Wealthy purchasers looked to Venice to provide goblets, dishes and bottles in fine glass which were highly regarded at the time (Anne of Brittany listed proudly several pieces of glass "with gilded edges" in her inventories).

These things were probably looked upon as inflation hedges in the Renaissance in a similar way to fine prints, gold and silver objects and paintings.

The Renaissance went in for present giving in a big way, and as craftsmen reached new heights, the present might take the form of a jewelled collar or a gold chalice or an inlaid gold plate offered directly to the Monarch. Sleaze is obviously nothing new.

The nef was a table decoration in the form of a galleon with gold or silver sails and an enamelled body. The lovely nef once given to Anne of Brittany carried divine passengers made from gold and enamel in the form of dainty women surrounding St Ursula, who was also on board. It turned this particular nef into a reliquary. …