Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Venus on the Thames

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Venus on the Thames

Article excerpt

      Elizabeth and Leicester
   Beating oars
   The stern was formed
   A gilded shell
   Red and gold (1)

THE SOURCE OF ENOBARBUS'S DESCRIPTION of Cleopatra's water-triumph in Antony and Cleopatra is, famously, Sir Thomas North's English version of Plutarch's Lives, published in 1579, the appropriate passage from which most modern editions of the play conveniently supply as a comparative appendix. One consistent editorial question over the years has been whether any particular image may have been on the authorial mind as Shakespeare reformed North's words about Cleopatra's deliberate presentation of herself as the goddess Venus "commonly drawn in picture" into the far more compelling view of her as "O'er-picturing that Venus where we see/ The fancy outwork nature" (2.2.200-01). (2) Over the course of his lifetime Shakespeare had undoubtedly seen various representations of Venus, drawn, painted, and sculpted in wood and metal, but there was a particular local example he would have known which in its visual detail comes remarkably close to the verbal descriptions in North's Plutarch, overlapping with them in many significant respects, and in its extravagant design outworking nature to some considerable extent. It was, moreover, partly inspired by Plutarch's description in the Paralle! Lives, although from a Latin or Italian version of the text, rather than North's English version of Amyot's French translation from the Greek original. (3) It therefore represents a further branch on the tree of influence on Shakespeare's poetry, and it offered visual supplementation of the purely verbal account found in North.

The work in question was a pictorial tapestry, rather than a painting, belonging to a linked series of triumphs of the gods. They were designed in Italy and woven in Brussels; the English royal commission for a set woven from the original designs was completed by 1542, in which same year the tapestries were received into the royal Wardrobe of King Henry VIII, adding to the enormous collection of large and rich tapestries which constituted a chief mark of the magnificence and sophistication of the Tudor court. Henry's collection, by the time of his death in 1547, was the largest in Europe, and contained many gorgeous and finely designed works of decorated fabric. (4) In size and splendour it was exceeded only by the later collection of King Louis XIV of France, but many of the English tapestries were sold and dispersed in the Commonwealth sales in 1649 and the years following. Before that date the Henrican tapestry collection, partly funded by the profits of the Dissolution, provided the chief claim of the English court to patronage of the fine graphic arts, especially so before the 1620s, and certain famous sets and designs were repeatedly displayed on ceremonial and state occasions until the outbreak of the civil wars. (5)

The Triumph of Venus (illustration between pages 128 and 129) was among the tapestries at Whitehall Palace when Henry died; it was then removed for storage at the Tower, but as a part of a series of richly woven and elegantly designed works it must have been employed for the decoration of the court many times over the course of the following century. (6) Two of the tapestries from Henry's series, Hercules and Bacchus, survive, and may today be seen at Hampton Court. (7) The Venus of the collection has been lost, and the photograph reproduced here is of a later weaving from the same cartoons, completed in the 1560s. The designs for the Triumphs had a long career, in fact: first made in the second decade of the sixteenth century at Raphael's studio in Rome, they were still being copied and woven up to the beginning of the eighteenth century. (8) Their grace and elegance remained fashionable, and their display in the English court of Queen Elizabeth proclaimed a sophisticated and advanced artistic taste.

The principal artist responsible for the cartoons--that is the coloured drawings used as the model for the woven cloth--was Giovanni da Udine, assisted by Giovanni Francesco Penni and Perino del Vaga. …

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