Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 19, 2005
Susan Groag Bell The Lost Tapestries of the City of Ladies: Christine de Pizan’s Renaissance Legacy Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. 271 pp.; 8 color ills.; 17 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (0520234103)

Author Christine de Pizan (c. 1364–c. 1430) is no longer the obscure figure she was three decades ago when Susan Groag Bell began her research for The Lost Tapestries of the ‘City of Ladies’: Christine de Pizan’s Renaissance Legacy. Indeed, although Christine’s texts were widely commissioned for court libraries in fifteenth-century Europe, by the middle of the sixteenth century they had already fallen out of favor. Not until feminist scholars of the early 1980s began to uncover and mine a larger body of evidence for medieval women as writers, readers, patrons, and interpreters of literature was Christine propelled back into the limelight. By the 1990s the author and her writings had become the subject of numerous scholarly conferences, books, articles, and exhibitions—even the founding of the Christine de Pizan Society. Now, fortunately, much more is known about the life of this widowed mother who supported her family with her writing and who enjoyed the patronage of some of Europe’s most prominent figures. Additionally, most of Christine’s thirty books, essays, and collections of verse have been the subject of considerable scrutiny and debate.

Of all Christine’s writings, Le Livre de la cité des dames (The Book of the City of Ladies), completed in 1405, was and remains the most celebrated. A rebuttal to the misogynistic tirades of Jean de Meun’s Le roman de la rose and most specifically Matheolus’ Lamentations, the text survives in some twenty-five manuscript copies dating to the fifteenth century. Some of these volumes were lavishly illustrated, including those once belonging to Christine’s renowned benefactors, Queen Isabel of France, Duke Jean de Berry, and Jean sans Peur, Duke of Burgundy. What Bell brings to light in her study, though, is something previously known only to a small group of tapestry historians: that woven panels of the Cité des dames were collected by the ruling elite well into the sixteenth century. The Lost Tapestries of the ‘Citie of Ladies’ is a fascinating account of Bell’s thirty-year quest to locate those hangings, accompanied by an equally compelling exploration of the Renaissance engagement with the Cité des dames. Although Bell’s search for the works ultimately fell short—not one of thirty-eight panels originally comprising six separate tapestry sets could be tracked down—the study remains a skillful and engaging example of what cultural historians must often do: “weigh the possibilities to arrive at probabilities” (3).

Unlike most scholarly books, this one is a quasi-chronological narrative account of the procedures, discoveries, and conclusions of the author’s research. Chapter 1 reveals Bell’s first hint of a Cité des dames tapestry set. An inventory of the possessions of King Henry VIII of England, made just after his death in 1547, reveals that a six-panel woven series depicting the “City of Ladies” was transferred from the king’s lodgings to “Lady Elizabeth[’s] Guarderobe.” Lady Elizabeth was none other than the future Queen Elizabeth I; the guarderobe, Bell later informs the reader, was a storage room reserved for the most valuable royal objects. The same inventory records the dispatch of a second set of tapestries from the king’s collection to his young son, Edward VI. In researching why and how Henry acquired these works, Bell discovered that city officials of the Flemish tapestry center of Tournai presented Cité des dames tapestries to Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands, when she traveled there to greet Henry in 1513. With this information, Bell began to surmise that networks among the ruling families may have contributed to the pan-European transmittal and appeal of the Cité des dames in both written and woven form, a hypothesis that strengthened over the span of her project.

With her documentation of three Cité des dames tapestry sets, Bell was intent on learning more about the major players to which they led, including Christine and Elizabeth, and about tapestry production in the Renaissance. Chapter 2 deftly pieces together the known details of Christine’s life and literary production, including, appropriately, a long section on the Cité des dames. Bell relates how, in this work, Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude, and Lady Justice instruct Christine to write an allegory in the form of a utopian city. The building blocks of the city were nearly 200 independently minded historical and mythical women, whose praiseworthy qualities and achievements were aimed at reassuring a female audience in the face of the biased ranting of Jean de Meun and Matheolus. Chapter 3 considers the relevance of the allegory for Elizabeth, who was groomed for leadership from an early age but refused to marry despite considerable pressure to produce an heir. Bell argues that Elizabeth would have responded especially to those Cité women with similar concerns, such as the Ethiopian empress Nicaula, whom Christine described as a just ruler whose “lofty” heart would not permit marriage. Chapter 4 returns to Elizabeth’s tapestries in order to consider issues of production (including artists and their working methods), the quality and size of woven panels (also treated in an appendix), and the involvement of women in the industry. Bell also identifies the Cité des dames as an unusual subject for tapestries of the period: most weavings depicted religious, mythological, historical, allegorical, landscape, or genre scenes.

The following five chapters examine in turn the Cité des dames tapestry sets known to Bell, which, after her examination of an assortment of household inventories, had come to number six. In addition to Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Edward VI, and Margaret of Austria, owners of the works included: Mary of Hungary, who inherited Margaret of Austria’s set; Anne of Brittany, wife of the French King Charles VIII; James V of Scotland, whose series eventually passed to his daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots, rival to Elizabeth I; and possibly Louise of Savoy, mother of King Francis I. Lengthy biographies reveal Bell’s interest in discovering how and what these figures knew about the Cité des dames, and she traces the importance of familial networks in the dissemination of knowledge (a helpful appendix keeps track of the myriad characters, both major and minor). The author closes the section by mapping her research on the two series originally owned by Henry VIII. She hoped to find out how and why Henry came to own the sets and to reconstruct the history of the works after they left the collections of Elizabeth and Edward. Despite some tantalizing prospects in the extensive royal inventories, she was unable to find a single entry that clearly corresponded to either of Henry’s sets. Also potentially productive but ultimately disappointing are Bell’s attempts to identify specific illuminated manuscripts of the Cité des dames as models for the tapestries. This question, the author freely admits, cannot be answered without the hangings.

Those readers eager to relate the Cité des dames to Renaissance gender ideologies will find what they seek in Chapter 10. Here Bell considers how Christine’s text both constructed and contested views about women in a period governed largely by a “masculine impulse toward patriarchy” (159). For instance, the omission of Christine’s name from the cover of the lone printed edition of the work, published by Bryan Anslay in 1521, is one sign of Renaissance discomfort with female authors and female authority, for which there is a great deal of other evidence. Such attitudes about women prevailed among some men familiar with Christine’s feminist writings and—by extension, Bell argues—among some male beholders of the tapestries inspired by her work. Indeed, four of the sets Bell identifies were owned by women in positions of political authority, who faced considerable challenges as a result of their occupying places of authority. The Cité des dames refutes, in general terms at least, misogynistic assertions that negatively affected their rule. With this in mind, can it be mere coincidence that the tapestry format eventually usurped the book as the preferred medium for conveying Christine’s ideas, since tapestry, an inherently more public medium, necessarily reached a larger audience? Indeed, the Cité des dames sets identified by Bell were large in scale and suited for display in a grand public hall or council chamber or in the great hall of a palace. Complicating the situation, though, is the fact that Margaret of Austria’s series was presented to her by men, namely, the magistrates of Tournai, her subjects. This group clearly believed that Christine’s message had a distinct prospect of pleasing their sovereign.

All in all, Bell’s study is a captivating page-turner with much to recommend it. Experts and students alike will appreciate the careful unfolding of the material in clear, accessible prose. The structure of the project as a tale of fits and starts, of successes and failures, is unusual and highly refreshing. The interdisciplinary bibliography is useful, despite an occasional omission (Dagmar Eichberger’s important recent work on Margaret of Austria, for instance, is conspicuously absent), and the eight color plates and seventeen black-and-white illustrations of various tapestries, portraits, and Cité des dames miniatures are well produced. Some readers, however, will feel a poignant absence, albeit perforce, of the lost tapestries. Indeed, some may ask, can a book framed around such a gaping lacuna be at all instructive? With Bell, the answer is a resounding yes.

Andrea G. Pearson
Professor of Art History, Department of Art and Art History, Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania