Warring Kings’ Art Treasures Glitter in Paris Exhibit: Review

"Portrait of Margaret of Austria" by Jean Hey. The work is part of the exhibit "France 1500" at the Grand Palais, Paris, which runs through Jan 10, 2011. Source: Grand Palais via Bloomberg

George W. Bush wasn’t the first leader to launch a disastrous war based on shaky premises.

Two of his bellicose forerunners are the patron saints of an attractive show at Paris’s Grand Palais -- Charles VIII and Louis XII, who ruled France between 1483 and 1515.

“France 1500” is, in some ways, a sequel to “Paris 1400: The Arts Under Charles VI,” an exhibition organized by the Louvre in 2004.

Inspired by romances of chivalry, Charles VIII decided to invade Italy claiming his family’s rights on the kingdom of Naples. After Charles’s death at 27 -- he hit his head on the lintel of a door -- his successor continued the war, dragging France into the Italian quagmire for more than a generation.

After a few victories and many defeats, French troops eventually retreated empty-handed.

The invasion in the opposite direction was more successful: Italian art became popular at the French court. The exhibition includes altarpieces, canvases, sculptures and medallions by Italian artists; some, such as Francesco Laurana and Leonardo da Vinci, moved to France.

Compared with Florence, Venice and Rome, Paris in those days was a cultural backwater. Unlike their Italian peers, French artists were slow at absorbing the new Renaissance spirit: Many of the 200 works in the show have a medieval feel.

Mystery Master

This is certainly true of the paintings by Nicolas Froment and Jean Hey who, organizers say, is the mysterious Maitre de Moulins. By contrast, Jean Fouquet, the 15th century’s most famous French artist, was more modern: He had lived for years in Rome, and it shows.

Paintings are only a sideshow at the Grand Palais. They share the stage with tapestries, furniture, stained glass, enamels, illuminated manuscripts and the dernier cri of the period -- printed books, including a “Mirror for Sinners.”

The Lady with the Unicorn series hasn’t budged from the Musee de Cluny; instead, you find a no less delicious tapestry from Boston, “Narcissus Gazing at His Reflection in a Fountain.”

One of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts is the Book of Hours that belonged to Anne, duchess of Brittany. She was married, by turns, to Charles VIII and Louis XII. Her first marriage was to bring Brittany under the crown of France; her second was to keep it there.

There’s also a gold capsule for her heart -- “the greatest heart that had any lady in the world,” as the inscription says. (Anne is still popular in Brittany, and the heroine of a rock opera first performed in 2009.)

Another reliquary in the exhibition claims to contain milk from the Madonna.

The last item is a portrait of Louis’s successor, Francis I, as St. John the Baptist. It was only under that formidable patron of the arts that the trickle of Italian painters and sculptors became a torrent and that the Renaissance finally conquered France.

“France 1500 -- Entre Moyen Age et Renaissance” runs through Jan. 10, 2011, at the Grand Palais, Paris. On Feb. 26, 2011, the show will open at the Art Institute of Chicago. Information: http://www.rmn.fr.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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