I had signed a contract to write a book titled When Women Ruled the World: The Glorious Sixteenth Century in 1984.
I had, in fact, not written one word of that book (though I had written a number of others), until one summer day in 2012 I found myself rummaging around under my recently married daughter’s childhood bed, trying to fit there a bulky museum-grade box in which a special wedding-gown preservationist had placed her wedding dress. You could see the dress beneath a glassine window cut into the top of the box. Because I got dizzy when I stood up too quickly, I had to sit down. As I sat, I wondered why my daughter had asked me to undertake this particular chore. I had driven from the Connecticut shore to pick up the huge box from the preservationist who lived down twisty lanes in the Litchfield Hills and I had gotten lost. Was I taking this long a journey to show that I was just as loyal to my daughter as her cousin had been when she’d brought the dress to Connecticut on an airplane from Italy (where the wedding had taken place)? Why didn’t my daughter want to have her wedding gown in her own home in Los Angeles? Even though the dress had come from a famous fashion house, she had had it beautifully redesigned, so in some sense it was her own creation. Why wouldn’t she want it close to her, to show to friends, or just to look at herself? As I pondered this sitting there in her old bedroom, I realized with a shock that in fact I did know why she had asked me to get her dress and bring it back to the home where she had grown up.
The answer requires me first to explain (briefly) some recent anthropological theory. Earlier I had read Annette Weiner’s Inalienable Possessions: The Paradox of Keeping While Giving while doing research for a book I was writing on the sovereignty of Queen Elizabeth of England. I was focussing on a translation the young Elizabeth had made at age twelve of Queen Marguerite de Navarre’s Glass of the Sinful Soul (Elizabeth’s title for Le Miroir de l’Ame Pécheresse). Marguerite’s book had a strange metaphor at the center of its major allegorical trope: the sinful Christian soul (the “ame pécheresse”) was sister, daughter, and mother to Christ, making the triple relationship one of “holy incest.” I was trying to make sense of this disturbing metaphor.
I knew that Weiner’s theories had utterly overturned received opinion about the exchange of the “gift” in primitive society and that this former president of the American Anthropological Association also had a new argument about the incest taboo. In it she argued that in primitive societies women gain power by being makers and keepers of “inalienable possessions,” that is, those objects which a family keeps safe and secure and never allows out of its possession, thereby increasing the family’s prestige in a community. When women help to increase the family’s social status, they often thereby may gain for themselves potent political authority. In contrast to the way the incest taboo is supposed to work, women are not in fact irrevocably traded out to other families but retain strong ties to their natal families even after they are married. These inalienable possessions are the opposite of objects men trade in mutual gift-giving or commerce, which gain value by being circulated, each gift enforcing a reciprocating gift in return. In the Trobriand Islands where Weiner did her work, the women’s inalienable possessions were woven mats, or, as Weiner points out, cloth.
I felt my skin prickle when I realized what it was. My daughter had been creating an inalienable possession!! When she insisted that as her mother I needed to keep her dress in the house where she had grown up, under her own childhood bed, she was curating a collection of cloth for our family. (In today’s culture the wedding dress seems to have become a substitute for what used to be a whole trousseau.) I had been enlisted in a rite of female bonding (this much I knew) but one with exceedingly deep archaic roots (which I did not know and which seems truly anachronistic in the context of the 21st century). Every time I think of it, I get goose bumps. How could she have grasped something buried primevally deep in womanly memory? Why did I have to use a scholarly argument to understand?
I also now newly realized why one of the most exciting moments in a long career of archival research had happened when I touched a 16th-century daughter’s inalienable possession (although I did not know it was one at the time). In Duke Humphries Library in the Bodleian in Oxford, England, I was allowed for the briefest moment to brush a finger lightly across the embroidered covering that Elizabeth Tudor had sewn at age twelve to encase her manuscript of The Glass of the Sinful Soul. She may have translated from her own mother’s copy of the French text for Anne Boleyn, who would have personally known Queen Marguerite de Navarre while she was at the French court. So the very act of translating the French text itself somehow already implicitly connected Elizabeth to two separate queens, her mother, and Marguerite de Valois, Queen of Navarre.
Furthermore, Elizabeth had also dedicated the book to her then stepmother, Catherine Parr, recently married to her father Henry VIII. Queen Catherine had cajoled the King into receiving his youngest daughter back into his graces. At the time of the translation, the “Lady” Elizabeth had thus only recently returned to her former place in the line of succession to the throne, her royal status restored as “Princess” Elizabeth. Embroidered in blue and silver thread (which even colored pictures can’t really capture), the “sleeve” Elizabeth had sewn made the manuscript look like a book, with raised welts along the “spine” as if covering thick binding cords, and four flowers at the corners of the book’s cover in the shape of pansies (or violets). I prefer to think of them as pansies for such identification gives us, potentially, twelve-year-old Elizabeth’s visual pun for the French word “pensées,” or “thoughts.”
The book thus marked a time when Elizabeth’s place in her family had vastly improved to its former position in the royal succession. The twice woven object (for its paper was partly made of rags) commemorated the connections between three queens and Elizabeth herself.
Elizabeth’s Glass, (1544) MS Cherry 36, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.
It may seem trivializing to keep my daughter’s wedding dress in the company of such august objects as Elizabeth’s royal text, but my daughter’s driving desire to get her dress back to her natal home (at first so puzzling to me) helped me to understand why Catherine de’ Medici, who had ruled France as La Reine Mère for twenty-nine years, made sure that the royal Valois tapestries she had commissioned ultimately found their way to the Uffizi in her native Florence. Massive weavings of silk, gold, and silver wrapped threads, formed into eight gigantic tapestries –which portrayed in glittering color her royal French family and the spectacular festivities for which she was famous–she bequeathed to her granddaughter Christina of Lorraine who was marrying the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Through this gift, the tapestries made their way back to Florence to join the other Medici collections in the city where Catherine had been born. As Weiner theorized: a woman’s natal family acquired increasing prestige as the repository of inalienable possessions, passed down from one generation of the family’s women to another. Catherine was making claim to a preeminent place in the Medici family’s august collection of patrons of the arts. Indeed she was celebrating her achievement at the pinnacle of status for the family; the tapestries displayed her power as mother of French royalty.
I realized I could use these priceless objects to tell the stories of these women rulers’ collective accretions of power through creating familial-type bonds among themselves, by giving each other gifts. They might thereby give aid to each other in protecting their inherited dynastic power to rule over men–who did not easily accept their right to rule.
According to Frances Yates, famed scholar of Renaissance art, the tapestries were once some of the first artworks you saw when you reached the gallery floor of the Uffizi. Clearly someone in Florence thought them worthy of prominent display, deserving of their place at the threshold of the Medici collections. In contrast, the Louvre (or any one of Catherine’s many elegant French chateaux) had not been the proper place for such a magnificent record of her accomplishments.
In the foreground, tapestries show the Valois family as it was constituted in the 1570’s the the tapestries were probably woven. Catherine’s clear claim to the commission/creation of the series can be seen most easily in “The Tournament.”
As military as the background may seem, Catherine’s “magnificence” in this case in not a picture of any battle, but of military action ordered by art. The background of the “melee” is loosely arranged with a very nice symmetry: two white horses entering the battle area from the left and right mirror each other, and accentuate the two parade chariots drawn up on either side of the viewing platform in the center of the far background. The only violence to be seen are the fireballs exploding under the horses hooves.
Another tapestry, called the “Journey,” indicates, I think, Catherine’s intentions all along to have the whole series join the Medici collections in Florence, however much they celebrated the Magnificences she had held in France. The “cartoon” for the design of “The Journey” is by Antoine Caron, who drew of a parade of people leaving the quite recognizable Chateau of Anet. The chateau had belonged to Catherine’s rival, her husband Henri II’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers. The “cartoon” shows a rather motley crew of entertainers, bear handlers, magicians, jugglers, etc. accompanied by riders on horseback who might well be going to some outdoor picnic where they would be entertained by the animal trainers. Some scholars say it is the beginning of Catherine’s long two-year journey to show off her second son, then thirteen-year-old Charles IX, to his realm which took them down to Bayonne on the Spanish border and then back to Paris.
The figure of King Henri III, who was king of France at the time the tapestry was woven, sits regally astride a prancing white horse in the center of the composition. While keeping the basic design of Caron’s cartoon including the serpentine road wending backward to the Chateau in the background, the tapestry image presents an entirely different entourage. Replacing pedestrian musicians leading little dogs and bears, in contrast the tapestry version of this design presents a colorful and gallant crowd of courtiers in a royal procession. Catherine’s favorite son, Henri de Valois, or King Henri III, had succeeded to the throne art the time the tapestries were made; his older brother Charles IX had died in 1574.
Musing on exactly when Catherine may have hatched her plan to send the tapestries to Florence, I wondered if any of their designs might have had some more specific relation to Catherine’s natal city than their depictions of the various festivals that took place on the 1564-65 tour of France.
The great change in the original design of “The Journey” suggested it might be a candidate for a tapestry focussed on a potential final resting place in Florence. And indeed, one of the most famous depictions of the Medici as an entire family is Benozzo Gozzoli’s fresco in the Chapel in the Medici-Riccardi palace in Florence. It was the very house in which Catherine grew up, intermittently, during the first fourteen years of her life; she might well have seen the fresco every week of her until she traveled to France to marry François I’s second son, Henri de Valois.
Benozzo Gozzoli, Journey of the Magi, 1459-1461
The fact that both “Journeys” strive to show the whole family suggests very strongly, I think, that Catherine may well have been attempting to figure her royal Valois family as a continuous part of the Medici “dynasty.” Having been traumatized when the Florentine republic ousted the family and threatened her own personal well-being when she was a mere eight-years old, Catherine’s redesign of the “Journey” to replicate the famous fresco in the family home may have been a message specifically aimed at the Florentines themselves. The imaginary version of the family, presented within the progress of the three royal kings who attended the Christ child, is matched in the tapestry by the portraits of an actual French royal family in a “Journey” which clearly aims to recall the family’s other “journey.” It is a rather astonishing proof by Catherine of the legitimacy of the Medici’s early and perhaps problematic claims to royalty (which would have been especially objectionable to republican-minded citizens) . The connection between the two versions of the Medici’s family’s journeys should be seen as an important signal of the Medici’s continuing prestige as connoisseurs of the greatest works of art. The woman who ruled Florence after her husband’s death was the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Christina de Lorraine, Catherine’s own granddaughter.