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Art and power in England (1500 - 1600)  
Raffaella Pastore Pistoia
ISSN 1127-4883     BTA - Telematic Bulletin of Art, 17th March 2001, n. 254


To face a complex subject as the role played by Art in the course of the two perhaps denser and crucial centuries of England's history, when a country remained till now in a position of relative isolation takes a curtain call with arrogance in the European scene, does not mean to deal exclusively with problems of critical, iconographical, technical and documentary type, but involves the necessity to dive in a much complex weft of history, politics, diplomacy, culture and religion, in which every aspect interacts with the others, and whose fulcrum, for better or for worse, is however constituted from the figure of the monarch and his court. They will be in fact several kings, the only possible referring for the reception of European Renaissance's innovations, specially in the first phase, of slow resumption after the devastation caused by the War of the Two Roses, to comprehend firstly, everyone following his own inclinations and character, the extraordinary potentialities of the artistic message and gradually to throw the bases for a more diffuse and aware appreciation of Art, collections and theatrical culture, in a continuous dialectic comparison with the greatest powers of Europe, appreciated, feared and envied, like France, Spain, and the great Italian courts.

However, in every aspect, Art in England will always maintain in these two centuries a peculiar and independent character, in which the fascinating Renaissance inventions will come to pacts with the local tradition, in an interesting cocktail of original elements and imported novelties, in which the reformed religion will play a not indifferent role in the choice of the representative typologies, from the age of the Tudors until Wren's churches, in order to meet finally, most of all in architectonic style, a totalling and well disseminated Palladianism. Beyond to the already emphasized fundamental role of the monarchy, in connection with the subjects we go analysing, and strictly correlated, emerges therefore all an important series of aspects and problems that cross in time the interested period, and that, becoming simpler, we could reassume in three main points: the role of portrait, in its varied typologies, as in painting as in the funerary sculpture; the importance of festivities, dramas and ephemeral apparatuses specially in relation to the dissemination of several royal "mythologies"; finally the dissemination and the various ways of the collection's phenomenon, also in relation with diplomacy problems and aims "of image".

A series of smaller aspects is interlaced and equally interesting: the progressive changing of the artist's role, the  use of the architecture " to the Italian " in celebrative function and for prestige, the commerce and the hunting to the art works, the role of the feminine figure in English Art, than however we can comprise to the inside the three main traditions already characterized.

I. The Tudors

The first to understand that a strong type of formulation of his own image could have a high upgrades of political communication was the stormy Enrico VIIIº: the famous "Great Picture", the imposing portrait painted in 1537 by the great Holbein at WhiteHall, had reputation to annihilate and to frighten the spectator.

After a definitive breaking off with Rome and its figurative tradition caused by divorce from Catherine of Aragon, the intelligent monarch  addressed to a foreign artist who had a long experience of that tradition, and could skilfully use it to its favour: we are farthest, and for a long time we will be, from the acknowledgment of an intrinsic value to the art work, and however, it will be just this instrumental use of the artistic acts to make great masterpieces come conceived and realized.

In Tudor age in fact, the commission of a portrait was surely something not accidental: preserved every vanity or frivolity, the important thing was to hand down to posterity the memory of terrene enterprises, of familiar traditions, and this idea was mostly valid for men, who had approached those public functions precluded to women: from the walls of the dwellings of the noblest families hung effigies of the austere ancestors and more near relatives, often equipped with inscriptions that helped to emphasize the goals caught up (the Kytson family in 1608 possessed 37 pieces in Hardwick Hall); images of the most important persons came quite replied for country houses.

Is for the same reason that greatest importance came attributed to the memory of the dead men: paradoxically, in an age were the sacred images were banished and condemned for their frivolity, tombs and family chapels became real symbols of power; since death was seen like the apex of life, in funeral monuments everyone gave vent to the want of luxury, of decorative and celebrative pomp of the family, with ornaments, growing of allegorical and celebrative figures, even if the effigy of the dead man did not have to be similar, but to represent his "social body".

In England, the role of the artist was still assimilable to the craftsman's one, even if first marks of a slow change were had just with the figure of Holbein, in England from 1532, and with the progressive acceptance of the positive role of painting in the contemporary treatises dedicated to gentlemen's education.

With the advent to the throne of Elisabeth Iº, the antinaturalistic and completely utilitaristic vocation of English Art will come aware emphasized and carried to the ends: the daughter of Enrico VIIIº and Anna Bolena will defend the power caught up with much tenacity, constructing around her figure and her court a thick symbolic curtain, in which, perhaps for the first time, she will come involved with a prominent role in the whole artistic culture, from painting to architecture, from music to scenografy and theatre.

The monarch will develop in an ulterior network of symbols and allegories the idea of renovatio imperii, maturated from the great tradition of Carl Vº, in particular identifying herself with the figure of Virgin Astrea, the Justice in person, last virtue, following Hesiod's and Ovid's mythology, to leave Earth at the moment of the degenerated fourth age of the man's advent.

Around to this myth wheels much part of Elizabethan age's culture, starting from the Spenserian "Faerie Queene": the complex figure of a fecund virgin, identified with the Spring, but at the same time chaste, ordered and exotic, was in fact the perfect alter ego for the figure of Elisabeth, the restorer of the golden peace in England, the queen who had invested her own virginity of deep political and moral means. In particular a true purified imperial religion, that used symbols and traditions coming from the Christian world in order to impose the Queen's cult as tutor of the true religion of God, in opposition to the corruption of the Popes and the church of Rome (even if the intelligent Queen will succeed to create around himself a halo of relative religious tolerance) was developed.  From Foxe to Goddesses, from Peele to Davies, all the men of letters contribute to feed the myth of Elisabeth, in a growing of enthusiasm that starts from the identification with other mythical creatures like Flora, Belphoebe, Diana, Tuccia, to arrive to extreme comparisons, like the identification with the Virgin Maria, or even with the First creator of the macrocosms, God.

A phenomenon that with Elisabeth has a great development and that will inaugurate a fecund tradition in England is the revival of knights tournaments in occasion of the rise to the throne's anniversary, connected at the same time to the necessity of replacing the catholic festivities and ceremonies with a new ritual world for the collective imaginary and of creating a strong value for the nobility (beyond that in a sure way a vent of exorcising the fear of the war), to increase the devotion towards this strong-willed monarch.

Starting from a literary work, Sidney's "Arcadia", is possible to fully reconstruct modality and symbolic implications of the tournaments and their sumptuous shows (as those of Woodstock and Ditchley) managed for years from the versatile champion of the Queen, Lee, and organized to offer a pleasant but at the same time densely allusive and celebrative entertainment.

All the portraits dedicated to the figure of Queen Tudor are totally aligned to the dominant ethos in the years of her glorious reign: in fact if in the portraits previous to the incoronation still can be seen a certain "naturalness" of rests and of expression (as the beautiful one painted in 1546 and attributed to the Scrots and the miniature of Levina), gradually with more obvious and aware modalities, they arrive to a colder way, more allegorical, in which great importance is given to ornaments and to apparel, to the emblems of power, to symbolical means, with an aware abandonment of naturalism and resemblance. In this picture, a happy exception is constituted from the short presence of Zuccaro, with the " Darmley" portrait and its sketches of the models that will be resumed by all the posterior authors. With passing of the years the monarch's tendency to control to the total her own image is complete: after the proclaim of 1563 even the accredited painters, like Hilliard, will at this point have direct approach only with the Queen's dresses, while her face will remain the same in the years, young and cool, painted always in the " mask of youth ". Therefore slide in front of us the most celebrated portraits, like " The Armada ", " The sieve ", " The ermine ", where the political and symbolic message becomes more and more rich and pregnant. For the last years of reign the only one who will have the privilege of drawing from true the monarch will be Isac Olivier, a painter who has created the perhaps most realistic image of Elisabeth, and that will obviously no more be followed.

The tradition of " heraldic " portraits will continue and Elisabeth's icons will be venerated after her death, specially during the Stuart's  crisis, when her reign will be seen as a mythical age of gold. In this period, collecting works of art  still appears a far goal (only meaningful exception, Lumley the ancestor of the greatest collector of England, Arundel) and the dissemination of a kind of more intimate and private art, the miniature, continues the tradition of portrait, more and more impersonal, following the fashion of court, symbolic and allegorical, to allude to the subject's role in life, to its " heraldic body ", or often to become vehicle, also for the monarch's family, of wedding dealings (and is a well known tale the disastrous result that the poor Holbein had with its king, with Anne of Cleves's portrait….)

II. The Stuarts

In 1604 James Iº, son of ill-fated Maria Stuart, made his triumphal income to the capital, beginning the reign of his dynasty, the Stuarts, and re-uniting under a single power the crowns of Scotland and England. His maxim was " blessed pacific souls ", and truly his great aspiration was to carry peace to the country, conciliating and dulling the frictions with diplomacy and well studied weddings , even if, in the long period, his dreams will be completely refuted from History.

The complex, picked, most religious and theoretical monarch of the absolute monarchy, at the same time mad about hunting, homosexual and vulgar in many ways, did not love Art of true love, but comprised its real importance, also because he decided to emulate the great foreign monarchies.
The court however, specially in the first times, being said by contemporaries a place of such corruption to probably inspire dark atmospheres of the contemporary drama, was also a place of fertile artistic and cultural exchange: just from the ceremony of the king's income to London, new mythology was specified around his figure, much more intelligent regarding the times of Elisabeth, richer of Renaissance culture eventually "digested" (in particular tied to Ripa's "Iconology" and analogous writers of Italian tradition), and of complex symbolical means, so hidden, that also the authors of the happening, Dekker and Ben Johnson, needed two treatises to explain their ideas: however everything was dedicated to the figure of the new king, symbol of virtue, new phoenix, bearer of peace, new Salomon, to whose apparition released the thousand wonderful machinery assembled on seven enormous arches, created from architect S. Harrison, full of symbolic personages and allegorical decorations.

What more characterizes James's reign is just this theatrical, magical and powerful dimension, that finds its acme in the "Jacobean Masque", ritual of Elizabethan derivation but that in those years catches up a never equalled level, every time being involved in two months of long preparation artists, men of letters, the best musicians of the time, and the same courtiers, in a show unique in Europe, where the pomp was imposing and all the values and means the monarch wonted to emphasize were given.

It was a theatre of mysteries and miracles, that, with the complex witnesses of Johnson and the brilliant inventions of the painter, architect and costume designer Inigo Jones (in the Masque of Blacknesse, played in 1607, he introduced for the first time in England the perspective scene), was stiff to exalt and to reveal the divinity of the king, even if in truth, in spite of the strongly visual impact, it was in deep destined to a chosen selection of persons able to comprise to bottom the darkest means.

If, as has been said, James was not a great estimator of Art (even if we still have some beautiful portraits, like the one painted in 1620 by Paul Von Somer, and like indirectly say the splendid celebrated ceilings painted by Rubens at Banqueting House), his wife, Anne of Denmark, was of tastes much more refined, and we have to thank her intelligent patronage if the artists had for the first time a role recognized to the inside of the court: lover of pomp, rich costumes, jewels and exotic, the Queen had in particular a long relationship with I. Jones, who in occasion of the Masques designed wonderful customs for her and her ladies-inwaiting, and, as architect, was author in 1619 of the Banqueting House, erected in a rush in order to compete with the Spanish's pomp, and of Newmarket 's Lodge, prototype of the country Palladian house.

Her figure still remains to inquire, also for the educative role she had on the tastes of the sons, very different from the parent's ones. Among these, the firstborn Henry, prince of Wales, deserves a place to himself, and passed like a luminous meteor in English history, he died eighteen in 1612 leaving in the darkest desperation the entire country, breaking every hope for the future: this austere young person, extraordinarily premature, had been able to create around himself in single two short years a court of elected and picked men, surrounding himself of students, artists, compositors, and maintaining a style of exemplary life, centralized on the ancient knightly values of Elizabethan tradition (Henry, to the contrary of the father, was a rigid defender of reformed religion) and on the most modernized European innovations, abandoning the dissolute paternal life. He loved Art and History, sport and music, ships and war, and in all these disciplines he tried to participate as a protagonist. Fascinated from foreign states, fervent admirer of Henry IV ºof France, the courts of Prague and Florence, he succeeded for the first time to cast in an European dimension, entrusting all arts the most important role ever played before in England, thinking that a monarch had to introduce itself to the eyes of the world in a splendid way: it recruited foreign artists, like the Florentine De' Servi, the French De Caus and the same Jones, and tried to introduce in the country all the new "artifizi ", of hydraulic engineering, gardening, mechanics.

He entrusted his image to many artists, from R. Peake, painter loved from the former-Queen, to Olivier, from Van de Passe to C. Boel, and loved painting, design and engraving.
Even if direct testimonies do not remain, Henry was a supporter of renaissance architecture and manieristic sculpture, and was with him that the first " Florentine " bronzes, optimal copies made by Tacca, made their income in England, with a moving enthusiastic acceptance. Henry's festivals, with the imposing ephemeral architectures, influenced the monumental and funeral sculpture of the age, and brought back the kind culture of the tournaments and the knight's challenges.

Is just in this period and in this cultural milieu that the genuine taste for collections was born in England, including king and nobles, but inaugurated from the extraordinary experience of Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, who also played an important part in young prince's education: thanks to the constant council of the noble friend, nine years older, Henry understood  the importance and the prestige to possess a real collection, and in St. James he created a gallery where he inserted its pieces, of different type and nature, according to the criterion of " best masters ", then passed nearly entire in the hands of the smaller brother Charles.

Also, the young prince had an important collection of ancient medals and one of the most beautiful libraries of England, deriving in part from the nucleus Lumley (today in part still conserved at the British Museum).
About Arundel, an extraordinary personage who made its income to court with James Iº, the turning point both of his life and of the developments of Art in England, can without doubt be identified with the Italian travel he had in company of his wife and his friend I. Jones in 1613, after having escorted to Heidelberg princess Elisabeth: he visited Venice, Vicenza, Florence, Siena, Rome, Naples, being bewitched from Venetian painting, Palladian architecture and roman antiquities, so that, once back to native land, he called Jones to construct Arundel House, dwelling of best Italian taste with two galleries, where to place its wonders (more than 600 works), upstairs statues and downstairs paintings.

For the rest of his life the picked Arundel tried, often as ambassador, to obtain for himself and for the monarch beautiful pieces of Art, he loved as sons, also taking advantage itself of a network of skilful agents, the most famous Petty and Roe, that he pushed until Greece and Constantinople.

His impeccable and refined taste was always to the vanguard, never formal, totally aware, and not to case " he did make fashion ": Thomas was the first one to appreciate in meaningful way drawings, having optimal collections (for ex. Parmigianino's) appreciating with intelligence technique and style; he had also a quite demodè passion for Holbein (44 works), justified with the appreciation for Elizabethan values, for Dürer, and a more  common admiration for the great Venetian and roman artists, for classic original statues and for antique books. Also as patron, his role was fundamental: in 1618 he called in England Mytens, in 1620 Van Dyck, and helped and supported with friendliness and generosity engravers and booksellers, who documented his wide collections, becoming part in that international " Republic of letters " evoked by Paris Bordone.

With Arundel a new type of English nobleman is defined, picked and refined, and finally wins the idea of a recognized and independent value for the art work, even if in the truth all the great collectors will not be equally pushed by noble emotions and motivations.

Is the case of personages without too many scruples like the third marquis of Hamilton, voracious collector and, in perhaps a thinner way, like George Villiers, duke of Buckingham, whose risen to court, under Carl Iº was irresistible: most skilful social climber, hardly his position was consolidated, inaugurated his cultural style, beginning to collect in upset and constant way, helped also from the skilful Gerbier. The impression is that the duke considered Art as a good investment, preferring, according to the common taste, Venetian painting.

From the inventories of his collection, dispersed as a result of long vicissitudes after his murder in 1628, we know that in York House were guarded treasures like the " Hecce Homo " by Tizian, works by Giorgione, Correggio, Tintoretto, Leonardo and Veronese (even though with the reservoirs due to a sure generosity of the age in attributive field...). The statues instead, more than 100 modern and ancient marbles, were placed in Chelsea House.

Buckingham was a good friend of Rubens, of whom he eventually had the splendid collection, and of Van Dyck, and cultivated the foreign artists (Gentileschi), while it does not turn out that it nourished literary and poetical interests.

In the middle between these two great figures of collectors we can consider the personage who in single 15 years carried England to have the same artistic prestige of the other European countries: king Carl Iº.
A little true connoisseur, a little forced of collections, this monarch much ill-fated in political, had in artistic field a very good fortune: a mother and a brother Art lovers gave him the "imprinting " with their taste and also with their material inheritance; to his flank he had good connoisseurs and agents, he had splendid and surprising occasions of international purchases (culminated with the purchase of the wonderful Gonzaga collection in Mantua in 1627), and above all, he could count, in order to represent himself and his family, on great artists, like Rubens, Mytens and, above all the brilliant Van Dyck. He took advantage of him in intensive way, for eight long years from 1632; the painter did an extraordinary work, succeeding in creating  an eternal "mythology" for the English court of the Thirties. Thanks to this great Flemish in England a new typology of portrait is inaugurated, with an elegant and spontaneous way to rest, personages surrounded by dipped silk pillows or merged in landscape-extension of their personality.

Only Van Dyck could succeed in giving such an image of the English monarchs, full of intelligence, animation, softness and dignity (as the famous equestrian portrait of the king painted in 1637), with a subject's dramatization totally answering to the maniacal theatrical tendencies of the monarchs, but at the same time far from superficial, delicate and dull atmospheres, typical of the sumptuous  Masques and the languid caroline poetry, with Carl and Henrietta Maria attempts to celebrate personally year after year their mutual love.

Therefore Carl, dedicating to this hobby with always greater enthusiasm, became owner of a huge series of masterpieces, exposed in his several dwellings, with portraits galleries, works by Tizian, Raffaello, Correggio, Caravaggio, Giulio Romano etc. etc., distributed in order of subject and typology in the several rooms.

Perhaps the main impulse to this mania takes origin prematurely in the travel undertaken in Spain from Carl with wedding plans in 1623: the sight of king Filippo's collections, the most beautiful in Europe, aroused in the young king a feeling of invidious emulation, and the gift of some splendid works by the Court gave the way to the nucleus of a new, imposing collection.

In these years in fact, in which  England 's opened definitively to the comparison and the continuous interaction with other countries, more than previously, the art object acquires privileged means of exchanges and diplomatic relations: the often precious gift or the realization of a regale desire implies however an attempt to influence positively the receiver, if not a quite direct request for support. Exemplary to such purpose are the skilful attempts made by cardinal Barberini to conquer the monarch to the Christian cause, also using the intermediation of Henrietta Maria, with works by Leonardo, Andrea Del Sarto and Guido Reni.

Another interesting consideration, is that a network of possible interlocutors at this point existed in England also for the circulation of artistic material, as in the class of rich English traders, as in nobility, where evidently Arundel's example had made school: therefore the king could follow his own tastes, all in favour of Venetian art, yielding in exchange pieces that he loved little, generally by Nordic artists.

Finally, we must remember that, specially during the reign of the Stuarts, the deficiency of money in the public cash was a constant problem, and this fact explains the strange deficiency of funeral monuments, too much expensive, for all the members of the royal family, also considering that for art purchases and  for Masques preparation enormous patrimonies were spent.

Also this type of attitude, joined to the many other present problems and the tension among the several classes and with the Parliament, carried to the disaster of the monarch's decapitation, to the civil wars, till the restoration in 1660, inaugurating a period strongly influenced by France in Art and in fashion.

Until ' 700, we can se an alternation in patronage's taste and preferences, royal or noble like Pembroke and Cecil, collective agencies like the Board of Works or politicians like Wighs and  Tories, often afflicted by budget problems, between works of baroque and classic artists, often not clearly referring to one of the two styles; the English Baroque is in fact something extremely ambiguous and peculiar, always connected to the local taste, going back trough tradition to the gothic matrix, and however, also in the most impressive cases, very different from the sumptuous European examples.

Some figures emerge in these years, characterized, specially in architecture by the reconstruction following the terrible London's fire in 1666, seeing at work Wren, Talman, Gibbons, Vanbrugh and many others, who, often fighting with the parsimony and the tastes of the purchasers (like the terrible Sarah of Marlbborough) were strained to educate the local craftsmen to the type of complex and variegate production demanded by the new type of art. Also remaining substantially outsiders in society, they finally had the satisfaction to see their disciplines legitimated in nobility education. With '700 and Shaftesbury's theories, English Art had the definitive conversion to "Palladianism ", and it's this image, of symmetrical white colonnades, elegant country dwellings, more coherent and perhaps ordered but surely less rich and problematic, that more comes to the mind when we think to this country, that in two centuries succeeded in conquering a very important place within European artistic culture.


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