Gothic vaults and kitchen pans

Was the art of the high Renaissance born of cultural purity or plurality? Bruce Boucher reports; Court,Cloister and City: The Art and Culture of Central Europe, 1450-1800 by Thomas Da Costa Kaufmann Weidenfeld pounds 25

Twenty years ago, Jan Bialostocki, a Polish art historian, published a book on the Renaissance, one which did not centre on Italy or France but took Eastern Europe as its subject. A survivor from the pre-war order, he wanted to demonstrate the rich cultural developments experienced in Prague and Krakow under the Jagellonian dynasty and in Buda under the enlightened Hungarian monarch, Matthias Corvinus. There was, however, a subtext to his book, for Bialostocki was also protesting against the marginalisation of Eastern Europe in the larger history of European culture as witnessed by its virtual exclusion from modern surveys such as the Pelican History of Art.

Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann's magisterial Court, Cloister, and City was prompted by similar historical and geographical concerns, chiefly the impact of the annus mirabilis of 1989-90 on our perception of Europe as an entity. The dissolution of the Warsaw Pact regimes and the resurgence of ethnic antagonisms have once more revealed the cultural mosaic of Central and Eastern Europe that had been largely suppressed for four decades. Kaufmann's study is not only informed by recent events, but also sees them as a key to understanding the formation of Central European culture, from the Renaissance to the Enlightment. The timespan is vast and the book covers a significant tract, ranging from the old Polish commonwealth to the major and minor German states as well as Austria and Hungary. At its heart is a portrait of the old Holy Roman Empire, that broad confederation of Mittel Europa presided over by Austrian Habsburg emperors and the source of some of the greatest artistic achievements of the post-medieval era.

Kaufmann's primary focus is the reception of the Renaissance across Central Europe, but his is not the customary comparison of northern artefacts with a putative, Italianate ideal. Instead, he sees the hybridity of most Central European art and architecture as an end in itself. Thus, the fusion of gothic vaulting and renaissance detail in the Prague castle should be understood as negotiating the expectations of tradition - the golden age of Bohemia under Charles IV - with the dynastic ambitions of the Jagellonian court. It is also what one would expect from a German mason working for a Polish king in the capital of B.ohemia.

Kaufmann interprets such hybridity as a positive force in Central European art, enabling cultural differences to be addressed and in some sense reconciled. Such a conclusion may seem blindingly obvious, but it took the events of 1989 and their aftermath to lend this kind of perspective to the cross- currents of earlier European history. Pluralism becomes a leitmotiv of Court, Cloister and City, and it allows the author to invert normal expectations - as when he observes that Durer, often evoked as the quintessential German artist, may have been ethnically Hungarian.

Diversity and the fluidity of boundaries also surfaces in Kaufmann's discussion of the Reformation, in which he reminds us that artists such as Cranach worked for Protestant and Catholic patrons alike or that Lutheran churches in Prague were based upon Roman models while Catholic churches in Carinthia were adapted Protestant ones.

The great example of successful hybridity came with the court of the Habsburg emperor Rudolf II in Prague. There, at the turn of the 17th century, artists as diverse as Arcimboldo, Spranger and de Vries created a court style that not only reflected Italian models but transformed them. An indifferent politician, Rudolf excelled as a patron, actively intervening in artistic projects, as when he directed the painter Roclant Savery to draw rare species for his still-lifes which are among the earliest produced in Europe. But the bizarre constructs of the Milanese artist Arcimboldo are probably the most characteristic examples of Rudolf's taste. Their combination of inanimate objects to create portraits - a cook from pots and pans, the emperor as Vertumnus, god of the seasons, from fruits and flowers - reflect the intricate intellectual content and refinement common to Prague art of the period.

If Rudolf II assumes a pivotal role in Kaufmann's book, his achievements are kept in perspective by the survey of the arts in the old Reich and Poland during the 18th century. The defeat of the Turks at Vienna in 1683 lent a new confidence to the Habsburgs and their allies which was readily translated into new palaces and monasteries. Added stimulus came from Versailles and the patronage of Louis XIV. The emergence of a new imperial style sought its inspiration in Italy and France but surpassed its models in grandeur and audacity as any visitor to Melk or Wurzburg can verify. The efflorescence lasted for a century, and proved a glorious swansong to the old order. The forces that led to the French Revolution set in train the demise of the Polish Republic by 1795 and the Holy Roman Empire a decade later.

The Reich may not have been, in Voltaire's words, either holy, Roman, or an empire, but its merits lay in an openness to cultural diversity and the dispersal of power rather than its centralisation. Ironically, the conditions that ultimately made the Empire weak had been its strength. Kauffman's book shows that this same blend of strengths and weaknesses have much to tell us about the state of Central Europe today.

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