National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 26, 1975

Annual Index
Author & Subject

The Monumental Style of Fontainebleau and 
its Consequences: Antoine Caron and
"The Submission of Milan"

by W. McAllister Johnson

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4 

It remains to see this picture in some historical tradition, for its novelty resides in the very assimilation of the historiated surround to the picture subject.

A strong bilaterial symmetry provides, by disposition if not by actual motif an equivalent in the mind's eye of the traditional "legitimate" perspective construction having a horizon line, vanishing point, and mathematically verifiable diminution of figures or objects situated at any point within its construction. The radicalness of departure from the unified pictorial field may be imagined by remarking that the grisaille surround of the Submission of Milan - whatever its irregularities of projection - is nonetheless a Bat white appliqué across the picture plane; therefore, all inserted scenes have an imposed difference in scale and thus of depth. One has only to figure the composition in profile or consider the spatial implications of the individual panels or perspective cartouches, seven in number, stretching back into the distance. (This remains a commodity of exposition, not more than an intellectual determinant for viewing the picture straight on.)

Seen in its normal perspective, the Submission of Milan has both a firm structure and a dispersion of interest. One's attention may initially be directed toward the "general topic" because of its central position or greater scale and colour; that attention is as certainly attracted somewhere else, repeatedly and indefinitely. Whatever the number and sum of the parts - and whatever the "imperfection" of the way they are perceived, whether casually or as a result of study - the general configuration or surround is there to contain them by a number of constructional anomalies whose deeper signification would not ordinarily (nor immediately) be apparent to a modern viewer. Among these is the observation that the Submission of Milan alone is highly focussed and coloured; all other compositional elements having these qualities in varying but certainly lesser degree. Yet, foremost to the general effect is that the entire work may be read" in two quite different manners: vertically, as a "secular triptych" with two (immovable) grisaille wings projecting equally; then, as a series of three horizontal registers indicated by the different vantage points of the grisaille figures which animate them. In such way, although the two sets of figures flanking the ovals (figs 10, 11) are seen from straight on, at centre, the uppermost figures are seen from below and the lower-most figures seen somewhat from above. (This latter distinction is accentuated by the differing proportions of the basement and attic registers of the white architecture.)

The Ottawa picture is then intended for ideal viewing at the level of the knees of the four winged Fames, the slightly varied poses of which "fall off" at far left and right into the background. The general effect is, finally, that of the 360-degree lens found in Parmigianino's Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror of 1524 (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum), but with an important difference. There is no distortion whatsoever since each figural element of the white architectural surround has its own focus and articulation in respect of a whole whose directed light (from left) visually unifies the surround in respecting the general laws governing chiaroscuro. The sophistication of this approach to composition may be imagined, avoiding, as it does the problems inherent in the unified representational - now seen to be restricted to the true subject of the Subrnission at centre - and providing, as it does, an equivalent of legitimate perspective construction by substituting an "effect" of bilateral symmetry.

In sum, the "frame" impresses one as a consistent and logical structure. The reason: details (significant because they are present and since they are presented in a certain way) are always within the range of one's peripheral vision. Whatever the scale of the ensemble, these consistently vary in emphasis according to the angle and acuity of vision.

Now the Francis I Gallery (fig. 14) seems to have inaugurated this type of monumental ensemble which combined painted, frescoed, and stuccoed decorations capable of intellectually being put together and torn asunder almost as mathematical equations or diagrams. (16) Only on the brightest of days is it now possible to experience its fundamental peculiarity - the "sectioning off" of each of its seven bays by light streaming through the windows, and a resulting inimitable contrast between the material and intangible elements participating in the animation of the decors. (This impression would have been stronger yet in the original condition in the gallery, where the light would have come from both sides and when the ceiling itself still rested upon the stucco surrounds of each panel; thus completely altering the proportions of the gallery to create a Mannerist form of "tunnel vision.")

The point of this recapitulation is, in the last word, elementary. Such artistic procedures and devices are singularly effective when realised in monumental scale so as to be experienced from all angles; these same determinants, these governing principles, are singularly lacking in dynamism when pictorially adumbrated. The concepts and motifs of any panel of the gallery, seen frontally, could be made to serve chimney-pieces, frontispieces (figs 3, 4) and diverse illustration. In the process of isolation, they lose the very expressive functions which determined their visual qualities. And there is indeed little evidence to suggest that the Fontainebleau repertory was applied to other than minor arts, and even this as a series of pattern fields of varying complexity for flat or rounded surfaces.

Nonetheless, the general disposition of one of the "profane triptychs" of the Francis I Gallery was recreated at Fontainebleau as the Chambre d'Alexandre whose "white architecture" in stucco has a predominantly sculptural quality (fig. 15). Caron would have been familiar with them both as he worked in the château prior to 1550. One has only to abstract the upper and lower registers of the Submission of Milan and compare the general configuration down to the direct statement of inset paintings having their own frames as well as an historiated surround. The Chambre d'Alexandre must then be taken as a transition point in the de-monumentalisation of the Fontainebleau style. (17) Whatever its vast scaling, the room itself is rather small and its decorative principles could easily be adapted to almost any purpose.

No one to my knowledge has ever taxed Caron for excessive subtlety. Which is to say that the means available to monumental decorative systems and to picture painters can only be very different and that Caron might serve as a case history in the disintegration and de-intellectualisation of humanistic learning expressed in visual terms. Much of his art is splendidly adapted from developments in monumental art some twenty or thirty years previous, and is further conditioned by graphics of much the same era. (18) The Submission of Milan, once extracted from its suite and become a painting, represents an academic exercise all the more precious in that it demonstrates recognition in the 1560s of these historical relationships.

The passage from one scale to another and through various techniques is central to the understanding of Fontainebleau. While its decorations were invariably situated "above the head" this did not prevent the Francis I Gallery from being woven as tapestries - even including the beams of its ceiling (fig. 12). (19) Nor, in my opinion, would it have prevented the Chambre d'Alexandre and the scenes of the Histoire françoyse de nostre temps from being considered as dependent upon the cultural attainments of Francis I; and thus, as essays in historical style.

Court scenes and military actions had by the time of Charles IX come securely into vogue. (20) Unlike the definite rationale of the portrait gallery, a "picture gallery" in even the great houses seems to have had no special consistency in content or order of hanging, perhaps depending more upon some associative process relating to what one acquired over the years. (21) Perhaps the Submission of Milan might be thought of in this light - a composition of intrinsic historical interest whose visual presentation was identifiable as a personal homage. This, in circumstances as yet undefined but surely suited to its generation.

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