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The Reception of an Embassy

Southern Netherlands or France

Category

Tapestries

Date

circa 1545

Materials

Tapestry, wool and silk, with painted additions, 5½ warps per cm

Measurements

3730 cm (H); 5493 cm (W)

Place of origin

Belgium or France

Order this image

Collection

Powis Castle and Garden, Powys (Accredited Museum)

On show at

Ballroom, Powis Castle and Garden, Powys, Wales, National Trust

NT 1181082

Summary

Tapestry, wool and silk, 5½ warps per cm, with painted additions, The Reception of an Embassy, Southern Netherlands, after an unknown Venetian artist, dated 1545. Figures are arranged in two planes before a city wall. In the upper right before the gates of the city a group of men in long robes and black hats is presented to a man in a turban sitting cross-legged on a couch. On the couch behind him are three more men, and to the right there is a larger group of men in turbans and tall fur hats. Another crowd of figures stands inside the city gate. Above the gateway is a banneret with a Latin inscription, and coats of arms hang at either side of the gate. To the left two men on horseback and armed men on foot approach in front of the wall. Above the walls can be seen the trees, rooftops and minarets of the city. In the left foreground a man is lifted onto a camel by attendants, watched by a man in a rich brocaded gown and a white scarf. Beside him is a small boy with a feather in his hat and a monkey on a leash. In the centre foreground a man dressed in animal skins and carrying a staff talks to three men in long robes and turbans. Beside them a stag and a hind graze on the leaves and flowers that fill the ground behind the foreground figures, and on the far right three men with falcons stand in a group. At the right edge of the tapestry is a tree with a scroll pinned to it bearing the date '1545'. The tapestry has no borders but a dark blue linen band has been applied around the edges. Beneath this part of a dark blue galloon can be discerned, suggesting that the tapestry was woven without borders. Repaired joins running the height and width of the panel are clearly visible. The outlines of the design have been reinforced with dark brown paint.

Full description

‘The Reception of an Embassy’ is without doubt the most enigmatic tapestry in the National Trust’s collection. Clearly intended to represent a specific event, hinted at by the date, coats of arms and Latin inscription, the subject of the tapestry has so far eluded identification. The only significant study of the tapestry was made by A J B Wace and Muriel Clayton in 1938 (Wace and Clayton, 1938). Since then new information has come to light both on the tapestry itself and the painting it is based on, and it is now possible to make some new suggestions as to the intended subject of the tapestry. The design of the ‘Embassy’ is ultimately based on a painting in the Louvre, ‘The Reception of the Venetian Ambassadors in Damascus’, by an unknown Venetian artist. The setting of the painting is identifiable as Damascus due to the accurate rendering of many architectural details, most notably the Great Ummayad Mosque. The date 1511 has recently been discovered on the painting linking it with the so-called Zen Affair, when Nicolò Zen, the Venetian consul in Damascus, was expelled for suspected plotting against the Mamluk rulers of Egypt and Syria. The painting shows a Venetian diplomat with his own delegation being received by the Mamluk viceroy of the city, also surrounded by officials. The painting may represent Zen's arrival in Damascus in 1508, or perhaps the arrival of his successor as consul, Nicolò Malipiero, in 1511 (see Campbell and Chong 2005, pp. 21-21, and Carboni 2007, pp. 305-6, both of which include an extensive bibliography). The tapestry at Powis is not directly based on the Louvre painting and is in fact much closer to three later painted variants of the image, all of which surfaced in French collections during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. All three are today untraced, but two were illustrated in Wace and Clayton 1938. Although based on an image of a Venetian delegation meeting the viceroy of Damascus, the tapestry may in fact represent a different event. A number of new elements have been introduced in the tapestry design which do not appear in the original painting: most importantly a date, a Latin inscription and two coats of arms. The date of 1545 pinned to a scroll on a tree at the right hand side may simply be the date the tapestry was completed, but its prominent position suggests that it has some bearing on the subject of the tapestry. Perhaps significantly the Mamluk Empire, which ruled Damascus in 1511 when the Louvre painting was made, fell in 1517. By 1545 Damascus was part of the Ottoman Empire, and it is possible that the tapestry represents a meeting between Western diplomats and an Ottoman, rather than a Mamluk, ruler. The Latin inscription, 'EX FERRO / FI[U]NT / QVE / DVRATVRA / PER EVVM' translates as ‘out of iron come things that will last forever’. ‘Ferro’ or ‘Iron’ may refer to arms and warfare, suggesting that the tapestry may commemorate the negotiation of an alliance after a period of conflict. Two coats of arms hang on leather straps from the city walls, either side of the gate. These do not match the arms of any of the protagonists in the 1511 Zen affair, again suggesting that the tapestry represents a different event. It has not been possible to identify the holders of the coats of arms, but they may by French in origin. The left hand shield, chequy of argent and azur, is a very common blazon held by at least 200 European families. The right hand shield is less common: per pale (cut in half vertically), chequy of argent and azur, and azur, a fess or, between an acorn argent and a scallop shell of the last. The right-hand shield includes part of two different coats of arms: on the left 'chequy of argent and azur', the same as the left hand shield, but on the right ‘azur, a fess or between two acorns argent and a scallop shell of the last’. The latter coat of arms is linked to the family of Simon de Chancenay, who originated in Vierzon in north-western France. Since the Simon arms appear on the 'sinister' or female side of the shield, it probably represents either someone with Simon ancestry, or someone who has married a woman from the Simon family. In either case, this suggests that the holder of the right-hand coat of arms on the tapestry was French. The heraldic evidence, and the fact that all three later versions of the Louvre painting, one of which was probably the basis of the tapestry, have surfaced in France, strongly suggest a French patron for the tapestry. Undoubtedly the most important French diplomatic alliance in 1545 was the so-called 'Alliance Impie', the Franco-Ottoman alliance formed by François I and Suleiman the Magnificent in 1538 (Garnier 2008; Setton 1976-84, vol. 3). There were numerous French diplomatic and trading missions to the Ottoman empire in the early 1540s, and the tapestry may have been commissioned to commemorate one of these. The tapestry has no obvious signs of its place of manufacture. The 'millefleurs' ground does not appear in any of the painted versions of the design and was probably added either by a cartoon painter, or at the weaving stage. Such floral decoration was a standard background used for a variety of subjects in the first half of the sixteenth century and in this case has been used to fill blank areas in the foreground, although the result is somewhat incongruous next to the clearly Middle-Eastern architecture. Wace and Clayton note the similarity of the millefleurs background to known Tournai weavings, including a 'History of Carrabarra' made by the Tournai tapissier Arnould Poisonnier (Wace and Clayton 1938, p. 66). The execution and colouring of the tapestry are consistent with an origin in the Southern Netherlands or France, but in the absence of further evidence it is not possible to be aby more specific. If the tapestry wasmade in the Southern Netherlands, the relatively coarse quality of the weave and execution would suggest one of the lesser weaving centres, rather than Brussels. The tapestry has been extensively retouched on its surface with black paint to reinforce the outlines, but it is not clear whether this was made when the tapestry was woven (a not uncommon occurrence) or at a later date. The early provenance of the tapestry is unknown, although a story has long been attached to it that it was acquired by Lord Herbert of Chirbury, whose descendants were joined with the Earls of Powis by marriage in the eighteenth century. Herbert of Chirbury travelled widely in Europe and was made Ambassador to France in 1624, and could potentially have received the tapestry as a gift or acquired it some other was on one of his voyages. The tapestry was reputedly found at the end of the nineteenth century at Lymore House in Montgomeryshire, in the grounds of Montgomery Castle which was Herbert of Chirbury's residence. By 1936 it was hanging in the West Tower Bedroom at Powis, where it appears in a Country Life photograph (Hussey 1936, p. 629 – the article also records H C Marillier's opinion that the tapestry was woven in Italy), however in a 1944 inventory of Powis Castle it appears as follows: 'In an old French chest. A panels of Old Flemish tapestry, Deputation to the Sultan, 18ft. x 12 ft. £200.0.0' (Lofts and Warner 1944). (Helen Wyld, 2012)

Provenance

Accepted by HM Treasury on 21st March, 1963 in lieu of tax and conveyed to National Trust ownership in 1992.

Credit line

Powis Castle, the Powis Collection (The National Trust)

Marks and inscriptions

On a bannaret above the gateway: EX FERRO / FI[V]NT / QVE / DVRATVRA / PER EVVM On a scroll pinned to a tree on the right hand side: 1545

Makers and roles

Southern Netherlands or France , workshop previously catalogued as workshop of Southern Netherlands , workshop

References

Garnier, 2008: Nicole Garnier, l’Alliance Impie, Paris 2008 Carboni, 2007: Stefano Carboni (ed.), Venice and the Islamic World: 828-1797, exh. cat. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, 2007 Campbell and Chong, 2005: Caroline Campbell, Alan Chong et al., Bellini and the East, exh. cat. National Gallery, London and Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum, Boston, 2005-6 Raby, 1982: Julian Raby, Venice, Dürer and the Oriental Mode, Totowa 1982 Setton, 1976-84: Kenneth M Setton, The Papacy and the Levant (1204-571). Vol. III: The Sixteenth Century to the Reign of Julius III (1984). 4 vols., Philadelphia 1976-84 Sauvaget, 1945-6: J. Sauvaget J ‘Une ancienne représentation de Damas au Musée du Louvre’, in Bulletin d'études orientales, vol. II (1945-1946). Lofts & Warner, 1944: Messrs. Lofts and Warner, Inventory and Valuation of the Furniture, ... and Effects at Powis Castle, Welshpool ... The property of Viscount Clive, Deceased, 1944 Wace and Clayton, 1938: A J B Wace and Muriel Clayton, ‘A Tapestry at Powis Castle’, Burlington Magazine, vol. 73, no. 425 (August 1938), pp. 64-66 & 69 Hussey, 1936: Christopher Hussey, 'Powis Castle - III', Country Life, 13 June 1936, pp. 624-30 Schéfer, 1895: Charles Shéfer, ‘Notes sur un tableau du Louvre naguère attribué à Gentile Bellini’, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 3e période, vol xiv (1895), pp. 26-204

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