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The Departure of Caesar

Marcus de Vos (fl.1655 - 1663)

Category

Tapestries

Date

circa 1655 - circa 1670

Materials

Tapestry, wool and silk, 8 warps per cm

Measurements

3430 x 4730 mm

Place of origin

Brussels

Order this image

Collection

Powis Castle and Garden, Powys

NT 1181080.4

Summary

Tapestry, wool and silk, 8 warps per cm, The Departure of Caesar from a set of four of the History of Julius Caesar, Marcus de Vos, Brussels, c. 1655-1670. Caesar stands in the centre of the tapestry wearing armour, a cloak and a laurel wreath and holding a baton of command, about to mount a horse which stands to his right with its back to us, held by a groom. Caesar looks over his shoulder to the left where his weeping wife is led away by two female attendants. She wears a faded pinkish dress with red sleeves and has pearls wound into her flowing brown hair. Behind the foreground group of women two more women stand in conversation, and in the background on the right is a group of cavalrymen wearing armour and helmets and carrying pikes and large banners bearing an Imperial double-headed eagle and the letters ‘SPQR’. The background is a landscape with distant mountains and there is a city on a summit towards the left. Latin Translation - Hic iulivs caesarsvae vxori virginbus que valadicit - Here is Julius Caesar's Wife and her maidens who salute him.

Full description

The subject of the tapestry is described in a Latin inscription in the upper border which translates roughly as ‘Here Julius Caesar says goodbye to his maiden wife’. This could refer to Caesar’s first wife, Cornelia, whom he married in 85 BC for political reasons, but she died in 69 BC before any of Caesar’s military campaigns had begun and therefore the military theme of the tapestry would not be consistent. In 60 BC Caesar married Calpurnia, the daughter of a Roman politician, and departed in 56 BC for the Gallic Wars, and it is this departure that may be intended as the subject of the tapestry, although it is not an event that is related in any written account of Caesar’s life. Inscriptions on other weavings of the design indicate that the scene may once have been intended to represent a different episode. One mid-sixteenth-century tapestry is recorded with an inscription translating as ‘Caesar offers the [protection of the?] camp to the women’; and a late sixteenth-century tapestry with the same design is identified as ‘The great man seeks his camp. Cornelia sadly takes ship for Lesbos, expecting a dire fate for the man.’ (Campbell 1998, pp. 8, 15). Both Caesar and Pompey were married to women called Cornelia, but Campbell argues on the basis of the inscription on the earlier tapestry that in this case the ‘great man’ must be Caesar. However as we have seen Caesar did not depart for any military campaigns while he was married to Cornelia, and moreover the reference to Lesbos does not make any sense. In the case of Pompey on the other hand it does: before the Battle of Pharsalus Pompey did send his wife Cornelia to the island of Lesbos. The scene has therefore been converted from Pompey sending his wife away and departing for a particular battle, to Caesar departing from his wife for an unspecified battle. A similar process has occurred with another tapestry in the set at Powis, ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’, whose inscription refers in a generalized way to a meeting of Caesar and Cleopatra, but which originally represented far more specifically the reuniting of Pompey and his wife Cornelia. From the middle ages to the seventeenth century Caesar (100 BC – 44 BC) was an iconic historical figure, the most celebrated of the Romans. The main sources for his life are his own Commentaries and Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. Admired for his statecraft, military prowess, skill as a general, and distinction as an orator and a writer, in the middle ages and renaissance he was represented as one of the so-called ‘Nine Worthies’, historical figures who embodied the chivalric ideal of a warrior. Caesar was also a divisive figure, who established a dictatorship in Rome and was subject to the vices of arrogance, lust and cruelty. His assassination by his fellow countrymen added to the perennial fascination with his biography, attested to by the numerous dramatic and artistic renderings of his life. The four tapestries at Powis represent a seventeenth-century re-weaving of a set of designs of the ‘History of Julius Caesar’ first conceived and woven in the 1540s. Although no complete sixteenth-century weaving survives, the original extent of the series has been substantially reconstructed by Thomas Campbell based on sixteenth-century descriptions and later re-weavings such as the set at Powis (Campbell 1998). No record survives of the designer of the original series. The style is typical of high-quality tapestries produced in Brussels in the middle of the sixteenth century under the influence of Bernard van Orley (Campbell 2001, pp. 379-458). A surviving drawing for one of the scenes, ‘The Departure of Caesar’, was attributed by Max Friedländer to Pieter Coecke van Aelst, one of the leading Brussels designers of this period, and the little-known Jan van der Swart has also been suggested. Campbell dismisses the suggestion of van der Swart, and also initially rejected van Aelst as the designer of the ‘Caesar’ series on the basis that it is very different to his other known tapestry designs, and suggested a third artist, Léonard Thiry, whom Nicole Dacos has suggested as the designer of a number of important tapestry series made in Brussels in the 1540s and 1550s (Campbell 1998, pp. 31-32; Dacos 1996a, b). More recently Campbell has returned to an attribution of the designs for the ‘Caesar’ series to Pieter Coecke van Aelst (Campbell 2001, p. 383). Campbell has identified three ‘generations’ of weavings of the Julius Caesar series: the first in the 1540s and 1550s from the original cartoons, the second in the late sixteenth century from modified cartoons, and the third in the seventeenth century, from new cartoons referring to the first-generation designs, and closer to these in many ways than the second-generation variants. The set at Powis belongs to the third generation. It was relatively common for sixteenth-century cartoons to be re-used during the seventeenth century, in part due to the cost of commissioning new designs, and the value of the cartoons themselves. Many cartoon painters operating in seventeenth-century Brussels specialised in retouching older cartoons, which were painted in watercolour, to ensure that they remained usable in the workshop (Brosens 2009, p. 363), and in other cases new cartoons were made based on existing designs. Although all four tapestries at Powis derive from sixteenth-century designs, in three cases the Latin inscriptions have been altered by the seventeenth-century producers. ‘Caesar leading an Attack’ originally represented ‘Caesar Killing a Giant’, and more radically two other scenes have been altered from events in the life of the General Pompey, Caesar’s great rival, to scenes from the life of Caesar. ‘The Departure of Caesar’ was originally intended to represent Pompey leaving his wife before the great battle with Caesar at Pharsalia, and ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’ originally showed Pompey and his wife being reunited after the battle. The borders are composed of exuberant bunches of flowers, garlands and military trophies with a cartouche a the centre of each upper border containing a Latin inscription describing the subject of the tapestry. The side borders contain torches, military trophies with various weapons, armour and standards, and bunches of fruit. The upper border includes more trophies and piles of loot, and in the lower borders there are further military accoutrements as well as royal sceptres, a royal mantle or ermine, and two crowns, again interspersed with fruit and flowers. The military trophies relate to Caesar’s career and reputation as a commander, and the piles of loot and royal paraphernalia to his conquest of other nations. Banners with the letters ‘SPQR’ refer to the Roman Republican motto ‘Senatus Populusque Romanus’ or ‘The Senate and People of Rome’, the official signature of the Roman Republic. The bleeding heart supported by turtle doves which appears at the centre of each lower border provides a contrast to the martial trophies, and probably refers to the love stories running through the tapestry series as a whole – between Pompey and his wife Cornelia, and between Caesar and Cleopatra. All four tapestries bear the mark of the city of Brussels and the signature of Marcus de Vos (fl. 1655 – after 1697). De Vos was a member of a tapestry-producing family active in Brussels from the seventeenth century until the mid-eighteenth. He was a Dean of the tapestry-makers’ craft in Brussels in 1663 and again in 1665, and in 1675 he bought cartoons from the estate of François van den Hecke (c. 1595-1675) (Delmarcel 1999, p. 366). On stylistic grounds the tapestries are datable to the early part of de Vos’s activity. Full details of all the known surviving tapestries from the various generations of weavings of the ‘Caesar’ series can be found in Campbell 1998. The earliest recorded set of ‘Caesar’ tapestries appeared in the posthumous inventory of the collection of Henry VIII in 1547. This set included ten tapestries, each around 4.5 metres in height and woven with wool, silk and gilt-metal-wrapped thread. A second set of ten, this time woven without gold thread, was acquired by Pope Julius III between 1550 and 1555, and the only tapestry to survive from one of the original sixteenth-century weavings, an ‘Assassination of Caesar’ in the Vatican collection, comes from this set (Campbell 1998, p. 5). A third set of eight pieces woven with gold thread was acquired by King Erik XIV of Sweden in 1560-61, but does not survive (Campbell 1998, pp. 5-6). These three sets, and a fourth group described by a visitor to Rome in the nineteenth century which may be identical with the series acquired by Pope Julius III, are identified by Campbell as ‘first-generation’ weavings of the designs. Campbell identifies second large group of tapestries as ‘second generation’ weavings, made in Brussels during the 1560s-70s from a new set of cartoons which repeat the original designs but with numerous stylistic alterations (Campbell 1998, pp. 9-18). Finally a new set of cartoons was in use in the seventeenth century based on the same designs, and it is to this ‘third generation’ that the set at Powis belongs. The four tapestries at Powis represent the largest surviving set of seventeenth-century ‘Caesar’ tapestries. A further set of four is recorded in the sale of the Duke of Berwick and Alba, Hôtel Drouot, 7-20 April 1877, lots 41-44, also bearing the signature of Marcus de Vos. The appearance of this set is unknown, but it included one subject not recorded elsewhere, described as ‘Caesar on his Throne’. This description matches the appearance of a tapestry with Marcus De Vos’s signature which was sold at Sotheby’s New York, 09 April 2008, lot 39, subject not identified. Various other single panels have surfaced on the art market in the twentieth century, and there is an unsigned seventeenth-century weaving of ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’ (or ‘The Reunion of Pompey and Cornelia’) in the Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh. The early history of the four tapestries at Powis is unknown, but it is possible that they were in their present positions in 1684 when Thomas Dineley reported that in the Drawing Room “Over the Cornish, at the top of rich ancient Tapistrey are good paintings representing severall Fables as big as the life.” (Dineley 1888, p. 67). The set cannot be identified in the 1891 inventory, but in 1908 and again in 1930 three from the set are described in their present positions in the Drawing Room (Knight, Franck & Rutley 1908, pp. 63-4; Supplementary Inventory 1930, p. 2). They are described again and illustrated in the room in a Country Life article of 1936: “The Brussels tapestries that now hang at either end [of the Drawing Room] tell the story of the meeting of Caesar and Cleopatra, and are signed by Marcus de Vos” (Hussey 1936, p. 656). (Helen Wyld, 2010)

Provenance

Recorded in 1944 Inventory as ‘A Brussels panel by Marcus de Vos, the Meeting of Caesar, Cleopatra and others. Border with emblems of royalty peace and war, fruit and flowers 11ft x 20ft' in Tapestry Drawing Room (Blue Drawing Room). Purchased by The National Trust from the Trustees of the Powis Estate in August 1999

Credit line

Powis Castle, The Powis Collection (The National Trust)

Marks and inscriptions

Cartouche at centre of upper border: HIC IVLIVS CÆSAR SVAE / VXORI VIRGINIBVS / QVE VALEDICIT Lower galloon, left of centre: Brussels city mark Lower galloon, centre: MARCVS•DE•VOS

Makers and roles

Marcus de Vos (fl.1655 - 1663), workshop attributed to Pieter Coecke van Aelst, the Elder (Aalst 1502 - Brussels 1550), designer

References

Brosens and de Laet, 2009: Koenraad Brosens and Weerle de Laet, ‘Matthijs Roelandts, Joris Leemans and Lanceloot Lefebure: new data on Baroque tapestry in Brussels’, Burlington Magazine, vol. CLI, no. 1275 (June 2009), pp. 360-367 Maria Wyke, Caesar: A Life in Western Culture, London 2007 Campbell, 2002: Thomas Campbell (ed.), Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence, exh. cat. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2002 Delmarcel, 1999: Guy Delmarcel, Flemish Tapestry, Tielt 1999 Campbell, 1998: Thomas Campbell, ‘New Light on a Set of History of Julius Caesar Tapestries in Henry VIII’s Collection’, Studies in the Decorative Arts, vol. XXX (Spring-Summer 1998), pp. 2-39 Nicole Dacos (a), ‘Léonard Thiry des Belges, peintre excellent: de Bruxelles à Fontainebleau, en passant par Rome’, Gazette des Beaux-Arts (May-June 1996), pp. 199-212 Nicole Dacos (b), ‘Léonard Thiry des Belges, peintre excellent: de Fontainebleau à Bruxelles’, Gazette des Beaux-Arts (July-August 1996), pp. 21-36 Delmarcel, 1993: Guy Delmarcel, ‘Présence de Jules César dans la tapisserie des Pays-Bas Méridionaux’, in Raymond Chevallier (ed.), Présence de Jules César: Atti del Convegno 1983, Paris 1985, pp. 257-61 Edith A Standen, Carnegie Magazine 55, no. 10 (December 1981), p. 8 Hussey, 1936: Christopher Hussey, ‘Powis Castle – IV’, Country Life, 20 June 1936, pp. 652-58 Clive, 1930: Viscount Clive Decd. Items recommended for exemption under section 40 of the Finance act 1930, 1930 Dineley, Thomas. account of the official progress of His Grace Henry the first duke of Beaufort 1888. Collection de S. A. le duc de Berwick et d’Alba…, Drouot, Paris 1877 (lots 41-44)

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