Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The Tale of Two Lovers and an Unknown Image of Emperor Sigismund

Pisanello: Portrait of Emperor Sigismund, 1431-33 
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Emperor Sigismund was one of the most frequently depicted historical personalities of the 15th century. His real and disguised portraits can be found in countless panel paintings, frescoes and miniatures. Entire volumes - such as the Chronicle of the Council of Constance by Ulrich Richental or the Recollections of Eberhard Windecke - are filled with images of Sigismund. You can browse some of these portraits on the website of the 2006 exhibition on King and Emperor Sigismund. Despite this wealth of images from every part of the Holy Roman Empire from Siena to Görlitz, it seems that French and Netherlandish illuminators of the second half of the 15th century really had no clue as to what Sigismund looked like. He is often depicted in historical manuscripts, especially in images of the disastrous Battle of Nicopolis (1396). See, for example the lavishly illustrated copy of Sebastien Mamerot's Chronicle of the Crusades, Les Passages d'Outremer, completed by Jean Colombe around 1474, and held at the Bibliotheque nationale de France and recently issued in a facsimile

A particularly amusing example in this respect is the so-called Pageants of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, which can be studied in this 1908 edition. Completed in 1485, this manuscript is the only illustrated biography of a late medieval secular figure, and features the Earl's various encounters with rulers, including Sigismund. Pageant 35 (on page 138 of the Roxburghe Club facsimile) for example shows the Earl and Sigismund exchanging gifts, and Sigismund is depicted as a fairly young, beardless figure, with a fancy three-tiered crown (see below). More information on this manuscript is available on the website of the British Library.

The visit of Sigismund to England
The Beauchamp Pageants, 1485
London, British Library
I went through a lot of effort to gather such images for the 2006 Sigismund exhibition and its catalogue, but no doubt several manuscripts escaped my attention. I would like to mention just one of these, which is currently on view at the Getty Center's exhibition on Fashion in the Middle Ages. The book is a French manuscript from around 1460-1470, containing the popular Tale of Two Lovers by Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (a story he wrote in 1444, obviously before he became Pope Pius II). The story of the two adulterous lovers is set in Siena, at the time of Emperor Sigismund's visit and lengthy stay there on his way to his imperial coronation in Rome (1432). The story is dedicated to Kaspar Schlick, imperial chancellor of Emperor Sigismund (and later of Emperor Frederick III), who is also the main character - Euryalus - of Aeneas’ tale.

You can read an English translation of the entire story on this website; I am quoting the beginning of the story from there, too:

"The city of Siena, your native town and mine, did great honour to the Emperor Sigismund on his arrival, as is now well known; and a palace was made ready for him by the church of Saint Martha, on the road that leads to the narrow gate of sandstone. As Sigismund came hither, after the ceremonies, he met four married ladies, for birth and beauty, age and ornament, almost equal. All thought them goddesses rather than mortal women, and had they been only three, they might have seemed those whom Paris, we are told, saw in a dream. Now Sigismund, though advanced in years, was quick to passion; he took great pleasure in the company of women, and loved feminine caresses. Indeed he liked nothing better than the presence of great ladies. So when he saw these, he leaped from his horse, and they received him with outstretched hands. Then, turning to his companions, he said: ‘Have you ever seen women like these: For my part, I cannot say whether their faces are human or angelic. Surely they are from heaven.’"

As I mentioned above, the Getty Museum preserves an illustrated copy of this manuscript, which also includes an illustration of the beginning of the story, the arrival of Sigismund to Siena.

Emperor Sigismund arriving to Siena
Illustration of The Tale of Two Lovers
Getty Museum, Ms. 68, fol. 25

Now, as it is plain to see, the Emperor looks nothing like the historical figure, and of course his attire and crown are imaginary - the image of course represents fashion of the time around 1460-70, and not the 1430s. I would very much like to see all other images in the manuscript - currently only five folios are reproduced on the Getty website. One of these images, which illustrates another text in the manuscript, depicts an emperor at court - the bearded ruler looks more like Sigismund, but is not identified as such.

These images are examples of a very interesting phenomenon, which we can observe in the second half of the 15th century. By this time an interesting separation of the historical figure of Sigismund and of his actual features took place. While Sigismund's familiar face lives on in countless works depicting other characters (mainly rulers), actual depictions of the emperor do not always present a faithful likeness. We can conclude that on the one hand, his features became the ideal vehicle for depicting imperial or royal majesty, might, and stature, without any reference to the actual person intended. On the other hand, despite the series of surviving true portraits of Sigismund, knowledge of his most characteristic features was apparently lacking when the above-mentioned late medieval chronicles were illustrated. The image in the Getty manuscript also reminds us that there must be still many images of Sigismund in various medieval manuscripts - meaning that one of the favorite pastimes of Hungarian medieval art historians, the search for Sigismund-portraits, is far from over.

Pinturicchio: Aeneas S. Piccolomini as ambassador to James I of Scotland
The image of the ruler is regarded as a disguised portrait of Sigismund
Siena, Duomo, Piccolomini Library 

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