Print Culture in Early Modern France: Abraham Bosse and the
Purposes of Print
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012)
The dust jacket reproduces Bosse's wonderful engraving, The Intaglio Printers, 1642. In the corner, behind the young man who is actually pulling the press to make the print, is a small shelf covered with a couple of sheets of printed paper that act as a tablecloth. There is a pitcher, a low squatty pot, a couple of tumblers, and a two-tined fork. Below the shelf is a stool, and scraps of paper on the floor. There is no bread or cheese on the shelf, but it is not difficult to infer that quick meals were taken in the shop, right next to the press.
Some historians (e.g. W. Sewell) have proposed that the artisans depicted in the plates of the Encyclopédie are depressed and feel exploited and enslaved in their work. We can see the face of only one of the figures shown by Bosse: the young man pulling the plate is almost smiling. There are no holes or patches in his clothes, and his be-ribboned shoes are almost elegant. The artisan who is carefully preparing the already inked plate wears a hat, has ribbons on his knee britches, and is shod in rolled-down boots.
Through a general presentation of Bosse's œuvre, Carl Goldstein has sought to convey the vitality and the artistic, intellectual and cultural vigor of engraved art illustration in the early seventeenth century. He has sought range rather than depth, and description through a taxonomy of all the themes and genres in which Bosse worked. No subject would have served his purpose better than Bosse's life and work.
There is a short, succinct account of the art of engraving, with all
the major techniques described. Special emphasis is given to Jacques
Callot's innovations, which Bosse learned and adapted. There is some
information on artisan culture and attitudes toward it by other social
groups; but it would be incorrect to infer that any template of the
typical artisan could be superimposed on the skilled drawer, engraver
and writer that was Bosse. His was the second age of the "how to" book,
as savoir secreted out and as, through publication, debate and testing
new techniques (in drawing perspective, for example), new professions
were born and consolidated by every greater division of labor.
In selecting the range in the whole œuvre, Carl Goldstein has had to be selective in the materials he describes, and tantalizingly brief. Close reading of Bosse's works is truly a joy for this reader; thus he is continually tempted to add material that Goldstein certainly knows but lacks the space to include. For example, on the Galerie du Palais, he gives the names of some of the authors whose books are advertised on a panel above two bookshelves; but he does not mention Guicciardini or Machiavelli, nor Vesalius, Philostrate or Godeau. How I wish for still more close readings of Bosse's art! Close study of engravings must be learned, and it can be a source of immense pleasure and satisfaction.
Carl Goldstein has informed his study with the thought of numerous twentieth-century theorists, e.g Bakhtin, Benjamin, Barthes, Freud and Foucault. The many historians of art, and just plain old historians who have also contributed to understanding Bosse, all come together carefully but heavily, to almost overwhelm Goldstein as an author. His great mentor (our late friend and neighbor!) R. Wittkower pared down the present as much as he could and still remain fair to other scholars, thereby avoiding an increased danger of anachronism beyond what is inevitable. André Blum, who is truly Carl Goldstein's only major predecessor to work on Bosse, fell victim to a feature of twentieth-century bourgeois culture that coerced authors by making them fear boring their readers. Blum knew so much more than he dared put into his books. The increased size of the professional art community of historians, critics and connoisseurs, has finally liberated scholarship in French art. We can celebrate Aby Warburg's dictum: "Le Bon Dieu est dans les détails."
I shall dialogue with Carl Goldstein in the hope that readers will want to read his book, and look and look at Bosse's works. Chapter 2, "Scenes from Everyday Life" establishes contexts by including Callot's famous plates of the Tour de Nesle and the Pont Neuf and Della Bella's Pont Neuf; but this comparison prompts the question of why Bosse himself did not produce specific scenes of Paris. Ensevelir des Morts may have been identified as specifically Parisian, but it looks simply urban to me.
I have always found it interesting that the one-legged rat killer is walking in the country, a hidalgo victim of war who now is only able to kill rats, the proof of which hangs all over him. The Crocheteur does have a Parisian scene behind him, but the placement of the figure obstructs the focal point of the Place Dauphine. The statue of Henry IV was not yet in place by 1630. The Cordonnier, like the Clystère, is soft porn. If this essay does not become too long, some reflections on translation will be added. Were boots decorated (p. 53)? The Champaigne portrait of Louis XIII (Louvre) depicts him in undecorated soft leather boots. There may have been some clothing regulations in the fifteenth century (p. 54), but the much more explicit legislation dates from the reign of Henry III. I dislike repeating myself anent Monsieur Jourdain, but it is important to recall that nobleman and gentilhomme are not the same (p. 55). Corneille's dialogues in the comedies was more everyday in the first versions, but they become more polite in later ones (p. 58). Women had property rights (propres) and certainly participated in the formal and final signing of marriage contracts. Their signatures are sometimes inelegant, but they are present (p. 60).
Though Goldstein says that men play no role in the "women's work" of the accouchement (p. 62), the etching depicts a husband standing close to his wife. The key figure is the midwife holding the baby's head. Her box of medicines and cloths is on a chair.
In the Femme battant son mari, and Le mari battant sa femme (pp. 66-67), the main theme is the order of nature. In the Femme we learn that when a wife uses physical power on her spouse, young daughters beat upon their brothers and hens peck at roosters! This etching shows one of the rare crucifixion pictures in Bosse's work (see also the Visite à l'accouchée, p. 61). The Mari shows how the children respect their father's authority and are probably imploring him to lay down his stick. The crucifix has been replaced by a small holy-water font. The growling dog implies just how integrated humans are into the natural world, as other than human animals interact with them.
There probably were
translations of Plato's Symposium (p. 72) in which the masculine, even
homoerotic did not come through, but it is a stretch to make the Femmes
à table Platonic.
Carl Goldstein presents the issues around how Bosse's Huguenot faith might possibly have influenced his work, and he concludes that the artist-engraver did not create images for a specific Calvinist public (p. 10). Some questions remain, somewhat counter-factual. For example, reformed Roman Catholics generally drew on the New Testament; so when a text from Exodus appears on a wall panel (p. 89) and there is no crucifix, I believe Goldstein is correct in proposing a Protestant sensibility. The absence of the crucifix and images of the Virgin and saints that are omnipresent in Roman Catholic artistic devotion is something of a negative interpretation, but it confirms Goldstein's reading.
Similarly, in the Wise Virgins (p. 81), after the New Testament reference, the iconography emphasizes the Word - as devotional reading. The folio book propped up before the cross leads the eye to the panels of writing over the fireplace. Huguenots at various times had the right to hold "services" in private houses, where very probably a table with a cross (not a crucifix) was the only religious furnishing, along with some devotional books. Communion services were not very frequent, and only then would the wine and bread be consumed "in remembrance." In the reproduction I am unable to read the pictures hanging on the walls (is the one on the right the Nativity?); but again, in the absence of saints or an isolated Virgin or a crucifix, one of Bosse's contemporaries might wonder if the image was Protestant. But I do not believe we have evidence any anyone doing so!
In Bosse there are numerous tables or stands with large rectangular objects on them, covered with cloths (see, for example, pp. 61 and 67.) The objects are probably cabinets with many drawers, perhaps made of ebony and decorated with images in ivory, mother of pearl or exotic wood (not unlike the Spanish bargueño). They were often the most precious item in the house. In the Vierges sages, however, it is the fireplace that is behind the open book, thus making it seem all the more like a table-as-altar; and the well-filled lamps, just below, carry the eye up to the table and the cross, and finally to the panel on which the Ten Commandments are inscribed, below a bearded man (Moses) with horns of light emerging from his head and carrying a staff (the rod he turned into a serpent?). His right hand makes a rhetorical gesture, as if he were speaking or responsible for the written text. Perhaps strictures against religious images were waning, or perhaps Bosse simply disagreed with them and recommended moral-religious exemplarity from God the Father, or from Seneca?
It is tempting to reflect on the section about what it meant to be a bourgeois, but I shall recommend the reading of Furetière's Roman bourgeois, and note that it is the bourgeoise's failure to use the fashionable polite language that contrasts with the male's speech.
As for military service as the only obligation for nobles (p. 93), well, that depends. The laws varied in the South; many nobles owned land or rights for which they had to pays fees or even the taille, etc.; but this issue is of no consequence in Carl Goldstein's overall views about the social dimensions of Bosse's art.
The chapter on science (really natural philosophy) is brave and interesting. Just when the musclebound image of Hercules came north from Italy, I cannot say. Françoise Bardon's Le Portrait mythologique (Paris: Picard, 1974) shows the musclebound type (plate xii) and the svelt, young-man type (plate xx: Louis XIII); but Bosse wished to convey a portrait of the king victorious, but fatigued? (See J.H. Elliott and J. Brown, Palace for a King, New Haven, Yale U.P, 1980, on god-kings in relaxation, etc.). Louis wore his hair shorter on the right side, and this telltale fact appears in the Bosse portrait. I doubt there was a search for a comic image of that morose and brutally judgmental sovereign.
In addition to presenting the series known as "The Seven Acts of Mercy," Chapter 6 raises the hoary issues regarding relations between reading and seeing, with Barthes's views given a careful summary. Altogether too binary for my mind; Goldstein expresses skepticism in the form of a question.
Chapter 7 explores some of Bosse's major works for luxury editions, including the so meaningful title page of Hobbes's Leviathan. Goldstein concentrates on the central panel; I find the small side panels infinitely and more deeply revealing of the contents of that book. The etching of the Sack of Troy (p. 131) is something of a sixteenth-century throwback, still haunted by the depiction of cities on ancient Roman tombs. It is tempting to suggest that Puget had this etching in mind when he carved Diogenes before Alexander (Louvre).
Alice Stroup's A Company of Scientists (Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1990) sums up the critical reception of Bosse's etchings of plants. Goldstein's section on the technical manuals illustrated by Bosse brought to mind the question of the size of his artworks. If he was continually filling orders for book illustrations, he may never have been tempted to try his hand at a very small work, or a series of them, as Callot did, true tours de force.
Bosse's publications on perspective, and his relations with Desargues and the Académie Royale, are all carefully and convincingly presented. I have only minor reflections. The debate over perspective ought perhaps be interpreted more as a sign of growing professionalization in the arts, i.e., the forming of a paradigm inevitably prompts controversy, and winners and losers.
Bosse's "adjunct" status as teacher of a single course for (not in) the Academy, and his rejection by the latter, is so characteristic of small corporate entities (including History Departments!); but there are two related issues that may shed light on the engraver's fate. Bosse's writing style in the letters he exchanged (Blum published them) with the academicians is awkward, out-of-date and indicative of unfamiliarity with the new courtly prose that became de rigueur around the mid-century. Did the academicians blackball him for his written style? The same may be said for Poussin's letters to Chanteloup; but fortunately for Poussin, Chanteloup could see beyond grammar and awkward affectation. The academicians were struggling to claim a specific savoir for their profession, and perhaps also a courtly style of expression. I must reread Le Brun's letters to Séguier. Was he not only younger but also attuned to the new courtly style?
point haunts, because there is really no way to verify whether Bosse
was, or was not discriminated against because he was a heretic. Arie Van
Duersen's Professions and métiers interdits (Groningen, 1960) finds
Huguenots being excluded and rejected all up and down the hierarchies of
corporations, 1650-1680. And mixed-religion marriages declined, thus
making the harsh repression prior to, and after the Revocation of the
Edict of Nantes the culmination of a long process that had started some
thirty or forty years earlier. French historians rarely cite Van Duersen
(the parallel with events in Germany in the 1930s is inevitable),
because they wish to blame the king, Le Tellier, et al., for the
atrocities that occurred, sparing a negative (correct) judgment of
Translating quatrains filled
with sexual innuendo is never easy. The best strategy is to stick
precisely to the first meaning of a word and let the reader infer
another meaning: e.g., alène = "awl" (p. 49). A pointed sharp object 5-6
inches long will come to the reader's mind. Et la mesure qu'il vous faut
strengthens the innuendo: "the size you need" (rather than "as a
Coû and cul cannot be a pun. The misunderstanding comes from journalists on TV who - unable to pronounce the "pointed" French u -- say "déjà vous" for déjà vu. "Déjà vous" baffles French ears, for it means "already you." The French u must be taken very seriously.
On page 51, the translation might better be rendered: "She so raised up his spindle/ That he made a debauchee of her" (no money is alluded to). In that paragraph the inappropriate comma after "penis" suggests that "penis" is synonymous with fille, "girl," as in the expression fille de joie, which appears in Jean Nicot's dictionary of 1606.)