Sunday, 25 August 2013

Le banc d'orfèvre : L'électeur de Saxe: Book Review

This collection of essays is the eighth in the National Museum of the Renaissance series of specialist guidebooks. Covering fascinating exhibits such as petit point embroidery from 1570-1610, painted marriage chests or cassoni, renaissance bronze reliefs, and a 16th century Mexican crucifixion triptych, this new volume in the series is dedicated to one item from the museum's collection.

The Elector of Saxony's wire drawing bench arrived in Paris in the late 19th century's when the royal Dresden collection was dispersed after the economic disaster which succeeded the Napoleonic wars. In the 1880s the bench was initially destined for the Musee Carnavalet but when they decided to dedicate it to the history of Paris they looked to sell off the bench and its tools. In a sculptural exchange with the Musee de Cluny, it joined that collection until war broke out in 1939. Afterwards, the Cluny decided to focus on an earlier historic period, so the bench remained in safe storage until 1977 when the dedicated Renaissance museum in Ecouen was opened. From 1981, inspired by 16th century etchings, it was presented to the public as part of a goldsmith's workshop. However in 2010 both its technical and artistic aspects were reappraised and it was put in room reflecting the nature of a prince's kunstkammer - surrounded by beautiful scientific objects. 

The book project was commenced in 2007 when the museum contacted engineers and art historians who assisted in uncovering the of the many uses of the bench, as well as investigating the bench's decorative element. Their research formed the solid academic core of the museum's bench digitisation project which was formally begun in 2010 and launched in 2012. Whilst the audio/text of the bench's dedicated website is adequate for a museum display, presenting as much information as a general visitor requires, this well illustrated book provides a wealth of information and further reading.

The chapters on the Dresden Electors' kunstkammer and Leonhard Danner, the engineer/designer of the bench provide an introduction to the personalities involved, whilst the piece on goldsmith's workshops through history ensure that the reader appreciates its technical provenance; low-tech wire drawing machines were to be found in many workshops. What makes this bench so special is covered in chapters examining its interior workings, as well as its engraved metalwork and marquetry decoration. One chapter covers the technique and types of wood used to create the images, whilst the next one investigate the religious, political and social iconographical inspiration. The final chapter uses the joust as a way into to some of the scenes depicted. It concludes with an inventory of the tools from the Saxony collection, and closes with a full bibliography of primary and secondary sources which is essential if you wish to dig deeper into the subjects covered.

The book successfully conveys the vast range of disciplines and specialist areas that these museum experts needed to draw upon. Indeed, in my investigations so far, I have touched on jewellery making and design, the philosophy of the kunstkammer, German v Italian marquetry/intarsa techniques, the craft of early modern technology, archeotechnology and Welsh wire works of the 1560s. I have not even looked at the Elector's library inventory to see if any of his books were an inspiration for the hunting scenes so beautifully created in wood. This vast array of topics demonstrate once again the need for art historians to have a wide range of interests and the flexibility to flick between the arts and sciences without blinking or realising that there was a distinction; much like the Elector of Saxony would have done.

One word of importance: the book is in French and many of the sources are in German. It seems to successfully explore some incredible objects, a requirement for several languages is needed. The book won't be translated into English due to cost and the difficulty of finding a publisher. This means that the book will not have as wide an audience as it deserves, which is a shame. Such an interesting object would appeal to a wide range of early modern specialists.

Les Cahiers du Musee National de la Renaissance No 8: Le banc d'orfèvre : L'électeur de Saxe, (Paris, 2012) 
ISBN 9782711859177
35 Euro/£30

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