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Work Charles V's ewer and basin

Department of Decorative Arts: Renaissance

Aiguière et bassin dits de Charles Quint

© 2010 RMN / Jean-Gilles Berizzi

Decorative Arts
Renaissance

Author(s):
Muriel Barbier

As the inscription on the basin shows, this ewer and basin set commemorates Charles V's conquest of Tunis in 1535. Barbarossa had taken Tunis in the summer of 1534; from the winter of that year, Charles V prepared for war to limit the Bey's power and free the many Christian slaves. In addition to its historical significance, this set – made in Antwerp – is also a splendid example of the flourishing of Flemish goldwork in the 16th century.

Commemorating the conquest of Tunis

The round basin depicts several episodes of the conquest. The inner border shows the army landing, the camp, and scenes from the battle and the bombardment of the Goulette, a canal linking Tunis to the Mediterranean. The episodes are not separated; rather, they follow naturally from each other, forming a harmonious composition. The inner surface depicts the destruction of the Goulette, the battle, the freeing of the slaves, details of the city, and the Roman ruins in Carthage. The ewer, which stands on a pedestal, takes up the same theme. The round body is decorated with a frieze of the army landing, while the upper and lower parts depict war trophies.
The subject had already been painted by Jean Vermeyen, the official artist of the conquest of Tunis, who worked first in the service of Margaret of Austria and then Mary of Hungary before working for Charles V. He also produced the cartoons for the Tunis tapestry, so it seems likely that Vermeyen worked on the models for these two items.

Two examples of Mannerist goldwork

Ewers and basins like these were commonly found in wealthy households during the Renaissance. They were usually presented on dressers as a way of hinting at the wealth and power of their owners. The shapes of the basin and the ewer offer fine examples of European Mannerist goldwork. The lip of the ewer is shaped like a female bust, with shells on her head and shoulders. The handle represents two snakes entwining the arm of a satyr, seated on the sloping upper part of the ewer, who is trying to shake off their hold. This style of ewer, with a lip in the shape of a female bust decorated with shells and a handle formed of snakes, had already been employed in a work of about 1533-40 by Perino del Vaga, active in Rome, and it is possible that Charles V's ewer was modeled on this earlier piece. The high relief and the sheer precision of the narrative scenes in shallow repoussé are typical of Mannerist goldwork.

The rise of the Antwerp goldsmiths

One of the hallmarks on these pieces is that of Antwerp. Goldsmiths in that city faced a fine if they did not stamp their products with three hallmarks-their own, that of the guild, and thirdly the mark indicating the year. In the 17th century, Antwerp was a prosperous port. The thriving local economy led to the widespread availability of luxury goods, goldwork in particular. Goldsmiths were often very wealthy. Records show that some were able to put forward the necessary capital to drain the Zijpe polders in Willemstad in Holland. It is likely that the Flemish goldsmiths had professional links with their German colleagues, which would explain the similarities of shape between Charles V's ewer and basin and certain examples of the German goldsmiths' art. The master who produced the ewer and basin remains anonymous, although his hallmark gives the initials PTR.

Bibliography

Carolus Charles Quint, 1500-1555, Gand, 1999-2000, p. 288.
Destrée J., L'Aiguière et le plat de Charles Quint conservés dans la galerie d'Apollon à Paris, Bruxelles, 1900.

Technical description

  • Anvers (1558 - 1559)

    Aiguière et bassin dits de Charles Quint

  • Argent doré et partiellement émaillé

  • Ancienne collection de Philippe-Gabriel prince de Chimay (mort en 1804)

    MR 341, MR 351

  • Decorative Arts

    Richelieu wing
    1st floor
    Adolphe de Rothschild
    Room 25
    Vitrine 3

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