Kimbell Art Museum opens landmark exhibit of Renaissance war tapestries

Willem and Jan Dermoyen, after Bernard van Orley, The Invasion of the French Camp and the Flight of the Women and Civilians, c. 1528–31. Wool, silk, gold, and silver thread, 171 5/8 x 322 in. (436 x 818 cm). Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples

The Kimbell Art Museum opened its new landmark exhibit, Art and War in the Renaissance: The Battle of Pavia Tapestries, on Sunday (June 16) at the museum’s renowned Renzo Piano Pavilion. The exhibit runs through Sept. 15.

Art and War in the Renaissance: The Battle of Pavia Tapestries features seven lavish tapestries that depict the battle of Pavia, commemorating Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s decisive victory over French King Francis I – a pivotal point in the Italian Wars almost five hundred years ago. The tapestries are monumental in scale – each measuring about twenty-eight feet wide and fourteen feet high – drawing viewers into the world of Renaissance history, military technology and fashion.

“The Battle of Pavia tapestries are at once dazzlingly intricate works of fine art, powerful historical documents, and awe-inspiring visual narratives that will envelop visitors in early sixteenth-century art and history,” said Kimbell Art Museum director Eric Lee. “The Kimbell is proud to be the first-ever U.S. venue to host the group of seven masterpieces. We are grateful to the museum in Naples and the Italian government for making the exhibition possible.”

Each of the tapestries depicts an episode of the conflict, though some of the events happened simultaneously, given the short duration of the battle. One tapestry shows the imperial baggage train arriving on the field of battle and the early surrender of the Swiss pikemen serving the French army. Another shows the most important political and tactical event of the conflict – the surrender of Francis I. Two tapestries show mass confrontations of the opposing forces, demonstrating a significant advancement in military history during the battle – the first use of barrel-loaded firearms, which gave the imperial army a distinct advantage over the French troops. Another depicts the imperial army invading the French camp, forcing civilians in their retinue to flee. The remaining tapestries show the attack led by imperial loyalists from within the besieged Visconti Castle, which succeeded in routing the Swiss Guard in the service of Francis I, and, finally, the flight of Francis I’s brother-in-law, the Duke of Alençon, and his troops in the face of the unstoppable Spanish army serving Charles V.

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“Imagine the scene when these glorious works of art were first put on view,” said George T. M. Shackelford, Kimbell deputy director. “The lucky members of the emperor’s court were surrounded by a massive, colorful panorama of a critical battle between two rivals, Francis I and Charles V, that had changed modern history.”

Designed by court artist Bernard van Orley, the tapestries were woven in Brussels by Willem and Jan Dermoyen in deeply saturated hues and exquisite detail, luxuriously highlighted with gold. Each composition is packed with figures including richly adorned military leaders, horsemen, and mercenary foot soldiers armed with swords, pikes, and firearms, all inhabiting beautifully undulating landscapes dotted with hills, towns, and forests. The tapestries are complemented by impressive examples of arms and armor from the period.

The exhibition is organized by the Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte and The Museum Box in collaboration with the Kimbell Art Museum, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Accompanying the exhibition is a 208-page, full-color illustrated catalogue edited by Dr. Carmine Romano, curator and head of digitization and digital catalogue, Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, with contributions by Romano; Dr. Sylvain Bellenger, general director, Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte; Dr. Thomas P. Campbell, director and CEO, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Emma C. De Jong, postdoctoral curatorial fellow, The American Friends of Capodimonte; Graziella Palei, tapestry conservator; Dr. Cecilia Paredes, Université Libre de Bruxelles; Gennaro Sangiuliano, Minister of Culture, Italy; Cristina Del Sesto, president, the American Friends of Capodimonte; Antonio Tosini, conservator of the Farnese and Bourbon Armories, Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte; and H.E. Mariangela Zappia, Ambassador of Italy to the United States. 

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More information about Art and War in the Renaissance: The Battle of Pavia Tapestries can be found on the Kimbel Art Museum website.

Information for this article was provided by the Kimbell Art Museum.