The elder uncle of Charles VI started perhaps, the greatest and most extravagant spending spree in the history of the world to that time. His collection itself was a work of art. Jean, Duc de Berry, was more intellectual than warrior, more a puller of strings than a weilder of battle-axes. Christine de Pisan, one of the first professional woman writers, describes him as handsome, amiable, wise in council, cautious in action, ” of sweet and kindly intercourse with no prideful hauteur, benignant in address and response, cheery in conversation, and in all things very considerate.”
But Christine, who loved by the favor of great patrons, could remark no evil in them. Others reported Duke John to be debauched, spendthrift, and little esteemed in the kingdom. Certainly, he outdid all his predecessors in the harshness of his tax collections. The people toiled and suffered to support art. This, he thought, was a good thing. Maybe it was, if art is greater than life.
At any rate, Sir John was a great builder, art patron and collector. He built seventeen important castles and other edifices, most of them now in ruins or in dust. He restored the castle of Poitiers, with its superb great hall, and supplied the central facade of the cathedral at Bourges. He had his own staff of jewelers and goldsmiths , and his own artists, some of whom, like Jacquemart de Hesdin and the Limbourg Brothers, are by no means forgotten. He appointed the painter Andre Beauneveu his commissioner for the arts; he also had a purchasing agent in Italy, one of the first art dealers. Duke John, wearing his hat adorned with sapphires, emeralds, rubies, and pearls, was himself an art object, a dazzlement, a chef-d’oeuvre in his own collection.
Duke John possessed a mountain of gems; diamonds, rubies, pearls, jaspers, garnets, amethysts, rock crystals, cat’s-eyes, toadstones, corals, and nore than fifteen hundred cameos and intaglios. He liked to break down crude bijouterie and have the stones reassembled according to his own designs. Thus he made suitable reliquaries for a piece of Saint Lawrence’s grill, a twig from the Burning Bush, the leg of a Holy Innocent, the head of one of the Eleven Thousand Virgins. He made shrines for the Virgin’s wedding ring, for a wine cuip used in the marriage at Cana, for a scrap from the mantle of Elijah.
In Italy, Duke John’s agent bought Greek vases, sculptures, medals of Augustus and Tiberius, ancient coins. In his passion for collecting he would collect almost anything; tapestries from Arras, embroideries from FLorence and England, leather hangings from Spain, a ”Wunderkammer” of natural curiosities: a snake’s jaws, a porcupine’s quill, an elephant’s molar. He even collected dogs; he is said to have possessed fifteen hundred, mostly, no doubt, in hunting packs at his country castle’s. But the banquet scene is his ”Tres Riches Heures” shows a dog on the floor and two puppies on the very table.
His chief passion was for books, which in his day, were of course, in manuscript. His library numbered about three hundred volumes, fewer than his brother Charles had owned, but chose with more discrimination. Duke John loved the beauty and personality of books; he loved also to read their words. He was especially fond of romances of chivalry. At one time he ordered some low-standing ivory candlesticks ”to hold candles for reading romances.” A real bibliophile, he carried a precious Book of Hours to war with him. Confronting in the field of battle the English commander, the Duke of Bedford, another connoisseur, he arranged to postpone the engagement while Bedford visited him in his tent to inspect the treasure.
Under the patronage of Jean de Berry the art of book illustration found a new development. The decoration of books was originally an ecclesiastical art, practiced by monks for the glory of God. By the thirteenth century book illustration and ornamentation became in some part a secular trade , in the hands of professionals in Paris and Italy.
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