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The Valois Tapestries are a series of eight tapestries depicting festivities or "magnificences" at the Court of France in the second half of the 16th century. The tapestries were worked in the Spanish Netherlands, probably in Brussels or Antwerp, shortly after 1580.
Scholars have not firmly established who commissioned the tapestries or for whom they were intended. It is likely that they were once owned by Catherine de' Medici, but they are not included in the inventory of possessions drawn up after her death. She had probably presented them to her granddaughter Christina of Lorraine, for her marriage to Ferdinando I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, in 1589. The tapestries are now stored at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Tuscany, but are not on public display.
The tapestries are based on six (possibly eight) designs drawn by the artist Antoine Caron during the reign of King Charles IX of France (1560–1574). These were modified by a second artist, who reveals a strong personality of his own, to include groups of full-length figures in the foreground. Historian Frances Yates believed that this second artist was the influential Lucas de Heere.
The Protestant de Heere, who died in 1584, had previously designed tapestries for Catherine de' Medici in France. In his last years, he was working in Flanders for William the Silent, the founder of the House of Orange-Nassau and the ally of Catherine de' Medici's youngest son François, Duke of Anjou. In 1582, de Heere designed the decorations for Anjou's Joyous Entry into Ghent, de Heere's home town. Between 1582, when Anjou was installed as the duke of Brabant, and his death in 1584, when he still held the town of Cambrai, the French prince opposed the forces of Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, governor of the Spanish Netherlands. He met with little success, however, owing to a desperate shortage of funds to pay his troops. Art historian Roy Strong has questioned Yates's finding that the tapestries were produced in Antwerp under Lucas de Heere, suggesting that they contain Brussels markings.
Yates believes that de Heere's contribution to the tapestries represented a plea to Catherine de' Medici to send Anjou the funds he needed to confront Parma effectively. Historian R. J. Knecht questions this reading and calls the tapestries "an enigma". The reason Henry III and Catherine did not throw the full weight of France behind Anjou's campaign in the Netherlands was that they feared provoking a war with Spain. Knecht asserts that a gift of tapestries, however magnificent, would hardly have changed their minds. More recently, historians Lisa Jardine and Jerry Brotton assess the imagery of the tapestries and "turn Yates's argument on its head", concluding that "the tapestries actually are deeply antithetical to the Protestant, and specifically Huguenot, cause." They argue that the Huguenots are depicted in the tapestries not, as Yates believed, to demonstrate the tolerance of the Valois and offer a vision of different faiths and peoples at peace, but to illustrate the certain defeat of the Protestants at the hands of the Valois. They interpret the inclusion of Turks alongside the Huguenots to indicate that both were regarded as "infidels", an association previously made in the Tunis tapestries for the Habsburg Philip II's marriage to Mary I of England.
Jardine and Brotton also suggest that the Valois tapestries have a clear antecedent in the triumphalist History of Scipio tapestries designed for Francis I by Giulio Romano. Yates believed that the depiction of an elephant in one of the tapestries was based on engravings of Anjou's staged entry into Antwerp. Jardine and Brotton suggest instead that Antoine Caron based his designs for the Elephant tapestry on his own painting Night Festival with an Elephant, which in turn draws on The Battle of Zama from the Scipio tapestries. They also maintain that the political message of those tapestries remained part of the Valois ethos, since the Triumph of Scipio was displayed during the summit meeting between the French and Spanish courts at Bayonne. Knecht urges caution, however. The obvious intent of the tapestries is to glorify the house of Valois; beyond that, he believes, all is speculation.
The artists seem to have consulted written accounts of Catherine de' Medici's court festivals. Some of the entertainments recorded in the tapestries can be identified with known events, such as the festivals mounted at Fontainebleau and at Bayonne during Charles IX's royal progress of 1564–65; and the ball held for the Polish ambassadors at the Tuileries in 1573. Particularly lavish were the tournaments and fêtes held in 1565 in Bayonne, near the Spanish border of France, where Catherine met with her daughter Elisabeth, Queen of Spain, amidst rituals of display from both courts. The latest event identifiable in the tapestries was held in 1573 at the Tuileries, where Catherine laid on a ball for ambassadors from the Polish governing council, who had elected her son Henry as king of Poland. The costumes worn by the courtiers in the tapestries have been dated to not later than c. 1580.
For Catherine de' Medici, who masterminded these occasions and may have ordered the tapestries that commemorated them, such entertainments were worth their colossal expense, since they served a political purpose. Presiding over the royal government at a time when the French monarchy was in steep decline, she set out to show not only the French people but foreign courts that the Valois monarchy was as prestigious and magnificent as it had been during the reigns of Francis I and her husband Henry II.
At the same time, she believed these elaborate entertainments and sumptuous court rituals, which incorporated martial sports and tournaments of many kinds, would occupy her feuding nobles and distract them from fighting against each other to the detriment of the country and the royal authority. Catherine also exercised her own creative gifts in the devising of the court festivals. Biographer Leonie Frieda suggests that she, "more than anyone, inaugurated the fantastic entertainments for which later French monarchs also became renowned".
Most of the full-length figures in the foreground of the tapestries are recognisable as members of the French royal family and court. François, duke of Anjou, is featured prominently in some of the tapestries; and Catherine de' Medici, dressed in her widow's black, occupies the central position in all of the tapestries except one. Catherine's daughter Marguerite de Valois can also be seen.
One absentee from the tapestries is King Charles IX of France, who was on the throne at the time of the events depicted, but who had died (1574) by the time the hangings were woven. Yates speculates that the Protestant creators of the tapestries deliberately cut him out because of his involvement in the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of 1572, in which thousands of French Protestants, or Huguenots, were slaughtered on his orders. Antoine Caron's original drawings for the tapestries, of which six survive, show Charles taking part in the festivities. It is the later artist who removes Charles from the designs and adds the figures in the foreground who relate to the court of Charles's successor Henry III.