Romancing the stones

There are few eras in which work — the work of politics and commerce — was more intimately connected with the arts than in the Renaissance.

The patronage of the papacy, royalty and aristocracy in the 15th and 16th centuries enabled great artists like Raphael and Holbein — along with countless, now nameless craftsmen — to explore the full measure of their gifts. They in turn created decorative and fine artwork — jewels, paintings and paintings featuring jewels — that announced and enhanced the status of the patrons and those portrayed.

This is the gleaming subtext of Yvonne Hackenbroch’s “Jewels of the Renaissance” (292 pages, 200 illustrations, $195), certainly one of Assouline’s most sensuous, sumptuous books to date. Martine Assouline has dedicated it to Maria Bellonci, “who first opened the doors of the Renaissance to me with her magnificent book, ‘Lucrezia Borgia.’” And indeed, this would also be a fitting tribute to the adored yet still exploited daughter of the scandalous Pope Alexander VI. With its luxury slipcase and maroon endpapers embellished in golden arabesques of flora and fauna, the crimson tome seems to drip pearls — along with garnets, sapphires and enamels. The quality of the paper stock and reproductions underscore the weightiness — sometimes quite literally — of the patronage that financed the works. Among the patrons of the slyly insightful painter/jewelry maker Hans Holbein the Younger was Henry VIII, seen here, circa 1537, in a magnificent gray doublet studded with what appears to be rubies set in gold and draped in a gold chain and a ruby and pearl-crusted one. (A drawback of the text is that it doesn’t necessarily offer much on the jewels in the paintings, though that may be a historical impossibility.)

Even when the subject is undressed there are jewels. In a detail from Jan Massys’ painting “David and Bathsheba,” a three-strand pearl necklace featuring two drop pearls not only mirrors the creaminess of the adulterous Bathsheba’s exposed bosom but heightens the eroticism of the work, in concert with her filmy, open gown, jeweled armbands and feathery headdress.

There are whole pages of close-ups of jewelry set against black backdrops, such as a delightful salamander inset with rubies that was recovered from the Girona, a ship of the Spanish Armada that fared so disastrously when it tangled with Elizabeth I’s fleeter fleet in 1588. Animals, both real and imaginary, figure into many of the works, as in an enameled gold pendant of a hippocampus (a kind of fanciful seahorse) with a female rider, set with cabochon emeralds (circa 1580, Spain).

But for the art lover, there is no greater setting for these gems than the paintings in which they or similar works appear. Many are old acquaintances, including Raphael’s chastely bejeweled “Lady With Unicorn” (circa 1505-06) and the portrait by an unknown artist of the future Elizabeth I as a tween princess (circa 1542-47) — her elaborate scarlet gown and headdress threaded with pearls, her self-possessed gaze indicative of the kind of monarch she would become.

Other paintings are revelations, such as Hans Muelich’s 1545 portrait of Albrecht V, Duke of Bavaria, which reveals understated (for the period) gold chains and a handsome, pensive, remarkably contemporary face.

Perhaps the real “find” is a French school portrait of Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII and mother of Elizabeth I, that offers a softer, indeed lovelier take on the doomed, bewitching queen — her dark tresses caught up in a pearl hairnet, a pearl-and-gemstone choker separating her head and neck from the rest of her body, just as an executioner’s sword would do in 1536.

Portraits like this and Alonso Sanchez Coello’s of Elisabeth of Valois — third wife of Philip II of Spain and later the romantic heroine of Verdi’s opera “Don Carlo” — demonstrate that there is no jewel that can compare with an arresting face.

Or a great work of fine art.

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