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The kitchen and market scenes of Peter Aertsen constitute one of the most remarkable innovations in northern art, yet their origins remain mysterious. What prompted an artist working in the Low Countries in the middle of the sixteenth century to feature foodstuffs and kitchen pots in a large-scale painting? With their cooks and vendors, their fruits and vegetables piled on trays and overflowing from baskets, and their prominent display of eggs, fish, meats, and birds, caged or slaughtered, these market and kitchen scenes are so unprecedented that in Keith Moxey's view, "Aertsen's concern with the display of comestibles is far more enigmatic in its origins than his interest in peasant life."(1) What motivated Aertsen to move in this new direction and create a large painting such as his Market Woman of 1567 [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], with its melons and grapes, cabbages, cucumbers, and carrots spread riotously over the foreground? Who would buy his Kitchen Scene [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED], with its butchered meat hanging in the center of the painting, its pots and pans, fruits and vegetables, and men and women from the lower classes? What made these novel subjects comprehensible? What audience found them attractive? Where would such paintings be hung and what function did they serve?
To answer these questions historians of art have usually emphasized biblical sources and contemporary religious issues. Jan Emmens has seen the paintings as contrasting the vita activa and the vita contemplativa,(2) Hans Buijs views them as a warning against materialism and excess,(3) Reindert Falkenburg argues that an "Augustinian antithesis underlies" these paintings,(4) and Kenneth Craig and others have stressed the implicit contrast between the corporeal and the spiritual(5) - clearly an important factor in a painting such as Market Scene with Ecce Homo in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery in Stockholm [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED], or Christ in the House of Mary and Martha in Vienna [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 4 OMITTED], in which a subsidiary scene in the background has a traditional biblical subject. The compositional contrast was not new. In an engraving by Israeel van Meckenem, Dance at the Court of Herod from about 1500, dancing couples command the foreground and overshadow the two small biblical scenes in the background, a divide that relates the biblical story to contemporary behavior and reminds the viewer that dancing and lust are related.(6) What is new in Aertsen's paintings and what must be considered a major innovation that "represents the elevation of a new subject into the repertoire of Western art"(7) is his dramatic use of foodstuffs and the paraphernalia of kitchen and marketplace in large-scale paintings. Studies that underscore the religious dimensions of these unusual paintings suggest much about the kind of response they might have initiated and some of the interests they served, but they do not explain why the artist chose to frame moral issues in this highly original way.
Other avenues explored in the effort to account for Aertsen's originality have met with only limited success. As a rule, the explanations fall short because they fail to address the problem of audience expectations or identify the conceptual framework that made these unprecedented paintings comprehensible. Ardis Grosjean invoked vernacular sources and popular culture to argue that Aertsen's fruits and vegetables had sexual connotations for his viewers but failed to specify a genre or category in which the salacious and the biblical could logically coexist.(8) Mary Buchan suggested that Aertsen's monumental cooks were related to "a Roman deity, a goddess of abundance or domesticity"(9) but did not explain how Aertsen could transform a classical goddess into a Flemish cook without disorienting his viewers. Gunter Irmscher favored a specific classical source - the market references in Cicero's De officiis(10) - but it does not provide an artistic rationale for these new inventions or a coherent interpretation of the particulars in Aertsen's paintings. Ethan Kavaler notes, for example, that Cicero does not mention "vegetable sellers, the most frequent vendors" in Aertsen's market paintings.(11) In a recent attempt to explain why Aertsen "preferred rustic food . . . to thematize and display his command of art," Falkenburg identified Aertsen's kitchen and market scenes as "paradoxical encomiums" in the tradition of Erasmus's Praise of Folly.(12) Like Irmscher he assumes an audience with humanist interests, but also like Irmscher he conceives those interests somewhat narrowly - each emphasizing a single text - leaving many questions unanswered. Why did Aertsen choose these particular objects and present them in this excessive and disorderly way?(13)
The problem is made more difficult because in other respects Aertsen qualifies as a Renaissance artist, a painter working in the latest and most "modern" style. Aertsen's three-dimensional and large-scale figures, as in his painting of The Cook from 1559 [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 5 OMITTED], have stylistical affinities with those of Italian Renaissance art, and details such as the fireplace next to the cook are recognized as "correct representations of High Renaissance architecture" that show Aertsen's debt to the illustrations in Sebastiano Serlio's books on ancient architecture.(14) Yet there is no Italian source that accounts for these pots and pans, these cooks and market people, and this unusual emphasis on fruits and vegetables. Italian art provides no precedent for Aertsen's iconographic inventions; in this instance, influence appears to run from north to south, with Italian artists adopting a new iconography that was first developed in the north. Aertsen introduced his new ideas in the 1550s, well before similar subjects begin to appear in the work of Italian artists such as Bartolomeo Passerotti.(15)
The purpose of the present study is to identify Aertsen's sources and the conceptual framework that made these paintings of kitchen and marketplace comprehensible to the original viewers. It is argued that while these unprecedented paintings are carriers of Christian meaning it is the classical component that accounts for their originality. Pliny the Elder legitimated low-life painting in his Natural History, and the ancient genre of satire - its theory, traditions, literature, long history of exploitation by Christian moralists, and popularity in the Low Countries in the mid-sixteenth century - accounts for Aertsen's new subjects and unique compositions. The genre of satire supplied a conceptual framework for elaborating Pliny's brief reference, and the vivid writing of satirists such as Juvenal, Horace, Martial, and Persius provided a wealth of colorful material in which fruit and vegetables, meat and fish, the kitchen and marketplace are given moral connotations.(16)
Sources for Aertsen's Innovations
In the Low Countries in the years around 1550 the options open to an enterprising artist wishing to break new ground were determined in large part by the interests of the interpretative community that was available and the interests and expectations they brought to their viewing experience.(17) In the Low Countries at midcentury, Renaissance concerns - that is, a fascination with the art and literature of Greece and Rome and a desire to adapt them for their own ends - were a crucial component of cultural life. The artistic environment in which Aertsen found himself was distinguished by the energizing effects of humanist culture and the sophistication of humanist scholarship,(18) the enthusiasm for things ancient,(19) and the availability of classical texts, with their potential for generating new ideas in art.(20)
Publication figures make it evident that while books in Greek did not sell well, a large number of people were buying those written in Latin, by classical authors as well as neo-Latin works.(21) Christopher Plantin wrote that while "I hardly dare undertake to print anything in Greek . . . I will not refuse anything written by eminent Latin authors, for book production depends of such men."(22) The cultural impact of the humanists and those who shared their enthusiasms if not their competency extended to the audience for paintings and technically complex prints. Their numbers may be small in comparison with the total population of the Low Countries in the 1550s, but in market terms and as a proportion of the art-buying public - that portion of the public that is most relevant for an artist - their importance far outweighs their numbers.
Aertsen was established in Antwerp by 1535, the year in which he enrolled as a master in the painter's guild. He prospered there, owning a house by 1547 and adding another to his holdings three years later.(23) Like other artists who introduced major innovations in northern art in the first half of the sixteenth century, such as Albrecht Durer, Hans Baldung Grien, and Quinten Massys (who preceded him in Antwerp), Aertsen was "a respected and responsible man of property" with documented ties to men with humanist interests.(24) As Charles Sterling established in his study of still-life painting, Aertsen received plaudits from Hadrianus Junius (Adriaen de Jonghe), a doctor and leading figure in northern humanism during the period when Aertsen was creating his innovative paintings.(25)
Aertsen and Hadrianus Junius were contemporaries; the painter was born in Amsterdam in 1507/8, Junius in Hoorn in 1511. After receiving his medical degree in Bologna, Junius was appointed town physician in Haarlem, also serving as rector of the Latin school from 1551 to 1552. Renowned as a classical philologist, poet, and historian as well as a physician, Junius was regarded by his contemporaries as the most erudite man after Erasmus.(26) He made important contributions to classical scholarship, editing or commenting on Seneca, Plautus, Nonius Marcellus, Horace, Juvenal, and Martial, among others, and he is responsible for the remarkable discovery that a "pumpkin" served Seneca as the basis for his satire on Emperor Claudius - hence the title it retains to the present day, Apocolocyntosis.(27) A great admirer of Erasmus, Junius edited that scholar's famous collection of proverbs, the Adagiorum ab Erasmo omissorum centuriae octo published in Basel in 1558. His interests also extended to the visual arts. Junius is a central figure in the development of the emblem book, with its integration of text and image.(28) His Emblemata, first published by Christopher Plantin in Antwerp in 1565, was popular with his contemporaries and frequently reprinted.(29) An authority on Latin, Greek, and vernacular vocabularies - he composed a Lexicon graeco-latinum, and his Nomenclator: Omnium rerum propria nomina includes seven languages(30) - Junius was also a historian who wrote a history of the Low Countries, Batavia, published posthumously in 1588.
Junius's familiarity with Aertsen's kitchen and market scenes is evident in his Batavia. In this history Junius praises Aertsen's novel paintings as Renaissance works of art by placing them in an ancient context. He writes,
Nor should Peter surnamed the Tall, be passed over in silence, whom I believe should be rightly compared with Piraeicus of Pliny, if not placed above him, who deliberately as it seems sketched with the pen humble things and has rightly acquired in universal judgement the highest renown. And for this reason he can, at least in my opinion, be equally designated with the tag, painter of low and sordid things, to such an extent does a certain charm shine through everywhere in his works, having expressed most elegantly in country boys the texture and clothing of the body, victuals, vegetables, dead young chickens, ducks, cod, and types of fish and finally every type of kitchen utensil. So contrary to pleasure that can be fulfilled his panels never weary by virtue of their infinite variety. The result is that those panels sell at a higher price than the competent and very large panels of many.(31)
Subjects that appear humble have earned glory for the artist. The "low and sordid" possess charm, Aertsen can compete successfully with the ancients in this category, and Junius emphasizes the "infinite variety" of these paintings and their ability to hold the interest of the viewer.
Junius's laudatory language is adapted from Pliny the Elder's Natural History in which Pliny praises artists famous for a minor style of painting (minoris picturae):
Among these was Piraeicus, to be ranked below few painters in skill; it is possible that he won distinction by his choice of subjects. . . although adopting a humble line he attained in that field the height of glory [summa gloria]. He painted barbers' shops and cobblers' stalls, asses, viands and the like, consequently receiving a Greek name meaning "painter of sordid subjects [rhyparographos]"; in these however he gives exquisite pleasure [consummata voluptas] and indeed they fetched bigger prices than the largest works of many masters.(32)
Junius's paraphrase of the Plinian passage is revealing. As a "painter of sordid subjects [rhyparographos]," Aertsen satisfies all the criteria for a rhyparographos as Pliny describes him, and like Piraeicus, Aertsen achieved considerable success with these humble subjects. The large number of market and kitchen scenes that survive, as well as Junius's statement that these paintings commanded high prices and the painter had acquired great renown, indicate a lively and appreciative market for Aertsen's innovative art.
During the years when Aertsen was introducing his novel subjects, Pliny's Natural History attracted great attention in the north. After 1500 all the major commentaries on ancient writers come from the north. While this shift in scholarly activity from Italy to the north is evident in all the humanistic fields, it is especially marked in Plinian studies.(33) Erasmus praised it "as a treasure house, a veritable encyclopaedia of all that is worth knowing," and made extensive use of it in his own work.(34) Pliny's Natural History was a primary source for humanists combing classical literature for information on a variety of subjects from legal terminology to the description of plants and other natural phenomena. Lawyers "needed to understand the exact meaning of classical words," and physicians such as Hadrianus Junius "were required to understand the Latin terminology found in the Elder Pliny's Natural History in order to ensure that they had an accurate knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants and minerals."(35)
Pliny's Natural History was available in the north and highly influential, and Hadrianus Junius praised Aertsen's novel paintings in terms adapted from Pliny's Natural History. Why, then, have the origins of his kitchen and market scenes remained mysterious? In part, because Junius's response assumes a relationship with the classical world that is at odds with some of the basic assumptions that continue to guide the study of northern art. As noted in a recent article, the "Northern Renaissance in Art" is not "as hallowed a term as some in the field of art history."(36) Rather than as a parallel development with the potential for producing innovative works of art, the northern Renaissance is viewed as derivative and dependent on Italian leadership, exemplified by artists with limited vision and originality, and the idea that northern artists could take their cue directly from the art and literature of the ancient world is not considered credible. An additional factor is that Aertsen's new subjects violate traditional conceptions of Renaissance art. Erwin Panofsky defined a Renaissance work of art as one in which there was a "reintegration of classical themes with classical motifs," and while his theory is broad and inclusive, Panofsky emphasized the elevated and heroic and tended to view the ordinary, disorderly, and grotesque as a northern aberration. In Durer's engraving of the Four Witches, for example, he recognizes their nudity as "classical" but considers the subject itself a northern invention and simply "a warning against sin."(37) This bias continues. Maarten van Heemskerck's Venus and Bacchus, published by Hieronymous Cock in Antwerp in 1556 [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 6 OMITTED], does not even require the caption to be recognized as a "Renaissance" work of art. Aertsen's kitchen and market scenes, on the other hand, created in the same period by another artist Junius admired, fail to qualify.
In those areas where the originality of northern artists is recognized - such as depictions of dancing peasants or naked witches - it is generally assumed that the artist was indebted to popular culture and vernacular literature. Latin sources tend to be overlooked even though they comprise the majority of publications in the north,(38) and when a contemporary writer compares an artist to Apelles or some other ancient artist this is treated as a convention, an empty phrase that reveals lit fie or nothing about the art or the artist. Clark Hulse offers an exception to this attitude in suggesting there was an indigenous Renaissance in English painting. Hulse argues that it accompanied the rise of humanism in England, and rather than being "distinguished by the importation of an Italian visual style" it was painting based on "new concepts learned mainly from books. . . . painting that, first of all, measures itself by the standard of antiquity."(39) As few historians of northern art favor such a revisionist view, there has been little motivation to pursue the implications of Junius's praise.
In many respects these assumptions are at variance with actual conditions in the north in the 1550s when Aertsen was introducing his unusual subjects. The category rhyparographos was already established by the time of Francois Rabelais. Rabelais, like Aertsen, was producing an innovative work of art in which low-life figures are prominent, and in the prologue to book 5 of Gargantua, Rabelais, with mock modesty, downplays his aspirations and says his highest ambition is to be a "little vegetable painter [petit riparographe]," a member of the school of "Pyreicus."(40) If Rabelais had lived to see one of Aertsen's paintings - the Market Woman [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], for example, with its profusion of carrots, parsnips, squash, cabbage, lemons, grapes, apples, nuts, and other edibles - he would have recognized in Aertsen another reincarnated rhyparographos, another northern innovator indebted to Pliny's Natural History.
Pliny's description made the low and sordid a legitimate category in the visual arts. If Rabelais felt free to categorize his writing by referring to a kind of ancient painting, the painter was more than justified if he wished to emulate a successful ancient artist and act as a rhyparographos. The principal problem for the visual artist was that Pliny says nothing about the meaning of these foodstuffs and other low-life subjects. As sixteenth-century viewers assumed that objects in a painting had a communicative function, there was no rationale for simply presenting these subjects "for themselves" - that is, as aesthetic objects devoid of meaning and associations. It would have conflicted with the expectations and habits of Aertsen's audience, which was accustomed to assign meaning to objects, even those as unlikely as an eviscerated rabbit or a large peasant shoe.(41) In Hans Baldung Grien's woodcut for Geiler von Kaysersberg's Das Buch Grantapfel published in Strasbourg in 1511 [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 7 OMITTED],(42) the cook eviscerating the rabbit is used to symbolize the Christian preparing himself for union with God. Skinning the rabbit is likened to the Christian stripping himself by repentence in preparation for that holy union, and Geiler even assigns a metaphorical meaning to recipes for cooking the rabbit and the plate on which it is served. The spices in the sauce symbolize life in the convent, where discipline is observed; the rabbit served to the king on a golden plate signifies the soul carried on the plate of glory before the throne of God.(43) A shoe or a rabbit has no intrinsic meaning, moral or otherwise, but meanings can be assigned to them or other objects, with their significance variable and dependent on the genre in which they appear.
One object that appears in painting after painting suggests that Aertsen resolved the problem by choosing and emphasizing those vegetables, fruits, and other foodstuffs that are given a prominent and moralizing role in ancient literature. Cabbages are included so frequently that art historians have remarked on the emphasis but had difficulty accounting for it.(44) A large cabbage leaf appears under the pig's feet in the Meat Stall [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 8 OMITTED], apparently Aertsen's first full-fledged foray into this new territory, the only sign of a vegetable in a painting dominated by meat products.(45) After that initial appearance large, fat cabbages show up frequently, often placed in a prominent position and looking much like their counterpart in an engraving from Rembertus Dodonaeus's horticultural treatise [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 9 OMITTED], except that Aertsen's cabbages are prepared for human consumption with the root cut off. There is a large and luxurious cabbage under the arm of the cook in a kitchen scene painted in 1559 [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 10 OMITTED] and another round cabbage under the arm of Martha in Aertsen's Christ in the House of Mary and Martha from the same year [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 11 OMITTED]. The hand of the cook in another painting in Brussels rests above two large, fat cabbages [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 5 OMITTED]; the woman on the right in the undated Market Scene in Cologne has one hand on a cabbage;(46) and there is a large cabbage in the hand of the woman in the Kitchen Yard in the Hallwyl Museum in Stockholm [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 12 OMITTED]. There is a large cabbage placed front and center in Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery in Frankfurt [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 13 OMITTED], and there are eleven cabbages in the Stockholm version of the same subject, with the seated woman placing her hand on a cabbage and cabbages piled in the lower left corner [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED]. In Aertsen's scene of a kitchen yard in Rotterdam the woman has her hand on a cabbage, and the same gesture is repeated in the center of the composition by the man seated on an overturned wheelbarrow who places his hand on another large cabbage [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 14 OMITTED].
The large and luxuriant cabbage is a recurrent motif not only in Aertsen's kitchen and market scenes, it also continued to have a prominent place in the paintings of his relative and follower Joachim Beuckelaer. In a 1564 market scene in Kassel, a pile of cabbages fills the lower right corner, and in the center of his Market Scene with Fruits and Vegetables of 1569 a woman displays a large cabbage.(47) In his Market Woman in Antwerp a woman has one hand on a basket of cherries, the other on a cabbage [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 15 OMITTED], and in Kitchen Scene in the Louvre one cabbage is prominent in the center foreground while the servant girl places her hand on another cabbage [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 16 OMITTED. Beuckelaer even inserted a cabbage between a side of meat and a plucked fowl just below the arm of the female figure on the left in his Christ in the House of Mary and Martha in Stockholm - a somewhat incongruous addition in a painting dominated by pots and pans, dead birds, and meat.(48)
In his Natural History Pliny discusses fruits, vegetables, nuts, and other food, and his role as an authority on these subjects is clear in horticultural compilations such as the Stirpium Historiae of Rembertus Dodonaeus, first published by Plantin in Antwerp in 1559,(49) and in sixteenth-century dictionaries such as Robertus Stephanus's Dictionarium of 1543(50) and Hadrianus Junius's Nomenclator omnia rerum propria nomina duabus linguis. . . . , published by Plantin in 1585.(51) In general, Pliny's information is practical, useful in medicine and agriculture, but devoid of moral associations. Exceptions are sufficiently rare that when Pliny uses the large cabbage called the Tritian as a metaphor for luxurious living, it is significant that Aertsen chooses this same cabbage as a recurring motif in his kitchen and market scenes. Pliny says, "Growing cabbages is one way of supplying table luxuries," and the subject is so important that he will "pursue it at length." In particular, Pliny cites the Tritian as a symbol of extravagance because, as he writes, it is sometimes "seen with a head measuring a foot across" and its cultivation takes "twice the usual outlay and trouble."(52) Aertsen's painted cabbages are equally large and luxurious, and if his viewers understood them as a sign of opulence, the cabbage acquired a moral meaning and could serve as an appropriate warning about the dangers of profligacy and high living, a subject that attracted a great deal of attention in Aertsen's time.
The scarcity of biblical and patristric passages in which fruits, vegetables, meats, and kitchen pots acquire moral connotations has made it difficult to account for Aertsen's novel subjects solely in terms of biblical and religious sources. Aertsen's emphasis on these large cabbages points in a different direction and underscores the degree to which the literature of the ancient world played a key role in his conception. It adds weight to the argument that Aertsen's kitchen and market scenes represent a deliberate effort to revive the ancient art of the rhyparographos as described by Pliny in his Natural History, and equally important, it suggests that Aertsen valued the literature of the ancient world as a source of moralized images as well as artistic precedent.
Aside from his discussion of cabbages, Pliny had little to offer the artist faced with the problem of adapting pagan sources for viewing by a Christian audience. Some artifacts from the …