Power and Glory: The Battle of Pavia Tapestries at the Kimbell

Imagine installing seven massive Flemish tapestries, each measuring 14 feet tall and 28 feet wide. The Kimbell Art Museum had to make significant adjustments to its galleries to accommodate these masterpieces, part of Art and War in the Renaissance: The Battle of Pavia Tapestries, which will be on display through Sept. 15.

“The walls in the largest gallery in the Renzo Piano Pavilion are normally 10 feet tall,” said Jennifer Casler Price, curator of Asian, African, and Ancient American Art. “Essentially, we created a 7,000-square-foot box inside a box. When you walk in, you are surrounded by the seven tapestries. This is truly the Renaissance version of an immersive art experience.”

The tapestries, along with two complete suits of ceremonial armor and a selection of arms from the renowned Farnese Armory, are traveling to the U.S. from the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, Italy. The tapestries were commissioned to commemorate Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s decisive victory in 1525 over François I, king of France, which ended the 16th-century Italian wars. With this victory, the emperor gained the Duchy of Milan and the Kingdom of Naples, making the Holy Roman Empire the most powerful political and military entity in Europe.

Designed by court artist Bernard van Orley, the tapestries were woven at great expense in Brussels by Willem and Jan Dermoyen. During the Renaissance, monarchs and religious leaders used the art of tapestry to signify their great power and wealth. The details and colors are astonishing, illustrating everything from the arrival of the baggage train on the battlefield to the attack on the French to the surrender of François I. Rather than arranging the tapestries chronologically, the curator used the landscape details in the background as a unifying element, placing the viewer in the center of the battlefield and providing a panoramic view of the action.

The Battle of Pavia was over in just four hours, as the French forces were no match for the imperial army and their arquebuses, examples of which are included in the show. The use of these handheld, barrel-loaded firearms was a significant advance, marking the shift from medieval to modern warfare.

“Like in medieval times, the French forces were dressed in armor and carrying pikes, swords, and halberds,” said Price. “Without armor, the imperial forces had greater mobility. They could load their guns, run up close enough to shoot the enemy, and then run back to reload. They picked the French nobility off their horses.”

The tapestries are packed with near life-size figures and horses in full battle regalia. The setting is the countryside outside the northern Italian city of Pavia. The battle occurred in a large park where the French had camped for months, laying siege to the town. Taken entirely by surprise at dawn, they can be seen fleeing, some jumping into the river and others grasping tree branches. Meanwhile, in the background, cows graze peacefully in the fields.

“There had never been a technical achievement on this scale,” Price said. “This is the equivalent of the Sistine Ceiling in the medium of tapestry. They are especially dazzling due to the amount of gold and silver thread used. The battle is portrayed with amazing accuracy as far as the likenesses of key figures and the costumes.”

As Dr. Sylvain Bellenger, general director of the Museo di Capodimonte, points out in the exhibition catalogue, tapestries were “the frescoes of the north,” supplementing written history as they adorned castle walls. They were luxury items that portrayed the fashion and elegance of the court at the time.

Charles V left the Pavia tapestries in the care of his sister, Mary of Hungary, governor of the Netherlands. From her, they were passed to Don Carlos of Austria, who gave them to the Marquis d’Avalos, one of the military heroes of the Pavia battle. In 1862, the d’Avalos family donated them to Naples’s national museum, where they recently underwent a major restoration and maintenance project.

An imposing object in the show is a ceremonial rotella shield of burnished steel inlaid with gold and silver. The shield shows the Roman hero Cocles holding back attackers while his soldiers disable a bridge with pickaxes. In the Canicattie helmet, the judgement of Trajan is depicted in what is referred to as “the heroic style.” Various arquebuses, swords, helmets, and daggers complete the exhibition.

There is a long-standing tradition dating from antiquity to commemorate extraordinary historical events with monumental expressions. In European tradition, the Bayeux tapestry was an early antecedent of the use of tapestries to mark major political triumphs. The Battle of Pavia tapestries represent a significant achievement in both scale and gravitas.