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Probationes Pennae: Some Sixteenth-Century Doodles on the Theme of Folly Attributed to the Antwerp Humanist Pieter Gillis and His Colleagues*

  • Stephen H. Goddard (a1)


Sometime between 1502 and 1509 one of Antwerp's city clerks took time to pen a small drawing and inscription on the flyleaf of a document in his care (fig. 1). His depiction of a naked soul seen from the backside while ascending into the clouds of heaven, succinctly labeled “ascensio,” turns out to be only the first of several dozen doodles preserved in a special class of judicial manuscripts in the Antwerp city archives. Taken as a group, these pictorial and verbal jottings provide a unique opportunity to eavesdrop upon the spontaneous mental meanderings of several Antwerpians in the age of Metsys, Erasmus, Bruegel, and Plantin. The art of doodling is revealing by its very nature, and the possibility that one of the doodlers was the humanist Pieter Gillis provides an additional incentive for the discussion of this material, which is catalogued and translated in the accompanying appendix.



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A version of this paper was originally given as a lecture at the Midwest Art History Conference at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, in 1985. I would like to thank the stafFof the Antwerp city archives for their friendly help: J. van den Nieuwenhuizen, J. van Roey, and G. Spiessens. I owe special thanks to my colleagues at the University of Kansas: J. Blumb, J. Helyar, S. Lombardo, O. Phillips, S. Prete, A. Stevens; and to D. Rosand of Columbia University, and E. Haverkamp-Begemann of New York University's Institute of Fine Arts.



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1 I have used the translation edited by Elizabeth Honig in conjunction with a seminar at Yale University (New Haven, 1985). The original text is: Card van Mander, Den Grondt der edel vry schilderconst (Haarlem, 1604) fol. 1. The opening lines are:

O Hebes spruyten, Genius Scholieren,

Ghy die hier en daer, in plaetse van schrijven

Hebt becladdert, en vervult u Pampieren

Met Mannekens, Schepen, verscheyden dieren

Dat nau ledighe plaets’ en laet blijven

Schijnend’ of Nateur’ u voort wilde drijven

Een Schilder te wesen, soo dat u Ouders

U daer toe aenvoeren op lijf, en schouders.

Van Mander's term “becladdert” is actually closer to the English “bespattered” or “dirtied.“

2 The rebus was a very popular device in the sixteenth-century Low Countries, especially among the guilds of rhetoric. For some examples see E. van Autenboer, Het Brabants landjuweel der rederijkers (1515-1561), Leuvense studiën en tekstuitgaven, n.ss2 (Middelburg, 1981) ills. 3, 6, 15, 26.

3 Huizinga, Johan, Homo Ludens, Study of the Play-Element in Culture (Boston, 1955) 168 , includes doodling as a “play-function.” For doodling and creativity see Gombrich, E. H., Art and Illusion, A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (Princeton, 1965) 356 . It is worth recalling that the English term “to doodle” ultimately derives from the Slavonic and Germanic term “to play“—usually to play the bagpipes (German “dudelsack,” Dutch “doedelzak“), see The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary 1 (Oxford, 1977): 600, c.f. “Doodle,” third definition.

4 Le Opere di Giorgio Vasari, ed. by Gaetano Milanesi, 1 (Florence, 1906): 168-69, or the English translation, Vasari on Technique being the Introduction to the Three Arts of Design, Architecture, Sculpture and Painting, Prefixed to the Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, trans. Louisa A. Maclehose (New York, 1960) 205. Similarly, in his essay, Viedes formes (Paris, 1947) 99, Henri Focillon observed“Parelles [mains]rhomme prend contact avec la durete’ de la pensee,” which has been translated by Hogan, C. and Kubler, G., “through his hands man establishes contact with the austerity of thought,” The Life of Forms in Art (New York, 1948) 65 .

5 Leon Voet, De Gouden eeuw van Antwerpen: Bloei en uitstraling van de metropol in de zestiende eeuw (Antwerp, 1973) likened the role of the griffier to that of the town clerk in an English borough. I have used the English edition: Antwerp, the Golden Age: The Rise and Glory of the Metropolis in the Sixteenth Century, trans. R. H. Kaye (Antwerp, 1973) 107.

6 Voet, ibid., and Bouwmans, R., Het Antwerps stadsbestuur voor en tijdens de Franse overheersing: Bijdrage tot de ontwikketingsgeschiedenis van de stedelijke bestuursinstellingen in de Zuidelijke Nederlanden (Bruges, 1965) 50.

7 This article studies doodles in one particularly rich vein in the Antwerp archives, however, they may be found elsewhere as well. For example, a passage from Horace's Ars Poetica may be found in Antwerp Stadsarchief, Schepenregister 225 (1547) on the rear flyleaf; and an image of a naked woman with a scant veil is drawn inside the cover ofHet Gulden boeckderlakengilde (Antwerp Stadsarchief, Gildenen Ambachten40i7, ca. 1576).

8 Paul Génard, Anvers à travers les ages, 2 (Brussels, 1888): 170. This list of griffiers who were “hommes remarquables” also included Cornelis Dyck (served 1534-1563), and Adrian Dyck (served 1559-1583 and later). For a complete list of griffiers see Génard, Paul, “Naamlijstdergreffiers van Anfwcrpen,“Antwerpsch archievenbladser. 1, 6 (1864): 385-93.

9 See especially Bernstein, Eckhard, “Erasmus and Pieter Gillis: The Development of a Friendship,” Erasmus of Rotterdam Society Yearbook Three (1983):130-45.

10 Rupprich, Hans, Dürer: schriftlicher Nachlass, 1 (Berlin, 1956): 166 .

11 Bernstein, “Erasmus and Pieter Gillis,” and Jules De Le Court, “Gillis, (Pierre),” Biographie nationale, 7 (Brussels, 1880): cols. 780-83.

12 Ferdinand Donnet, “Polites (Joachim),” Biographie nationale, 17 (Brussels, 1903): cols. 909-10.

13 Voet, , Antwerp, the Golden Age 402 ,452. In Voet's words, “Through Gillis and Grapheus, Antwerp shared some of the luster of Erasmus and More.” Voet, however, is virtually alone in recording Grapheus as a griffier. Grapheus is not given in the lists of griffiers by earlier writers, such as Genard, “Naamlijst der greffiers,” and Floris Prims, Geschiedenis van Antwerpen V, onder Habsburgers 1477-1555 (Antwerp, 1938-1940) 135. J. Roulez, in his entry on Grapheus, “De Schryver (Corneille),” Biographie nationale, 5 (Brussels, 1876): col. 721, says only that it was probably toward the end of 1533 that Grapheus was named griffier or secretary of the city.

14 The dating of the doodles is an admittedly precarious issue. I am making the assumption that the doodles on the flyleaves and bindings of documents of a given date are similarly dated.

15 Bare bottoms are themselves sometimes associated with folly. Quentin Metsys’ panel painting, Allegory of Folly (Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Julius Held), shows a fool with a fool's stick fashioned of a long staff whose end terminates in a small fool who has dropped his trousers and bent over, backside to the viewer (illustrated and discussed by Silver, Larry, The Paintings Quinten Massys with Catalogue Raisonne” [Oxford, 1984] 146-47, pi. 135; and by James A. Welu, The Collector's Cabinet; Flemish Paintings from New England Private Collections (Worcester Art Museum, 1983) no. 23, pp. 88-91. A much more enigmatic painting in the University Library, Liege, also falls into this category: a Dutch diptych which, when closed, shows a figure leaning out of a window and, when opened shows the figure's backside with thistles stuck in his lowered trousers and, on the facing panel, a figure making a face and sticking out his tongue. See Paul Vandenbroeck, “Over Jheronimus Bosch met een toelichting bij de tekst op tekening KdZ 549 in het Berlijnse Kupferstichkabinett,” in Bijdragen tot de geschiedenis van de Kunst der Nederlanden OpgedragenaanProf. Em. Dr. J. K. Steppe (Leuven, 1981) 151-88; see 17711.123, pi. I—III. We await Vandebroeck's further discussion of this diptych and its inscriptions.

16 See for example, Baltrusaitis, Jurgis, Le Moyen agefantastique, antiquite's et exoticismes dans I'artgothique (Paris, 1955) 256-59 for “nuages conventionnels.“

17 The Middle Dutch for “arse” is given as “ers,” “ars,” “aers,” or “eers,” all close in pronunciation to the English “arse.” See E. Verwijs and J. Verdam, Middelnederlandsch woordenboek, 2 (Den Haag, 1889): 719; and M. De Vries and L. A. Ter Winkel, Woordenboek der nederlandsche taal, 1 (Brussels/Ghent, 1882); cols. 575-76.

18 Henderson, Alfred, Latin Proverbs and Quotations (London, 1869) 88 .

19 For the popularity of the theme of the Prodigal Son see especially Renger, Konrad, Lockere Geselhchaft: Zur Jkonographie des Verlorenen Sohnes und von Wirthausszenen in der niederlandischen Malerei (Berlin, 1970 ). See also H. Colin Slim.The Prodigal Son at the Whores', Music, Art, and Drama, n.p., n.d. (lecture presented at the University of California, Irvine, May 21, 1976).

20 See W. E. D. Atkinson, intro. and trans., Acolastus. A Latin Play of the Sixteenth Century by Gulielmus Gnapheus, University of Western Ontario Studies in the Humanities, 3 (London, Ontario, 1964)93. For the proliferation of this theme see Vetter, Ewald, Der Verlorene Sohn (Düsseldorf, 1955 ). It may also be worthwhile to mention the play, Mary of Nijmeghen, sometimes attributed to the Antwerp author Anna Bijns. In this work published in Antwerp in 1515, a young woman, Emma, is led astray by the devil, who takes her to Antwerp in order to carry out their pranks in a tavern of ill-repute called The Tree. Emma, like the Prodigal Son, finds her way back to her family (her uncle in this case) and the tale ends happily with a moral. See the commentary and text in Middeleeuws toneel: Esmoreit, Glorian, Lanseloet van Denemerken, Nu Noch, Elckerlijk, Mariken van Nieuwmeghen, Nederlandse Letterkunde, 3 (Utrecht and Antwerp, 1984).

21 Brant, Sebastian, Das Narrenschijf Illustriert mit Neunzig Holzschnitten des Originals (Hamburg and Berlin, 1958) 179 , “von Spielem,” or the English translation by Alexander Barclay, The Shyp of Folys of the Worlde, 2 (orig. London, 1509; repr., New York, 1966): 69-74, “Of carde players and dysers” (illustrated).

22 Silver, The Paintings of Quinten Massys 135, where Silver further notes, “For Massys, as well as for Erasmus, the moral dimension of religion is revealed through satires in the secular realm…. “ For examples from the writings of the rederijkers see ibid. 145. Some further related pictorial examples from the graphic arts of the Low Countries include the roundel by Master PVL (Bartsch no. 1) showing men (one with a wine pitsher) playing a game of dice while two women and a fool look on, illustrated and discussed in Ellen S. Jacobwitz and Stephanie Loeb Stepanek, The Prints of Lucas van Leyden and his Contemporaries, National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C., 1983) 304-305; and a small (uncatalogued?) roundel from the circle of Master S, in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, which shows a woman pouring wine for two dicers at a table with the inscription “ALLA KANSEN bOEN” (all lucky throws of the dice [are] good). For “canse“seej. Verdam, Middelnederlandsch handwoordenboek ('s-Gravenhage, 1979, repr.) 282; and for “boen” (derivative of the French “bon“) see Muller, J. W. and Kluyver, A., Woordenboek der Ncderlansche taal, 3 (Leiden, 1902): 149 .

23 For an account of the dress and accouterments of the fool see Michael, Erika, The Drawings by Hans Holbein the Younger for Erasmus’ “Praise of Folly” (New York, 1986) 197229 .

24 Allen, P. S., ed., The Praise of Folly Written by Erasmus 1509 and Translated by John Wilson 1668 (Oxford, 1913) 158 . For the original text see Desiderius Erasmus, Moriae encomium (Basel, 1522) 328, “Scripsit Ecclesiastes capite primo: Stultorum infmitus est numerus.“

25 I am grateful to James Helyar for suggesting this reading of “poevre et leal.” For “pouvre” and “leal” see Hugnet, Edmond, Dictionnaire de la languefrancaise du seiziéme siècle (Paris, 1925-1967).

26 For negative qualities assigned to soldiers see, for example, Ursula Meyer, “Political Implications of Dürer's ‘Knight, Death and the Devil,'” Print Collector's Newsletter 9. 2 (May-June 1978): 35-39, with further bibliography.

27 I am particularly grateful to Dr. G. Spiessens of the Antwerp Stadsarchief, and Dr. Oliver Phillips of the University of Kansas, for their help with the orthography and translation of this difficult passage. For “marot” see Silver, The Paintings of Quinten Massys 147, and for intriguing parallels in the early Jewish tale of Solomon and Marcolf (king and fool), Psalm 53, and a drawing by Holbein the Younger of Emperor Maximilian and a fool, see Michael, , The Drawings by Holbein the Younger 245-49.

28 Illustrated in Emil Major, “Handzeichnungen des Erasmus von Rotterdam,” Historisches Museum Basel (i932):35∼45. These doodles are all from a manuscript of 1515, and are further discussed by Erwin Panofsky, “Erasmus and the Visual Arts,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 32 (1969): 200-27, see 203-04.

29 André Stegmann, “Sur quelques aspects des fous en titre d'office dans la France du XVIe siede,” in Folie et deraison a la renaissance, University Libre de Bruxelles, Travaux de l'institut pour l'etude de la renaissance et de 1'humanisme, 5 (Brussels, 1976) 53-73, with further bibliography.

30 For military guilds see G. Jo Steenbergen, Het Landjuweel van de rederijkers, Keurreeks van het Davidsfonds, 44 (Leuven, 1950-52) 24. Pictorial evidence is given in a painting of 1494 of a festival of the Antwerp archers by an Antwerp artist usually known as the Master of Frankfurt (probably Hendrik van Wueluwe); see Voet, Antwerp, the Golden Age, frontispiece and 94-95. Stephen Goddard, The Master of Frankfurt and his Shop, Verhandelingen van de Koninklijke Academic voor wetenschappen, letteren, en schone kunsten van Belgie, klasse de schone kunsten, jaargang 46, no. 38 (Brussels, 1984) 126-29. For fools in the guilds of rhetoric, sec, for example, E. van Autenboer, Het Brabants Landjuweel, passim, and p. 82 for an example where fools’ prizes included a fool's cap and a fool's stick (marot). For fools’ guilds see E. van Autenboer, Volksfeesten en rederijkers te Mechelen (1400-1600), Koninklijke vlaamse academic voor taal- en letterkunde, verhandelingen, ser. 6, no. 89 (Ghent, 1962):71-73.

31 Keith P. F. Moxey, “Master E. S. and the folly of love,” Simiolus, II. 3/4 (1980):125-48. Larry Silver, “Fools and Women: Profane Subjects by Lucas van Leyden,” Print Collector's Newsletter, 14. 4 (Sept.-Oct. 1983): 130-34. Jacobowitz and Stepanek, The Prints of Lucas van Ley den, nos. 39, 71, 72, 77. Badius, Jodocus, Stultifere navicule seu scaphe I Patuarum mulierum: circa sensus quincq exteriores fraude navigantium (Strassburg, 1503).

32 Fully discussed and illustrated by Michael, The Drawings by Holbein the Younger.

33 The literature concerning the guilds of rhetoric in the Low Countries is enormous. A good point of access for the English reader with further bibliography is Walter Gibson's, “Artists and Rederijkers in the Age of Bruegel,” Art Bulletin, 63 (1981):426-47.

34 Ina letter to Sylvester Gigli of 1521, “Hie si nihil laudis debetur ingenio meo, si nihil eruditioni certe nonnihil debetur industriae,” translated in Dolan, John P., The Essential Erasmus (New York, 1964) 95 .

* A version of this paper was originally given as a lecture at the Midwest Art History Conference at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, in 1985. I would like to thank the stafFof the Antwerp city archives for their friendly help: J. van den Nieuwenhuizen, J. van Roey, and G. Spiessens. I owe special thanks to my colleagues at the University of Kansas: J. Blumb, J. Helyar, S. Lombardo, O. Phillips, S. Prete, A. Stevens; and to D. Rosand of Columbia University, and E. Haverkamp-Begemann of New York University's Institute of Fine Arts.

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Probationes Pennae: Some Sixteenth-Century Doodles on the Theme of Folly Attributed to the Antwerp Humanist Pieter Gillis and His Colleagues*

  • Stephen H. Goddard (a1)


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