A French honour for Professor Margaret McGowan: “un amour partagé”

Written by Luisa Capodieci |

Internationally known scholar of 16th-century French culture, professor Margaret McGowan was appointed in 2020 Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres. This French honour is awarded to “people who have distinguished themselves by their creation in the artistic or literary field or by the contribution they have made to the influence of the arts and letters in France and throughout the world”. This prestigious distinction adds to the grade of Commander of the Order of British Empire she received in 1998.

Fellow of the British Academy, Professor McGowan taught at the University of Sussex and she is the author of a large number of scholarly studies and more than twelve books fundamental to the knowledge of French culture of Renaissance art history, dance and music using an interdisciplinary approach to court literature, art and politic.

Former chairman of the Advisory Council for the Warburg Institute, she had the chance to prepare her dissertation under the supervision of Frances Yates whilst studying at the Warburg.

In this blog post, Frances Yates Long-Term Fellow, Luisa Capodieci, chats with Professor McGowan to discover the roots of her interest in French Renaissance and her memories of her studies with Dame Frances Yates.

You are one of the greatest specialists of Court Festival in the Renaissance, especially in France. What are the origins of your interest in this subject?

I always wanted to study in-depth the interplay between art, music, poetry and dance. And I was directed to the Warburg Institute as the only place where such interdisciplinary research could successfully be done.

Before becoming a famous book, L’Art du Ballet de Cour en France, 1581-1643 was a dissertation supervised by Frances Yates. In what way has her teaching oriented your studies?

I was fortunate in being introduced to Frances Yates who liked my topic. I saw her only rarely as I was living in France, but when I did she was so enthusiastic, read everything I wrote most carefully, and wanted – always – to give my discoveries philosophical or even magical meanings. We argued often in the most friendly ways and I gradually began to persuade her that the political context of festivals was also significant. I can still see her climbing up tall ladders to find for me some precious work which I should consult. Her dedication to her students was remarkable. Frances was important to me in another way. Whenever I visited the Warburg (which was then located in the Imperial Institute Buildings in South Kensington), I had to wait for my supervision until my future husband – Sydney Anglo – emerged, eager to rush off to the College of Arms to consult the tournament cheques for his study of Tudor Festivals.

In terms of Frances’ influence, I think that she realized that the material on which I was working had not before been considered in an interdisciplinary way. Musicologists had explored the vocal music, art historians had begun to find drawings belonging to festivals, and literary scholars had recognized the importance of the court context for understanding lyric poems. Frances, together with the French pioneer Jean Jacquot and his colleagues at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique, brought them all together and placed them in a European context.

Is there a specificity in French dance and music?
The Balet comique de la Royne (1581). Engraving of the opening scene of the ballet

This engraving of the influential spectacle performed at the court of Henri III, gives an idea of a French Court Ballet. Although D. P. Walker (Warburg Institute) demonstrated the humanist concerns to resurrect the effects of ancient music in Florence, the experiments in France had gone further, partly through the activities of the Académie de poésie et de musique and the efforts of Jean Antoine de Baïf and Thibault de Courville, partly through the intense interest of king Charles IX in music-making and poetry, but chiefly through the writings on dance which sought inspiration in the work of Greek writers and especially in that of Lucian of Samosate. Theoretical notions and practical music and choreographic performance were fully incorporated into French court festivals.

What should we understand about French Renaissance festivals?

From the time of François Ier to that of Louis XIV, French festivals were marked by infinite variety, artistic ingenuity, extraordinary expenditure, participant enthusiasm, and significant diplomatic and political power. They characterized the French court. To perform in a masquerade, tournament or court ballet was considered a signal honour. Diplomatic matters were discussed during the intervals of performance, state affairs had to wait until rehearsals (often 30 days preparation) were complete, performances were judged not only for their musical, artistic and choreographic qualities but also from the coherence of the work, the presence and behaviour of the participants.

“Sylvain”. Costume drawing by Daniel Rabel for Le Ballet des nymphes bocagères (1627)

This drawing is typical, giving an idea of the care taken by the artist Daniel Rabel in ensuring that the costume matched exactly the idea of the planners of a ballet.

The prestige of French festivals was such that members of other European courts wanted immediate information about them. Through resident ambassadors, Elizabeth I (for example) acquired instant news, musical scores, details of the dances and costumes, the character of the décor, as did Italian princes, Spanish monarchs and members of German and Scandinavian courts. By the end of the 16th century, for instance, French dancing masters dominated the Courts of Europe, replacing the Italian experts who had originally taught them their art.

Learning more about festivals allows us to learn more about context and connections. Is there a value in studying festivals beyond festivals? How important is the context for an understanding of the artistic creation?

As we began to understand the nature of Festivals, to discover the work of those who planned them and those who created the artistic marvels, and to ascertain the importance princes attached to such activities, the relevance of the court and the political context, and the artistic interconnections became apparent. It was not just a question of studying the interdisciplinary activities of the arts of music, poetry, painting and sculpture, but the research was extended to include historical perceptions and political considerations. Festival and Power were inextricably linked. Magnificence, since Aristotle, had been deemed a necessary attribute to a prince’s appearance, and – in Renaissance Europe – spectacle and show became indispensable to spectators’ acknowledgement and understanding of power. François Ier and all the Valois kings, Elizabeth of England and Italian and German dukes, even Spanish kings, assiduously sought splendour and extravagance. But, Festivals went further. They built very precisely upon the political needs of the moment: performing harmony when the state was in disorder, mounting extravagant entries to persuade their subjects of their support.

In your most recent book, Festivals and Violence. Princely Entries in the Context of War, 1480-1635, the accent is on the dark side of royal entries and their artistic values. How could death and destruction participate in the expression of peace and reconstruction?

I chose princely entries as the genre to demonstrate the dark side of Festivals, but this exercise could have been extended to all forms of court festival. From the Greeks, European humanists had borrowed a vision of the creation of the universe which explained how out of chaos came harmony, itself maintained by a careful balancing of concordia and discordia.

Les Heures (The Hours). Plate from Les Images Ou Tableaux De Platte Peinture Des Deux Philostrates Sophistes Grecs, by Blaise de

This engraving, taken from Blaise de Vigenère’s Images de Philostrate, shows the effects of such a process. This conception was manipulated by festival planners all over war-torn Europe in the 16th century in their quest for peace. They admitted the dire state of their countries, and composers and artists seized the opportunity to depict the noise of battle and suffering, to show human beings in pain, the bloody triumphs of Victory, and the vengeance of angry gods. This was the artistic canvas they created to impress spectators and to compel their attention, before showing the joys of peace and the benefits of reconstruction. War and Peace in Festival presented a remarkable artistic challenge, requiring architects, painters and sculptors on the one hand, emblematists and musicians on the other, to explore the extreme limits of their art. I shall continue to study the Quest for Peace in other festival forms, exploring more fully the Greek inheritance and the enthusiasm with which it was adopted in Renaissance Europe.

Dear Luisa, thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to explore this trajectory of my working life. I trust I shall have time to add other ideas to it.

Thank you so much to you, dear Margaret, for generously sharing your deep and sophisticated knowledge of one of the greatest and amazing aspects of society in Renaissance France. We are eagerly waiting to read your next book on the Quest for Peace, a subject of great relevance in 16th century… and today!