Homo ludens Pieter Bruegel s Children s Games and the

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HOMO LUDENS PIETER BRUEGEL S CHILDREN S GAMES AND,THE HUMANIST EDUCATORS. Amy Orrock, Picturing more than two hundred children playing over eighty different games Children s Games 1560 is one of Pieter. Bruegel the Elder s most intriguing and least understood paintings The panel resembles little else in the history of art. and as a result it has often evoked ahistorical responses The following article addresses this problem by grounding Chil. dren s Games in the century in which it was produced and using a range of sixteenth century sources to develop fresh. insights into how the painting might have been received by its original audience The literature of Fran ois Rabelais. pedagogical treatises and colloquies and Antwerp s own progressive schooling system all provide examples of con. temporary ideals about children and games that can be brought to bear on Children s Games After demonstrating the. relevance of these sources to Bruegel s patrons the author uses the pedagogical literature to measure aspects of Chil. dren s Games resulting in a more positive reading of the panel than has hitherto been offered This becomes particularly. marked when the painting is placed alongside other sixteenth century representations of ideal and non ideal. children DOI 10 5092 jhna 2012 4 2 1, Fig 1 Pieter Bruegel Children s Games 1560 oil on panel. 118 x 161 cm Kunsthistoriches Museum Vienna inv no. GG 1017 artwork in the public domain, 1 ncountering Pieter Bruegel the Elder s Children s Games for the first time is an experience. that is both bewildering and enchanting The painting s large scale and unusual encyclo. pedic composition render it instantly striking Stretching to a distant horizon the ocher. ground of Children s Games is studded with over two hundred children playing around eighty. different games fig 1 The panel is carefully organized A wide street sweeps from the lower left. corner of the painting encompasses the players in the central square and extends to a distant. vanishing point in the upper right The dramatic recession of this diagonal lends the painting. JHNA 4 2 Summer 2012 1, an asymmetric thrust which is intersected by a second diagonal running from the beam on the.
ground in the lower right of the panel to the verdant countryside in the upper left Despite these. compositional structures there is no sense of narrative order to Bruegel s collection The game. motifs are all of a similar size and events at the center of the picture appear no more charged with. importance than those at its edges This encyclopedic compositional technique is at odds with the. painting s lifelike motifs the former encouraging the eye to move continuously over the shifting. surface of the panel and the latter prompting it to pause at each cluster of children and study the. drama unfolding, 2 The challenge that Children s Games presents to modern scholars operates on many levels from. the fundamental task of identifying the individual games depicted to the wider questions of the. meaning behind such a panorama The subject matter of Children s Games is unprecedented its. only precursors being the tiny images of children playing seasonal games found in the margins. of a number of Ghent Bruges manuscripts 1 Circumstances surrounding the commissioning. and evolution of the painting are unknown no documents or preparatory sketches have come to. light and the first extant reference to Children s Games dates from the very end of the sixteenth. century 2 Lacking any of the traditional aides to interpretation scholars have adopted a variety of. approaches to the painting in the centuries following its creation The labelling and classifying of. the games has been enthusiastically undertaken by folklorists ethnographers and historians of. childhood for whom Children s Games represents an indispensable source in reconstructing the. specifics of early modern game playing 3 A second approach to the panel has been the thematic. interpretations in which scholars have attempted to situate Children s Games within series or al. legories traditional to art history examples being the Seasons or the Ages of Man These attempts. have been largely unsuccessful the painting contains games which were played throughout the. year and therefore resists categorization as a representation of a particular season and no other. works by Bruegel survive to support the notion that Children s Games belonged to a series depict. ing the Ages of Man 4 Iconological readings represent a third type of approach 5 Here scholars. seeking to unlock the meaning in Bruegel s games have been drawn to comparable motifs in. seventeenth century Dutch emblems Combining depictions of games and toys with mottos and. texts that moralize about the behavior of young and old alike Dutch emblem books appear to of. fer a key to understanding the deeper meaning behind images of play 6 Individual games found. in emblem books such as Jacob Cats s Silenus Alcibiabes 1618 and Pieter Roemer Visscher s Sin. nepoppen 1614 have been matched with comparable motifs in Children s Games with damning. results the boy blowing a bubble in the left foreground has been read as a vanitas symbol of the. transience of life fig 2 while the games with hoops in the right foreground have been seen as. representative of the futility of life s endeavor fig 3 7 These moralizing iconological readings. have now become dominant in the historiography of Children s Games despite the obvious meth. odological flaw in using seventeenth century emblems to decode a sixteenth century painting 8. 3 Compositionally Children s Games resembles Bruegel s other two encyclopedic works Nether. landish Proverbs Berlin Gem ldegalerie and The Battle Between Carnival and Lent Vienna. Kunsthistoriches Museum Executed on panels of similar dimensions and produced in the. period 1559 60 these three paintings form a distinct visual group within Bruegel s painted oeu. vre 9 Netherlandish Proverbs is peopled by errant villagers acting out popular proverbial sayings A. distant church a river a tavern and a castle serve to ground the antics of the figures within. JHNA 4 2 Summer 2012 2, Fig 2 Knucklebones detail Children s Games Fig 3 Hoop rolling detail Children s Games. the believable space of a Netherlandish village The Battle Between Carnival and Lent takes as its. theme the traditional customs and practices of the periods of Carnival and Lent and again locates. its motifs within a recognizable geographical space this time an urban square Ruled by proverbi. al fools carnival revellers and children respectively all three panels present worlds that are famil. iar but somehow upside down their elevated viewpoints and scurrying protagonists connecting. them to the classical notion of the Theatrum Mundi in which man s foolish actions were contem. plated from above 10 Comparisons with Netherlandish Proverbs and Carnival and Lent have often. contributed to the negative interpretations of Children s Games but there is a more productive. way to utilize this relationship Recently scholars have begun to engage with the question of how. the encyclopedic character of Carnival and Lent and Netherlandish Proverbs might relate to their. meanings New readings of these paintings have been proposed which link Bruegel s composi. tional strategies to sixteenth century notions of abundance or copia and its role in rhetorical. practice 11 Crucially these interpretations acknowledge that Bruegel s encyclopedic paintings are. multivalent and resistant to the imposition of a single iconographical program this is a funda. mental assertion which accords with what is known about the viewing habits of his patrons. 4 While little evidence survives on the commissioning and production of Bruegel s paintings. various inventories provide an insight into their consumption and display Bruegel s paintings. were owned almost exclusively by members of Antwerp s professional merchant class 12 Five of. Bruegel s paintings appear in the 1572 estate inventory of the collection of Jean Noirot a former. master of the Antwerp Mint while Bruegel s Twelve Proverb Plates belonged to the banker Niclaes. Cornelius Cheeus 13 Niclaes Jonghelinck a businessman and government official was Bruegel s. most enthusiastic collector a document of 1565 lists sixteen paintings by Bruegel within Jong. helinck s extensive art collection 14 These inventories demonstrate that Bruegel s paintings were. most often displayed in private social spaces such as dining rooms The inventory of Noirot s. collection records that four of his Bruegels were displayed in a room described as d achter eet. kamerken small back dining room and it has been plausibly suggested that Jonghelinck com. missioned Bruegel s series of the labors of the Months to decorate the dining room of his suburban. villa 15 Bruegel s paintings would therefore have been enjoyed communally and by invitation only. Possessed of formal qualities that stimulated rather than resolved debates it is likely that within. JHNA 4 2 Summer 2012 3, these sorts of environments Bruegel s complex panels would have functioned as conversation. pieces providing a focus for debate during gatherings of like minded individuals 16 Van Mander s. anecdotes on Netherlandish painters support this idea his stories of viewers searching for motifs. such as a little owl in the works of Herri Met de Bles or a little shitter in the landscapes of Pati. nir are evocative of a culture in which looking was an active and for some competitive sport 17. 5 By focusing on sixteenth century sources and patterns of response this article seeks to challenge. the common assumption that the historical context of Children s Games yields neither a unified. period consciousness nor a stable set of sixteenth century beliefs by recovering the kinds of. arguments that the painting might have elicited among its original audience 18 In fact by the. mid sixteenth century a rich seam of debate existed about children s conduct education and play. subjects that were discussed repeatedly in the countless number of pedagogical texts produced. by the century s humanist educators As the center of the European printing trade in the first. half of the sixteenth century the city of Antwerp naturally provided a nexus for the production. and exchange of pedagogical texts Furthermore for a variety of economic and social reasons. sixteenth century Antwerp possessed a particularly progressive educational character This meant. that the city s inhabitants were actively involved in producing texts and shaping pedagogical theo. ry and practice providing a direct link between Bruegel s clientele and the kinds of ideas outlined. in the texts, 6 Few scholars have explored the potential links between Children s Games Renaissance humanists. and educational reform that is until the recent book by Margaret Sullivan 19 Noting the status. of Children s Games as a collection and comparing the painting s inception to that of Netherland. ish Proverbs Sullivan describes how observing children in the present and culling references to. them in the past was an entertaining and appropriate way to spend leisure hours in the sixteenth. century 20 Sullivan s treatment of the humanist literature in relation to Children s Games focuses. on examples where the games discussed can be traced back to ancient Latin and Greek sources. and like previous iconological readings of the painting it is broadly moralizing in tone 21. 7 My article differs from this approach in several ways Firstly additional sixteenth century sources. are considered including pedagogical texts by such authors as Maturin Cordier and Gabriel. Meurier and fictional texts by such authors as Fran ois Rabelais Secondly by focusing on the ed. ucational situation in Antwerp I demonstrate how the city s schools provide a direct link between. sixteenth century pedagogical ideas and Bruegel s clientele Finally by using the period s pedagog. ical texts to measure aspects of Children s Games I argue that Bruegel s original viewers might have. interpreted the panel more positively than we do today This last contention becomes particularly. marked when the painting is placed alongside other sixteenth century representations of ideal. and non ideal children,Gargantua s Games, T he writings of Fran ois Rabelais provide a useful starting point when establishing six.
teenth century attitudes toward children games and encyclopedic collecting habits Perhaps. the best comparator to Bruegel s panel is the list of over two hundred games which fill chapter 22. of Rabelais s mock heroic tale Gargantua 22 Near contemporaries both Bruegel and Rabelais were. intrigued by those aspects of popular culture about which little hard evidence survives and both. JHNA 4 2 Summer 2012 4, employed a similarly effusive style of presentation The pair were even linked during the sixteenth. century when Bruegelian imagery was used to illustrate a collection of woodcuts marketed. under the Rabelaisian title Les Songes Drolatiques du Pantagruel The Droll Dreams of Pantagru. el 1565 23 Although using Rabelais to elucidate arguments about Bruegel is hardly new paying. close attention to Gargantua s games can enrich our understanding of Children s Games in signif. icant ways 24 Rabelais s prose has often foreshadowed events that were later pictured by Bruegel. with all three of Bruegel s encyclopedic paintings finding their equal within Rabelais s texts 25 Of. these the parallels between Children s Games and the list of games played by Gargantua are the. HOMO LUDENS PIETER BRUEGEL S CHILDREN S GAMES AND THE HUMANIST EDUCATORS Amy Orrock E ncountering Pieter Bruegel the Elder s Children s Games for the first time is an experience that is both bewildering and enchanting The painting s large scale and unusual encyclo pedic composition render it instantly striking Stretching to a

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