Tapestries and Gilt Leather in the Ximenez Household

The Ximenez inventory describes a household of considerable financial means in early seventeenth-century Antwerp. The spacious house, filled with an abundance of furniture that provided comfort, two well-equipped kitchens and a "bottling room," as well as a substantial amount of linen and table-ware, including silver, suggest that the Ximenez family often and generously entertained guests. The family would certainly have wished to decorate their reception rooms so that they not only demonstrated wealth, but also spoke of a refined taste and of the merchant-banker's position within Antwerp society.

Tapestries, generally acknowledged as the most important medium of early modern aristocratic representation, also figure prominently in the Ximenez inventory. The three sets mentioned in the list do not constitute a collection, but it seems that they were considered as appropriate decor for the sitting room and the dining room, the rooms most likely to be visited by guests.

At the time the inventory was taken, the "groote Salette," a room downstairs in the back house, displayed tapestries hung around the whole room; this set belonged to the Antwerp commandery of Saint Stephen, of which Emmanuel Ximenez was then head and which was based in his home. It may well be that the order had held an assembly in the house and loaned the tapestries for the occasion. The set must have comprised several tapestries in order to cover the room, but we do not know what they depicted – possibly emblems or historical or biblical scenes.

In a room attached to the salette, however, we find a set of ten tapestries for which we have more detail. These were stored in a "leather-covered chest" and depicted "groote Fueillage," indicating the fashionable 'large-leaf' tapestries that evoked, for the contemporary viewer, exotic landscapes and their flora that had just made their entry into new botanical publications. The second series of tapestries that did belong to the Ximenez-Da Vega household was kept in the dining room, where it is described as "six pieces of tapestry with pillars" ("sesse stucken tapitzerie met pileeren"). Again, the description is sufficiently precise for us to recognize a type of tapestry fashionable in the late sixteenth and the early seventeenth centuries – verdures like in the first set, but enriched by another element, in this case columns or a kind of balustrade. A series of these tapestries would have seemed to replace the walls of a room with views of a garden, the columns lending a formal character to the scenery. Antwerp seems to have been a place where these tapestries, produced in Oudenaarde, Enghien and Geraardsbergen, were traded.

In the Ximenez household, the tapestries were obviously considered so valuable that they had to be protected from damage, as indicated by the entry "a 'tapestry cloth' for the aforementioned hangings" ("een tapijtsargie dienende totten voors. Behangsel"). This may have been a coverlet into which to wrap the tapestries when they were taken off the walls and stored, or else a kind of curtain that was hung in front of the tapestries (comparable to the curtains used for paintings), so that they could be left in place and still be safeguarded against sunlight and dust. It is also noteworthy that the household did not own tapestries depicting biblical or historical scenes, even though Ximenez must have been well acquainted with the production of the famous Brussels workshops as well as with those of other tapestry weaving centers in the Southern Netherlands. Assuming he had the choice, he evidently opted for the fashionable and decorative.

The same interest may have led him to the acquisition of gilt leather panels, an extremely costly material, for the furnishing of rooms, particularly of those that served to receive guests. The inventory entries include "a room's worth of gilt leather" (in the room above the gate); "six large and five small pieces of gilt leather with figural decoration, serving as a wall covering" (in the small sitting room facing the street); "five large and three small pieces of gilt leather serving as a wall covering" (in the small downstairs room of the front house facing the courtyard). In three separate chests in the room off the groote Salette in the back house were found "a room and a half's worth of gilt leather, with a blue ground," "three pieces of old gilt leather," "about three rooms' worth of gilt leather, with a black ground," and "forty pieces, or two rooms' worth, of gilt leather, gold on gold with red borders, which go to the large downstairs room in the Front House."

This is an immense amount of a precious material that, in the beginning of the seventeenth century, must have held the appeal of a novelty in the Low Countries. Gilt leather, which was in fact made by applying silver, not gold, to a leather support, had first been produced in Spain, and in the sixteenth century the Spanish product was renowned all over Europe. After 1600, however, a slow decline set in, and new centers of production appeared in the Southern Netherlands, namely in Mechelen, Antwerp, Brussels and Ghent. Surviving examples of gilt leather from that early period are very rare, since the fashion for interiors decorated with gilt leather only fully developed in the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, both in the Southern and the Northern Netherlands. The inventory does not indicate whether the gilt leather had been imported from Spain or produced in the North; however, we do know that the material acquired by Ximenez and Da Vega represented a range of different patterns, realized with gold on a blue or black ground, or even "gold on gold", with depictions of (allegorical?) figures or with ornamental decoration. It seems that they purchased, for a prestigious furnishing of the house, a range of different designs available at the period.

The fact that most of the gilt leather is described as stored in chests seems to indicate that the leaves were not mounted permanently on the walls, but rather put up for special occasions just as the tapestries. It may also be that the gilt leather had just been taken down in preparation for the sale of the estate. Possibly at least some of the material had been acquired only recently – we may perhaps assume that gilt leather held a particular interest for Ximenez as it could reflect both an Iberian tradition and a spirit of innovation in the Netherlands.

Birgitt Borkopp-Restle, University of Bern


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Thümmler, Sabine, and Caroline Eva Gerner, eds. Die Pracht der Goldledertapeten. Kassel: Deutsches Tapetenmuseum, 2006.