Play and learning in Pieter Bruegel’s Children’s games
Orrock, Amy Louise
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This thesis offers a reassessment of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting Children’s Games (1560, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna). Addressing the lack of historically accurate interpretations of Bruegel’s panel, I use a wide range of sixteenth-century sources to develop fresh insights into how the work might have been understood by its original audience. The Introduction opens with a description of the painting’s iconography, provenance, current condition and conservation history. A review of previous literature relating to the panel sets Children’s Games within the trajectory of scholarship on Bruegel and other related works in his oeuvre and serves to highlight areas of scholarly difficulty and disagreement as well as current methodological trends. Considering the reception, rather than the inception, of Children’s Games, the third part of the Introduction outlines broader cultural developments which shaped habits of looking in the sixteenth century, including encyclopaedic texts, atlases, Wunderkammern and memory systems. Surmising that Bruegel’s viewers would have been adept at searching for arguments within abundant collections of material, I then introduce a number of sixteenth-century sources which detail contemporary attitudes towards game-playing. The Introduction ends with an outline of the structure and methodological approach of the thesis. Chapter 1, 'Artistic Precedents: Illuminated Manuscripts', considers the panel in relation to the iconography of popular games found in the borders of illuminated manuscripts produced in France and the Netherlands in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century. After highlighting areas of shared iconography, I discuss how Children’s Games differs from illuminated manuscripts, concluding that Bruegel rejected the 'game of the month' tradition found in the calendar borders and instead amalgamated a variety of children’s games and festive customs to create a humanistic encyclopaedia of children’s culture. A second sixteenth-century source which details popular games is François Rabelais’s book Gargantua (1532). Chapter 2 presents my research into why Rabelais’s writing is relevant to Bruegel scholarship, including archival evidence that Rabelais’s books were available in Antwerp and an analysis of the Songes drolatiques de Pantagruel (1565), a collection of woodcuts which combined Rabelais’s name with Bruegelian imagery. I then compare Children's Games with the list of 217 popular games played by Gargantua and discuss how these fictional lists related to the factual compilations of the period. Gargantua’s game-list occurs in the context of his humanist education, a context which is also relevant to Bruegel’s panel. During the sixteenth century a wealth of material on children’s play and deportment emerged in the form of humanist school colloquies and treatises. A number of these were closely related to the education system in Antwerp and were penned by members of Bruegel’s circle of associates. These have never been brought to bear on Children’s Games, and are used in chapter 3 to develop a new, historically-accurate reading of the painting. The pedagogical texts suggest that during the sixteenth century children’s play was viewed positively and was closely bound to education, and so challenge the canonical view arising chiefly from c.17th emblem books and paintings that Children’s Games makes moral points about adult behaviour. Appendix 1 - Enumerates Bruegel’s games and records comparable depictions found in manuscripts, printed images and paintings from the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Appendix 2 - Presents versions of Gargantua’s game-list from original editions of Rabelais’s text alongside standard translations and modern critical editions.