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When the Ideal World Meets the Real: An Analysis of Belleau’s La Bergerie

Remy Belleau’s best-known work, La Bergerie, was originally published in 1565 in Paris and reedited in 1572 with an enlarged version divided into two parts or “days”. The story takes place in the real location of the château of Joinville, where the writer himself stayed. La Bergerie is characterized by a seamless combination of prose and verse. The work's innovation lies in its remarkable treatment of art as a central element of the narrative. Each section is introduced by a pastoral painting whose description gives the reader an idea of the following excerpt. It could be argued that art objects, from paintings to decorations and illustrations on the tapestry are the real protagonists. Furthermore, they motivate a complex manipulation of time and space.

Creating Meaning Through Art

Belleau’s innovative take on the pastoral genre comes from his setting of the idyllic background of the Golden Age in the aristocratic milieu of his time. The real and the imaginative world overlap as the description of the château of Joinville goes from realistic to abstract. His accurate portrayal comes from his personal experience in the castle where he worked as Charles of Lorraine’s tutor. However, the pastoral landscape emerges not from the observation of the surroundings but from the paintings and the objects in the rooms of the castle. It is believed that many of them were present at Joinville, and their description is the result of the poet’s direct experience (Monga, 1974). Belleau’s interest in art develops during his voyage to Italy and his exchanges with contemporary artists who taught him about the technical aspects and vocabulary of art. This circumstance is crucial as no other writer had attempted to describe masterpieces in their manuscripts before (Monga, 1974). However, Belleau’s descriptions serve a higher purpose. As introductions of the main sections of the pastoral, they are a pretext for the development of a plot (Jeanneret, 1970). Meanwhile, the subsequent passages serve as a commentary on the preceding painting. They give the text a remarkable continuity of narration and carry a specific meaning (Jeanneret, 1970).

Figure 1: "Château de Joinville" (Unknown, n.d.).

Belleau´s use of the artistic medium allows him to interpret and understand the world around him, resulting in a constant exchange between paintings and reality. This connection is facilitated by the portrayal of the shepherdesses in the artworks, whose actions mirror those of the aristocrats. As a result, Joinville takes on the same idyllic connotation of the painted scenery, blurring the boundaries between art and life (Jeanneret, 1970). In the context of the sixteenth-century pastoral tradition, it was customary for the writers to use their works as a form of praise for the ruling class or their homeland. This aspect explains the hyperbolic dimension of the text, concerning the depiction of characters and their feelings as well as physical objects (Jeanneret, 1970). This hyperbole sometimes leads to paradoxical descriptions where the writer provides excessive details that make it difficult for readers to visualize the elements being represented. Such is the case of the staff and the mirror. The shepherd uses the staff to measure time and space precisely, whereas the adorned mirror is a souvenir bought during a voyage to Italy. Both of them are carefully represented and have spectacular characteristics; the mirror is divided into ten parts evoking a sense of monumentality despite its unspecified dimensions. As for the staff, its ability to measure time and space is so precise that it seems magic as it has:

Six lines of equal length and parallel, divided by a shorter line, then between these twelve divisions there are two small lines and three spaces […] which contain the space of five days. By multiplying them for six, you have thirty days or degrees. […] All together they make […] an entire year (Belleau, 1565. Translation mine).

Visual Arts, Verbal Arts and the Art of Memory

Belleau’s redundant description of objects serves a specific purpose in his work. His approach to art and poetry is part of a broader debate of the Renaissance. Exponents of the School of La Pléiade believed that painters and poets pursued the same ideal (Monga, 1974). This perspective led to diverging views on the superior abilities of one art form over the other. In this context, Belleau's reliance on art description should not be seen as a tribute to visual art, but rather as a way of asserting the supremacy of words (Campo, 2002). When he describes the spaces of the château, he demonstrates that language can achieve a higher effect of reality than images. Moreover, Belleau establishes a strong link between the poetic word and memory. For instance, when the narrator describes the decorations in the castle, he does so while recalling his own experience within it. This highlights how language is better suited to express abstractions, sensations, and feelings (Campo, 2002). To emphasize this point, Belleau reveals that the first painting has suffered damage over time due to atmospheric erosion of the material. In his view, the materiality of art becomes its main limitation and what differentiates it from verbal art.

Figure 2: "Pittura e Poesia" (Furini, 1626).

In La Bergerie, the concept of the passing of time plays a central role in what the author Braybrook defines as the "art of memory." The poems “April” and “May” exemplify this idea, forming a sequence that expresses the poet’s view of time as a flow instead of a succession of isolated moments. (Rouget, 2008) Furthermore, they follow the “Ode to Peace”, suggesting a metaphorical interpretation of spring as a period of rebirth after the war (Rouget, 2002). It also implies the presence of a higher word order that regulates the destiny of humanity, represented by the cycle of the seasons. Belleau strategically situates “April” and “May” between the first day, which evokes nostalgia for the fertile Golden Age, and the second, punctuated by moral and allegorical exempla about the excesses of love and the restoration of peace (Rouget, 2002). This arrangement favors an idea of progression towards serenity. To convey this message efficiently, Belleau contrasts the time of History with the rhythm of life in the castle. The daily life of the nobles in the château revolves around leisure and entertainment. The pieces inserted into the day are skillfully selected from the writer’s memories, carefully arranged to create a harmonious distribution within the pastoral days (Braybrook, 1995).

The pervasiveness of the concept of memory in Belleau´s La Bergerie derives from the interrelation between personal experience and fiction, sealed by art descriptions. The presence of artworks within the pastoral text creates a rhythm and establishes thematic cohesion. This interaction between structure and content through the artistic medium is at the heart of the process of meaning construction. The artistic descriptions not only offer the readers glimpses into the intended interpretation of the narrative but also serve as a means for the poet to express his own vision of the world. Through these descriptions, Belleau´s synthesis of art and literature within the text reflects prevailing conceptions of both during the Renaissance period. This critical approach to memory and art does not negate the characteristic eulogy often found in Renaissance pastoral works. Despite its introspective nature, the work still retains its celebratory elements and the poet’s message of hope. This harmonious combination of memory, art, and the poet's message contributes to the timeless appeal and enduring significance of Belleau's La Bergerie.

Bibliographical References

Belleau, R. (1565). La Bergerie. Paris: Gilles Gilles.

Braybrook, J. (1995). Space and time in Remy Belleau’s Bergerie. Bibliothèque d'Humanisme et Renaissance, 2, pp.369-380

Campo, R. (2002). Du miroir à la mémoire: sur les jeux ecphrastiques dans La Bergerie. Nouvelle Revue du XVIe Siècle, 20(2), pp.5-23

Jeanneret, M. (1970). Les œuvres d’art dans « La Bergerie » de Belleau. Revue d'Histoire littéraire de la France, 1, pp.1-13

Monga, L. (1974). Le genre pastoral au XVIe siècle : Sannazar et Belleau. Paris: Editions Universitaires

Rouget, F. (2008). Remy Belleau en ses manuscrits : éléments de reconstitution génétique de La Bergerie (1565-1572). Bibliothèque d'Humanisme et Renaissance, 70(1), pp.33-47

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Debora Ricci

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