Review by Robert F. Trent
Fortress of the Soul: Violence, Metaphysics, and Material Life in the Huguenots' New World, 1517–1751

Neil Kamil. Fortress of the Soul: Violence, Metaphysics, and Material Life in the Huguenots' New World, 1517–1751. Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 2005. xxiv + 1,058 pp.; numerous bw illus., maps, line drawings, index. $75.00.

This long-awaited, immense book, based on twenty-five years of research in Europe and America, is not so much an artifact study (despite the title) as an investigation of how natural history and alchemical texts were read and interpreted by quasi-literate or “liminal” artisans in Europe and the New World. In pushing the interpretative possibilities of this approach to their limits, Neil Kamil has produced an extraordinary book. However, much of the decorative arts interpretation is, unfortunately, questionable.

Unlike most narratives about the Huguenots, Kamil’s version begins by investigating mystic aspects of the most famous of the Huguenot writers, the extraordinary and turbulent potter Bernard Palissy (1510–1590), whose wares featuring aquatic creatures cast from live specimens have always been considered masterpieces of their genre. Kamil’s method in explicating Palissy’s mind and experience owes a conceptual debt to Carlo Ginzburg’s famous The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (1980), which analyzes the testimony of a similar autodidact artisan in a heresy trial. However, the artifacts to be studied in Palissy’s case, other than his ceramic production, were not court documents but his two principal published works, Recepte véritable (1563) and Discours admirables (1580). In these, as well as Palissy’s biography, Kamil has uncovered evidence for Palissy’s interest in arcane literature of natural history, the occult, and alchemy, particularly the influence of the famous Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1493?–1541), otherwise known as Paracelsus. By examining the imagery employed in Palissy’s ceramics and published works in the light of a broad range of texts, Kamil has produced an extremely useful compendium of conceptual frameworks for iconographic interpretation, particularly as regards the many allegorical prints used to illustrate this literature.

Palissy himself was a fascinating man. He was trained as a glass painter, and his curiosity about glaze chemistry, combined with a willful and searching personality, led him to experiment with glazes among the potters of Saintonge in southwest France, near the great Huguenot fortress and port of La Rochelle. There, presumably, he pursued a number of interests, including the formulation of his trademark pottery style and glazing, underground Protestant activity, and reading in a variety of texts. It is natural that he might have gravitated to reading Paracelsus and other mystics, for they were renowned as scientists in an age when the borders between natural history, chemistry, and alchemy were permeable. At the same time, Palissy recovered from deep depression over the state of the Protestant cause by taking long nature walks in tidal estuaries, undoubtedly where he contrived his style of pottery but also his theories regarding geology, astrology, and the need for Protestants either to find methods of concealment or to flee to colonial refuges.

Here is not the place to present all of Kamil’s interpretation of Palissy, but it is worth noting that this ostensibly humble potter had other aspects to his personality, some of which were not appealing. By cultivating aristocratic patrons who were disposed to ignore his religious heterodoxy, Palissy found employment with the powerful Montmorency family and later was brought to Paris in the 1560s by none other than the queen mother, Catherine de Médicis, who commissioned a ceramic grotto for the Tuileries. Here Palissy was not only tolerated but enjoyed a reputation as a sort of rustic savante among the courtiers and the bourgeoisie. He was warned about the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572 and was protected until the 1580s, when his activities and behavior became too extreme and he was imprisoned.

Although Kamil presents Palissy as a clever and manipulative individual, others have noted rather vile behavior on his part. He referred to his wife as “my second persecution.” He openly quarreled with all his patrons and with both Catholic and Protestant authorities. He even screamed at Philibert de l’Orme, the great French court architect, because de l’Orme was asked to contribute designs for a fountain in Palissy’s grotto. In other words, Palissy did not always comport himself in an altogether sane manner, particularly given the volatility of the French court and the sectarian violence taking place all around him.

Yet one other decorative arts detail that is noteworthy is the possible relationship between Palissy and the makers of what are now called “Saint-Porchaire” wares. These extraordinary mannerist vessels are made of white kaolinitic clays and emulated courtly silver vessels. They also featured elaborate modeled figures and black clay inlays in the manner of book covers and damascene work. Fragments of these wares with Palissy-style cast creatures have been found in the Louvre courtyard near fragments of Palissy ware, and the possibility exists that Palissy worked with the shop that produced Saint-Porchaire wares for certain commissions. He thus would have been aware of the highest levels of mannerist design. Another suggestive possibility is that Catherine de Médicis also found Palissy useful because she may have wanted him to research the formula for true porcelain and for glazes that could withstand high firing temperatures. It is difficult to see how she could have tolerated him only for his own style of ceramics, even though it was perfect for a grotto.

In his pursuit of how Palissy’s approach may have influenced other Protestants, Kamil explores the alchemical interests of John Winthrop Jr., whose medical, alchemical, and mystic researches can be explored through his correspondence and some of his library, which survives. Winthrop eagerly read the controversial literature on alchemy, particularly the writings of Robert Fludd and Jakob Böhme, and he conducted experiments near his headquarters in New London. Among Kamil’s explications of this activity is an extraordinary analysis of the Winthrop wainscot armchair at the Connecticut Historical Society. Kamil asserts, with little justification, that the chair must have been made by John Elderkin in New London, because of a superficial resemblance between the arms and turned ornament of the Winthrop chair and those of the three-posted chair attributed to Elderkin, now in the collection of the Chipstone Foundation. He bases this on an interpretation of the chair’s carved back panel as a solar system, after a print of the Copernican system, The Circle of Urinary Colours, in Fludd’s Integrum morborum mysterium (1631), a book Winthrop owned. Although Winthrop’s use of the print source for his chair is not implausible, an attribution to Elderkin is, and further, there is reason to think that the Winthrop chair was made in Dutch New York, as may be the case with the equally famous Allyn family draw table and Foote family turned great chair, also at the Connecticut Historical Society.

Another aspect of Winthrop’s life was his presence at the siege of La Rochelle in 1628, when Louis XIII’s armies effectively reduced the Huguenot citadel despite military support from an English expeditionary force on the Iˆle de Ré outside the harbor. As Kamil suggests, the fall of this stronghold was regarded as a disaster for international Protestantism and influenced many English Calvinists to consider immigrating to the New World. La Rochelle also provides the occasion for Kamil’s extended discussion of the interaction of English Protestantism and alchemical literature. It also leads to his intriguing discussion of the experience of Huguenot refugees in London between 1560 and 1740, where they, like the Palatine Germans, were simultaneously hailed as Protestant heroes and reviled as competitors for English tradesmen. Here Kamil suggests that Huguenots continued Palissy’s tradition of “dissimulation,” wherein they placated the British while systematically exploiting them by positioning themselves as mediators between English consumers and the Parisian luxury trades. The period covered by this interpretation is extremely broad, and Kamil at times seems not to recognize that many influential French Catholic artisans went to England as diplomatic courtesies of the French crown. Be that as it may, his treatment of the relationships between Huguenot artists and William Hogarth is extremely perceptive and amplifies existing treatments of Hogarth’s development.

In further suggesting transatlantic implications of refugee thought, Kamil places great emphasis on a Johann Theodore de Bry engraving, Theatrum orbi, which appeared in Fludd’s Utriusque cosmi of 1617, a book current among physicians, alchemists, and those interested in emblems and the occult. This “theater of the world” is depicted as a fortress with Renaissance detailing in the form of arches and an oriel, which Kamil relates to Rosicrucian imagery and to the hôtel de ville in La Rochelle or the small fort at Brouage nearby. From this concept he moves on to less useful comparisons with New England court cupboards, which he interprets as theaters of memory, with similar architectural features and smaller objects displayed on the shelves as tokens of origins and religious experience. Why this somewhat extreme conceit renders previous interpretations of these cupboards based on decades of careful antiquarian research “superficial and unsatisfying” (p. 652) is unclear.

In another instance, Kamil employs panels from Wethersfield chests as the headpiece of all the chapters but never addresses fundamental problems of “antiquarian” fact surrounding the maker to whom the chests and cupboards traditionally were ascribed, Peter Blin (1640?–1725). Kamil twice asserts that Blin was a Huguenot, when no proof for this has ever been found. All we know is that he was Francophonic. Also, recent studies of the woodworkers of Windsor, one of which is presented in this issue of American Furniture, demonstrate that the Blin style originated with English joiners in Windsor and is not to be regarded as French or Huguenot. All the elaborate iconographic analysis Kamil presents about the chests, to the effect that the motifs are cleverly disguised Huguenot emblems, is therefore cast into doubt.

The final chapters, where Kamil presents his thesis regarding Huguenot furniture-making in New York, is probably the weakest part of the entire book, although it is also obviously key to his arguments regarding the transmission of a Palissy-style, highly involved mystic culture to the New World. Once more, Kamil represents the Huguenot artisans of the colony as practicing “dissimulation” toward Anglo tastemakers in Boston, especially in his chapter “Hidden in Plain Sight,” reprinted with little change from his 1995 article in American Furniture. In so doing, Kamil refuses to acknowledge the important article on Boston William and Mary leather chairs by Roger Gonzales and Daniel Putnam Brown Jr. in the 1996 issue of American Furniture, as well as the equally important article on Dutch New York seating by Erik Gronning in the 2001 issue of American Furniture. Gonzales and Brown present a fundamentally convincing case that several of the leather chairs attributed by Kamil to New York are in fact Boston products. It is true that some of the leather chairs (notably figures 15.22–15.26 in Kamil’s book) might well be New York products, perhaps made by the Huguenot carver Jean Le Chevalier. Still, the gist of his elaborate argument is overthrown, as are comparisons to turned elements in buildings in Saintonge in southwestern France, which he presents as sources. On the face of the illustrations, notably figures 15.28, 15.32, and 16.6, these French turnings are hardly even cognates, let alone direct sources, for the New York objects with which they are compared. A strained argument that the turnings and structure of New York oval-leaf tables of the New York and Kingston variants reflect French prototypes is completely unconvincing. Especially odd is the presentation of a French design for a draw-leaf table as a precedent for the lopers with track boards seen on New York leaf tables, an entirely different structure.

A final chapter aptly entitled “Fragments of Huguenot-Quaker Convergence” investigates the many genealogical and trade ties between Huguenot tradesmen and the Quaker communities on Long Island, which are a staple of New York genealogy and have long intrigued those searching for the origins of Newport block-and-shell furniture. Many of the objects here are almost throwaway inclusions, with no concrete ties to either the Huguenots or the Quakers, but are included simply because they were found in the area. Many of the comparisons between objects, noting the similarity of one detail to another, are implausible. Perhaps the only convincing point is the connection between the elaborate script inscription on the Samuel Clement high chest of drawers at Winterthur and penmanship manuals.

Ultimately it remains to be seen how far Kamil was justified in basing his book on the idea that the “Paracelsian tradition of natural-philosophical and alchemical discourse” was of widespread influence in the New York Huguenot community (p. 902). The psychological model of “dissimulation” seems far more pertinent to the history of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century eastern European Jewry than to French Protestants, who, whatever their difficulties, seem to have otherwise merged quite successfully with the prevailing Dutch culture in New York and New Jersey. In addition, although the Paracelsian tradition might yield important new iconographic results in the interpretation of provincial carving and painting, it can do so only when applied with extreme care. The loose and often inaccurate, use of artifacts in Kamil’s book suggests two things. First, with the exception of the Palissy pottery and the many wonderful graphic sources presented, the book could just as easily have been written without any reference to objects at all. Second, one concludes from several careful readings of this huge book that it should have been broken into several related books. Kamil seems to have saved almost all of his research for more than twenty-five years, and during that time a great number of decorative arts researchers published monographs about pertinent material that this book fails to address.

Robert F. Trent
Wilmington, Delaware

American Furniture 2005