A Bed for Fifty People?


On History

Jan Gossaert, Portrait of Hendrik III, Count of Nassau-Breda, ca. 1516–1517.

I was minding my own business, reading the letters in the London Review of Books, when I saw this, from a response by Marta Uminska to an article about Hieronymus Bosch: 

The triptych known to us as The Garden of Earthly Delights is first documented in 1517, one year after Bosch’s death, as being in the possession of Count Hendrik III of Nassau, in his palace in Brussels. Depending on the date of the triptych (scholarly opinion varies between roughly 1490 and 1505), it would have been commissioned either by Hendrik himself or by his uncle and predecessor Engelbert II: that is, by rich, erudite aristocrats from the inner circle of the Burgundian court, who collected works of art, read widely, held extravagant parties (in the same palace where the Garden hung there was also a bed large enough for fifty guests), and could afford to flirt with heretical or otherwise fringe ideas.

Emphasis mine. T.J. Clark would later write in to quibble with Uminska’s account of the triptych’s origin, which was all very interesting, but I couldn’t get past the bed for fifty people. 

Thanks be to Google, I quickly found Uminska’s likely source. Albrecht Durer visited the Nassau palace in Brussels sometime in August or September 1520, and wrote:

I have also been in the Lord of Nassau’s house, which is so magnificently built and beautifully decorated … When I was in Herr von Nassau’s house I saw in the chapel the fine painting that Master Hugo has made, and I also saw two large beautiful halls, and all the treasures in various parts of the house, and the large bed in which fifty men can lie … This house lies high, and there is a most beautiful view at which one cannot but wonder. And I think that in all German lands there is not the like of it.

I sent this passage to the Daily’s correspondent Anthony Madrid, who was skeptical. Surely Durer was exaggerating. Fifty people is a suspiciously round and inexact number. If the bed was so big, surely someone can corroborate or dispute Durer’s account? And in fact someone else did write about the bed.

Antonio de Beatis does not have an English-language Wikipedia page. He was a secretary to Cardinal Luigi d’Aragona, now chiefly known as the model for the evil cardinal in The Duchess of Malfi. (He may or may not have murdered his sister.) In 1517, he took an entourage of courtiers and servants on a tour of Europe from Ferrara to Nuremberg to Basel to Brussels to Paris to Nantes to Marseilles then back to Ferrara. De Beatis took notes and eventually wrote up a proper account of the journey a few years after their trip, after the death of the Cardinal, and I wound up reading the whole thing (as translated by J. R. Hale and J. M. A. Lindon).

The journal wasn’t published until 1872, and de Beatis was able to secure himself an important place in art history through his incidental descriptions of paintings he saw during his tour, including those of Leonardo da Vinci, whom de Beatis met in Cloux (now Clos-Luce), near Amboise, in France. Da Vinci was sixty-four. During their one-page encounter, da Vinci mentions that he has dissected “more than thirty corpses, including males and females of all ages.” Da Vinci also showed the Cardinal and his party three paintings, one of which may or may not have been La Gioconda. Later, de Beatis and his party stopped in at Milan to look at the Last Supper, which twenty years after being painted was already deteriorating.

Aside from these wayside, art-historical nuggets, de Beatis keeps the reader’s attention with descriptions of innumerable relics of saints and great examples of aristocratic splendor. One church in Aix-la-Chapelle boasts the tombs of Charlemagne and Otto III, the head and arm of Charlemagne encased in silver, and the horn of Roland in addition to “the shift of the Madonna; the loincloth worn by our lord on the cross; St. Joseph’s stockings; and the bloodstained cloth in which the head of John the Baptist was wrapped when it was given to the dancer Herodias.” (De Beatis visited the church a few months before Martin Luther published his 95 Theses.) He visits a nobleman’s hunting lodge that had a stag’s antler with thirty-six branches and the armor James IV was wearing when he died in Flanders in 1513. Elsewhere he comes across “a great claw of a griffin”—and, of course, the fifty-person bed. 

Here is what de Beatis has to say about the bed: 

There is also a large room containing a bed thirty-four spans di canna broad and twenty-six spans long with bolsters at the head and the foot, sheets and a white quilt, and we gathered that the Count had it made because he liked to hold frequent banquets and to see his guests get drunk, and when they could no longer stand on their feet, he had them thrown on to this bed.

A footnote reads: 

The Roman canna contained either eight spans (for measuring cloth) or ten (for building measurements). De Beatis perhaps uses the phrase to mean that it was measured in his presence with a measuring staff; the bed was an object of intense interest to visitors.

When I began my search, I never expected that actual measurements of the bed had been recorded, and so in one way this exceeded what I hoped to find. However, European units of measurement before the metric system were a complete mess, the Italian units of measurement in particular. A footnote says that twenty-three centimeters is a good estimate for a “span” or palmo—the distance from pinkie-end to thumb-tip—but this measurement varied from Venice to Naples. I think de Beatis means the bed was about twenty-six feet by twenty feet, which is 503 square feet. A twin bed is about twenty square feet, so the bed could probably only fit twenty-five people comfortably. Durer was wrong!

But that assumes that each span di canna is only twenty-three centimeters; realistically this measurement represents only a lower bound, and it could have been considerably larger. De Beatis seems to imply that this bed has a room all to itself, which makes me picture Bill Gates’s trampoline-floored room with twenty-foot ceilings. Another important thing to note: the current world record for throwing a person is 17.7 feet, and someone too drunk to stand would probably be an unruly missile—one who couldn’t be thrown more than half that distance. It seems safe to assume that Nassau let his servants do the throwing, possibly in teams, but I doubt their ability to fill the bed up entirely by throwing insensate drunks onto it.

The Nassau bed does not survive and I can’t find any mention of it outside Durer and de Beatis. The Great Bed of Ware, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, is the only comparable piece of furniture I was able to find. The Ware bed was likely built in 1580 as a tourist attraction for an inn in Ware, and was at one point in the nineteenth century moved to a pleasure garden. Yet despite measuring a measly eleven feet long and ten feet wide, it arrogates the title of the biggest bed in Christendom. That title rightfully belongs only to the once and future Bed of Nassau.

Brendan White lives in Oakland, California. He works in the Municipal Finance department of a large investment bank and has poems forthcoming on