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Medieval and Renaissance: Past, Present and Future

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Archive for the 'Other exhibitions' Category

Donatello, Michelangelo and David

Friday, February 1st, 2008

By Stuart Frost

February is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) month so many museums have planned events to coincide with it. This set me thinking about connections with the medieval and Renaissance period and our plans for the new galleries. A cast of Donatello’s David was the focus of a gallery talk by one of my colleagues at this time last year. The original is in Florence, so this talk took place around a nineteenth century plaster-cast in the Cast Courts. The original nude figure was displayed in several different locations, and each change influenced the way the statue would have been understood. Plaster Cast David after bonze original by Donatello.

The sensual nature of Donatello’s David has often been commented upon. His youthful David has battled Goliath without armour, shielded by his faith. It is likely that the nakedness of the figure would have connected with the fifteenth century viewer in several other ways.  For example, the statue was made a time when there was renewed interest in the art of ancient Rome, a culture where the male nude was commonly depicted in sculpture. At the time Donatello’s David was made the nakedness of the figure was strikingly different and new. The statue raises questions about ideals of male beauty in Renaissance Florence. 

It is clear that same-sex desire was for many male Florentines a part of every-day life in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Surviving legal records prove that a high proportion of Florentine men in the fifteenth century came before the authorities on charges of what was then called ‘sodomy’. Michael Rocke has written extensively about this and used the documentary evidence to explore the nature of male same sex relationships. Sexual relationships between males were illegal, and repeated convictions in Florence sometimes led to a death sentence.

Plaster Cast David after marble original by Michelangelo.Museums and galleries have tended not to discuss these aspects of Renaissance culture in the past. This has begun to change. There are often more connections that people may suppose. More museums are beginning to identify objects in their collections that have a connection with LGBT history, making the information available online, or running study days and events to highlight histories that have often been ignored or overlooked. 

The British Museum’s exhibition about Michelangelo’s drawings last year was one of the first where the culture of sexual relationships between males in Renaissance Florence was addressed. Michelangelo’s sexuality was also something that was discussed is several of the exhibition reviews at the time. Some reviewers focussed on whether Michelangelo’s sexuality was reflected in his depictions of the male body, or whether he was gay in the modern sense of the term. Inevitably opinions varied. Michelangelo’s work is also represented at the V&A, most prominently in the Cast Courts. His David, depicted to the right, is of course very different to Donatello’s for many reasons.

The V&A has recently programmed a series of gallery talks to coincide with LGBT month. The talks are taking place at the V&A on Saturday 9th February. Unfortunately the Italian Cast Court is currently closed which means that neither Michelangelo’s or Donatello’s David can be included this year. The way that both sculptures have become a focus for discussion related to sexuality and same-sex desire would have made a fascinating talk.

Old Friends & New Places

Monday, November 26th, 2007

By Stuart Frost

Temptation of Christ C .237-1928The amount of progress that has been made in preparing the gallery spaces for installation of the new displays is incredible. I had a glimpse behind the Gallery 50 hoardings recently and was staggered to see how the space has been transformed. All of the objects that were once there have either been removed or protected in-situ with hoarding. The room is now a vast empty hall waiting for construction work to begin in 2008.

The preparation necessary for the installation of a sequence of displays as large as the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries means, of course, that there will be some disruption. It is inevitable that the number of objects on display at the V&A has to be reduced for a time.

However there are some significant benefits too as a number of the most important objects can be displayed in a new context, whether in a new gallery at the V&A or as part of a temporary exhibition elsewhere. I’ve mentioned the touring exhibition previously. Medieval and Renaissance Treasures from the V&A is currently at the Norton Museum of Art in the USA.

I visited the National Gallery at the weekend. I enjoyed their current major temporary exhibition, Renaissance Siena: Art for a Cit, very much. The vast majority of the objects were ones that I hadn’t seen before, but I did also recognise a number of old friends from the V&A. One on these was the bronze Lamentation over the Dead Christ relief by Donatello which you can see in the image below. It was fascinating to see it a new context, juxtaposed with different objects and displayed in a manner which drew fresh nuances out of the work.Lamentation over the dead Christ, by Donatello. Museum no. 8552-1863

Also at the National Gallery currently is a more focussed display, Art of Light: German Renaissance Stained Glass (7 November 2007-17 February 2008) which also draws upon the V&A’s collections. I’d already been to the Renaissance Siena exhibition so on this weekend’s visit I spent most of my time looking at this display. It was fascinating to see superb drawings, paintings and glass panels side-by-side. I’ve included an image of one the glass panels at the top of this page to give a sense of how refined painting on glass can be. The exhibition includes a display of a complete programme of glass from one of the windows of the cloister of Mariawald Abbey. The glass from Mariawald will be a major feature of the new Gallery 50, The Renaissance City 1350-1600, when it opens at the V&A late in 2009.

The links below will provide with more information about the displays described above. I’ll continue to use the blog to highlight other temporary exhibitions featuring medieval and Renaissance objects from the V&A as they arise.

Find out about Medieval and Renaissance Treasures from the V&A at the Norton Museum of Art.

Find out about Art of Light at the National Gallery.

Find out more about Renaissance Siena: Art for a City.