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Archive for the 'LGBTQ' Category

Saint Sebastian

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

By Stuart Frost

a. Reliquary of St Sebastian before conservation, M.27-2001. Photograph by Gates Sofer.Some objects, like the V&A’s vast tapestry woven with scenes of the Trojan War, have required extensive conservation work to prepare them for display. Conservation of the tapestry, which began in October 2004, was completed recently after approximately 4000 hours of work by specialist conservators. Other objects have required far less time, but the attention to detail has been the same.

The reliquary of Saint Sebastian, the focus of this blog entry, is a case in point. This superb example of the art of the metalworker was made in Augsburg in 1497, probably to a design by Hans Holbein. St Sebastian was believed to have been martyred on the orders of the Emperor Diocletian for refusing to renounce his Christian beliefs. Sebastian was tied to a tree and shot with arrows. He miraculously survived the agonising ordeal, only to be clubbed to death subsequently. Sebastian was a popular saint and was represented frequently in medieval and Renaissance art.d. Three stages in using cuttle fish bones to create moulds.Photograph by Gates Sofer.

The photograph that heads this page depicts the reliquary before conservation treatment. If you look carefully you will see that there are only two silver-gilt arrows still in-situ. However there are holes for a further six and it was recently decided to make replacement arrows for five of these so that when the object is redisplayed visitors will have a better sense of it’s original appearance. Click on the image for a larger picture and a better view.

Metals Conservator Gates Sofer devised an ingenious method for casting the replacement arrows using moulds made from cuttlefish bone. A brass copy of one of the arrows was made and then pressed into cuttlefish bones that had been flattened and paired. This created a mould into which molten metal could be poured. Three stages are shown in the photograph reproduced here, above and to the left. On the left are two cuttlefish bones, in the centre the bones have been flattened and prepared for casting, and finally to the right a mould that has been opened after the casting process. Click on any of the pictures for more information about what is shown. I’ve posted some additional pictures on the Medieval & Renaissance site on Flickr if you’d like to find out a little more about the work.e. Forge and cuttlefish moulds. Photograph by Gates Sofer.

The casting took place at the V&A. The picture to the right shows a forge in one of the Museum’s workshops, with the ladle used to pour the molten metal to the left, and five cuttlefish moulds standing upright in a pan filled with sand. The cast arrows required additional work once they’d been removed from the mould. The surface of the arrows required working to remove the pattern created by the texture of the cuttlefish bone. In addition the arrows were gilded with eighteen carat gold. 

As a general rule conservators like to ensure that any modern additions, like these arrows, can be easily identified and not mistaken for original work. Each of the new arrows bears a tiny V&A logo that was added with a small punch. This mark would be difficult to spot with the naked eye but not a magnifying glass. The addition of the arrows, and the replacement of a missing silver rope used to bind Sebastian to the tree, has subtly transformed the appearance of the object. The reliquary was also carefully cleaned revealing previously obscured details such as a pattern on the border of Sebastian’s garment. j. New cast silver arrows before gilding, Museum no.27-2001. Photograph by Gates Sofer.

The reliquary was made by a master craftsmen and is of superb quality. The picture to the left shows the reliquary after the recent conservation work. The object will be looking at its best when it is displayed in Room 10: Devotion & Display. Here St Sebastian will form part of a display about reliquaries. The pedestal of the figure still contains two relics, one is wrapped in silk. The other is thought to be made of wood and was perhaps believed to have been fragments of one of the actual arrow shafts that pierced Sebastian’s body.

I’d like to that Gates for allowing me to use her photographs and for taking the time to talk to me about her work. If you have any questions please post them below and I’ll do my best to answer them.

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.

Giants of the Renaissance

Monday, December 10th, 2007

By Stuart Frost

Leonardo da Vinci, Forster Codex I, 6v-7r.The V&A is the National Musuem of Art & Design but it is also far more than that. We know that our visitors use the Museum’s collections in many diverse ways. A few weeks ago a photograph in the supplement of a Sunday newspaper caught my eye. I recognised the location as the National Art Library at the V&A. On closer inspection I also identified the object that the people in the photograph were looking at, a facsimile copy of one of  Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks. On the next page was a photograph of Michelangelo’s vast marble sculpture, David.

The article was about Antony Sher’s new play, The Giant. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci are two of the central characters in the drama. The completely fictional protagonist, Vito, is the model for David and the focus of both Michelangelo and Leonardo’s desire. Whilst the play accurately reflected the culture of male same-sex desire that existed in Renaissance Florence the actual relationships in the play were fictional. 

In writing the play, which is centered on the creation of Michelangelo’s most famous sculpture, Antony Sher had undertaken a great deal of research. Both he and the director, Greg Doran, had visited the National Art Library to look at the three volumes of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks that the Museum is fortunate to possess. Rowan Watson, the V&A’s expert on Leonardo notebooks, was on hand to answer questions and provide advice.

I went to see the play a few weeks and enjoyed it immensely.The attention to detail was extremely impressive. Leonardo, played by Roger Allam, had a notebook with him on stage into which he periodically wrote throughout the performance. When doing so he wrote from right-to-left with his left hand, just as the real Leonardo did. I wonder whether any other members of the audience also noted this minor but accurately observed mannerism? It did help engender a tangible sense of convincing authenticity. I took a little while to adjust to the fictionalised characters of the two artists, purely because I’ve read enough about them to have formed my own sense of their personalities. I suspect most people develop their sense of Michelangelo or Leonardo through the artists’ work rather than a detailed knowledge of their biographies.

Plaster-cast copy of Michelangelo's David.The set design was ingenious. A vast ‘marble’ block was gradually transformed into the statute as the play progressed. The V&A has a late nineteenth century plaster-copy of Michelangelo’s David which you can see in the image I’ve used here to illustrate this entry. The fig-leaf with which it was provided, usually hung displayed on the back of the plinth, is currently making a guest appearance at London’s Barbican Gallery in Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now. 

Unfortunately The Giant has now closed but if you’re quick you’ll still be able to see the fig-leaf in its temporary home! The plaster cast version of David can be seen from Room 111 at the V&A.

Click here to find out more about Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks

Click here to find out more about the Cast Collections