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Archive for the 'Historic Sites' Category

The Local Past - Barcelona

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011

By Glyn Davies

Facade of Casa Amatller, BarcelonaOne of the things that the curators tried to incorporate into the V&A’s Medieval & Renaissance Galleries was the idea that the past survives, often in evocative fragments, all around us in the modern city. At various points since, artists and designers have chosen to go back and take inspiration from those fragments. And one of the most interesting things that I find while travelling around Europe is to see the very different ways in which that inspiration has manifested itself. Works inspired by gothic art, or medieval buildings here in Britain look very different from medieval-inspired architecture in France, or Spain.

This trend was especially noticeable in the late nineteenth century, when artists were especially keen on developing ‘national’ styles that reflected local traditions and techniques. Often, artists working in this style had close links to the literary scene, and to nationalist and localist politics, both left wing and right wing. One of the best examples is Catalunya. I was recently in Barcelona, and while of course I had to go and see the wonderful medieval and renaissance art displayed at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (a long walk uphill to the area called Montjuic), I ended up spending most of the holiday doing walking tours around the city to see the buildings of the Modernista period, roughly contemporary with the Art Nouveau style throughout the rest of Europe.

Casa de les Punxes, BarcelonaThe artists and architects of Barcelona, concerned with their Catalan, rather than Spanish, identity, had a particularly intense relationship with their local historic building styles. The buildings of the Eixample district in Barcelona often display fanciful references to medieval building styles, but at the same time, they are eclectic, and usually built using the most up-to-the-minute engineering and construction techniques. The medieval look is only skin deep!

The first photo here shows you part of the street facade of the Casa Amatller, one of the more prominent Modernista buildings in the city. It was designed by Designed by Josep Puig i Cadafalch, with ironwork designed by Manuel Ballarín, sculptural reliefs by Alfons Juyol, and stained-glass windows by Eduard Amigó. Puig i Cadafalch was one of Barcelona’s leading architects, and this apartment building, constructed at the turn of the century, was designed to resemble a medieval palace. In the photo, you can see that the facade is entirely covered in tiles, a pointed reference to local Catalan building techniques.

The second photo is of one of Puig i Cadafalch’s rather more austere buildings. Whenever I look at this, I’m reminded of its cousin in London, Saint Pancras station. Both buildings take their inspiration from fifteenth-century northern European castles, particularly in the round towers with their pointed roofs. In this case, though, the spectacular ironwork is a strongly Catalan element. This building is known as the House of Spikes (Casa de les Punxes)!

The last image is one of my favourites. Everyone has heard of Antoni Gaudi, who’s become probably the most famous of Barcelona’s turn of the century architects. But among aficionados, another name is often mentioned: Lluís Domènech i Montaner. This architect’s undoubted masterpiece is the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, not far from the Sagrada Familia church. The site has been closed for ages now, but recently, work has started on restoring the buildings, and as a result, limited guided tours are available. If you get the chance, then I can heartily recommend it. Even in a degraded state, the Hospital is hugely impressive. The photo below shows you just one of the ward pavilions. And immediately, you get a sense of how the architect was throwing together ideas from a whole variety of medieval and renaissance building styles to create something new. The tiled onion dome looks Byzantine. The arches are inspired by romanesque churches, while the tall columns and window forms come from a variety of gothic architectural sources. More subtly, I think, the integration of architecture, sculpture and pictorial representations on the outside of the building reflects the inspiration of the unashamedly ‘multi-media’ approach of medieval buildings. Walking around this hospital complex, I had a real sense of how the past could be used creatively to make beautiful and useful buildings and objects for the future.

Hospital Ward, Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, Barcelona

   

   

Italian Art in Britain: a love story

Monday, November 15th, 2010

By Glyn Davies

Anyone who’s visited the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries can’t fail to have noticed their strongly Italian flavour. Italian art and craft is one of the strengths of the Museum’s historical collections, and it’s telling that we possess probably the most important collection of Italian renaissance sculpture outside Italy. Visitors can see works by big name artists such as Donatello, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Giambologna, as well as medieval masterpieces like the figure of the prophet Haggai by Giovanni Pisano that was once on the facade of the cathedral in Siena. But why is this? Why does the Museum’s collection put so much emphasis on Italy, particularly during the period 1250-1600?

The short answer to this question is straightforward - when the Museum was building its collection in the mid-nineteenth century, Italy was seen as the well-spring of art. Pisa's CamposantoA formative part of the education of any culitivated (and wealthy!) young man or woman from Britain, and increasingly from America too, was the Grand Tour. The Tour was what today might be called a route for cultural tourism around Europe, but its heart was Italy, and in particular the cities of Venice, Florence and Rome.

But these tourists weren’t just passive consumers of a pre-packaged storyline. In fact British, German (and later American) visitors to Italy were instrumental in re-discovering a whole class of art which had been neglected - the art of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. For a British audience, writers like John Ruskin, and the huge history of Italian painting produced by Joseph Archer Crowe and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle provided a way in to a fascinating new world of late medieval and early renaissance art. Books and writers like these also shaped the art market and the interests of museums like the V&A. An example of the sort of thing the V&A bought in its early years, under the influence of this writing, is this object in the new galleries: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O93870/virgin-and-child-virgin-and-child/. This mid-fifteenth century Florentine work is typical of the sort of sweet style with simple, clear design which was much admired in the nineteenth century. In the 1860s, the V&A bought large numbers of artworks in Italy, forming the core of the renaissance collections.

So why am I talking about all this now? Well, I recently spent several weeks in Italy doing research. One of the places I visited was Florence. It’s a town about which I’m oddly ambivalent. At least part of this is down to the fact that Florence has become a victim of its own success. It often seems as if there are more foreigners living in Florence than Italians. Many of them are students - to study Italian art is to enter into a wonderful United Nations-like world, with representatives from many nations. In fact, the most important art history institutions in Florence aren’t even run by Florentines. I Tatti is run by Harvard University, and the Kunsthistorisches Institut is part of the German Max Planck Society. The same goes for the tourists, who come in huge numbers from all over the world. And all of them are fed the same story - of how Florence created the renaissance, and modern art, in a series of masterpieces produced in the years after 1400.

Florence under stormy skiesFlorence’s success leads to strange anomalies, where some artworks, such as Botticelli’s Venus, are must-sees, but you’ll never find tourists in Ghirlandaio’s wonderful Sassetti chapel in the church of Santa Trinita. And I can’t help contrasting it all with the situation I find myself in more often - looking at wonderful works of art with nobody else there. This is often true in Germany. On a trip to Munich a few years ago, I spent a long time looking at the incredible German renaissance sculpture in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum with only a single security guard for company. The galleries were so empty that the guard was able to follow me from room to room. But there’s so much in German art to get excited about. Have a look at the photo below, for example, which shows the clustering buttresses of the enormous Cologne Cathedral. Who could fail to get excited about this?

So what’s my conclusion? Well, I wanted to ask - is our love of Italian art really because the works are so much better than the rest? Or is it more because of the long history of interaction between the English-speaking world and Italy? And given how popular the story of the birth of renaissance art has become, have we entered a period when the popularity of Italian art has become counter-productive? Or am I just being an art snob? I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts, so get posting!

Buttresses at Cologne Cathedral

 

Vikings and Bishops

Monday, June 7th, 2010

By Glyn Davies

One of the great things (or perhaps one of the curses) of working in the history of art is that holidays always have a work edge. If you are travelling in Europe, you are almost never too far from a medieval or renaissance site that needs seeing. I’ve recently spent some time in Denmark, and while I was there I couldn’t resist taking the train out to the small town of Roskilde, once the capital of the Viking kingdom of Denmark.

Roskilde boasts an impressive cathedral, which for anyone used to English or French buildings of the same date is something of a surprise. Take a look at the photo, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s built almost entirely of brick - and Roskilde claims to be the first cathedral ever to have been built using that material. It was mainly constructed in the early thirteenth century, and already shows signs of responding to the gothic style that had developed in the area around Paris in the previous forty or fifty years. This new brick-built style was so influential in Denmark that many of the nineteenth and twentieth-century churches there still refer to Roskilde in their basic appearance.

Inside, the church is surprisingly small for a cathedral and burial site of kings, but there are interesting traces of medieval and renaissance wall painting surviving. This thirteenth-century painting caught my eye. The saint on the right is Olaf, the eleventh-century king of Norway who was an important saint throughout Scandinavia - it’s hard to make him out in the photo at this size, but you can see a much larger version on our Flickr pages.

The V&A doesn’t possess much material from medieval Scandinavia, but we do have one important piece that also depicts Olaf. It is a fourteenth-century crozier, and is almost certainly Norwegian - a piece that is very close to my heart, and forms part of a display looking at the international penetration of the gothic style in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in our new galleries (Gallery 9). You can take a look at it by clicking here: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O65808/crozier-head-crozier/.

While I was in Roskilde, I also had to visit one other key site. In the 1970s, five Viking ships were salvaged from the fjord at Roskilde, and now form the centrepieces of a museum looking at the Viking relationship to the sea. The museum, which is also a working boat yard, is called the Vikingeskibs Museet. The display is very dramatic, as you are standing next to ships that are over a thousand years old. Outside in the harbour are authentic replicas, built using traditional techniques. Probably the most effective, and moving, part of the museum displays is the high-quality film showing a crew from Roskilde attempting to sail the largest of their ship replicas to Dublin. Why Dublin? Well, scientific testing has shown that the largest ship at Roskilde had been made there. The crew do succeed in making their way to Dublin, but not without being tested in appalling conditions. I felt very happy to be watching, rather than taking part!

 If you want to see some of the awesome footage for yourself, then click here: http://vikingeskibsmuseet.dk/index.php?id=1671&L=1.

I found the visit strangely moving. It was something to do with the fact that the ships are displayed so close to their find site, and in the context of practical archaeology. You’re encouraged to think about how the Viking community in Roskilde actually lived, and you come out of the museum with a sense of quite how adventurous these sea-farers were.

 

 

Rudolph II and Prague: On Location Part Four

Friday, October 10th, 2008

By Stuart Frost

Emperor Rudolph II, Adriaen de Vries, Prague 1609. Museum no. 6920-1860.‘It is generally agreed amongst the Catholics in Prague that the Emperor has been bewitched and is in league with the devil. I have been shown the chair in which His Majesty sits when holding conversations with the Prince of Darkness himself. I have seen the little bell His Majesty uses whenever he wished to summon the spirits of the departed to do his bidding.’

Cardinal Filippo Spinelli writing to Pope Clement VIII, 1600 (Quote from Hans Holzer, The Alchemist, New York 1985) 85 & 91.

Whilst we can’t take the passage I’ve quoted above too literally there is no doubt that the Emperor Rudolph II was an interesting character. Rudolph had a deep interest in both alchemy and scientific enquiry. It is clear that some of the people who enjoyed his patronage did stray into territory that could be described as occult. On a cold, damp and dark October evening the corridors and courtyards of Pražský hrad, or Prague castle, take on a slightly Faustian atmosphere. It isn’t too difficult to imagine an alchemist in the Powder Tower working late into the night and straying into supernatural territory.

The bronze bust of the Emperor Rudolph in the V&A’s collections conjures up an unambiguous impression of a ruler who is not to be crossed. The powerful profile and jutting jaw convey a strong sense of a man who is confident, determined, decisive and authoritative. He wears armour decorated with a lion’s mask and an image of the classical hero Hercules. The bust is supported by the outstretched wings of an imperial eagle. The impression created the sculptor Adriaen de Vries is deliberately deceptive.

Prague Castle, October 2008.The bust was made in 1609 by which time Rudolph had little meaningful power or authority. Although depicted in armour, he never actually led an army into battle. Indeed he rarely left Prague Castle. He preferred to spend his time studying his vast collection of art, scientific instruments and natural wonders. Rudolph’s great collection once filled many of the rooms of the vast castle that still dominates Prague. The V&A’s bust itself was once part of the collection there.

I’ve illustrated this blog-entry with several photographs which I took last week when working in Prague on the third in a series of three People & Place gallery films. Regular readers of this blog will already have read about Charlemagne and Aachen, and Donatello and Florence. With the Rudolph and Prague film we’re hoping to give visitors insights into the man portrayed in bronze, the world in which he lived and the context to which his bronze bust belonged.  

The White Tower, Prague Castle. October 2008.I felt extremely fortunate to be able to spend a few days following in Rudolph’s footsteps and tapping into curator Norbert Jopek’s specialist knowledge. Whilst I’m delighted that the films we first thought about making several years ago have now begun come to fruition, I have to confess that I’m a little saddened that the location filming has already come to an end. It has been fantastic to work with the curatorial team and to see the depth of their enthusiasm for their subjects. It has also been a real pleasure to work with John Wyver, Linda Zuck and Ian Serfontein of Illuminations.

Our main aspiration for the trio of films is to enhance vistors’ understanding of three key objects, artworks from a time that might seem too remote to have real meaning. We also hope that the films will inspire some visitors to the galleries to travel to the continent and to explore Europe’s rich medieval and Renaissance heritage at first hand. Travelling to just three different locations has given me a vivid reminder of just how great Europe’s medieval and Renaissance heritage really is.

Click here to find out a little more about Prague Castle.

Donatello and Florence: On Location Part Three

Tuesday, September 30th, 2008

By Stuart Frost

Florence September 2008 025Last week I was fortunate enough to spend three days in Florence with chief curator Peta Motture working on the second of our three People and Place gallery films. Filming the location footage for Donatello and Florence posed a different set of challenges to the Charlemagne and Aachen film the previous week.

Anyone who has been to Florence will be able to confirm that it has an extraordinary wealth of medieval and Renaissance art and architecture. Donatello would recognise many of the elements that still dominate the modern cityscape. The remains of the Aachen that Charlemagne knew are few, fragmentary and have been significantly altered over time.

The locations selected for the Donatello and Florence film included the Old Sacristy in the Church of San Lorenzo; the Baptistery, Duomo and Campanile; the Medici Palace; and the Church of Orsanmichele. Footage of these buildings will help viewers understand the different contexts for which Donatello produced sculptures.

The Medici Palace, Florence.One the first day filming started at 7.30am in the Old Sacristy. It was remarkable to be inside the church and to be able to enjoy the atmosphere almost alone. By 6pm we had moved to the Piazalle Michelangelo which provided us with a magnificent view of the city laid out below, the River Arno dividing it into two. The picture I’ve used here, at the top of the page, shows the Duomo to the right and the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio to the left. The cathedral and the centre of government dominated the medieval and Renaissance city.

The higher number of different locations for this film meant that there was more walking between places than previously. Walking through a city as attractive as Florence is no great hardship of course, although cameraman Ian and director Linda may disagree as they were the ones who were carrying all of the equipment! Rapidly moving mopeds, buses and horse-drawn carriages posed a different sort of challenge.

Florence September 2008 008Florence attracts a vast number of tourists throughout the year and the historic core of the old city is a busy, bustling place. Aachen attracts far fewer and it was much easier there to take shots without inquisitive tourists wandering into view. In both cities I was struck by how accommodating and helpful the authorities were. A particular highlight was the opportunity to film Donatello’s famous bronze statue of David, only recently returned to a vertical position and still under-going a remarkable programme of conservation work in the Bargello.

The location filming for Donatello and Florence is now complete but work on editing the footage and finalising the captions still remains to be done. We also need to film Donatello’s Ascension relief, a star object in the V&A’s collections, and to integrate film of that object with the location footage.

The finished Donatello and Florence film will be available in Gallery 64 Donatello and the Making of Art from late November 2009 onwards. It will also be added to the V&A’s website.

If you’d like to find out more about some of the locations mentioned here please click on the weblinks I’ve provided below. I’ve also posted some additional photographs on the Flickr site for the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries Project.

Click here to find out more about the Medici palace.

Click here to find out more about the Bargello.

Click here to find out more about the conservation of Donatello’s David. The text for this site is Italian but there is a good selection of pictures.

Tintagel Castle and Arthurian Myth

Thursday, July 3rd, 2008

By Stuart Frost

Tintagel Castle, May 2008.

The pictures that I’ve reproduced here are of the ruins of Tintagel Castle, the remains of which cling perilously to the north Cornish coastline. Tintagel is linked intimately with the legend of King Arthur. Given the popularity of Arthurian Romance in north European medieval culture, especially literature, I’m surprised that I haven’t written about Arthur before. In my defence there are only a small number of objects in the V&A’s medieval and Renaissance collections that have a connection with the legends that developed around King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Most of those relate to the story of Tristan and Isolde.

The reason for addressing the subject of Arthur now is simply because I’ve been looking at some photographs I took of Tintagel Castle during a recent visit to Cornwall. I’ve reproduced a couple here to give a sense of the ruinous state of the remains and to try and reflect the romance of the location. 

If castles are viewed as purely military structures then Tintagel makes little sense. It is on a site that could be easily isolated and starved into submission. However castles were always far more than just military structures. The site of Tintagel was associated only with the conception of Arthur (Camelot that was King Arthur’s own fortress). The historical associations of the site of Tintagel were probably as important as its defensive qualities.

The ruins that we can see today are largely the work of Richard Earl of Cornwall  (born 1209 – died 1272), a man whom we know to have had imperial ambitions. By associating himself with the legend of the great King Arthur by building a castle at Tintagel was he trying to present himself as Arthur’s true heir, and therefore entitled to the full support of the Cornish people? It is even possible that the castle Richard had built was deliberately anachronistic, that it consciously reflected an older mythological Arthurian age. What people believed to be true is as important as what was really the case.Tintagel Castle, May 2008.

The Arthurian legend has remained a potent source of inspiration for poets, playwrights and filmmakers.  Perhaps the greatest and most influential version of the story is Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, first published by William Caxton in 1485 and still in print today. In the nineteenth century Arthurian Romance influenced figures such as the designer William Morris, the artists Aubrey Beardsley and Sir Edward Burne-Jones and writers of the stature of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. 

In more recent years actors such as Sean Connery, Richard Gere and Keira Knightly have starred in films with an Arthurian theme. I’m sure that we will have a film season as part of the programme of events that will support the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries in November 2009. I’m equally sure that one of the films is bound to be a swashbuckler related to King Arthur, Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table. If anyone has a favourite swashbuckling film do let me know! Likewise it is always useful to know if there are films that should be avoided at all costs!

Tintagel Castle is now under the care of English Heritage.  If you are interested in finding out more about the castle or would like to plan a visit their website.