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Archive for the 'Castles' 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

   

   

Saint George’s Day

Monday, April 20th, 2009

By Stuart Frost

Scenes from the Story of St George, Museum no. A. 41 1954.St George’s day falls this week on Thursday 23 April. I have written about St George previously, in April 2007 in fact, so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much here. I noted then that although there are a large number of images of St George in the V&A’s collections most of them are not English. George was a very popular saint across medieval and Renaissance Europe. He is, for example, represented on works of art from Spain, Italy and Germany in the V&A’s collections.

St George is believed to have died around AD303. His legend was popularised in western Europe through a text known as The Golden Legend. The book contains biographies of saints, Apostles and martyrs and was compiled in the thirteenth century by Jacobus de Voragine. The book was published in English in 1483 by William Caxton and is still in print today in various scholarly and popular editions.

Every year the press debates whether the English fail to celebrate St George’s day enough. Inevitably comparisons are drawn with St Patrick’s Day which is celebrated on a much larger scale by Irish communities around the world. This year the Mayor of London has adopted a more active role in promoting St George’s day. It remains to be seen how London will respond.Scenes from the Story of St George, Museum no. A. 41 1954.

My own contribution to marking St George’s day is to include a few pictures of a wonderful statuette carved with stunning virtuosity. Although the subject matter was obviously significant to the person who owned the piece originally, the sculpture must have been prized particularly for the quality of the artist’s work. It is a wonderful object to inspect carefully and rewards close and sustained attention. For a better view of the object, and to find out more about it, click on the image.

To find more images of Saint George search in the V&A’s collections visit Collections Online.

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.

A Medieval (and Renaissance) Marvel!

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

By Stuart Frost

How many of you can identify the object that illustrates this blog entry I wonder? Not many I suspect. Any Daily Mail readers who read page 21 of the edition published on Wednesday 6th August will have a better chance of identifying it than most.Tiled stove, 1577-1578, Germany. Museum no. 498-1868. 

This bulky green artefact is what the Mail, desperate for an alliterative headline, described as a ‘medieval marvel’. It is a tiled stove built between 1577-1588, probably once used to heat a large room within the Convent of St Wolfgang at Engen, in Germany.

I have to confess that it is only recently that I’ve developed an appreciation for tiled stoves like this one. When I first saw an example in an old display at the V&A I had no idea what it was. If I’m honest my first thoughts were that it was a little ugly, rather dull and a bit too green for my tastes. My attitude changed on a bitter January day spent wandering around Prague with my boots soaked with water from melting snow and my fingers numbed by a biting wind. My friend and I sought shelter in Prague Castle. In the corner of one of the rooms was a tiled stove in use and radiating a tremendous amount of heat. Bliss!

Why has the Daily Mail suddenly taken an interest in medieval tiled stoves? A retired gentleman and resident of Southend recently installed a modern version in his home, one based on a fourteenth century Hungarian design. The wood fuelled stove stores up heat in its ceramic and stone structure and then radiates it back slowly for up to twelve hours. This ‘new’ stove has allowed this enterprising individual to reduce his gas bill by three-quarters. His version even includes a small compartment for cooking baked potatoes.Tiled stove, 1577-1578, Germany. Museum no. 498-1868.

Stoves were once popular throughout northern Europe. The one pictured here will be a dominant object in one of the displays in the new galleries. Maybe the launch of the new galleries will help fuel the re-emergence of the stove as an effective, efficient and elegant way of keeping warm in the winter?

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.