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Medieval and Renaissance: Past, Present and Future

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Archive for October, 2006

1066 and all that!

Tuesday, October 10th, 2006

By Stuart Frost

The 14 October 1066 is arguably the most famous date in English history, even if most people remember the year rather than the day and month. The Battle of Hastings didn’t actually take place at Hastings. If you get off the train there looking for the site where Harold Godwinson died you’ll be disappointed. The nearest train station is at Battle. From there it is a few hundred meters to the ruins of Battle Abbey, founded by William the Conqueror on the site of his victory. Each year, on the weekend nearest to the actual date, the Battle of Hastings takes place at Battle all over again.


The Bayeux Tapestry, actually an embroidery, gives a very good impression of what the battle must have been like. Many of the scenes capture the violence and chaos of the fighting remarkably vividly. The original tapestry is in Bayeux, but Reading Museum is home to a life-size copy that was embroidered in the 19th century. Not all of the ladies who made this copy travelled to Bayeux to study the original. They used an actual-size hand-coloured photograph that was produced in the 1870s. The V&A holds this photographic copy in its collections. In fact the V&A has two photographic copies, both of which were originally on display at the Museum and which once merited their own guide book. Neither of these photographs is on public display at the moment, but we are hoping to include a section from one of them in a Discovery Area in the new Medieval and Renaissance galleries.


The Reading version of the tapestry isn’t an exact copy. For example, there is a naked male figure in the lower border of the original. One of those embroiderer’s working on Britain’s ‘very own copy’ decided to give this little chap a pair of shorts to cover his obvious exuberance. There are other examples of 19th century prudery in relation to medieval and Renaissance art. Fortunately the V&A’s plaster cast copy of Michelangelo’s David was provided with a fig-leaf rather than a pair of woollen shorts.

Find out more about the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries Project.

Explore Reading Museum’s tapestry online.

Race and Rulership in Renaissance Florence

Thursday, October 5th, 2006

Anne-Marie Eze

Alessandro de Medici

A couple of weeks ago I gave a gallery talk in the Museum ‘Race and Rulership in Renaissance Florence’. The focus of the talk was a portrait of Alessandro de’ Medici (1511-1537), the first Duke of Florence. The V&A’s painting is based on a half-length portrait by Jacopo Pontormo (1494-1556). My talk was inspired by an article about Alessandro de’ Medici by John K. Brackett in the highly original book, ‘Black Africans in Renaissance Europe’. Brackett’s article revealed that Alessandro’s mother was thought to be a Moorish slave.

Now, how about this for a fortuitous coincidence? I was in the early stages of researching representations of black people in the V&A’s medieval and Renaissance collections to create an online resource. I’d just finished reading Brackett’s book when I noticed a colleague had doodled the name Alessandro de’ Medici on a piece of paper. “What’s that you’re working on?”, I enquired. “Oh, just trying to write the label text for a painting that’s going into the gallery soon”. “A painting! Not a portrait of Alessandro de’ Medici?” Having literally just finished Brackett’s book, I hadn’t had time to check whether the Museum had any objects relating to Alessandro. Even if I had come across the four objects - two medals, a cameo and this oil painting – their catalogue entries would not have alerted me to the fact that Alessandro was mixed race.

I’ve now completed my research into ‘Black Africans in Medieval and Renaissance Art at the V&A’ and my work will be added to these web pages in the near future. This turned out to be my last piece of work as an Assistant Curator at the Museum, as I left for pastures new the day I completed it. Being African and Caribbean myself and interested in this period more than any, I feel extremely fortunate to have worked on such a fascinating project. I hope the online resource will increase awareness of the relationship between Africa and Europe during the Middle Ages and particularly during the Renaissance, the period in which the large-scale enslavement and sale of Africans by Europeans began. Next year this country will commemorate the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade but I wonder how many will also think of slavery within the wider context of the Renaissance?