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Medieval and Renaissance: Past, Present and Future

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Archive for May, 2007

Putting it in Perspective

Thursday, May 17th, 2007

By Stuart Frost

As I walked back to Charing Cross via Trafalgar Square at the weekend, I decided to briefly escape the cacophony of the city by seeking sanctuary in the National Gallery. I hadn’t intended to. I happened to be passing and thought that I’d spend thirty minutes or so looking at one or two paintings, then have a coffee and quickly look around the bookshop. Whilst I was there I reacquainted myself with one or two sculptures from the V&A’s Renaissance collections which are temporarily displayed in the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing.

Virgin and Child

In the case of the della Robbia Virgin and Child for example, it’s presence in the National Gallery is used to highlight the fact Italian painters from the 13th century onwards sometimes used sculptures as sources for ideas for their works.  Anyone with a baby or young child will know that they usually don’t stay in the same position for very long. Sometimes sculptures provided models that were easier to draw, like the figure of the infant Christ in this sculpture.

Paintings could also influence sculpture. For example, some relief sculptures are quite similar to paintings in the way the figures are arranged. When relief sculptures were painted they could look even closer to paintings.

The redevelopment of the Medieval and Renaissance galleries has provided many similar opportunities for objects to be loaned to other museums and galleries. The sculpture highlighted here travelled (with many others) to the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds. It was on display there between 23 September 2004 and 27 March 2005 as part of an exhibition, Depth of Field: The place of relief in the time of the Donatello.  The show was a joint collaboration between curators at the V&A and the Henry Moore Institute (HMI). We found the process of developing the exhibition with the HMI a valuable learning experience that has informed our plans for the new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries. The exhibition also made some of the V&A’s most signficant objects easier to see for people who lived in the counties surrounding Leeds.

I’ll use future entries here to highlight forthcoming important loans and exhibitions.

Find out more about Renaissance sculpture from the V&A at the National Gallery

Find out more about Depth of Field: The place of relief in the time of Donatello

Michelangelo’s David and Queen Victoria

Friday, May 4th, 2007

By Stuart Frost

Fig Leaf for Cast of Michelangelo's DavidThe Cast Courts at the V&A are one of the most extraordinary museum spaces anywhere in the world. Whilst the V&A’s collections of original medieval and Renaissance works are renowned, its remarkable collection of nineteenth century copies of sculptures are perhaps less well known. The majority of the plaster casts and electrotypes are of medieval and Renaissance works, reflecting Victorian taste.

Visitors to the Cast Courts at the Museum can see reproductions of some of the most well-known works of the period standing side-by-side, including Michelangelo’s vast David, arguably the most famous sculpture in the world.  

Casts were once a relatively common sight in museums where they were seen as valuable teaching tools. In the early 20th century, unfortunately, many collections of casts were disposed of and destroyed. Other copies of David were not so fortunate as the V&A’s and no longer survive.

Casts came to mind as I sat down to write this entry because I recently saw one of my favourite objects, a plaster cast fig-leaf, in an unfamiliar context.  The leaf is being used as the main image in current promotional material for a forthcoming temporary exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery, Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now (12 October  2007 - 27 January 2008). The story of the relationship between art, sex, society and censorship should make for a fascinating exhibition and it’s one I’m looking forward to seeing.

Michelangelo DavidThe fig-leaf is usually displayed at the V&A in a case on the back of the pedestal for Michelangelo’s David. It is easy to miss in this location which is a shame as it has a good story attached to it. The forthcoming exhibition at the Barbican should help raise its profile. Anecdotal information links the creation of the fig-leaf to Queen Victoria’s first viewing of the copy of David. She apparently found the nudity of the figure shocking. The cast was used to cover the genitals of David during royal visits, and was last used in the time of Queen Mary (1867-1953). 

The addition of fig-leaves to nude statues was apparently not uncommon in the nineteenth century, nor was the over-painting of troublesome areas of anatomy. In some instances access to objects was even restricted. Attitudes to sex and sexuality have been very different in the past, whether in ancient Greece, Renaissance Florence or Victorian Britain. Whilst attitudes can change significantly over time, surely it is impossible to imagine a situation in the future where David’s fig-leaf might need to be brought out of retirement?