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Italian Art in Britain: a love story

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

 

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