As part of our Virtual Members’ Week for 2020 we are celebrating our Renaissance collections, and we asked ten of our V&A guides to name their favourite objects from our incredible galleries. They did not disappoint, and their choices show the amazing range of our collections – as well as the exquisite craftsmanship and philosophical outlook for which the period is known. From tapestry to terracotta and rich with the names of great masters, we hope these highlights inspire you to explore more gems of the Renaissance on the V&A website.
Anna Bromley-Martin – The Labours of the Months (decorative terracotta)
These twelve glazed terracotta pieces were made for the barrel roof of the small study in the Palazzo Medici in Florence for Piero de Medici. They show the agricultural practices of the day, and note how many daylight hours, how high the sun will rise in the sky each day in the month, and the waxing and the waning of the moon. Some years ago, when I was working on the Information Desk, a charming Italian gentleman, who worked for a museum in Florence, asked me where they were. Forty or so minutes later he came back and asked if he could take them back with him – and tried to offer me all sorts of private tours of Florence and the museums if I let him. Obviously, the answer was no!
Sandy Hawkins – Step Ends commissioned by Giuliano Gondi
On entering the V&A’s Medieval & Renaissance courtyard (The Paul and Jill Ruddock Gallery) it is easy to dismiss the Gondi step ends among all the magnificent sculptures surrounding them. Closer inspection reveals 14 ends adorned in sculptural relief, with various flora and animals – including a squirrel, crab, rooster, weasel, beetle, fish and birds. The animals reveal a wealth of witty and fascinating stories and form an intellectual game that illustrate the virtues of prudence and hard work. A Renaissance observer would have had a captivating time. Only those with a knowledge of the ancient Western and Eastern fables so admired by Giuliano Gondi, who commissioned them, could unlock the tales.
John Harbord-Hamond – The Ascension with Christ Giving the Keys to St Peter by Donatello (Relief)
Donatello’s reputation as a sculptor rivals that that of Michelangelo. In this marble panel he uses a technique called rilievio schiacciato to portray both the Ascension and the Giving of the Keys of the Church to St Peter with carving so shallow that the figures are almost ghost-like. I find the depiction of these important moments in the history of the Church, portrayed with such delicacy, absolutely stunning.
Jeremy Strachan – Virgin and Laughing Child (Sculpture)
Is there something familiar about the Virgin’s enigmatic smile as she cradles the laughing Christ Child in this charming terracotta sculpture? Long attributed to the fifteenth century Florentine Antonio Rossellino, it caused a minor sensation last year when scholars revived the suggestion that it was by his more famous contemporary Leonardo da Vinci. V&A curators are not convinced, but could it be that the museum does hold the only known sculpture in the world by the great master?
Marie-Laure Viala – Carved mirror frame
This inspiring object is from the important Renaissance collection of Jules Soulages in Toulouse, bought in incredibly difficult circumstances between 1855 and 1865 (travelling in 1857 to the unique Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition). A richly carved mirror frame shows in abundant detail the path man can choose between good and evil; tantalisingly associated with Lucrezia Borgia, it was made at the workshop of Alfonso d’Este (Lucrezia’s third husband) in Ferrara around 1490 – 1520, and is crowned by his personal emblem of the flaming grenade.
David Hibberd – The Burghley Nef (Salt Cellar)
This beautiful and intricate model of a salt cellar in the form of a small medieval ship (nef) was so named following its discovery in the basement of Burghley House near Stamford in 1956. Made of parcel-gilt silver in Paris in 1527 – 8, with the hull made from a nautilus shell, there is much detail to admire, particularly the tiny figures of Tristan and Iseult playing a game of chess at the bottom of the mainmast.
Charlotte Henwood – The War of Troy (Tapestry)
This Flemish tapestry, woven in wool and silk, is part of a much larger workhe scale of it the ambition of the designer. The subject is the War of Troy, adapted from Homer’s Illiad and procurement of this section was championed by William Morris. The narrative includes the declaration of allegiance by the Amazon Queen, to King Priam, and a touching scene inside the Greek camp, where the youth Pyrrhus is presented with the golden helmet of his dead father, Achilles. Also included, on the left-hand side, is the back view of one of the best-behaved dogs in the V&A, here sitting patiently and observing events inside the city.
Silvia Mazzola – Majolica plate showing the Procession of Pope Leo X
Who would not want to be a spectator at one of the triumphal processions so fashionable in the Renaissance? On this brilliantly coloured majolica plate made in 1516 you are transported to Florence on 30 November 1515, witnessing the procession of the first Medici Pope, Leo X, patron of Raphael and Michelangelo, wearing his papal jewelled tiara and a golden cope, his hand raised in benediction, like a classical Emperor. But Hanno, the white elephant given to Leo by the Portuguese King Manuel I, was never there. He remained in Rome and died in 1516 due to constipation and a purgative of liquid gold. ‘Fake news’, perhaps, but a reminder of the Pope’s favourite pet.
Mina Renton – Portrait Miniature of Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein
My chosen object is this miniature portrait of Anne of Cleves by Holbein, who brought the Renaissance in painting to England. Holbein doesn’t just record her physical features but masterfully conveys her sweet, serene nature and her dreamy eyes. Painted in watercolour on vellum, the lid of its ivory case is shaped like a Tudor rose. Henry VIII sent Holbein to Germany to paint Anne so that he could decide whether or not to marry her. When Henry actually saw her, he declared ‘I like her not’. The marriage was unconsummated, and annulled after six months. Anne was lucky, she got away with her head intact.
Rob Mathieson – Adoration of the Magi altarpiece by Andrea della Robbia
This altarpiece by Andrea della Robbia dates from late 15th-century Florence. Inspired by Renaissance ideas, the composition shows a fresh and innovative approach. The craftsmanship shows full knowledge of ceramic techniques and an understanding of the science necessary to produce such a work of art. In the collection since 1857, I like to think that it inspired our fabulous Victorian ceramics that cover the cafe and the Ceramic Staircase and, if so, it shows how knowledge and inspiration can combine to spark our imagination.