The Silk Road exhibition — Sulla Via della Seta — at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome is one of those shows that make a few items go a long way. It uses its space to place those ceramics and cloths in a context, conjuring for the visitor an evocation of Xi’an, Samarkand and Baghdad through image, replica, sound and smell. In other words, it belies its American origins, for it seems to me that a characteristic of the great museums in the States — in contrast with most in Europe, excepting (tellingly) the V&A — is that they wish not just to present objects but to capture a whole civilisation. That principle of display is combined, in this exhibition, with elements created especially for its Italian manifestation, and it is, to my mind, at its strongest when, in the first room, it gives a summary sense of the Italian merchants who travelled the extended trade route and, in the last room, it places specific ‘tartar’ silks beside late medieval Italian devotional paintings, making us look at familiar images with new eyes thinking how incongruous it is that, say, St Bartholomew should be wrapped in a cloak with Chinese decoration.
What, though, most caught my attention was one artefact from the section on Baghdad, there to represent the learned and technical success of that city. It was an example of the water-clock designed in the late twelfth century by Abu’ al Izz ibn Ismail al-Jazari. It works as an hour glass does with sand, though this measures a whole day, by the water dripping into the bottom basin and its movement turning the top of the clock which acts like its face. What struck me was that on the ‘face’ sat a turbaned scribe, a preternaturally long pen stretching before him, and it is the movement of his pen which marks the passage of time. What an association between time and writing! How alien from European mores, where a scribe can be the preserver of the divine or the royal — the essential workman of history itself — but where those activities rarely have a heightened temporal consciousness. Palaeographers look for the dated manuscripts in the hope that the can map for us the development of script but, even in the Renaissance where such specificity was more fashionable, only a small minority carry a year, let alone a day, of production. Even rarer are those books that record the passage of time incurred in their preparation — leaving us to guess how long it took a scribe to complete a folio. And these concerns hardly touch what al-Jazari’s turbaned scribe can represent. I wonder what he would say if he could speak to us:
Cursed be those who claim that because I sit cross-legged I am lesser than those men who stand tall. Can they trace the arc of time as I do with a pen that sits like an extension of my finger? Without my profession, there would be no certainty of law or memory; even the Holy Word would be intangible. The words I write entertain you, teach you, direct you — and define you. But more than any of those achievements is my mastery of time. Without the movement of my pen, you could not measure the parameters within which you live. You would be left squinting at the sun. You come to me and say ‘write down my words so they will last, so after I am dead I will be remembered’. You should also come to me to learn about the passing of the days — for with the movement of my pen so passes the time you have left alive.
Yet, of course, when this scribe is the recorder of time, he is least like an expert in script. For, in Baghdad, the round city, he denotates the passing hours by drawing a circle. This, it could be said, is beyond the expression of words: the circle holds the mystery of infinity. When I was a schoolboy, I was taught that only a madman or a genius (is there a difference?) can draw a perfect circle; it was, I was told, Leonardo da Vinci’s calling-card to chalk on a friend’s wall a circle to show that he had visited when his would-be host was not at home. The seated, unmoving scribe does this every day, and every day is defined by the fact the scribe does this. Thought of in this way, al-Jazari’s clock could stand as the victory of Plato over Heraclitus, the movement of the water becoming the servant to the sublime perfection of the circle.
Give me, though, the imperfection of words over this higher skill. However ephemerally words are recorded — on flimsy paper or even less tangibly on screen — they speak of a person. And the scribe who sits each day drawing that sublime circle is denying that which makes his work most intriguing: the individuality of the script. The drawing of the essential circle may be an essential task but, if you ask me, it is wasting time which could be better spent on the delights of the non-essential.
This a brief plea to exhibition curators. I am spurred to it by having experienced the impressive temporary display at the Prado, El Último Rafael. It could, equally, have been called ‘Early Giulio’ because its second half is dedicated to Raphael’s protégés, particularly Giulio Romano showing a restraint that abandoned him when he had licence — and licentiousness — at the court of the Gonzagas. The exhibition begins, in contrast, with a series of imposing altarpieces by Raphael and his workshop and it is those that are the focus of my comment.
It is certainly a privilege to be able to stand in front of, say, Lo Spasimo, fresh for restoration. However, that is also my quibble: we, the viewers, stand immediately before the painting, looking the tortured Christ, as it were, in the eye. But this surely is not how the work is intended to be seen: Raphael did not imagine its viewers would dare to look straight-on at the action but would rather approach it in humble devotion, an adoration inspired not so much by his skill but by the work’s original purpose. This work — and, indeed, other altarpieces here, like the St Michael painted for Francois Ier — are simply too low on the wall. And what we have lost is not just a sense of reverence.
The captions to the paintings are keen to discern the hand of the master in details and in the design of the work. But what is lost by the fashionable low-hanging style is actually the full impact of the perspective of the image. By lowering St Michael to the viewer’s level, the power of movement, the sense of action as the figure protrudes from the picture, disappears. Equally, I would contend, with Lo Spasimo, the religious message of the art is weakened by the present display: viewed straight-on, we see a mass of people cluster around the tripped Christ but viewed from below, the impact is so much greater: we look up to Jesus as the most immediate point, and share with him in his suffering and, then, raising our eyes further, we can see the suffering lifted for Christ by the intervention of Simon of Cyrene — a metaphor for how the Crucifixion itself will lift the burden of certain death from our own shoulders.
My request, then, is simple: raise these artworks on the wall, hang them high. And, until that happens, I have advice to the visitor: be not afraid to kneel in front of one of these altarpieces. I suspect the local aficionados, born to a culture traditionally as hot in its religious fervour as in its weather, consider the curious sight of a mild-mannered Anglican on his knee before Lo Spasimo with curiosity and amusement. But don’t worry about how it looks to others: the reward for those who do approach these paintings from a position of reverence is a revelation of the genius of the late Raphael.
When is a manuscript royal? Is it solely when it was commissioned by a monarch? Or – a slightly broader definition – when it is called into existence by the will of a member of the royal family? Is it one which was made with the intention of entering a royal collection? Or one which, whatever its creator’s plan, did end up there in the Middle Ages? Or, indeed, one which reached the British Royal Library after the medieval period? It is a question worth asking because examples of all of these types of books are on display in the ‘Royal Manuscripts: the Genius of Illumination’ exhibition at the British Library.
On one level, the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition answers the question: John Lowden begins the introductory essays by stating that the definition used includes ‘any manuscript for which there is evidence of a royal connection at any point in its history’ (p. 19). It is a definition so capacious that it invites sub-division, a process that Prof. Lowden himself undertakes in the pages that follow. But it is also a definition not immediately on display to those who visit the exhibition, relying on the brochure, captions or audio-guide to help lead them through the more than 150 manuscripts laid out in the cabinets. They are told, instead, that manuscripts ‘associated with successive kings and queens of England … include some of the most outstanding examples of decorative and figurative painting that survive in Britain from between the 8th and 16th centuries’. A set of associations are implied, linking ‘royal’ with ‘manuscript’– associations which the visitor without a catalogue can (like Miss Lavish wandering Florence without her Baedeker) have the thrill of discovering for themselves.
The visitor may find it is easiest to define ‘Royal Manuscripts’ by what it is not: in the first place, the exhibition does not attempt to provide a detailed history of the library of the English monarchs. It is the case that, after a useful brief section on the creation of a manuscript (where parchment and vellum are bravely distinguished), the exhibition proper opens with a section on Edward IV as founder of the royal library, showing samples of the outsize Burgundian manuscripts that he bought. Beyond that, though, there is little here to hint at the difference between the Plantagenets and their French counter-parts: the development of the library of the Louvre from at least the reign of Charles V had a sense of books as part of the royal patrimony, whereas in England, until the late fifteenth century, manuscripts were as likely to leave the king’s ownership as to enter them, the books he came to own being seen as appropriate diplomatic gifts, ripe to be alienated from his property. Nor is there any mention in the captions of the purchase of the residue of the French royal library by John, duke of Bedford in the earl 1420s and its likely transfer across the Channel. This is simply not a tale the exhibition wishes to tell.
Similarly, the exhibition is not about the physical allure of the written word captured on parchment. The display includes some rolls – of prayers and genealogies – and, in one instance, presents an indenture of Henry VII (a manuscript made for the king to give away to Westminster Abbey: BL, MS. Harl. 1498) bound as a book within its binding and chemise, with heavily-encased seals hanging from it. These, understandably, are the exceptions: after all, the royal collection has suffered the sort of solicitous attention that results in the original bindings being removed and thrown away, though they (as many a presentation miniature reminds us) would have been the most noticeable element of a book to its early owners. Nor is there a discussion of the development of script in these volumes, nor a sense of what import different textual presentations may have been intended to carry. The sub-title for this show tells us where its main interest lies: in that element of a book’s construction that was its illuminations.
But the openings presented belong not only to manuscripts made for kings or queens. The second section of the exhibition, entitled ‘The Christian Monarch’ describes, through the medium of illuminations, the long association of kingship with religious devotion, from Athelstan to Henry VIII. Some of these books were created as instruments of royal worship, while others entered princely hands only a few generations after their first construction – a distinction neatly summed up by the juxtaposition of two Psalters, both owned by Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, with one made for his private worship (BL, MS. Royal 2. B i, noting that the presence of the duke’s notes in the calendar at fol. 4v works against the exhibition’s hypothesis that he intended the book for his nephew’s edification) and the other, the so-called St Omer Psalter, owned by him but produced in Norfolk nearly a century before it reached his hands (BL, MS. Yates Thompson 14). Yet others are included for their depictions of kings rather than being definitely royal in ownership – an example is the eleventh-century Rule of St Benedict from Christ Church, Canterbury with its fine miniature of three Anglo-Saxon kings joined by a swirling scroll that also lifts up the monk who reverently lies beneath them (BL, MS. Cotton Tiberius A iii). The section gives a sense of the habits of devotion and the duties they placed upon royalty but it also raises a question that lies at the heart of the rationale for this exhibition: was there a particularly royal type of illumination?
In some cases, the exhibition strains to associate a book with a royal patron. This is the case with the poster-boy for the show – God creating the world, as depicted in a Bible historiale (BL, MS. Royal 19 D. iii). It is a magnificent piece of work, its blues and reds a mass of delicately realised sets of wings – angels depicted à la Fouquet, if a few decades earlier. The audio-guide at this point echoes the catalogue in suggesting ‘it would not be a surprise if [the manuscript] were made for a royal owner’ but it goes further in suggesting the identity of that prince was likely to be Jean, duc de Berry. What interests me is the reasoning for this suggestion which, on the audio-guide, stresses the lavish nature of the illustration and implies that this would be most likely to be paid for by a member of a royal family. And yet, there are enough examples of resplendent manuscripts on display in this exhibition that were not commissioned by princes – from monastic and ecclesiastical establishments or from aristocratic families and (in the last century or so of the period) confraternities. The fact that some of the products made for such institutions or individuals later entered royal hands reminds us not only that princely collections were often inhabited by the second-hand but also that those same princes did not disdain handling manuscripts illuminated for the lesser-born. In other words, we would be best to avoid assuming that richness of decoration had particularly royal connotations at any point in the period covered by the exhibition.
The implication of this is that in their ownership and use of manuscripts, kings and queens were participating in a wider bookish culture. Rarely was it one of the factors that set them apart from their subjects but, instead, showed them sharing others’ interests. If this is so, we might wonder how far royal patronage defined what was new or what was best in manuscript production, rather than simply partaking of those fashions. Did princes earmark a larger proportion of their wealth on manuscripts than did other book-owners? Or did they reserve their cash for more ostentatious methods of conspicuous consumption? And, when they looked at a book, what drew their attention: did they turn to the illumination, seeing it as light relief from the over-supply of words that they were expected to decipher? Or did they let the volumes rest closed, so that the rich bindings were on show, at the expense of the masterful painting hidden inside? How did they hold these books and turn their pages? It is in the nature of a block-buster exhibition like ‘Royal Manuscripts’ that the objects are static, held open at a single folio for the duration of the display – no equivalent here to the daily turning of the pages in the Piccolomini Library of Siena’s Cathedral. What we are offered, in effect, is a snippet view rather than the whole book. The images can be enthralling, but the books in which they sit are not mere containers for artistic genius – each of these manuscript has a dynamism, an incorrigible plurality of its own, that can only be imagined when it sits under glass. We should savour the exhibition, with its juxtapositions and its insights, while we can; we should relish all the more the day these manuscripts are again available for consultation, folio by folio, opening by opening, in the Reading Room upstairs.
Like it or not, Oxford’s name can not escape from being associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, in the loose sense of the mid-nineteenth century British artists who claimed inspiration from pre-Mannerist Italy. It is appropriate, then, that the first show in the new temporary exhibition space in the revamped Ashmolean should be on the likes of Ruskin, D. G. Rossetti and Burne-Jones. It is a significant change of location from the old exhibition room, where about twenty years ago, I remember seeing a previous display on the Pre-Raphaelites. There is more space and more spaciousness, assisted by the vista over the new central lobby from the main window in the middle of the three rooms. The lighting in the first room is so low that, while the pictures themselves can be seen, the captions often remain shrouded in gloom. That, though, can be remedied: the new rooms themselves are surely a success.
I should have started: like it or not, and I don’t. I am no fan of the Pre-Raphaelites and I did not go to swoon at them; I was there for the ‘and Italy’ of the exhibition’s title. I stayed for two hours because what it had to tell of Italy was engrossing – what was on display was an Italy that was more imagined than remembered, that was simplified from the clutter of its many lives, and celebrated in its passing rather than for its future. Let me clarify those aspects by reference to one painting for each.
I. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Dante Drawing an Angel on the Anniversary of Beatrice’s Death (1853)
A year after its painting, Ruskin wrote to its creator congratulating him on his ‘glorious work – the most perfect piece of Italy, in the accessory parts, I have ever seen in my life’ (my italics). The phrasing suggests a way of seeing which might be alien to most of us who go to this exhibition: we soak up the stories the images we want to tell, but some contemporary eyes saw something greater, an evocation of a nation, not just an event. Those accessory parts are, one presumes, both the vistas of seen through the doorway and the window – a verdant garden and a waterside cityscape – and the interior décor of the room, with its drapes and angel-head carvings. None of those, of course, could have been painted from life or from memory: Rossetti’s Italian name hid the fact that he had no more first-hand knowledge of Italy than did William Roscoe. The latter, as I have said before, is mocked for daring to write on Florentine subjects without setting foot there; Rossetti receives less censure.
The distance between a viewed Italy and an imagined one is perhaps summed up by the cityscape Rossetti depicts in the distance: it seems to avoid any attempt to emulate the physical Arno and its banks. The image is removed in space and also, obviously, in time – and yet, for Ruskin, it conjures up a ‘perfect piece of Italy’, a concept of a place more intriguing for being idealised – and nearly as dead as Beatrice.
It is stating a commonplace to recognise that outsiders’ concepts of a nation provide an imagined country. But it is interesting to ask how a vision became constructed and so to notice what locations inspired those Pre-Raphaelites who did, unlike Rossetti, have the opportunity to visit Italy.
A vagary of any exhibition is the unintended impact of the selection of material it has, by necessity, to show in its confined space. The images on display in the Ashmolean suggest an interest in Italy that centred on a few places – Venice, certainly, and Verona also, as well as Florence, though Lucca seemed to receive as much attention. Other cities have walk-on roles – Pisa or Padua, say – but it still interesting what is not here. Nothing of Siena, nor of Arezzo. Umbria is notably absent, as is Emilia Romagna or Lombardy. The selection, as I say, skews the evidence but it does hint at how the appreciation for ‘Italy’ was highly selective and partial. There was not an attempt to grasp the variety of the peninsula but rather to extrapolate from a smaller set of stimuli, declaring those inspirations to be the mark of what had been Italian genius.
It also mattered that it was a genius that had had its glory days. Again, it is Ruskin’s enthusiastic reaction to an image that is revealing. The American Newman was praised for ‘exquisitely [rendering] the colour of the marble … still uninjured by restoration’. The idea of restoration as damage still has its pull for us: we tend to prefer our history delapidated and romantically suggestive, rather than prosaically complete. Ruskin encouraged others on a sort of ‘rescue archaeology’ campaign of depicting the monuments of his favoured cities before they were cleaned and renewed. One wonders how he imagined the buildings would have looked in a century’s time if restoration had not occurred.
What makes the nostalgic element so notable is its political context – a context, of course, to which the Pre-Raphaelites rarely paid direct attention. Most of the pictures in the exhibition, when they are populated by humans at all, are home to medieval figures. In some of the architectural drawings, a reclining peasant or Florentine bourgeois might be allowed to appear, but very few paintings on display touch on contemporary life. One that does have a political relevance is the image by Arthur Hughes. Intended to depict Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem ‘A Court Lady’, it shows an injured soldier, who has etched ‘Italia’ into the wall beside his bed, as the tricolore flutters in the sunshine seen through the window in the background. Maurizio Isabella discusses in the exhibition catalogue the British enthusiasm for Italian nationalism – for a state both unified and liberal. That political support might have been deeply sincere but what sort of Italy did these artists expect the new nation to be? Indeed, did such details matter to them? Was it, rather, that unification mattered less in their minds for what ‘Italy’ might become than for its affirmation of what they perceived the Italian genius to have achieved? In that sense, unification would be an ultimate accolade for past greatness – national unity as laureation.
I am left wondering about the nature of the love affair the Pre-Raphaelites had with Italy: in some ways, it is the most delicious sort, a love that delights in, rather than recoils from, imperfections but which is, all the same, based on a blindness to the whole, leaving out the elements you do not want to see. In a harsher light, though, can we deny that it was an abusive love, caring little about the object of desire and delighting instead in the emotions and responses it provides for yourself?
If you did not, you have, of course, missed it now: it ended at the beginning of the month. And if I praise it and describe its riches, that may only serve to increase your frustration. I made it to London only in the last week of the show and what follows is meant not as a review but as a comment on what we can learn from it in terms of future exhibitions.
For this exhibition David Starkey was ‘guest curator’, a designation which could cover a wide spectrum of involvement from the highly engaged to the wilfully insouciant. There were certainly some features of the show that seemed trade-mark Starkey: for instance, the importance, in the early sections on portraits, with the captions attempting to read from the image an insight into the sitter. The exhibition, it must be said, was uneven in its chronological focus, with Wives Three to Six seemingly crammed into the last section, and Catherine of Aragon and her nemesis occupying the (English royal) lion’s share of the space. That, perhaps, reflects both a desire to shape the popular imagination, reiterating the now well-tried line that Henry’s first marriage lasted longer than all the others put together, but also to reflect a popular understanding in which the cataclysmic events of the 1530s were the pivotal moment of the reign. To judge from the evening I was there, and from what else I have heard, the show was certainly a success in terms of number of visitors through the doors. Which is all the more surprising considering what was, for me, the most significant feature of this display.
Being in a library, books were always going to feature heavily in the exhibition, and with that comes well-known difficulties. Books tend to be small items, in scripts illegible to many, around which people cram without quite knowing what it is they are supposed to be seeing. I would not suggest that the exhibition succeeded completely in overcoming those difficulties but what it certainly did do was make the most of these problematic objects. Drawing on the work of James Carley and others, the show emphasised the interest of Henry’s own marginalia in his books. It did this not just be noting their presence in an exhibit, but by providing replica pages next to the item, with a moving light-source literally to highlight the elements to which our attention, like the king’s before, was being drawn. I had not experienced this type of display before and it worked. At times, it was too ambitious: in one corner of the exhibition, where the light was supposed to rise and dim around you to connect a page with the objects shown nearby with which it related, I just could not work out what was meant to happen. More generally, however, it acheived the tricky task of helping these exhibits accessible without ‘dumbing down’ their content.
It made me think that this could be a prototype for future exhibitions. My dream: let’s have one on Henry IV and his sons, to coincide with the centenary of the first Lancastrian’s death in four years’ time. There are, in the BL, many manuscripts associated with him, with his sons, particularly John and Humfrey, as well as with his grandson. And, as I can point out where Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, annotated his books, the technology they have used could be put to good effect. Is anybody at the BL reading and willing to take up this challenge?
Last week saw me at Windsor, to see the exhibition to celebrate the quincentenary of the accession of the tyrant, Henry VIII. If one undertook the trip and paid the entry fee to the Castle just to see this small exhibition, and did not stay to stand in awe within the splendour of St George’s Chapel, or to marvel at the quality of paintings amassed in the royal apartments, one would be disappointed. There are no revelations or new insights into the career of the second Tudor, and, in several instances, original works by Holbein are substituted by later prints or copies. That, in itself, though, set me thinking.
For someone more familiar with the tale of the late recognition in England of the artistry of the ‘Italian primitives’, what struck me was the recurrent high regard in which the German father of English portraiture, Hans Holbein, has been held. ‘Recurrent’ is probably a better term than ‘continuing’ would be: the fortunes of the ‘great book’ of Holbein’s drawings suggest a disrupted journey. In royal hands in the mid-sixteenth century, it was in the collection of Lord Lumley by the 1580s. On his death, it passed to Henry, Prince of Wales, the ill-starred son of the first Stuart. It thus returned into royal ownership, only to be given away by Henry’s younger brother, Charles I. In the late 1620s, he was willing to part with it, in return for a ‘little St George’, which happened to be by Raphael. The fact that the king parted with a whole set of Holbein drawings for this one small image — now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. – perhaps helps us calibrate the distance in standing between the two artists, in the eye, at least, of one distinguished collector.
But the Holbein book was hardly thrown into the outer darkness: it passed into the hands of Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel, himself a respected and fashion-leading connoisseur. After the Restoration, the drawings were, as it were, repatriated, becoming part of the collection of Charles II. Even then, though, its adventures were not over for, it is said, in the early eighteenth century, it lay discarded until ‘re-found’ in 1727 in Kensington Palace. My suspicious mind does wonder whether this last episode may be one of those myths of loss which can accrue to objects later considered precious and which actually come to form part of their mystique. The claim of underrating can, on occasion, be used to justify a change in the status of the object and that certainly happened in this case: the book was dismantled and, under the guidance of George Vertue, the individual drawings mounted and displayed.
In 1675, it was said that ‘the book has long been a wanderer’ but perhaps its very travels helped it gain a reputation for its artist. The drawings are apparently mentioned in art treatises from c. 1630, soon after it had reach Arundel’s collection. And, certainly, the display presently at Windsor demonstrates that Holbein’s images were considered worthy of copying in the seventeenth century: for example, Robert White produced an engraving of Katherine of Aragon, inscribing it with the words ‘H. Holbein pinxit’. The stimulus to reproduction may, in part, have been the identity of the sitter, but the inscription also suggests that Hoblein’s name was considered known or worthy to be known.
Indeed, Holbein’s reputation could, at times, be a source of misattribution. George Vertue, whom we have already mentioned, painted a portrait of Edward VI in 1745, with the frame stating in gold letters ‘after Hans Holbein 1545′. The original, on display upstairs in Windsor (and on-line), is, in fact, no longer considered to be by Holbein; its present designation is either ‘Flemish School’ or ‘William Scrots’. In other words, the standing in which Hoblein came to be held left some of his contemporaries in the shadows.
What is the moral of this tale? Perhaps it is this: we may tend, at times, to imagine that our own tastes reflect those of our forefathers and assume that the celebration of Holbein in the Windsor exhibition and in earlier ones, like that at the National Portrait Gallery in 1994 (from which I have taken some of the information above) or the ‘Dynasties’ show at the Tate the following year, is the latest stage in unbroken interest, dating back to the artist’s own lifetime. When we begin to realise that this is not quite so, we are liable to replace that ahistorical view with a narrative of the ‘re-discovery’ of the ‘Renaissance’, in which there is a path — not always easy but definitely visible — from forgetfulness to remembrance. But the information we have suggests something less linear and more interesting: a pattern of knowledge and ignorance across and within generations. The vagaries of attention shift back and forth and can only with injustice to the subject be simplified into a ‘direction’. And, indeed, moments of low regard, as might be imputed to Charles I’s giving away of the ‘great book’, could actually spur others to a better appreciation.
When was the Renaissance? It is an old question which came to mind as I was walking around the Queen’s Gallery at Holyrood House last week. The temporary exhibition ‘The Art of Italy: the Renaissance‘, is one half of a larger show of works from the Royal Collection, previously presented in London, where it also covered the Baroque. In the smaller but elegant space available in Edinburgh, the display allows us to muse on some memorable paintings, as well as drawings and a very few books. What struck me was that nearly all the items are datable to the sixteenth century: they include well-known portraits by Parmigianino, Agnolo Bronzino and Lorenzo Lotto, as well as more enigmatic images by Titian and Lodovico Pozzoserrato (whose Italianised name hides his Netherlandish identity); the oldest work was a copy of the masterpiece published by Aldus Manutius from his Venetian press in 1499, the illustrated Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Where, I wondered, was the Renaissance of the quattrocento, the fifteenth century, that is home to me?
It is not as if the Royal Collection lacks art from fifteenth century Italy. I remember, about fifteen years ago now, having, in effect, a private view of Andrea Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar at Hampton Court – they had, at that point, been removed from the public rooms, but, being a pushy student, I asked to see them. It was a memorable half hour in front of images remarkable for their classicising style and sheer magnitude, with an equally interesting history to tell as one of the purchases of Charles I from the sale of the Gonzaga treasures. Perhaps the Mantegna are considered too frail to travel for exhibitions, but there are other quattrocento works available as well in the Royal Collection. The Queen can feast her eyes on a work by Benozzo Gozzoli, best known for his lively frescoes in the Medici Palace in Florence. Up the road and to the right from there, the convent of San Marco hides within its tranquil, contemplative walls the work of Fra Angelico, also represented among Her Majesty’s artworks. The exhibition could also have branched out into ceramics and included the bust by Guido Mazzoni of a laughing child, owned by Henry VII as one of the first Italian Renaissance items in the English royal collection. But all were absent, leaving out at least a century of what I would consider Renaissance art.
The Royal Collection’s decision implicitly to define the Renaissance as sixteenth century is in many ways a return to an old fashion. Many would now use the terms High Renaissance and (though highly problematic) Mannerist to describe the trends in art of the generations of Michelangelo and his followers. But, to the nineteenth century, this is where it truly was: the art of the quattrocento – Masolino and Massaccio, Piero della Francesca, Mantegna himself – constituted ‘the Primitives’, before the grace and supposed perfection of the early cinquecento so influentially by Vasari. Few, however, would consider that we should return to those designations or that periodisation.
The real question, of course, is whether it matters. After all, the Royal Collection have provided a pleasurable exhibition which fits into the space available. In many ways, it does not matter or, rather, should not – but there are two current issues which do give it some import. In the first place, it relates to the academic division between ‘medieval’ and ‘early modern’, which, in history departments tends to fall around the year 1500. As someone who studies both sides of that divide and who sometimes describes himself an expert in that part of the Middle Ages called the Renaissance, this is one more example of a tendency which reinforces an unfortunate separation which we should be working instead to undermine.
This, though, is about more than the relatively unimportant matter of how academic departments choose to organise themselves. What is also at stake is how we perceive historical ‘progress.’ There are surely few, if any, historians who would admit to believing that there was some definable shift from ‘medieval’ to ‘early modern’, a moment or simple process moving from one era of society to another. The passage from past to present is more complex, and much less about a linear vector of development, than that would suggest. But I would want to take this further and to warn against making too close an association between different cultural ‘movements’ or phenomena. Historiography can provide many ‘Renaissances’, particularly clustered in the sixteenth century but – as the case of Italy shows – not confined to that time-period. In popular textbooks, the impression can be given that those Renaissances, usually defined by country, share an identity, as if it were a baton-race from nation to nation. It is wise to be aware of the evident links between these phenomena, but all the more essential to appreciate the disconnections and the distance between them. In the end, we can use the concept as we wish, either confining our own use to the sixteenth century or allowing to range from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries in chosen contexts – just as long as we recognise we are always constructing ‘Renaissances’ for ourselves rather than expressing some ineffable reality.
In short, it is tidier to have a Renaissance confined to the sixteenth century and certainly less complicated to imagine it was a single phenomenon which manifested itself across Europe. But, in this case, I am on the side of messiness.