Byline: BRIAN SEWELL
IN ME, the response induced by the innocuous words "At Home", printed on stiff card, is not that expected by the sender. Not much given to the social graces and uneasy among strangers, not only do my spirits sink, but I experience a nauseating knotting of soft organs in my stomach cavity, not relieved until the polite note of refusal has been posted and the invitation card is thrown away. Those who know me well will understand, therefore, that the latest exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum got off to the worst of starts when its curators called it "At Home in Renaissance Italy".
At home, indeed. This is an exhibition of pots and pans, of spoons and forks, of shoes and sheets and sealing wax, of cabbages and things - things, things, things - This is, of course, exactly why the V&A was established - to tell us about things: never mind about the intellectual ideas of the Italian Renaissance, forget humanism and Neo-Platonism, ignore theology and politics, think no thought of Guelph and Ghibelline, of Holy Roman Emperor and Holy Roman Pope, think only thoughts of things. This is the perfect exhibition for those who watch the Antiques Roadshow and the insufferable Mr Cheap-as-Chips, for those who prowl boot sales and Oxfam shops in search of Ting and Ming and Ch'ing; it is perfect for members of the Women's Institute to thrill orgasmically to a Florentine jam-pot that could just possibly have survived from the kitchen of Leonardo's wet-nurse, or experience the Stendhal syndrome at the sight of scissors-that could have cut the velvet for young Caravaggio's first codpiece. This is an exhibition of household relics, and as with all such ancient things, the odour of fetish hangs heavily about them. Here Mrs Raphael is At Home, the script italic, the stiff card a parchment rolled; here, At Home, are Mrs Titian, Mrs Botticelli and Mrs Medici; here, too, their servants; and their relics range from the most extravagant and useless of rich things to the most used and plain and cracked, from a splendid harpsichord painted for the Strozzi family to the plain wooden bucket of a minion, from the gilded ewer of the fabulously rich to the humble tumble of steel pins that were in every peasant woman's trousseau.
On the simple principle that one can never know enough, this exhibition is a rich store of information - but small information about small things and as irritating as the lady gardener who parades the Latin names of lavender and larkspur, and one's fundamental knowledge of the Renaissance is not a jot enhanced by any of this trivia. Look about you in this exhibition and you see a chair, a table or a chest, but no matter how long your contemplation of these things, things they remain - a chair, a table or a chest - and there's an end to it.
How should we respond to a small doublescrew press for flattening handkerchiefs?
With surprise, when five centuries later the Italian male is still to be seen blowing his nose between his pinching fingers?
With amusement at the fantasy that Mrs Masaccio was screwing it down with might and main while her husband, big strong Tom, was delicately painting frescoes that would change the course of the Renaissance? With questioning that so neatly complicated a piece of furniture could have been devised for so specific a small task, when the flatiron must have been the commonplace of every laundry room? Here there are hundreds of things that, no matter how craftsman-made, remain resolutely what they are and no more - the curiosities and accidents of survival. They offer nourishment to neither intellect nor soul and I ask (though with a scepticism that changes his sense) what Ovid did - "Quo non ars penetrat?" (What is not imbued with art?), and find the answer all about me, wherever my eye falls - things.
A HANDFUL of paintings, only one of them great in its own right, the rest not even particularly significant in this context or of such abysmal quality and condition as to be laughable, fails to lift the mood of the sane man not seduced by the enchantments of the antiques shop. …