IT'S THE ANTIQUES ROADSHOW; Grand Masterpieces Jostle with Trinkets in the V&A's New [Pounds Sterling]32 Million Medieval and Renaissance Galleries -- If Only There Were a Historical Framework to Make Sense of Them All
Byline: Brian Sewell
In the dying days of 2009, the Victoria and Albert Museum revealed the still not quite finished 10 galleries that, for [pounds sterling]31.75 million and seven years of labour, it has rejigged to accommodate a selection of its treasures of Medieval and Renaissance art and artefact. the press has been ecstatic over this first stage of what the museum calls its "Future Plan transformation"; like dogs rolling in fox droppings, they rolled in hyperbole, declaring the display spectacular, heaving with luxury, the objects ravishing, glowing, opulent, unrivalled ... When the great and good were carted in to give their blessings, they too waxed lyrical, none more so than Lady Antonia Fraser melting with delight over a pair of Byzantine slippers -- but that's the trouble with this new display, for though it contains, for example, masterpieces of sculpture by Donatello, tilman Riemenschneider and Giambologna, the developments in sculpture north and south of the Alps are made incoherent by the whimsy induced by showing them in the company of trivia and such accidents of survival as the eighth-century egyptian tunic so vast that I heard one plump visitor say to another: "Goodness, that could have been made for Vanessa Feltz."
On my first visit, seduced by a sense of light and space opening off the entrance hall, I trod the new display the wrong way round; beginning with the later Renaissance and ending with Byzantium. By then I was exhausted and came away grumbling about the absence of any sign that might have ensured my following the course from 300 AD to the establishment of the Stuart dynasty -- that is by plunging down the stairs immediately to the right of the main entrance and past the men's lavatories.
I grumbled too about the labelling of exhibits; eyes down and bums up is the rubric for these at the V&A -- all very well for visitors in wheelchairs (but how, pray, do they negotiate the stairs?) but not easy for the rest of us who have to stoop, kneel and prostrate ourselves to read labels level with our knees and ankles. Some of these are lost in gloom not pierced by spotlight; others, however, dazzle the would-be reader with reflective glare. Constantly one plays the stale museum game of hunt the Label, as elusive as the Scarlet Pimpernel. As for remedying the intellectual confusion that was the consequence of my seeing topsy-turvy the development of art and artefact from the establishment of Christianity in the Roman empire to the triumph of the Catholic Counter-Reformation in post-Renaissance Rome -- for that I put my trust in a second round of the galleries, beginning at the beginning with Lady Antonia's slippers.
Imagining myself to be a schoolboy thinking of art history as a career and, naturally, turning to the V&A in much the same way as to the national Gallery, of which it claims to be the sculptural equivalent -- that is in search of beginnings, developments and consequences, in search of distinctions between the arts of north and south, east and west, and between the church arts of Orthodox Byzantium and Catholic Rome, in search of identity in period and nationality -- I was again frustrated. I had hoped to lodge in my mind a simple framework of art history and style into which I could fit everything that I might learn, see and understand. I had the bones of such a framework when I was a boy, founded in the national Gallery and V&A when, post-war, foreign travel was impossible; the Courtauld Institute, in underpinning it, gave it new dimensions, bulk and subtlety, and provided me with a structure for scholarship that has never failed me. In the V&A now, however, in my persona as a student, I could find neither foundations nor scaffolding with which to construct my framework -- only whimsical curatorial bundlings of shoes and ships and sealing wax.
In this new display the museum pretends not only to throw fresh light on arts, artefacts and styles that lie between Classical Rome and Baroque Rome over some 1,300 years but to redeem medieval art from a dark and devilish reputation that it has not had for the better part of two full centuries (remember Viollet-le-Duc and Ruskin?). had I not re-trawled the 10 new rooms with my trusty framework in mind, I could not have emerged from their clutter with even the vaguest idea of what is implied by the words Roman, Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic or Renaissance and would be utterly ignorant of the subtle (and not so subtle) characteristics that differentiate the various stages within them -- the Byzantine art of Ravenna is, for example, distinct from that of Constantinople, the High Renaissance as expressed by Raphael very different from the contorted Mannerism that we encounter in Giambologna.
THE V&A claims that it crosses "boundaries, geographical, chronological and critical". This may be amusing in transitory exhibitions but curatorial whimsy has no place in long-term display -- as this must be for so many million quid (if it stays in place for a whole generation it will have cost a million smackers a year). It is flawed by division into vague categories -- Making a Reputation, Makers and Markets, People and Possessions, Devotion and Display -- into all of which, according to the lubricity of curatorial argument, all exhibits could be made to fit. The Renaissance City is an absurdly grand portmanteau for ill-assorted fragments of architecture ranging from the carved decorations of the ends of steps from a dismantled staircase in the Palazzo Gondi to a complete chapel removed from the church of Santa Chiara in Florence, both, on their labels, unequivocally attributed to Giuliano da Sangallo but neither even mentioned, let alone explained, in the absurd book published as a souvenir of the display (it is certainly not the aide-memoire it claims to be).
This book announces that it is "... not set out chronologically, but instead offers an alternative approach ... takes up a theme that allows fundamental ideas to be explored across the whole period". This is lunacy and the book is rubbish. It is not a catalogue but at [pounds sterling]40 it sells at a catalogue price. It resembles a Reader's Digest product and is pitched by a Reader's Digest intelligence at the Reader's Digest reader. It attempts to throw light on a "fundamental idea" with half-a-dozen exhibits bought at random on shopping sprees more than a century ago, but it offers no explanation for any proposed date or attribution, nor for any change of attribution since real catalogues were published decades ago. It asks no intelligent questions, answers none, is not encyclopaedic even in the most rudimentary sense, and omits more exhibits than it illustrates.
It is the clearest indication of the museum's fear of frightening us with scholarship and its disciplines, the clearest illustration of the museum's dumbing-down, and could easily pass for a BBC publication to accompany programmes fronted by Lenny Henry, Alan Titchmarsh or one or other of the Dimblebys.
Let us return to Giuliano da Sangallo's chapel, built in 1493, not mentioned in the book, yet the most important exhibit in its imposed context and in that it echoes the influential principles of order and proportion established by Filippo Brunelleschi in his Pazzi Chapel (Santa Croce) 70-odd years earlier. Though its preservation by the V&A is commendable, the history of its secularisation and eventual acquisition in 1860 is little short of scandalous and throws light both on the willingness of Italian authorities to consent to such depredations and on the catch-all acquisitiveness of the museum's shopping expeditions in the 19th century; these lumbered the museum with a great deal of secondrate junk simply because it could be bought so cheaply, and curators often behaved with the careless greed of Billy Bunter in a cake shop.
Of these expeditions, the writers of labels and the confounded book should have reminded us; instead, we must turn to John Pope-Hennessy's Catalogue of Italian Sculptures in the V&A Museum, 1964, though to do so is to discover unexplained discrepancies between identifications then and now. As an example, let me offer the ugly and ill-fitting marble altarpiece within Sangallo's chapel (its arch obscures and cuts over the arch of the rear wall). Vasari, writing in the mid-16th century, listed this as by Leonardo del Tasso, a very minor sculptor whose most important work this is, and Pope-Hennessy accepted this; so too, in 1996, did Paul Williamson, then Curator of Sculpture at the V&A; both scholars observed the influence of a rather better sculptor, Benedetto de Maiano. Now, however, without caveat, the altar is unhesitatingly given to Benedetto, though in any sane man's view it is hopelessly inferior.
Let me offer another example of inadequate labelling and cataloguing, the Reliquary Bust of St Antigius, given the date c.1500 in the book, 1505-10 on the label. Of Antigius, almost no information is given and we are left to assume him to have been an early Bishop of Brescia, probably known only locally as a saint (the first important Christian church there was founded in the sixth century). According to the Acta Sanctorum he was Gaulish, a saint in Langres (north-eastern France, then Gaul), whence, perhaps to preserve it from marauding Vikings (Normanii), his whole body was translated to Brescia in the ninth century; the date of his death is unknown; 14 November is his feast day. Nor is there any information relevant to the bust, which stands on an engraved plinth that could easily date from c.1500; but the bust itself, and particularly the head, suggests a much earlier date, Romanesque rather than Renaissance. I am inclined to suggest that the head, hieratic in nature, may be all that remains of an earlier reliquary, or that the whole bust is a replacement of c.1500, deliberately keeping the character of the ancient original -- an astonishing thing to do at this stage of the Renaissance in a city that was by no means an intellectual and aesthetic backwater. Whatever the case, we need more of a serious catalogue note than we are given.
THIS is true of all the exhibits that most interest me and I could go on with my complaint.
Has anyone yet decided, for example, whether the frame of Donatello's relief of The Ascension is contemporary with it or is a later embellishment? It has always seemed to me too ornate, too dominant and too tight. On larger issues, I can see no point in jumbling sculpture, painting, prints, manuscripts and every kind of thing. Things are all very well on the Antiques Roadshow, but why swamp major works of art with them? This is an exhibition of 19th-century greed in acquisition, bulk quantity diluting beauty and significance, crushing perception and understanding.
Only the small room containing the works by Donatello makes any sense as an encapsulation of any aspect of the Renaissance, a quiet eddy for contemplation amid the racket of Niagara's Falls. We have spent [pounds sterling]32 million, not to inform the public, not to share scholarly experience with them, but to entertain them with muddle and confusion; we have sent hundreds of sculptures into store for at least a generation; and the greatest work of the Italian Renaissance in the V&A, indeed in Britain, indeed outside Italy, Raphael's Tapestry Cartoons are sequestered at the far end of the museum, ill-hung and ill-lit, in a room empty of visitors on all three of my perambulations, a shoddy old display, as far away from this new display as it is possible to be. Where, pray, is the sense in that? These cartoons and Donatello's sculptures say more of and for the Renaissance than all the other exhibits put together.
The Medieval and Renaissance Galleries are at the Victoria and Albert Museum, SW7 (020 7942 2000, www.vam.ac.uk). Daily 10am-5.45pm (Fridays until 10pm). Admission free.
Gallic charm: Reliquary Bust of St Antigius
The great and the good: left, stained-glass figures of Saint John the Evangelist, the Prophet Ezekiel and Saint James the Less from Winchester College by Thomas the Glazier, c.1393. Right, Christ's Charge to Peter by Raphael, 1515-16
Sumptuous devotion: left, Carlo Crivelli's Virgin and Child, c.1480. Right, a sizeable eighthcentury Egyptian tunic…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: IT'S THE ANTIQUES ROADSHOW; Grand Masterpieces Jostle with Trinkets in the V&A's New [Pounds Sterling]32 Million Medieval and Renaissance Galleries -- If Only There Were a Historical Framework to Make Sense of Them All. Contributors: Not available. Newspaper title: The Evening Standard (London, England). Publication date: January 14, 2010. Page number: 34. © Not available. COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.
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