Victoria and Albert Museum Renaissance and Medieval galleries break down barriers of time

By Melanie Abrams | 25 January 2010
A photo of an ancient book open to show scribblings and diagrams inside

With its world famous treasures including St Thomas Becket's casket, altar pieces, Leonardo da Vinci's Notebooks (above) and the evocative sounds of Renaissance city life, the new Medieval and Renaissance Gallieries at the Victoria and Albert Museum are bustling.

Occupying an entire wing of the Museum, the ten rooms display more than 1800 works from the fall of the Roman Empire in 300 to the end of the Renaissance in 1600, that showcase everything from popular trends in aristocratic life through to international trade and faith.

A photo of an intricate ancient blue-hued casket

St Thomas Becket's casket is one of the star exhibits of the new galleries

"The objects are a way of understanding the culture of the time and the people who made and used them," says Chief Curator Peta Motture, who reckons the galleries have enticed one in two of the Museum's visitors since they opened in December.

"We wanted to break down the barrier between the periods and highlight their similarities, showing that the origins of Renaissance thinking in 15th century Italy had its roots earlier," says Motture, describing the seven-year programme to complete these galleries.

A photo of the detail of an ancient colourful tapestry showing a battle scene

Detail of Tapestry - The Story of the War of Troy, Southern Netherlands (now Belgium, Tournai) (1475-90). © V&A images

Many of us preceive the Medieval period to be one of darkness, war, plague and feudal lords ill-treating the poor peasants, whereas the Renaissance is seen as a period of life, art, debauchery and light.

"We wanted to show that the Medieval age was also a period of innovative, great artistic production which flowered," says Motture.

Re-discoveries during conservation have highlighted this aim, including the glorious original colours of Master Bertram’s 14th century Apocalypse Triptych.

Yet for all of its medieval splendour the appeal of these galleries lies in their links to modernity.

Some works seem more recent than their dates imply, such as the naturalism and heart-wrenching expressiveness etched on the face of the Pisano Christ 1300 as he is at the point of death, or Riccio’s lustful Satyr and Satyress.

A photo of an ornate harpsichord

Harpsichord made for the Strozzi family by Giovanni Antonio Bafo, Venice (1574). © V&A images

Elsewhere new ways to experience the collections transport us immediately back in time. On the balcony, which evokes the famous scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, visitors can overlook the Renaissance City from a splendid room dedicated to the furnishings and decorations of domestic life.

"We wanted to make connections and highlight that there is more beyond the rooms, as well as enabling people to see the objects as they were originally seen in their proper context and as they were never seen before," says Motture.

Other spaces, such as the Scholar’s Study, based on a study of the patron, Piero de Medici, have brought to life the culture of the time, highlighting its significance to today.

"You can get a sense of the space and understand how it was the forerunner of the museum, as the study was where visitors were taken and therefore the most important room in the palace," explains Motture.

Unsurprisingly, some objects still have a modern resonance. Shoes, for example, were a major fashion statement of the period and as important as the Jimmy Choos or Manolos of today.

"For the elite, shoes such as the pair of platform mules of around 1600 sent messages about your wealth and status," explains Motture.

Further on a Trencher and Broth bowl from a Birth Set dating to 1533-8 shows another mainstay of the glossy magazines of today - the importance of horoscopes in Renaissance daily life.

"It is not always easy in gallery displays to get at the systems of belief and make them relevant to today, but this set does that," says Motture.

"Just as today, there was an eager desire to predict the future, taken very seriously by some."

Finally, the old and the new are acombined with stunning effect in the display of the façade of Sir Paul Pinder’s House in London.

"We stripped the object back to what it was originally against a modern background, combining reproductions and original objects to create a different approach," says Motture.

Open daily, admission free. Books on the galleries include Medieval and Renaissance Art, People and Possessions by Glyn Davies and Kirstin Kennedy (£40) and Medieval and Renaissance Treasures, edited by Paul Williamson and Peta Motture (£14.99), both published by V&A Publishing.More information about the new conservation discoveries of the 14th century Apocalypse Triptych by the Museum will be published in The Burlington Magazine shortly.

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