Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 24, 2008
Marta Ajmar-Wollheim and Flora Dennis, eds. At Home in Renaissance Italy Exh. cat. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2006. 420 pp.; 360 color ills. Cloth $85.00 (101851774882)
Exhibition schedule: Victoria and Albert Museum, London, October 5, 2006–January 7, 2007

Marta Ajmar-Wollheim and Flora Dennis, co-editors and curators of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition At Home in Renaissance Italy, begin their exhibition catalogue of the same name by posing this question: why hasn’t the “pivotal subject” of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italian domestic interiors appeared more often in mainstream Renaissance studies? The text that follows seeks to help remedy the problem behind the question, and thus joins a growing list of recent contributions that have followed Peter Thornton’s The Italian Renaissance Interior, 1400–1600 (New York: Abrams), the monograph that issued a call-to-arms in 1991. These publications devoted to Italian domestic arts, however, have primarily sought to weave together the study of existing spaces with documentary evidence. The present catalogue combines this approach with a closer examination of objects and images associated with a domestic context as the subject enters its own renascence in Renaissance studies. This handsomely produced work presents the research of an international and interdisciplinary group of specialists “committed to recuperating the history of the Renaissance home, surveying museum stores around the world, exhuming documents from archives and resuscitating the forgotten voices of domestic life throughout little-known objects and writings” (10) in order to examine various aspects of Renaissance domestic life and to suggest avenues of further study.

The twenty-eight essayists for the catalogue accompanying the exhibition of Italian objects dating primarily from ca. 1400–1600 aim at advancing an “understanding of the web of relations that brought together people, spaces and objects in the Italian Renaissance home” (27).The object-based approach of their research has, as the editors admit, narrowed the focus of the text even further than the decision to concentrate on Tuscany and the Veneto (mainly Venice) had already done. Nonetheless, the co-editors’ argument, grounded in material culture studies, that Renaissance studies would benefit from reinstating the relationship between the study of artifacts and the study of people and culture in order to better understand Renaissance subjects and the objects they chose to surround themselves with appears altogether sensible. While it is true that Italy south of Rome is ignored, the stated geographic bias often seems less apparent throughout the text than one is led to expect, in keeping with the ongoing widening of the field to include less traditionally examined centers.

It is said that people make a house a home; at the heart of this catalogue is a lively examination of the Renaissance household and the intricate gender dynamics that shaped it. Twenty-three essays are organized into five sections with ten smaller, two-page explorations nested between chapters. These short examinations offer intriguing glimpses at specific artifact types found in Renaissance homes (the lettuccio [daybed] and cappellinaio [hatrack], for example, by Fausto Calderai and Simone Chiarugi, respectively); they also include a fascinating essay on the unusual prevalence of bathing in Genoa by Stephanie Hanke, as well as domestic objects associated with notions such as splendor (James Lindow) or with scientific knowledge (Jim Bennett). The five organizing sections—defining the casa, living within it, the everyday practices that took place there, sociability and entertainment within the casa, and art and objects used at home both fixed and portable—guide the reader much as Pietro Belmonte advised in his Institutione della sposa (1587), conducting her or him through the Italian Renaissance home and offering its beauties with becoming hospitality.

Launching the initial section, “Defining the casa,” Brenda Preyer and Patricia Fortini Brown, both well-known for their respective contributions to the study of Tuscan and Venetian palazzi, draw on their expertise to set the physical stage with discussions of the complex, variable layout and the use of elite homes, revealing intriguing similarities between the two in the conception of spaces while discussing evident aesthetic differences. Sandra Cavallo’s essay enlarges an understanding of the artisan’s home and household, and is especially welcome given the dearth of research on this subject. While providing insight into the uses and variable organization of the artisanal interior, Cavallo points out some of the commonalities they shared with elite homes, most especially in similar household rhythms and rituals, and in the symbolic values attached to possessions encountered within similarly organized spaces. Inventories, for example, reveal that a bed and its elaborate accessories displayed in an artisan’s camera held as much pride of place there as one from an elite home, though few if any of the former survive. Marked, however, was the greater transiency and precariousness of living arrangements experienced among artisans, the greater role of the neighborhood in shaping their social and family networks, and their greater reliance on credit through pawning that enabled them to project the respectable public image as necessary to artisans as elites. One of the more theoretically challenging contributions included in the catalogue is Luke Syson’s examination of the representation of domestic interiors within the iconography of the Annunciation, which presents a compelling argument regarding the critical role objects within domestic scenes could play. Syson argues that the representation of carefully rendered select household objects deliberately encouraged viewers to consider both what was and was not present, and suggests that rather than interpret these painted interiors as passive representations of reality or strictly symbolic, we should instead examine their ability to inform Renaissance devotional practices and their adaptation as tools for meditation.

Subsequent sections devoted to living in the casa people the stage and examine the intricate interplay of objects and the occasions warranting their use and presentation during both significant and mundane events. Sara Matthews-Grieco explores the range of objects offered and accepted in association with courtship and marriage that were integral to these processes to the point of being acceptable as evidence in legal disputes. Jacqueline Marie Musacchio draws upon previous research from The Art and Ritual of Childbirth in Renaissance Italy (New Have: Yale University Press, 1999) regarding practices surrounding conception and childbirth, arguing that the inherent risks combined with the absolute necessity of childbirth help to explain the proliferation of objects related to these events, while Brown discusses what objects, treatises, sermons, and other documents reveal about the education and rearing of children within the home. Gender issues lie at the heart of Ajmar-Wollheim’s essay dealing with sociability and standards of hospitality, in which she argues that the central role played by the house in the development of Renaissance conceptions of sociability provided women in the position of hostess with a stronger grip on the household than generally acknowledged.

The final section of the catalogue is dedicated to various specific object types associated with the casa. It begins with a thought-provoking essay by Peta Motture and Syson that expands upon the argument presented by Hans Belting and Alexander Nagel that the period around 1500 launched the conceptual shift leading to our own modern ideas concerning the “work of art,” and argues that the locus of this process was the domestic residence. Drawing their evidence from domestic display and collection practices, Motture and Syson chart a convincing path whereby pictures moved from being created to exist within items of furniture to works executed explicitly as prized objects in their own right. Also particularly welcome here is Elizabeth Miller’s discussion of the display and use of religious and popular prints within both an elite domestic context and by those who could not afford more expensive types of pictures. These included printed board games like pela il chiù (“pluck the owl”)—for instance, Ambrogio Brambilla’s print dated 1589 from Rome (cat. 45), which Miller surmises could have been stuck onto a board. In this gambling game also discussed by Ajmar-Wollheim in her essay on sociability, players threw three dice to progress through a complex circuit of concentric ovals as they navigated hazardous stops and penalties. The study of this and other print categories is surely an area that should see further investigation, as this essay makes it clear that prints—displayed on walls and within furniture, handled reverently during devotions or flipped through during a rousing game of cards—were an integral part of the Renaissance household’s everyday life, however sadly infrequent their survival.

The catalogue represents a significant contribution to the field of Renaissance studies and to the investigation of material culture. Its contributors have compiled a great deal of informative, thoughtful, and innovative research that greatly expands knowledge of the Italian Renaissance household. Further, in drawing attention to some of the difficulties associated with information obtained from inventories, Cavallo (75) and Syson (86) provide caveats that those making use of these documents should take to heart. Nevertheless, there are, of course, issues that no catalogue on the subject can surmount easily. The surviving Renaissance domestic space was one used by a member of the elite; investigations of the spaces occupied by lower classes are possible only from rare documentary sources, thereby providing a decidedly one-sided view of domestic interiors and their contents in spite of the headway gained herein. The household itself as defined in this study appears to be the expanded nuclear family, although research from the Veneto reveals that some famous courtesans headed their own households. Presumably variations on the Renaissance household existed; future research on alternative households would be welcome. Further, while the geographic limitations of the text are explicable, this reviewer cannot be alone in hoping future studies will set their sights beyond Tuscany and Venice and examine the domestic patterns among other areas of the diverse local cultures found in Renaissance Italy. Although the introductory essay by Ajmar-Wollheim and Dennis is a marvelous beginning to the text, I was disappointed by the abrupt end of the catalogue, removing as it did any chance for the editors to draw together or comment upon some of the future areas of study suggested piecemeal throughout the study. This complaint may not resonate with most readers, however, who are unlikely to read it cover to cover.

An extraordinary number of color photos of domestic paintings and objects are reproduced throughout the catalogue, indicating that at least the elite casa was a space that blurred the line between the “fine” and “decorative” arts, and displayed a general and sustained attention to high ideals in craftsmanship and finished details even in many “ordinary” household objects, such as a Venetian lantern of ca. 1570 (cat. 29). The reproductions are of general excellent quality, though some will require a magnifying glass. As someone who must often scan images from texts for use in the classroom, I found the small size and truncation of some images disappointing, and the positioning of a pastry cutter between two columns of text disconcerting (cat. 96). Nevertheless, the range of objects is impressive; many were gathered from the Victoria and Albert’s own Italian sculpture and decorative arts collections begun in the late nineteenth century due in part to the Victorian empire’s outward-looking technological and commercial interests. Works were also drawn from museum collections across Western Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The V&A’s collection offers further proof of the importance of the institution, preserving as it has objects now considered as appropriate to the art museum as to the decorative arts collection. Since this reviewer was regrettably unable to see the exhibition, the above comments necessarily concentrate on the catalogue as the primary permanent record of the show. Nevertheless, some readers, especially those with children, might care to visit the charming, interactive educational website accompanying the exhibition. Created for a lay public, it is still available in the past exhibitions section of the V&A website.

Azar Rejaie
Assistant Professor, Department of Arts and Humanities, University of Houston–Downtown