Madonnas and Miracles

Yesterday, for one very good reason or another, my mid-morning student and I found occasion to pop over to the Fitzwilliam Museum for a spot of intensive culture, with a focus on the somewhat niche language for linear perspective (orthogonals, vanishing point, volumetric, and so on). 

Leaving aside the irrelevance that it was sparkling early-spring day, and a crying shame to be sitting in a classroom, we made a profitable trip. We had a look at the gallery of Italian art, and got about as far as the Titian and Veronese; then we wound around to the new exhibition they have on, Madonnas and Miracles, and pogoed rapidly but happily through that. To repeat, all very intensive and instructive.

We had spent a portion of the first lesson looking at a video on Khan Academy about Brunelleschi’s invention of linear perspective, and the exhibition provided a series of counter-examples to those we found in the permanent collection: any number of meditative devotional panels, their madonnas and children floating in abstract volumes of dark space, very unlike the coordinate location system of linear perspective. And very appropriate too, for icon-like works designed for private contemplation.

The exhibition focusses on religious imagery in domestic spaces, and comprises not just works of high culture (Filippo Lippi, workshop of Botticelli, etc.), but a good deal of demotic or low-grade devotional art, whether sculpture, illumination, painting, drawing or print. More of historical-sociological interest, then, than strictly aesthetic appeal.






The Fitzwilliam Museum has now passed beyond its 200th anniversary, and is wrapping up festivities. Among other things, it has made a short film in which visitors (mainly children, because they are I suppose more biddable) line up to say what they like about the museum, and how much they like it.


It is, if I may be excused the oxymoron, interestingly banal. No one has anything penetrating to say. They talk about the variety of the holdings, or their early experiences and associations, and it is very jolly and positive. I would say the same sort of things myself. But it remains uninteresting.The visitors are aware of the kind of things that might pass muster as answers to such questions, and they deploy those. But none of them is true.

This suggests a structural problem. I read somewhere that when people give bland answers, you have to assume they are concealing something, and this seems a plausible line of attack. I often find myself wondering what I am doing in various places, and I can provide answers (to myself or to others) which conceal my true purpose. The true purpose is usually economic (I am at my desk; I am in the classroom) or social (I am having sherry with my in-laws). So perhaps that is also, obliquely, the case with the Fitzwilliam Museum. I am socially, economically, of such a class; or I see myself as belonging to such a class. From time-to-time, therefore, I need to display the attributes of a person of that class. So I go the museum. I do not go to the greyhound racing. If the woman in the video whose friend came from Australia to visit the museum had said that as far as she was concerned, she’d rather be down the bingo, it would at least have been refreshing (if also edited out).

The word interest, needless to say, is an ambiguous one. Visiting the Fitzwilliam Museum may very well be interesting; it is also in your interest. Much of what you can see in the museum was buried with the privileged of their societies: grave goods mark out the elite of the tribe. And they are totemistic also for us. We go to the Fitzwilliam Museum (and induct our children into the Museum, also) because it signals our status. The interest we take in anything is anything but pure.

None of which, to repeat, means the the museum is not in fact more interesting than the bingo. It is. Much more interesting. But they should have let me make their video for them. I would have got some proper answers (especially from the children).

Striking Medals

The rugby World Cup ended last weekend with victory either for New Zealand or Australia, I was out of the country and don’t recall the details; but the medals were made in England, needless to say, and made very close to Cambridge, by a small Shepreth firm.

I don’t know that Cambridge has a particularly rich association with medals and medal-making, but when a year or two ago I was asked to take a couple of our Spanish students around the Fitzwilliam Museum the first thing I showed them was a cabinet containing medals struck for Sigismundo Malatesta and other Renaissance notables. The Sigismundo medal, designed by Pisanello, bears on the obverse a portrait bust of his wife, Isotta degli Atti, and on the reverse an elephant with an over-long trunk – his emblem.

Medals were struck in the Renaissance in emulation of Roman coins and medals. A minor princeling such as Sigismundo would have wished to show his cultivation and classical learning, as well as his power and wealth, through the art works he commissioned, and this would have included the medals on display.

We do not strike medals for quite the same reasons today. While the World Cup medals look rather pretty, they are hardly a match for the beauty of Sigismundo’s efforts. Perhaps that is why an individual call Sonny Bill Williams who plays either for New Zealand or Australia gave his away to a child on the pitch after his victory (always assuming it was a victor’s, and not a loser’s, medal – who can remember?).

Treasured Possessions

A new exhibition opens today at the Fitzwilliam Museum, of ‘Treasured Possessions’ – curiosities from its vaults which are hard to categorise except as personal objects of devotion.

I sometimes ask my students which of their personal possessions they would take with them on a five-year space mission, if they could select only one. It proves a surprisingly tricky question to answer.

No one wants to say their laptop or their smartphone, even if that is the truth. Wouldn’t a five-year space mission in any case have machines that duplicated their functions? Some say photographs, but you would surely take digital versions of those. You don’t need to worry about clothes, I imagine. Are children your possessions? Certainly not. Pets? What then?

I would be tempted to take my teapot. I have a beautful hand-made jade-green ribbed teapot that makes enough tea for one person. It is an object of quasi-religious veneration. But would I be able to boil a kettle on a spaceship?

And on it goes. The truth of the matter is, I think, that the idea of treasured possession, like the idea of a collection (or books, of records) has taken a bit of a battering in recent years. I remember when I was a boy that my mother would occasionally bring out a rag-tag collection of objects of sentimental value which she kept secreted – a locket, small boxes, mementos of my boyhood, some jewellery which had belonged to her mother, and so on. That was a time when people’s personal possessions were relatively few, and were handed down, totemic items from the family vaults. Now we probably have too much stuff, all of it duplicated and replicated and branded, all of it bearing value other than sentimental.

It is highly doubtful that I’ll be showing my mother’s locket to my children and grandchildren; still more doubtful that I’d take it into space. Laptop it is.

Treasured Possessions runs at the Fitzwilliam Museum until 6th September. Entrance is free. 

Whale news round-up

They have found a whale at the Fitzwilliam Museum they didn’t know they had. It came to light during the restoration of a painting by Hendrik van Anthonissen, formerly known as View of Scheveningen Sands (1641), now known as View of Scheveningen Sands, with a Stranded Sperm Whale. Here are the before and after:


Whale painting - after

The whale emerged during the recent wholesale refurbishment of the Dutch Golden Age galleries (now open again to the public), when a number of paintings were sent to the Hamilton Kerr Institute, the centre for art restoration at the University of Cambridge (located in fact a few miles south of Cambridge, in Whittlesford). Shan Kuang, conservator at the Institute, takes up the story:

If the new whale whets your appetite, there is also an exhibition in the Charrington Print Room of prints (all from around 1600, in Antwerp) of strange sea creatures.

Very like a fish: Prints of whales and other aquatic wonders is only on for a few more days – until 7th September – so like Albrecht Dürer, who died from a chill contracted on a trip to see a whale stranded on the Zeeland coast which had decomposed before he got there, you’ll need to hurry.


Cambridge Summer Music

The Cambridge Summer Music Festival is drawing to a close this weekend. So far you have missed performances by Sir Roger Norrington with the Zürcher Kammerorchester and Sing-Akademie of St. John’s Passion, and Joanna MacGregor playing the Goldberg Variations. You are also too late for a confection called Four Girls and Four Harps, which represents a near-miss of potentially cataclysmic proportions.

So now that we can breathe again, what is left? On the final Sunday, cellist Natalie Clein, pianist Katya Apekisheva and violinist Fredrik Paulsson will be playing a programme of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky, culminating in the latter’s splendid Piano Trio op. 50, at the Fitzwilliam College Auditorium – not to be confused with the Fitzwilliam Museum where, the previous day, the Kazakh pianist Samson Tsoy will be playing a programme of Mussorgsky, Rameau and Beethoven. Entrance is free, but there will be a parting discretionary collection (so he can get the bus home, I suppose).


While you are there (which you probably will be, if you are in Cambridge: it is going to rain all day) the Fitzwilliam Museum is worth a look after its long makeover. The front of the museum has been wrapped in scaffolding and sheeting for the past year or more, but it is now returned to a state of glory, with gold pineapples and bronze-green railings.

And don’t forget to take a look at the Weeping Virgin, whom the museum is currently trying to acquire.


Truancy at OISE Cambridge

truancy-patrolYesterday two of our regular students, Francisco Aparicio and Javier Jiménez Juárez, Spanish lawyers from the world of banking who visit OISE Cambridge for a week every year, spent the afternoon at the Fitzwilliam Museum in the company of their teachers.

It was at their own request of course, although the teachers didn’t take much persuading. It is always pleasant to get out of the classroom (although we usually and perhaps rightly ascribe to paying students more mundane cost-benefit analyses). Everyone benefits from the sense of escape, of truancy; of being at play while others work. Continue reading