This has been a golden year for Britain’s permanent collections of art. It began with the acquisition of Titian’s greatest privately owned painting, Diana and Actaeon, by the National Galleries of Scotland and the National Gallery in London. Then, in the autumn, came the triumphant reopening of the Ashmolean in Oxford. Next Wednesday, yet another grand project will come to fruition, as the Victoria & Albert Museum’s new suite of Medieval and Renaissance Galleries is finally thrown open to the public. It is an event of tremendous significance, not just for Britain but for the world. After more than a decade of planning and preparation, and at a cost of £30 million, one of the most extraordinary collections ever brought under one roof has at last been given the treatment that it deserves.
The V & A’s holdings in this area, especially in the fields of Gothic and Renaissance sculpture, have remained one of London’s better kept secrets. For generations, many of the finest objects were kept in a series of dingy rooms on the dark periphery of the museum’s main displays. Now they occupy the ten generous, light-filled, interconnecting spaces which have been carved for them at the heart of the museum. As a result the whole experience of visiting the V & A has been transformed and enhanced.
The one flaw of the new display could be said to be its title, which stretches the term “Medieval” to such an elastic degree as to render the term virtually meaningless. This is particularly evident in the opening gallery, devoted to “Faith and Empires”, in which the visitor encounters, among other things, a mosaic head of Christ with the beardless face of Apollo, which was fashioned during the last years of the Western Roman Empire. An adjacent display case houses a pair of spindly red woollen socks which were once worn by a fourth-century Egyptian. Both exhibits are undoubtedly fascinating – the socks, according to their label, enjoy the distinction of being “the earliest knitted items in the V & A’s collection” – but neither of them can really be described as a product of the Middle Ages.
Terminological quibbles apart, this thoroughgoing reorientation of the museum’s holdings is at its most effective when crossing boundaries of time and place to make fruitful or unexpected juxtapositions. The Gloucester Candlestick stands at the centre of the first gallery, an idiosyncratic masterpiece of twelfth-century English metalwork, with its figures writhing down towards darkness and up to where a candle-flame once flickered. Close to this tabletop allegory of heaven and hell stands the roughly contemporary Beckett Casket, decorated in champleve enamel by an unknown French craftsmen working in Limoges. Decapitated by elegantly pirhouetting swordsmen, the martyr’s soul rises to heaven through a sky of the deepest blue.
The sense that all Christendom was once indeed a single realm, stretching from Dunfermline to Beirut, is richly conveyed by the early galleries. The second room traces “The Rise of Gothic”. A headless tomb effigy fashioned in London in the 1340s, still retaining traces of its original, subtly life-like pigmentation, is juxtaposed with a case full of stern-faced Nottingham alabasters of the kind that were once exported to all corners of the Christian Mediterranean. Nearby there is a harrowing image of the crucified Christ, probably carved by the great Italian sculptor Giovanni Pisano. Fashioned from ivory, the figure is gaunt and agonised, skin stretched tight over the ribcage. A striking fragment, it was once part of a small altar cross, intended for the private devotions of a single individual or family. The carving was probably made in Pisa in the late thirteenth century, about a hundred years after the construction of the Leaning Tower. Henry Moore once declared Giovanni Pisano and his father, Niccolo, to have been the greatest sculptors in history.
More striking juxtapositions come thick and fast in the rooms that follow, several of which are devoted to secular objects and pursuits. An imported Japanese lacquer cup stands next to a drinking flask once owned by a member of the Medici family. A melancholy array of shoes excavated from a London plague-pit occupies the same case as a magnificent salamander pendant decorated with a huge pearl. But the undoubted climax of the display comes with a grand succession of galleries that culminate in a spacious covered courtyard on the ground floor. These are all devoted, essentially, to Renaissance sculpture.
The riches to be found in these rooms are simply without equal in the sculpture collections of any of the museums of Europe and America, outside Italy. Even within Italy, while there are one or two even greater collections of sculpture – notably that of the Bargello, in Florence – there is no collection that has quite the same geographical breadth as that of the V & A. There are masterpieces here not only from Florence and Venice, but also from Piedmont, Naples and Sicily. There are German sculptures, fashioned with filigree delicacy from limewood and boxwood by masters such as Veit Stoss – all the more extraordinary, in their sure-fingered intricacy, for having been cut when the wood was green, making allowances for its expansion in the years after carving was complete.
There are haunting little bozzetti, sketches in terracotta worked with finger and thumb, which range from a little twist of clay modelled by Michelangelo for one of the slaves for his unfinished tomb for Julius II, to the magnificent figure of a reclining god designed by Giambologna for his celebrated Mannerist masterpiece fountain of the Apennine. There is Mino da Fiesole’s brilliant marble portrait bust of a hook-nosed Florentine worthy, and a self-portrait in profile carved by Baccio Bandinelli which suggests that he was a considerably better artist than he was made out to be by his great enemy Giorgio Vasari (who relayed with great pleasure Michelangelo’s remark that Bandinelli’s figures all looked like sacks filled with melons). Above all, perhaps, there are the works created by the greatest artist of the early Florentine Renaissance, Donatello.
The nation has owned this exceptional collection of Renaissance sculpture for just about as long as it has owned the exceptional collection of Renaissance painting housed in the National Gallery. But due largely to the inadequacies of past displays, most people in this country have remained unaware of its very existence. Now, at long last, it can be properly seen and properly appreciated for what it truly is – and all entirely free of charge. In some ways, at least, Britain is becoming a more uplifting place in which to live.