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Museum Objects as Evidence – Summer School in Amsterdam

On the 9–20 June I attended the summer school Museum Objects as Evidence: Approaches to the Material World in Amsterdam. The summer school was arranged by the Rijksmuseum, University of Amsterdam and the Bard Graduate Center.

My initial motivation for applying the program was to become more familiar with the methods in analyzing historic objects, and get inspiration on how to include and work with cultural heritage objects in my own PhD dissertation. Next year I am going to look more into the archaeological and material evidence of the dress of the lower levels of Denmark. I felt that I needed tools to approach this topic as a historian, since we are generally not used to work with objects in the material sense.

During the two weeks I got strong insight on how to use cultural heritage objects as sources of information. Some of the overall topics that were considered were damage or decay, object as evidence, reading the object, issues of authenticity,meaning through display, reimagining the object, the biography of objects, interdisciplinary research, and how we think of objects in the future.

Every day we were presented with a new topic and specialists showing us their work with groups of objects from the Rijksmuseum collections, ranging from Delft pottery to fine art paintings, and photography to colonial artefacts, metal wares and textiles.

Some of the sessions I found particular interesting, such as a session about metal objects and metal thread. Here we were presented to some of the treasures from a Dutch shipwreck, including items such as a powder box and a toiletry set containing many items, for example a mirror covered in velvet, and metal threads.

Some of the metal items from the shipwreck. The mirror from the toiletry set can be seen in the background. Photo credit: Anne-Kristine Sindvald Larsen.

In another session that I was very intrigued by, we were presented a highly decorative table ornament, which was decorated with small life casts of small fauna and flora. In effort to understand how the object was made, and to comprehend the highly complicated processes that artisans were able to perform almost 500 years ago, conservators had used contemporary recipe books to help them gain knowledge of the process of making life casts.

Wenzel Jamnitzer, tablestand (1549). Photo credit: Riijksmuseum.

Details of life casts of snakes and lizards. Photo credit: Riijksmuseum.

 

 

I was also very lucky to try out some technical examination methods on a piece of Renaissance jewelry. By using different technical approaches, we were able to determine the color pigments in the enamel, the quality of gemstones and pearls, and possible alterations and repairs. This made us understand the history of the object and what it had gone through in detail, and also led to quite a surprise. Turned out that the piece of jewelry that at first seemed to be an authentic renaissance object, had a frame added to it in a later period. This shows how important it is to take a deep and critical look into the history of the object, and interpret all the traces the object has to reveal about itself.

A Renaissance pendant is being examined. Photo credit: Thijs Gerbrandy.

The worksheet from the piece that were examined at the workshop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even more interesting, we also had a session on textiles, where 17-century bridal gloves were laid out for examination and where we were able to really see the cut and construction of the gloves, and get a closeup of the elaborate decoration, materials, and stitching.

A pair of bridal gloves that we were lucky to get a closer look at. Photo credit: Rijjksmuseum.

Every afternoon the day ended with a discussion where two students were in charge of presenting the main points of the day and their thoughts about the topic in general and in relation to their own project. This led to some very interesting discussion and inspiring thoughts.

What I also learned during these two weeks, is how important interdisciplinary views  and approaches are when working with objects. Besides the strong academic focus during the summer school, I got a chance to network and meet other researchers and museum professionals all interested in working and engaging with material culture in different ways.

Group photograph in the Rijksmuseum garden. Photocredit: Thijs Gerbrandy.

Before attending the summer school, one thing that I was especially interested in was to get an idea of how to cope with anonymous objects without any context or known provenance, since this is mostly the case with the archeological remains that are left of ordinary people’s dress in Denmark.

After these two weeks I feel more confident in working and incorporating objects in my own work, I have a stronger sense of what questions are relevant to ask, and know that even simple results can lead to a greater understanding of the objects and thereby the society it was made in. I also know more about the possibilities in terms of methods and approaches, and more importantly I have gotten a sense of how objects can transform our understanding of the past, but also how our understanding of objects keeps changing though time.

I look forward to using this knowledge in practice in the future.
 

Datini Conference 2018: “Maritime Networks as a Factor of European Integration” (13-17 May 2018)

Official panel of the Settimana at the City Hall

In May I had the possibility to participate to the 2018 Datini conference, or “Settimana”, in Prato. The theme of the conference – which is named after a 14th century merchant Francesco Datini, and celebrated its 50th anniversary – was “Maritime Networks as a Factor of European Integration”. The aim was to promote comparative analysis and to go beyond the isolated study of single economic systems, and understand the integrative role played by maritime connections around Europe and the Mediterranean, taking Fernand Braudel’s concept of Méditerranée as a starting point.

Official opening of the Settimana at the City Hall.

My paper, titled All roads lead to Venice. The role of public navigation in the Renaissance, discussed the system of trade which Venice developed from 13th century onwards, and which was based on the integration of private and public navies. This integrated system, which reached its apogee during the 15th century, helped Venice to become one of the main gateways for the long-distance trade between Asia and Europe during the medieval and early modern period. Thanks to the severaltrade routes that crossed the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean, Venetian merchants were able to import oriental spices, expensive textiles, and other Asiatic goods to Venice and Europe. Equally, European manufactured goods were exported to the Middle Eastern ports, where they were transported to continental Asia.

Beside all the academic events, the conference is also a meeting point for European economic historians, and offers the possibility to attend social events, such as concerts and dinners. An interesting side note is that in 2020 the focus of the conference will be “Fashion as an economic engine: process and product innovation, commercial strategies, consumer behaviour”. 

 

Research Trip to Milan, May 2018

Michele Robinson

Before meeting up with the rest of the Refashioning the Renaissance team for our Italian study trip in May, I visited Milan to do some research on the print and visual culture related to fashion and dress. The city is of course known as hugely important in the world of fashion today, but it’s also the site of many sources related to fashion in the past. Of interest to me was the collection of early modern prints at the Raccolta delle Stampe ‘Achille Bertarelli’ in Castello Sforzesco and in particular their copy of Enea Vico’s Diversarum gentium nostræ ætatis habitus (Venice, 1558).

Title page from Enea Vico, Diversarum gentium nostræ ætatis habitus (Venice, 1558), Raccolta delle Stampe ‘Achille Bertarelli’, Castello Sforzesco, Milan.

This work is considered by some scholars to be the first printed costume book, and it survives in just a few collections in Europe and the United States.[1] The version in Milan shows 32 men and women from different parts of Europe and western Asia with detailed depictions of their clothing and shoes. Many of the figures that we find in later costume books are very similar to those featured in Vico’s Diversarum.[2] There is also a relationship with Vico’s work the figures in friendship books, which started prior to the production of costume books, as we can see through the comparison of the images below.[3]

‘Militis Germani Uxor’ from Enea Vico, Diversarum gentium nostræ ætatis habitus (Venice, 1558) (Image courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).

‘Tedesche del campo’ from Bartolomeo Grassi, Dei veri ritratti degl’habiti di tutte le parti del mondo, intagliati in rame: libro primo …(Rome: [Bartolomeo Grassi, 1585]), p. 43. Warburg Institute, London.

Detail from Album amicorum of Nic. Engelhardi Argentin, 1601–1700. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.

It was so valuable to see Vico’s small, beautiful book in person as well as to have the chance to meet the wonderful staff at the Raccolta Bertarelli and work in such a beautiful and historic place!

View of the reading room at the Raccolta Bertarelli in Castello Sforzesco, Milan.

During my stay in Milan I also went to the exhibition Dürer and the Renaissance between Germany and Italy at Palazzo Reale (21 February to 24 June 2018). This was a wonderful display of many famous and lesser known prints, watercolours and paintings by the German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), and others working in Italy, the Netherlands and Germany. The exhibition did an excellent job of showing how Dürer influenced so many other artists, but also how important his visits to Italy (1494–95 and 1505–06), especially to Venice, were to his work. One of the most beautiful, and famous, paintings on display was Dürer’s Portrait of a Young Venetian Woman(1505). Although this work was created before the timeline for the Refashioning the Renaissance project begins, it offers us an incredible view of a Venetian woman’s clothing from the early-sixteenth century. For example, we can see the fine embroidery on her hair net and sleeves, the bows tied on the silk ribbons on her shoulders and the soft folds in the full sleeves of her gown.

Albrecht Dürer, Portrait of a Young Venetian Woman, 1505. Oil on panel, 35 x 26 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

At this time, portraits with a three-quarter view of the sitter were more common in Northern Europe and Dürer and other artists helped to introduce this format to Southern Europe; however, Dürer was also inspired by the work of Italian artists. For example, he created his own designs after Leonardo da Vinci’s famous series of knots. These are beautiful and intricate works in their own right and show one of the ways in which exotic designs spread throughout Europe via print culture. But Dürer’s engravings also relate to the Refashioning the Renaissance project in that they were influential on patterns for embroidery. For instance, Giovanni Antonio Tagliente’s early embroidery pattern book, Essempio di recammi(1530) boasts the inclusion of exotic patterns, such as ‘moresques’.[4] Though not based directly on da Vinci or Dürer’s works, books like Tagliente’s show how print helped to popularise these kinds of designs, and to make them accessible them to non-elite Europeans. For instance, the wives of artisans could use the patterns in these kinds of books to embroider gloves, handkerchiefs or parts of their clothing to make themselves and their family members more fashionable without breaking the bank.

Circle of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), The Fifth Knot. Knot design, with a central shield inscribed ‘Academia Leonardi Vin’, ca. 1490-1500. Engraving, 29.8 × 21.2 cm. British Museum, London.

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) (After Leonardo da Vinci or workshop), The Fifth Knot. Interlaced Roundel with Seven Six-pointed Stars, before 1521. Woodcut, 27.3 x 20.8 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Giovanni Antonio Tagliente, Essempio di recammi(Giovanni Antonio di Nicolini da Sabio e i fratelli: Venice, 1530).Woodcut, 19.8 x 15.7 x 1 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The few days that I spent in Milan were full but rewarding. I had the chance to see some beautiful and important printed sources, meet some wonderful archivists and get to know an amazing city. I hope to return to Milan soon to make more of the great resources on offer to researchers interested in the history of fashion and dress.


[1] See, for example, Bronwen Wilson, “Reproducing the Contours of Venetian Identity in Sixteenth-Century Costume Books,” Studies in Iconography25 (2004): 221–74.

[2] For more on the visual similarities between sixteenth-century costume books, see Jo Anne Olian, “Sixteenth-Century Costume Books,” Dress3, no. 1 (January 1, 1977): 20–47.

[3] For more on the relationship between friendship books and costume books, see: Margaret F. Rosenthal, “Fashion, Custom, and Culture in Two-Early Modern Illustrated Albums,” in Mores Italiae : Costumi e Scene Di Vita Del Rinascimento = Costume and Life in the Renaissance : Yale University, Beinecke Library, MS 457, ed. Maurizio Rippa Bonati and Valeria Finucci (Cittadella (Pd [i.e. Padova]): Biblos, 2007), 79–107.

[4] For more on these ideas, see Femke Speelberg, “Fashion & Virtue: Textile Patterns and the Print Revolution, 1520–1620,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin73, no. 2 (2015): 4–48.