Yesterday I went to London to see the Renaissance exhibition at the V&A, and the Velázquez exhibition at the National Gallery. A quick trip to Unsworth's opposite the British Library was worth it in that I picked up a copy of Burrow and Doyle's Thomas Hoccleve: Facsimile of the Autograph Verse Manuscripts, EETS S.S. 19 (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the Early English Text Society, 2002) for the princely sum of £34.99, a very good find. The facsimile reproduces three autograph manuscripts of Thomas Hoccleve, containing all his verse except the Regiment of Princes. The manuscripts are very well known, Huntington Library, San Marino, MS HM 111 & 744, and Durham, University Library, MS Cosin V. III. 9. They were all produced between 1422 and 1426 (when Hoccleve died), and are important not just as witnesses of Hoccleve's verse, but also because they are the earliest examples of an English poet creating a 'Book' of his own verse, a 'Collected Works'. As witnesses to a poet's self-presentation, they are extremely interesting. So after blowing money on that I couldn't afford the catalogues for either exhibition.
The V&A exhibition is entitled At Home in Renaissance Italy, and it runs until Janurary 7th, 2007. It is a collection of objets, of household stuff, both high class and low class, all thematically displayed in sections entitled Sala, Cucina, Camera, and Scrittoio. They display works from the Tuscan region, and the Veneto, so it gives you a chance to compare and contrast. The exhibits range in date from about 1400 to about 1600. The two things I was really looking forward to in this exhibition somewhat disappointed me. I wanted to see what they did with marriage dowry chests, known as cassoni, and how they presented marriage gifts etc. There was curiously little on the subject. They did have some gifts, hankerchiefs, a couple of rings, etc, and they were interesting. But there was only one cassone and it was really quite basic. Having read Cristelle L. Baskins, Cassone Painting, Humanism, and Gender in Early Modern Italy, Cambridge Studies in New Art History and Criticism, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), as well as Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, Women, Famil y, and Ritual in Renaissance Italy, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane, (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 1985), esp. the marvellous chapter 'The Griselda Complex' on the very elaborate and fascinating dynamics of exchange and dowries in Renaissance Florence, I was wanting more from the exhibition. The other disappointment was the section entitled Scrittoio. Now I love this kind of thing. Nothing is more satisfying that getting into someone's study and having a root around. And apart from the marvellous Antonella da Messina St Jerome in His Study and the Labours of the Month by Luca della Robbia, which was originally in the de' Medici study, and a couple of impossibly delicate cameos, it was a little...lacking in a narrative. But it may well have been the nature of the material, lots of bits and bobs, and hard to hang a story around it.
Velázquez (and runs until 21 January). Nothing else. Not 'The Early Years', 'The Late Years', 'The Lost Years', just 'Velázquez'. So presumably they are trying to give us a snapshot of the artist's output and his greatness. They have set themselves a tough job with so few works, only 46 in all, and many of the superstar paintings are not represented. What is there is certainly of a high quality, and it was a bit of a thrill to see the two 'Kitchen Scene' paintings, dating from about 1618, one of which has a small window in the background through which we can see the Supper at Emmaus. This painting is in the National Gallery Dublin, and I'm very fond of it. The other, at the Art Institute Chicago, lacks the background scene. There is a progression from the early, more domestic settings done when the artist lived in Seville to the later Court paintings, with huge monumental portraits, and mythographical scenes. To be honest it's the early stuff that really moves me, like 'An Old Woman Cooking Eggs' (1618), or 'The Water-Seller of Seville' (1618-1622). And of all the court paintings the most beautiful, in my opinion, is the 'Portrait of a Young Man' (1625-9, Cat. 21/X5573, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek, Munich). There's something so intimate and quiet about it, it's not flashy or for an obviously powerful client. His face is clear and frank, someone who knows a little too much of court-life but thinks he knows when his time will come, either to seize his opportunity or to get out altogether. Light streams down on his face from a full and high source. The rest of the painting has been executed with quick brushstrokes, and much of the canvas has been left unfinished, except for the extraordinary face. There's something ever so slightly pouting about the mouth, perhaps a kind of self-regard one might associate with such a powerful court. But this is off-set against the rather tender shadows around the nose and chin, and the beautifully steady eyes. It was worth going to the exhibition for this portrait alone.
Both exhibitions are well worth seeing, but neither will change your life.