As a medievalist I have a certain dislike for ‘museums of medieval art’ because, usually, what they display are just bits and parts of medieval altarpieces neatly sawn into pieces and hung on a wall to fit the anachronistic concept of the autonomous ‘gallery picture’. I much prefer museums and collections which have the terms ‘historical’ or ‘applied arts’ in their name or in their mission statement, e.g. the Historisches Museum in Basel, the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg or, the royalty among them, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. In museums like these you’ll find entire altarpieces, sculptures, processional banners, tapestries, embroidered liturgical vestments, carved wooden caskets, metalwork caskets, enameled caskets, carved ivories, reliquaries, illuminated prayer-books, ornamented candlesticks, aquamaniles, richly sculpted doorways and window frames from dismantled buildings, and, occasionally, entire ceiling vaults that have been reinstalled in the museum.
Of course, most of these collections were created in the 19th or in the very early 20th century when it was common practice to e.g. dismantle pieces of ancient architecture like the Pergamon Altar or Babylon’s Ishtar Gate and bring them permanently to Berlin. Or when John Ruskin could seriously foster plans to have Padua’s Arena Chapel – including Giotto’s famous frescoes – brought to England in its entirety.
So I really shouldn’t have been surprised when – on my recent visit to London – I walked through a small door in the Victoria & Albert Museum and suddenly found myself standing right under a beautifully painted Renaissance ceiling from Italy:
This ceiling comes from the Casa Maffi in Cremona where it was painted c. 1500 by local artist Alessandro Pampurino. In its lower part it shows a number of allegorical figures and, most notably, eight round medallions with the Muses. All of this is executed in a trompe l’oeil (‘fooling the eye’) vein, suggesting to the viewer that he or she isn’t looking at paintings but at relief sculptures worked in stone.
This highly illusionistic approach is even more discernible in the ceiling’s centre which conjures up the idea of an oculus, an actual round opening in the ceiling with some figures leaning on the opening’s parapet looking down into the room, with the clouded blue sky visible behind them.
As the art historians among you will have noticed, for this ceiling decoration Pampurino was ‘using a composition invented by Mantegna’ – I put that in quotation marks because I borrowed that particular phrase from the caption in the museum and, frankly, I believe that only someone with a lifelong education in English politeness could have made that statement without using the words ‘rip-off’ or ‘copycat’.
Anyway, for the non-art historians among you, here’s the ceiling Andrea Mantegna painted in the so-called Camera degli Sposi in Mantua’s Ducal Palace between 1465 and 1474:
It ought to be stressed, perhaps, that Mantegna’s Mantuan ceiling was highly innovative at its time and really without precedence. So, if they had had our modern copyright laws back in the 1400s, Mantegna really would have held copyright on this composition (and his lawyers would probably have sued the shit out of Pampurino).* As is plain to see, Pampurino ‘borrowed’ and slightly simplified the overall structure of Mantegna’s original design and, most importantly, its groundbreaking centrepiece, the fictive opening in the ceiling:
So as I was looking at the Casa Maffi ceiling in the Victoria & Albert Museum, the part of my brain trained in historical analysis thought something like: ‘This is a highly derivative work by an artist striving to imitate Mantegna.’ But at the same time, the rest of my brain just thought: ‘Hey, that’s a great painted ceiling.’ Which reminded me of how much we are used to (and trained to) view the history of art (and indeed the history of everything) as a succession of innovations, disregarding anything that doesn’t appear to be original or progressive.
When it comes to the history of Renaissance ceiling decoration, for instance, we tend to start off with Mantegna’s Camera degli Sposi and then what? Then we tend to jump right ahead to Raphael’s frescoes in the Loggia di Psiche (c. 1512) in the Villa Farnesina or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508-1512) because, you know, those were the guys who took things to the next level. We rarely pause however to look at the innumerous artists who were content to stay on an already established level and make a – often hugely succesful – career of creating works based on the achievements and innovations made by other artists of their own or of the previous generation. More often than not, we tend to carelessly ignore the fact that for every Mantegna there are dozens of Pampurinos, for every Leonardo dozens of Boltraffios, and so on… Thus what we usually write as art historians isn’t so much the history of art but a history of art’s progress – which frequently leaves out the larger part of artworks produced in a certain period and focuses on a small selection of artworks considered to be progressive instead. In other words, we are mostly just interested in the trendsetters but not (so much) in the ensuing trend.
On the other hand, of course, we always need to take into consideration the ‘great masters’ and their masterpieces when dealing with the works of no-name artists like Pampurino. After all, part of what made Pampurino appealing to his Cremonese patrons must have been the fact that he could produce something that looked like a piece by Mantegna while being more affordable and easier to obtain.
Let me end this with one last thought which brings us back to what I said at the beginning of this post… A couple of days after my visit to the Victoria & Albert Museum I went to see the Medieval/Renaissance section of London’s National Gallery which consists almost entirely of panel paintings, and I couldn’t help but think: ‘Man, it would be amazing if we could overcome this stupid, artificial division between art and the applied arts, and if all of these panel paintings would actually be displayed together with all those other, er, objects in the Victoria & Albert‘s collection.’ Because it would certainly be enlightening to see, for instance, Mantegna’s panel of The Vestal Virgin Tuccia from the National Gallery side by side with the Muses on Pampurino’s ceiling:
* Then again, if they had had our modern copyright laws in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern era, everyone could have sued the shit out of everybody else, and most great works of art would never have seen the light of day due to cases of copyright infringement. After all, as Pete Seeger once reminded us, ‘plagiarism is the basis of all culture’.