Exhibition and Display

Clark, Leah R. and Campbell, Caroline (2021). Exhibition and Display. In: Campbell, Erin J. and Miller, Stephanie eds. A Cultural History of Furniture in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. A Cultural History of Furniture, vol. 2. London: Bloomsbury, (In Press).

Abstract

This chapter examines how furniture functioned both as an object of display and an object for display through a wide range of examples including chests, daybeds, cradles, credenze and display cabinets from the 13th -16th centuries. Furniture was valuable and valued; it did not have a purely functional nature and often performed several functions. For instance, chests and cabinets were used to display and house precious items from ceramics, textiles, and carpets, as well as smaller collectables such as medals and plaquettes. Individuals who did not possess a separate collecting space (such as a studiolo) displayed their collectibles on tables and shelves in their chamber or else scattered throughout the house, using different pieces of furniture to exhibit their collections.

Larger items of furniture such as lettucci (day beds) had shelves for displaying decorative items, while the images portrayed on their panels could also convey identity, status, and symbolism. Painted and decorated chests, apart from their functional nature, had considerable symbolic significance, and their adornment with didactic and beautiful images, as well as heraldic devices, ensured that they remained valued objects for generations. In addition to displaying or containing objects, furniture such as benches and beds served to display the individuals who used them, as they sat or lay down on them. The social nature of these structures are highlighted when one considers the reception of visitors coming to see a new mother in bed for instance, as commonly seen in depictions of biblical births. Cradles designed for a royal birth were also deeply connected to the notion of display, as the heir was shown off to courtiers, ambassadors, and other royal figures.

Through a combination of material and documentary sources, this chapter outlines not only how furniture was used to exhibit precious objects, but also how these pieces were objects of display in themselves, functioning to exhibit the status and identity of those who used them.

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