Representing the World: Collecting and Display in the Renaissance and Today

Clark, Leah R. (2019). Representing the World: Collecting and Display in the Renaissance and Today. In: Galdy, Andrea ed. Collecting and Museology. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.



Representations of ‘foreign’ objects frequently appear in Renaissance paintings, particularly in the domestic settings of religious images, underlining the representational and technical abilities of artists as well as collectors’ fascination with such objects. Indeed, the objects meticulously depicted throughout Renaissance works point to the diversity of goods available in Italy, highlighting fifteenth-century collecting sensibilities, which were formed through the movement of goods and people. From the glass receptacles and metal candlesticks found on the shelves of saints in their studies to the blue and white tiles or oriental carpets that graze the floors in devotional works, these objects point to the types of goods collected and put on display in Italian households. This essay will take the meticulous rendering of objects in Renaissance paintings as a starting point to discuss the wider context of the collecting practices of the ruling elite arguing that collecting was intrinsically linked to diplomatic and trading networks across the Mediterranean. The attachment to particular objects, the stories and narratives about these collectibles, the literary and artistic debates emerging from studiolo culture, the desire attached to acquisition, and the philosophical, humanist, and theological interest in stones and materials, all gave rise to new modes of engaging with these objects, which shifted from primarily religious functions to more secular ones. The material objects in cross-cultural exchanges—porcelain, hardstones, textiles, and metalwork—as this essay will argue, were not merely stationary objects in princely collections or paintings but point to the activities taking place within and outside the studiolo, acting as material memories of cross-cultural exchanges, mercantile routes, territorial expansion, and the pursuit of knowledge.

But what happens when these objects make their way into contemporary museum display? Many of these objects are ‘composites’, reflecting two or more cultural traditions and thus do not easily fit into one national category. How can museums convey the cross-culturality of these objects as well as their reception over time? How do art historical categorisations obscure or even misconstrue the ‘hybrid’ nature of these works?

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