Madonnas and Miracles – The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy, at the Fitzwilliam Museum until 4 June, is one of the best exhibitions I’ve seen in years. I recently wrote a review of it because it deserved shouting about. It’s a model of what exhibitions should be and do: scholarly and yet approachable, painstakingly curated in structure and detail, it subtly and yet boldly debunks facile dichotomies. It’s a highly successful example of how the outcomes of interdisciplinary research (in this case, a four-year European Research Council-funded Synergy project) can be brought to the attention of the general public. The catalogue, too, combines rigorous learning and an accessible tone. You can access my article on the Talking Humanities website of the School of Advanced Study, the UK’s national centre for the support and promotion of research in the humanities.
I’ve been fascinated by the Renaissance for years, but in the last two my studies have focused particularly on women and Southern Italy during this period. My second novel will in fact be set in Puglia during the late 1500s. When I first mentioned my project to an acquaintance, the response was, “But surely, the South didn’t have a Renaissance.” Delving into historical research, including primary sources, swiftly disproves that and other common misconceptions. I’m hopeful that my novel will be a tiny step in that direction. It matters not least because the Renaissance’s legacy extends to the present day in realms and manners on which we don’t usually pause to reflect.
As an example, take the apocryphal story of The birth of the Virgin, a common subject in churches as well as on birth trays and bowls given to new mothers during the Renaissance. In the Madonnas and Miracles exhibition, it is on view in a painting (c. 1440) by the Master of the Osservanza, as well as (though it may be a ‘birth of the Baptist’) in an arresting one by Leandro Bassano. The latter’s Woman at her devotions (c. 1590-1600) shows a widow at her kneeling-stool with a string of rosary beads and a book of hours, in contemplation of a depiction of St. Anne (or St. Elizabeth) attended by other women while her new-born is about to be bathed. The subject had deep meaning for a woman. During pregnancy and labour, she would have prayed to the Virgin – and to St. Margaret, patron saint of childbirth. As in the painting, she too would have been sustained by female relatives, friends and neighbours until the midwife’s arrival and again after the baby’s birth. She would also have recognised the bath in which the baby was to be washed: for a new-born girl, its water would be tipped over ashes from the hearth, and for a boy, thrown outside the house, in a gesture symbolic of their required gender roles. Similarly, a painting such as Pinturicchio’s Virgin and Child with St. John the Baptist (c. 1490-1495), also in the exhibition, reflected and reinforced mothers’ responsibility for their children’s religious education. The roots of societal expectations about men and women’s lives went back centuries – some remain entrenched to this day.
Image of Madonnas and Miracles review from the Talking Humanities website.