Martin Gayford

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A pioneering exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Madonnas and Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy, makes you think freshly about all manner of objects

There have been many explanations for what happened in the Italian Renaissance. Some stress the revival of classical antiquity, others the rise of individualism. A pioneering exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, Madonnas and Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy, takes a different line. It’s all about the 15th- and 16th-century household — and the religious furnishings and fittings it contained.

To a 21st-century eye some of these are distinctly bizarre. Early on, there is a painting of the ‘Madonna and Child’ by a follower of Filippo Lippi — just the kind of thing one expects to find in an art gallery. Underneath it is a brightly painted wooden figure of the infant Christ, very similar to the one in the picture. But this was not so much a sculpture as a doll for a fervent adult. A mystic named Camilla Battista da Varano received visions while kissing, holding and nursing just such a replica baby Jesus ‘with great tenderness’.

Other items in the exhibition touchingly reveal the anxieties of their owners, such as a crude woodcut of the crucifixion with a prayer asking for protection from sudden earthquakes beneath (in that respect, life in central Italy hasn’t changed). In the category one could label ‘for the Renaissance home that has everything’ there is a set of dinner knives. Each has engraved on the blade a Latin grace and benediction plus musical notes. The idea was that before and after eating, everyone in the household could give thanks, singing from the score on their cutlery. Like so many ingenious gadgets, these never caught on.

Madonnas and Miracles makes the case that Renaissance Italy was a much more devout civilisation than has often been assumed. The nudity and bodily beauty of Botticelli’s ‘Venus’ or Michelangelo’s ‘David’ might suggest that this was an era of sensuality and secularism.

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