A scan of the museum listings in this week's Pariscope would lead one to believe that the Middle Ages are the latest thing with no fewer than three full-scale exhibitions dedicated to this long ago era. I couldn't visit just one, so I spent three lovely afternoons enveloped in Medieval splendor.
First stop, the Grand Palais for "France 1500: Entre Moyen Age et Renaissance" a survey of the period when France was the link between Italy and the Low Countries and the exchange of ideas and information made for innovation and discovery in the arts. It was a time when commissions for paintings and works of art were no longer just the domain of royalty, rather, for the first time, wealthy private citizens became patrons and the arts flourished.
The other major factor during this period was the invention of the printing press. The French were quick to adopt this new technology and in 1470 the first printed book was produced in Paris. Eight years later in Lyon the first book illustrated with woodcut engravings was printed. So began a tradition of book publishing that continues to this day.
This exhibition explores the development of French art and culture through tapestries, stained glass, sculpture, enamels, paintings and magnificent illuminated manuscripts. One can clearly see the evolution of style as artists were influenced by travel and dissemination of ideas from Italy to the South and Holland to the North.
The next stop was an old favorite that I had not visited in a long time, the Musée de Cluny, most famous for its marvelous tapestries "La Dame a la Licorne (The Lady and the Unicorn)". Housed in former Gallo-Roman thermal baths and the Gothic "Hôtel de Cluny", it has the perfect ambiance for a tour of Medieval treasures.
Beside the renowned tapestries, the museum also boasts a superb collection of stained glass, statuary, ivory carvings, carved and painted altars, medallions, silver and gold religious objects and paintings that date from the 13th to the 15th centuries and I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting the beautiful works in their atmospheric setting. But then I went downstairs to the frigidarium and I was overwhelmed by a special exhibition entitled "D'Or et du feu: l'art en Slovakie à la fin du Moyen Age" a small but perfect selection of art from Slovakia during the Middle Ages.
Slovakia, a country sandwiched between Austria and Hungary, is not often thought of as a center for art, but during the 1500s it was a very wealthy area that supported the arts generously. On display are magnificent altars and statues, heavily carved and lushly colored in a unique and beautiful style. Sort of a cross between German and Italian if you can imagine such a combination and absolutely beautiful. Also exquisite was a group of paintings with lovely colors and a relief pattern softly carved into the wood panel's background that resembled tooled leather in texture. The show was small but very fine and a real revelation.
Finally I came to "Trésors des Médicis" now on at the Musée Maillol in the 7th Arrondissement. Here we have a history of the illustrious Italian banking family, the Medicis, as told by their collections of sumptuous objects.
In the 15th Century the family patriarch Cosma de Medici began a tradition that continued until the line literally died out in the 1800s. Cosma became a major patron of the arts and commissioned portraits, bronzes and cameos by such artists as Botticello, Cellini and Bronzino. This love of beautiful objects passed from Cosma through his sons and daughters as each pursued his or her own particular collecting interests.
In the mid 16th century, François de Medici created a "cabinet of curiosities" that was unrivaled in Europe. Comprising of treasures from exotic lands such as carved ivory spoons from Benin (now Nigeria), a Teotihuacan jade mask from Mexico and a Tupinamba red feather robe from Brazil, this collection became known far and wide. More practical areas included a library of books that became the basis for the Bibliotheque Palatine, a passion for science, botany and mathematics that supported medical research, agricultural advancement and astronomy. Two of the female descendents were married to French Kings (Catherine de Medici to Henri II and Maria de Medici to Henri IV) and each amassed a copious quantity of fine and rare jewels, particularly pearls. Several male descendents became Popes and commissioned sumptuous religious objects and paintings.
The history of the Medici's, as presented here, is not so much a documentation of the riches of a very wealthy family as it is a look at the development of Italian art and culture. The Medicis were the tastemakers of their time, and they did it splendidly. Never vulgar, and often with a public benefit, the Medici family's support of science and art encouraged creative thinking - the kind of thinking that lead to no less than Galileo's amazing discoveries.
The last Medici, Anna-Maria Luisa, Electress of Palatine, pursued the family tradition of collecting but was more obsessed with providing an heir to continue the line. The most touching piece in the exhibition was an exquisite tiny baby cradle made of gold filigree with a large natural pearl as the blanket covering the infant within, a treasure made in Holland in 1695 and presented to Anna-Maria by her husband as a talisman. Sadly it did not help and she died childless in 1743 leaving her own and the entire Medici collection of treasures to the State.
Italy was the last stop in my Renaissance Revival - it's time to get back to the 21st Century and explore what's going on in today's Paris! Hope you'll join me!