The 21st century is the era of globalism; Canada is the pioneer of multiculturalism and Toronto is its epicenter. Or maybe not. At the Gardiner Museum in Toronto, the powerful message behind an exhibition of Renaissance Venetian decorative arts is that vibrant cultural and economic exchanges swirled around the globe long before the advent of mass communications and rapid transit.
Take for example an earthenware bucket with floral motifs on a light blue background dating from 1570: Property of a well-born nun and marked with her family crest, it was used to contain holy water. Yet its shape is borrowed from the brass buckets of Islamic ironwork, its bluish glaze is inspired by Chinese ceramics, and its twirling patterns of flowers and vines resemble those of Iznik ceramics from Turkey.
The pewter used in its glaze would have been imported from the Cornish mines but the bucket itself would have been made in a Venetian workshop. Local artisans were introduced to Asian craftsmanship through imports brought across the Mediterranean by merchants from the Mamluk Sultanate, centered in Egypt, and later by the Ottomans. In Venice, the aquatic city of art and commerce, cross-cultural currents flowed in strongly.
This exhibition, titled Renaissance Venice: Life and Luxury at a Crossroads, is built around Gardiner’s own collection of majolica, the glazed earthenware made by Italians using techniques imported from Islamic Spain. Applied to the unbaked clay, the pewter glaze creates an opaque white background that can be painted with pigments like a plaster mural: the artist cannot correct any mistakes, but once fired the ceramic retains the colors. lively.
To demonstrate the technique, the show includes a contemporary piece by Canadian artist Lindsay Montgomery in various stages of production. Meanwhile, the 16th century findings of a ceramic medium that allowed for strong colors and detailed representation are on display in spectacular fashion. There are large blue and ocher jars with patterns of green leaves that were used to store food or pharmaceuticals, and there are large blue and white chargers with claustrophobic designs of vines, fruits and flowers. , the best examples lent by London Victoria and Albert Museum.
By decorating these surfaces, the artists rejoiced in the narrative capacity of the medium. There are several story plates here depicting characters from the Bible and myths, such as Venus, depicted plucking a thorn from her foot, or Neptune, the god of the sea who appealed to Venetian geography. Earthenware was not of great luxury (compared to porcelain or metal) but its intense decoration was prized both for use at the table and for display on the shelf.
This is the backbone of this show; its many members, thanks to strategic loans from neighbors such as the Royal Ontario Museum and the Textile Museum of Canada, present other decorative arts imported or produced in Venice. A 15th-century Ming Dynasty bowl, a magnificent example of distinctive porcelain from China, on loan from a private collector, reminds viewers of the original source of these pretty blue and white palettes imitated in majolica. Next to an exhibition of historic lace pieces, there is a woodcut by Albrecht Durer that features the knot patterns that Europeans had assimilated from Islamic culture with its use of interlocking arabesques. The print, in turn, is a precursor to pattern books that would help lace makers reproduce these intricate designs with literal knots.
Curator Karine Tsoumis studies not only the artistic influences and narrative themes of these arts, but also the social realities of production, including parallel notes on the status of women. Some of the potters, many of whom emigrated to Venice from other parts of Italy, were renowned enough that their names came to us from family workshops where women artisans worked alongside their male relatives. The lace makers were perhaps the most exploited and poorly paid workers who made ornaments for the richest of the rich.
And, of course, there’s Venetian glass here, the city’s most famous decorative export. The pieces, on loan from the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, NY, are remarkable not only for their fine and fragile forms, but also for their simple survival, 500 years after being blown.
One of these pieces is in front of a banner representing a reproduction of the work of Paolo Veronese Wedding party in Cana: The original hangs in the Louvre and the painting shows a sommelier swirling wine in a very similar filigree bowl with a large bowl. (And, as noted in the accompanying text, the painting also depicts a black boy serving at the table, a child victim of the slave trade.)
But above all this banner highlights what this exhibition is not: a Venetian painting exhibition, although you might not know it from the city’s marketing posters. Reproductions of several paintings such as Wedding party are used to illustrate the decorative pieces used in Venetian houses and palaces, but there is only one actual canvas on display – that of Paolo Veronese The mystical marriage of Saint Catherine on loan from the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Featuring the saint, clad in a shimmering robe of gray and white damask, meeting the Virgin and Child Jesus under undulating red velvet drapes, it is used to illustrate the visual richness of the Venetian style with its extensive use of saturated colors and many decorative patterns. This spectacle only touches the winners and losers of global trade only lightly, but in a sea of international influences, Venice’s wealth has produced delicacy and pleasure.
Renaissance Venice: Life and Luxury at a Crossroads continues at the Gardiner Museum until January 9.