Monthly Archives: April 2013

Four History of Art Students on curating The Art of Clay at the RBSA

The Young Curators: Alice Watkins, Olivia Weightman, Hannah Lawson, Polly Adams-Felton

The Young Curators: Alice Watkins, Olivia Weightman, Hannah Lawson, Polly Adams-Felton

The RBSA’s Young Curators’ project gives young people a fantastic opportunity to gain first-hand experience in the process of putting on an exhibition. In October 2012 the four of us were chosen to curate a show of studio ceramics. With guidance from RBSA staff and ceramics specialist David Whiting, we have worked really hard to create The Art of Clay (24 April to 4 May 2013).

Hannah, Polly and Alice installing exhibition

Hannah, Polly and Alice installing exhibition

Olivia and Hannah during a research trip with David Whiting to Oxford ceramics Gallery

Through our exhibition, we aim to show the range of ceramics being created in Britain and to expand perceived notions of clay as an art medium. We selected pieces to represent four categories in clay; abstract, figurative, vessel-based and purely functional ceramics. Within these themes, each artist we chose deals with clay in a variety of styles, technique and subject matter. The pieces embody the diversity of ceramic work that artists are able to create using clay, and are made by a range of exhibitors, many of whom have international reputations, while others are still establishing names for themselves.

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Polly unpacking a delivery of ceramics by Nic Collins

'Bull' by Emma Rogers

‘Bull’ by Emma Rogers

We made our initial selection after an intense period of research into the medium, and we consulted catalogues, books and websites. We also made use of the contacts passed on to us by David Whiting and the RBSA. After composing our request letters to the artists, writing about the Young Curators’ project and the aims of the exhibition, we were pleased that we had successful responses from almost all of those invited. From this group we refined our selection, choosing the exact number and type of works we wished to exhibit within the space available. We were also involved in the installation, interpretation and marketing of the show – we even arranged delivery dates, wrote catalogue essays and made a press release!

Ceramic forms by James Robson and ceramic panels by Michelle Arieu

Ceramic forms by James Robson and ceramic panels by Michelle Arieu

The Art of Clay has taken a lot of planning and preparation alongside our academic studies. We had no previous experience of ceramics – our academic course being focused on the fine arts – and  so we found the project to be a steep learning curve…! However, it has provided us with insights into ceramics, the structure of an art gallery, how to deliver an exhibition and the business elements of the art world. We have gained a great deal of work experience and hope visitors feel that we have created an interesting and high-quality show.

For more information, visit the Art of Clay website: http://www.rbsa.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/the-art-of-clay-exhibition/

We would like to express our sincerest thanks to RBSA staff for their guidance, patience and commitment to the project, particularly Natalie Osborne, Learning and Project Coordinator (and a former History of Art student at the University of Birmingham). Additional thanks are also in order for David Whiting for his expertise and guidance, and to all of the artists for their support for the project. We are also very grateful to the Behrens Foundation, the John Feeney Charitable Trust, and donors to the Directors Appeal. Without their funding this project would not have been possible.

Hieronymus Cock: The Renaissance in Print

Hieronymus Cock The Renissance in Print

I’m just back from a couple of days in Leuven. I was in Belgium to see a couple of things, but the main purpose of my trip was to see the new show recently opened at M van Museum Leuven called Hieronymus Cock: The Renaissance in Print.

This exhibition focuses on the activities of Hieronymus Cock and Volcxken Dierix, who, together as man and wife, established the hugely successful print shop “Aux Quatre Vents” (At the Sign of the Four Winds) in Antwerp in 1548. This exhibition is the first in over 25 years to be devoted to their publishing house. Its relevance to me is that although Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1526-69), whose art forms the focus of my PhD, is famous mostly to us because of his paintings, it seems to be the case that the fame Bruegel enjoyed during his own lifetime depended largely on the prints that he designed for the open market. Of these, the lion’s share came out from Aux Quatre Vents.

The show is arranged thematically, with each theme exploring one particular aspect of Cock’s and Volcxken’s broad and far reaching interests. The first three rooms (“Roman Ruins and the Allure of Antiquity”, “Italy on the Banks of the Scheldt”, and “Hieronymus Cock and the Italianists”), however, are dedicated to show’s main aim: to consider how Aux Quatre Vents functioned as a conduit for the spread of the Italian “High Renaissance” into the North.

By the mid-1500s when Aux Quatre Vents opened, it had become quite customary for Netherlandish artists to go off on their own travels to Italy. Artists headed specifically for Rome, to study its plentiful antiquities and modern artistic monuments like Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling. Bruegel is here no exception, since he spent a number of years travelling around Italy between 1552 and ’55. The output of Aux Quatre Vents, however, satisfied the desires of those northerners who couldn’t cross the Alps for themselves, had no obvious need to go, or, indeed, desire, given the well-known dangers posed by such an arduous schlep southwards.

The first three rooms really do testify to the vogue for all things Italian, old and new, in Antwerp at the time. Highlights include the monumental monograph published in 1551 on the Baths of Diocletian, the very first published architectural monograph of its kind, which is staggering for both its physical size and its visual richness. Another is the engraved reproduction of Raphael’s frescoed School of Athens inside the Vatican Palace, which Raphael painted between 1509 and ’11. This engraving was done by the Italian Giogrio Ghisi and was published by Cock and Volcxken in 1550, the very year that they managed to persuade Ghisi to move to Antwerp and work for them, reproducing contemporary Italian art like Raphael’s and revolutionising engraving techniques in Antwerp at the same time.

Ghisi (engraver) and Cock (publisher) after Raphael, School of Athens

Ghisi (engraver) and Cock (publisher) after Raphael, School of Athens

This endeavouring to make available notable contemporary Italian art by utilising the skills of the best engravers like Ghisi demonstrates Cock’s and Volxcken’s dedication to both furthering local art according to the Italian example, and their unwavering concern for the supreme quality of their prints. The proliferation of Italian art from the publishing house bears witness to the great interest among Netherlandish artists, critics and patrons alike for innovations happening in art south of the Alps. One manifestation of this was the development of so-called Antwerp Romanism that is the focus of the the room “Hieronymus Cock and the Italianists”. Here, art by northern artists like Frans Floris is showcased, whose art was fundamentally affected by the Italian example, which it emulated, and was likewise disseminated in print from Aux Quatre Vents. Thus it’s clear from the first couple of rooms the extent to which Cock’s and Volxcken’s house functioned as both an agent and a symptom of the vogue for Italy in the Netherlands in mid-century.

The show’s definition of “Renaissance”, however, encompasses more than just the Italian and the Italianate. A particularly successful part of the exhibition is the way it makes clear the extent to which Aux Quatre Vents also played a hugely important role in the development of a native, “Netherlandish Renaissance”. Cock and Volcxken were obviously keen to champion local art from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Aux Quatre Vents published reproductions of many famous pictures by notable Netherlanders, such as Rogier van der Weyden’s hugely-famous Descent from the Cross, of around 1435, which came out as a print in 1565 and is on display in the room “Bosch, Bruegel and the Netherlandish Tradition”. At some point, Cock also dreamed-up his “Book of Painters”: a collection of portraits of famous northern artists including Rogier and Jan van Eyck that were appended with eulogies written by the humanist Domenicus Lampsonius. This project was actually realised and published in 1572 by Volcxken following the death of Cock in 1570 and some of these laudatory pages, including the one on Bruegel, are displayed.

Cornelis Cort and Hieronymus Cock (pub.) (after Rogier van der Weyden), Descent from the Cross, 1565,

Cornelis Cort and Hieronymus Cock (pub.) (after Rogier van der Weyden), Descent from the Cross, 1565,

Johannes Wiericx (attr. to) and Volcxken Dierckx (pub.), Petro Brvegel, Pictori, engraving from  Domenicus Lampsonius,  Pictorum aliquot celebrium Germaniae inferioris effigies, 1572

Johannes Wiericx (attr. to) and Volcxken Dierckx (pub.), Petro Brvegel, Pictori, engraving from Domenicus Lampsonius, Pictorum aliquot celebrium Germaniae inferioris effigies, 1572

The due prominence that the show gives to Volcxken is commendable. The lives and activities of successful women from this period have too-often remained obscure. In art historical discourse in particular, it’s only over the last couple of decades or so that women artists and entrepreneurs have been recuperated from their gender-based oblivion. This show’s emphasis on Volcxken is a manifestation of this shift, and rightly so – Volcxken did after all continue to oversee Aux Quatre Vents for some 30 successful years following her husband’s death.

Bruegel comes into his own in the previously mentioned room “Bosch, Bruegel and the Netherlandish Tradition” as well as “Vice and Virtue” and “Visualising the World”. In “Vice and Virtue”, Bruegel’s famed Seven Deadly Sins series, published 1558, and the Seven Virtues, of about the same time, are exhibited. Conceived entirely in the idiom of Bosch and intended to provide moral instruction, both these demonstrate how the visual vocabulary used by fifteenth-century artists and its attendant didactic purchase didn’t simply die-out with the onslaught of the Italianate. Some of Bruegel’s preparatory drawings for the Sins and Virtues are also on display, such as the drawing for Gluttony from the Seven Sins. Examination of this in the real shows how Bruegel put every effort into his designs, giving the engraver little or no scope to deviate from his supremely-detailed drawings. The ball, however, was not always in Bruegel’s court. In “Bosch, Bruegel and the Netherlandish Tradition” the famous Big Fish Eat the Little Ones is exhibited, published by Aux Quatre Vents in 1558 and signed ‘Hieronijmus Bos inuentor’, which is to say “Bosch designed this image”. Curiously, however, we know this to be a false claim, since the preparatory drawing for this engraving has survived, which is signed “brueghel” (how Bruegel spelled his name until about 1559 when he dropped the “h“) and is dated 1556. By substituting Bruegel’s name for Bosch’s, Cock and Volcxken clearly intended to profit from the cache afforded by Bosch’s Europe-wide fame at a time when Bruegel’s own reputation was still in its ascendancy. As such, this print represents not only the fashion for Bosch on the art market in Antwerp in the 1550s, but also points clearly to Cock’s and Volcxken’s commercial savvy and wily market strategies, who attached famous names to their prints to ensure saleability.

Pieter van der Heyden (engraver), Cock (pub.), after Bruegel, Big Fish Eat the Little Ones, 1557

Pieter van der Heyden (engraver), Cock (pub.), after Bruegel, Big Fish Eat the Little Ones, 1557

“Visualising the World” is given over to landscape, which was emerging as a legitimate category in art, in and of itself, at exactly the time of Aux Quatre Vents’s establishment. Here, Bruegel’s idiosyncratic response to the Italian sojourn is given due recognition. Most artists went off to Italy and absorbed the Italian style, which subsequently suffuses their art (do a Google image search for Frans Floris’s Rebel Angels!). Bruegel, however, took away something different. Sure, he must have seen a lot of things from Antiquity when in Rome, ditto the art of Michelangelo, Raphael etc. But he was clearly most taken with the Alpine landscape that he probably saw, and drew, on his way back up to the Netherlands in 1554-55. And on his return to Antwerp, he invented several large-scale Alpine-inspired compositions that were published by Cock immediately upon Bruegel’s return in 1555 as the Large Landscapes. The impact these had on Netherlandish art and the development of landscape as an independent genre in art cannot be overestimated.

Overall, this exhibition gives a comprehensive account of the output of Aux Quatre Vents and its impact in the course of Netherlandish art from the mid-1500s on. Navigating the exhibition is easy. You’re guided along the way by blurbs on the wall that explain each of these themes under consideration. These are also reproduced in the handy (and free!) walking guide, which also contains captions to each of the exhibits. The handbook also tops and tails the exhibition by giving some introductory remarks about the establishment of Aux Quatre Vents, the cultural and economic ferment that Antwerp was in the 1550s, as well as explaining relevant issues including what kinds of copyright laws did, or rather, didn’t, exist in the sixteenth century. All this and more is examined to greater depth in the accompanying catalogue edited by Joris Van Grieken, Ger Luijten and Jan Van der Stock, which, although a bit of a tome, is sumptuously illustrated and available for a discounted price from the Museum shop.

Hieronymus Cock: The Renaissance in Print is on at Leuven until the 9th June before travelling to Paris’s Institut Néerlandais where it will be on show from 18th September to 15th December.

Five Paintings, Ten Minutes Each = 300 Years of Art History!

Question: What do a couple of thieving peasants, the Marriage Feast at Cana, a Russian countess, a Monet landscape and a lady arranging her hair all have in common?

Answer: They are all paintings from the Barber Institute that formed part of our Art History Speed Workshop that took place on Wednesday 20th March as part of UoB’s Arts and Science Festival.

The idea was the brainchild of PhD student Carly Hegenbarth during a brief meeting in the autumn term when we were racking our brains as to what we could offer the Festival: we wanted something that would be different and fun and at the same time show case both the Barber’s collection and the talents of some of our up-coming researchers. Like speed dating (well, sort of…), the idea was to get people up close and personal to a work of art for a short space of time, and then, when the bell rang (or rather my mobile phone), to move them on to the next picture. Will it work, we thought? Will we have enough people? Will everyone be able to keep to time? Will anyone ask any questions?

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After a bit of a slow start, the number of people registering for the workshop began to pick up, with a sudden flurry of a dozen or so people expressing their interest up until a few hours before. Thus we found ourselves with some thirty participants congregating in the Barber Foyer on the Wednesday at 2pm. These included current students and employees of UoB from across the disciplines, retired professors, and people from the local community.

Divided into five groups and armed with a postcard listing the paintings to be explored, our Speed Workshoppers went off to their first painting with their PhD student and the stopwatch was set to ten minutes. Walking round the gallery to see how things were going, it was interesting to catch snippets of the talks being given or the questions asked. ‘Do you think these are good or bad peasants?’, Jamie asked of Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s Peasants Binding Faggots from the early 1600s while, round the corner, Amy was pointing out the patrons of Murillo’s Marriage Feast at Cana, depicted as the married couple in the biblical scene.

Brueghel, Peasants Binding Faggots, early 1600s

Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Peasants Binding Faggots, early 1600s

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Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, The Marriage Feast at Cana (1672)

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In the Beige Gallery, Carly’s group were wondering about the diagonal background to Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s portrait of Countess Golovine. Was it the shadow of the guillotine, someone mused…

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Portrait of Countess Golovine (1797/1800)

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Portrait of Countess Golovine (1797/1800)

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In the Blue gallery Imogen was relating Monet’s Church at Varengeville to Impressionist practices and, nearby, Hannah was making her listeners think hard about what we expect in a portrait in relation to Vuillard’s Mme Vuillard Arranging her Hair. Ginny Turner, a retired clinical scientist, said she found this image ‘the most fascinating with all the patterns, the claustrophobic feel to the painting and the fact that we could not see Mme’s face. I would never have noticed all these points without Hannah’s input.’ Before too long, the ten minutes were up and we were imploring our participants, rather like the Mad Hatter, to ‘move one place on’ and the show started again.

Claude Monet, Church at Varengeville (1882)

Claude Monet, Church at Varengeville (1882)

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Edouard Vuillard, Mme Vuillard Arranging her Hair (1900)

We were overwhelmed by the number of people who participated so enthusiastically in the workshop and who took the time to give us their feedback. Ann Darton, a retired lecturer and Honorary Fellow at UoB said, ‘I thoroughly enjoyed the workshop, which offered just sufficient input.  Any more and it would have been difficult to take in and certainly to retain. The postgraduate students […] were keen to share their knowledge of the areas in which they were working.’ We even had a cheeky ‘insider’ attend the workshop, Professor of Medical Oncology, Michael Cullen, who is currently doing an MA in Art History. He said, ‘I thought my fellow postgrads were all very impressive, giving confident and engaging accounts of the paintings.  I liked how they made it all seem very relaxed and informal encouraging audience contributions despite the brief time available for each presentation. I especially enjoyed Jamie’s rather infectious enthusiasm for his PhD project which added a personal aspect to his interaction with the Brueghel. I even felt encouraged to consider a PhD myself.’

‘Please run more workshops!’ was a frequent comment on our feedback forms and we are certainly tempted to do so, so watch this space! You can let us know your thoughts about themes that could be explored or artists you’d like to see featured by emailing us at thegolovine@gmail.com or by leaving a comment here. Who knows, perhaps the next workshop will feature Professor Michael Cullen as one of our speakers!

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Find out more about the Barber Institute’s collection at http://www.barber.org.uk

Una Settimana a Roma: As thirty art historians from UoB descended on the Eternal City, one Pope retired – surely unrelated incidents? Our study trip in Rome 2013

The Forum in the sun!

The Forum in the sun!

Every year in reading week of the Spring Term, second year History of Art Undergrads at Birmingham head-off on a week-long study trip abroad. This year the chosen destination was Rome. The university-funded trip is designed to give students the opportunity to see and examine lots that they will have already studied in class, including artworks that are often still in their original locations.

So, at 5am on a very snowy Monday morning, we set off from the Barber Institute to catch our flight from Gatwick, leaving the snow behind for a jam-packed week a Roma!

Leaving the snow behind

Our arrival in Rome was rather dramatic. We were greeted on the first night with what can only be described as apocalyptic weather: torrential rain, thunder, lightening…. the lot. This took on a decidedly ominous significance when we discovered the following day that lightning had actually struck the lantern on top of the dome of St. Peter’s (click here), AND all this on the day that Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation from the Papacy! (God’s wrath, perhaps? Should a Pope really be retiring?) But not taking it personally, and being a resilient bunch, we headed out on the first night (Flood or no Flood) to unleash ourselves on the city and its seemingly lawless roads to see the sights. We stopped-off at the Quirinale Horse Tamers, via the Baths of Diocletian, and on to the Trevi fountain and the Pantheon before splitting up for pizza, pasta, wine and, irrespective of the weather, gelato, fully aware that the mega itinerary kicked off with haste at 8 the morning after.

Trevi Fountain in the rain

Trevi Fountain in the rain

Pantheon outside

Pantheon outside

Inside the Pantheon at night

Inside the Pantheon at night

To say that we crammed a lot into our time in Rome would be a huge understatement. I’m not quite sure how many churches we visited, as well as museums including the Galleria Borghese, Palazzo Barberini, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, the Capitoline museums and, of course, the Vatican. We saw sculptures, frescoes, panels and canvases by the likes of Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian (the list goes on…) housed in impressive architectural schemes by Bramante, Borromini, Bernini, and others. We saw relics, like the chains of St. Peter, purportedly used to imprison the first ever Pope (…. “but are the chains real?”), which are kept inside S. Pietro in Vincoli alongside Michelangelo’s decades-long nemesis: the Tomb of Pope Julius II. The Sistine Chapel, with its famous ceiling and altar wall by Michelangelo as well we frescoes by the likes of Botticelli, certainly lived-up to the hype, as did the Stanze di Raffaello, a series of rooms inside the Vatican Palace decorated by Raphael. I was particularly chuffed, as a “Renaissance man”, to get a crafty picture of me inside the Sistine (below). The Italian officials invigilating inside the chapel are vehement in their dedication to reminding the thronging masses that there is to be “NO FOTO!”. Plus, I’d already been berated by them for lying down  to see the ceiling properly–dodgy behavior that put me firmly on the chapel’s attendants’ radars. But I persevered and got my picture… (take this either as a warning or a challenge if you get to visit the chapel any time soon).

Me inside the Sistine Chapel

Me inside the Sistine Chapel

Easily one of the most impressive and endearing things about Rome is that there’s always something of interest just lurking round the corner. Narrow, medieval-feeling cobbled streets open-out suddenly on to spacious, pretty piazzas, often featuring a nice fountain or two to admire, some of these being Bernini’s handiwork. A row of fairly nondescript buildings can suddenly give way to some great edifice of a Renaissance palazzo, or a gleaning marble church front.

Rome’s treasures from Antiquity also often take you by surprise. Sculptured Roman senates hang around inside niches dotted around the city. Here and there are whopping sculptured columns or huge porphyry dishes that are used as bases for fountains. Meanwhile, Rome’s larger and infinitely more famous monuments like the Colosseum, the Forum and Pantheon take you less by surprise, since you’re usually looking to find them, but certainly never fail to inspire awe—at least one of the undergrads became infatuated with the Pantheon!

Colosseum

Colosseum

In our action-packed 5 days in Rome, we got to see all of this and plenty more besides. And although Rome is synonymous with the ancient world and the Renaissance, the trip is broader in its scope than that. Rome’s Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna was on the agenda, and many of our intrepid young art historians went off to see things like the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana (a.k.a. the “Square Colosseum”), that in-your-face example of fascist architecture, or the Cinecittà, a large film studio that is considered the hub of Italian cinema. This year Grace also went off to the MAXXI gallery, which shows another side to Rome than most of us would expect, being a particularly striking example of ultra-modern, minimalist architecture by Zaha Hadid, which houses work by artists including Anish Kapoor.

MAXXI Gallery

MAXXI Gallery

Reflecting on all that we saw, Marianne, one of the second years, said that:

Rome was the perfect place for a HoA study trip because of the huge variety of art located there: you could spend the morning exploring the ancient architecture at the Forum and Colosseum, and in the afternoon, wander around the pop art paintings and installation art of the Modern Art Gallery, after stopping in to see a Caravaggio or Michelangelo inside a church along the way.

Rome also provided the perfect opportunity to view first-hand so many of the paintings that we’d previously studied in lectures (particularly those of the Renaissance period). Having the chance to see near-legendary images such as the Sistine Chapel ceiling in real life was extraordinary, and it’s only then that you realise that seeing these pictures reproduced in books will never compare to viewing them in their intended settings.”

While Grace, another second year, thought that Rome is

“… a brilliant place to go for a History of Art trip because of the sheer volume of art and architecture there is to see, not just from the Renaissance and Classical periods, but right up to the present day. Its history as being a city central to religion, politics and art made it an exciting place to be, especially when looking at artworks within these contexts. Furthermore, it’s a beautiful place in itself, and so much to see and do outside of the itinerary.”

Clearly, the trip achieved what it set out to do: to inspire and enthuse.

On their return to Birmingham, the second years are required to research, write and deliver an assessed presentation about an artwork or building that they studied during the trip. Marianne has chosen Bernini’s Four Rivers fountain at the Piazza Navona as the subject for her presentation, was taken by the way that “Bernini had juxtaposed the smooth stone of the four figures with the roughness of the rocks was incredible, and the obelisk set on top of the fountain seemed oddly out of place… When I saw the fountain in real life, I was completely blown away by the sheer scale and immense detail of it…”. Rebecca, another of the second years, has chosen the façade of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane by Borromini as the subject of her presentation, saying that ‘I’d studied it briefly for A Level and it made an impression on me when I saw it “in the flesh” on the trip. It stood out for me for its quirkiness- it appeared so outlandish for such a small building.’ Clearly, actually seeing these things makes all the difference: you can truly grasp an artwork’s or a building’s scale or impact, you can comprehend more of the artist’s techniques and make-out the subtle effects exhibited by a work. And especially in Rome’s churches, you gain a very real sense of the kinds of contexts in which a work of art was originally displayed and how that particular object may have functioned in that particular context as an accessory to the liturgy.

And the trip wasn’t all all just work. The itinerary certainly accommodated a bit of fun, too!

Despite a stormy start, we were blessed with glorious winter sun and blue skies all week, which made strolling around the Forum or waiting around in the Borghese gardens or at the Piazza del Campidoglio before going on to our next destination even more enjoyable, besides giving us Brum-based folk a much-needed opportunity to top-up our depleted Vit.D reserves. The food was probably a highlight for everybody–the Italians, as they say, know how to live. Marianne describes “being sat in the afternoon sunshine, eating the best lasagne I’ve ever tasted, directly opposite the Pantheon was pretty amazing, especially knowing that, if I’d been back in Birmingham, I would have been stuck in the snow!”

Basking in the sunshine at the Piazza del Campidoglio

Basking in the sunshine at the Piazza del Campidoglio

The social aspects of the trip are just as important as its academic ones. The trip abroad brings the students together, strengthening old friendships and creating new ones, but also gives staff and students the opportunities to get to know one another that little bit better, whether it be over dinner or during a chat in front of a building, sculpture or painting. Josh, a second year, said that “It was such a fun trip and it was really good for us to all get to know each other better. Although we are midway through second year, some of us were still quite shy around one another and the trip made such a difference to that. It was a great mixer for the group and everyone got on really well!.” All the second years would, I think, agree that the trip brings the year together and this is especially true for joint honours students like Marianne: “the trip brought the whole year together, and it was really nice to be able to talk to students that are usually in different classes. As I’m doing a joint honours course, it’s sometimes difficult to have the opportunity to mix with course mates in the same way that single honours students do, but the trip helped to break down boundaries, and I think everyone came home feeling that they’d got to know at least one person better than they had before.”

All of the second years relaxing in the sunshine at the Borghese Gardens

All of the second years relaxing in the sunshine at the Borghese Gardens

The trip ended on Friday night with all of us heading down to the local pizzeria. There’d been an onslaught of art over the course of the preceding days, and at this particular restaurant, there was an onslaught of food: plenty of delicious antipaste, pizza, frankly giant bowls of pasta and tiramisu, all of which was, of course, eased down with a glass or 3 of vino. There was also a quiz. Serious questions designed to flex our memories like “How high in feet is the dome of St. Peter’s?” (it’s 448ft) were interspersed by less-serious ones like, as Grace recalls, “To the nearest century, how old is… David?”, which is a bit of an in-joke about David who has been at the Department since its inception. Predictably, our journey home from Roma to Birmingham was less cheery than our journey out had been. No doubt a mixture of the downer produced by having had to say “ciao!” to Rome and the onset of exhaustion as the week’s miles-by-foot caught up with us (and, let’s be honest, most of us were nursing sore heads from the previous night’s wine consumption). But let’s leave the final word to Grace, who says that it was “altogether a fantastic trip”.

Taking over the local pizzeria on our final night in Rome

Taking over the local pizzeria on our final night in Rome

A year abroad is not all about studying…Holly Wain escapes for a weekend of Renaissance architecture in the Loire Valley

During my year abroad in Poitiers I have been taken back by the friendliness towards international students. This has ranged from Poitevins, who have offered all sorts of help to navigate the often tricky French systems, to a real willingness to share French culture and welcome me into Poitiers’s traditions. An example of this is the organisation named ‘Poit’étrangers’ which is managed by the town council and the university.

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The aim of the organisation is to put international students in touch with French families in the region who want to share culture and interests and to start new friendships. In November of last year the town hall organised a reception of international students where I met a very lovely couple who live in a tiny village in the countryside surrounding Poitiers. Edith and Jean-Pierre have been part of the organisation for some years and love to show students around the region. I was thrilled to hear about their idyllic French stone cottage overlooking the fields of Poitou-Charentes, and after talking about my studies in art history, Edith proposed a weekend to the famous royal Loire Châteaux.

The weekend of 9th March I took the train and found myself in tranquil countryside where I was very well looked after and was able to sample some delicious homemade French classics. Bright and early on Saturday morning we took to the road to travel to Blois situated on the river Loire and home to Francis I’s lavish château. Comprising of four distinct wings around a single courtyard, the chateau of Blois showcases varying styles from different periods of French architecture: the 13th century medieval fortress which includes the largest gothic hall in France; the Louis XII wing dating from 1501 which shows Italian influence; the Francis I wing from 1520 with a Renaissance spiral staircase; and finally the Gaston d’Orléans wing from 1638. This last wing illustrates the work of 17th century architect François Mansart, an architect that I am currently studying in the art history department of the University of Poitiers. It was therefore extremely interesting as I was able to get a real sense of the monumental effect created by Mansart’s use of architectural orders.

The famous ‘Francis I’ staircase at Blois.

The famous ‘Francis I’ staircase at Blois.

The Gaston d’Orléans wing at Blois, Mansart’s perfect mastery of the orders.

The Gaston d’Orléans wing at Blois, Mansart’s perfect mastery of the orders.

On entering the château we found all sorts of art forms acquired and commissioned by Francis I who acted as a ‘protector of the arts’. We also saw the lavish decoration of the king’s bedchamber including details that I had never known of before, such as the tradition of painted and gilded beams.

Pondering sculpture and tapestries at Blois.

Pondering sculpture and tapestries at Blois.

In the afternoon we travelled further down the Loire valley to arrive at Azay-le-Rideau which was announced in the brochure as ‘a jewel of Renaissance architecture’, and I was not disappointed!

The rear elevation of château Azay-le-rideau, surrounded by a moat and gardens ‘à l’anglaise’.
Holly Loire

We followed a guided tour around the 16th century château which took us up into the great attic and to sumptuous royal apartments. The tour gave a sense of the way of life led by one of the château’s original owners, Gilles Berthelot (financier to Francis I), and even details on the very interesting sleeping arrangements! Apparently, due to the difficulties with heating such large rooms all the guests would sleep top and tails in the beds together… so not as glamorous as you might imagine!

Azay-le-Rideau is not the largest and maybe not the most spectacular château in the Loire Valley but I found the 16th architectural details fascinating and the gardens were of particular interest. They demonstrate the growing taste during this period in France for the garden ‘à l’anglaise’ as opposed to the French model where symmetry reigned, reflecting the absolute reign of Louis XIV. The English garden, a reflection of a more liberal political system, was comprised of meandering paths and an impression of nature left in its original and wild state. Who would have thought that gardens and politics could have such links!

Holly and her Poitevan host on the staircase at Blois

Holly and her Poitevan host on the staircase at Blois

Through the organisation Poit’étrangers, my ‘welcome’ family and I had a great weekend discovering the heritage of the Loire Valley. I am very grateful for their kindness and willingness to engage with students from all over the world.

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