Category Archives: The View from Abroad

Lyon’s Fête des Lumières: Commercialist extravaganza or installation art at its finest, asks French and Art History student Marianne Thomas

The city of Lyon, located in the heart of the French hexagon, is a beautiful and vibrant one, bursting with a wide spectrum of cultural events that is ever-surprising in its variety and seemingly never-ending in its frequency. It’s arguably little wonder then, that after choosing Lyon to be the location of my compulsory Year Abroad last year, I was just as excited to experience the weekly art markets and the annual film festival as I was to explore the city itself. However, there was always one highly-acclaimed event that stood out in the calendar more than most and that I looked forward to from September onwards: Lyon’s annual Fête des Lumières, coming to town on 6th December.

 

The city of Lyon

The city of Lyon

 

A gigantic festival of lights, it’s not difficult to see why just the idea of the Fête des Lumières held such appeal for the History of Art student in me. Each year on the first weekend of December, every corner of Lyon is illuminated: building-sized video installations, pyrotechnics and dazzling light displays stretch from the concrete housing-block communities of the inner suburbs to the sprawling, fountain-laden squares of the city centre, and transform after-dark Lyon into a living, breathing canvas. Thousands of artists apply each year with the hope of securing a small area of the city to show off their expertise in their chosen field; the festival undoubtedly gives many installation artists an unparalleled opportunity to exhibit their work in an imaginative way outside of the gallery.

Subsequently, after seeing numerous photos of the spectacles offered by previous years, I was understandably excited to see what 2013 would bring, and assumed that the citizens of Lyon – being lucky enough to have this event on their doorstep – would feel the same.

 

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An installation in one of the city’s squares, December 2013

 

Nevertheless, in the lead-up to December, I found that, upon talking to local residents, most of them didn’t seem to share in my excitement. Some groaned with dread at the thought of the imminent collapse of public transport in the wake of all the tourists, but many more bemoaned the fact that the festival had become so commercial in recent years and that the “true spirit” of it had been masked by gimmicks and consumerism. After learning more about the history and facts of the Fête, it became clear that both of these viewpoints were fairly understandable.

After all, amazingly, Lyon’s Fête des Lumières is the third most-visited annual festive event in the world, with only Rio Carnival and Oktoberfest beating it in the leaderboard. That’s to say that, on average, four million tourists flock to Lyon every year for an event that is barely advertised outside of the city itself, and is practically unknown in the UK. Suddenly, the transport-related anxiety made a lot of sense. The argument of the Fête being overrun by commercialism also seems to follow on pretty naturally; the origins of the festival are far from concrete, but the generally-accepted version of the narrative is that the Fête is a tribute to the Virgin Mary for saving the city from the plague during the 1600s, and that lighting up building façades and placing candles in windows is the Lyonnais way of giving thanks for the miracle. However, it’s easy to see that this prominent spiritual aspect of the festival could be easily forgotten amongst the bright lights and fireworks.

So when the Fête des Lumières finally rolled around in December, I was no longer sure what to expect. Was it going to prove to be the commercialist extravaganza that I’d been warned about, or the enormous, explosive art installation that I’d hoped for?

 

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The town hall ‘on fire’

 

I was pleased to find that it was predominantly the latter. Although perhaps many art critics would not consider a festival of lights to be an example of installation art in its traditional sense, there is no reason to dismiss it from the category altogether. The way in which the existing architecture of the city was moulded to fit each artist’s requirement was extraordinary: with the use of incredibly-intricate lighting projections, the town hall and fine art museum were seen to be “demolished”, before being rebuilt into a rainforest and then an underwater kingdom, amongst many other creative destinations.

 

The Fine Art Museum being transformed into a rose garden

The Fine Art Museum being transformed into a rose garden

 

An existing mural painted onto the side of a local boulangerie was “animated”, its characters brought to life, while the banks of the Rhone river were transformed into a light-up orchestra. Of course, the streets were fit to burst with bodies cramming to see the spectacles, and the sheer number of stalls enthusiastically selling mulled wine was much higher than I would have expected, but a touch of consumerism didn’t mean that the event could not still be regarded as a prime example of the flexibility of installation art.

In fact, witnessing the festival made me think back to a question that all History of Art students will be very familiar with from the first few nervous weeks of first year: What is Art? It doesn’t always have to be a Pre-Raphaelite painting from the National Gallery, or even the most recent and most ‘out-there’ Damien Hirst creation. At its basis, art is arguably about producing a reaction, and there’s no question that the Fête des Lumières continues to do that year after year, showcasing the best talent of this specific artistic niche in an unorthodox, citywide exhibition that celebrates and the Lyonnais landscape and adds a touch of magic to it too.

So if you ever want to experience an installation exhibition with a difference, Lyon in December may just be the place to go. It may not be “high art”, but it certainly shows how adaptable and all-encompassing art can be, and you’ll never be short of a glass of vin chaud as you watch architecture metamorphose before your eyes.

Marianne is studying a History of Art and French. To find out more about this degree programme see here. Read Marianne’s other report on living and working in Lyon here.

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When in Rome . . . Ella Kilford on this year’s Art History in the Field trip

Some of the group by the Colosseum

Some of the group in the Colosseum

The long-anticipated second year field trip finally came in reading week this February, and what a trip we had! On our return everyone, from the entire department to our friends and family, enviously asked us how the trip had gone – a question to which we all replied positively. In fact we wished we were still there, not only for the fabulous weather in the high 20s but also for the little routine we had got into. Early starts with a quick breakfast at the hotel and then on to visit amazing museums, galleries and beautiful churches. This would be followed by a delicious lunch of antipasti, fresh pizza or pasta, more art, and then an equally sumptuous dinner with a final leisurely stroll back through Rome by night – heaven! Closer to our time of departure and on our return, the trip became collectively known simply as ‘Rome’, and is still referred to now fondly by all of us. The trip is such a great opportunity to study works of art in situ and a really exciting element for any second year Art History student at Birmingham University.

At Gatwick!

At Gatwick…perhaps before we knew the flight was cancelled!!

Arriving at Gatwick to find our flight cancelled was not a fantastic start. Yet witnessing everyone’s – including our lecturer David’s – faces looking up, baffled, at the departure boards, for me, was one of my fondest memories of the trip: you have to laugh! On a positive note, the cancellation resulted in a complimentary night in London’s “best” Travel Lodge and a flight the next day to Pisa, and then a coach through the beautiful Tuscan countryside to our final destination – Rome. The scenic views and buildings we passed were spectacular and allowed the group to bond.

Rome - walking the cobbles

Rome – Walking the Cobbles

The Pantheon

The Pantheon

Rome - pasta and pizza

Pizza and past in Rome

So, why is a Rome a good location for a study trip, then? Well, where to begin…as second year Art Historian Maysie said, there are simply ‘too many reasons’. All of us agreed that the variety of art available in Italy’s capital city was a massive advantage. From antique ruins, statues and sarcophagi to contemporary installations in the Modern Art Museum, there really is something for everyone’s taste and research interest. There’s even a few Monet’s in the Modern Art Museum.

Student selfie on top of Alfredo Pirri's broken mirrors installation in the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna

Student selfie on top of Alfredo Pirri’s broken mirrors installation in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna

As part of our studies in the second year, we take a Research Techniques module which is designed, though a literature review, to complement the Study Trip, by encouraging us to choose and research an object that we will study in situ in advance of the trip. This exercise is also great preparation for our final year dissertation which is also on a single art object. This early preparation for our final year is, for me and my colleagues, one of the many attractions of studying art history at Birmingham University.

Ruins in the Roman Forum

Ruins in the Roman Forum

Students in the statue gallery in the Galleria nazionale d’arte moderna

Seeing the actual objects or art works that we had selected to research for our summer term presentation – the assessment for this module – was a real highlight and pleasure. People in the group have chosen a range of items, ranging from a contemporary photograph by Gabriele Basilico to Bernini’s famous David sculpture, and the façade of San Giovanni in Laterano. The rich diversity of our research interests and objects rendered the trip really interesting, as on multiple occasions we would go and see each other’s object, just out of the desire to learn more from our peers.

Another selfie...this time David elucidating exactly what the Apollo Belvedere is doing. Vatican Museums

Another selfie…this time David elucidating exactly what the Apollo Belvedere is doing in the famous sculpture in the Vatican Museums

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Group shot in St Peter’s

One of my highlights of Rome was the day that we spent with one of the PhD students, Jamie, who accompanied us on the trip (read what else Jamie got up to here). We spent the day walking through Rome and visited the object of Sophie’s research, the Villa Farnesina. This villa built by Agostino Chigi, a rich banker and treasurer of Pope Julius II, contains some spectacular frescos by Raphael and his workshop. All of us enjoyed learning about the Chigi’s exciting and extravagant parties which were hosted in the villa in the summer months. There would have been music, dancing, food, and plenty of wine.

Loggia, Villa Farnesina

Raphael’s Loggia, Villa Farnesina

Although we had an itinerary drawn up by our lecturers, Liz and David, including some of Rome’s main attractions, we also had some free time to explore the city. Thus on some mornings and afternoons we visited other areas of interest and soaked up our cultural surroundings. As the hotel we stayed in was central to all areas of Rome, we could walk to pretty much everything on foot. The metro offered a quick and cheap alternative if we were feeling tired, but walking is so much more rewarding as treasures can be uncovered around every corner. The Trevi Fountain takes you by surprise, appearing amongst shops and cafes when turning around a corner, and it is astonishing when illuminated by night.

The Trevi Fountain in the bright Roman sunshine

The Trevi Fountain in the bright Roman sunshine

Although the aim of the study trip was obviously for academic purposes, and we all learnt so much, we still had plenty of fun. Rome will definitely be a highlight of my time here at Birmingham University studying Art History.

Group dinner on the penultimate evening

Group dinner on the penultimate evening

On the trail of Pieter Bruegel. . . (again)

Doria Pamphilj

Gallery inside the Doria Pamphilj

Researching Pieter Bruegel for my PhD has taken me all over Europe – I know, lucky me (as a colleague and friend of mine joked, it’s a tough old life being an art historian). My most recent jaunt in the name of research took me to Italy. Rome and Naples, to be specific.

We know that Bruegel spent a significant period of time in Italy from at least 1552 to ’55. His southern “wanderjahr” is shrouded in mystery, and we don’t know a great deal about what he got up to whilst in Italy. We can be fairly sure that he had arrived in Southern Italy by 1552, that he was in Rome in 1555 working with Giulio Clovio, and that he headed back to Antwerp, going via the Alps, shortly thereafter. My trip, though, wasn’t motivated by a gratuitous wish to walk in Bruegel’s footsteps. Instead, I wanted to study a couple of Bruegels that are in Italian collections and I’ve never got round to seeing.

Doria Pamphilj courtyard

Doria Pamphilj courtyard

Bruegel, Bay of Naples

Bruegel, Bay of Naples

The first was Bruegel’s Bay of Naples, which hangs in the delightful, if not slightly mad, Palazzo Doria Pamphilj. Whenever I’ve been in Rome before, I’ve never managed to squeeze this in, so it was right at the top of my list of priorities. (I was also in Rome to lend a pair of hands with the 2nd year Undergraduates’ study trip, and since they’d got waylaid at Heathrow because of a flight cancellation–post about the trip to follow soon, but here’s last year’s!–I took the opportunity to go straight to the Pamphilj.)

The Doria Pamphilj has a pretty old fashioned way of doing things. The walls are stacked high with pictures (it reminded me of those old engravings that show how how less-good artwork was “skied” at exhibitions put on by the European Academies), and the gold leaf frames usually feature just a handwritten artist’s name, done with a Sharpie, I expect. Anyway, after much squinting to make sure I didn’t miss the Bruegel 7 feet above my head, I saw it, down low, at eye level, inscribed in an elegant hand “Bruegel”. (If you’re interested, the Bruegel is the ninth picture along on the bottom row from the left in the heading photo.)

It’s really a rather staggering picture. It’s fairly small but absolutely crammed full with detail. We know it’s Naples, despite the jetty being circular, which is wrong because it is square, because we can make out certain topographical features on the bay such as the Castel Nuovo. The picture must have been painted from memory by Bruegel, usually, it is said, about 1560, but with the aid of drawings Bruegel made in situ during his Italian sojourn. Scholars have in the past been reluctant to accept this picture’s authenticity, mostly, I think, because it isn’t signed. However seeing it has allayed any suspicions I might have had. So much of the picture is characteristically Bruegel and for me it has a particular significance in relation to Bruegel’s activities as a miniaturist. We know Bruegel did miniatures, and the Bay of Naples is clearly the work of an artist who was comfortable working in miniature; the rigging of the ships is especially remarkable and diligently executed, as are the ships’ crews, clambering about on deck, which, although tiny, are really quite impressively rendered. Exactly why Bruegel should have produced a pretty much accurate, topographical, view of the bay of Naples in the first place is something I’m now curious to explore a bit more: did other people do topographical sea/landscapes in the mid-16th century? And who would want one on their walls?

Museo di Capodimonte

Museo di Capodimonte

Bruegel's Blind Leading the Blind and Misanthrope

Bruegel’s Blind Leading the Blind and Misanthrope

Having looked at Bruegel’s depiction of the Bay of Naples, which is now in Rome, the next day I jumped onto a train from Rome for Naples to see two other Bruegels that are housed in that city’s Capodimonte Museum. Now, I can’t say that Naples is somewhere I’d rush back to for a week’s holiday, but the Capodimonte is a real gem. Perched high up on a hill away from the hustle and bustle, not to mention dangers(!), of the frantic city centre, the Capodimonte is a real haven and full of stellar works of art. It was also practically deserted, probably because of Naples’s bad rep. Masaccio’s really wonderful Crucifixion from the dismantled Pisa Polyptych is there, as is Titian’s Danaë and Caravaggio’s Flagellation of Christ. Particularly wonderful also are some cartoons by Michelangelo (some figures for the Pauline Chapel frescoes and the cartoon for Venus and Cupid composition, which is positioned alongside a roughly contemporary painting after that design). But the real treat was Bruegel’s Blind Leading the Blind and Misanthrope, both from 1568. I’ve written about the Blind Leading the Blind at length before in my MPhil thesis, and seeing it was just great. I learned loads from looking at the picture in real life that you just can’t get from poring over reproductions in books – there are all kinds of details in the picture that just don’t come across in a book. Meanwhile, I was surprised by the Misanthrope‘s size, which, I’d imagined, would’ve been much smaller than it is. Standing in front of it, you can just picture that painting up on some well-to-do bloke’s or woman’s wall, where it was doubtless gathered around as an object of discussion. All this just goes to show, as I’ve said before on this blog, that you really do stand to gain so much more from seeing all this stuff in real life…

Jamie

The View from Lyon: French and Art History student Marianne Thomas on French culture and local schools…with a large helping of Chantilly

As a Joint Honours student, I’ve always considered myself very lucky to be able to profit from the variety of opportunities offered by both of my very different subjects: French and History of Art. However, this September, I felt even more fortunate (if also very nervous) because I was getting ready to begin my opportunity of a lifetime: living and working in la belle France!

After some thorough researching of French towns and cities through the ever-reliable medium of Wikipedia, I decided upon Lyon as my city of choice. The photos certainly seemed to hold the promise of a place that had everything: from the cobbled streets of Vieux Lyon, lined with speciality Lyonnais restaurants and crèperies, to the beautiful Romanesque architecture of the Basilique de Fourvière, Lyon appeared to be packed with interesting things to see, do and, of course, eat. Besides which, surely the fact that it’s twinned with Birmingham had to be a good omen?

The Roof Tops of Lyon

The Roof Tops of Lyon

It didn’t disappoint. My first few weeks were busy to say the least, filled up with being a tourist in my new home. After meeting lots of other people who were in the same situation as me, most of my time was spent exploring Lyon, test-driving my French and attempting to maintain the Art History side of my brain with a few trips to the sprawling Musée des Beaux Arts in the city centre. Only time will tell (or, fourth year, to be more precise) as to whether I’ve succeeded with the latter. However, I also faced the fun of tackling the notoriously difficult French administration process; setting up an electricity account in French via a phone call to a mumbling and irritable EDF man who kept putting me on hold had to be the highlight. I also had to brace myself for starting my new job.

Under the archways of ornate Fourvière

Under the archways of ornate Fourvière

Rather than be an Erasmus student in Lyon, I’ve opted to work as an English language assistant, helping students between the ages of 11 and 15 to improve their language and communication skills. I chose this option because I thought it would give me the chance to experience something that I would otherwise never see and, with no prior teacher training whatsoever, it’s fair to say that an ‘experience’ is certainly what I’ve had so far! I work in two middle schools in a suburb of Lyon, where many children face numerous social difficulties at home which, in turn, frequently have an impact on their schoolwork and, perhaps more importantly, on their behaviour. Consequently, there have been many situations where I’ve been standing in front of a class of fifteen Year 10s whose French grammar is worse than mine (and that really is saying something) and the pupils have no interest in learning anything related to English besides whether I’ve met One Direction. When all is said and done, however, I really am enjoying it. I’ve also been very fortunate to have supportive and welcoming colleagues, and in fact, I’ve found that most people I’ve met in France so far have taken the same approach. Even though Lyon is a big city – the 2nd largest in France – it’s often surprising how small and cosy it feels, and that’s largely due to its generally welcoming attitude and multicultural society.

Marianne has also mastered the art of ordering chocolat chaud avec Chantilly!

Marianne has also mastered the art of ordering chocolat chaud avec Chantilly!

All in all, to use the clichéd-but-incredibly-true viewpoint adopted by so many Year Abroad returners: this really is proving to be a wonderful experience. So far, I’ve had the chance to not only become fairly knowledgeable about Lyon itself, but also explore the nearby cities and towns of Geneva, Annecy and Avignon, all of which offered me their own unique insights into aspects of European culture, architecture and history, and I’m looking forward to visiting more Francophone culture hotspots this semester.

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Le Palais des Papes, Avignon

Annency

Annency

Even though it will undoubtedly be very strange to return to Birmingham in September – especially considering that all of my previous History of Art classmates will have already left, dissertations complete and graduate caps in hand – I really would recommend combining History of Art with a language if the option presents itself, however terrifying the thought of a Year Abroad might be. You’ll get an amazing insight into an entirely different culture and even better, you’ll finally be able to pronounce all of those foreign-language Art History terms that no-one can ever say!

You can find out more about combining Art History with a language here. And Single Honours students of Art History are also eligible to study abroad for a semester in their second year!

Another Birmingham student, Clara Mciver, listed her top five reasons for studying abroad in this article for the Huffington Post.

Thoughts from Vienna….

 

Bruegel Gallery, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

I’ve heard it said before that doing art history from the books is easy. It was Prof. Mary Beard, Cambridge Classicist of A Don’s Life fame, that said it, who is married to Robin Cormack, the art historian. Now inasmuch as I’d say that doing art history from the books is only as easy as doing any humanities subject from the books, and that researching and putting together a coherent argument about art history is only as easy as doing the same in, say, History, English and, indeed, Classics(!) etc., I have a new-found empathy for Beard’s statement after this weekend.

I’ve been in Vienna. My PhD’s on Pieter Bruegel’s paintings and the lion’s share of the surviving ones are displayed in Vienna at the Kunsthistoriches Museum. The  Bruegels assembled here are the ones that were in the Habsburg Imperial collection, having been collected by Emperor Rudolf II and his brother the Archduke Ernst of Austria, who were both apparently dead keen on Bruegel’s art. It’s these (less the ones that the Habsburgs lost and are now elsewhere) that I came to see this weekend. 

I wanted to put some of my thoughts–gleaned from hours pouring over the books and trawling JSTOR, etc., as well as looking at other Bruegels in Europe–to practice in front of the pictures themselves. And let’s just say that things quickly get tricky when you’re face-to-face with the things.

Bruegel, Peasant Feast

Take the Peasant Wedding Feast. Painted around 1568, the literature about this picture (and all of Bruegel’s peasants for that matter) usually says 1 of 2 things. 1 school of thought says that the peasants are emblems of sin, intended to represent drunken gluttony and supposedly put up on the wall to be seen by posh people who would renounce the peasantry and deplore their lack of table manners, keenness for booze etc. School of thought number 2, however, says that the peasants are emblems of fun, and that posh Antwerpers would have had a laugh at the peasants and their rustic, bumbling ways. According to this reading the pictures were looked at in lieu of actually going out into the countryside to mingle with the farmers, which wealthy Antwerp citizens were fond of doing in the mid-1500s. 

The premise underlying both is that Bruegel’s peasants were looked at by people who were in no way themselves peasants. Panel paintings in general would indeed have been prohibitively expensive and well out of the reach of the poor in the sixteenth century. A fair amount of evidence also exists to permit the conclusion that Bruegel’s panels were especially pricey. Moreover, we’ve learned recently that the Peasant Wedding was probably owned by Jan Noirot, Master of the Antwerp Mint who was a member of Antwerp’s upwardly mobile, mercantile class and who had 5 Bruegels in total. And so it seems that the premise is correct: that peasants in (Bruegel’s) art weren’t looked at by the peasants.

But trying to figure out which of the moral or non-moral readings is closest to the mark when you’re looking at the Peasant Wedding proves impossible.

Are the wedding celebrants really gluttonous drunks? Sure, a couple swig from their big beer jugs in a way that makes them look like the sixteenth-century’s equivalent to the modern-day binge drinker, but where’s all the vomiting, falling over and fistycuffs that we see in older art showing the drunken fallout of a peasant wedding or kermis? Meanwhile, the food itself is pretty simple and I don’t reckon these peasants would ever have been accused, as was sometimes said of peasants at this time, of squandering their meagre earnings on lavish food that was above their station. Meanwhile, the bride herself looks positively demure, happy (well she is newly-wed after all!) but demure all the same. And what about the cute kid at the front eating with his fingers? Although some might think this is intended to say “the apple never falls far from the tree” and that the child has acquired the same bad habits and ill-manners as his elders, is it not simply the case that kids from all kinds of backgrounds eat with their fingers and that it never raises an eyebrow?

So you could say that the picture is fairly innocent. It hardly seems to be the case that Bruegel wanted to make a bad example out of the peasantry.

But at the same time, and turning to the other side of the debate, what’s actually funny about this picture? Although we might like to think that in the 1500s sensibilities were different and that they might have laughed at stuff we now don’t, there really is nothing outrageous happening in the Peasant Wedding that might have raised a smile, and there’s no pun being illustrated or funny gesture being performed that may have roused laughter. Looking at it today, I think it’s pretty naïve to think that Bruegel’s original audience found peasants implicitly funny irrespective of what they’re actually shown to be doing, which in this case is simply celebrating a wedding over beer and porridge. Proof again comes from older art. For example, look up Sebald Beham’s peasants and his images of them shitting and drunkenly canoodling. These may well have been funny (the scatological has always tended to induce laughter) but they’re funny in exaggerated ways that emphasise debauchery in ways that Bruegel’s are not.

And so the comic reading is as tough to swallow as the moral one.

In other words, the essential binary that has become the norm in investigations about Bruegel’s peasants falls apart when you scrutinise the pictures in reality. Standing in front of the Peasant Wedding today, I realised that while the picture may well have been owned by a well-to-do man (although Noirot did ultimately become bankrupt AND was implicated in a murder!) the ways we’ve approached understanding the pictures in this context hitherto is simply flawed. This is of course great, because it means there’s much left to say. But it is still a realisation that comes from confronting the picture in real life, devoid of an accompanying essay telling you this or that.

Bruegel, Nester

Bruegel, Suicide of Saul, 1562, oil on panel, Kunsthistorisches, Vienna

Equally perplexing are some of the other Bruegels. Is the nest robber in the Peasant and a Nest Robber really stealing from the bird’s nest? And what’s the peasant doing for that matter? Is he pointing? What at? And why? And why’s he stumbling headlong into a brook? The Suicide of Saul is simply weird because you can barely see the suicidal Saul and the picture’s dizzying amount of detail is even more staggering given the picture’s tiny dimensions – something you can only appreciate properly when you see it, because dimensions given in books fail to provide the same realisation. And what about the Children’s Games? Who was supposed to look at that? Why? What purpose does a picture showing kids playing serve? (Although you can read a good article about the last of these questions in the Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art, which is available online here.)

Bruegel, Children's Games, 1560, oil on panel, Kunsthistoriches

So Beard’s words apparently have a ring of truth in them – the abundant literature tells us this and that about Bruegel’s moral or not pictures, which we might at the time believe, but it seems difficult to give credence to either view when you’re actually in the Bruegel gallery in Vienna. This is of course an example of why seeing art in real life is so important: it forces you to think outside of what you’ve read and question some of the presumptions that sway your way of thinking about things. I’d already done this, of course (you don’t get a PhD by re-hashing all the old stuff), but seeing the pictures really brings it home.

Akademie der bildenden künste, Vienna

Bosch, Last Judgment

Meanwhile, a whole other can of worms was opened up when I popped to the Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der bildenden künste, which is a hop, skip and a jump away from the Kunsthistoriches. It’s basically the same set-up as the Barber (that is, it’s a picture gallery that’s part of an educational establishment, this time the fine art academy) and I went there to see Bosch’s Last Judgment, which he did probably at some time around 1500. Staring at the Last Judgment I found myself wondering: why didn’t Bosch paint any genitals? Christian propriety of course dictated that genitals shouldn’t be shown too much (Michelangelo got into enough trouble because of that, whose Last Judgment (1530s) in the Sistine was called ‘disgraceful’ by Biagio da Cesena, who deemed it worthy of a bathhouse on account of all the bits that were on display), and so usually artists avoided the problem by showing their nudes with artfully placed and folded legs or bits of cloth. Others though had no problem with it and showed genitals, and, if you think about it, in last judgments it was probably rather meaningful to show the corporeal, fleshy, body in all its nakedness since the subject is after all about the Judgment of sins, among them lust. In his picture, sometimes Bosch adopted the strategy of having artfully posed people who aren’t exposing their genitals, thus alleviating the problem. But he does also have naked people with splayed legs, and when he does he has just put a rather odd smudge of flesh-coloured paint where the genitals should be. Perhaps, then, Bosch was more of a prude than the rhetoric surrounding this “outlandish” artist would have us believe? Infamously, for example, Wilhelm Fraenger argued that Bosch was actually a heretic who worked for the “Adamites”, an underground sect that celebrated the pre-Fall sinlessness of sex and had orgies and stuff. And although I never really believed it anyway, the Vienna picture makes me think that this really is quite wrong and that Bosch’s pictures really were made for the conventionally religious. Who knows. It just struck me as being odd… No doubt I’ll have a think about it and look it up in the books.

Jamie

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A Perfect Opportunity for a Perfect End to a Year in Medieval Poitiers

Joint Honours Student Holly Wain on using her French and Art History skills to work for the journal Cahiers de civilisation médiévale.

As my days at the University of Poitiers drew to a close, I was determined to make the most of the last weeks of my Year Abroad in France. During my course, I was lucky enough to have translation classes with Stephen Morrison, a researcher specialising in the medieval period and director of the Centre for Medieval Studies in Poitiers (CESCM). I began speaking to him about my course at Birmingham and my interest in medieval art history and, then later, about possible work experience at the research centre. I am grateful for all his efforts, as in June I began work at the centre’s journal, the Cahiers de civilisation médiévale.

The journal began in 1958 and covers a variety of areas including philosophy, art history, literature, and musicology. It aims to bring together summaries of topics that deepen understanding in medieval civilisation and articles are submitted by researchers from all over the world. The articles include a short summary abstract in English, and literature reviews were also often published in both English and French. I was therefore given a range of pieces to translate, which was not only brilliant practice for my French but allowed me to learn about subjects I had never come across before such as the celtic ‘evil eye’ which cropped up while translating a review of a work by Jacqueline Borsje. Some of the texts tackled extremely specific areas of the early medieval period so there were sentences that I did not even understand in English! However, in the three weeks that I was there I did manage to translate substantial amounts of text. I was able to develop my translation skills immensely as I had to work around difficult sections to be able to communicate their broader sense.

The Cahiers de civilisation médiévale, where I worked under the direction of editor Blaise Royer.

The Cahiers de civilisation médiévale, where I worked under the direction of editor Blaise Royer.

It was very fortunate that the weeks I spent at the journal coincided with the annual conference held by the centre, the Semaines d’études médiévales in which students from many different countries flock to Poitiers to hear speakers present a variety of papers. I was very kindly invited by Blaise and the team to attend the opening lecture by Piotr Skubiszewski from the University of Warsaw on a manuscript found in Poitiers and the tradition of author ‘portraits’. Back at the journal, the team took a lot of interest in my own studies, for example I was able to attend the lecture by Stephen Morrison the topic of which was relevant to my own dissertation project, an early fifteenth-century tomb in Canterbury Cathedral. I gained an insight into the Lollard movement whilst also practising my French! I could not have asked for more.

A flyer presents the conference, detailing the great international presence among the speakers.

A flyer presents the conference, detailing the great international presence among the speakers.

The three weeks spent at the journal were often overwhelming as the team were working on lots of  different projects . As well as translation, I gained experience in the digitisation of previous issues of the journal and the translation of searchable terms for the Brepols database of the International Medieval Bibliography which is primarily linked to the University of Leeds. I worked with Karine Corre who looks after the indexation of books for the development of the database. It is a mammoth task with hundreds of books being sent in. I often felt sorry for her as I entered the office in the morning to find her surrounded by piles of yet more new books! I was also given access to the database so I could use it for my own research. Karine was extremely helpful and we found several very promising articles for my dissertation.

The site of the CESCM, Hôtel Berthelot (although due to building works the team at the journal were relocated, so I spent my time in a much less picturesque university building!)

The site of the CESCM, Hôtel Berthelot (although due to building works the team at the journal were relocated, so I spent my time in a much less picturesque university building!)

After finishing exams and feeling like my year abroad was fading away, work experience at the Cahiers was a brilliant insight into the world of medieval research and the demands of translation. The team were extremely welcoming and enabled my year abroad to be more than lessons at the University, but a full experience in the medieval world of the CESCM.

The Exchange Perspective from “la Montréalaise”, by Chia-Yi Lin

When I found out that I was nominated for student exchange in the UK, I was ecstatic. As an art historian studying at McGill University in Montreal, I believe there is nothing more exciting than studying an artefact in its original state. That said, Montreal, despite being the second oldest city in all of North America, is still young in terms of its history and the production of art. I felt as if I needed to immerse myself in the seat of Western art and explore its provenance.

The Barber- an impressive exterior

The Barber- an impressive exterior

I arrived at the University of Birmingham in the mild British winter of January armed with a luggage full of hope and expectations. I was pleasantly surprised to see how quaint the campus was.

The peaceful river parallel to the train tracks in Birmingham

The peaceful river parallel to the train tracks in Birmingham

A very British house!

A very British house!

Let's not forget the central tower!

Let’s not forget the central tower!

I was staying at the Vale which was beautiful but to me seemed slightly out of the way: the twenty minute walk each way to campus was something I was not accustomed to back at home. However, this walk allowed me to catch a glimpse of the neighbourhood and other facilities which the University of Birmingham boasts such as Winterbourne House.

The gorgeous swan of the Vale lake

The gorgeous swan of the Vale lake

Shackleton of the Vale

Shackleton of the Vale

Needless to say, all aspects of this exchange have contributed to my overall experience. So, even before the course lecturer walked in the room on the first day of my course, I had learnt something from my peers. Forgive my bias but I’ve always thought art history students dressed better than those from other departments and it was no different here! Basking in the different sense of fashion and the array of accents, I quickly processed how the small number of students matched the equally small Barber Photograph Room where our lectures and seminars were to be held. This would, however, prove to be advantageous. The large hall back at home suddenly seemed too formal when compared to this intimate setting. In a short period of time, I have reassessed my presentation skills, developed a group friendly work ethic and engaged in this peer-learning environment.

Inside the Barber

Inside the Barber

Lady Barber's portrait settled in the foyer to remind us of the purpose of her gift

Lady Barber’s portrait settled in the foyer to remind us of the purpose of her gift

Let’s rewind to that moment when the course lecturer walked in the room. I immediately felt the difference of approachability in that she prefers to be called by her first name instead of referring to her status of a doctor. I soon realized that all my lecturers were not only specialized in their fields in regards to the artefacts being studied and their histories, but are also fluent in the languages of their context. Their hands-on experience with objects led to the ‘hands on art’ teaching that I was soon pleasantly faced with. The three courses I took were Inside the Gallery, Introduction to Art and Architecture in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, and Power, Society, Politics: Religious Art in Northern Europe, c. 1400-1600. These three courses were all very different to each other and at the same time all reflected a different teaching style to Art History at McGill. Inside the Gallery was a practical course where we were evaluated on an exhibition we had to curate. Power, Society, Politics gave me a good survey on English and North European religious art. Lastly, modernism, which was never my forte, was simplified and enriched through Fin-de-Siècle Vienna.

La Montréalaise

La Montréalaise

Compared to the mediated experience of artefacts on projections and screens, my interior exploded with joy when centuries old manuscripts and documents from an extensive archive were plopped onto my lap during seminars. The fact that I was touching original materials and could actually feel the texture of manuscript pages would not have been possible at home where the closest proximity anyone could get was a nose inch away… from the thick glass encasing. This was not exclusive to the resources of the University’s Barber Institute, but seems to be a feature of the way galleries across Britain present their art objects. It is obvious that the UK is a country that cherishes and preserves its own history. There is no doubt that as an art history student, I am soaking up every inch of this wonderful opportunity.

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.

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.

Poitiers 1

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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