Islamic Art in Florence

Egyptian jug (14th century). Brass with silver and gold inlay. © Museo Nazionale del Bargello.

The world of Islamic art has been explored in Florence this summer in a major exhibition (Islamic Art and Florence from the Medici to the 20th century, open until 23rd September), divided between the Uffizi Gallery (the Aula Magliabecchiana exhibition space on the ground floor, so accessible directly from the ticket office) and the Bargello Museum. As is well known, the religion of Islam prohibited cult images and generally speaking all representations of the human form (the only religious element being inscriptions) and so Islamic art consists largely of metalwork, textiles, ceramics, carvings, carpets, all of which we tend to group under the title of ‘decorative arts’, which in terms of 20th-century Western Art History lost ground to the study of painting and sculpture. For those of us ill-versed in the history of Islamic art, perhaps one of the most striking things about this exhibition is the wide date span of objects which have great similarities and stylistic unity, and the occasional difficulty scholars have in identifying not just the region of origin, but even the country. This is also because the works were often made by itinerant craftsmen who were called on to satisfy the trade in luxury items throughout the Islamic world and beyond. Perhaps we have become all too used to looking closely at the dates and birthplaces of the artists when standing in front of a painting or sculpture in Italy.

 

This is therefore an exhibition to be enjoyed above all for its great variety of beautiful objects, all of them of the highest quality, from the huge geographical area of the Middle East under Islamic rule: Syria and Egypt and the North African coast, as well as Persia, Turkey and Muslim Spain. A feeling of exotic luxury exudes from the wonderful carpets, textiles, velvets, brass-work incised in silver and gold, ivory carvings, tiles, glazed earthenware pottery, glass mosque lamps, etc.

 

The great majority of works displayed come from Florence itself: from the two major donations made at the turn of the 20th century to the Bargello Museum by Carrand and Franchetti; from the 19th-century collections in the Museo Stefano Bardini and Museo Stibbert; and from the Medici collections now divided into a number of museums in the city. Much of this art is not normally on display, so this has been an occasion to bring these wonderful pieces into the open and delve into the deposits. In particular, part of the Franchetti collection of textiles in the Bargello can at last be seen, and objects from the Museo e Galleria di Palazzo Mozzi Bardini are also on display.

 

The stuffed giraffe which greets visitors to the Uffizi part of the exhibition has been rescued from the Natural History Museum in Florence: taxidermists were ordered to preserve this extraordinary gift, presented to the Florentine Grand-Duke in 1835 by Ali Pasha, the viceroy of Egypt. It was the successor to another giraffe, sent to Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1487 by the Mamluk sultan of Egypt, and which was once to be seen grazing in the Boboli Gardens. It is known that Lorenzo used to exchange gifts with his contemporaries in Constantinople (Mehmet II) and Cairo (Qa’it Bay). He might even have worn the parade jacket (on show from the Bargello) which bears the name of a Mamluk emir.

 

The extraordinary flare the Medici family had for collecting beautiful things is once again demonstrated in this show, as well as their ability to ‘enrich’ some precious objects from the East with decorations (it is thought that the handle of Lorenzo’s sardonyx vase from Persia, on display from the Tesoro dei Granduchi in Palazzo Pitti, was designed by Verrocchio). A rock-crystal bottle made in Egypt in the 10th century was given a Renaissance mount and ended up in the treasury of the Medici family church of San Lorenzo. Interestingly enough, there is some brasswork in the exhibition which has not been definitively identified: it could be either Islamic or Florentine. But we know that the precious little coffer with silver and gold damascening, clearly inspired by Islamic art (on loan from the Louvre), was produced in Florence in 1570.

 

Among the ceramics are five albarello vases decorated with the Florentine heraldic lily, made in Syria in the early 15th century and here re-united from Paris, Toronto and Doha. A large lustreware pitcher made in Valencia (and now preserved in Berlin) bears the Medici arms.

 

Two large brass basins for ablutions, made in Syria in the late 13th or early 14th century, are displayed together: one is now in Kuwait City but the other, even more beautiful, ended up in Palermo. The exquisite ‘Barberini Vase’ (lent by the Louvre) was once owned by Pope Urban VIII: it was made in the mid-13th century with silver inlay and delicately incised ornament. The pope was evidently unworried about possessing an Islamic artefact.

 

The Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence also preserves Islamic documents and manuscripts (and they are holding their own exhibition, Images from the Orient, in conjunction with this one). The Medici even started their own printing press for Oriental scripts. On show at the Uffizi is the Library’s most precious holding of Islamic manuscripts: the earliest known example of ‘The Book of Kings’, the Persian epic poem dating from 1217.

 

The huge collection of decorative arts which belonged to Louis Carrand (1821–99), an antiques dealer from Lyon, was begun by his father Jean-Baptiste, and since Louis spent much of his life in Florence, he left it to the Bargello (there are plans to open a new Islamic Hall there: Carrand’s collection is considered to be the best of its kind in Italy). On show for this exhibition are assorted objects of great interest from the collection: ivory plaquettes made in the 11th–12th centuries with musicians and dancing figures; an ivory elephant from a chess set thought to have been made in Iraq in the 10th century; brass objects including a large ewer from Egypt (since it is inscribed with the name of a Yemeni Sultan, it can be dated to 1363–77); tiles from Iran and Iznik tiles from Turkey; Ottoman textiles; a 14th-century glass mosque lamp; a bronze inkwell from Persia; a steel helmet in the form of a turban, and much more.

 

Part of the textile collection left to the Bargello by Giulio Franchetti in 1906 is displayed in the same room. The largest piece is an amazing strip of red velvet covered with gold discs from Tabriz, identified as one of the panni tartarici (loosely defined as ‘Tartar cloth’) documented in Italy as early as 1295, when it is mentioned in the inventory of Boniface VIII’s papal treasury.

 

On the ground floor of the Bargello there is a selection of the carpets (together with an Ottoman saddle-cloth) from the Museo Stefano Bardini. Bardini’s carpet collection is the largest in Italy, but also on show here are carpets and textiles which he sold and which have ended up outside Italy: the exquisite Mamluk textile fragment in silk lampas with birds and animals is today preserved in the Musée des Tissus in Lyon (purchased from Bardini in 1907). One of the most outstanding carpets is the one which Bardini brought from the Florentine Capponi family and which he sold on to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It is an Isfahan carpet from central Persia, dating from the late 16th century, with a blue border with birds and a frieze of animals against a red ground around the central medallion, which has people enjoying a banquet (you have to look closely to make them out).

 

The huge Mamluk carpet (with wonderful scarlet and green colours) made in Cairo in the early 16th century, recognised as the largest in the world, comes from the deposits of the Pitti (understandably not on permanent display there because of its size). For this exhibition it is displayed in the Uffizi.

 

A small area on the ground floor of the Bargello has been dedicated to a fascinating selection of the Islamic pieces from the incredibly crowded rooms of the Stibbert Museum, including 19th-century art created by craftsmen at work in Stibbert’s own lifetime, which he may have picked up on his travels. The fascinating wood manuscript covers from Persia have figurative scenes: a dragon about to eat a king (although the figure of majesty mysteriously appears again in six more scenes on the same panel), and a procession with musicians, mules and a group of women wearing the burka (in black and white). There are also examples of arms and armour from Mughal India and an Indian Qur’an owned by Stibbert’s grandfather.

 

In the catalogue to this fascinating exhibition, the Uffizi director Eike Schmidt writes that he sees it as the role of museums not only to preserve the past but also to foster a dialogue with the present in order to encourage the flow of art and culture between worlds that are only apparently distant one from the other.

 

Reviewed by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

The Seuso Roman silver: on display at last

This summer’s exciting news is that the magnificent Seuso Treasure has finally gone on public display, at the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest. We have waited a long time for this. The Treasure (14 stunning pieces of late imperial Roman silver) has had an unsteady and sordid career, passed from hand to hand like an expensive courtesan whose origins are obscure and best not investigated too closely. After many decades Hungary, who always stoutly maintained its claim to the trove, has redeemed it from its demi-monde existence and placed it on show as a magnificent piece of Pannonian patrimony.

 

The 14 pieces are as follows: four huge platters, variously decorated; a washbasin; five large ewers; two elaborate situlae (water buckets); an embossed amphora and a conical-lidded casket for perfumed unguents. They were almost certainly not made as a single set (dating from the 4th–5th centuries, there is a range of about five decades between the oldest and the youngest pieces) and they include items worked in vastly different styles. The elegant, strigilated washbasin and two ewers with incised geometric designs, for example, which are assigned by some scholars to a “Western” workshop, are stylistically worlds away from the jug and amphora with Dionysiac scenes of frenzied maenads and inebriated satyrs, punched out in a sort of bubbling, varicose repoussé that seems opulently “Eastern”.

 

Though Hungary's ownership is no longer contested, the exact findspot of the Treasure remains unclear. In the 1970s a young man called József Sümegh stumbled on a Roman hoard packed into a wide copper cauldron in the vicinity of the village of Polgárdi, east of Lake Balaton. Sümegh did not live long to enjoy his find. He died in mysterious circumstances at the age of just 24 and the treasure vanished. What is most likely is that this is it, although the trail of the pieces when they cropped up on the art market was for decades deliberately obfuscated by dealers, smugglers, heisters and crooks. The Getty Museum was at one stage interested in purchasing the silver, but pulled out because its provenance documents turned out to be forgeries. By the time it ended up in the hands of Lord Northampton in England, it numbered 14 pieces, perhaps vastly fewer than had originally been stashed away, hurriedly and in panic, by a Roman family clinging to the coat-tails of their civilisation as it fled before the barbarian invasions of Central Europe. After long and intricate negotiations, Hungary finally succeeded in repatriating the Treasure in two tranches, in 2014 and 2017. The money that they gave for it (tens of millions of euros) was paid not as a purchase price but as compensation for long years of care and custody of the silver by others. This summer it went on permanent public display.

 

Why the "Seuso" Treasure? It was customary for the owners of valuable Roman pieces to scratch their names on them. Seuso, however, is mentioned in a dedication incorporated into the design of the large Hunting Plate: a huge salver with a decorated rim and a central roundel filled with a busy scene. In the middle are figures dining under a canopy. Around them are scenes of hunting and fishing. Above a band showing water teeming with fish is the word “PELSO”, the Roman name for Lake Balaton. The whole design is of silver gilt with the details picked out in niello (a black-coloured alloy of sulphur with copper and lead). Circling the roundel is the following inscription: H[A]EC SEVSO TIBI DVRENT PER SAECULA MVLTA POSTERIS VT PROSINT VASCVLA DIGNA TVIS ("May these, O Seuso, yours for many ages be, small vessels fit to serve your offspring worthily"). Small vessels these are certainly not: the total weight of the pieces is a whopping 68.5kg. It has been suggested that some of the silver came from a set that was presented to Seuso as a wedding gift (one of the picnickers on the Hunting Plate is a woman sporting a hairstyle in the manner of Julia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus). Anything smaller that may have belonged to such a set, however—cups, spoons, toothpicks—has not come to light.

Detail of the Hunting Plate, with the word PELSO bottom left.

Stylistically and in terms of subject matter there are a number of parallels. The Hunting Plate shows similarities to the Cesena Plate in Italy (for an image, see here). The scenes of hunting, with animals being chased into nets, slaves butchering them, and a family seated on a stibadium (curved couch) under an awning slung between trees, feasting and feeding titbits to a dog while their horses are tethered in the background, is identical in many details to the 4th-century mosaic floor of the Sala della Piccola Caccia in the Villa del Casale in Sicily. One way in which it differs is in the absence of a scene of sacrifice to Diana, which might be significant. Between the first and the last words of the Seuso inscription, encircled in a laurel wreath, is a tiny Chi Rho. Seuso might have been a Christian. Nothing otherwise is known of him. From his name he would seem to have been a Celt and from the scenes depicted on his tableware, we can surmise that he was a landowner and keen hunter who lived a gracious life in one of the fine villas that existed in Pannonia. A veteran general, perhaps, grown wealthy from service to an empire into whose culture and lifestyle he was fully assimilated. The heterogeneous nature of the hoard suggests that he might have received rich gifts as rewards for his service.

 

More personal details are entirely lacking but it is tempting to speculate. The strapline of the Hungarian National Museum's Seuso exhibit is "Wealth, Erudition, Power". Certainly, Seuso must have been wealthy and with that wealth would have come a certain degree of power. But how erudite was he? How deep did his Romanisation go? Petronius, in his Satyricon (1st century AD), the famous send-up of a vulgar, nouveau riche banquet, puts the following words into the mouth of Trimalchio, the host:

 

“I absolutely love silver. I’ve got about a hundred wine cups showing how Cassandra killed her sons—the boys are depicted lying dead in the most lifelike way. Then there’s a bowl my patron left me with a scene of Daedalus shutting Niobe into the Trojan Horse. And there are some goblets with the fights between Hermeros and Petraites. All of good heavy make. I wouldn’t sell my connoisseurship at any price.”

 

Cultivated Roman readers would have snobbishly tittered at the malapropisms. Trimalchio has no connoisseurship; he is an uneducated ex-slave, a parvenu from some further corner of the Empire posing as a man well versed in the culture of the native elite. He muddles Cassandra with Medea, Niobe with Pasiphaë and the Trojan Horse with Daedalus’ wooden cow. We have no idea whether Seuso’s grasp of Graeco-Roman myth was as hazy as this. But what the Petronius extract does suggest is that it was normal for possessors of fine works of art to make a show of knowing what they had. The pictorial world of ancient Rome was extraordinarily uniform. From Britannia to the Balkans and beyond people would have seen the same scenes depicted in exactly the same way, in sculpture, pottery, metalwork, painting and mosaic. “I’ve got two exquisite silver-gilt pails with the story of Hippolytus and Phaedra,” Seuso might have boasted, “And a gorgeous platter showing Meleager having just dispatched the Calydonian Boar.” It is a signal of Rome’s remarkable achievement in co-opting and homogenising so many diffuse civilisations that all of Seuso's dinner guests would have known what he was talking about—or at least felt it necessary to pretend they did. It is also an extraordinary privilege to be able to admire those objects now, tangible vestiges of provincial pomp, of days of laughter and conviviality in some long-gone lacustrine willow grove.

 

The Seuso Treasure, on display at the Hungarian National Museum. For more details and good-quality images, see their website (at present in Hungarian only). The Museum has also produced an excellent booklet about the Treasure, in English and several other languages.

The Wonders of Pontormo

Pontormo's 'Halberdier' (photo: Wikicommons)

A tiny exhibition in Florence this summer, which is a joy to visit (Incontri miracolosi. Pontormo dal disegno alla pittura), is running at Palazzo Pitti. In just one room and with only ten works on show, it is curated by Bruce Edelstein (and is on view until 29th July).

 

Here you can ‘meet’ two masterpieces by Pontormo, arguably the best paintings he ever produced: the ‘Halbadier’ from the Getty and the Visitation from Carmignano just outside Florence. The ‘Halbadier’ is now almost universally accepted as being the portrait of Francesco Guardi, a young Florentine nobleman determined to defend Republican Florence in 1528, during the famous siege by the Imperial troops in alliance with the Pope against the Medici. We know from contemporary sources that there were many young men eager to volunteer in the defence of the city and that they dressed up for their role. Guardi is memorably depicted looking directly out of the painting, proudly flaunting his magnificent costume, in the red and white colours of Florence. A delicately painted gold chain hangs around his neck, and his hands are particularly memorable. The only known preparatory drawing for the work (from the Uffizi) in red chalk is displayed beside the painting.

 

The Visitation has been restored for this occasion and beside it is displayed the small squared drawing (preserved in the Uffizi) which Pontormo used in preparation for the larger work. The street scene in the background is now more visible where the tiny figures of Joseph and Zacharias await their spouses on the stone bench at the foot of a typical Florentine palace (the ass which has been discovered peering round the corner of the building is, however, almost impossible to see with the naked eye). But of course it is the four female figures who are the protagonists of the scene, in their magnificently coloured dresses. In the excellent catalogue the several mysteries attached to this work and much discussed by art historians over the decades seem to have been solved. The presence of two female figures who accompany Mary and Elizabeth at this touching moment (described in St Luke’s gospel) are convincingly explained by similar iconographic representations of this subject in both the mosaics in the Florence Baptistery and in Giotto’s frescoes in Padua, where two ‘handmaidens’ are present. The curator also reminds us that scenes of marriage or farewell were common in Roman times (with emphasis on the gestures of the protagonists), and artists in the 16th century would certainly have been familiar with Roman reliefs of this subject. The likely provenance of the work has also been revealed: a commission from the Pinadori for a family chapel in a church in Florence which might have been damaged during the siege and so was instead kept in the family’s residence. The work is only documented in the church at Carmignano from 1720 onwards. There is also a fascinating hypothesis that Bonaccorso Pinadori, who is known to have supplied pigments to Pontormo, could himself have ordered this work.

 

The third painting is the portrait of another young man in a red hat, identified here as Carlo Neroni, also evidently dressed for the siege (in grey and black silk) and in a similar pose as the ‘Halbadier’ and also with a dark green ground. It comes from a private collection in London and only appeared on the art market in 2008 (it was last mentioned in London in 1827). It is more harshly painted than the ‘Halbadier’ and many may dispute the attribution. But it is of great interest to see all these three works together, painted at the same period (1528–30), a time when Pontormo was the uncontested protagonist of Florentine painting (his master, Andrea del Sarto, died of the plague in 1530).

 

Pygmalion by Bronzino (from the Uffizi) is also present in the exhibition since it has convincingly been shown to have been the ‘cover’ of the ‘Halbadier’ (it would have been in a frame to fit the greater dimensions of Pontormo’s painting). In the catalogue it is explained that many paintings during this period were provided with protective covers, very few of which have survived (or been identified as such). The very unusual iconography of Bronzino’s work, showing Pygmalion kneeling before his statue which has come to life, while a bull is being sacrificed to Venus on the flaming altar behind, apparently alludes to Ovid’s tale.

 

As so often occurs on occasions of this sort, art historians depend heavily on Vasari’s famous work, the Lives of the Artists. It is fascinating that this great Florentine art historian, who was also an architect (he built the Uffizi) and painter, remains such a fundamental source for our knowledge of painting throughout the 15th and early 16th centuries. Much is made of the fact that Pontormo, who was Vasari’s contemporary, was omitted from the first edition of the Lives and only included in the second edition of 1568 (on display). Also it is a mystery why Vasari never mentions the Visitation, whereas he does document two portraits by Pontormo of young men during the siege (identified with the two portraits on show), and even mentions the fact that Bronzino had provided a cover depicting Pygmalian for Pontormo’s portrait of Guardi. The curator suggests this omissis may well have been because the Visitation was destined for a church just outside Florence’s city walls which might have been damaged (or threatened) during the siege meaning that at the last moment the painting was not installed, so Vasari would not have seeen it.

 

Another work by Bronzino, his Martyrdom of St Acacius of Ararat (an apocryphal story of a Roman in command of ten thousand soldiers who were martyred on Mt Arrat), is present in the exhibition not only because Bronzino was so close to Pontormo (and Pontormo apparently provided the cartoon for this work) but also because the background appears to have been ‘inspired’ by the destruction in the countryside around Florence to which Bronzino could have been an eye-witness (the painting dates from 1529–30 and is owned by the Uffizi). Pontormo also painted a work of the same subject (usually called the Eleven Thousand Martyrs) which hangs a few rooms away in the Pitti. Bronzino is also remembered for the design he provided to Jan Rost when he arrived from the Netherlands to establish the Medici tapestry manufactory for Cosimo I: the small and very well-preserved tapestry hung here representing Justice Liberating Innocence was made by Rost to demonstrate his skills in order to win his position. Although excluded from the catalogue, it gives us a taste of what lies hidden in the tapestry deposits of Palazzo Pitti, perhaps destined to be dusted off and given more importance in the future.

 

So this tiny exhibition, in the Sala delle Nicchie of the Palatina Gallery (which you can reach directly from the top of the stairs on the piano nobile) is a demonstration of the extremely high quality of the recent exhibitions, both large and small, in the Pitti and Uffizi. Exhibitions which involve serious academic research but which also provide the visitor with the chance to see great masterpieces from elsewhere (The ‘Halbadier’ was last in Florence 20 years ago; for anyone interested in this painter, this is an occasion not to be missed).

 

Reviewed by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

 

NB: Another magnificent exhibition, this one on a very large scale, has just opened at the Uffizi and the Bargello: Florence and Islam (running until 23rd September). It will be reviewed here soon.

Builders of Budapest

Construction workers on the Millennium Underground (1894–6), photographed by György Klösz

“Those who Built Budapest” is the title of an absorbing one-room exhibition currently on show at the Budapest History Museum (in the ex-Royal Palace on Castle Hill) and prolonged until September. The title of the show deliberately doesn’t use the word “architect”. The lens through which the city is viewed is emphatically that of the masons, carpenters, joiners, metalworkers and other artisans who collaborated to create the extraordinary Historicist cityscape that came into being during Hungary’s golden age: between the Compromise with Austria in 1867 (the foundation of Austria-Hungary) and the outbreak of World War One.

 

The artisans were trained explicitly via the precepts of the past. This exhibition looks at the models they were exposed to, the way their aesthetic taste was formed, the frames of reference they were given and the precedents they were taught to follow, all under the auspices of the Metropolitan Industrial Drawing School, which grew out of the old Buda and Pest drawing schools (founded in 1778 and 1788 respectively). The methodology was explicitly imitative. Students were taught to create by being trained to make precise copies, in drawing and sculpture, of exemplars from antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

 

If anyone has stopped to wonder why late 19th-century Budapest architecture was almost exclusively “neo” (Neoclassical, neo-Romanesque, neo-Gothic etc), here is the answer. It was not until the turn of the 20th century that architects began to think outside these boxes and strive to create a new idiom, the Secession or Art Nouveau.

 

The material available to the students came in two main forms: pattern books, which were essentially albums of prints of historic examples; and plaster casts. The Drawing School had almost 2,000 of the latter, organised in different categories: elements from Classical Greece and Rome, for example; plant and animal designs; anatomical models. A few of them are on display here. There is a scale model of an ancient Greek theatre, casts of temple entablatures and an (exquisite) reproduction of one of the Corinthian capitals from the 4th-century BC Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens.

 

The material that illustrates this exhibition comes from the Schola Graphidis collection of the Hungarian University of Fine Arts-High School of Visual Arts. The pattern books on show contain prints of architectural ground plans and façades of the buildings of Rome; of decorative paintwork in France; of architectonic elements from Classical antiquity.

 

But the most fascinating exhibits in this show are the works of the students themselves, ranging in date from the 1860s to c. 1920. There is apprentice stonemason Ferenc Dobrovits’s 1884 study of a façade, for example (it could almost be by Bramante); apprentice joiner János Szuchy’s 1899 study of varieties of brick bond (lovelier in its way than Carl Andre’s celebrated and controversial Equivalent VIII!); Mihály Kiss’s delicate watercolour study of different types of arch (1910) and Gyula Csík’s dramatic pen-and-ink wash drawing of a Tuscan Doric column capital and base (1870s). These and many others are works of Ruskinian beauty.

Study of brick bonds by an apprentice joiner

The show is rounded off by a short series of photographs by György Klösz documenting the construction of the cut-and-cover Millennium Underground in 1894–6, Budapest’s M1 metro line or Földalatti, which runs beneath Andrássy út to City Park and beyond. There is a shot taken outside the Opera House showing a cluster of construction workers, men, women and children, equipped with simple spades, not a hard hat or hi-viz jacket in sight. Also fascinating is the photograph of the underground station entrances on today's Vörósmarty tér. They have disappeared now, but Klösz’s photo shows them standing like twin jewel caskets, purely Italian in spirit, reminiscent of Pietro Lombardo’s 15th-century church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli in Venice.

 

Lovers of Budapest belle-époque architecture should definitely see this show. After seeing it, it is impossible not to scrutinise every late 19th-century building in the city, looking for tangible application in bricks and mortar of all the artisans’ training. The rigour and discipline of that training was something quite extraordinary.

Crowded Times

“Crowded Times” is the title of an exhibition of posters currently running at the Hungarian National Museum (until 25th August). The works chosen all come from the museum’s extensive collection and span the period from 1896, the year of the Magyar Millennium (when Hungary celebrated 1000 years of existence), to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The exhibition's scope, in other words, is the birth and burgeoning of the consumer age, the heyday of the hoardings, when goods became mass-produced and more widely available, when services were allocated to all by a welfare state, and when information promoting each was disseminated by posters and placards, run off the printing presses in identical batches and plastered up on street corners or at bus stops, beamed from cinema and TV screens, invading the lives of everyone and creating a shared vocabulary of brand names, slogans and catch phrases. The poster becomes at once the mouthpiece of big business, the tannoy of the nanny state and a herald of the good life.

Posters, obviously, are designed to deliver loud, clear messages and this instantly enjoyable exhibition gets away with relatively few wall texts. The material is organised in three sections: consumer goods and services; leisure and entertainment; politics. The very first posters are pieces of domestic propaganda, celebrating national achievement and boasting of productivity. The posters from the Communist years do much the same (with the difference that in c. 1900, Budapest was second only to Minneapolis in the output of its mills, whereas half a century later the heroic worker is shown wielding a hammer that looks technologically Neanderthal). The posters in the first section include numerous advertisements for shops and products: some of the brands are still familiar (Dreher beer), others were done to death by nationalisation after WWII or privatisation after 1989. There are “Buy Hungarian” campaigns—often making a virtue of necessity, as in the case of the aluminium ads, extolling a material that was domestically produced in an age when imports were low. In almost every case, the division between advertising and propaganda is finely blurred. The posters are trying to tempt us (“Buy powdered egg—it never goes off!”) but also trying to control our behaviour and our thoughts (“Clear up trash to control flies!” “Down with the monarchy!”).

 

Some of the most amusing posters are those in the section on public health campaigns. A muscle-bound youth takes a bracing shower because cleanliness is the route to health (1939; illustrated above). A young man caught in the glare of the red light is sternly warned that “Penicillin can cure the clap—but watch out! You’re still at risk of syphilis!” (1949).

The poster is a democratic art form. In a way it is the contemporary era’s equivalent of the church altarpiece, a backdrop that is free for all to see and that we can’t help having to look at. Subtly, inevitably, it informs our attitudes and creates a collective conscious. Let’s not fool ourselves that ours is a non-religious age. A priestly class still governs us with their shibboleths and the promise is still elysian rewards if we do as we are told and misery if we don’t:

“Who may not be a Trade Union Member? He who exhibits anti-democratic behaviour, who lives an immoral life, who exhorts his co-workers to underproduce…” (Hungarian propaganda poster of 1948);

“Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners…” (St Paul's first Letter to the Corinthians).

We might scoff at these visions of the ideal and at the preaching, but after an elapse of time, on seeing those familiar images again, they provide a fund of bittersweet nostalgia. Visitors to this exhibition react with touching delight at the sight of so many once-familiar things, like being reunited with long-lost friends. I felt much the same when I saw the ad for the revolving cylinder washing machine made by Hajdu. I had one in my very first Budapest flat.

"Washday is child's play!"

In fact, what comes across very strongly across this entire, absorbing show, is how little in human nature and human behaviour has changed. Advertisers still target harassed housewives (convenience foods, miracle white goods), children (sweets and fizzy drinks) and the vain and aspirational (glamorous clothes that will turn heads, home furnishings that will impress the neighbours). Governments—despite overtourism—still try to mass-sell their capital cities using all the same old baited lines. The Fishermen’s Bastion and cruises up the Danube are as strong selling points for Budapest today as they were four or five decades ago.

 

The final room has a video loop of mass demonstrations, rallies and vigils, projected on a screen split into three separate strips to give a jerky image that perfectly imitates the scrapbook, snapshot nature of human memory. Ranged along one wall is a chronological series of political posters, beginning with Mihály Bíró’s powerful anti-war image of 1912. There is pro-Communist propaganda, pro-Horthy propaganda and an anti-Soviet poster which interestingly has no known artist, no printing house and no date.

 

Many of these posters are also superlative works of art. The curator has very properly credited every poster to its artist (where known) and at the end of the show there are brief biographies of some of them. Géza Faragó (1877–1928), who studied in Paris and worked for a couple of years with Mucha; Mihály Bíró (1886–1948), artist of the labour movement; Tibor Pólya, Imre Földes and others.

 

We may never see their like again. The conclusion of the exhibition is that the great age of the poster is over, not only because digital technology addresses us in different ways but because it has fragmented us, hiving us off into our own little circumscribed Snapchat groups and Facebook echo chambers. And yet... On leaving the museum and plunging into the Metro, I came face to face with a visual admonishment: “Never drink drive!” It was made in 2018 with the support of the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile). Identical in spirit to “Alcohol is dead—don’t let it come back to life!”, a message (featured in this show) from 1919.

"Never drink drive."

If you're in Budapest this summer, make time for this exhibition. It's a fascinating exposition of behavioural psychology (as well as being good fun).

Good news from Florence

Antique bronze head of a horse, once owned by Lorenzo the Magnificent.

It is well known that the famous Medici and Lorraine collections are housed in various museums in Florence, not just in the Uffizi and Pitti galleries (recently re-united under one director). The scientific collections are in the Museo Galileo, the musical instruments in the Galleria dell’Accademia, the Renaissance sculpture in the Bargello, the wax models in the Museo della Specola, etc., and the archeological material in the Museo Archeologico. But it is also a fact that all these ‘satellite’ museums are usually overlooked by visitors to the city, since it is the paintings that everyone seems to want to see (or at least that is what they are told by the tourist agencies).

 

It is therefore rare to encounter more than a handful of visitors in the Archaeological Museum (except when school parties are taken there). In fact throughout the many decades since the Arno Flood of 1966, when the entire ‘Museo Topografico’ of Etruscan finds from Tuscany was destroyed, it has had a rather neglected feel. But the exciting news is that with its new Director Mario Iozzo, under the umbrella of the ‘Polo Museale Toscana’, which since 2015 has been in the capable hands of Dr Stefano Casciu, the Museum has suddenly been spruced up and work is underway to open more exhibition space so that the works in the deposits can at last be seen.

 

Throughout the museum the display has begun to be renovated, with new stands for the pottery (and in some cases slowly moving circular bases so that you can stand still to see all the painted sides of certain vases). The garden, visible from many of the windows, is now beautifully kept with the fountain working again (but sadly still only open on Saturday mornings). The corridor with the Medici collection of precious antique gems and cameos is not yet regularly on view.

 

While work is going on, however (until March 2019), visitors can see a delightful exhibition, “The Art of Giving”, in the first hall. It documents recent donations including a huge collection of beautiful ceramics from burial sites and sanctuaries on the Ionian coast of southern Italy (the area known in antiquity as Magna Graecia). Many of the vases have scenes where the protagonists are exchanging gifts, making the title of the exhibition doubly meaningful. There is also a ceramic cup dating from the 6th century BC which has been recomposed using the missing piece which had found its way to the Akademisches Kunstmuseum in Bonn (in exchange, a fragment of another vase was given to the Bonn Museum so that it, too, could be reunited with the fragments they own). There are also some Roman marbles on view which have recently entered the collection (the sarcophagus with pairs of griffins between incense-burners is especially interesting).

 

In the permanent collection, the first room on the first floor is now used to exhibit the sensational Mater Matuta, an Etruscan masterpiece (c. 450 BC) showing a seated female god with a child on her lap. This is one of the treasures of the museum but has not been on show for decades. The famous bronze Chimera also has a room to itself, shared with a very beautiful bronze head of a youth found in Fiesole.

 

The Minerva, on the floor above, is now displayed without her right arm since it has been proved to have been an addition made by Francesco Carradori in 1784-5 in a mistaken restoration (the ‘modern’ arm is displayed close by, together with a cast of the statue as restored in the 18th century). The wonderful Arringatore is currently on exhibition in Karlsruhe but will be back here on 17th June. The bronze Horse’s Head (which belonged to Lorenzo the Magnificent and was restored in 2015) and the Roman portrait bronzes are all on show (in the past these were often in rooms kept locked). The famous François Vase, a huge Attic krater, has been given a room of its own with multi-media touch screens explaining all the details. The famous incident when a frustrated custodian seized his stool and smashed it is recorded by the presence of the stool itself (the vase was thankfully able to be restored, piece by piece). And for the first time, two more pieces of exquisite Attic pottery are displayed nearby, suggesting that they might have been part of the original hoard of artefacts found in the same tomb, placed there to accompany the deceased on his way to the underworld.

 

Further innovations are the scale model of the Chimaera at the entrance which can be felt by the visually impaired and stroked by young visitors, and a showcase before the ticket office displaying just three exquisite examples of the museum’s holdings to whet visitors’ appetites. One comes away with the feeling that at last the Museum is being well looked after and that there will be many exciting new developments there in the near future.

In this Florentine season of what has been termed ‘overtourism’, a visit to this Museum is highly recommended not only for the treasures it contains, but also for its peaceful atmosphere.

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence

The Heartwarming Middle Ages

Yellow-glaze stove tile of a mounted knight, from Diósgyőr (c. 1370. Herman Ottó Múzeum, Miskolc).

“The Heartwarming Middle Ages” (Szívmelegítő Középkor) is the title of an appealing small exhibition running at the Budapest History Museum’s Buda Castle site until September.

 

The forerunner of the ceramic stove is thought to have originated in Alpine Switzerland sometime in the early Middle Ages, when simple clay pots were built into house chimneys to increase the surface area that could be made to give out warmth. In Óbuda, Budapest’s District III, excavations at Roman Aquincum have revealed rows of hollow bricks placed between interior walls to circulate warm air from the hypocaust beneath. This sophisticated early radiation technology had been forgotten after the collapse of the Roman Empire and—until the Swiss hit upon the clay pots idea—people heated their living spaces with smoky open fires, creating a constant risk of conflagration (not to mention a carcinogenic atmosphere). The Swiss innovation was almost as great a leap forward as the invention of the internal combustion engine in much later times.

 

The exhibition begins with a selection of images evoking the winter chill of northern climes. Among them is an etching by Dürer (c. 1498, from the Prints and Drawings collection of the Hungarian Museum of Fine Arts) entitled The Philosopher’s Dream, showing a savant fast asleep beside a tile stove, dreaming of a visitation by a naked Venus. The stove he sleeps beside looks much like the tile-clad stoves that are still a familiar feature of Central European interiors.

 

Much as the first automobiles preserved the bodywork of the horse-drawn carriage, the first stoves were clad in tiles that retained the concave shape of the original earthen pots. Later, tile shapes became more elaborate and inventive. The exhibition traces this development. Ceramic is not perishable and in Buda—where so much has been destroyed—the tile survivals are some of the finest and most poignant reminders of the glory that once presided here. The material exhibited in this show comes from the rich collection of the Budapest History Museum as well as from further afield, in Hungary as well as Slovakia and Transylvania. The earliest tile finds are from the 12th century, although the technology probably predates this by some 300 years. It was a democratic technology: fired earth is not a luxury material and its application made warmth available to princes, prelates and peasants alike.

Siren stove tile and the Starbucks logo.

We know that underfloor heating returned to Hungary: the palace of Charles I (r. 1310–42) in Visegrád had it, while the upper floor was heated by a stove clad in cup-shaped tiles. Charles’ successor, Louis I (r. 1342–82) had stoves clad in flat, decorated tiles. By the mid-15th century foreign (probably Austrian) craftsmen were supplying the Hungarian court with high-quality, sophisticatedly decorated ceramic ware. Motifs include floral designs, bunches of grapes, knights in armour, biblical and other Christian motifs, heraldic devices, and royal personages. Fine examples on show include a Lamb of the Resurrection in green lead glaze from Banská Bystrica and a yellow-lead glazed crest of King Sigismund (d. 1437) with fine mantling and two badges of the Order of the Dragon (which Sigismund founded to combat Ottoman expansion; Vlad Dracul, father of the Impaler, is said to have taken his name from the Order). The image of a siren saucily parting her fishy tail is also popular. The exhibition has three of these, all from the collection of the Budapest History Museum (protoype of the Starbucks logo). There is also a splendid polychrome tile depicting King Matthias Corvinus (r. 1458–90) seated in majesty. King Matthias, under whom Buda enjoyed a great flowering, seems to have been adept at using his own image as a brand.

Polychrome tile with King Matthias Corvinus (c. 1480. Budapest History Museum).

By means of its decoration, the stove became at once a means of heating a room and also a vehicle for imparting information about the householder’s lineage, prestige and religious faith, as well as entertainment (stories of chivalry, popular legends and fables), much like a painting or a tapestry. The final part of the exhibition shows how the royal lead in stove manufacture was quickly imitated down the social scale. Soon bishops and barons and well-to-do burghers wanted cosy, smoke-free living spaces, and to achieve them they copied both the technique and the tile designs. Like coins, medals or seals, made from moulds and dies, stove tiles could be mass-produced, allowing identical images to proliferate. As the exhibition points out, ceramic manufacture was far in advance of the printing press in its ability to standardise the conceptual vocabulary of the populace. The last tiles in the show are secular in their subject matter: we see an irate wife belabouring her husband, a young man with a tankard of beer, and a pair of lovers in flagrante.

Green-glaze stove tile showing a pair of lovers (c. 1500. Stredlovenské Museum, Banská Bystrica).

The final room is provided with a video screen showing a crackling fire. You have to work hard to imagine its warmth, though. To protect the fragile glazes, temperatures throughout the exhibition are kept low. Bring a light sweater!

Waves of Art Nouveau

World Art Nouveau Day this year is celebrated on 10th June. In part to mark the occasion but also to honour the centenary of the death of Otto Wagner and the 150th anniversary of the birth of Marcell Komor, FUGA: Budapest Center of Architecture, in conjunction with the Hungarian Museum of Applied Arts and its partners, has mounted a small exhibition entitled Waves of Art Nouveau, dedicated to this ever-popular style of architecture in cities of the Danube region from Vienna to Constanţa. The material consists of a series of wall panels grouped thematically, with information and illustrations chosen by the participating cities (twelve of them in total).

Plastic scale model of Ödön Lechner's Hungarian Museum of Applied Arts

The show begins with Otto Wagner and his pupils and followers (notably Max Fabiani). After that comes the great Hungarian Secessionist architect Ödön Lechner. Lechner’s style is entirely unlike Wagner’s. Wagner was preoccupied with modernity and the question of how to refashion the architecture and urban planning of an imperial capital in a way that would reflect profound shifts in society. Lechner, on the other hand, was preoccupied with the distant past—even the subliminal—plumbing the depths of the Hungarian folk subconscious to create an entirely original and quintessentially Magyar idiom, part-European and part-Oriental. Lechner and his followers, particularly Marcell Komor and Dezső Jakab, are well represented in this exhibition, with buildings in Budapest; Oradea and Târgu Mureș (Romania); and Subotica (Serbia), where the synagogue is very Lechneresque in feel, with a green-and-yellow-tiled lampshade dome and a façade articulated with symmetrical detailing in exposed brickwork.

The buildings featured in this exhibition illustrate the different ways in which architects of this period explored the relationship between structure and decoration. Sometimes the decorative elements entirely follow the physical lineaments of the building, picking out and enhancing cornices, bays and apertures. This is well seen in the work of the Serbian architect Branko Tanazević, who creates a sort of Art Nouveau version of the Renaissance in his former Telephone Exchange building in Belgrade. At other times the decoration masks the structure, obscuring it and playing hide and seek with it, as in Ivan Vurnik’s extraordinary, almost trompe l’oeilCooperative Bank building in Ljubljana (1923) or Vladimir Baranyai’s Bauda House in Zagreb (1905), where the balcony consoles are disguised as balls of laurel leaves. Occasionally the decoration is entirely gratuitous, most famously perhaps on Otto Wagner’s celebrated Majolica House in Vienna (1898–9), where the pattern on the ceramic cladding mocks a gigantic rambling rose. In some buildings, the decoration almost becomes the structure, as for example Daniel Renard’s memorable Casino in Constanţa (1910), whose huge windows are fashioned like displayed peacock’s tails. Renard studied in Paris, and though his work is filed in the same architectural compartment as that of Lechner or Komor, his aesthetic could not be more different.

It is always a pleasure to discover something new. For visitors familiar with French, Belgian and Austrian Art Nouveau the sheer delight here will be the number of exuberant, eye-catching and daringly original buildings in cities all across Central and Eastern Europe by architects whose names are entirely—and surely unjustly—unfamiliar.

Before you leave, spare a few moments to look at the FUGA building itself. It is a work of 1905 by the architectural partnership of Gyula Ullmann and Géza Kármán, architects who were also exponents of Art Nouveau but in a manner more closely allied to that of the Vienna Secession. Prime examples of their work can also be seen in Budapest’s Szabadság tér (three adjoining buildings now occupied by the US Embassy). The FUGA building preserves an imposing façade emblazoned with its original name, Hermes Udvar (Hermes Court). It was built for a firm specialising in safe deposits, a fact still advertised above the front door.

Waves of Art Nouveau. On show until June 18th at FUGA: Budapest Center of Architecture, at Petőfi Sándor u. 5. Open daily except Tues from 1pm. Free entry. There is a small café and an excellent bookshop.

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