Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Dr Marika Leino on Renaissance plaquettes


What can you tell us about your research?
I started my career at Christie’s auction house in London, in the European Sculpture and Works of Art Department, and quickly learned that research could mean many different things. Sometimes it was a means of establishing authorship (or a route to the realisation that it was impossible to place a sculpture within the oeuvre of a particular artist, or even a school); at times an interesting ‘human interest angle’ was needed to give early modern sculpture a relevance to contemporary buyers; but more and more I came to an understanding that for me research allowed for a way of exploring how works of art, and Renaissance sculptures in particular, were appreciated in their original social and cultural contexts.

It is precisely from this perspective that my book, Fashion, Devotion and Contemplation: The Status and Functions of Italian Renaissance Plaquettes (Peter Lang, 2013), explored the many functions ofa category of objects labelled in the 19th century as ‘plaquettes’ - small, seemingly uniform, mainly bronze reliefs – concluding that they were in fact produced as a multitude of different object types – hat badges, sword pommels, sides of caskets and also collectors’ pieces to be held in the hand, discussed with cultured friends, and admired for their artistry and design. Very quickly, however, these original contexts were lost, the reliefs were divorced from their intended uses, and stored in cabinets of curiosity, and later museums, as a homonymous category, the plaquette. This disparity between initial function and later display has continued to fascinate me.



A selection of plaquettes from the V & A, London.


I am currently perplexed by inscriptions, which are hidden underneath the bases of a group of Italian fifteenth-century portrait busts. These inscriptions are written in Roman letters, carefully carved into the marble, stating the name of the sitter, the sculptor and the age of the sitter or the date of the work, and on occasion the profession of the sitter and the location. The busts were made for wealthy Florentine men, by foremost sculptors of their period; Mino da Fiesole, Benedetto da Maiano and Antonio Rossellino, between 1453 and 1468. My aim is to investigate the possible reasons for these concealed words, which can only been seen by lifting the busts off their bases, not an inconsiderable feat, as I was lucky to discover when the V&A bust of Giovanni Chellini, by Antonio Rossellino, was taken down for me – it took three men to lift it off its support and a hydraulic lift to place it back again! An analysis of the motivation for these clandestine inscriptions will be conducted through an examination of the busts themselves, by researching links between the sitters, as well as those between the sculptors, who all lived and worked in and around Florence and Rome. Many of the men portrayed were interested in ideas relating to humanism and antiquity, and so a key area of investigation will be the relationship between the inscriptions on the busts and contemporary notions of memory and posterity.





 Antonio Rossellino, Bust of Giovanni Chellini, marble, 1456, V&A, London.

How does your research influence your teaching?

Apart from the obvious links in subject matter – I teach straight art-historical courses which relate to my research on Renaissance sculpture and painting – I am increasingly interested in conveying to students the importance of thinking about original intended display and reception alongside current museum and gallery presentation. To this end, I, along with my colleagues Christiana Payne and Elizabeth Darling, developed a second year undergraduate module, Curatorial Practice, aimed at increasing curatorial awareness in our undergraduate students. This module not only allows us to consider the fascinating journeys objects have made from their original intended contexts to becoming ‘art’ in museums - altarpieces which are no longer worshipped in the churches they were made for; portraits which have lost their identity; fountain figures which have been dry for years – but has also give us, staff and students alike, the opportunity to consider how our research can shape the way in which works of art are appreciated and understood now. 

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