Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Coral: Science, Mythology, Metamorphoses

 A Little Girl with a Basket of Cherries
© National Gallery
I’m not sure if two makes a series yet but despite holidays and work I’ve managed another Renaissance Utterances podcast. The technology still posed challenges but it has definitely been a quicker process than the first one was. The theme for this month, as promised, is coral, which has been wonderful to research. Luckily I knew exactly which pieces of art I was going to talk about, and I had already been to the featured exhibition. All I had to do on holiday was write the script.

Which is why on Saturday, three weeks after returning from my Adriatic travels, I found myself in the peace of the Warburg library up to my eyes in books. I was surrounded by volumes exploring the evil eye, gem lore, history of science and natural philosophy, and Italian coral fishing. 

On holiday I had enjoyed making various connections and imagining the stories of Ovid coming to life on the beach, rather than making any serious written headway. I had spotted a painted Venus clutching a piece of coral in the Rector’s Palace in Dubrovnik, a jewellery shop which specialised in coral on Korčula, and there was reference to it in Ali Smith’s ‘How to be Both’. So clearly my subject was being approved at the highest levels.

However the true genesis of this topic was three years or so ago when I went to Paris. A chance visit to the Museum of the Renaissance in Ecouen opened my eyes to the possibility of writing about the wire drawing bench for my MA dissertation, but another object remained in my mind. On most of the tourist literature for the museum, and indeed on the front page of their website, sits Daphne. She is an extraordinary piece of 16th century art/science/naturalia, and she has intrigued me for some time. When I was in Dresden, I saw her again, and I always meant to find out why two pieces were made - not that I've been able to explain that. But at least I now know who made the two statuettes.

My investigation in to the bench led me the art collections of the European aristocracy. It was at a curiosities conference that I first heard about coral in any academic depth. I was sad to have missed the Coral: Something Rich and Strange exhibition but I suppose it’s enabled me to do my own research. 

The story of Daphne and Apollo in Ovid’s Metamorphoses was a popular one with artists. The nymph was determined to escape the attentions of the god, so she prayed for an escape. Her wish was granted and she was transformed into a laurel tree. The silver, gold plate and coral statuette shows the precise moment of her mid-transformation, and her living flesh has petrified, just like the coral has. This dramatic and striking version mixes classical statuary and the wonders of the sea.

It was designed and created in the Jamnitzer workshop, the greatest goldsmith family in mid-late sixteenth century Nuremberg. The Paris piece is later than the Dresden version, one done by the father, and the other by the son. It was fashionable to make elaborate cups in the form of animals or objects using precious metal and gemstones. The 1587 inventory of the Dresden art collection simply describes it as "figure of a young woman wearing a large coral branch".
Daphne’s purpose was both decorative and prize specimen. As an incredibly beautifully crafted work of art, enhanced by a large and rare specimen of coral, it would be an important example of art enhancing nature, and nature enhancing art. Collector of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were obsessed with wonders of the natural world, and would often take a fine sea shell, an ostrich egg shell, a large deformed pearl, or a lump of ore, and using the fine craft of the goldsmith transform it into an object of art.

Ovid’s story of Daphne seems almost secondary to this statuette because the Jamnitzers are more interested in working with the natural mutations of coral than the supernatural metamorphoses of a damsel in distress. This is an important distinction to make. Coral intrigued the early modern mind because it was a strange case, seemingly not animal, vegetable nor mineral. A genuine puzzle to scholars, collectors and princes who were trying to make sense and bring order to a chaotic world. This valuable red coral from the Mediterranean, particularly on the coast of Sicily featured in many artistic creations, from spoons, amulets, animal figurines, religious statuary, and so on.

If you haven't yet been, London's newest gallery, Waddeson Bequest at the British Museum, is a striking example of a collection of treasures and wonders. And if you want to see a more scientific wonders collection, I suggest the treasures gallery of the Natural History museum.

A search for 'coral' on the National Gallery website finds the following:

The Virgin and Child by Giovanni Santi c1488
Virgin and Child by a follower of Hugo van der Goes, c1485
A Little Girl with a Basket of Cherries by a follower of Marten de Vos from c1575-80
The Toilette by William Hogath, number four in his Marriage A-la-Mode series 1743

Podcast ideas now include 'Sound', 'Falconry', 'Hunting', as well as 'Glass', 'Demons', 'Marquetry', 'Travel'. How many can I fit in by the end of the year? Link to my Soundcloud page is here!

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