A clutch of books, generated by a V&A exhibition, on the use and function of fine and decorative art in the home

Investigations of domestic doings down the ages


These books are testament to the rapid expansion and vitality of one of art history’s newer intellectual areas: the study of historic interiors and private homes as social and cultural constructs. Since 2001 activity in this field in Britain has been boosted significantly by the existence of the Arts and Humanities Research Council Centre for the Study of the Domestic Interior, a joint venture between the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), the Royal College of Art and Royal Holloway College. Imagined Interiors: Representing the Domestic Interior since the Renaissance brings together a stimulating selection of the research the centre has conducted, ranging widely both chronologically and geographically over post-medieval Europe. One of the most exciting projects conducted under the Centre’s aegis has been the research-led exhibition, “At Home in Renaissance Italy” at the V&A (until 7 January). Few international institutions could be better placed to undertake such an enterprise than the V&A, founded in the 19th ?century as the national ?collection of the decorative arts, and which historically has privileged acquisitions from and research into 15th- and 16th-century Italy above any other society. Indeed, one is compelled to ask—as do the exhibition’s curators—why the domestic interior has not previously been the subject of a major show, or indeed (until recently) part of the mainstream of modern studies of the Italian Renaissance?

At Home in Renaissance Italy explores the development of the Italian Renaissance urban home, motivated by the belief that the culture of this period can be best explained by an understanding of domestic life, and the buildings and objects made for living. The book’s central argument is that the domestic interior—rather than being a static environment—both responded to and shaped social and ?cultural change. As the editors claim, the Italian Renaissance home was a “key site…for the production of culture in all its guises”. To develop this point, they have commissioned essays from an interdisciplinary team, including medieval archaeologists, scholars of Islamic studies, music, society and economics as well as art historians. The result is a book which is emphatically not a catalogue, and which will have a life far beyond the exhibition which inspired its production.

While the show has partial recreations or evocations of the three main domestic spaces in Florentine and Venetian homes—the camera, sala (often combined in Venice with the portego) and studio—the book gives a more regionally nuanced picture of Italian Renaissance interiors, and in particular those of Genoa, a rich area for future research. Divided into five sections, it further develops conceptual and ?intellectual issues which can only be touched on by the exhibition, such as the economic and property ?mechanisms of Renaissance Italy; marriage, sexuality and birth within the casa. Starting with definitions of the Renaissance home, including its complex architectural and social structures, At Home in Renaissance Italy subsequently explores the experience of living in the casa; its everyday practices, and the house as a locus for social exchange and entertainment. It concludes with an examination of the art and objects found in these domestic spaces. Even this last category expands beyond the normal range of exhibition catalogues, encompassing everyday utensils like pottery jars which often only survive as fragments on 16th-century rubbish tips.

This is essential reading for scholars and students of Renaissance Italy. It unites intelligently a range of methodologies, and demonstrates compellingly the wide range of intellectual possibilities of museum object-based ?studies. The thematic approach means that the cultural and stylistic continuities between 1400 and 1600 have been somewhat over-emphasised.

It might also have been interesting to have considered what (if any) impact the intense political and religious changes undergone by the Italian states during these two centuries had on the appearance and function of objects made for the domestic setting. Nevertheless this book—the most comprehensive modern publication on the Italian Renaissance urban home—is a very impressive achievement, and will surely become an indispensable reference book.

At Home in Renaissance Italy is aimed primarily at a scholarly audience: however, the quality of the admirably clear writing (and the book’s illustrations) means that it has much to offer the more general reader.

For those who have neither the will nor the inclination to engage with its 400 plus pages, the V&A have also commissioned a slimmer volume, Inside the Renaissance House, from Elizabeth Currie, a specialist in Medici dress and textiles, and one of the contributors to the catalogue. Perhaps envisaged more as a souvenir to the exhibition, this well-written and beautifully produced book is an exemplar of a museum publication intended for a wide audience, which makes scholarly research accessible without compromising intellectual standards.

Frances Borzello’s At Home: the Domestic Interior in Art, a lively survey of interiors as they appear in paintings, is strongest on the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and is another genre of art book intended for a general ?audience. This publication is a superior version of the much maligned coffee-table book, where the quality of the illustrations is matched by the idiosyncratic—although always intelligent—authorial voice.

o Jeremy Aynsley and Charlotte Grant (eds), Imagined Interiors: Representing the Domestic Interior since the Renaissance (V&A Publications, 2006), 320 pp, £45(hb) ISBN-13: 978185774937

o Marta Ajmar-Wollheim and Flora Dennis (eds), with summary catalogue by Elizabeth Miller (ed.), At Home in Renaissance Italy (V&A Publications, 2006), 416 pp, £45 (hb) ISBN-10: 1851774882

o Elizabeth Currie, Inside the Renaissance House (V&A Publications, 2006), 96 pp, £14.99 (hb) ISBN-10: 1851774904

o Frances Borzello, At Home: the Domestic Interior in Art (Thames & Hudson, 2006), 192 pp, £24.95 (hb) ISBN-13: 9780500238318