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|A Glimpse of Renaissance Spain
by Stanley Abercrombie
|In a single gallery adjacent to the Metropolitan Museum's recently reopened Vélez Blanco Patio from Spain's early-16th-century Fajardo Palace is a tiny but potent exhibition, "Sculpture and Decorative Arts of the Spanish Renaissance." The patio, a gift from former Metropolitan president Georges Blumenthal, has been cleaned, relighted and given a new marble floor.
The exhibition, with scarcely more than five dozen items, sketches the character of 16th- and 17th-century Spain, when Christian art and artifacts were still influenced by the techniques -- and still haunted by the decorative patterns -- of Islam, even though Ferdinand and Isabella's reconquest of Granada, the last bastion of Islamic rule in Spain, had occurred in 1492.
Setting the scene for the exhibition's polychrome sculptures are cases of small objects. Coppery-red and cobalt lusterware (tin-glazed earthenware) vases and dishes from the late 15th century to the 18th glitter duskily. Shining more brightly are a group of religious objects -- pyx, chalice, monstrance -- in gilt silver. One case holds steel scissors, a wrought-iron escutcheon and a leather-covered coffer. Another displays glass goblets, decanters, pitchers and saltcellars, many of them tinted amber, green or turquoise with metal oxides.
On the walls are tiles, two 11-foot-high embroidered Catalan hangings, a pair of 15th-century alabaster roundels, reminiscent of Della Robbia terracottas, and a 17th-century gilt wrought iron and bronze grille in the "Severe" style of Philip II's Escorial. There is also a stunning example of the drop-front chest called a Vargueño, its face an intricate composition of wood, wrought iron and carved and gilded bone.
But the stars of the show are a few examples from the Met's collection of Spanish polychrome sculptures. Their naturalistic painting, with an emphasis on flesh tones, had remained popular in Spain long after the fashion disappeared from Italy, France and the Netherlands. Greatly enriching the pieces is the technique called estofado (literally meaning "ornamented") in which elaborate gold patterns shine through a layer of colored paint.
In keeping with the goal of naturalism, however, the gold has been limited in these examples to representations of rich fabrics. In a life-size St. John the Baptist of painted wood by Juan Martinez Montañés (1568-1649), the estofado effects appear only on the edges of the saint's cloak, but in relief of the Holy Family with Saints Anne and Joachim by Diego de Pesquera, ca.1567, the entire background is covered with representations of brocaded fabrics, lavishly shot with gold.
The antithesis of a blockbuster, this exhibition demonstrates the power of a few selected objects to convey a distinctive character. Reinforcing the show's impression in the Vélez Blanco Patio itself are four carved pine friezes, each nearly 20 feet long, that once decorated the reception rooms of the same castle; they are on loan from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Also on view there is a new Met acquisition, The Triumph of Fame, a large, early Renaissance Flemish tapestry thought to have once belonged to Queen Isabella.
The renovation of the patio has been supervised by Met chair of European sculpture and decorative arts Olga Raggio and coordinated by associate curator Joanna Hecht, who also organized the exhibition and the installation of the Fajardo Palace friezes (the installation was designed by Michael Langley). The exhibition is on view through Jan. 7, 2001. The patio, of course, is a permanent feature of the Met.
STANLEY ABERCROMBIE is editorial director of Interior Design magazine.