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: Acquisitions for the Period Rooms


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Relying upon the loyal support and generosity of friends of The Institute of Arts, The Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts authorized to be made in Europe during the past summer, a number of purchases for eventual exhibition in the Institute building now in course of construction. The purchases consist chiefly of examples of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century furniture together with some wood sculptures and textiles of the sixteenth century. This material constitutes the beginning of a collection which will illustrate by carefully selected pieces, the history of art, in the Gothic, Renaissance and later periods.A new museum must necessarily give up much of its space at first to the exhibition of modern art, which, in the general run of things, usually means contemporary painting. It is eminently proper, moreover, that modern art, particularly that of our own country, should have adequate representation in American museums. But this policy, if followed as it is only too apt to be, from the comparative ease of its accomplishment, to the more or less complete exclusion of any broader scheme of development, greatly impairs the usefulness of the museum. Such an institution fails to perform its whole duty to the public. Not only does it limit the opportunities of aesthetic enjoyment to one class of material, and that often indifferent in merit, but it fails most lamentably to take full advantage of those possibilities for educational service which are among the primary reasons for a museum’s existence. I cannot touch here even briefly on the extent and nature of these possibilities but I believe it to be self-evident that the museum in which the visitor may study and enjoy the achievements of older arts as well as those of our own day, is and will ever be, one of the most important factors in the cultural development of our country.But the objection of expense is raised, “to go in for antiques and old masters” is a matter of tremendous expenditure! To be sure, it depends a great deal on the kind of antiques and old masters sought for, but the cost need not be excessive on bringing together a small but representative collection of such material, particularly when the acquisitions are made always with a definite purpose in mind. The arrangement of material by periods, a plan adopted now in many of the large museums, affords a valuable suggestion which should help the small museums to bridge over “the lean years” of its beginning. Although a new museum, with insufficient means at its command, can purchase in one year, perhaps, only a few examples of the older schools of painting and sculpture and of the industrial arts, still, if they are all of one period, they may be shown together, to their mutual advantage, in one gallery where they will form a harmonious ensemble. Eventually there should result a series of these period rooms; in one, Gothic paintings, sculpture, furniture; in another, Renaissance material; and so forth. As the collections develop, inferior pieces may be withdrawn and form a study series arranged by class of material, that is, furniture, ceramics, etc., if this is desired, rather than by periods of style. With slight resources the development of such a collection will naturally be much slower than if the museum were able to meet competitors in the market with a full purse. Nevertheless, an endowment of millions is not essential—however desirable. To prove this, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, although it is at present wholly dependent, except for its maintenance, upon private generosity, proposes from the first to develop its collections along broad lines destined to make this institution the great art center of the Northwest.With the purpose of showing what has been done this summer in the way of securing material for one of the several period rooms planned, and with the further idea, quite frankly, of letting the friends of the museum know in what way help is needed, the following notes will describe in some detail the Renaissance objects among the Institute’s recent accessions.The exhibition of a collection of furniture or other industrial material can unfortunately be made a very dreary affair, almost as disheartening as the empty seats in a lecture hall. Our pictures we hang inviolate on the walls, but our chairs and tables we use. To come upon them inhospitably ranged in prime order around the four walls of a museum gallery is very much like finding one’s good friend behind prison bars. If we show such material in museums, unless for the purpose of study alone, our galleries must be made to have a livable air, to look, so to speak, as if the family has just gone out for a little stroll and would shortly return.When the visitor enters the Renaissance Gallery of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts he will find himself in such a room; in the center of one wall will be a large stone fireplace with generous hearth probably from some old Florentine palazzo. Two columns richly ornamented with foliations support an entablature of classic design. This mantel, which is carved in Istrian stone, dates from about the middle of the sixteenth century, that is from the central years of High Renaissance.Opposite the fireplace will be shown a credenza (buffet or sideboard) of walnut, with carved decorations. It also is Florentine, but somewhat earlier in date, probably about 1500. The design is unpretentious, relying principally upon the beauty of its proportions for effect. At either end and between the two doors on the front are simple pilasters rising from the base moldings and supporting a well-planned cornice. Time has given to the wood of this piece the patina of bronze.A fairly large table with an octagonal top supported by eight slender columns will be seen to advantage in the middle of the room. This piece, probably Sienese, and of rather unusual design, is an admirable example of Italian Renaissance furniture of the sixteenth century at its best, free from the often besetting vice of over-elaboration. An ornately carved chair among the recent purchases just escaped this accusation. It illustrates a familiar type of Florentine chair of the High Renaissance, the wooden stool with solid back and front piece supporting the rather narrow seat. Considered apart from their original milieu, these chairs, often fantastic in shape and over-laden with carved decoration, appear the least successful of Renaissance creations. But in the great salone of the Florentine palace, surrounded by other mute witnesses to a love of luxury, they take their place in a scheme of decoration at once beautiful and impressive.The most important piece among the summer’s purchases is, unquestionably, a large carved walnut cassone or marriage chest which, in addition to the beauty of its design and execution, has the further interest of a known provenance and history, since it has been possible from the armorial bearings that form part of the carved decoration to identify this cassone as one made in 1514 for a marriage which united two great Sienese families, the Piccolomini and the del Golia. This cassone, a splendid example of the beautifully carved or painted chests intended to hold a bride’s trousseau, was shown at the Mostra d’Antica Arte Senese held at Siena in 1904 and is illustrated in Dr. Corrado Ricci’s book on that exhibition. Professor Lisini, the well-known archivist of Siena, has identified the arms on this cassone as those of the Piccolomini and of the del Golia, and established by his researches that there were only two marriages in the sixteenth century between the members of these families, the first in 1508, the second in 1514. It is the opinion of Dr. Bode and other experts that the style of the carved decoration of this marriage chest agrees better with the latter date. We may therefore confidently assume that this cassone originally held the trousseau of Donna Niccola di Giovanni di Guido di Carlo Piccolomini who married in 1514 Daddo di Bernadino d’Antonio del Golia, bringing him not only her own fair self and resounding name, but also a dowry of three thousand gold florins.This cassone, over which will hang a large square of Spanish red and gold brocatelle from a processional canopy, is decorated with grotesque masks and with ribbon motives surrounding the coats of arms. The moldings are simple but exceedingly well proportioned. The chest is supported by four claw feet.Here then we have the most necessary of the furnishings of our Renaissance room. But if Donna Niccola were to return—perhaps to smooth the rumpled folds of her ghostly dresses, so sadly tumbled about in this much traveled dower chest—she would feel not quite at her ease. Where would be the familiar picture of Our Lady? Where the friendly saints in their gilded shrine? Where the splendid lustered plates that once gleamed so bravely upon the credenza? Where the little bronzes, the statuettes of heathen gods and goddesses, the plaquettes and medals, the hundred little treasured things that male the home? Ah, where indeed? Still in the hands of our friends the dealers, held for ransom.With this, the secret is out. If Donna Niccola, if the Renaissance, is to be welcomed to Minneapolis, much yet remains to be done. Money is urgently needed for further purchases of works of art, not alone of this period bit of all others. The success of the new Museum does not rest upon the endeavors of one man or of one small group of men, but upon the hearty support of all.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Wood Sculpture, XVI Century
  2. Carved and Upholstered Chairs, XVI Century (Italian)
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Source: "Acquisitions for the Period Rooms," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 3, no. 1 (January, 1914): 6-9.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009