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Ancient Art and Renaissance collections reopen at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg
Following the Modern Collection, this is the second grand reopening taking place this year.


HAMBURG.- On 1st September, the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg opened its superb Ancient Art and Renaissance Collections in a completely new presentation. More than nine hundred objects will thus be on view to visitors again at long last. Following several years of renovation, the Renaissance department has been closed entirely since the spring of 2006, while the Ancient Art Collection was only partially accessible in the past two years. Following the Modern Collection, this is the second grand reopening taking place this year. In collaboration with the award-winning neo.studio neumann schneider architects, a suspenseful circular route through the exhibition has been designed on the building’s ground floor. It highlights the displayed objects and juxtaposes them in new and interesting ways, while the exhibition’s architecture enhances the personal experience and consequently improves the understanding of the main themes. Striking room installations, carefully considered colour schemes and a new lighting concept all work together to bring to direct attention the themes which occupied the people of antiquity and the Renaissance, and continue to fascinate to this day. The Ancient Art Collection tells us about Egypt, the land of the pharaohs, about Coptic textiles, Homer’s heroes in myth and reality, the age of the Tyrannis, the development of a collective identity, the enigmatic Etruscan people and the Roman Empire. Arranged chronologically and according to cultural regions, the new permanent exhibition also sheds light on cultural-anthropological aspects and makes connections with other cultures and epochs featured in the MKG collections. The Renaissance Collection was reopened in the direct vicinity of the Ancient Art Department. The new presentation thus accounts for the great importance assigned by the Renaissance people to the aesthetic ideals and values of antiquity – as is reflected not only in many of the artworks on view, but also already in the epoch’s name, which refers to the “rebirth” of antiquity. With rooms devoted to such themes as “Gods, Myths and Grotesques”, “ A New World”, “ Curiosity Cabinet – Collection of Wonders”; “Images of Man” and “Flourishing Cities”, the new permanent exhibition conveys the chief distinguishing features of Renaissance art and cultural history as well as its antique influences.

The new installation of the Ancient Art and Renaissance Collections is being made possible by funds from the Culture Department of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg as well as the generous support of our hall patrons: Campe’sche Historische Kunststiftung, Georg W. Claussen, Justus Brinckmann Gesellschaft, ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin and Gerd Bucerius.

The Ancient Art Collection
The MKG’s Ancient Art Collection encompasses artworks which have come down to us from the ancient Orient and Egypt, the Greeks, the Etruscans and the Romans. These objects offer a profound insight into man’s developments, ideas and creative powers in art and craftsmanship, while also bearing witness to everyday life, customs and practices, religious conceptions and above all exchanges between cultures over more than four millennia. Both the classical antiquity, but and the discoveries made within the framework of expeditions to the Orient and Egypt, have continued to enrich European art to this day. The new conception and organisation of the department address general interest in antiquity as well as the expectations and questions specific to our own day and age. In the south wing more than eight hundred antique objects made of a wide variety of materials – clay, bronze, silver, gold, ivory, marble, etc. – are spread over on approximately 400 square metres of floor space. From now on, the Ancient Art Collection marks the start of the circular tour of the MKG’s holdings, and with its close spatial proximity – and above all its close thematic interrelationships – to the Renaissance Department bespeaks the significance of antiquity for the development of our present-day culture and art. Through combining diverse communication techniques, the new conception is geared to visitors of all ages. For decades, the Ancient Art Department has been a destination for school classes interested not simply in viewing the objects but also in experiencing the fascination of antiquity as well as its reverberations in our own history and culture. The room installations in particular “stage” the objects in order to facilitate such experiences. In addition to learning about antiquity, the focus is on questions of identity and origins. Topics such as forgery, copy and restoration are also being addressed.

The new concept of the Ancient Art Department is based on three combined elements. The objects are essentially arranged by cultural regions – Egypt, the Ancient Orient, and the world of the Greeks, Etruscans and Romans – as well as chronologically. These two criteria provide visitors with a simple means of orientation. The concept is further enhanced by the integration of thematic focuses and cultural-anthropological ideas. These themes mirror aspects of antiquity such as everyday life (fashions, the role of women), religion and ritual in temples, the world of the imagination as reflected in myths and sagas, and the funerary customs. They are further enhanced by matters such as the Greek agon (on-going contests between individual city-states [poleis], rulers or citizens in public and in private), the relationship between war and sports in Greece, trade as a medium of cultural exchange, or the gathering (symposium) at which political and philosophical discussions such as the Dialogues of Plato developed.

In the Middle Eastern context, the focus is on the significance of writing and writing systems, which initially emerged for the administration and recording of rights and only later became a medium of literature. Egypt offers a means of studying the co-existence of various cultures – Egyptians, Greeks, Jews, Romans, etc. – in the centuries before and after the turn of the eras, and the common conceptions that arose from that situation. The thematic focuses are designed to illustrate and explain individual aspects of life in antiquity, but also to provoke questions which can accompany visitors on their tours of the other collections and help them draw connections between times and places. Objects of other epochs are moreover deliberately integrated into the displays – if initially they seem out of place, their aim is to arouse the viewer’s curiosity. On closer examination, they relate to antiquity, whether iconographically, with regard to craftsmanship, or in terms of their underlying ideas. This presentation concept is supported by vibrant, fascinating and modern room installations. The latter focus on the objects and object groups, which are enhanced and highlighted by explanatory graphics and maps, and above all by the innovative exhibition architecture.

The Renaissance as the Rebirth of Ancient Art in Early Modern Times
The MKG’s Renaissance Collection comprises masterpieces of the highest order. Only a small proportion of the objects were initially intended for everyday use. The majority of them were collected as highly valued treasures in the courtly and private cabinets of art and curiosities in Europe. The Renaissance presentation is divided into five thematic rooms on altogether 220 square metres, on which the humanist outlook and the spirit of the era in question become perceivable. Direct juxtapositions of Italian works and those originating north of the Alps, attributable to the Renaissance and in part also to Mannerism or the Early German Baroque, provide evidence of cultural exchange as well as reciprocal artistic impulses and stylistic influences. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, moral concepts and cultural accomplishments of antiquity distinguished the transition from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern period. Man liberated himself from the overwhelming religiosity of the Middle Ages and opened his mind and his senses to the world and its wonders. The point of origin was Italy, a loose confederacy of independent city-states such as Genoa, Pisa, Venice and Florence. The governments of these sovereign republics lied in the hands of a few powerful family dynasties, merchants and bankers who vied with one another for supremacy, for example the Medici and the Borgia. This state of affairs fuelled voyages of discovery, inventions, progress and, not least of all, was the motor for the vibrant production of artworks. Knowledge was disseminated throughout Europe by travellers – scholars and merchants alike. Classical Greek and Roman sculptures, coins and frescoes were excavated, leading to the formation of a new iconography in art. The creative individual – the artist – was considered the agent of the new worldview. He took antiquity’s ideal of beauty as well as mathematical-scientific principles as orientation in the execution of his works. Pagan gods and myths as well as Classical ornamental motifs like the grotesque were rediscovered and taken up all over Europe.

The first Renaissance room is devoted to the theme “Gods, Myths and Grotesques”. In 1488, during excavations in the “grottoes” of the Domus Aurea in Rome, antique murals were found which inspired a new decorative style referred to as the “grotesque”. Here, motifs from the animal and plant kingdom as well as mythical creatures were combined to form decorative patterns. The grotesque spread throughout Europe, as seen, for example, in the Grotesque Tapestry with the Goddess Minerva made in Brussels in 1525/50. The multiplicity of classical gods is mirrored in the free-standing bronze sculptures of the most important Greek and Roman deities such as Apollo, Venus, Jupiter, Oceanus, Neptune and Saturn. A splendid highlight of the Italian majolica is a radiantly colourful ceremonial bowl from the court service of Marchesa Isabella d’Este (1474–1539) of Mantua, the Renaissance’s most eminent art patroness. The picturesque scene of the Gathering of Manna from the Old Testament quotes Raphael’s famous fresco in the Vatican Loggia in Rome. Majolica services were decorative tableware, prestigious showpieces and were collected as precious objects in curiosity cabinets. Besides coats of arms, portraits and grotesques, artists depicted mythological, historical and Biblical scenes to serve as moral examples and reminders of virtuous behaviour, while also mirroring the humanist knowledge of the Renaissance.

The motto of the next room is “A New World”. The Renaissance was the age of voyages of discovery undertaken by daring seafarers such as Christopher Columbus, who landed on the unknown continent of America in 1492 and thus discovered the new world designated “Mundus Novus” by the Florentine scholar Amerigo Vespucci (1452–1512) in 1502/03. A new worldview emerged, and the development of trade routes and markets for new commodities led to changes in the political and territorial power structures in “old” Europe. The practice of scientific disciplines at the courts is illustrated by scientific instruments such as the astrolabe for Emperor Rudolph II in Prague (a device for measuring angles in the sky and determining geographic directions in European navigation). In the group devoted to craftsmanship at the courts, masterful net glass objects such as a delicately worked jug bear witness to the great accomplishments of Venetian glass production. The centre piece of this room is the Neapolitan ebony and ivory cabinet, which provides a textbook example of Mannerist façade architecture.

The architecture of the following room bearing the title “Curiosity Cabinet – Collection of Wonders” is reminiscent of a globe. As in an oversized type case, the typical elements of a cabinet of art and curiosities are assembled here: precious objects made by human hands, so-called artificialia, for example a coconut cup, a splendid set of cutlery in a ray-skin case, a vessel crafted from mother-of-pearl and coral, a nautilus cup, or a gilded “drinking game machine” with the figure of Neptune riding a tortoise. These are joined by fascinating wonders of nature – naturalia – such as a blowfish and a sawfish blade. Among the rarities from far-off lands – the exotica – pearls, ostrich eggs and coco-de-mer were especially coveted, and their import triggered new impulses in Europe. Scientific instruments, scientifica, such as chronometers, calendaria, maps and globes as well as valuable medals and coins complete the spectrum. Curiosity cabinets– the precursors to the today’s museums – came into vogue in Europe in the sixteenth century. Kings, princes and wealthy burghers set up rooms with cabinets in which they kept treasures from all over the world and displayed them as status symbols and credentials of their thirst for knowledge. Assembled by art brokers, merchants and seafarers, adapted by the most talented artists, these rare and precious objects mirrored – and still mirror – the Renaissance’s encyclopaedic knowledge. The aspiration to get to the root of all is the driving impulse behind the ordering and classifying of the Divine universe.

A small gallery with superb ivory and boxwood statuettes is devoted to “Images of Man”. One of the chief works in this high-quality collection of German and Netherlandish small-scale sculptures of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries is the famous marionette carved in boxwood around 1520 by the monogrammist I.P. (ca. 1490–after 1530). It was constructed on the basis of Dürer’s studies of human proportions and embodies the ideal of human beauty en miniature. Another highlight is the Baroque ivory group of Adam and Eve by Leonhard Kern (1588–1662). The various Renaissance and Baroque images of Man share the aspect of human beauty – but also a consciousness of the impermanence of that beauty. A special theme here is the “memento mori” – reflection on one’s own existence, the rapid passing of the human being’s limited lifetime, and the thought that the beginning of life is also the first step towards death.

The final chapter – “Flourishing Cities” focuses on art from north of the Alps. One prominent example is Schedel’s World Chronicle of 1493, essentially an encyclopaedia of the German cities. It contains coloured woodcuts with scenes of German cities and documents the state of knowledge and the awareness of the growing importance of urban living. Equipment related to mercantile trade – devices for measuring weight, length, quantity, etc. – as well as silver-gilt drinking vessels and decorative cups from Nuremberg further enhance the spectrum. The reception of the early Italian Renaissance is revealed in the German and Netherlandish plaquettes on show and German ceramics influenced by Italian majolica. The goldsmith’s craft, on the other hand, is a typically German phenomenon.





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