Tess Knighton, Ascensión Mazuela-Anguita and I recently visited the Episcopal Museum of Vic’s temporary exhibition on travel throughout the Middle Ages, which finishes on the 14 February. The exhibition examines a broad milieu of society from the late-Middle Ages—from merchants to pilgrims and crusaders to explorers—demonstrating how material objects left behind from such journeys can inform us on both the ontological status and the experience of medieval mobility. The exhibition combines articles from Vic’s permanent collection with loaned items from Spanish, German, French and Italian museums, including Florence’s Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Barcelona’s Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, and Paris’s Musée du Louvre and the Museé de Cluny.
Particularly thought provoking were items that evidence the role of travelling in artistic production. Costly materials and lavish decoration demonstrated social status, and when such luxuriantly embellished objects were transported they acted as artistic billboards, exhibiting the worth of localised artistic techniques or the cultural eminence of a foreign patron. Pressures of keeping up with current styles were germane to the chapter of Barcelona Cathedral, who sent Pere Sanglada to Bruges to acquire suitable oak for the new choir (Cat. 101), and to the cathedrals of Girona, Carcassonne, Elne and Narbonne to see and bring back potential models. Likewise, the illumination, decoration and flourishing of liturgical books and works of literature—such as in Vic’s own manuscript of Augustine’s De Civitate Dei (Cat 94)—were emulated across Europe, bearing witness to the impact that such merchandise had when it travelled. Such transportation of artistic and intellectual ideas as commodities are of course central to our work on Urban Musics in, for instance, the proliferation of Italian madrigal books or Flemish tapestries (many of which depict musical instruments), which were seen in Barcelona from the Early Modern period.
Items found regularly in post-mortem inventories and auctions—collapsible furniture (Cat. 23), carrying boxes (Cat. 72), clothes suitable for travelling (Cat. 13) and items essential to the maintenance of horses and draught animals (Cat. 14-6)—were shown to be significant indicators of social status. For a time where travelling could be both arduous and expensive, costly items, such as the Bargello’s elaborately carved ivory saddle (Cat. 71), reflected a prioritisation of both style and comfort that could only be afforded by the wealthy. Likewise, portable items—such as gaming boards (Cat. 76) and literature (Cat. 11-2)—showed that for some, travelling could have been a time of relative leisure. Highlighting the value of portability, the exhibition acted as a useful reminder in our own work of how items found in post-mortem inventories were not necessarily fixed in location. Rather, smaller instruments and books were articles that could certainly have been transported within urban spaces and beyond.
The temporary exhibition, ‘Viatjar a l’Edat Mitjana’ is running at the Museu Episcopal de Vic from the 24 October 2015 to the 14 February 2016.
Henry Drummond, 14 January 2016