While everyone else in town is busy watching frilly films about sex and domination (ahem, 50 Shades of Dubiousness), why not spend your time contemplating more complex ideas of beauty and power in art?
Feast your eyes on pre-modern visualizations of long limbs, delicate visages, and female empowerment at William & Mary’s Muscarelle Museum of Art, where joint exhibitions showcase the accomplishments of two Italian luminaries – Leonardo da Vinci, who needs no introduction, and Matilda of Canossa, a progressive 11th-century Tuscan countess who, among other things, revived ancient Roman law in medieval Europe and laid the groundwork for later women’s rights. If history lessons lull you to sleep, the pictures themselves will do all the talking – and they’re sexy enough to keep you interested, I promise.
Leonardo Study of Madonna of the Rocks
Leonardo da Vinci and the Idea of Beauty (which opens this Saturday, February 21st, and runs until April 5th before reopening for six weeks at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston) revolves around Leonardo’s philosophy of beauty and features more than 25 drawings by the Renaissance master. These delicate works on paper rarely leave Italy and are even less often shown together under a single theme; in fact, some of the objects make their first appearance in the U.S. here. Fascinated by nature and art and their relationship to the divine, Leonardo sought to capture in his works the transition from potent youthfulness to worn agedness – his chubby babies, ripe maidens, and studies of impossibly muscular legs stand in stark contrast, for instance, to the wrinkled old men with vacant eyes we find in several of the drawings.
It’s especially interesting to see Leonardo’s drawings side-by-side with the eight Michelangelo pieces included in the show. Dramatically lit and focusing on the contours of the human body, these works demonstrate the two rivals’ divergent approaches to nature and beauty. While Michelangelo tried to capture beauty more abstractly (look at one of his female nudes, and you’ll quickly see that he was not working directly from observation of women’s bodies!), Leonardo took a more scientifically-driven approach to beauty. He found it in many places, from the delicate curls of women’s hair and the roundness of a baby’s soft tummy to the bulging haunches of a rearing horse and the intricate, paper-thin wings of a firefly. Even the furry bat sketched in his “Codex on the Flight of Birds” bears witness to Leonardo’s unusually advanced understanding of form and motion.
Downstairs, check out Matilda of Canossa and the Origins of the Renaissance (which opened on February 7th and runs through April 19th, when it travels to the Casa Buonarotti in Florence), an exhibition that tells the story of one of the most influential women in pre-modern history. Indeed, buried in the Vatican and depicted posthumously as holding the keys to heaven – the only historical figure besides the popes, and thus the only female, to be shown this way –, Matilda is one of the unsung heroes of the proto-Renaissance in Europe. Besides leading revolts against feudal overlords, she built hospices throughout northern Italy; also a patron of the arts, she restored many important landmarks in the region, including the Tower of Pisa. Just as impressively, Matilda founded Europe’s first law school in 1088 in Bologna, simultaneously promoting the study of Justinian’s code of Roman law, which gave women property rights.
The exhibition ties Matilda’s life into the history of William & Mary by showcasing letters written by Thomas Jefferson and George Wythe, two alumni of the College’s school of law. In these letters, Jefferson and Wythe describe the ideal framework for our then-nascent country’s new legal code, basing their discussion on the very same Justinian concepts revived by Matilda in European law and transposed into a modern legal system. Bibliophiles will appreciate the selection of early modern law books known to have been in Wythe’s personal library, and art lovers will swoon over Bernini’s statuette of Matilda (pictured, right) – the only known bronze of its kind by the Baroque master. It’s evident in this sculpture alone: Matilda was a total boss.
So come by the Muscarelle and learn about these two protean figures whose influence continues to be felt in important, if sometimes invisible, ways.
For $15 – only a few dollars more than your weekly trip to the movies –, enjoy some historical fabulousness and support the arts. Curator John Spike will give a lecture on Friday night at 6pm (free and open to the public), and the exhibition opens officially this Saturday. Buy your tickets at the door, or avoid the lines and get them here.