Arts, On Campus

MFA Curator Discusses Two New Italian Renaissance Galleries During McMullen Lecture

Curator Marietta Cambareri opened her lecture at the McMullen Museum of Art with an image of an art exhibit in its early stages: a room scattered with miscellaneous carts, shelving, and flatbeds. 

“This is what a gallery installation looks like,” Cambareri said. “It’s controlled chaos.”

A few days after that photo was taken, the “chaos” transformed into two new Italian Renaissance art galleries at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston. Cambareri, the MFA’s senior curator of European sculpture and curator of Judaica, described the various pieces of art that inspired the galleries.

Boston College students and faculty gathered on Monday for the 20th Annual Josephine Von Henneberg Lecture in Italian Art, during which Cambareri discussed the process of creating the MFA’s two new galleries. 

Henneberg was a professor at BC and created the annual lecture series to encourage BC students to study Italian art.

During the lecture, titled “Thinking Through the Objects: Displaying the Italian Renaissance at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,” Cambareri discussed two works that she considers the “two poles” of the new exhibit at the MFA. The first, Rosso Fiorentino’s “The Dead Christ with Angels, depicts Jesus surrounded by angels in brightly colored clothing. 

The second, Donatello’s “Madonna of the Clouds,” depicts Mary and Jesus surrounded by clouds, which the artist carved into white marble using his own technique. While many of the gallery objects revolve around the piece, “Madonna of the Clouds” is not yet hung on the gallery’s wall and will not be for about a year, as it is currently on exhibition in Berlin.

“This is a really hard choice for a curator—to open a new gallery without the number two pulsar of my collection,” Cambareri said. “But this is a collections gallery. It’s going to change and grow, and I felt strongly enough that it should go to the exhibition.”

While “Madonna of the Clouds” is not yet featured, countless other Renaissance-era works remain in the galleries for audiences to enjoy, including a sculpture of St. John the Baptist by Giovanni Francesco Rustici, which Cambareri considers the most significant piece she has worked with. 

Cambareri and her colleagues used X-ray technology to see the bones of the structure, UV lighting to discover the layers of paint on the statue, and even observed the hardened clay of broken pieces in which they found fingerprints.

Other notable works in the galleries include ancient bronze door knockers and intricate terracotta sculptures. One gallery section includes a studiolo that features medals, ancient gems, coins, and plaque heads from the Renaissance era. Cambareri carefully chose the placement of these objects to create storytelling through design.

“The ability to interweave these works was really, really important to me,” Cambareri said. 

She and her team accomplished this goal by designing the room and atmosphere to fit varying gallery themes, including antiquity and spirituality. 

Some of the rooms were crafted with arches and light to illuminate the artwork, while Cambareri selected music by local artists and women to add to the mood. Cambareri said that the gallery’s musical selections “bring the senses and music to life.”

While the galleries were designed to appeal to the general public, Cambareri addressed the concern that an Italian Renaissance exhibit might not reflect all members of the Boston community. Most of the Renaissance art centers on religious themes and was created by white, Catholic artists. 

To make the exhibit engaging for all visitors, “chat labels” hang around the galleries, providing references to those not represented in the works, including Jewish people living on the Italian peninsula who worked on art during the time period.

During the session, Cambareri addressed her upcoming project called “Telling Her Story,” an exhibit on strong women in Renaissance-era Italy. The exhibit is based on works produced and commissioned by women along with works that feature women. It will debut in fall 2023 and will remain open for the following year.

“It’s certainly made by women,” Cambareri said. “It’s craft that was practiced by women. It stands for all of those anonymous objects that we will never know who made them.”

October 4, 2022