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10 Medieval and Renaissance Things to See at the Victoria and Albert Museum

By Sandra Alvarez

My mother recently flew from Canada to visit me in London, England. I decided to take her to one of my favourite places: the Victoria and Albert Museum. I love everything about this museum and I couldn’t let her go back to Toronto without seeing it. I figured that while I was there, I might as well mention a few of my favourite pieces in the Medieval and Renaissance sections of the museum. Here are ten pieces that are worth seeing on your next visit.

16th c. Salt cellar, V&A museum
16th c. Salt cellar, V&A museum

1.) Salt Cellar

These fabulous little devices for holding and displaying salt were used since Roman times and came in a variety of shapes and sizes, and materials. Salt cellars could be made of wood, glass, metal, or even ivory. They could be very simple or incredibly ornate in design. Sadly, they have been completely replaced by the modern day salt shaker. This beautiful gold salt cellar was dates to 1527/1528 and was made in Paris, France. It was shaped after a ship and has lovers Tristan and Isolde playing chess near the mast. The salt would’ve been placed in a small bowl on the deck of the ship. An amazing piece of sixteenth century daily life.

German backgammon gamepiece, 16th c.
German backgammon gamepiece, 16th c.

2.) A Portrait Gamespiece 

This incredibly detailed German gamespiece depicts Anna von Frundsberg (died 1554). This piece would’ve been part of a family games set. Boards were used to play games like Backgammon and Chess. Backgammon is a very old game dating as far back as 3,000 BC and a game very similar to Backgammon was played by the Ancient Romans. Backgammon became extremely popular in the Middle Ages across Europe and England even though it was outlawed during the Elizabethan period. Note to self: I still have no idea how to play Backgammon. *adds to bucket list*

15th c. rare wooden sculpture of the Angel Gabriel
15th c. rare wooden sculpture of the Angel Gabriel

3.) The Angel Gabriel from the Annunication

I thought this piece was fantastic. It’s quite worn but has retained its beauty. The Archangel Gabriel is known as the patron saint of messengers and the angel of revelation. He brought word to the Virgin Mary of the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus. In Islam, God gave the Quran to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel. In the Old Testament, he interprets the visions of Daniel and stands at the left hand of God. He is God’s messenger on earth. This rare French wooden sculpture of Gabriel was likely from an altarpiece dating to 1415-1450. Gabriel is telling Mary that she is about to bear the son of God. Scenes such as this one would’ve been very familiar to Christians of the period.

Cesare Borgia's scabbard, 1498.
Cesare Borgia’s scabbard, 1498.

4.) Cesare Borgia’s Scabbard

My favourite villain. The guy you love to hate, and hate to love; Machiavelli’s muse: Cesare Borgia (1476 – 1507). Cesare Borgia was the notorious Italian warlord and illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI and his mistress Vannozza die Cattanei. A former bishop, then Cardinal turned General of his father’s Papal armies, he conquered much of Italy and earned a vicious and much feared reputation. Objects like this blow my mind. This was Cesare’s scabbard. The scabbard dates to 1498 and is apparently unfinished; nonetheless, it’s detailed and lovely. In Latin, it reads: ‘Effort Will Prevail Over Material’ and contains Cesare’s emblems along with the monogram CAESAR.

Notebook of Leonardo Da Vinci. Milan, Italy.
Notebook of Leonardo Da Vinci. Milan, Italy.

5.) Leonardo Da Vinci’s Notebook

Another mind blowing find at the museum. I accidentally stumbled across this wandering around. The V&A has five of Leonardo’s notebooks. This book was most likely written during Leonardo’s lengthy time under the patronage of Ludovico Sforza from 1482-1499. Dear Diary, I am brilliant, I will make history, the end. Love, Leonardo.

Marriage Chest (Cassone), 1430-1460. Northern Italy.
Marriage Chest (Cassone), 1430-1460. Northern Italy.

6.) Italian Wedding Chest

“Cassone” were Italian wedding chests that were popular during the late Middle Ages and contained the bride’s personal effects, and her parent’s contribution to the wedding. The chest was given to the bride on the day of her wedding. The side panels of the cassone were often decorated with heraldic devices and beautiful gold gilded images of love and marriage. They were the show pieces of wealthy Italian merchants and the nobility and were paraded through the city streets as the bride made her journey to her new home. The marriage chest became one of the most important pieces of furniture in the home and was often placed at the foot of the bed. This chest comes from Northern Italy, and was made between 1430-1460. It depicts wedding scenes and angels on the side and back panels.

Chest belonging to Elisabetta Gonzaga, 1488. Mantua or Urbino, Italy.
Chest belonging to Elisabetta Gonzaga, 1488. Mantua or Urbino, Italy.

7.) The Chest of Elisabetta Gonzaga

This chest belonged to the famed noblewoman, Elisabetta Gonzaga (1471-1526). Elisabetta was born in Mantua, Italy and was the sister of Francesco II Gonzaga, the ruler of Mantua. Elisabetta was the sister-in-law of Isabella d’Este, who was the sister-in-law to Lucrezia Borgia. Nice family connection, right? She surrounded herself with some of the greatest minds, and infamous personalities of the Italian Renaissance. Elisabetta was married to the sickly (and impotent) Duke, Guidobaldo de Montefeltro (1472-1508) in 1489. Cesare Borgia chased her husband out of Urbino, forcing Elisabetta to stay in Mantua. Elisabetta also was forced to accompany Lucrezia Borgia to her wedding in Ferrara to Alfonso d’Este in 1506. This was Elisabetta’s wedding cassone for her marriage to Guidobaldo.

Oil lamp, bronze, 1507-1510. Padua, Italy.
Oil lamp, bronze, 1507-1510. Padua, Italy.

8.) An Oil Lamp

Oil lamps were in use thousands of years ago. They remained popular until they were replaced in the 1850s by Kerosene lamps. This beautiful bronze oil lamp dates to 1507-1510 and was made by Italian sculptor, Andrea Riccio (also known as Andrea Briosco) 1470-1532. Riccio was well known for producing wonderful, and often practical, objects out of bronze.

Roof boss, 1497. Utrecht Cathedral, Netherlands.
Roof boss, 1497. Utrecht Cathedral, Netherlands.

9.) Roof Bosses

These animal roof bosses intrigued me after I recently visited Southwark Cathedral and saw similar bosses. There is so much fine detail going into a work that is high above where the details will probably never be seen. These particular bosses came from the library of Utrecht Cathedral in the Netherlands and date to about 1497. Bosses, although a prominent feature of medieval architecture, were common in Ancient and Classical Greece. Bosses are normally found on the ceilings of cathedrals where the vaults intersect. These were carved by Jan van Shcayck (active 1494-1520) and were painted by Ernst van Schayck and Dirck Scay.

Altarpiece of the Crucifixion, 1527-1533. Lombardy, Italy. By Giovanni Angelo del Maino and Tiburzio.
Altarpiece of the Crucifixion, 1527-1533. Lombardy, Italy. By Giovanni Angelo del Maino and Tiburzio.

10.) Wooden Altarpiece

There are many stunning altarpieces at the V&A; some are massive, colourful and awe inspiring. This particular piece caught my eye because it’s not as big, and it lacks colour but it’s extremely intricate. The detail on this altarpiece is incredible and depicts the Crucifixion. What is lacks in size and colour, it makes up for in spades with detail. It was made by Giovanni Angelo del Maino between 1496-1536.

Photo by Saliko / Wikimedia Commons




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