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James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published in The Guardian
28 October 2006

Lovers of lists could be drawn to the study of the Italian renaissance home, whose contents were regularly recorded in inventories from which we learn, for instance, that attic rooms tended to house broken lutes. The scholars who put together the current V&A show (appreciatively reviewed here by Frances Stonor Saunders on October 7) have clearly spent a long time with these absorbing documents and they are sometimes frustrated at the results.

We know that kitchens used to be at the top of the house (as in the Herbert Horne Institute in Florence, a restored palazzo from which you get a good idea of such a patrician home), but what you would actually have found in one of these kitchens is another matter, perhaps because the contents were considered too trivial to mention in the inventories, or perhaps because what gets called a kitchen was more like what is known in the Far East as the "dirty kitchen" - that is, the place where things are cooked over fire, and where you might gut a fish. The less messy tasks took place elsewhere.

The contents of one kitchen, an inventory tells us, included an organ. This comes as no more of a surprise to me than the broken lutes in the attics. Organs to me mean mice chewing away at the leather bits inside. And then these portative organs of the period, which were not supposed to blast you away, but to make a pleasing, sweet, soft sound, often had pipes made of cardboard. So the mice get into the organ, eat the pipes and the whole instrument becomes a liability. It is taken up to the attic, but someone is sleeping in there (among the debris of lutes), so it gets dumped in the kitchen, that is, the next room. The head of the family dies and an inventory is made - a snapshot of the owner's possessions not where they ought by rights to be, but where they have actually ended up. This is the charm of inventories, the lure of the list.

The downside of this method of research is that the lists do not reliably tell you where the musical instruments should be, in a properly ordered house. But we can guess the answer to this. The notaries come round, making the inventory. They point to a lute, which has just been played. They say: "Whose is that?" The living owner of the lute naturally does not want it included in somebody else's possessions.

But there is a downside to this, too, since the catalogue to the V&A show informs us that lutes tended to be given as presents to young men who had been sodomised by their older acquaintances. So the notary points to the lute, and the young man is in a slight quandary. Is he going to pretend not to own the lute? No he is not. He loves that lute. He's worked for it. He asserts his ownership. The notary raises an eyebrow, just slightly: "That's an expensive lute, son, and you're a good-looking kid," he says; "you should take care." The young man pretends, with a look of blank insolence, not to understand his meaning.

The answer to the question "Where was music made?" is, surely, anywhere around the house. But especially in quiet spaces (the cities were much noisier than they are today), and in small rooms for intimacy. This is why the panelling of the Duke of Urbino's studies has an illusionistic décor depicting lutes and other musical instruments in cupboards. The duke, when indoors, loved soft music and sweet voices. Processions and parades were another matter.

Studies and book-rooms were admirable places for the indoor kind of music. And as it happens this is the period in which we begin to find instruments of all kinds valued for their beauty. A dialogue of the period tells us that "It is not unseemly to have in the library an instrument for drawing up horoscopes or a celestial sphere, or even a lute if your pleasure lies that way; it makes no noise unless you want it to." The "poor knight" Fra Sabba di Castiglione, whose essay "On the Ornaments of the House" has long been a source of information about 16th-century attitudes to interior décor, begins with a great list of suitable musical instruments (including trombones) to have around the house, and he is explicit that these are both for the ear and to delight the eye. This passage makes me wonder whether it was also in this period that people first began to collect instruments from previous eras (if they were beautiful, that is).

Another of Fra Sabba's delights is in weapons and armour: "If by chance you were to ask me which ornaments I would like in my house above all others, I would reply without much pause for reflection, arms and books. The arms should be fine, fit for every test, by an excellent hand such as a good Italian or German master. I would wish them to be kept limpid, burnished, shining and polished, as the arms of a noble knight should be, and not rusty like those of a tipstaff or sergeant."

Clearly he wants his arms in working order, but he also surely wants them as objects of beauty in themselves. In Venetian studies you might expect to find what the evidence attests to, exotic arms - Turkish bows and quivers and damascened swords. This is the only area in which the V&A show is slightly weak, although there is a rapier and a couple of Turkish shields. But it stands to reason that the renaissance home would have had to store arms and armour somewhere. The study, which had that character of sanctum sanctorum, the repository of that which was most precious to the head of the house, would have been the place to store both armour and weapons - not only for practical but also for aesthetic purposes.

The quality of the objects at the V&A is unparalleled. The whole show could have been put together from the museum's own resources, but the loans are carefully chosen to gild the lily. And, by the way, when a painting or sculpture is shown at a surprising height, that is because it is - for the sake of this show - illustrating the correct height at which it was intended to be seen. And in the case of sculpture especially, the artist designed the object with that height in mind. That's the point of the show.

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