Italian has many telling expressions, which make use of the word bianco: mettere nero sul bianco, più bianco del bianco, settimana bianca, avere carta bianca, just to mention a few of the most popular. White seems to be a very charged word, one that can stand for concepts as varied as honesty and incorruptibility, but also having fun while skiing in the Dolomites. This versatility of white is the theme of the exhibition Bianco. Dalle Stanze Segrete al Candore della Luce in the Musei Civici in Pesaro, Marche.
The first room shows white embroidered textiles and lace. The story of white cloth is told not only through tools used by lacemakers and portraits of important people wearing clothes decorated with them, but also through a video of women who work with white thread to produce most intricate patterns. One aspect which I have not considered before when thinking about the use of white in the Della Robbia workshop and one which is conveyed very clearly through the video, is that those artists concentrated their eyes on nothing but pure white for hours. Surely, this must be one of the best ways of spiritual meditation, this all-day-long visual contemplation of white.
On the other side of the room, there was a wall covered with examples of white porcelain figurines. Although they were mostly eighteenth- and nineteenth-century examples, it was a good testimony of the persisting appreciation of white both in religious and secular contexts.
The second room is dedicated to the myth of classical sculpture being purely white, and the canon established on this assumption. A telling quote from Joachim Winckelmann’s Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture (1755) is reproduced on a wall: ‘Colour contributes to beauty, but it is not beauty itself (…) a beautiful body will be all the more beautiful the whiter it is’. Nineteenth-century plaster copies of antique busts are displayed in this room alongside alabaster reliefs, and this comparison very successfully illustrates different characteristics of white in sculpture from the glossy surface of alabaster, animated by light, to the more matte and ‘dead’ surface of plaster casts.
The final room shows objects made from ivory, not only reliefs from the celebrated Embriachi workshop, but also fans and small caskets, which used this organic material. Those artefacts were juxtaposed with those made from mother of pearl, which was used in architectural models as a luminous counterpart to dark wood used for the main parts of the construction. On display was also a holy water stoup with St Francis receiving the stigmata made of wood and mother of pearl inlays, which was made in the Holy Land in the seventeenth century.
Through 200 objects, varied in terms of their material, function and dating, this exhibition shows the crucial role of white in the arts and in our appreciation of beauty. The show is on until the 31st of May and it is really worth seeing if you are in the beautiful town of Pesaro for leisure or to dedicate yourself to some intense archival research.
-Zuzanna Sarnecka (Photos courtesy of the author)
The exhibition, Bianco. Dalle Stanze Segrete al Candore della Luce, held in the Palazzo Mosca in Pesaro, is on view from 20 December 2014- 31 May 2015.