In the past week, I’ve visited the home of Victoria Confino, a Sephardic Jewish girl from Kastoria, who emigrated to New York in 1913; I’ve followed the history of 16 Elm Street, Ipswich, Massachusetts over 200 years; and I’ve delved into the experience of living in the neighbourhood of Shaw in Washington, D.C. via the photographs, poems and reflections of thirty teenage residents.
Victoria Confino lived with her parents, five brothers (and for a time two cousins) in a tiny tenement on 97 Orchard Street, Manhattan. A reconstruction of her home is one of the exhibits at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. As a group of 12 tourists – not many more people than once occupied the flat – crowds into the front room, we are invited to discuss life in the tenements with a highly skilled and impressively well-briefed actress, who plays the role of 14-year old Victoria. She at first appears startled by the arrival of the unexpected strangers in her home. But she’s used to novelty, and she quickly settles down to chat with us about her neighbours, opportunities for work, the availability of pomegranates, and what she’s learned at the Settlement House. At various points, she interrupts herself to show us an artefact: a cutting from a Hebrew news sheet, a photograph of her brother, a large can of tomatoes that she’s not yet dared to open, a book published for immigrants with advice on personal hygiene and useful English phrases …
The style and the scale is rather different at the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C., where my favourite exhibit remains a stout colonial house, rescued from Ipswich, Massachusetts in the 1960s, when it was about to be demolished, and reconstructed in the Museum. Although the house itself dominates the room and is surrounded by carefully selected artefacts that reveal aspects of its social history (a chamber pot, an anti-slavery almanac, rationing coupons from WWII), the exhibit is in many ways a triumph of archival research. For the curators have managed to chart the stories of five families who lived there, along with their servants and their slaves.
The National Building Museum, also in D.C., is the most fantastic space for thinking about architecture, urban development and the social history of the home. ‘House & Home’ is a long-term exhibition that takes visitors on a tour of American houses, from the architectural glamour of Fallingwater to the sort of 1970s kitchen that all of us – of a certain age – remember. However, the highlight of my visit to the Museum this year was a small temporary exhibit called ‘Investigating where we live’. This was curated by 30 teenagers from Shaw, a district just to the north of Mount Vernon Square that’s had its share of deprivation, but which is now on the up. The students’ responses to the place where they live are diverse: some are fascinated by its glorious musical past (Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington both played the theaters in Shaw); others focus on ‘Bread for the City’, a community project that provides food for the needy and has now developed a rather stunning rooftop garden; two of the girls view the Shiloh Baptist Church as the hub of the neighbourhood; and, for one budding photographer, it’s the rainbow-coloured row houses that best symbolise Shaw.
All these clever and topical explorations of home and neighbourhood raise for me the question of how we bring the Italian Renaissance household to life. In Britain, as in the US, domestic experience is central to public history – from National Trust ‘stately homes’ to the Geffrye Museum of the Home in East London. But that fascination with home life (with servants and bath tubs, butter churns and chamber pots) rarely seems to surface in the Italian heritage industry. Beyond the very occasional courtly residence, here we struggle to find Renaissance houses that we can enter. And artefacts of the home are given low visibility in galleries, where the ‘fine arts’ are privileged. We of course have the additional challenge of trying to foreground a particularly intimate and often inconspicuous aspect of domestic life: devotion.
But Victoria Confino provides an inspiring example. Can we imagine a fourteen-year old Italian girl transported into a Renaissance setting? Which objects hint at her story?
Selvaggia Sassetti, by Davide Ghirlandaio, Florence c. 1487-1488, Metropolitan Museum of Art 32.100.71
I picture her sitting at her desk, toying with a string of coral around her neck. The beads are beautiful, fashionable and – at the same time – recall Christ’s blood spilled on the cross. In front of her, lies a well-thumbed rosary manual. The book falls open at a woodcut, which depicts the presentation of the Virgin in the Temple – a suitable topic for a young female mind to dwell upon. Broaden our focus and we see that the girl is in her bedroom. This is a domestic space that is depicted in hundreds of ex votos from the period; the solid bed with its bright red covers seems disproportionately large and dominates the room.
But then we should remember that the girl sleeps with her two sisters. Other furniture is scarce. A large wooden chest contains the girl’s linen and jewels; it is decorated with the Christogram, IHS. The Madonna – sculpted in brightly painted terracotta – holds her baby tightly in her arms and gazes down from the wall.
Next challenge: fourteen-year old boy.