Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Titian’s Women: An Italian Museum Experience at the Palazzo Reale in Milan, Italy

A photograph of the facade of the cathedral of Milan
View of the façade of the cathedral of Milan. This and all future photographs by author.

We emerged from the depths of the Milan metro, covering our eyes as the sun shone through the opening at the top of the stairwell. Armed with masks and an apocalyptic supply of water, we had come prepared to take on the masses in the winding subway tunnels and sweltering piazza. Even for seasoned visitors to this bustling Italian city, the sight of the cathedral emerging out of nowhere, taking up the entire view from the metro’s exit, is awe-inspiring. We quickly tore away from the sight of bright, white spires piercing into the cloudless blue sky, making a beeline to the Palazzo Reale on the south side of Piazza Duomo.

The purpose of our day trip to Milan was a visit to a blockbuster exhibition at the royal-palace-turned-museum: Tiziano e l’immagine della donna nel cinquecento veneziano (or, Titian and the Image of the Woman in 16th Century Venice). As a self-proclaimed student of art in the Italian Renaissance, focusing specifically on northern Italian city-states such as Venice and Ferrara, I was not about to miss the opportunity to see this exhibition. That morning I dragged my aunt and sister out of bed at 5:00 AM so we could catch a train to Milan. Was it worth it?

Born out the research of art historian Sylvia Ferino-Pagden, Director of the Picture Gallery at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, this exhibition purports to explore the representations of Venetian women in secular portraits. While Titian is undoubtedly one of the most celebrated and widely studied artists from sixteenth century Italy, the role of women as subjects and models in his works still inspires varied and sometimes heated debates, relating especially to the abuse or exploitation of women in his mythological poesie. Created in collaboration with the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the exhibition took place from February 23rd to June 5th, 2022. The Kunst put on its own version of the show, titled “Titian’s Vision of Women: Beauty, Love, and Poetry,” which ran from October 5th, 2021, to January 30th, 2022.

During my time at Tufts, I have grown increasingly interested in how museums and exhibitions of Italian Renaissance art can break free of the traditionalism that so often dominates them in order to become more accessible, engaging, and inclusive. Being born and raised in Italy to museophile parents, museums have always been a central part of my life. Once moving to the United States, I quickly became aware of the stark difference in how American and Italian institutions approach the display of their collections, especially surrounding the art of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Italy. As such, I was pleasantly surprised when the Italian exhibition I was so excited to see this summer engaged with their works in a refreshingly new manner.

a small, gold and blue Renaissance dress seen from the back, facing Titian's portrait of Isabella d'Este
Front: Roberto Capucci. Homage to Isabella d’Este, 1994. Private collection.
Background: Titian, Portrait of Isabella d’Este, 1534-6. Oil on canvas, 102.4 x 64.7 cm. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Shortly before this visit, I had brought my younger sister to a few other Italian museums, where we had traipsed through a much more traditional museum experience. I had suffered through large, mostly empty rooms with seemingly never-ending wall texts that made it difficult for anyone, including an art history student genuinely interested in the subject, to remain actively engaged. I could see my sister grow ever more restless, and I couldn’t blame her. At the Milan Titian exhibition, however, I watched as she hopped from work to work, taking time to absorb each one and read the wall text, occasionally approaching my aunt or I to ask questions. I, too, found it easier to focus on the exhibition even as we reached the final rooms and my feet began to ache. Beyond the fascinating subject, the curators used multiple strategies to bring together different mediums and draw visitors’ attention to different aspects of the works on display. A dress titled “Homage to Isabella d’Este” was placed facing her famous portrait, emphasizing the richness of the fabric and jewels. The way the painted subject and dress were angled placed them in conversation with each other, asking viewers to consider them in conjunction. A different room instead placed a table in the center, filled with pages from Cesare Vecellio’s De gli habiti antichi et moderni… The Venetian women depicted here ranged wildly in status and wealth, depicting a wide variety of costumes. The pizzochere (lay, religious women), noblewomen, orfanelle, and fantesche (female domestic servants) reveal the styles of women we might otherwise not see in the portraits of upper-class women represented throughout the exhibition. Yet another room allows visitors to connect he paintings adorning the walls to contemporary literature, including Moderata Fonte’s Il merito delle donne (The Worth of Women). By including Fonte and other female authors, highlighting them by allotting a single, separate wall text to their works, the exhibition corrects an unfortunately common misconception that women did not contribute to the literary culture of the Renaissance. This is all explored further in a beautiful exhibit catalogue that includes stunning details and high-quality reproductions set against important essays that expand the field’s understanding of women in Titian’s oeuvre.

Loose-leaf pages from a book on the dresses of Venetian women
Cesare Vecellio. Twenty-three Engravings of Italian Women from De gli habiti antichi, et moderni…, 1590. Woodcut, 16.7 x 12.5 cm. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum.

As much as I enjoyed the show and catalogue, there were still several instances where I thought the exhibition could have benefitted from a more accessible and innovative approach. This can be seen especially when comparing the exhibition pages for the Palazzo Reale exhibition and its counterpart at the Kunst. Including only a quick description and basic information on the organizers and museum hours, the Palazzo Reale does not provide much information for prospective visitors or for those wishing to revisit the show after their visit. When clicking on the Kunst’s page, we can immediately see a much more interactive and informative website, beautifully designed. Clickable text is paired with videos and sign-language translations, and various images from the show are reproduced digitally alongside short text descriptions. The page is also divided into several sections, including “The Mirror as an Instrument of Complex Visual Connections and a Means of Self-Awareness,” “United Forever: In Love for Five Centuries and Still Together,” “Sex Object and Goddess: Men Writing about Women,” and “Women Writers, Poets and Poet-Courtesans Ensure that Both They and Women in General Have a Voice.” As can be seen here, the Kunst exhibition appears to deal much more directly with issues of the use of women’s bodies in the male-dominated art industry in Renaissance Venice than the Milan sister show, at least for casual viewers who do not attentively read the exhibition catalogue.

In spite of these issues, I still thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition. I was glad to see my sister engage with this show with so much more excitment than in our previous museum visits. The conversation around the representation of women in Titian’s works is always a fascinating one, and this show proved that there are many fruitful studies to come in this field. I can say with certainty that the 5 AM alarm was worth it.

 

Meet the New Editors!

Another academic year has passed, and it’s time for three new editors to take the reins of the Museum Studies blog! A huge thank you to Claudia, Jane, and Lucy for their hard work on the blog over the past year, and good luck with your future endeavors. We’re so excited to follow in your footsteps and keep producing great content for the Museum Studies blog! 

For our first post, we want to take a moment to introduce ourselves and let you know what content we hope to bring to the blog this year…

Savannah Kruguer

Hello Everyone! My name is Savannah Kruguer, and I am a second-year student in the Museum Education MA program here at Tufts. Growing up in Southern Maine, my mom would often take me and my two siblings to Boston to visit the Museum of Science. From an early age, I loved learning through discovery and hands-on activities at museums. My specific interest in living history sites and object-based learning began after an elementary school field trip to Old Fort Western in Augusta, ME where I got to prepare food in an open hearth and make an 18th-century bed. I found it fascinating to learn about the lives of everyday people through the objects they used. 

I enjoyed visiting museums so much that I wanted to pull back the curtains and explore the possibility of becoming a museum professional. I received my B.A. in Art Conservation and Anthropology with a minor in Museum Studies from the University of Delaware. During my studies, I worked as a preventive conservation intern at the Winterthur Museum Garden and Library and practiced archaeological conservation during a study abroad in Sardinia, Italy. 

After undergrad, I continued to pursue my career as a museum professional by working as a conservation technician for the Naval History and Heritage Command, archaeological collections care technician for the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, and a living history interpreter for Mackinac State Parks. 

I chose Tufts for my graduate studies because of the amazing museum education program and the school’s proximity to so many incredible museum institutions. Through all of my work experiences, I realized that I loved the educational role of museums and engaging K-12 audiences in programming. At Tufts, I have already learned so much about museum pedagogy, writing lesson plans, and DEAI practices. I look forward to the opportunity to use this blog to highlight current conversations in the field, share my museum adventures, and explore engaging museum exhibits and programs.

Francesca Bisi

Hello everyone! My name is Francesca Bisi and I am beginning my second year in the Art History and Museum Studies program here at Tufts University. I hail from Ferrara, a small city south-west of Venice. When I was growing up, I was surrounded by history and art—the looming presence of the Castello Estense, the medieval walls encircling the historic downtown, or the iconic terracotta that colors the city red. Living within a UNESCO World Heritage Site made me very aware of the power and beauty of history, and the importance of both preserving the past and paving the way for new and innovative ways of interpreting and presenting it.

That love never went away. We moved to the United States when I was young, and I remained here to earn my BA in Art History and Italian Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. From there, I hopped back across the pond to Europe, where I studied at the University of Edinburgh and received an MSc in History. Yet as I wrapped up the latter program, I realized what I wanted most was to return to art history and museum work.

My most treasured memories from my undergraduate experience were those spent in museums, learning about how to make the collections and the museum itself more accessible to visitors of all backgrounds. Tours for sight-impaired visitors, hands-on experiences unique to the contents of that specific museum, dedicated and driven staff, and storage with rows and rows of objects waiting for the spotlight were truly the thing that excited me most. When I saw that Tufts offered a joint Art History and Museum Studies program, I knew I had found the perfect fit for me.

My interests thus revolve mainly around curatorial and research work. I am specializing in Italian Renaissance art history, and my main focuses within that field are women, convents, queer studies, representations of the “other” or foreign, and depictions of cats. Writing for this blog provides a fantastic opportunity to explore these interests and share them with others. I look forward to engaging with museums in this new way and engaging in conversations with our readers!

Danielle Maurer

Hey, y’all! My name is Danielle Maurer, and I am excited to enter my second year of the Tufts History and Museum Studies MA Program. Born and raised in New Orleans, I have been steeped in the intersection of history, arts, and culture for most of my life! After earning my BAs in History and International Studies at Louisiana State University in 2018, I enjoyed a variety of museum internships, including a summer program in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Medieval Art Department. In New Orleans, I worked in the National WWII Museum’s education department and the New Orleans Jazz Museum’s programs and operations departments for several years before moving to Somerville to attend Tufts.

I am passionate about museum fundraising, leadership, and community engagement initiatives that lift up the artists, scholars, and culture bearers who preserve and define our diverse heritage.  I look forward to sharing exciting opportunities to support museums participating in these important efforts!

Identity: Who are we in museums?

Throughout this semester, I had the opportunity to work with my peers to develop an interpretive project mostly from scratch. I emphasize the word mostly here because we were fortunate enough to find inspiration from Tufts’s very own Art Datathon, an event hosted by the Tufts University Art Gallery that explored the ways data in museum collections is not as objective as we assume it is.

For me, this class was the culmination of my time in this program; it was a blend of old and new knowledge, a chance to practice skills I already had and more importantly, a chance to develop those that I really struggled with. While working on this project, there were a lot of hurdles that made me question how I really fit into the museum space. What kind of educator do I want to be? What biases do I carry into my own interpretive styles? It was cathartic, especially as I near the end of my time as an editor for this blog and a student in this program.

The project itself, Obscured Identities, challenges the collections database at Tufts University Art Gallery using questions similar to those I asked myself. Our group looked at these objects, looked at the data, and asked ourselves if this data truly represents their story. Can we really say that the data is objective and without bias? Interpreting these objects and their reported data revealed that no, we can’t really assume those things. For some of us, this was difficult to grapple with. It took a lot of introspective reflection and creativity to begin telling these stories, interpreting these objects, not just through the data available, but also the data missing. One piece I worked closely with is Justice Ofoni’s “Best in Haircut” which is a barbershop sign from Ghana. Perhaps the biggest story we pulled from the data was the cultural identity stripped from this piece. According to the art gallery’s database, “Best in Haircut” is culturally African. Yet, we also know that the piece is from Ghana; so why do we reduce this cultural identity to the broad scope of an entire continent? These stories and challenges were the core of our project, which materialized through a virtual exhibit using StoryMaps.

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“Best in Haircut” by Justice Ofoni

I’m grateful for this project and the experience it offered me, and I’m even more grateful for my peers who supported each other throughout its development. 

To learn more and see the final exhibition, you can view it here on StoryMaps.

Looking for a *Revolutionary* Summer Job in Boston?

As I approach my graduation from the History and Museum Studies program here at Tufts, I’m reflecting on the past two years — on all I have learned and experienced, the ways I’ve grown, the incredible people I’ve met, the powerful museums I’ve visited. I’m also reflecting on my time as an editor on this blog, which, all too quickly, is also coming to an end.

Astute readers may remember that my first post as History editor, way back in June 2021, was about one of my favorite museum experiences in Boston: an afternoon at the Old State House. Most commonly known as the building that loomed over a group of British soldiers and American colonists on March 5th, 1770 during the infamous Boston Massacre, it’s an impactful place even just to see in person.

The Old State House — one of my favorite places in Boston.

One can imagine, then, what a thrill it is to be at this museum every day, surrounded by its rich history and immersed in its vision for the future, characterized by true equality and the fulfillment of the American Revolution’s promises for, at last, all people.

For the past several weeks, that has been my experience — I’m working as a supervisor on the retail team at Revolutionary Spaces — and it could be yours, too. I feel as though I have come full circle, from writing about this museum I love to working in it. And the good news is that they are still looking for many more people to join the team! In preparation for their always-busy summer season, Revolutionary Spaces is currently hiring people in numerous departments.

The beautifully reverent Old South Meeting House, where famous congregants included Phillis Wheatley, Ben Franklin, and Sam Adams — and where the latter gave the signal for the Sons of Liberty to storm the harbor and commence the Boston Tea Party in 1773.

An organization that formed in early 2020 when the Bostonian Society and the Old South Association merged, Revolutionary Spaces seeks to bring “people together to explore the American struggle to create and sustain a free society” by stewarding both the Old State House and the Old South Meeting House. As the seat of colonial British governance and a chosen gathering place of American revolutionaries, respectively, these two historic buildings exist in perpetual conversation with one another. Visitors gain admission to both sites when they buy tickets, allowing them to explore reverent, engaging exhibits and talk with passionate, knowledgable staff. Through interpretation of the Old State House and the Old South Meeting House, Revolutionary Spaces provides a truly unique Bostonian and American experience.

If you are interested in becoming a part of this special organization, consider applying to one of the many positions they have open this summer! Check out these links to learn more about how to apply for the positions of Retail SupervisorRetail Staff, Development Manager, and Development of Marketing & Communications. On the historic interpretation side, the visitor experience staff is also hiring!

Not a bad view on the walk to work, in my opinion.

I have only been working at Revolutionary Spaces for a few weeks, but I already feel so welcome and inspired by the special community they have created. If you like the idea of spending every day immersed in the world of the Old State House and the Old South Meeting House, I highly recommend applying to Revolutionary Spaces.

Weekly Job Roundup

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