Image: Woman at her devotions, c.1590–1600, Leandro Bassano (1557–1622) Italy, Veneto (oil on canvas, 105 x 88.5 cm), UK private collection

The ‘Madonnas and Miracles’ exhibition at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum is a highly successful example of how interdisciplinary research (in this case, a four-year European Research Council-funded Synergy project) can be brought to the attention of the general public in a manner both accessible and scholarly. This pioneering showcase subtly and yet boldly debunks facile dichotomies, says Valeria Vescina.   

General textbooks and documentaries about the Italian Renaissance often give the impression that it flowered in the great centres of Florence, Venice and Rome but not in the ‘periphery’. That it led to an individualistic, secular humanism at the expense of religiosity; that the Reformation and the Counter Reformation encouraged, respectively, a personal relationship with God and a more choral experience. The ‘Madonnas and Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy’ exhibition confronts the visitor with tangible evidence of truth’s actual complexity.

No, the Italian Renaissance did not blossom only in major centres of patronage but throughout the country. Humanism went hand in hand with deeply rooted piety. Protestants and Catholics alike sought a personal connection with the divine and practised religious devotion in their homes. The exhibition focuses on this aspect in all its embeddedness and variety, and in that process addresses other misconceptions, too. As its organisers state in the outstanding catalogue, ‘the Renaissance was a much broader, more inclusive kind of rebirth’.

Galleries have been reconfigured to evoke 15th- and 16th-century domestic spaces.  Works by Perugino, Fra Angelico, Pinturicchio, Filippo Lippi, Annibale Carracci and the studio of Botticelli, to name but a few, have been selected to demonstrate how they were products both of and for personal religious devotion. Paintings such as the Master of the Osservanza’s The birth of the Virgin (c.1440), Leandro Bassano’s Woman at her devotions (c.1590–1600), or Pinturicchio’s Virgin and Child with St. John the Baptist (c.1490–95) show how art reflected and reinforced societal views on what constituted devout and virtuous conduct.

Sacred painting and sculpture had a place in the home at all levels of society. Therefore, examples from ordinary households such as a 16th-century woodcut designed to aid meditation on the Passion, are also included. A holy space in the home was often created around religious art, as shown by the arrangement of a prie-dieu, a stoup and aspergil for holy water, a candlestick, a book of prayers or a rosary.

Everyday objects could function as reminders of spiritual tenets: an inkstand (c.1510) in the shape of a Nativity; or a set of dining knives (16th century) inscribed with vocal parts for singing a Benediction and Grace – the music can be heard on headphones in one of several multi-sensorial opportunities in the exhibition.

A section is dedicated to personal and ritual items in the homes of Italy’s Jewish communities. The objects convey the richness of their culture, the diversity of its traditions, and the interplay with the broader Renaissance context.

Ex-votos on loan from sanctuaries in northern, central and southern Italy are the focus of another gallery room. Painted to give thanks for graces or miracles received, they depict the evils and anxieties of the era. They are another testimony of the widespread sense of divine intervention in daily life, as are the souvenirs pilgrims brought back from countless shrines.

In the second half of the 16th century, the Counter Reformation would seek to alter and control some of the beliefs and practices behind many of the items on display, but their very embeddedness in the fabric of the everyday would put the brakes on the process. That will not surprise visitors to this immersive exhibition, which runs until 4 June.

Valeria Vescina (left), Goldsmiths, University of London alumna, is a writer, reviewer and creative writing tutor. Her first novel, My Last Year At Villa Emma, will be published later this year. She is currently researching her second book, which will be set in 16th-century Italy.