European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

Introduction

Discover the British Library's extensive collections from continental Europe and read news and views on European culture and affairs from our subject experts and occasional guest contributors. Read more

18 November 2019

British Library x Charles Jeffrey Research Competition launched: show & tell top picks from the European Studies team

Lora Afric, Languages Cataloguing Manager, reflects on some highlights from a year of fashion collaboration at the Library

The British Library has, for the third year running, worked with the British Fashion Council on the Research Collaboration Project. This year Glaswegian radical designer, Charles Jeffrey, joined forces. To mark the start of this collaboration, a catwalk show of Jeffrey’s brand Loverboy SS20 collection ‘Mind’s instructions’ was staged at the Library earlier in the year, followed in October by a Masterclass organised for BA final year and MA students, and a launch of the Research Competition. Charles Jeffrey, considers knowledge to be a ‘form of armor’. His brief instructs students to compile a research-focused fashion portfolio inspired by the BL resources. The show and tell, being the interactive part of the Masterclass, gave curators opportunity to engage with students and inspire them with samples of the visually intriguing collection items.

Image 1

‘Mind’s instructions’ Loverboy SS20 collection – The British Library, May 2019, reproduced with permission

In this blog post the European and Americas team have selected some of the most popular items shown on the day. It is not surprising that items featuring colours, patterns and poetry appealed to fashion students the most. The designs will reveal whether ‘Perhaps peace can still be found in the beautiful and the unexplained?’, as Jeffrey Charles states in his brief.

 

Picture of marble pavements in St Mark's basilica, Venice

Ferdinando Ongania, Dettagli del Pavimento ed Ornamenti in Mosaico della Basilica di San Marco in Venezia, Venice, 1881 (74/tab.1283)

Ferdinando Ongania and his Venetian workshop spent more than 10 years (between 1881 and 1893) publishing the 18 volumes of La Basilica di San Marco in Venezia. Inspired by John Ruskin’s work, Ongania commissioned studies to historians, architects, and archaeologists, and put together an exceptional body of photographs and illustrations. His work depicts every single detail of the exterior and interior of Saint Mark’s Basilica, from the architecture to the sculptures and the decorations. The British Library owns the full set, but the volume I chose for the show and tell focuses solely on the mosaic floors, whose drawings I find particularly inspiring for the kaleidoscopic richness of the details and beauty of the colours.

Valentina Mirabella – Curator, Romance Collections

Abstract floral designs

Abstract floral designs

G. Darcy, Or et Couleurs, Paris, A. Calavas, [n.d.] Probably 1920/1921? (fF5/3743)

The designs in the albums contain a variety of geometric motifs, flowers, plants and birds typical of the Art Deco style. Art Deco fashion, which started in France in the 1920s, and took its name from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs, was inspired by new artistic movements, most notably Cubism and Fauvism, by the bright colours of the Ballets Russes, and by the “exotic” styles of Japan, Persia, ancient Egypt and Maya art, among others.

The technique of “Pochoirs”, or stencils, used here, was at the height of popularity in France during the 1920s. It was frequently used to create prints of intense colour and the brilliant effects of gold and silver, as expressed in the title of these collections of plates. The full title explains further that the plates were made in the “new taste” for use by “Fabric makers, Decorators, and ornaments designers” – it was for sale at the bookshop of the Arts Décoratifs.

A particularly interesting feature of this item is that it comes from Nottingham Public Library, which acquired it very soon after its publication. It was quite successful, and was borrowed 25 times between 1922 and 1930.

I chose this item because of my interest in the Art Deco movement and the pochoir technique. The plates are very beautiful of course, and the colours are still incredibly vivid, but most of all I think it is fascinating to have a real proof of interest from readers (presumably amateur decorators and fashion lovers) in the 1920s.

Sophie Defrance – Curator, Romance Collections

The Fashion Research Competition and the staff favourite winners will be announced on 31 January 2020 when during the reverse show and tell students will reveal their work inspired by the British Library collections.

For featured American collection items please see the parallel American Collections blog.

14 November 2019

Recreating the Lost Sculptures of Umberto Boccioni

Of the many groundbreaking sculptures Umberto Boccioni created between c. 1913 and 1915, only a handful remain in existence today – most of them were accidentally disposed of on a rubbish dump in 1927. However, using a combination of vintage photographic material taken from books, and cutting-edge 3D printing and milling techniques, four of Boccioni’s destroyed works have now been reconstructed by two digital artists: a volumetric study of a human face titled Empty and Full Abstracts of a Head, and three of the artist’s iconic striding figures. Modern audiences can now ‘see’ these lost masterpieces for the very first time at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in London.

Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913

Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913. (Reproduced by kind permission of the Estorick Collection)

Boccioni’s best known surviving three-dimensional work is undoubtedly Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913). One of the most instantly recognisable of all modernist sculptures, it represents an aerodynamic figure – part man, part machine – racing energetically towards the brave new world envisioned by the Futurist movement, a world ‘multiplied’ by technology, speed and industrialisation.

Portrait of Boccioni

Portrait of Boccioni, from Roberto Longhi’s Scultura Futurista Boccioni (7875.dd.31.): 

This work was in fact preceded by three sculptures on the same theme: Synthesis of Human Dynamism, Speeding Muscles and Spiral Expansion of Muscles in Movement. Until today, all that remained of these earlier works were a number of photographs taken in Boccioni’s studio and at three exhibitions around the world between 1913 and 1917. More clearly than ever before, the reconstructed sculptures reveal the evolution of Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, enabling us to perceive the progressive refinement of Boccioni’s ideas and the streamlining of his sculptural forms.

Images showing Umberto Boccioni with Synthesis of Human Dynamism

Images showing Umberto Boccioni with Synthesis of Human Dynamism, from Laura Mattioli Rossi, Boccioni’s Materia: A Futurist Masterpiece, The Avant-garde in Milan and Paris, New York, 2004 (LD.31.b.256).

Why attempt to recreate long-lost works of art? Surely, only their creator could know how they looked. Projects such as this depend on the quality and quantity of the surviving visual documentation. In the case of Boccioni’s sculptures, sufficient photographic material existed to make reconstruction feasible and worth pursuing. Roberto Longhi’s detailed 1914 essay Scultura Futurista Boccioni concerning Boccioni’s works also provided many important clues as to their appearance. It is crucial to note that the reconstruction process was not undertaken as a mere technical challenge; rather, it is hoped that the resulting pieces will offer new interpretative opportunities for both specialist art historians and the general public, providing fresh insights into Boccioni’s sculptural practice. In this particular instance, the project also represents a fusion of art and technology that would have doubtless appealed to the Futurists.

Images showing the reconstruction process of Synthesis of Human Dynamism 

Images showing the reconstruction process of Synthesis of Human Dynamism 

The reconstruction process went as follows:

1. High resolution photographs of Boccioni’s sculptures were scanned from books or acquired from different museums, publishers and institutions. In total, 21 photographs were used for the four reconstructions. Two books were primarily used:

Laura Mattioli Rossi, Boccioni Pittore scultore futurista (Milan, 2006; awaiting shelfmark) and Laura Mattioli Rossi, Boccioni’s Materia: A Futurist Masterpiece, The Avant-garde in Milan and Paris.

2. Using image software, the contrast of the images was adjusted, and areas in shadow were lightened in order to bring out as much detail as possible.

3. Each of the sculptures was extracted from its surrounding space, effectively producing ‘cut-outs’ from different angles.

4. Using 3D sculpting software, these cut-outs were imported, then set as reference views.

5. The starting point of the 3D model was a ‘blob’ of digital clay which was moulded to fit the contours of the sculpture in all of the reference views. This semi-transparent form made it possible to trace the shapes of the underlying image, just as transparent paper can be used to copy a picture placed below it. The digital moulding tools mimic their real world counterparts and allow easy shaping of the ‘clay’.

6. By taking into account overlapping and receding forms, the time-consuming sculpting process eventually produced a form that was very close to how the actual sculpture must have looked. The mesh resolution was increased when all of the basic shapes were in place, and further enhanced with the addition of increasingly smaller details.

7. Light sources were adjusted in the rendering software to simulate the shadows cast in the original photographs as closely as possible. This helped to establish the size of the protruding and receding shapes, and the work’s overall proportions.

8. The finished 3D model was printed or milled.

Photograph showing visitors looking at the reconstructed statues shown at the Estorick Collection

The reconstructed statues shown at the Estorick Collection. (Reproduced by kind permission of the Estorick Collection)

The reconstructions can be seen at the Estorick Collection until 22 December. 

Anders Rådén and Matt Smith, digital artists responsible for recreating four of Boccioni’s destroyed works

References/Further reading:

Umberto Boccioni, Pittura scultura futuriste: dinamismo plastico (Milan, 1914) 7859.de.1. (English translation by Richard Shane Agin and Maria Elena Versari, Futurist painting sculpture: plastic dynamism (Los Angeles, [2016]) YC.2017.b.2375)

Maurizio Calvesi, Alberto Dambruoso, Umberto Boccioni: catalogo generale delle opere; con la collaborazione di Sara De Chiara (Turin, 2016) LF.31.b.14033

John Golding, Boccioni: Unique forms of continuity in space (London, 1985) YV.1986.b.1014

12 November 2019

Ceremonial greetings in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania

Gratulationes Serenissimo ac Potentissimo Principi Sigismundo III… published in Vilnius in 1589 is the oldest book in the British Library’s holdings which includes text in the Lithuanian language. It came to the Library as part of Sir Hans Sloane’s collection – one of the founding collections of the British Museum. It is not known when and how Sloane acquired it.

Title page of Gratulationes Serenissimo ac Potentissimo Principi Sigismundo III…

Gratulationes Serenissimo ac Potentissimo Principi Sigismundo III… (Vilnius, 1589) 5890.e.34

Gratulationes, written by the Vilnius academic community, is dedicated to King Sigismund III Vasa who visited Vilnius in 1589. It is an example of ceremonial greetings, a literary genre which became popular in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 16th-18th centuries. Ceremonial greetings were originally written in Latin but later also in other languages. In the Grand Duchy of Lithuania they were used to welcome rulers and noblemen to Vilnius.

There was a set route of ceremonial processions in Vilnius: participants would gather in St Stephen’s Church, the procession would start near the Rūdninkų Gate and finish at the main entrance to the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania. Welcoming ceremonies were very elaborate: King Sigismund was greeted in 1589 by a triumphal arch with four towers erected in Rūdninkai Street, adorned by portraits of Jagiellonian rulers and allegorical paintings. When the king was approaching the arch he was welcomed by four students from the Jesuit Academy, coming down from the towers dressed as angels. They symbolised the Republic of Lithuania, Religion, Arts and Sciences, and Vilnius. The main part of the ceremony took place in the Palace and started with six students greeting the king with short maxims about his glorious ancestors. Epigrams were written for each member of the Jagiellonian dynasty, with allusions to ancient Greek and Roman history and mythology. There were also actors personifying Religion, Virtue, Nature, Fortune, Rumour and Glory.

Portrait of King Sigismund III Vasa

Portrait of King Sigismund III Vasa, artist unknown, Uffizi Gallety, Florence (Image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Several collections of ceremonial greetings are known to have been published in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Gratulationes Serenissimo ac Potentissimo is particularly important as it is the first multilingual collection of greetings prepared by scholars from the Jesuit Academy in Vilnius (later Vilnius University): it includes texts in Latin, Spanish, Italian, French, German, English, and Polish. It also includes the earliest example of ceremonial greetings in Lithuanian, a panegyrical poem – the first Lithuanian text in hexameter, and the first original literary work in Lithuanian in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Inclusion of this text suggests that the Lithuanian language is treated here as equal to other languages, and like other languages capable of expressing complex ideas.

Lithuanian text in Gratulationes Serenissimo ac Potentissimo Principi Sigismundo III…

Gratulationes Serenissimo ac Potentissimo Principi Sigismundo III… (Vilnius, 1589) 5890.e.34

Interestingly, another collection of greetings dedicated to Sigismund III Vasa was published in the same year and included welcoming texts in Finnish and Swedish.

Part of court culture, ceremonial greetings were an excellent way for members of the academic community of the Vilnius Academy to show off their erudition, knowledge of rhetoric, mastery of Latin and ability to write in a variety of languages.

Ela Kucharska-Beard, Curator, Baltic Collections

References

Eugenija Ulčinaitė, Kalbų varžybos : Lietuvus Didžiosios Kunigaikštystės valdovų ir didikų sveikinimai (Vilnius, 2010), YF.2011.a.17943