June 17, 2024

The National Portrait Gallery may make for a favored hourlong stroll but for more substantial peregrinations the Victoria and Albert Museum is pretty close to perfection. Less a proper museum than a Kunstkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, the V&A – as it’s commonly called – is an ode to Empire and a monument to the benevolent side of the Industrial Revolution. (The side that believed technology would, if not save us, at least pull us up out of the gutter.) Cherry picked from the furthest reaches of the UK’s sphere of influence, you’ll stumble on everything from medieval French tombstones and Spanish altar carvings to German stylings in wrought iron and English adventures in chased silver and blown glass. There’s an entire chancel and transept installed from a church in Perugia, majestic carpets which once graced the palace of Ottoman Sultans and the whole of the Music Room taken from the 18th century London residence of the Dukes of Norfolk. The Cast Courts, two great halls dedicated to the uniquely Victorian penchant for plaster casts, are unlike anything you’ve ever seen: yes, that’s Giovanni Pisano’s great pulpit from Pisa; yes, that’s Trajan’s Column in striking detail; yes, that’s Michelangelo’s David towering at almost 17-feet tall; and most outstanding of all, yes, that really is the late 12th century Portico de La Gloria from Santiago de Compostela. Before the internet, before photography, this was as far as many a Londoner got to seeing the treasures of antiquity and the Renaissance. Today the plaster casts are rightly viewed as stunning achievements in their own right. Despite the current fad of grave robbing claims and calls for the return of cultural patrimony, so, too, is the endless curiosity on display at the V&A.

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