Sudarium Displayed by Two Angels by Albrecht Dürer, 1513. (Courtesy Smart Museum of Art.)

Winged wonders

A young curator embraces the strange and quirky in Renaissance art.

Wings, Speed, and Cosmic Dominion in Renaissance Italy occupies a modest room just off the Smart Museum lobby. Gathering pieces from the Smart’s collection, the Oriental Institute, and the University of Chicago Library, the show explores the Renaissance fascination with wings as symbols of speed and power.

As a Mellon Foundation intern last year, curator Iva Olah, PhD’13, researched objects stored in the Smart’s collection. “One of the tasks I was given was to think about ways to cluster the objects for future shows and curators,” she says. When Olah got the unexpected chance to organize her own exhibition, she proposed wings as a theme. “To be honest, I thought there was a need to make Renaissance art history a bit more interesting, pop, or contemporary—to focus not only on religion but bring out other aspects.”

While the grand, classical style of Michelangelo often defines Renaissance art for contemporary audiences, Olah says, “There were a lot of strange and quirky things going on during the Renaissance, and it’s important to know about those too.” Drawn to “underdog” works and artists, she says, “I liked roaming around in the storage area to see pieces that were undiscovered or hadn’t been shown for a while.” When Olah discovered Madonna in a Mandorla Surrounded by Angels, an almond-shaped painting by Bernardino Fungai (1460–1516), she almost spoke to it: “You need some air, some exercise! We’re going to bring you out.”

The Wings exhibition, which runs through December 8, includes a set of panels by engraver Diana Scultori (c. 1530–1587) depicting the wedding of Cupid and Psyche. “In a lot of artist and printmaking families, women—daughters and wives—often did the artwork but they were never credited,” Olah says. Scultori was exceptional, achieving fame as her family rose to prominence and because she dedicated her works to powerful people.

Another of Olah’s favorite pieces in the show is an everyday household object: a ceramic “birth bowl” from the late 16th century. Expectant mothers and even fathers would gaze at the image of a cherubic boy painted on the underside of the bowl, hoping to ensure the birth of their own healthy male baby. During the Renaissance, explains Olah, “Most people lived in this kind of netherworld between magic, pagan beliefs, Christianity, and other religions too.” The brightly colored bowl “reflects so much about the cultural beliefs at the time," says Olah. "It’s talking to us still.”