Meet a museum curator in Vancouver with a passion for Italian Renaissance artefacts.
When she first set eyes on a Bella Donna (“beautiful lady”) plate, Angela Clarke, curator of Il Museo at the Italian Cultural Centre, was enraptured by its beauty. More than just a pretty face, the plates played an important role in romance and marriage during 16th-century Italian Renaissance.
An original Deruta Bella Donna plate (c.1500–1550) with its signature ruby-red and gold-lustre borders and images of famous Renaissance aristocratic women, fetches upwards of $20,000 when auctioned at Sotheby’s, Christie’s or other fine Italian auction houses.
While their hefty price and rarity have prevented Clarke from yet acquiring one for her collection, she is well versed in their historical significance. Intended as engagement or wedding gifts for lovers, the plates, she says, “celebrate the ideals of beauty and virtue,” often depicting a beautiful lady surrounded by scrolls with transcriptions such as “Duce Est Armor”, meaning “Love Is Sweet.”
A close examination of Bella Donna iconography, explains Clarke, reveals that they served a more serious social function. “The plates were a visual reminder of the qualities a young wife should strive for in marriage — rigid posture, submissiveness and a commitment towards culture and serving her family.”
Clarke recalls that her first exposure to the highly stylized plates was during a research trip to Deruta, a hilltown in the Umbria-region of Italy. The area is famous worldwide for its tin-glazed pottery, referred to as Deruta maiolica. These brightly coloured plates, trays and bowls dating from the Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries depict legend and history.
She was working then as a young researcher at UBC’s Koerner Gallery — home to one of the most exquisite collections of European ceramics in North America. Interdisciplinary studies transported her back to the allure of 15th-century Italian Renaissance, where she attempted to thread together a narrative of middle-class women. While there was no written history, Clarke discovered an enchanting world of tapestries, needlework and decorative art, including ceramics, which could provide a window into everything from dating rituals to marriage and childbirth.
“During the Renaissance period, new interest in individualism, literature, history, decorative arts, architecture and design became the concern of artists who sought to express the new philosophy,” explains Clarke.
Today, she says, Deruta maiolica can be found in private collections throughout the world, including Sweden, USA, Canada, France, Poland, Germany, Ireland, England and Australia. “Bella Donna plates were a desirable item for gentlemen to acquire while they were on the grand tour in the 18th and 19th centuries. Even William Morris, who initiated the Arts and Crafts movement, owned a few pieces of Deruta maiolica.”
Forgotten for hundreds of years, recently there’s been a resurgence of interest, and Bella Donna plates are once again highly coveted for private and museum collections.
“It has made for a fascinating search and has enabled me to learn about new museums throughout the world that I might not otherwise have been exposed to,” says Clarke, who acknowledges the excitement she feels when a Bella Donna plate shows up on the auction block.
Clarke has made a database of these plates from around the world and has discovered at least 450 of them still in existence.
“Their attrition rate amazes me. It’s astounding that these plates have survived after 500 years,” says Clarke. “It brings up the question, ‘Why they survived, why they were important, and why so many remain?’”
Born on the Prairies to parents who were both pharmacists, Clarke turned her back on medicine and chose the road less travelled, thanks to a favourite relative who encouraged her to pursue her true calling.
“Sometimes your parents want you to go one direction, but your heart pulls you another,” says Clarke, who landed her dream job in 2012 at the Italian Cultural Centre on Slocan St. in Vancouver. “My aunt was a teacher and would read me books on archaeology and ancient Egypt. My intrigue and appetite for history grew from there.”
She describes herself as the black sheep of the family, yet Clarke’s penchant for archaeology seems hardly a transgression. As her romance with the past blossomed, Angela racked up master’s degrees in history and medieval studies, and later a doctorate in philosophy from the University of British Columbia. Her own manuscript-in-progress details Italian Renaissance artefacts, with, of course, a special chapter on the Bella Donna plates.
While visitors to Vancouver’s Il Museo won’t find these treasured plates on display, they will discover a living narrative about the contributions of Italians to Vancouver and the world.
Membership in the cultural centre is on the rise; a new generation of Italian-Canadian families want their kids to learn their mother tongue and experience authentic Italian culture.
“The longer you study something, the more it becomes your culture,” says Clarke, musing that at times she feels more Italian than her own Irish-Austrian roots.
Clarke is currently developing an exhibition to open on August 25, using various forms of storytelling and media to explore the cultural divide — tradition versus modernism between generations of Italian-Canadian families. Then in November, Il Museo will feature fine artist Lilian Broca’s The Judith Mosaics — six-foot-tall mosaics made of venetian glass, as well as reproductions of her astounding mosaics on fashion scarves.
Photography by Milos Tosic