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Diane Manuel, News Service (650) 725-1945; e-mail:

Camels and clocks featured in new art exhibition

A gilt-brass repoussť grasshopper is poised for action.

Nearby a lizard, turtle, frog, toad and several snails also stand watch under the stomach of the dromedary that towers above them. Or perhaps they're marking time.

Exotic insects and beasts of the Orient and Arabia were all the rage among members of the European aristocracy in the 16th and 17th centuries who commissioned automated figure clocks for their amusement.

"Automated Clock in the Form of a Dromedary" is one of 78 objects of medieval and Renaissance art now on display at the Cantor Arts Center.

Time can be read on the side of the camel and each day a carousel in its hump rotates one-seventh of a turn to show the day of the week. The camel's tail originally may have swung from side to side while a spring-driven music box played.

"A Renaissance Treasury: The Flagg Collection of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture" opens today, Oct. 13, and will be on display in the Pigott Family Gallery through Jan. 2.

"We see it as a wonderful opportunity to introduce this period of decorative arts to the university and the region," Bernard Barryte, chief curator, says about the exhibition that has been organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM). "What we hope will happen is that visitors will have fun looking closely at the details and ornamentation of the works ≠ and that we'll hear lots of 'oohs' and 'aahs' when they do."

Donated to MAM by Richard and Erna Flagg in 1991, the pieces recall the private collections of Renaissance princes. Barryte has juxtaposed works of high and low art, from clocks and timepieces, tablewares and vessels, to house altars, game boards and garment belts.

"Now, no one ever actually wore hats like these, but they're wonderfully fanciful," Barryte says of the helmets and turbans that adorn the gilded soldiers and pedestrians who accompany Christ's processional "Road to Calvary with St. Veronica."

The dramatic group of eight figures is part of an elaborate Late Gothic winged altarpiece, thought to have been carved in Antwerp circa 1510-20. It has been linked with changes in liturgical practices that were intended to involve the audience more directly in ceremonies and services.

In another section of the gallery Barryte points to a nesting set of cast bronze weights that were used to weigh gold currencies from the 15th to 17th centuries.

"A traveling merchant from Nuremberg would have carried them as a money-changing device, to measure the weight of unfamiliar ducats or gilders from Venice or Amsterdam, in relation to the weight of his local known German coinage," he says. "Think of it as the opposite of the Euro, at a time when cities and principalities all had their own coinage."

Visiting dignitaries and ambassadors often were given covered drinking vessels like the "Leipzig Pokal," a soaring silver gilt drinking cup that stands two feet high. The pokal was one of the most spectacular of secular treasures that were fashioned by Renaissance goldsmiths.

Renaissance princes often relaxed over games of nine men's morris, chess and backgammon, and the exhibition features a pair of ornate game boards carved of black Italian marble with scagliola inlay and ebony frames.

Secret letters and keepsakes could be tucked inside 21 compartments and hidden drawers in the "Table Cabinet with Pietra Dura" from 19th-century Italy. Decorated with ebony, lapis lazuli, tiger's eye marble, silver, tortoise shell, gilt bronze and polychrome, the multi-paneled doors are brilliantly colored and supported by Corinthian columns.

At least one secret compartment remains closed to exploring curators, however. The "Coffret with Revolving Combination Lock," a gilt-bronze and copper casket that originated in 16th-century France, has a challenging alphabetic combination. But each plaque has enough cherub heads and grotesques to entertain passersby.

"You have to marvel at how wonderfully they're made," Barryte says of a vitrine full of miniature boxes with keys. "We can identify with how they're used, but I suspect most of us don't have anything like this on our dressing table at home.

"It would be wonderful, in my opinion, if these examples of superlative craftsmanship inspired consumers to require higher aesthetic standards of the objects designed today."



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