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The Museo del Prado is presenting the exhibition Transparent Art. Rock crystal carving in Renaissance Milan Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Museo del Prado is presenting Transparent Art, a small-format exhibition which, in addition to being unusual in terms of subject, also offers a unique opportunity to see a type of art form largely unfamiliar to the general public: that of carving hyaline quartz or rock crystal. This was a particular speciality in 16th-century Milan, the centre for the production of extraordinary pieces based on artistic inspiration, erudition and technical expertise and which rivalled comparable works from the classical period. The artistic and material value of these objects meant that only monarchs and the highest ranks of the European aristocracy had the means to acquire them for their collections.

The Museo del Prado is presenting the exhibition Transparent Art. Rock crystal carving in Renaissance Milan

Boat-shaped vessel with foot in the form of a turtle. Milan, Annibale Fontana (1540–1587) (?). Rock crystal and enamelled gold. Milan, c. 1570 (vessel), Italy (?), c. 1570–90 (mounts). Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado.

The Museo del Prado is presenting Transparent Art, a small-format exhibition which, in addition to being unusual in terms of subject, also offers a unique opportunity to see a type of art form largely unfamiliar to the general public: that of carving hyaline quartz or rock crystal. This was a particular speciality in 16th-century Milan, the centre for the production of extraordinary pieces based on artistic inspiration, erudition and technical expertise and which rivalled comparable works from the classical period. The artistic and material value of these objects meant that only monarchs and the highest ranks of the European aristocracy had the means to acquire them for their collections.

With the aim of giving this art form the recognition that it deserves and of revealing its most significant facets to visitors to the exhibition, Room D of the Jerónimos Building will house a group of 20 pieces, all masterpieces of the highest quality and of particular importance, which fully represent the two most important workshops in the second half of the 16th century: those of the Miseroni family (including items produced in the workshop which this family also opened in Prague in order to supply Rudolf II) and the Sarachi family, in addition to two individual artists, Francesco Tortorino and Annibale Fontana. Finally, the exhibition includes works attributed to other names and three paintings, notably The Miseroni Family in their Workshop by Karel Škréta, as well as a print and two medals which together complement the objects on display.

These rock crystal objects, made in workshops in which members of a single family applied their talents to the different stages of this difficult art form, were destined to enrich the collections of the great European monarchs, among them the Holy Roman Emperors, the kings of France, dukes of Bavaria, Mantua, Tuscany and Savoy and also the Spanish monarchy, given that in 1554 Philip II assumed the duchy of Milan and patronised the leading Milanese lapidaries (stone cutters).

In order to understand the artistic context of this art form, the exhibition offers an in-depth exploration of the historical circumstances that gave rise to this facet of sculpture, while also focusing on intellectual and symbolic aspects that explain the choice of certain themes, both religious and mythological, to be seen on the works. Some of them, in the form of fantastical beats, are not the result of chance but rather of ways of seeing the world based on certain Neo-platonic ideas regarding the universe and nature, and are also influenced by the thinking of Leonardo da Vinci, whose ideas are thought to have been used to improve the design of the tools and machinery required for rock crystal carving.

Revealing the secrets and different readings involved in these unique objects is a challenging undertaking. On occasions their concept of art implies a substantial knowledge of history, philosophy and the natural sciences. Also evident is a sense of humour, while on occasions they seem to anticipate the way in which contemporary art actively involves the viewer.

These pieces also reflect a conscious response to the ideas of the Counter Reformation, which promoted art in the service of religious concepts, remote from the classical world and the sophisticated caprices that were so highly appreciated within the context of Mannerism and of which these spectacular bizzarrie (strange and marvellous things) are among the finest examples.

The present exhibition offers visitors the chance to appreciate details of the works through tablets available in the gallery thanks to the support of Samsung as a “technological collaborator” of the Museo del Prado. Also on display is a specimen of hyaline quartz (SiO2), known as “rock crystal”, allowing visitors to appreciate in its natural state the material that was transformed in the workshop.

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