Rare needle artwork on exhibit in Dayton, Columbus

This is the first time some of the needlework has been shown outside of England.

Those who love and appreciate extraordinary needlework will want to check out two rare art exhibits: one at the University of Dayton’s Marian Library, the other at the Columbus Museum of Art. Each features intricate needle artwork on loan from other nations that can’t be seen anywhere else in the United States.

World Embroidery Day was just celebrated on July 30 so it’s the perfect time to visit “A Vision of Art and Faith.” This show focuses on Italian artist Ezio Anichini, who lived from 1886 to 1948. Highlights of the exhibit are two intricate embroideries inspired by Anichini’s illustrations that are on loan from the Royal School of Needlework in London. In addition to this exquisite needlework, the UD show also includes a wide variety of Anichini’s other artwork –religious and secular– in the Art Nouveau style.

On display in Columbus is “‘Raphael—The Power of Renaissance Imagery: The Dresden Tapestries and their Impact.” These are huge works, believed to have been woven from painted compositions created by the Renaissance master Raphael in 1515. These paintings were templates for the Acts of the Apostles tapestries commissioned by Leo X for the Sistine Chapel. The exhibit, on loan from the Old Masters Picture Gallery at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (GAM) in Dresden, Germany, also includes 50 other artworks –drawings, prints and sculptures– that demonstrate the influence this important artwork had on generations of other artists over four centuries.

An important phone call

A couple of years ago the staff at the Marian Library received an intriguing phone call from John Shaffer, a retired director of arts programming at the State University of New York, Oswego.

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“He wanted to let us know that we had a book in our collection illustrated by an artist that no one really knew much about " recalls library director Sarah Burke Cahalan. The book was a rare copy of Ezio Anichini’s complete set of images. “They were inspired by The Litany of Loreto, a medieval prayer which lists titles of the Virgin Mary,” says Cahalan. “This prayer inspired Anichini to produce an illustration of each title, which he first published in 1912.” His illustrated version of the litany was so popular that it was reprinted multiple times.”

Shaffer, who lives in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, became captivated by Anichini’s drawing style after seeing illustrations the artist had done for the “Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri.”

Much to his surprise, Shaffer could find very little information about the artist. “What started as an effort to satisfy my curiosity quickly grew into a hobby,” he says now. " Through old Italian magazines and books, and a growing network of very helpful people, the full picture of Anichini’s remarkable career started to emerge. While his work was never sold by galleries, it was familiar to thousands of people through the popular press, postcards and posters. He sustained a career as a working artist through one of the most tumultuous periods of Italian history—including two world wars and decades of social and political upheaval.”

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Shaffer set about buying up any work of Anichini he could find. A portion of his collection is now on display at the University of Dayton. “It’s hard to pick favorites from among Anichini’s many creative efforts, but I think that his illustrations for children’s books were closest to his own heart,” Shaffer says. “His drawings for Italian editions of Hans Christian Andersen, Lewis Carroll and J. M. Barrie are stunningly beautiful.”

The icing on the cake came when Shaffer discovered that the Royal School of Needlework in London owned 12 tapestries based on Anichini’s rare book illustrations and agreed to loan two of them to Dayton.

“While they are relatively small in size, the director of the Royal School of Needlework, Susan Kay-Williams, estimates that thousands of hours of expert level hand embroidery went into the creation of the 12 framed panels that once graced the walls of an English convent,” says Cahalan. “No one knows the identity of the artisan who created them.” When the library hosted a webinar about embroideries featuring Kay-Williams, 600 people from around the world signed up. Since the exhibit opened, needle arts enthusiasts from as far away as Indiana, Kansas and West Virginia have made the trek to Dayton to see them.

One of the visitors was Mary Corbett of Kansas who runs a popular website and blog on embroidery. “These embroideries have absorbed, fascinated, and infatuated me since I first ever learned about them,” Corbett wrote on her website. “My greatest desire was to see them up close – to see the details of the pieces that you can only see in person.”

Corbett says it was satisfying to get close to the panels and see all the little details that bring these embroideries to life. “The layering of gold on top of silk embroidery, the use of bright white threads here and there to add a sense of “sparkle” and light to the pieces, the glow of the silk, the gleam of the gold – you just can’t get it all in pictures,” she wrote, adding that she could have spent hours looking over every tiny millimeter of each piece and not grown tired of what she was seeing.

Cahalan says the digital version of the 1931 book version of the Litany of Loreto, in the collection of the Marian Library, has been downloaded more than 3,200 times: https://ecommons.udayton.edu/ul_rare_books/5/

The Dresden Tapestries

The tapestries on display in Columbus depict episodes in the lives of Saints Peter and Paul. Originally intended to reinforce the authority of the papacy, they tell the story of the founding of Christianity and the spread of its message throughout the Roman Empire.

While we typically think of a “cartoon” as a humorous drawing, in art history it can also refer to a full-scale preparatory drawing for a fresco, oil painting or tapestry.

The Dresden tapestries were woven in England in the 17th century at the Mortlake Tapestry manufactory and are one of many sets said to have been woven from Raphael’s cartoons. His artwork is considered by many to rank among the most influential works in the history of Western European art. Raphael’s painted compositions are represented in the exhibition with two full-scale facsimiles, created specifically for Dresden and Columbus.

Carole Genshaft, the CMA’s curator at large, says Raphael, who only lived to age 37, was a cult figure and superstar in his day. “He was well known and well liked, not just as a painter but as an architect and as a supervisor of archeological excavations in Rome so you’ll see a lot of references to ancient art in his work. His work inspired generations of artists that followed.”

It’s estimated, Genshaft says, that the weaving of the tapestries was done by four to six men working on each loom, with as many as 15 looms in all. It might take a year and a half to produce one tapestry. “The cartoons –or copies of the cartoons –were cut into strips that were placed under the looms and served as guides for the weavers.”

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She says what’s important about the tapestries is that they were status symbols. “Tapestries were more valuable than paintings at that time and held in high esteem. They were used by religious leaders and also by royalty in castles and great estates.”

Genshaft says the designs are most amazing. “Raphael’s designs altered the development of tapestries, incorporating the illusion of real space with landscapes and architecture in the background similar to a painting. They are a departure from earlier tapestries that were filled with decorative detail. They really give us a glimpse into the High Renaissance world where art was so important both religiously and politically.”


What: “A Vision of Art and Faith: The Litany of Loreto and the Work of Ezio Anichini.”

Where: The Marian Library on the 7th floor of Roesch Library, University of Dayton

Admission: Free

When: 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays through Aug. 26. Closed Aug. 15.

Parking: If you are visiting Monday through Friday, a parking pass is required. For a free parking pass, drive through the main campus entrance on Stewart Street just east of Brown Street and follow the signs to visitor parking. Stop at the visitor center, and ask for a parking pass to Lot B, which is closest to the main entrance of the library.

For more information: www.udayton.edu

How to Go:

What: “Raphael—The Power of Renaissance Imagery: The Dresden Tapestries and their Impact”

Where: The Columbus Museum of Art, Second Floor, 480 E. Broad St., Columbus

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursday. Through Oct. 30.

Admission: $18 for adults, $9 for seniors (60+), students (18+) and children (4-17), free for members and children 3 and under. Special exhibition admission to Raphael—The Power of Renaissance Imagery: The Dresden Tapestries and their Impact is an additional $10. Admission is discounted on Thursday evenings; general admission is $5 on Thursdays from 5 to 9 p.m., and entrance to the special exhibition on Thursday evenings is $5. General admission is free for all on Sundays. If you are a member of the Dayton Art Institute, the regular museum admission will be waived.

Parking: $7.

Visit columbusmuseum.org for ticket and information on lectures and conversations presented by scholars and curators.

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