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Pi in the Museum

In honor of Pi Day, we bring you three galleries of round prints on the Art Institute's second floor! Turn right at Impressionism, and you will find all manner of roundels on the wall, made from copper plates hammered and shaped into a circular form, and engraved for printing. As rectangular plates were the norm, this installation is an unusual chance to see what Renaissance artists could do within the confines of this very particular shape. While π had only been correctly calculated as far as 3.141 in Europe until 1579, the circle was still a potent form that was often used for windows, mirrors, and jewelry. 

The first room is dedicated to fifteenth-century Northern engravings, some religious, others comically secular. One fascinating example of a traditional Morris ring dance is distorted, and may be meant to look like a convex mirror. This may only partially explain the contorted postures of the fools surrounding the comely noblewoman leading the dance. Our viewing location is also slightly suspect—if we are not part of the audience seen outside the window, surely we must be additional dancing fools.  

In the second gallery, a tiny print of the Crucifixion is an example of having your Pi and wearing it too, as the sheet was printed from a soft golden medallion intended as a hat pin or sword hilt decoration for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. The fact that the writing on the cross appears backward is an excellent hint that this precious matrix was meant to be worn, not printed. Other nearby impressions by goldsmiths turned printmakers equally test the limits of finely engraved details.

Finally, in the third gallery of designs for goldsmiths, if you look closely, you will be able to find the makings of either an apple pie or an international catastrophe. In this window on the Judgment of Paris, the Trojan prince (Paris) must bestow a golden apple on the most beautiful of three goddesses: Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera. Aphrodite, the goddess of love wins, of course. Aphrodite then offered Paris the hand of the most beautiful woman in the world and he found that too tempting to ignore. Unfortunately the woman, Helen, was already married, and in laying claim to her, Paris set off the Trojan War. We hope your Pi Day may be less eventful. 

If you've enjoyed this taste of our roundels, please come and see the other 25! They will remain on view until April 24, when we begin to install Landsknechte: Foot Soldiers of Fashion.  While it doesn't contain any roundels, it boasts pointy swords and daggers suitable for broaching any manner of pie.

Image Credits:

Israhel van Meckenem, The Morris Dancers, n.d., Engraving in black on ivory laid paper.  Clarence Buckingham Collection, 1936.174

Albrecht Dürer, Crucifixion (Round), 1519.  Engraving in black on ivory laid paper, 36 x 36 mm (sheet).  Bequest of Mrs. Potter Palmer, Jr., 1956.951

Hans Brosamer, Judgment of Paris, 1544.  Engraving in black on buff laid paper, 115 x 115 (image/plate); 134 x 129 mm (sheet), Gift of Mrs. Morris Woolf, 1941.404