Medieval mind-blowers

Ten newly opened galleries dedicated to medieval and Renaissance art at the Victoria & Albert in London would constitute their own museum anywhere else.

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There's big, and then there are the staggeringly big new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries at London's Victoria & Albert Museum. These 10 galleries would be a museum in their own right in any other city on earth, with more than 2,000 exhibits filling their beautifully designed spaces. On one wall alone hangs the entire front elevation of Sir Paul Pindar's house, a surviving Tudor building from the Great Fire of London in 1666. Walk around the corner, and there's not just an altar from a 16th-century Italian village but the entire chapel from Santa Chiara, in Florence. The scale, the ambition, is simply incredible.

Opened in December after a seven-year, £30m refit, the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries are an absolute triumph, throwing light on what have been inaccurately called the Dark Ages. Not that the V&A's curators would ever call a period beginning with the fall of the Roman empire and ending at the High Renaissance in 1600 by such a historically dubious term. One of its main aims is to change people's perception of medieval times as a cesspit of plague, war and poverty.

And these exhibits - almost all beautifully presented and explained - highlight the exact opposite: it was also a period of blazing colour, of gold, jewels, tapestries. Of classic architecture, stunning sculpture and intricate furniture. The real triumph is that all of the objects feel real and relevant, rather than dusty museum pieces. The largest gallery actually takes on the appearance and atmosphere of a great courtyard in a renaissance palazzo. There are fountains, sculptures and a huge choir screen. Natural light pours in and, from a balcony above, you can gaze out on what the museum calls The Renaissance City. Even that balcony is from a renaissance palace: you almost expect Romeo to be below, serenading visitors.

But the new galleries also succeed in making stars of the smaller exhibits, too. In a special case is one tiny notebook which, up to this point, has been so precious it has never been publicly shown. But now everyone can see one of the five Leonardo da Vinci notebooks owned by the V&A, full of his scrawling, tiny handwriting. Next to it is a touchscreen so that grubby fingers can turn pages mere mortals cannot touch.

Just metres away sits The Luck of Edenhall. The story of this precious enamelled glass beaker is miraculous: made in Syria in the 13th century, it is thought to have been brought back to Europe as an exotic trophy by a crusader. Centuries later it was revered as a cup left behind by fairies disturbed while drinking at the Garden of Edenhall. One screamed: "If this cup should break or fall, Farewell the Luck of Edenhall." And so it was guarded more carefully than life itself.

The galleries are full of these romantic stories, and while you can stomp through centuries in an afternoon, you could just as easily spend an entire day marvelling at the biggest and best collection of Italian renaissance sculpture outside Italy. Gradually, though, a picture builds: of a time and culture that wasn't so far removed from our own after all. In that context, a huge facade of a house is just as important as a notebook or a gilded spoon: they all tell linked stories. They have religious significance, they are status symbols, they highlight the point that the inquisitive - and perhaps acquisitive - nature of man is timeless.

The exhibits may be on display in London, but somehow the galleries stand apart from England's capital. They're truly a space for and about our world, and where we've come from. And when you get home and eat dinner on a table made from flatpack furniture, using dull cutlery from a supermarket, you have to wonder: has it all been progress?