Sketch of Van Gogh found in friend’s scrapbook

February 1st, 2015

A previously unknown sketch of painter Vincent van Gogh has been found in an album of drawings by his friend Emile Bernard. The album, a collection of the French artist’s sketches cut out of other books and then pasted into a used accounts ledger, has been in the archive of the Bremen Kunsthalle museum in Germany since they bought it from Bernard’s son-in-law in 1970. Even though it’s been in the museum archives for 45 years, the notebook hasn’t been published or even thoroughly researched until now because making heads or tails of it was an immense challenge. A jumbled mixture of 858 works in a variety of styles, techniques and media, the earliest sketch in the scrapbook was done when Bernard was 13 years old, the most recent when he was in his sixties.

The subject of the sketch was identified as Van Gogh by Bremen Kunsthalle curator Dorothee Hansen during research for the upcoming exhibition Emile Bernard: On the Pulse of Modernity (pdf), the first large retrospective of the artist’s work covering all stages of his output and including works by friends, collaborators and contemporaries like Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh.

Bernard’s hasty sketch captures Van Gogh in a Parisian café, probably in Montmartre. He is drinking with two women, most likely prostitutes. Van Gogh has a short beard, moustache and slightly receding hair. Most noticeable are the piercing eyes. The sketch has spontaneity, suggesting that Bernard drew it while they were out for an evening.

Van Gogh has two bottles prominently placed before him, probably of wine (it is possible that one is absinthe and the other the accompanying water, although this was normally served in a carafe). The Dutchman appears to be clutching a glass. Soon after his departure for Arles, Vincent wrote to his brother Theo: “I’m better than in Paris, and if my stomach has become terribly weak that’s a problem I picked up there, probably due mainly to the bad wine, of which I drank too much.”

Hansen identified him from his features which while roughly sketched are still recognizably comparable to van Gogh’s self-portraits. As no photographs of him as adult have survived, those self-portraits are our main visual resource for the Dutch artist’s appearance. The face, hair and intense, unsmiling expression in the sketch are very much in keeping with the self-portraits Vincent van Gogh made in the winter of 1886-7, which is when Hansen believes the sketch was made.

Bernard met Van Gogh in March of 1886 at Atelier Cormon, the Paris studio of painter Fernand Cormon who aimed to prepare his students for acceptance into the annual Paris Salon of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. This institution was on its last legs in the 1880s, pummeled by two decades of rejecting Impressionists and avant-garde works. The official Salon with its traditional realism and historical/mythological themes was far behind the times and would close in 1890, but even so cutting edge artists like Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and Bernard went to Cormon’s school for a while.

Van Gogh and Bernard became good friends. The worked and played together, painting together and hanging out in bars with cheap wine and cheaper women. Other luminaries of the era participated as well. Notes in the ledger indicate there were portraits of two other famous artist friends of Bernard’s — a profile of Pointillist Paul Signac and two caricatures of Toulouse-Lautrec — but they were removed and sold privately to collectors before the 1970 sale to the museum. The postcard-sized pen-and-ink sketch of Van Gogh, the wine and the ladies is the only one left in its original context in the scrapbook.

As small and dashed-off as it is, its importance belies its size because there are very few portraits of Van Gogh made by someone who was not Van Gogh. Six others are known:

These are a pastel by Toulouse-Lautrec; an oil painting and a sheet of sketches by the Australian artist John Russell; and sketches by Lucien Pissarro, the English artist Horace Livens and the Scottish artist Archibald Hartrick (the latter probably not done from life, but in the 1930s).

The Bernard album will be on display at the Kunsthalle exhibition starting February 7th, but it won’t be opened to the Van Gogh sketch until March 31st. Emile Bernard: On the Pulse of Modernity closes two months later on May 31st, 2015.

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British Columbia library acquires 13th c. Papal bull

January 31st, 2015

University of British Columbia history professor Richard Pollard with the Papal bull. Image by Don Erhardt.The University of British Columbia Library has acquired what may be the oldest document of its kind in Canada: a Papal bull issued by Pope Innocent IV in 1245. The ink on parchment manuscript was signed by the Pope and 13 cardinals, among them Giovanni Gaetano Orsini, recently appointed Cardinal-Deacon of the titular church of St. Nicola in Carcere and future Pope Nicholas III. Accompanying the parchment is the lead seal (bulla in Latin, which gives the decree its name) at the end of a tassel of blue ribbon and red and yellow silk cords. It’s no longer attached to the document, but it’s otherwise in excellent condition.

The bull is a beautiful document. It’s 2 by 1.8 feet in dimension and penned in a glorious hand on sheepskin or calfskin parchment.

Highlights include the first line, which boasts elongated letters referred to as litterae elongatae. Meanwhile, a circular Papal monogram called a rota (Latin for “wheel”) features a cross ­­– likely penned by the Pope himself. Every sentence ends in a particular rhythmical cadence called cursus, similar in effect to a poem.

Detail of first line. Image by Don Erhardt. Rota detail and monogram for

It was purchased last year from London antiquarian bookseller Bernard Quaritch Ltd. for $15,000 to strengthen the library’s collection of medieval manuscripts. These documents are invaluable teaching tools for the university’s English and History departments because, in addition to the information they contain, they give the students a tangible connection to the past they’re studying. Although it was in good condition when it arrived, the bull

had been stored in a folded fashion for centuries. As a result, it featured numerous thick creases that caused small gaps and tears.

Anne Lama with humidification chamber used to treat Papal bull. Image by Don Erhardt.Anne Lama, conservator at the library, previously spent a decade working at the National Archives in Paris. To address the creases, she placed the document in a humidification chamber, a rectangular structure with a Plexiglas lid that regulates moisture in order to “relax” the bull and soften its stubborn creases. “The document is like a patient,” explains Lama. “Restoration is like medicine.”

She also undertook other efforts, which included dusting, gap-filling, and drying and flattening the bull. The result is a gorgeous, golden-hued specimen. “I’m completely happy,” says Lama. “Now we can read the document without damaging it.”

You can see the difference by comparing the photographs in this post to the digitized version of the document.

Papal seal obverse. Image by Don Erhardt.The First Council of Lyons was the least attended church council yet with 150 bishops, but that sparse attendance was actually a ramification of how politically significant it was. Pope Innocent IV was on the run from Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, stupor mundi, whose troops were besieging Rome. He escaped through Liguria reaching Lyons, which was conveniently located just outside of Frederick’s territory, in December of 1244 and in the beginning of the new year called an ecumenical council for June. Although Frederick sent three representatives of his own, many of the prelates from his German and Sicilian territories were too intimidated to attend. Turmoil in the east kept many others away. In the end attendants were primarily from France and Spain.

On the agenda at this council was the dignity of the Church (the rule that cardinals had to wear red hats was first promulgated at Lyons), reconquest of the Holy Land, dealing with the Mongol Empire’s invasions of eastern and central Europe, and last but most certainly not least, addressing the conflict between papacy and empire. On July 17th, the council issued the bull Ad Apostolicae Dignitatis Apicem which excommunicated and deposed Emperor Frederick II on the grounds that he’d broken oaths he made to the Church, forcibly detained delegates on their way to an earlier council and was probably a heretic anyway, complete with a harem, eunuchs and Saracen guards.

Papal seal reverse. Image by Don Erhardt.The bull at the UBC Library was issued on July 30th, three days after the pope excommunicated and deposed the Holy Roman Emperor. It confirmed the benefices and properties of the Poor Clares in the church of Saint Michael in Trento, placing them under the direct protection of the Holy See. As minor an issue as this may seem compared to the excommunication of an emperor, it was all part of the rich tapestry of flipping Frederick the bird.

In 1027 Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II had established the Bishopric of Trent, an area roughly equivalent to the modern autonomous region of Trentino, as an ecclesiastical principality. Conrad deemed bishops less likely to cause trouble than German princes and Trentino was strategically important because two transalpine Roman roads connecting what is today southern Germany to northern Italy crossed through it. The Bishops were strong allies of the Emperor against local lords for two centuries. In 1236, Frederick II deposed the bishops and reclaimed direct imperial authority over Trento, appointing his personal friend Ezzelino III da Romano as viceroy.

Meanwhile, Abbess Palmeria of the Poor Clares had received the church of Saint Michael in Trento and its associated benefices from Bishop Gerald Oscasali in 1229. In 1237, the year after Frederick deposed the Bishop of Trent, Pope Gregory IX wrote to the secular authorities in Trento to complain about them harassing the sisters and levying taxes on donations to the convent. By placing the Saint Michael convent under the protection of the Holy See, the 1245 Papal bull was drawing yet another line in the sand between Church and State: this is ours and your laws/taxes/claims don’t apply.

As an aside, the question of donations was a thorny one from a religious perspective as well, since whether the Poor Clares could own property was a raging debate. Clare herself was still alive and not yet a saint when all this was going down. There was no Rule yet. The Clares lived according to strictures drawn up by Gregory when he was bishop. Innocent IV’s bull asserted their right to financial self-sufficiency, to possessions, one of a series of similar decisions from a number of popes that would materially alter the original brief of the mendicant orders.

 

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Ancient Siberian trepanation recreated

January 30th, 2015

A multi-disciplinary team of scientists at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, part of the Russian Academy of Science’s Siberian branch, have recreated the ancient trepanation technique of the nomadic people who inhabited the Altai region of western Siberia between the 6th and early 2nd centuries B.C. A neurosurgeon, a radiologist, anthropologists and archaeologists examined three skulls with antemortem trepanation holes excavated from grave mounds in the Altai mountains and then attempted to perform comparable surgeries using a period-accurate tool on a modern cadaver’s skull.

All three skulls were unearthed from humble graves. The grave goods and associated burial rites indicate the interred were of relatively low social status, which means at least some of the poorer Altai nomads had access to quite high level health care. The types of graves and funerary rituals are all different, suggesting the subjects came from diverse cultural groups. One of skulls was excavated from mound three at the Bikeh III burial ground. It belonged to a male between 50 and 60 years old and dates to the 5th–4th centuries B.C. A second skull, excavated from a cyst grave in Kyzyl-Dzhar IV mound two, is that of a woman who died at around 30 years of age. The last is from an undercut, timber-frame grave in Kyzyl Dzhar V mound three and is the skull of a man aged 40-45. Both date to around the 4th – 3rd centuries B.C.

Using mutli-slice computer tomography scans, researchers first examined the skulls in minute detail to identify any damage or defect that led to the surgeries and to analyze the methods and tools used by the ancient surgeons.

The skull of the 50-60 male showed no visible evidence of head trauma but rather suffered from a congenital skull deformation — a flattening of part of the occipital bone caused by an improper closing of the lambdoid suture. This was not a dangerous or painful condition at this point in his life and there’s no sign of trauma or tumors, so it’s not obvious why surgical intervention was attempted. Whatever was ailing him, it didn’t leave tell-tale signs on the cranium. The skull of the woman bears evidence of severe trauma: fractures in the right temporal bone and at the base of the middle cranial fossa, possibly caused by a fall from a height. The skull of the 40-year-old man indicates he suffered significant head trauma causing damage to his left temporal and parietal bones. That injury resulted in a hematoma — bleeding in the brain that forms a clot — which would have inflicted a variety of painful symptoms including headaches, vomiting and difficulty moving his right limbs.

Both men had pieces of their left parietal bone removed. The older gentleman’s skull has a semi-oval hole that is 45 by 52 mm (1.8 by 2 inches) at the outer perimeter with an inner hole of 22 by 34 mm (.87 by 1.34 inches). The younger fellow’s skull has a round hole that is 63 mm by 64 mm (2.5 inches) on the outside, 40 mm by 41 mm (1.6 inches) on the inside. The young woman’s skull an irregular round trepanation hole in the back of the parietal bones centered on the sagittal suture. It’s 39 mm by 36 mm (1.5 by 1.4 inches) on the outside, 23 mm by 16 mm (.9 by .6 inches) on the inside. The inner and outer measurements are a result of a two-stage process: first a larger surface layer of bone was cut out with a sharp tool leaving a thin layer of skull, then a hole was cut into the thinned out bone with short, frequent movements.

The men’s skulls both have extensive bone regrowth at the surgical sites which means they survived and went on to live for years after the operation. The woman was not so lucky. She died either during surgery or right after it, and little wonder since her surgeon did an atrocious job. The surgeons who operated on the men cut holes that were just large enough to address the problem (remove the hematoma from the younger man; possibly remove parasites from the older one) and at a safe distance from the sagittal sinus, into which all the major veins from the top of the skull open. The woman’s trepanation hole is right above the superior sagittal sinus, so it’s a fair assumption that she died from massive bleeding.

The two successful surgeries were performed with distinct finesse by knowledgable surgeons. They may have developed this knowledge independently, perhaps developed from expertise in embalming, from the fast and thorough butchering of stock and game that a nomadic existence requires or from making objects out of animal bone, a craft that was extensively practiced by the Altai nomads in the 5th century. There’s also a chance they may have had contact with western medical practices during war, trade or travel. Hippocrates wrote the treatise On Head Injuries in the 5th or early 4th century B.C. which specifically addressed the importance of avoiding the blood geyser areas of the brain when digging holes into the skull.

Since even with today’s technology scraping or cutting or grinding bone leaves particles from the tool on the bone, the team tested the new bone growth on the two men who survived the operation for material that would identify which kind of tool was used. X-ray fluorescence and mass-spectrometric analyses discovered particles of copper and tin, which means the skulls were cut with a bronze instrument. The lack of arsenic further narrows it down to stannic bronze which at the time of the burials was being used in the Minusinsk Basin. The Martyanov Museum in Minusinsk has a large collection of stannic bronze tools — knives, saws, lancets, tweezers, probes — that archaeologists have posited had a surgical purpose. Unfortunately they were not excavated in context (looters sold them to the museum in the late 19th, early 20th century), so it’s hard to pinpoint a date of manufacture.

Neurosurgeon Dr. Aleksei Krivoshapkin first tried to use one of the blades from the museum on a skull but it was too soft and couldn’t get purchase on the bone. Archaeologist Andrei Borodovsky made an experimental knife out of a brass alloy of copper, tin and zinc. That addition of zinc made for a functional skull-cutting tool that the team could test on a cadaver skull.

Here’s the most amazing part of this fascinating foray into ancient brain surgery: the operation took 28 minutes. Using a freaking brass knife and Altai cutting techniques, it took Dr. Krivoshapkin less than half an hour to make a two-inch hole in a skull. I was just reading the other day about how Cervantes’ father was a surgeon and it was seen as a low job, akin to a butcher, but look at the incredible skills that butcher heritage brought to the surgical table. I hope Cervantes Sr. was all “Yeah, that’s right. I’m an amazing butcher. You wish you could do with living tissue what I can do in 28 minutes. Haters to the left.”

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Coffin initialed “M.C.” found in Cervantes search

January 29th, 2015

The team of archaeologists and anthropologists searching for the remains of Miguel de Cervantes in the crypt of Madrid’s Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians have found fragments of a casket with the initials “M.C.” on one of the pieces. The partial casket was found in one of the niches in the north wall along with rocks and some bone fragments. The initials are formed with half-inch tacks pressed into the wood. The tacks are made of an unknown metal and are corroded to a green color.

When researchers first examined the niche with an endoscope microcamera, they saw bone material, but they appeared to be a mix of at least 10 different individuals, including the remains of at least one infant. The mixture of skeletal remains and their position at the foot of the enclosure suggested this was not a primary burial but the result of a reinterral. After the forensic team removed the bones, they recovered the fragments of the coffin.

The discovery was made on Saturday around noon. Earlier that morning the press had been allowed into the crypt to take pictures and observe the CSI-style team at work (hence this story). There was some excitement at the time when a group of researchers gathered around one of the gravesites found 4.8 meters under the floor which was outlined by a perimeter of bricks. Those remains turned out to be those of a young child under seven years of age at time of death.

It was Sunday when the team realized upon close examination of the coffin pieces that while moisture and insects had caused the coffin to fall to pieces, a significant piece from the head of the wooden casket had survived. Because sometimes in life luck happens, that piece had the initials tacked into it.

As suggestive as this find is, it doesn’t allow anything like a conclusion right now. There could have been another individual with the initials M.C. buried in the convent crypt. It could have been Cervantes’ coffin but his bones may have been lost in transit. It could be his coffin and his bones but we’ll never know because the remains are insufficient to determine identity.

The forensic anthropologists are now separating out all the bones exhumed from the niche. First the bones of children, which are easily distinguished from those of adults, will be isolated from the pile. Then the team will arrange the rest by sex and examine any adult male remains for indications that they once formed the endoskeletal structure of the great writer of the Spanish Golden Age: atrophy in the metacarpals of the left hand and bullet wounds in the chest from shots Cervantes took at the Battle of Lepanto, advanced tooth loss, kyphosis (aka, a hunchback) brought on by severe arthritis.

In addition to osteological evidence, researchers are also looking at the coffin itself to see if its consistent with the coffin that would have held Cervantes. The wood can be radiocarbon dated, or maybe even tree-ring dated if their luck holds, and textile fragments amidst the decaying organic material may be identifiable as part of the Franciscan religious habit in which Cervantes, who joined the Third Order of St. Francis shortly before his death, was buried.

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Spain planned to invade Australia with an armada

January 28th, 2015

Documents discovered in the archives of the Spanish navy reveal that Spain planned to invade the nascent British colony in Australia in the mid-1790s. Chris Maxworthy, vice president of the Australian Association for Maritime History (AAMH), found the documents detailing a plan of attack approved by King Carlos IV to fire “hot shot” cannons, cannons that fired heated balls that could set wooden ships and buildings on fire as well as blow large holes in them, on Port Jackson, modern-day Sydney Harbour.

“The plan was to attack Sydney from the Spanish colonies in South America with a fleet of 100 medium-sized boats armed with cannons and ‘hot shot’,” [Maxworthy] told The Australian Financial Review.

“The goal was the complete surrender by the British and their expulsion from the Australian land mass … The effect [of the hot shot] would be to not only impact the targets ashore but also create multiple fires in the wooden buildings of that era in Sydney, particularly if the plans occurred during the hot summer months.”

"A Direct North General View of Sydney Cove," by convict Thomas Watling, 1794Governor Arthur Phillip had established the first British colony on the continent at Port Jackson in January of 1788, 18 years after explorer James Cook landed there and named the harbour after Admiralty official Sir George Jackson. The convicts started coming right away, as the prisoner transport system to Britain’s colonies had been painfully cut off since 1776 by the Revolutionary War and subsequent independence. By 1792, there were more than 4,000 convicts populating Sydney, but since food was scarce and disease was rife, they would not have been able to put up much of a fight against a Spanish armada. Any Spanish victory would likely have been of short duration, however, as Britain had a much stronger navy and army and could have reclaimed the colony with minimal effort.

Spain’s concern was that a British colony in the Pacific would be a grave threat to the crown’s holdings in South America and the Philippines, a concern first articulated by Spanish naval officer Francisco Muñoz y San Clemente only months after the colony was founded. He reported that the convict colonists would be well positioned to act as privateers and harry Spanish shipping between the Philippines and the Americas. Once it had developed a full naval presence, the Australia colony would be able to launch a full-scale invasion of Spain’s holdings.

Alessandro Malaspina, Anonymous, ca. 1800That same year, 1788, Italian nobleman, explorer and Spanish naval officer Alessandro Malaspina and José de Bustamante y Guerra proposed a Pacific expedition modeled after Cook’s. The government approved the expedition and each man had a corvette custom-built for the voyage. It also added a stop to the expedition’s itinerary: Port Jackson, so the explorers could see first hand how valid Muñoz’s concerns were.

Bustamante and Malaspina departed from Cadiz in 1789. Over the next five years, they traveled from the east coast of South America around Cape Horn to the west coast and up north to Mexico, then detoured to Alaska on orders to search yet again for the mythical Northwest Passage. From Alaska they went back to Mexico, then west to Manila and south to Doubtful Sound on New Zealand’s South Island. In March of 1793, the expedition landed at Port Jackson where they mapped the coast and studied the local flora and fauna.

Sydney Cove, Port Jackson in the County of Cumberland, from a drawing made by Francis Fowkes in 1788Malaspina confirmed Muñoz’s impressions in his report to the crown. Port Jackson was indeed a danger to Spain’s overseas possessions because

with the greatest ease a crossing of two or three months through healthy climates, and a secure navigation, could bring to our defenceless coasts two or three thousand castaway bandits to serve interpolated with an excellent body of regular troops. It would not be surprising that in this case — the women also sharing the risks as well as the sensual pleasures of the men — the history of the invasions of the Huns and Alans in the most fertile provinces of Europe would be revived in our surprised colonies. … The pen trembles to record the image, however distant, of such disorders.

All those prostitutes, forgers and pickpockets wouldn’t just band up with the regular troops to make a formidable invasion force, but then they’d settle down and have lots of reproductive sex just like those German barbarian ancestors of the British monarch did.

Despite the trembling of his pen, Malaspina did not advocate a military response to this threat. He believed the worst case scenario could be prevented by opening trade between Chile, the Philippines and Sydney. Why fight lusty convicts when you can do business with them and make it very much in their interest not to interrupt the flow of Chilean beef and Philippine spices? Malaspina had witnessed firsthand how hard-scrabble an existence the colonists eked out. They had little livestock, pulled their own carts and plows, and rarely ate meat. Spanish products would prove addictive, he thought, and instead of spending money trying to squash the colony, the crown would profit handsomely while achieving its ultimate goal of defanging the Australian menace.

"Godoy as General" by Francisco de Goya, 1801From Port Jackson, Malaspina and Bustamante made one last stop — Tonga — before returning to Cadiz in September of 1794. King Charles IV and Manuel de Godoy, the king’s prime minister and puppet master (and probably the queen’s lover), welcomed Malaspina back, promoting him to fleet-brigadier for his efforts. The good vibes didn’t last. In late 1795 Malaspina was caught conspiring to overthrow Godoy and the next year was tried for plotting against the state. Although the trial did not result in a conviction, in April of 1796 Charles IV stripped him of his naval rank and sent him to jail in the fortress of San Antón in La Coruña, Galicia, where he remained imprisoned until 1802.

Bustamante did not share in his colleague’s disgrace. He was promoted to navy brigadier after their return and remained in the crown’s good graces. In 1795, Spain was compelled to declare war on Great Britain by its ally France. Even if Malaspina hadn’t gotten on Godoy’s shitlist, his proposal for a mercantile approach to Australia wasn’t suited to the new circumstances. Instead, in 1796 Bustamante was appointed governor of Paraguay and Commander General of the fleet of Río de la Plata, in charge of the military defense of Spain’s South American colonies, and, as we now know, a pre-emptive military attack on Port Jackson.

The archival documents show that Jose de Bustamante y Guerra, the deputy commander of the Spanish expedition, subsequently proposed an invasion of the colony to King Carlos IV and his ministers. The government sent Bustamante to a new military post at Montevideo in Uruguay and he began to build a small fleet of attack vessels.

“As the military and naval commander, Bustamante was tasked to both defend South America from an anticipated British invasion, and to take the fight to the British in the Pacific,” Mr Maxworthy said.

"Charles IV of Spain and his Family" by Goya, 1800. Ferdinand and his resolute gaze are on the left in the blue suit.Although Spain remained a French ally and enemy of Britain until the Battle of Trafalgar turned the tide on October 21st, 1805, neither side ever did get around to invading each others’ colonies. When Godoy switched allegiance to Great Britain after Trafalgar and then back to France after Napoleon’s defeat of Prussia in 1807, it made King Charles IV look like even more of a weakling than everyone (including court painter Francisco de Goya who consistently depicted him as a rotund, confused country squire better suited to hunting than absolute rule) already thought he was.

Charles’ son Ferdinand favored an alliance with Britain and after one attempted coup by the Crown Prince and several riots by his supporters, on March 19th, 1808, King Carlos IV abdicated in favor of his son who became King Ferdinand VII.

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Samuel Morse the artist

January 27th, 2015

Before Samuel Morse developed the code that bears his name and patented the electromagnetic telegraph, he was a painter and a successful one at that. His teacher, Washington Allston, known today primarily for his Romantic landscapes, took the 20-year-old Samuel to study painting in England in 1811. In London he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Arts where instruction was focused on copying the works of the Renaissance Old Masters, drawing casts of ancient sculptures and live figure drawing. Morse’s works from this period were heavily influenced by the likes of Michelangelo and Raphael and were often mythological in theme, like 1812′s Dying Hercules.

Morse and Allston spent four years in England as the War of 1812 raged. When Morse returned to the United States in 1815, he made a name for himself as a portrait painter, receiving commissions from wealthy socialites and dignitaries like former President John Adams and Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette. He hit the road again in 1830, traveling through Italy, Switzerland and France to learn from observing the original works of the Old Masters he had studied copies of in London.

When he was in Paris in September of 1831, Morse conceived a monumental painting of the Salon Carré in the Louvre that would include dozens of the museum’s masterpieces. The works aren’t actually arranged in the one room when he painted them; this was a gallery picture, a fantasy arrangement of art in a single scene. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre is the only major example of a gallery picture in American art history.

He squeezed 38 paintings and two sculptures from the Louvre collection into the six-by-nine-foot canvas, plus additional figures of museum visitors and copyists. Anthony Van Dyck and Titian have the most works on display with four apiece. Other artists represented are Tintoretto, Veronese, Leonardo da Vinci, Rubens, Poussin, Raphael, Rembrandt, Reni, Watteau, Correggio and Caravaggio. Click here (pdf) for a complete key to all the works and people in the painting.

He worked assiduously between September of 1831 and August of 1832 to copy the works he wished to include, some of which were positioned high on the walls. He built a moveable scaffold and lugged it around the vast halls of the Louvre so he could be at eye level with his subjects. Morse painting on his scaffold became something of a tourist draw in its own right. He also had to do a fair amount of math in composing this work. He had to calculate the proper scale and to figure out how they should be arranged on the canvas.

Then he had to put shoutouts to his people among the visitors. The trio in the back left corner are Morse’s good friend James Fenimore Cooper (who he hoped would buy the completed work) and Cooper’s wife and daughter. The woman sketching an art work in the center of the composition is Morse’s daughter, Susan Walker Morse. The man behind her giving her pointers is Morse himself. That sweet scene was symbolic of his purpose in creating this piece: to teach American artists and audiences about the important works of European art. He was also underscoring the value of a great public museum of art to artists and regular people, an institution that the United States lacked.

(Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts was founded in 1805 by artist and collector Charles Willson Peale, among others, but its collection at the time was casts of ancient sculptures. Coincidentally, the first major acquisition of the museum was a work by none other than Washington Allston: his monumental 1816 work The Dead Man Restored to Life by Touching the Bones of the Prophet Elisha. They had to mortgage the building to buy it.

The first public art museum in the United States was the Wadsworth Atheneum, founded in 1842 by Daniel Wadsworth, a great patrons of the arts, who seeded the new museum with many works from his personal collection.)

When the Louvre closed its doors for its yearly August vacation, Morse rolled up the canvas and packed it until his return to the United States in late 1832. He applied the finishing touches to the painting in late 1833 and exhibited the finished work in New York and New Haven. Morse hoped it would be a sensation, drawing huge crowds to pay the price of admission and securing him a much-desired commission for a painting in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. It was not. The exhibitions lost money, and within a few years Morse had given up painting to focus on the telegraph.

It was purchased for much less than Morse had hoped in 1834 by George Hyde Clarke for his neoclassical mansion Hyde Hall in Ostego County, New York. After Clarke’s death, Gallery of the Louvre was purchased by former mayor of Albany John Townsend. From him it passed to his daughter Julia Townsend Munroe of Syracuse, New York. She loaned it to Syracuse University in 1884 and then donated it to the university in 1892. Ninety years later, Morse’s dream finally came true. Chicago businessman, art collector and founder of the Terra Foundation for American Art museum, Daniel J. Terra, Ronald Reagan’s Ambassador at Large for Cultural Affairs, bought Gallery of the Louvre from Syracuse University for $3.25 million, at that time the highest price ever paid for a piece of American art. It’s been at the Terra Foundation ever since.

In 2010 Gallery of the Louvre underwent a six-month conservation by experts in American painting restoration Lance Mayer and Gay Myers. They discovered that Morse was as inventive in his painting as he was in communication technology, sometimes to their chagrin. He mixed varnish and oil paint together instead of painting with oils and then sealing the canvas with varnish. This was problematic for the conservators because varnish discolors. When it’s a layer on top of the paint, it can be removed with appropriate solvents that won’t damage the oil paint beneath. When conservators did a solvent test on Gallery of the Louvre, they found that all of them damaged the combined varnish and paint.

The Terra Foundation documented the conservation with a video, A New Look: Samuel F. B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre”, which is not available online in its entirety but there are six clips from it below.

The conservation was successful, bringing out details that had become obscured over time. After it was complete, the painting was subject of three symposia — at the Yale University Art Gallery in April of 2011, the National Gallery in April of 2012 and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in April of 2013 — which generated scholarly essays on the work by art historians, professors, curators and conservators. Those essays have been published in a book that is a companion piece to a new traveling exhibition of the painting, Samuel F. B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre and the Art of Invention.

The exhibition opened Saturday at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. It will be there until April before moving on to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas (May 23rd, 2015 – September 7th, 2015), the Seattle Art Museum (September 22nd, 2015 – January 10th, 2016), the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas (January 2016 – April 2016), the Detroit Institute of Arts (June 2016 – September 2016), the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts (October 2016 – January 2017), the Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (February 2017 – June 2017), the New Britain Museum of American Art in New Britain, Connecticut (June 2017 – October 2017), and finally the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University in Stanford, California (November 2017 – January 2018).

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Were Cervantes’ bones under piles of old books?

January 26th, 2015

Last April, the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in Madrid, burial place of Miguel de Cervantes, author of The Adventures of the Ingenious Nobleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, one the most important books in the Western literary canon, was scanned with ground-penetrating radar in the first phase of a search for the iconic writer’s body. Cervantes was buried in the convent in 1616, and while the location of the grave was known at the time, when the convent was enlarged in 1673 the burials were left unmarked. Hoping to be able to provide a memorial marker worthy of Spain’s greatest writer and a locus for literary pilgrims to pay their respects, historian Fernando de Prado raised funds from the city of Madrid and private donors to sweep the convent for possible burial sites.

The initial GPR sweeps detected anomalies consistent with graves in three spots in the crypt under the transept of the convent church. Historical records indicate there were at least two other people buried in the same area where Cervantes was interred, making the discovery of three graves particularly noteworthy. In a poetic twist, the space had been rented to a publishing company for years, so before the team could examine it they had to remove piles of old books and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

Now a team of archaeologists and forensic anthropologists has broken ground in the crypt. The small crypt has been turned into a lab for the time being, with up to 20 experts working in it at the same time (there are 30 people in the team). They will examine the human skeletal remains for evidence that points to Cervantes.

Because Cervantes has no living descendants, even if DNA is recoverable from the skeletal remains, comparisons will be tricky if not impossible. His sister Luisa de Cervantes was buried in a marked grave in a convent 20 miles out of Madrid so there’s a chance her remains might provide a means for comparative DNA analysis, but there’s no guarantee the convent will allow her bones to be exhumed and even if it does, there’s no guarantee a testable sample of 400-year-old DNA can be extracted.

Researchers will most likely have to rely on physical evidence like the marks of wounds he received while fighting aboard the galley Marquesa during the Battle of Lepanto on October 7th, 1571. He was shot twice in the chest and once in the left arm. The bullet to his arm broke both radius and ulna and severed a nerve. He was a young man of 24 when he was wounded; he never used his left hand again. Should they find a left arm bearing signs of having been shot, broken and atrophied from 45 years of disuse, this will be strong evidence that they’ve found the remains of the author.

Cervantes asked to be buried in the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians because he had a profound connection to them. The convent’s order, the Order of the Most Holy Trinity for the Redemption of the Captives, was founded in the 12th century to help ransom Christians taken captive during the crusades or by non-Christian pirates. When Cervantes and his younger brother were captured by Algerian pirates in 1575, the Order of the Most Holy Trinity helped his family raise the ransom to free them after five years of slavery in Algiers.

Since the convent was a small, poor one, few people chose to be buried there. Cervantes’ debt of gratitude to the order inspired his choice. Given the small number of burials, what are the odds there will be the remains of a completely different person, also an adult male of around 70 years old at time of death, with the same injuries? Last year the figures bandied about were a dozen to 15 people buried in the convent, but the crypt has about 36 burial niches in the wall. That corresponds to the number of chaplains the convent has had over the centuries before the niches in the north wall were plastered over. The thin layer of plaster, already peeling, will be removed. Any writing on the niche doors identifying who was buried there will be documented and endoscopic cameras will be threaded through holes to examine the remains.

The real hope is in the three grave sites under the terracotta tile floor, but if they prove fruitless, there are four other possible locations about two meters under the floor of the church that the GPR sweep indicated as possible grave sites.

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Mons Meg leaves Edinburgh Castle for tune-up

January 25th, 2015

Mons Meg lifted by crane from Edinburgh CastleMons Meg, the six-ton 15th century cannon that guards the parapets of Edinburgh Castle, has left her post for the first time in 30 years. Before dawn on Monday, January 19th, a crew of specialists strapped Meg up so she could be gingerly lifted out of her carriage by a crane, loaded onto a flatbed truck and transported to an off-site facility where Historic Scotland experts will give her a thorough examination and do necessary conservation work. The oak and iron carriage that has been supporting her since 1934 also went along for the ride.

Here’s a neat timelapse of Mons Meg being lifted off her carriage while dawn breaks:

Richard Welander, Head of Collections for Historic Scotland said: “Mons Meg undergoes regular ‘health checks’ each year and is lifted off its carriage every five years for a closer inspection.

“This time it’s getting a major service, which means it must leave the castle for the first time for 30 years. The last time Mons Meg left was in March 1985, when she went to the Royal Armouries research establishment in Kent for a short technical examination.

“We’ll be using state-of-the-art equipment to examine the cannon and carriage inside and out, to assess their condition. Then we’ll commence with treatment and restoration, which is a delicate and specialist task.”

Mons Meg lifted off her carriageThere have been a great many technological advances since the last time Mons Meg got the full treatment. Historic Scotland conservators will laser-scan the cannon and create a 3D model to reveal issues not visible to the naked eye. The current paint will be stripped using a pressure wash system and bead blasting. That will expose the iron surface for proper conservation. Once Meg is cleaned and dried, she will be re-coated in protective paint.

Historic Scotland is hoping their conservation analysis will also shed some light on the history of the cannon. Much legend has grown up around her over the centuries, so this is an exciting opportunity to fill in a few blanks. Mons Meg was made in 1449 for Phillip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, to present as a gift to King James II of Scotland, Phillip’s grand-nephew by marriage. (James’ queen consort was Mary of Guelders, daughter of Catherine of Cleves, whose mother Marie of Burgundy was Phillip’s elder sister.) It was constructed by Phillip’s artillery master Jehan Cambier in Mons, County of Hainaut (modern-day Belgium), out of iron staves clamped together by iron hoops. Its massive 20-inch barrel, still one of the largest cannon calibre in the world, could fire 330-pound balls up to two miles.

James II took delivery of Mons Meg, known at the time just by variants of “Mons,” in 1454. Sixteen years later, he had the giant cannon transported 50 miles south to aid in the siege of Roxburgh Castle, one of the last remaining English strongholds in Scotland. The Scottish forces were successful — they ultimately took the castle once and for all — but James was killed in action when one of his own bombards (not Meg) exploded. His wife Mary ordered Roxburgh Castle razed.

Print of Mons Meg in 1681 from the "Domestic Annals of Scotland" by Robert ChambersThe records of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland note an expenditure of 18 shillings on July 10th, 1489, to have “Monss” carried by command of King James IV, James II’s grandson, to besiege Dumbarton. There James IV deployed Meg’s might against an insurrection led by Matthew Stewart, Earl of Lennox, and Robert Lyle, Lord Lyle. That venture was less successful. The siege was broken by a negotiated surrender of the rebellious lords on condition that a new Parliament be convened.

James used Mons Meg again in 1497 at the siege of Norham Castle in northern England. Meg did her part — the castle took a lot of damage — but the two-week siege ended when English reinforcements arrived.

Meg was kept in fighting condition for a few more decades. Her last military service was in James V’s navy, after which, from the 1540s or so, she was retired from active engagement but was fired on important ceremonial occasions like the signing of the treaty of marriage between five-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots, and three-year-old Francis, Dauphin of France, in July 1558. She was fired for the last time on October 14th, 1681. Here’s a description of the event from the Domestic Annals of Scotland (1859) by Robert Chambers. The quote within the quote is from Historical Notices of Scottish Affairs (1848) by Sir John Lauder of Fountainhall.

The Duke of York paying a visit to the Castle of Edinburgh, the huge cannon called Mons Meg was fired in his honour. The charge, which was done by an English cannoneer, had probably been too large, for it caused the piece to burst. This “some foolishly called a bad omen. The Scots resented it extremely, thinking the Englishman might of malice have done it purposely, they having no cannon in all England so big as she.”

I am trying really hard not to snicker at the obvious phallic competition inherent in this struggle. Trying and failing.

Mons Meg's burst hoop still visible just ahead of back wheelWith the burst hoop exposing her internal staves, Mons Meg could never be fired again. She still starred in several tugs of war between England and Scotland, though. In the wake of the Jacobite rebellion, in 1754 Mons Meg, now rusted, busted and sitting on the ground without even the dignity of a carriage, was confiscated along with other weapons to keep them out of reach of potential rebels. She was moved to the Tower of London, but she didn’t go quietly. The Tower records list a demand for compensation from the owner of the ship that brought her to London for damage to the vessel and mooring rope.

In 1829, George IV had Mons Meg returned to Edinburgh as a result of a campaign by Sir Walter Scott and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Scott believed fervently in a legendary Galloway origin story for Mons Meg.

When James the Second arrived with an army at Carlingwark, to besiege the Castle of Threave, the McLellans presented him with the piece of ordnance now called ‘Mons Meg.’ The first discharge of this great gun is said to have consisted of a peck of powder and a granite ball nearly as heavy as a Galloway cow. This ball is believed, in its course through the Castle of Threave, to have carried away the hand of Margaret de Douglas, commonly called the Fair Maid of Galloway, as she sat at table with her lord, and was in the act of raising the wine-cup to her lips. Old people still maintain that the vengeance of God was thereby evidently manifested, in destroying the hand which had been given in wedlock to two brothers, and that even while the lawful spouse of the first was alive.

Even without having amputated Margaret de Douglas’ hand, Mons Meg was and is still beloved. She was escorted back to Edinburgh Castle in 1829 by three cavalry troops and a regiment of foot, and remains today a great favorite with visitors to Edinburgh Castle.

The conservation is expected to be complete and Mons Meg back in place outside St. Margaret’s Chapel by the end of February.

 

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Tut’s beard glued back on like a bad craft project

January 24th, 2015

Tutankhamun funerary mask before beard glue debacleThe AP reported on Thursday that the false beard on the gold funerary mask of Tutankhamun, probably the single most recognizable ancient artifact in the world, had come off and was reattached with a sloppy mess of irreversible epoxy glue. Cited in the article are three conservators at the Cairo Museum, all unnamed due to fear of reprisals, who had different stories about what happened to the beard — it was either knocked off when the mask was mishandled during cleaning of the display case or deliberately taken off because it was loose — but agreed that it was reattached hastily with epoxy.

By their accounts, museum officials ordered the beard reattached as quickly as possible because obviously it’s a massive tourist draw and they didn’t want it taken off display for any length of time. Epoxy dries almost instantly while a cautious conservation approach would use an adhesive that dries slowly over the course of at least 24 hours so adjustments could be made if necessary. It would also be reversible to allow future conservators to remove it if necessary without damage to the artifact.

“Unfortunately he used a very irreversible material — epoxy has a very high property for attaching and is used on metal or stone but I think it wasn’t suitable for an outstanding object like Tutankhamun’s golden mask,” one conservator said.

“The mask should have been taken to the conservation lab but they were in a rush to get it displayed quickly again and used this quick drying, irreversible material,” the conservator added.

The conservator said there is now a visible gap between the face and the beard. “Now you can see a layer of transparent yellow.”

There are also visible scratches. A conservator says he witnessed a colleague scrape dried epoxy from the mask with a spatula leaving scratches on the gold. Steel yourself for the picture.

Detail of epoxy layer used to reattach beard, image courtesy Al-Araby Al-Jadeed

The AP secured a photograph from a tourist named Jacqueline Rodriguez who was at the museum on August 12th, 2014, and took a picture of a museum worker holding the beard in place waiting for the glue to set.

Jacqueline Rodriguez's photograph of man gluing the beard on Tut's funerary mask on August 12th, 2014The director of the Egyptian Museum Mahmoud Halwagy denied that there had been an accident damaging the mask, but it was a very weak, CYA denial that “no damage had occurred to the mask since he took over leadership of the museum last October.” He did admit that the thick, gross layer of epoxy is “very visible” (making sure to note that it could have been applied before his arrival) and that he has a committee of experts working on a report.

Qatari news site Al-Araby Al-Jadeed has a different take on the disaster that it published on the same day as the AP’s story. I suspect they were the first to break the news because they have boots on the ground, so to speak. (Before the AP, that is. There were rumblings in the Egyptian press as early as November that conservators had sent a memo to the Antiquities Minister demanding “immediate investigations regarding the odd appearance of the mask after the restoration work it encountered in August.”) They sent reporters to the museum on a tip about the botched repair. Al-Araby reporters found the lighting in the room unusually dim but they were able to detect despite the penumbra that there was a thick line of glue visible and scratches on the left side of the mask. Their sources told them that the mask was damaged during cleaning in October, not August, and that the beard was reattached in the conservation lab, not in front of visitors.

Here’s the worst part:

Photograph of the funerary mask taken January 23, 2015, by AFP photographer Mohamed El-Shahed“After the expert restorer Abd al-Latif glued on the false beard it was obvious that it no longer appeared the same. The adhesive had spread to the sides of the mask and it was clear that there was further damage,” the witness said.

“A couple of weeks later the adhesive on the mask was noticed and a number of curators complained about what had been done.

“So the head of the conservation department removed the glass display case, with the approval of the museum director, and removed the epoxy resin from the sides by using a metal scalpel. This is what scratched the mask.”

The source says that after this, the museum director Mahmoud al-Halwagi ordered the lights in the mask room to be dimmed.

Halwagy denied to Al-Araby that the mask was ever damaged. He blames disgruntled employees angry over a department shakeup for making up stories. When Al-Araby pointed out they have a picture of the beard looking like it was glued on by kindergarteners, Egyptian antiquities department head Yusuf Khalifa said that could have been a picture of a replica, a deception perpetrated by biased sources.

Twitter abounds with satirical memes on the beard; this is a "Conservation Manual"Not surprisingly, the story exploded on social media. Most of the reactions are outrage at the shoddy work, but Al-Araby is seen by some as having a pro-Muslim Brotherhood bias, so neither its story nor the AP’s are considered reliable by pro-government Egyptians on Twitter and Facebook. Monica Hanna, an archaeologist with Egypt’s Heritage Task Force, went to see the mask in person and is mad as hell. Her Twitter account is very much worth following to keep abreast of the developments.

Hanna told the AFP that Egypt’s Heritage Task Force is going to file a complaint with the public prosecutor. There’s a law in Egypt against destruction, damage, defacement or alteration of antiquities. Anyone convicted of taking part in such activities will be sentenced to five to seven years in jail and fined between 3,000 ($400) and 50,000 ($6,700) Egyptian pounds.

Front view of glued-on beard, taken January 23, 2015, by AFP photographer Mohamed El-ShahedSo that’s where things stand as of now. The Antiquities Minister is apparently planning an urgent press conference to address the situation, although I’d be stunned if any actual information, as opposed to denials and justifications, came from it.

Finally, after reading/viewing a metric ton of news about this debacle, I am compelled to dedicate special opprobrium to CNN for this absurdity of a report. The laughter, fixed smiles, the omg-aren’t-word-stumbles-hilarious digression and the ridiculous and offensive comparison of a cultural patrimony calamity to a viral joke make me want to outspit a llama.

 

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Roman Silenus bed fitting found in Denmark

January 23rd, 2015

Bronze Silenus found on Falster, 1st c. A.D.A metal detectorist has discovered a bronze figure of Silenus on the island of Falster in southeastern Denmark. When she first unearthed the bust of a togate, bearded figure, the metal detectorist thought it was a modern piece because it was so finely crafted and in such good condition. It wasn’t until she showed it to experts at the National Museum of Denmark that it was properly identified as a Roman bronze from the 1st century A.D.

The figure is small at just 4.5 centimeters (1.8 inches) high and depicts Silenus, the tutor and boon companion of Bacchus. Silenus is portrayed as an old man, bald and bearded, with thick lips and a squashed nose. He is the wisest of the god’s followers and, appropriately, also the drunkest, so drunk that he is usually shown riding a mule or being supported by satyrs.

Pair of bronze fulcra, 1st c. A.D., British MuseumThe Romans often used Bacchic themes in their dining room decoration and this Silenus was originally part of a lectus, the couch or bed on which diners reclined. Lecti had s-shaped headrest supports called fulcra (plural for fulcrum) on both sides. Usually made of bronze, fulcra were richly decorated, inlaid with precious metals and/or ivory. Each end of the fulcrum culminated in a sculpted figure. Satyrs and sileni were popular for one end, while the other end was often topped with the head of a donkey or mule, a reference to Silenus’ preferred form of transportation. The British Museum has a beautiful pair of intact fulcra with satyrs and mules on the ends. You can see how the Falster Silenus’ turned position matches the satyrs’.

Originating in Greece, the lectus reached its peak of popularity in the early Roman Empire. No wealthy person’s triclinium (dining room) was complete without three lecti arranged in a U shape at right angles to each other. In fact, the “tri” in triclinium is a reference to the three lecti. The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore has a complete set of bronze lectus fittings from the late Republic, early Empire that they have put together with modern wood elements so you can see the architecture of the frame. In its day, it would have been topped with a mattress and sumptuous textiles and cushions.

Roman lectus, 1st c. B.C., Walters Art MuseumThese furnishings were expensive, highly prized pieces, so much so that they would sometimes be buried with their owners. That’s unlikely to have been the case with the Falster Silenus. It probably was separated from its bed long before it wound its way into the soil of Denmark. The Roman furniture fittings that have been discovered in Denmark thus far appear to have been individual objects rather than part of a larger piece, brought to the area as art works or war booty.

The number of Roman finds in the Danish islands south of Zealand may indicate an active trade network moving goods from southern Europe to Denmark, and there is some documentary support for contact during the early empire. In a passage from the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, an autobiographical summary written by Augustus during his lifetime for use on funerary inscriptions after his death, he dispatched ships to the peninsula of Jutland and established friendly relations with the locals.

My fleet sailed from the mouth of the Rhine eastward as far as the lands of the Cimbri to which, up to that time, no Roman had ever penetrated either by land or by sea, and the Cimbri and Charydes and Semnones and other peoples of the Germans of that same region through their envoys sought my friendship and that of the Roman people.

Fulcrum fittings weren’t a big part of that friendship, though. This is the first one that has ever been found in Denmark.

 

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