Archive for the ‘Ex Cathedra’ Category

Getty acquires gems of ancient intaglio collection

Monday, May 13th, 2019

Intaglios are gems, miniature designs intricately carved on gemstones, but the 17 acquired by the Getty Museum at auction two weeks ago are gems among gems. That’s why those 17 pieces, many of them not even an inch long, cost the Getty just shy of $8 million, $7,939,250, to be precise.

The entire sale of 40 Roman, Greek, Etruscan and Greco-Persian intaglio and cameo gemstones at Christie’s on April 29th raked in $10,640,500. Obviously the Getty with its bottomless pit of cash picked the choicest ones, but they weren’t the only players in this game because the hammer prices went far beyond pre-sale estimates. A Greek Mottled Yellow Jasper Scaraboid with a Grasshopper from the Classical Period (ca. late 5th century B.C.), for example, was estimated to sell for $30,000-50,000. It sold for $519,000. A Roman Amethyst Ringstone with a Portrait of Demosthenes signed by Dioskourides, gem engraver to the Emperor Augustus, was estimated to sell for $200,000-300,000. The Getty dropped $1,575,000 on it.

The tradition of ancient carved gems was born from the seals and cylinders of Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago. They were sigils, used to make imprints into wet clay to sign official documents. From there they spread throughout Greece, Egypt and Persia and the Levant. Over the centuries they came to hold religious significance as well, carved with images of deities and mythological heroes, worn as amulets and consecrated to temples as votive offerings.

In the Greek Classical Period, the engraving became finer wrought and more detailed. The quality and variety of available stones took a great leap forward during the 3rd century B.C. thanks to Alexander the Great’s conquests. (You’d think, therefore, that there would be more than one gemstone carved with a bust of Alexander, but only one is known to survive.) While still used to create impressions, carved gemstones became primarily fashionable adornments at this time, jewels of high craftsmanship and expensive materials.

Intaglios, in which the designs are cut into the surface of a stone, are the direct descendants of the signet tradition. The other form of ancient gem engraving, cameo, is its positive, a relief created by carving away the stone around it, the stone version of the clay bullae stamped from seals. Most of them were mounted onto rings in settings of precious metals. Larger pieces were used as pendants or perhaps brooches.

Romans continued the Hellenistic tradition of carved gemstones, introducing a new material: glass, from which cameos could be cut with advanced knowledge of what layers of color would emerge, unlike the beautiful crapshoot of carving agates and chalcedonies.

The craft declined and fell along with the empire, but the beauty of the stones ensured they were prized whenever they were discovered. In the Middle Ages they were mounted on religious objects, an inadvertent return to one of their more ancient functions. The revival of Classical art in the Renaissance drove a new interest in ancient intaglios and cameos. The wealthy collected them, sometimes remounting them into new pieces of jewelry. Come the Grand Tour in the 17th century, portable, glamorous engraved gemstones became de rigeur features of the most elegant and aristocratic cabinets of curiosities.

As an art dealer to European royalty and English Grand Tourist aristocrats, Count Antonio Maria Zanetti, amassed a great collection of carved gemstones, ancient and modern, and published a thorough catalogue of his pieces. His most beloved stone was a portrait of Antinous. Mirroring Hadrian’s fiery affection for his favorite, Zanetti pursued this one black chalcedony intaglio with unmatched passion. For 23 years he tried to get his hands on it. He said he would have sold his house to buy it. By 1740, he had succeeded (and kept his house). He sold it shortly before his death in 1767 to George Spencer, 4th Duke of Marlborough, who assembled a great collection of 780 engraved gemstones during his lifetime.

In this century, Roman art dealer Giorgio Sangiorgi acquired some of the finest ancient carved gemstones known, including the Marlborough Antinous. He carefully curated his collection, selecting exceptional examples from earlier dispersed collections like George Spencer’s. Most of them he bought before World War II, and while the collection has been in Switzerland since the 1950s, has never been on public view and wasn’t published until last year, the ownership history of every gem is beyond impeccable, stretching back centuries.

Little wonder the Getty jumped on these tiny masterpieces to the tune of eight million dollars.

“The acquisition of these gems brings into the Getty’s collection some of the greatest and most famous of all classical gems, most notably the portraits of Antinous and Demosthenes,” explains Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “But the group also includes many lesser-known works of exceptional skill and beauty that together raise the status of our collection to a new level. Two such are the image of three swans on a Bronze Age seal from Crete, which has an elegance and charm transcending its early date (c. 1600 B.C.); and the image of the semi-divine Perseus, a marvel of minute naturalism that cannot fail to enthrall. This acquisition represents the most important enhancement to the Getty Villa’s collection in over a decade.”

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Breton village offers reward to decipher mysterious stone inscription

Sunday, May 12th, 2019

The village of Plougastel-Daoulas in Brittany is sending out an appeal to linguists, cryptographers, students, scholars and puzzlers of all stripes to decipher a mysterious inscription carved onto a boulder centuries ago, and they’re willing to put money on it.

The inscription begins “grocar drear diozeevbio” and more text follows — “roc ar b,” “dre ar grio se eveloh ar viriones baoavel,” “r i obbiie:brisbvilar” — none of it in any recognized language.

“This inscription is a mystery and it is for this that we are launching the appeal,” said Veronique Martin, who is spearheading the search for a code-cracker.

The rock, which is around the size of a person, is accessed via a path from the hamlet of Illien ar Gwenn just to the north of Corbeau point.

The inscription fills the entirety of one of its sides and is mainly in capital letters but there are also pictures including a sailing boat. There are two dates, 1786 and 1787.

“These dates correspond more or less to the years that various artillery batteries that protected Brest and notably Corbeau Fort which is right next to it,” she said.

The rock is bathed by the sea. The image of the sailboat is so close to the foot of the rock that the waters touch it at high tide.

The only known part of the inscription is a relatively recent addition: the date 1920, engraved by a Russian soldier garrisoned there during World War I. Just in case there might be a link between this and the rest of the inscription, linguists in Russia were contacted but to no avail. It’s not a Cyrillic language/dialect and Russian does not appear to have anything to do with it.

The Champollion Mystery of Plougastel-Daoulas, named after the French Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion who translated the hieroglyphic inscription on the Rosetta Stone, runs through the end of November 2019. All submissions, analyses and research reports, will be analyzed by a jury of academics and a representative from Brittany’s archaeology department. The most plausible entry will receive a €2,000 award.

The municipality has already received more than a thousand emails. If you’d like to try your hand at solving this riddle, email veronique.martin@mairie-plougastel.fr .

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Rare sea croc fossil found in Denmark

Friday, May 10th, 2019

The white chalk cliffs of Stevns Klint on the Danish island of Zealand are geological marvels, one of the best exposed Cretaceous-Tertiary boundaries in the world, complete with a visible record of the ash cloud created when the Chicxulub meteorite crashed off the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula 65 million years ago and caused the greatest mass extinction of all time. A thin grey line of clay divides the white chalk at the bottom from the line above it; it is a literal boundary line marking the end of the Cretaceous.

The cliffs are replete with fossils documenting plant and animal life before the meteorite and their recovery afterwards. Many are embedded in the cliff face and the constant erosion makes it a very productive site for fossil hunters.

Amateur geologist Peter Bennicke has made several important finds there, most recently two teeth and two armour plates from a 66-million-year-old crocodilian. The plates, also known as osteoderms, are sheets of bone under the skin of crocodiles that are coated with horn-like material. They’re what give crocodiles that armor-like plating down their back and sides.

“The patterns in the armour plates vary among different types of crocodiles, but along with the two long and slender teeth we can confidently deduce that the crocodile is of the Thoracosaurus genus, which was the most prevalent sea crocodile of the time – just about the end of the Cretaceous period and the beginning of the Tertiary period,” said Jesper Milan, a museum curator with Geomuseum Faxe.

Thoracosaurus survived the mass extinction rather well, living long into the Danian era. They had long, slender jaws with curved teeth which worked with deadly efficiency at catching fish. Their fossils have been found far from the coastlines of their era, indicating that they were strong swimmers who hunted their prey far from land.

Jesper Milan notes that only a few loose Thoracosaurus teeth from the end of the Cretaceous have been found in Denmark before. The discovery of teeth and plates from a specimen on the other side of the boundary is of greater importance than their modest dimensions might suggest because they fill an important gap in the fossil record.

The fossils will go on display at the Geomuseum Faxe later this year.

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Leonardo’s St Jerome coming to US

Tuesday, April 30th, 2019

St. Jerome Praying in the Wilderness by Leonardo da Vinci is coming to the US in July. It will go on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the master’s death. The  painting is part of the Vatican Museum’s collection, which, inconceivably vast though it is, only has this one painting by Leonardo da Vinci. As a matter of fact, it is the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in Rome. It is also one of maybe a half-dozen paintings whose attribution to Leonardo da Vinci has never been in doubt.

Four of the 15 or so surviving Leonardo paintings are incomplete, and St. Jerome is one of the four. The lion is still a drawn outline, as are Jerome’s foot, his robe draped on the ground, left hand, outstretched right arm holding a stone, one of his attributes, with which he will beat his chest. A church in the upper right of the panel is also a rough outline.

The painting represents Jerome (A.D. 347–420), a major saint and theologian of the Christian Church. The scene is based on the story of his later life, which he spent as a hermit in the desert, according to the 13th-century Golden Legend. The penitent Jerome—aged, gaunt, and nearly toothless—kneels in prayerful meditation before a cave in a rocky landscape. Reclining before Jerome is the tame lion, his companion in the desert and a central figure in the story of Jerome’s life. The saint’s face and gestures convey Leonardo’s theories on human physiognomy and the psychology of expression.

In its unfinished state, the painting shows us that Leonardo did not proceed in a wholly disciplined way. He was particularly interested in creating a detailed, anatomically correct under drawing for the saint’s ascetic body. The elegant silhouette of the reclining lion seems now especially powerful, because there is almost no modeling beyond the outlines. A close examination of the paint surface reveals the presence of Leonardo’s fingerprints, especially in the upper-left portion of the composition. Leonardo used his fingers to distribute the pigments and create a soft-focus effect in the sky and landscape.

Leonardo was painfully slow at painting, which is one of the reasons his oeuvre is so miniscule. He started this panel around 1483 when he was in Milan. When he died in Amboise, France, in 1519, it was still far from finished. We don’t know who commissioned it or why Leonardo kept altering it and working on it nigh onto 40 years.

The work is currently on display in a new location, the Braccio Di Carlo Magno on the left side of St. Peter’s Square, instead of in its usual spot in the Pinacoteca Vaticana. Access is free and the location is much more conducive to quiet contemplation than the frenetic mob scene in the Vatican Museum.

The Met’s exhibition runs through October 6th, 2019, after which St. Jerome will head back across the Atlantic the Paris where it will join other masterpieces by Leonardo at the Louvre’s quincentenary Leonardo exhibition.

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Programming Note

Sunday, April 14th, 2019

I’ve belatedly upgraded to the current version of WordPress and things are a little hinky. Nothing huge, but some hiccups need ironing out. Hold tight!

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Almost Back

Wednesday, January 9th, 2019

Thank you all for your well-wishes and kind words yesterday. I think they were the virtual equivalent of a cortisone shot because I’m feeling better already. JINX JINX WINGED PHALLUS WARD OFF ALL EVIL EYES PLEASE AND THANK YOU

Assuming the fascinus does its job, I’ll be back with an on-topic post tomorrow.

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Programming Note

Tuesday, January 8th, 2019

Pardon the radio silence, but I have been waylaid by what I am choosing almost euphemistically to call an athletic injury. Okay, I did too deep a squat and it laid me flat.

Please hold until I can type again.

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Happy New Year!

Tuesday, January 1st, 2019

I’ve had such a deliriously busy holiday season that I haven’t had the time to do a Year in History Blog History retrospective. To make up for that shameful oversight I offer you a preview of an attraction coming up in 2019: a new multi-part post. It’s been more than two years since I tackled the Harrison Horror series for Halloween so it’s high time I took on another one. It won’t be a Halloween story this time. It might not even be thematically linked to any specific holiday or date, which is odd for me because I love a theme show beyond the point of decency. It all depends on when I can get it all together.

I leave you with that tantalizing sliver of a glimpse into the future and the fondest wish that all your parties be joyous and your trips home safe from inebriated fools.

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Departure

Saturday, October 27th, 2018

Roman Idyll 2: The Rhino Gets His is officially at an end and in a few hours I will be on my way across the Atlantic. There is much more to post about, so the Rome reports will continue upon my return. For now I must sign off with the deepest of sighs. A week could never be enough.

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Programming Note of Awesomeness

Friday, October 19th, 2018

Guess who speaks fluent French and is flying to Rome today? THIS MOI! Yes, I am heading back to the motherland for the second year in a row. My aim for this trip is to walk the ancient city. I mean, like, all of it. I have exactly two site visits booked, but otherwise the week will be dedicated to exploring the greatest open-air museum in the world without schedule or expectation. I will walk the pomerium, tracking every extant snippet of the ancient walls and gates I can find. I will criss-cross the center. I will go back and forth over the Tiber whenever the spirit moves me.

If all goes well, there will be some posts that refer back to earlier stories I’ve written. If not, then you’ll receive the full benefit of my dubious pictorial skills documenting my adventures in the Capital of the World. Rest assured, I will relay all your best wishes to the cats.

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