Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Stolen Dachau “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate found in Norway

Saturday, December 3rd, 2016

The wrought iron gate with the slogan “Arbeit macht frei” stolen from the entrance to the Dachau Concentration Camp on the night of November 1-2, 2014, has been found in Norway. After receiving an anonymous tip, police found the gate in a parking lot near a shooting range in Ytre Arna outside Bergen. It was hidden under a tarp with assorted trash and has apparently been outside in the elements for some time. One anonymous witness told a newspaper that he had seen the gate in a trench in Ytre Arna several months ago.

The police could not confirm the length of time the gate had spent outside. Their forensic examination of the door yielded no clues to the identities of the thieves, no DNA, no magical trace evidence to send through an exotic piece of equipment. The Bergen police are continuing to investigate, as is the Bavarian police.

Police in the southern German state of Bavaria, where Dachau is located, confirmed the gate had been found.

“From the picture transmitted, police believe it is highly likely that this is the iron gate that was stolen from Dachau,” it said in a statement.

Bergen authorities will return the gate “as soon as possible.” As the investigation is ongoing, the evidence of the crime is subject to judicial review before it can leave the country. It’s likely the judgement will be in favor of immediate restoration given the historical significance of the object.

Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site staff is heaving a sigh of collective relief.

The President of the Comité International de Dachau, General Jean-Michel Thomas, took note of this news with great satisfaction, stating, “Even though we still do not know what was behind this outrage, I offer thanks in the name of the survivors’ association for the discovery of this crime and the international concern that was shown following its perpetration.”

Dr. Gabriele Hammermann, Director of Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site, was also very relieved and offered thanks to the police in Norway and Germany for their meticulous investigations. “Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site, along with the survivors and their relatives, is delighted that the background to this act is now being cleared up and that this particularly symbolic relict of the concentration camp will once again be returned to the memorial following a judicial review. Of course, it will be presented to the public again once the restoration work is completed. A decision will be made together with the Stiftung Bayerische Gedenkstätten (Bavarian Memorial Foundation) regarding the placement of the gate, whether at its former location or as part of the permanent exhibition.”

The Director of the Bavarian Memorial Foundation, Karl Freller, was overjoyed at this news, and responded by saying, “It is a great relief to me that this piece of original evidence of the Nazis’ cynicism and contempt for humankind has been recovered. I congratulate the security authorities on their transnational success.”

Not quite original, actually. The original iron gate was made by Communist political prisoner Karl Röder in 1936 by order of the SS. It was removed after the war and a historically accurate replica created from photos of the original was installed when the Memorial Site was created in 1965. After the theft in 2014, another replica was made and put in place so it would be for solemnities marking the anniversary of the camp’s liberation by the U.S. Seventh Army’s 45th Infantry Division on April 29th, 1945.

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Trash-bound 17th century map restored at National Library of Scotland

Friday, December 2nd, 2016

Conservators at the National Library of Scotland have rescued a rare 17th century wall map from the verge of destruction. Ages ago, the map was balled up and stuck in the chimney of a house in Aberdeenshire to block drafts. It was discovered when the home was renovated and someone had the foresight to save what looked like a lumpy bundle of dirty rags from the trash and donate it to the National Library.

When it arrived at the Library’s Collections Care department, it was stuffed in a plastic bag carried inside a Whyte & Mackay Scotch whisky box. Book and paper conservators carefully removed it from the bag. Its dire condition was immediately evident. It was balled up, caked with dirt and had been extensively gnawed upon by vermin and insects. Even the smallest movement would cause fragments of the brittle paper to shower down from the backing. Conservators had to unfurl it painfully slowly to keep the damage to a minimum. Even so, dirt and paper fragments flaked off and the paper was found to be severely distorted with deep creases.

Once opened, experts recognized the map as a late 17th century map of the world produced by the Dutch cartographer, engraver and publisher Gerald Valck. The map is colossal in size at 7-by-5 feet and there are only two other copies known to exist in the world. Large pieces of it had crumbled away and were irretrievably lost. Because of the map’s rarity, the conservation team worked painstakingly to preserve what was left of it.

The backing was quickly identified as the main cause of the damage. It was common in the 17th century for great wall maps to be affixed to a canvas backing for display for the delight of visitors. Dutch mapmakers were particularly prominent in the period, and large-scale maps of this time appear as elegant backdrops in the paintings of multiple Dutch Golden Age artists, including Johannes Vermeer in The Art of Painting (1666-68), now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. The map that hangs in Vermeer’s painting, the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherland published by Claes Janszoon Visscher in 1636, is similar in style, dimensions and age to the one found in the Scottish chimney.

There was a steep price to pay for this mounting, because canvas and paper do not respond to environmental conditions in the same way or at the same rate. The canvas of the Chimney Map was far sturdier than the paper, causing it to warp and shrink and crack. Conservators had to remove the backing for the permanent well-being of the map, but first they had to stabilize what was left of the paper map.

The map was originally printed in eight separate sections and adhered to a linen backing. It was already splitting along the joins between the sections and the decision was taken to separate the sections to make the map easier to work with. These were each placed in a humidifying chamber as the gentle introduction of moisture made it easier to flatten out the map.

Removing the backing without further damaging the paper proved to be one of the most difficult tasks. This involved using a thick cellulose solution to fix light weight Japanese paper to the front of the map in two layers. This secured the paper map while the backing was peeled off using hand tools.

The final stage of cleaning involved suspending the map sections individually in water in a heated sink at 40°C for 40 minutes with the water being gently agitated to clean dirt from the surface. On removal they were placed in blotters to remove any excess water.

In total, the restoration took 150 work hours over a period of six months.

This silent video shows paper conservator Claire Thomson at work on the Chimney Map from extrication from the whisky box to microscopic examination of fragments to the water baths to a glorious final before-and-after comparison.

This one discusses the conservation challenges with Thomson and explores the history of the map.

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Ancient Mixtec skull a forgery

Sunday, November 27th, 2016

An ancient turquoise-encrusted skull acquired by the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, the Netherlands, back in 1963 has been discovered to be a forgery. It was believed to be a very rare skull made by the Mixtec people of Postclassic Mexico (1200-1600 A.D.) who were renown for their craftsmanship in metal and precious stones. They made skulls and masks inlaid with turquoise, pyrite, gold and obsidian. Only about 20 Mixtec skulls decorated with precious stones are known to exist, but they are all of questionable origin. Their find sites and finders are unknown.

The National Museum of Ethnology bought theirs for the equivalent of about $20,000. Considered one of the greatest masterpieces of the genre, it is inlaid with small turquoise, shell and mother-of-pearl tiles all over the face, in circles around the eye sockets and larger rectangular tiles in the shape of a snake winding across the forehead. It was thought to date to around the 15th century.

Research into its origins took a new turn in 2010 when conservator Martin Berger heard from a colleague in Marseille that a private collector had recently donated a similar skull with the caveat that he suspected it might be a forgery. Between 2012 and 2016, Berger took the skull to Paris and back to Leiden where he and his colleagues subjected it to extensive testing. Radiocarbon dating and stable isotope analysis of tooth enamel samples found that the skull’s geographic origin and age indicated it was authentic Mixtec. The turquoise was authentic archaeological stone as well.

There was but one element left to test: the glue. The Mixtec made adhesives out of pine resin and orchids. Analysis of the glue used to affix the mosaic tiles to the skull discovered that it was a 20th century product commonly used in art restoration. That means someone in the 20th century took a genuine Mixtec skull and stuck genuine Mixtec mosaic tiles on it in a plausibly Mixtec style. So it’s a counterfeit made on an authentic foundation.

Conservators believe they know who might have done the job. There was a Mexican dentist working in the 1940s and 50s who was known to dabble in recreations of Mesoamerican artwork. In the mid-century period, Mexico’s archaeological sites were extensively looted and it would have been difficult to scare up a genuine skull and a bunch of genuine tiles. Apparently this dentist’s work appeared in more than one museum. He’s a suspect in this case because there is evidence that some of the teeth on the skull have been tampered with, and that was obviously in his professional wheelwell.

The National Museum of Ethnology is keeping the skull on display.

Asked whether he was disappointed by the revelation, Berger told the newspaper: “No.”

“In actual fact it’s given us a bizarre story and that’s exactly what museums want to do, to tell stories. It remains as one of our masterpieces — except, we’ve changed the information on the sign board.”

In any case, said Berger, the skull is only a “partial forgery”.

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Centuries-old dentures found in Lucca family tomb

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016

In 2010, archaeologists from the University of Pisa excavated the tomb of the powerful Guinigi family in the San Francesco Monastery at Lucca. Scions of the wealthy family of merchants and bankers had ruled the city of Lucca from 1392 until 1430 as capitani del popolo (captains of the people, ie, dictators), and even after the family was overthrown and the Republic reinstated, the Guinigi remained one of the most prominent families in Lucca for centuries.

In 1358, the Guinigi Chapel was built near the convent of San Francesco. The bodies of family members were buried in the private chapel through the first half of the 17th century. Instead of being interred in separate areas, the remains were laid to rest in two large collective tombs. Over the years the bones were shifted around to make room, so when archaeologists excavated the chambers, the remains of more than 200 people were disarticulated and commingled making it impossible to reconstruct the skeletons of individuals.

Mixed in with the jumbled skeletal remains in the lowest stratigraphic layer of the south tomb, the team discovered a unique archaeological treasure: a centuries-old dental prosthesis. It is made of five human teeth — three central incisors and two lateral canines — joined by a gold band running through the root ends of the teeth. The teeth all came from different, let’s just say, donors. (Shoutout to Fantine from Les Miserables.) Examination under a microscope and CT scans found that the roots of the teeth were cut and abraded to relative evenness. Then the a thin cut was made across the bases of the teeth and a thin gold was inserted into the cuts. Two small holes were cut in each tooth and gold pins inserted to fix the tooth to the band. At each end of the device, the gold was bent into s-shapes and pierced with a hole. These ends were attached to the living teeth, likely with ties, as indicated in illustrations of similar dental prosthetics from the 16th and 18th centuries

Because it was found in the earliest layer, it may date to as early as the 14th century, but it would have been very easy for the dentures to fall through successive layers of bones, so stratigraphy is of no help in dating the piece. This was highly advanced dentistry in Early Modern Europe. The gold band technology was mentioned in period sources from Guy de Chauliac (ca. 1300-1368), the French physician who first recognized there were two kinds of plague, Bubonic and Pneumonic, to Pierre Fauchard (1678–1761), the father of modern dentistry.

Archaeologists were not able to match the dentures to any of the mandibles found in the tomb, but the presence of dental calculus covering the holes indicate the prosthetic was used for many years. Indeed, Fauchard’s description of such appliances emphasizes their longevity. From the 1746 edition of his treatise Le Chirurgien dentiste, ou Traité des dents:

“Teeth and artificial dentures, fastened with posts and gold wire, hold better than all others. They sometimes last 15–20 years and even more without displacement. Common thread and silk, used ordinarily to attach all kinds of teeth or artificial pieces, do not last long.”

The dentures found in the Guinigi predate Fauchard by at least a century, but they are notably more complex than the device he describes. The gold band runs inside the roots of the teeth, fastened with pins and the appliance is anchored to in situ teeth with those s-shaped ends. Fauchard just attaches a band to the lingual and buccal surface of the teeth using strings run through holes drilled into the teeth.

One member of the team, Dr Simona Minozzi, said: “Although there are descriptions of similar objects in texts from the period, there is no known archaeological evidence. The dentures found in the tomb are the first example of dentures from this historical period, and as such are a valuable addition to the history of dentistry.”

The study of the dental appliance has been published in the journal Clinical Implant Dentistry and Related Research. It is not, alas, freely available for perusal, but if you have an institutional subscription or six bucks to spare, you can enjoy some more detailed images of the holes, gold band and dental plaque.

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New scan of crocodile mummies find 47 more

Monday, November 21st, 2016

After 17 months of renovations, the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden opened their new Egyptian galleries on November 18th. As part of the remodelling project, the museum installed 3D visualisation stations so visitors can explore mummies in the kind of extreme detail that would be otherwise be impossible. The system uses high resolution CT scans to create composite models of mummies in the collection that museum visitors can virtually unwrap on a touch screen. They can peel back every layer, examine the mummies’ features and the amulets placed in the linen wrappers from every angle. It’s the same principle as the extremely cool virtual autopsy table the British Museum created for Gebelein Man.

During the renovation, the museum worked with Swedish visualization company Interspectral to scan their mummies and create the virtual models. One of the mummies scanned appeared to be that of a giant crocodile, a representation of the crocodile god Sobek that has been in the museum’s collection since 1828. A scan in 1996 had already determined that it wasn’t one huge crocodile, but rather two adolescent crocodiles, one larger, one smaller, positioned tail to snout and then wrapped as one.

Because of the earlier scan, curators weren’t expecting to discover any new information about the mummy, but the high resolution technology revealed that there weren’t just two crocodiles wrapped in linen; there were 49, 47 of them hatchlings. Each of the babies was individually wrapped in linen bandages, placed around the adolescent crocodiles and the whole lot were bound together with palm rope to create the impression of a single 10-foot crocodile mummy. Scans have found baby crocs mummified with adults before — as with this Sobek mummy at the British Museum, for instance — but only one other example of baby crocs wrapped with adults in a palm robe binding is known.

The museum’s Egyptologists suspect that the crocodiles of different ages were mummified together as a reference to the ancient Egyptian belief in rejuvenation and new life after death. Another possibility is that no large crocodiles were available at a time when they were needed as offerings to the gods. The mummy was given the shape of one large crocodile with various kinds of stuffing: bits of wood, wads of linen, plant stems, and rope.

The museum doesn’t know where the crocodile mummy came from. Faiyum is a likely candidate because it was a center for the worship of Sobek and the Nile crocodile. Because the sacred crocodiles were bred and raised specifically for mummification and dedication to the deity as votive offerings, it’s possible the hatchlings were related. Crocodiles lay around 50 eggs at a time, so this may have been a single litter.

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17th c. Danish bishop’s turd identified

Sunday, November 20th, 2016

A piece of poo recovered from a latrine in Aalborg, Denmark, has been identified as the likely product of the colon of 17th century bishop Jens Bircherod. It was excavated from the latrine of the Aalborg bishop’s palace when the structure was demolished in 1937 for construction of Budolfi Square in the city center. The stool was of no interest to archaeologists at the time — poop studies have only recently come to be appreciated as the motherlode of information they are — but it was embedded in a broken bottle. The bottle and some Delft porcelain were put in a cardboard box and stored at the Moesgaard Museum. Researchers came across the historic turd while doing research on the thriving immigrant communities of Early Modern (1450-1650) Aalborg, Aarhus, Elsinore and Nya Lödöse.

Cherry pits and one hazelnut were visible with the naked eye, but detailed archaeobotanical analysis of the crap discovered the pooper’s diet was varied and high quality. It was replete with seeds, nuts, cloudberries, blackberries, peppercorns and exotic fruits like figs and grapes. The cloudberry, imported from Norway, is the earliest found in Denmark. The pepper was imported from India and was a luxury good.

The smoking gun was the presence of buckwheat. In late 17th century Denmark, buckwheat was almost exclusively grown on the island of Funen. Bishop Jens Bircherod was born in Odense, Funen’s main city and the site of another most excellent poop discovery, in 1658.

“It all fits nicely with the bishop who lived in that house from 1694 to 1708,” says Jette Linaa, from Moesgaard Museum in the Danish city of Aarhus.

The general diet for the people of Aalborg at that time was gruel, cabbage, pork and beef but buckwheat was particular to the island of Funen, some 200km (125 miles) away.

“He had a typical upper-class diet, he was part of the upper class,” she told the BBC.

Bircherod also refers in his diaries to his “opulent dinners.” As part of the team’s research into the immigrant community of Aalborg, they found a German-owned pharmacy which had the city’s largest stock of pepper and figs and held the monopoly on the sale of herbs and spices. Only the wealthiest people in Aalborg could afford to purchase its wares, the city’s nobles, political office holders and its bishop among them. Other people lived in the bishop’s mansion, of course, including his wife and children, so it’s possible the poop was contributed by someone else in the household, but the buckwheat signature points to the man himself, and the fanciness of the diet likely excludes the servants.

The research team is elated by the feces they’ve found. This one bishop’s turd lends new insight into the international lifestyle of the prosperous residents of the city in the late 1600s. Before, they only had documentary sources to go on. The poop is concrete archaeological evidence of how the products of international trade wound up on the tables of Aalborg’s elites. They plan to study the contents of two other Aalborg latrines to flesh out the picture even further.

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Export barred on “Indian Manner” tapestry by mysterious weaver

Saturday, November 19th, 2016

John Vanderbank the Elder (his son would become a successful society portrait artist), was born in Paris to a Huguenot family. Religious conflict drove him out of France, first to Holland and then to England where he set up shop as a tapestry weaver. The Vanderbank workshop on Great Queen Street, Covent Garden, was the premier tapestry manufacturer of the late 17th and early 18th century. From 1689 until 1717, he was Yeoman Arras-maker to the Great Wardrobe, meaning he was the official tapestry-maker for the royal family.

Influenced by Indian textiles, Chinese porcelain and Japanese lacquer, tapestries known as “Indian Manner” were all the rage at the time. India didn’t refer to the subcontinent in any literal sense; this was a mish-mash of vaguely Asian elements, plus Turkish and European themes. Indian Manner tapestries were characterized by multiple colorful scenes set against a dark field, with smaller animal and floral motifs at the top and larger scenes approaching the bottom.

Today Vanderbank tapestries are found in some of Britain’s stateliest homes and in museums like the Victoria & Albert, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Yale University Art Gallery. Because Vanderbank’s workshop was so dominant in English Indian Manner tapestries of his time and because he often reused his more popular designs, making changes in size and placement of motifs based on the wishes of his clients, most tapestries in this style have been attributed to him or his workshop.

Then there’s the mysterious Michael Mazarind. There is exactly one known Indian Manner tapestry signed by M. Mazarind, formerly in the collection of Henry McLaren, 2nd Baron Aberconway. Edith Standen noted in her seminal 1981 study (pdf) of Indian Manner tapestries that Mazarind is “a weaver otherwise totally unknown.” She went on to state: “Until more information comes to light about Mazarind (even his name is puzzling), any interpretation of these facts must remain extremely tentative, but he was evidently closely connected with Vanderbank and, like him, was probably not English.”

Despite how very cautiously worded her association of Mazarind with Vanderbank was, it stuck. Enough so that when a buyer recently purchased the tapestry in a private sale, he applied for an export license on the grounds that it did not qualify as a national treasure under the Waverly Criteria because it is not closely connected to Britain’s history, is not of particular aesthetic importance because it’s been altered over time and it is not of outstanding significance for the study of tapestries because there are other Vanderbank tapestries in UK public collections.

The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) disagreed. In researching the tapestry to determine whether to recommend the granting of an export license, they found that in fact Michael Mazarind was not Vanderbank’s associate, but rather his competitor. He had a workshop of his own, identified from parish rate-books as occupying a space on Portugal Street (now Piccadilly) between 1696 and 1702. The cartoons he used to make the tapestry were not retreads or copies of Vanderbanks, but entirely original.

RCEWA member Christopher Rowell said:

“This beautiful blue ground tapestry, with an equally unusual border of Chinese inspiration, dates from the late 1600s and is the only one to bear the woven signature of the mysterious Michael Mazarind, who was a rival of the more well-known London tapestry weaver, John Vanderbank. This type of ‘Indian’ tapestry depicting a Chinoiserie fantasy paradise in Cathay, with courtly and hunting scenes, was devised for the court, but soon became more broadly popular. Saving the tapestry for the nation will allow specialists to study it in detail and help to reconstruct Mazarind’s contribution to tapestry production in early-Georgian London.”

Following the RCEWA’s recommendation, Culture minister Matt Hancock has placed a temporary export bar on the tapestry. The bar will give British institutions until January 19th, 2017, to raise the £67,500 purchase price. If there is an indication of a serious effort to raise the money that just needs more time, the bar may be extended until April 19th, 2017.

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Portrait of Tsar Nicholas II found behind portrait of Lenin

Monday, November 14th, 2016

In the summer of 2013, the administration of St. Petersburg’s Primary School No. 206 called in the experts at the Stieglitz Art and Industry Academy to restore a portrait of Lenin that had a substantial damage to the canvas. In the larger than life-sized portrait (nine by six feet), Lenin looks pensively off to the side. Behind him is the Peter and Paul Fortress, the citadel and prison built by Peter the Great which became a symbol of Tsarist oppression akin to the Bastille, and the domes and golden spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral, the church where all the Russian Tsars from Peter the Great on were buried.

There were multiple holes in the bottom left of the portrait. Restorers noticed a piece of boot on the other side of the canvas showing through the tears. When they removed the frame to examine the back, they found a painted over portrait of Tsar Nicholas II by Ilya Galkin Savich, a painter who was a favorite at the Imperial court. He painted Nicholas the year before he ascended the throne, at least twice immediately after he became Tsar Nicholas II, plus his wife the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and his mother the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna. The newly rediscovered portrait was commissioned the year of Nicholas’ coronation to hang in the assembly hall of the Merchant Society’s Petrovsky Trade and Commercial School. Portraits of Peter the Great and Tsar Paul I, later destroyed by the Soviets, also hung in the assembly hall.

After the 1917 Revolution, the Trade School was turned into an elementary school. In 1924, artist Vladislav Izmailovich was commissioned to paint over the portrait of the last Tsar with a new portrait of Lenin. Izmailovich was a classically trained artist who studied at fine arts in St. Petersburg, Rome, Paris and Berlin. He lived in St. Petersburg at the turn of the century where he painted landscapes, genre scenes and was in demand as a portraitist. Izmailovich also painted decorative interiors at private homes of the wealthy and was hired to restore paintings at St. Michael’s Castle, a former royal palace converted into the army’s engineering school, and at the sumptuous Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo.

His work for the moneyed elites, up to and including the royal family, did not harm his artistic career after the October Revolution. Prominent Marxist figures became subjects of his portraits. He made one of the first portraits of Lenin, a pastel in 1918. Other portrait subjects were founder of the German Communist Party Karl Liebknecht in 1918, a year before he became a socialist martyr in the failed Spartacist uprising, Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Soviet People’s Commissar of Education, in 1920, and national heroes like chemist Dmitri Mendeleev and Leonid Govorov, defender of Leningrad during World War II. Izmailovich also painted historic scenes and landscapes, managing to survive many a purge and vanishing commissar to work until just before his death in 1959 a few months shy of his 87th birthday.

It’s fascinating to think that this survivor secretly saved a portrait of the Tsar, disguising it instead of destroying it. He painted the portrait of Lenin on the reverse side, painted over the Tsar until the portrait of Nicholas was thoroughly hidden. Izmailovich used layers of greyish-white water-soluble paint that not only allowed future restorers to remove it without damaging the original painting, but actually preserved the original work.

The decision to go through with the restoration process was kicked off by an initial X-ray result, in which “we were shocked, almost to the point of humor, to discover Czar Nicholas II’s head nearly exactly the same size and placement as Lenin’s,” confirming their suspicions that there was a completed full-size portrait beneath the water-soluble paint. The restoration experts used baby soap and water to wash the paint off and reveal a “remarkably intact and preserved” portrait of Czar Nicholas II, signed by the Russian artist Ilya Galkin Savich.

Ms. Pozeluyeva and other experts at Stieglitz believe that in 1924, Izmailovich painted over the Czar Nicholas II work — still in its frame — as an urgent act of “protection” and “sympathy for the Imperial era.”

Izmailovich’s secret tsarist leanings created a unique art work: a massive double-sided formal portrait of two leaders of diametrically opposed regimes painted by two different artists at different times.

After three years of restoration, the double portrait is going on display at the end of the month at the Stieglitz Art and Industry Academy. It will be displayed on a stand with no glass case impeding visitors’ full experience of this remarkable canvas.

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Curtain Theatre stage, secret passageway revealed

Sunday, November 13th, 2016

The remains of the Curtain Theatre, the Elizabethan playhouse in Shoreditch, north London, where Shakespeare’s Henry V and Romeo and Juliet were first staged, were first discovered by Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) in October 2011 during an exploratory excavation in advance of developement. Built in 1577, the Curtain was the second purpose-built public playhouse in London (The Theatre was the first), and the main staging venue for the plays of Shakespeare between 1597 and 1599. After that it was supplanted by the famous Globe Theatre, and the last recorded play at the Curtain was performed in 1622. Over time the exact location was lost until the MOLA team found it on (or rather under) Hewett Street.

The Curtain was believed to have been dismantled during the Commonwealth — Puritans weren’t keen on the rowdy entertainments of the public theater — but a much wider open-area excavation this year has found that in fact the theater was likely repurposed into a tenement. That has proven a great archaeological boon, because while all that remains today of the Globe and the Rose, two theaters on the South Bank famed for having staged Shakespeare’s plays, are bits and bobs of stonework from the foundations, there’s enough the Curtain left to paint a rich picture of the Elizabeth playhouse, and much of what they’ve found has entirely upended expectations.

Historians previously thought the Curtain was a polygonal structure with a thrust stage, like the more famous theaters that followed it. Archaeologists discovered that in fact it was rectangular building with a rectangular stage. The stage was 14 meters (46 feet) long and five meters (16 feet) deep, a very unusual proportion that may have made it possible to field larger numbers of players for Shakespeare’s busy battle scenes. That means that the prologue of Henry V, which alludes to the theater as a “wooden O,” must have been written after the play’s premier at the Curtain, perhaps for later performances at the Globe. Under the stage archaeologists found the remains of a tunnel that was accessed by doors on either side of the stage. Actors would have used it to exit from one side of the stage and enter from the other side out of view of the audience.

There are remains of brick walls, 1.5 meters (4’9″) at the highest, and even part of the sloping yard made of compacted gravel where the people with the cheapest tickets, known as groundlings, stood in front of the stage. Between the standing room and the more expensive seats in three sides of timber galleries, the theater could accomodate 1,200 people.

Archaeologists have found artifacts like clay pipes, wine bottles, glass beads, a comb, and one tiny broken piece of clay that looks like an egg cup but is the bottom of a bird call, perhaps used for sound effects in plays like Romeo and Juliet where the song a bird interrupts the lovers in their marriage bed. They’ve also found a group of green glazed knobs and a few sherds from money boxes.

Throughout findings, we’ve also been able to tell that The Curtain Theatre is one of earliest Elizabethan playhouses where people actually paid money to see performances and be entertained. We know this because fragments of ceramic money boxes have been found. These fragments are a really exciting find because the pots would have been used to collect the entry fees from theatregoers and then been taken to an office to be smashed and the money counted. This office was known as the ‘box office’, which is actually the origin of the term we still use today!

The Curtain Theatre has been covered now with sand and a protective membrane to keep it secure while the mixed-use development of retail, office space, homes, a park and a performance area is built around it. The new development will be called The Stage, appropriately enough, and has been redesigned in light of the discovery to display the archaeological remains of the Curtain in the new cultural and visitors center.

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Conserving The Death of Buddha

Saturday, November 12th, 2016

The depiction of the death of the Buddha surrounded by the inconsolable grief of beings, human and animal, who have yet to achieve enlightenment and the detachment from earthly desires, has a long, rich tradition in Asian art. Hanabusa Itchō’s version, painted in 1713 during the Edo period, is done in the animated, dynamic style characteristic of his work. He was known for his keen observation of daily life and for biting parodies, one of which got him exiled for 12 years when he chose the mistress of the shogun as a subject for satire. He returned to Edo in 1710 after the death of shogun he’d offended, and quickly picked up where he’d left off.

His The Death of Buddha was hugely famous during the Edo period. It belonged to a Zen temple in Tokyo which is believed to have displayed it once a year during Nehan-e (Nirvana Day), the Buddhist holiday celebrating the death of the Buddha and his passing into Mahaparinirvana, for more than 150 years. Pilgrims traveled to the temple just to see the painted scroll as viewing it was believed to be good karma.

The ownership history has a gap between 1850 and 1886. At some point before the latter date, it was acquired by Ernest Fenollosa, an American professor at Tokyo Imperial University who was an avid art historian and collector of Japanese art. In 1886, he sold his entire collection to Boston doctor Charles Goddard Weld (former Massachusetts governor William Weld is a scion of the family) conditional on its eventually going to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where Fenollosa had attended art school. Weld bequeathed it to the MFA Boston after his death in 1911.

The scroll hasn’t been on view since 1990 for its own protection. A massive piece at six feet wide and 10 feet tall, it’s the largest scroll in the museum collection and conservation for such a large, delicate piece is extremely challenging. Adding to the logistically difficulties, the scroll hasn’t been remounted since 1850 when it was still at the Zen temple in Tokyo. Because scrolls have unique pressures — they’re rolled, mounts regularly fail or being to tug, tear and pull at the painting — they’re usually remounted every century or so.

The museum began planning the complex conservation of The Death of Buddha three years ago. Active conservation began in the spring of this year in the MFA Boston laboratory. Four conservators, two from the MFA Boston and two from the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery which has an exceptional collection of Asian art and is currently being renovated allowing East Asian painting experts Andrew Hare and Jiro Ueda to join in the conservation of one the great scroll paintings of the Edo period. It is truly a conservation dream team. Three of the four, lead conservator Philip Meredith and both of the Freer experts, did the traditional ten-year apprenticeships at registered conservation studios required by Japanese government regulation for the conservation of Japan’s cultural patrimony. Meredith was only the second westerner to complete the decade-long apprenticeship.

In August, the scroll and conservation team moved to the Asian Painting Gallery to give the public the rare opportunity to watch the painstaking work in progress in an exhibition called Conservation in Action: Preserving Nirvana. The scroll had to be dismantled from mount screws to linings to silk borders. After cleaning, consolidation, crease flattening, removal of old linings, replacement with new linings and the reassembling of every part, the scroll must be stretch dried on a custom karibari drying board 18 feet long.

It’s in the home stretch now, but conservation still proceeds apace. Visitors to the MFA Boston galleries can view the team at work until January 16th, 2017. The rest of us can get a glimpse into this extraordinary labor of love and expertise in the following videos.

A fascinating overview of the conservation process:

Timelapse video of the conservation team applied temporary facing to the painting:

Here the team applies layers of protective paper, humidifying the work and removing the temporary facing. Then they turn it face down and remove old linings from the creases so that they can brush out the creases and re-flatten the painting.

In this last timelapse video, the conservators remove all the old lining paper from the back of the painting, lifting it with bamboo sticks and tweezing off the fibers that remain. They replace the old lining with fresh Mino washi, a traditional Japanese mulberry paper that is on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, adhered with wheat starch paste.

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