Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Puttin’ on the Rijks

Saturday, December 9th, 2017

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), 'Portrait of Marten Soolmans', 1634. Purchased by the Kingdom of the Netherlands for the RijksmuseumWhy yes I am absurdly pleased with that title, thank you for asking. When the Rijksmuseum is putting on a show dedicated to full-length portraiture of moneyed art patrons from the Renaissance to the 20th century, certain puns become irresistible. The new exhibition, High Society will be centered around the museum’s most spectacular new babies, the portraits of wealthy merchant Marten Soolmans and his bride, heiress Oopjen Coppit painted by Rembrandt van Rijn in 1634. He was only 28 years old but already had made a name for himself as the top portraitist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), 'Portrait of Oopjen Coppit', 1634. Purchased by the Republic of France for the Musée du Louvreon the scene. He had known Soolmans since the latter’s desultory stab at law school in Leiden when he was 15, and as Oopjen Coppit was kind enough to bring an enormous pile of cash into the matrimonial home as a dowry, Marten booked the best to have himself and his wife immortalized top to bottom. These are the only full-length, life-sized portraits Rembrandt ever painted.

The pair is jointly owned by the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum who spent €80 million apiece to buy the portraits from Baron Eric de Rothschild. Because the portraits were already in France with the baron, the Louvre got first crack at displaying them in accordance with the intricacies of the shared acquisition deal. They went on display in Paris in March 2016 for three months, then moved on to Amsterdam where they had another brief three-month display next to the Night Watch before being taken off public view for much-needed conservation. The portraits had only been lightly cleaned and had “fake saliva” daubed on to bring back some of their original sheen before their debut at the Louvre.

That thorough restoration, undertaken by a joint team of experts from both national museums, is just about finished now and the wedding couple will be shown conserved, repaired, their finery back to its finest, for the first time at the new exhibition opening March 8th, 2018. It’s not the happy couple who will be peacocking it in this show. The Rijksmuseum took the opportunity to make Marten and Oopjen the fulcrum of a larger exploration of the evolution of the full-length portrait in art history, borrowing more than 35 masterpieces from private collections and museums in Paris, London, Florence, Vienna and California, among others. This is the first exhibition dedicated to this most magnificent of portrait formats.

Life-sized, standing, full-length portraiture had been the province of kings and powerful aristocrats in earlier times, and barely seen at all up north. The portraits of two proud exponents of the moneyed Dutch bourgeoisie illustrate the upwardly-mobile aspirations of the young Dutch Republic, then just 50 years old and focused on building wealth through trade and industry instead of bloodlines, currying monarchical favor and conquest. Marten and Oopjen were some of the earliest examples of the style being employed in Holland.

The earliest life-sized portraits of worthies standing around looking fabulously wealthy (or telegraphing their politics or promoting their families or celebrating their greatest beauties or their weddings, as in the case of Marten and Oopjen) that we know of were painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1514. The subjects were Henry Paolo Veronese, Count Iseppo da Porto, c. 1552. Baltimore, Walters Art Museum and Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi, Contini Bonacossi Collectionthe Pious, Duke of Saxony, and his wife Catharina, Countess of Mecklenburg. Less than a decade later the Italians stepped up to the plate with the unnamed subject in Moretto da Brescia’s Portrait of a Man (1525). The earliest known couple depicted in a full-length portrait by an Italian artist are Count Iseppo da Porto and his wife Countess Livia Thiene by Paolo Veronese (ca. 1552).

From those beginnings, the format spread north and west during the 16th and 17th centuries. Great masters like Velázquez, Anthony van Dyck and Frans Hals went big during this period, as did Rembrandt with Marten and Oopjen. The exhibition keeps going, illustrating the shift in focus from people of noble rank to people with money to socialites and even (gasp!) artists in the early 20th century. One of the last portraits to be painted from the group on display is one of Edvard Munch by Walther Rathenau (1907).

The exhibition is a short one — giant rarities don’t get loaned very often or for long — and closes on June 3rd, 2018.

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Massive Venezuela petroglyphs mapped for the first time

Friday, December 8th, 2017

Large rock art panels discovered recently on islands in the Atures Rapids in the Amazonas region of western Venezuela have been thoroughly mapped and studied for the first time by researchers from University College London (UCL). The engraved images of animals, people and symbols were carved by local people up to 2,000 years ago. (Shortly after the Spanish arrived, Jesuit missionaries identified the Adoles as the inhabitants of this area, but we don’t know who was there before.) Thanks to the historically low level of the Orinoco River, more petroglyphs have been exposed. Researchers found eight groups of rock art on five islands. Some of these engravings, individual and as a group, are huge. One panel is festooned with 93 petroglyphs over an area of 3270 square feet. A horned snake from another panel is 100 feet long just on its own. These are some of the largest rock art panels ever found anywhere in the world.

It was a challenging task recording such large and spread-out petroglyphs carved into high rock faces in the middle of the Orinoco River. That’s why this study is unprecedented. Others have studied the artworks, but were not able to get anywhere near as close and as a detailed a view as the University College London archaeologist. The team employed robot aides in the form of drones to take aerial overhead pictures of the engraved surfaces that were out of puny human reach. Every petroglyph was documented in photographs and their dimensions and positioning measured using photogrammetry (a technology that derives precise spatial data from photographs by creating 3D renderings of the pictures). Researchers also studied the relationship between the Atures Rapids petroglyphs, their archaeological and cultural context and the links they suggest between the locals who carved them and other indigenous peoples of pre-Hispanic Latin America.

The paper’s author Dr Philip Riris (UCL Institute of Archaeology) said: “The Rapids are an ethnic, linguistic and cultural convergence zone. The motifs documented here display similarities to several other rock art sites in the locality, as well as in Brazil, Colombia, and much further afield. This is one of the first in-depth studies to show the extent and depth of cultural connections to other areas of northern South America in pre-Columbian and Colonial times.”

“While painted rock art is mainly associated with remote funerary sites, these engravings are embedded in the everyday – how people lived and travelled in the region, the importance of aquatic resources and the seasonal rhythmic rising and falling of the water. The size of some of the individual engravings is quite extraordinary.” […]

In one panel surveyed, a motif of a flautist surrounded by other human figures probably depicts part of an indigenous rite of renewal. Performances conceivably coincided with the seasonal emergence of the engravings from the river just before the onset of the wet season, when the islands are more accessible and the harvest would take place.

The research is part of the Cotúa Island-Orinoco Reflexive Archaeology Project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

Principal Investigator, Dr José Oliver (UCL Institute of Archaeology), said: “Our project focuses on the archaeology of Cotúa Island and its immediate vicinity of the Atures Rapids. Available archaeological evidence suggests that traders from diverse and distant regions interacted in this area over the course of two millennia before European colonization. The project’s aim is to better understand these interactions.”

“Mapping the rock engravings represents a major step towards an enhanced understanding of the role of the Orinoco River in mediating the formation of pre-Conquest social networks throughout northern South America.”

The UCL research team’s findings have been published in the journal Antiquity and can be read here. It’s openly available for now (be warned: that could change) and makes a fascinating read.

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Earliest known slave remains found in Delaware

Thursday, December 7th, 2017

An archaeological excavation at the historic site of Avery’s Rest in Rehoboth Bay, Delaware, has unearthed the skeletal remains of some of Delaware’s earliest colonists. The inhumation burials of 11 individuals interred in the late 1600s include three of African descent, one of them a child. These are the earliest known remains of enslaved people ever discovered in Delaware.

Seven of the eight individuals of European descent were neatly buried in a single row. The three African Americans — two adult men and one child of about five years of age at time of death — were interred near the seven but in a separate section. Black and white were all buried in coffins, although only the nails have survived. The people of African descent were not related to each other and their mitochondrial DNA places their ancestral origins in west, central and east Africa. Most of their lives, if not all of them, were spent in the mid-Atlantic area of what is now the United States. Rehoboth Bay was wilderness then, and officially part of Pennsylvania and therefore a Dutch colony.

The hardship of their lives was writ large on their bones. One of the people of African descent, an adult male about 35 years of age, received a blow to the head so severe it chipped a piece of bone off his right eyebrow and fractured his face. Experts believe it wasn’t likely to be the strike that killed him, but it did happen at the time of his death and likely contributed to it. His spine showed signs of heavy labour and his front teeth have grooves from where he bit down hard on his clay pipe while doing all that heavy labour. All of the remains show signs of copious dental issues: cavities, abscesses, extractions. One petite 4’11” adult woman was missing all but six of her teeth.

Avery’s Rest is listed in the National Register of Historic Places because it was part of the vast 800-acre property of Captain John Avery who moved to Rehoboth Bay from Maryland in 1675 shortly after the colony changed hands from the Dutch to the British. A ship’s captain in Maryland, he grew his plantation into a major agricultural and livestock concern, planing corn, wheat and most of all, tobacco. There is evidence of a peach orchard on the property as well, some of the first peach trees imported to what would become the United States.

John Avery became a very wealthy and prominent community leader in Delaware, attaining the rank of captain in the militia and receiving an appointment as Justice of the Peace of Whorekill Court in 1678. He doesn’t seem to have endeared himself to many in the role; he was frequently reported for going into rages and showering his fellow justices with abusive language. He was said to have beaten one of them with a cane. They didn’t have long to put up with his irascibility. Avery died in 1682, leaving his plantation to his wife and three children. His will and estate inventories list 50 head of cattle, other assorted livestock, tools, furniture and two humans bound in chattel slavery valued at 3,000 pounds of tobacco apiece.

Despite its significant history as a very early plantation owned by a first-generation English colonist and its including on the National Register, in 2005 the site was acquired by real estate developers to build housing. The Archaeological Society of Delaware and the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs asked the developers allow them to dig a trench or two on the off-chance there might be some archaeological material from the earliest days of European and African presence in Delaware and the developers magnanimously granted them permission to excavate the site in 2006 and 2007. Construction, and the attendant destruction of anything left unexcavated, went forward after that, but the teams continued to explore neighboring land.

The teams excavating the site were hoping to find the remains of the main house Captain Avery and his family lived in, but they never did. By 2007, they had found wells, one wooden well lining (preserved in the waterlogged environment), fence lines, clay pits, glass beads, numerous pipe bowls, Spanish coins, metal pieces from horse fittings, assorted pottery and a large number of animal bones, likely left behind during the process of butchering all that stock mentioned in the estate documents for trade, not for family consumption.

These were meaningful discoveries from a social historical perspective, providing researchers with a rare opportunity to explore the day-to-day operations of an early colonial plantation that was large and prosperous enough to anchor the trade and supply of the British residents of the New World colony. They weren’t the structures the archaeologists had been hoping for, however, so over the next few years they kept looking for them on adjoining properties.

In 2012, they found something else entirely: the first human remains. That triggered a legal requirement that next-of-kin be sought to grant state permission to excavate and study the remains. Three Avery descendants stepped up and granted said permission. By September of 2014, 11 bodies had been unearthed and the Smithsonian Institution’s experts were on the ground to recover the remains and move them to the Smithsonian laboratory for thorough analysis.

So thorough was it that the analysis has taken three years to complete. The age, gender, ethnic origin of the decedents are now known, with even more detail to come.

“Avery’s Rest provides a rare opportunity to learn about life in the 17th century, not only through the study of buried objects and structures, but also through analyses of well-preserved human skeletal remains,” said Dr. Owsley, who leads the Division of Physical Anthropology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. “The bone and burial evidence provides an intriguing, personal look into the life stories of men, women and children on the Delaware frontier, and adds to a growing body of biological data on the varied experiences of colonist and enslaved populations in the Chesapeake region.”

Bone and DNA analysis confirmed that three of the burials were people of African descent and eight were of European descent. Coupled with research from the historical record, Dr. Owsley further determined that the European burials may be the extended family of John Avery and his wife Sarah, including their daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren. However, genetic markers alone are not sufficient to determine the exact identities of the remains. […]

The remains will stay in the custody of the Smithsonian, where they will assist ongoing work to trace the genetic and anthropological history of the early colonial settlers of the Chesapeake region. Delaware law strictly forbids the public display of human remains.

While the Smithsonian works the science, Delaware, the Archaeological Society and other historical organizations are launching a research project in the hopes of discovering the identities of the 11 people found buried at Avery’s Rest. Any information they uncover would become part of an exhibition, be it names, places, dates or facial reconstructions.

“Delaware’s history is rich, fascinating and deeply personal to many of us who call this state home,” said Secretary of State Jeff Bullock. “Discoveries like this help us add new sharpness to our picture of the past, and I’m deeply grateful to the passionate community of historians, scientists and archeologists who have helped bring these new revelations to light.”

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3D animation of Sculptor’s Cave

Tuesday, December 5th, 2017

Sculptor’s Cave in Moray, Scotland, is an archaeological gem among archaeological gems. It is the main cave of several set in the craggy ocean-facing cliff that was used by local peoples for millennia. In the Bronze Age deposits of jewelry and ceramics were made there, and the abundance of human skeletal remains, many of children, from that era also found in the cave suggests it held some ritual funerary significance. The skull of one the children appears to have been defleshed post-mortem. Less sensational that the defleshed child but just as meaningful historically are the Pictish symbols carved on the walls of the entrances.

This unique location has been kept hidden from public view (from most people’s view, for that matter) for its own protection and for everyone else’s because it is only accessible at low tide. That’s going to change now, at least virtually.

A new project, funded by Historic Environment Scotland and carried out by Professor Ian Armit and Dr Lindsey Büster at the University of Bradford, has created a high-resolution animated model of the cave. Through laser scanning and structured light scanning, the details of the cave have been digitally preserved to allow for more in-depth exploration of the cave – and the Pictish symbols – no matter whether the tide is high.

“The Sculptor’s Cave is a fascinating location, known for decades for the richness of its archaeology and for the unusual Pictish carvings around its entrance,” said Professor Armit of Bradford’s School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences. “This walk-through animation allows us to study the carvings in detail, and to present this inaccessible site to the public through online and museum displays. It also ensures that we can preserve the cave and the carvings digitally for future generations to study.”

Here is an animated flythrough of Sculptor’s Cave in the 3D model created using the scan data. This is just a glimpse of what’s to come. Next year the results of the study will be published by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. The animated model will be deployed at the Elgin Museum so that visitors will be able to see the cave and its carvings in detail.

In keeping with the mini-theme I seem to have accidentally developed over the past couple of days, Historic Environment Scotland has launched an even more ambitious digitization project that will see 50,000 items from its archives scanned, uploaded to the web and made freely available to all. The records include photographs taken by HES’ predecessor organizations, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland and Historic Scotland. For more than a century (1908 to 2015) RCAHMS’ brief was documenting everything it could about Scotland’s history as seen in physical structures and the environment. There are a thousands of aerial photos shot from airplanes, pictures of buildings (and therefore street life) throughout the decades, among many other things. RCAHMS merged with Historic Scotland, steward of many of Scotland’s listed buildings, in 2015. As a result HES today has an enormous collection of photographs stored in their headquarters Edinburgh, but they’re only accessible to people who can get to John Sinclair House in person.

The digitization initiative will take those 50,000 photos out of their green archive boxes and into pixel space. Once the scanning is complete, the images will be uploaded to Canmore, HES’ online catalogue of its enormous collection of records (including a fine array of historic photographs like Misses Reid and Bonshaw looking fierce in their garden on July 10th, 1890) and catalogue entries of archaeological sites, survey data, architecture and tons more.

Jacobite Risings model by Brick to the Past on display.Not related to the theme but too awesome not to genuflect before is a new exhibition at Stirling Castle called The Jacobite Risings: The Fight for Britain’s Throne. It recreates key events and locations in the Jacobite rebellions in LEGO. That’s right, one million bricks and 2000 tiny soldiers were used to bring history to life for all LEGO-loving peoples, child and child-at-heart alike. Two of the scenes include miniature buildings whose real life versions are cared for by Historic Environment Scotland. One is the starkly white medieval tower house Corgarff Castle. The other Ruthven Barracks, a military fortification on a high promontory built after the 1715 Jacobite uprising by George II to keep the ever-restless Jacobites from re-rising. It didn’t work in the long-term and the barracks were taken by a frontal assault in 1746.

The Jacobite conflict writ in LEGO is currently opened to the public on Monday and runs through February 2nd, 2018. You can even make a day of it and visit Ruthven Barracks after you see mini-Ruthven at Stirling. Unfortunately the hat trick is not an option because Corgarff Castle is closed until the spring. (It is in the middle of nowhere anyway, so probably would have made it a multi-day LEGO inspired pilgrimage.)

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Google, British Museum digitize Maya collection

Monday, December 4th, 2017

The British Museum and the Google Arts & Culture have been collaborating on creating a complex, in depth digital virtual museum experience for years now. It’s been an exceptionally fruitful partnership from the outset, when the the new Google subsite dedicated to the British Museum’s physical structure, contents, permanent collection and exhibitions opened two years ago. Google Street View’s cameras crawled the entire space and put one of the world’s greatest encyclopedic museums online for everyone in the world with an Internet connection to explore in mind-blowing detail. The collection was rephotographed, this time in the massive resolution of gigapixel cameras, so objects could be viewed on computer screens in far greater dimensions than in person.

Their latest endeavour is dedicated to the preservation of endangered Mayan cultural knowledge and artifacts. It’s a fully functional guided tour, not just of the British Museum’s Maya collection, but of Mayan history and culture. If you go through the virtual exhibition in order, you’ll first encounter an introduction by writer Kanishk Tharoor who gives a summary of who the Maya were and are, a timeline of key events, what we know about their cities, architecture, engineering, language, art and science. That’s followed by a piece by historian Robert Bevan on what the collapse of Mayan cities can tell us about our own present. It’s highly relevant to the British Museum’s collection because since the Spanish burned almost all of the written manuscripts, in order to read Mayan history we have to rely on inscriptions carved in stone.

Atmospheric erosion has caused many in situ written carvings to become illegible, but a new collaboration between Google Arts & Culture and the British Museum is working to combat this gradual destruction. Using 19th century photographs and casts, combined with 21st century digital techniques, means fresh texts to decipher, and a deeper understanding of the ancient Maya.

The project’s source material is the work of the much-overlooked Victorian explorer Alfred Maudslay who traveled through Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras in the 1880s. He used the up-to-date photographic technique of dry plate photography and hauled tons of plaster of Paris with him to create moulds of some of the monuments he encountered, and paper to make impressions (‘squeezes’) of others. 400 of the resulting casts and 800 glass plate negatives are now in the British Museum, among the 100,000 American items held in its collection.

Now, all of these casts and squeezes are being 3D-scanned, allowing researchers to manipulate the images in a way that will assist in translating the Maya inscriptions. Alongside this, an immersive VR journey is being created that takes children, via objects in the museum, to see the ruins in the forests of the Maya region, complete with howler monkeys and soaring ceiba trees that, amongst the Maya, are thought to connect the underworld with the sky. The project is giving us a clearer picture of what happened to the ancient Maya.

Bevan’s article includes embeds of some of the newly digitized Mauslay photographs and 3D models of the moulds he took. You cannot download them, sad to say, but click on the embeds to see them in their fully zoomable fulgor. The next section is a multi-media slide show that explain Mayan writing, the conservation of Mauslay’s casts, the history of Guatemalan masks and the many challenges of preserving Mayan monuments using pictures and animated street view captures. It culminates in a YouTube video of curator Dr. Jago Cooper speaking about Maudslay’s work and how the British Museum can help Google to preserve Mayan history.

The next section is another slideshow, this one about the history of the museum’s Mayan collection which is of comparatively recent extraction. They didn’t really start collecting Maya artifacts until the mid-19th century. Maudslay’s casts didn’t join the party until the 1920s and the best known original artifacts only arrived in the 1930s when coffee planter Charles Fenton donated his important private collection to the museum. The two slideshows after this one focus on the explorer and his casts, followed by a huge photos and 3D models of the casts.

Because it’s Google we’re talking about, there are opportunities to take a virtual stroll through ancient Maya archaeological sites, explore their cities in 360-degree flexibility, even tools for teachers to design virtual trips through space and time for their classes. It’s an ambitious assemblage with a deep bench of content and media to devour. So what are you waiting for?

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A portrait mummy and a particle accelerator walk into a bar…

Thursday, November 30th, 2017

Okay so she didn’t walk, she was transported, and it wasn’t to a bar. It was to the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory where the first time ever, a mummy was scanned by a particle accelerator. The mummy was donated years ago to the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary at Northwestern University by the Hibbard family, wealthy patrons who had funded archaeological digs in Egypt in the early 20th century and received the mummy as a gift (goes the story). They gave this mummy, the remains of a little girl just five years old at the time of her death in the late 1st century A.D., with a portrait of her over her face as if she were peering through the bandages wrapped around her body. It’s that portrait that captured researcher’s interest.

The encaustic-on-wood panel paintings preserved in pristine color and detail by the dry desert heat of Egypt are so personal, evocative and haunting that they’ve been a hot-ticket item for wide sale and distribution in the shady antiquities trade since the first ones were found in the 17th century. Today the mummy portraits number about 900, most of them unearthed from the Faiyum necropolis southwest of Cairo, as was the little girl whose remains were discovered in Hawara at the entrance to the Faiyum oasis. The Faiyum portraits are the largest assemblage of ancient panel paintings still in existence today.

Only 100 of them are still intact and attached to the mummies they depict so expertly. The Hibbard mummy is part of an elite cadre, therefore. And yet, nobody in the archaeological department or on the staff of Northwestern’s Block Museum of Art had any idea she existed. She just hung out at the Seminary for a century, uncommented upon, until museum curator Essi Rönkkö saw her in person. With the curatorial team already in the process of collecting mummy portraits for an upcoming exhibition Paint the Eyes Softer: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt (ie, Faiyum), Rönkkö took advantage of the unbelievably rare opportunity to add the girl’s mummy to the portraits going on display.

The child’s body is wrapped tightly in thick layers of linen wrappings, the outer layer of which cross each other in a painstaking geometric arrangement that secure and frame her painted visage. Painted with pigment and sealed with beeswax, the girl is shown with her hair is tied at the nape of her neck and wearing a red tunic with gold jewelry. Because of her secure bindings, there was no way for researchers to study her insides without causing damage, but now that they had a real matched pair, the bones still safely wrapped in their original bandages and the intact portrait above them, researchers wanted to examine both the human and her representation with the best technology at their disposal.

In August they took the mummy to Northwestern Memorial Hospital where she was given a CT scan. This provided the team with a 3D map of the mummy’s inside and confirmed she was about five years old when she died. On Monday they considerably upped the ante and took her to the Argonne National Laboratory in Evanston to see what the immense light power of X-ray scattering (the technology that revealed the contents of that medallion box from the French crypt so clearly I heard my own jaw drop when I first saw the video) could tell us about her.

“Intact portrait mummies are exceedingly rare, and to have one here on campus was revelatory for the class and exhibition,” said Marc Walton, a research professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. […]

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our undergraduate students — and for me — to work at understanding the whole object that is this girl mummy,” Walton said. “Today’s powerful analytical tools allow us to nondestructively do the archaeology scientists couldn’t do 100 years ago.”

The synchrotron experiment at Argonne is a modern-day version of 19th-century England’s “mummy unwrapping” parties, Walton said. The Northwestern team collaborated with scientists at Argonne and used the extremely brilliant high-energy synchrotron X-rays produced by Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source to probe the materials and objects inside the mummy, while leaving the mummy and her wrappings intact.

“From a medical research perspective, I am interested in what we can learn about her bone tissue,” Stock said. “We also are investigating a scarab-shaped object, her teeth and what look like wires near the mummy’s head and feet.”[…]

At the Advanced Photon Source, Stock and his team shined the pencil-shaped X-ray beam (about twice the diameter of a human hair) on areas of high-density in the mummy that were identified by the CT scan. They now will use the X-ray diffraction patterns as “fingerprints” to identify each crystalline material. For example, is the black rounded object seen on the CT scan a gold object or a rock?

The findings from the synchrotron experiment, CT scan and other scientific analyses and studies of history conducted by the students will help researchers and historians better understand the context in which the Garrett mummy was excavated in 1911 as well as Roman-period mummification practices. Also, conservators will use the information to best preserve the mummy.

“We’re basically able to go back to an excavation that happened more than 100 years ago and reconstruct it with our contemporary analysis techniques,” Walton said. “All the information we find will help us enrich the entire historic context of this young girl mummy and the Roman period in Egypt.”

Paint the Eyes Softer: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt opens at the Block Museum of Art on January 13th and runs through April 22nd, 2018.

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Best sphinx head from 1923 Ten Commendments found

Wednesday, November 29th, 2017

Archaeologists have unearthed another piece of colossal scenary from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 epic silent movie The Ten Commandments from the sands of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes near Pismo Beach, California. At least one filmmaker, enthusiasts, nature conservancy advocates and archaeologists have been looking for the fabled set since 1982. DeMille claimed to have deliberately destroyed it after filming wrapped to keep it from being used by copy-cats to get their movies to look as good as his without having to spend the Croesonian budgets studios allowed him. He said he had it dynamited to smithereens and bulldozed the remains into a trench.

A few bits and pieces were indeed found by filmmaker Peter Brosnan in 1983, who had to do assiduous research to even find the general area where this landmark film was shot. While there was a small flurry of interest from the Hollywood community when the first discoveries were made, the next shiny thing came along to distract potential moneyed supporters and Brosnan spent the next 30 years looking for more of the set and trying to raise funds to finish a documentary about the search that he’d been filming since 1982.

In 1998, Brosnan’s organization teamed up with a nature preserve advocacy now known as the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center and together they were able to recover more pieces of the set. DeMille had not in fact dynamited it, it seemed. There would have been evidence of that in the fragments, damage, scatter pattern, etc. He just broke the whole thing down and buried it and then the harsh elements did the rest, turning all that plaster and balsa wood to dust. Leave it to him to spin a yarn featuring a big dramatic action sequence complete with pyrotechnics when describing striking a set.

The pursuit of the fabled lost land of Fake Movie Egypt picked up steam in the second decade of the 21st century. An archaeological dig discovered the head of one of the 21 plaster sphinxes (originally each one was 12 feet tall and weighed five tons even though they were hollow) that DeMille used to line the dramatic corridor leading to the main gates of “The City of the Pharaoh,” a vista he borrowed from the Avenue of Sphinxes that connects the temples of Karnak and Luxor. The archaeologists were not able to transport the head so they reburied it hoping the sands would preserve it, but the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes are not Luxor. They’re at the beach, after all, and there’s a saltwater marine layer that blocked the adhesion of the expoxy archaeologists had coated the plaster in for its protection. When they returned in 2014, the head had fallen to pieces. They were able to find another of the The City of the Pharaoh sphinx heads nearby that year, and that one was successfully recovered and conserved for display at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center.

In October of this year, archaeologists finally returned to the site. (Funding in an unending migraine, hence the irregular digs.) The excavation was very brief, from October 23rd through November 4th, but the team made a big find even in that brief window: a 300-pound piece of the head of another one of the plaster sphinxes, the largest and best preserved yet.

“The piece is unlike anything found on previous digs,” said Doug Jenzen, executive director of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center.

What makes the recent find significant is its size and how well-preserved researchers found it.

“The majority of it is preserved by sand with the original paint still intact,” Jenzen said. “This is significant and shows that we’re still learning unexpected facets to film historical movie production, such as the fact that objects in black-and-white films were actually painted extremely intense colors.” […]

The sphinx head, which is about 5 feet by 8 feet, is currently being stored so it can dry out for a few months before art restorers can get to work preserving the artifact.

“It”s 94 years old and has been buried near the beach for that long; it is wet. If you think of the drywall in your house buried for 94 years at the beach, that is the consistency of the material we are working with,” Jenzen said.

Sphinx head removed from the sand to the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center for conservation. Photo courtesy the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center.

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Clark acquires politically daring portrait of child

Monday, November 27th, 2017

The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, is renown worldwide for the size and quality of its Impressionist collection. Sterling Clark, an heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune, was highly discriminating in the pieces he chose to buy. He was entirely self-taught and relied solely on his own excellent taste, the input of a few trusted dealers and of the opinions of his wife Francine, a French-born actress who he described as his “touchstone in judging pictures.” The result was a collection of such depth that it eclipsed in quality the collections amassed by his wealthier contemporaries.

He kept it all on the down low, collecting for decades in the background, never publishing, promoting or displaying his artworks until th opening of the Clark Art Institute in 1955. Out of nowhere, it seemed, and set in a small college town in the remote Berkshire Mountains, one of the greatest private collections ever pieced together exploded on the scene. The Impressionists, the main focus of Sterling and Francine Clark’s acquisitions after 1920, made the most lasting impression overall, but the Clark also has a phenomenal collection of paintings from the 14th century through the 19th, decorative arts, Remington bronzes, porcelain and British and American silver.

Its location next to Williams College was not a coincidence. From the beginning, the Clarks evisioned the museum not just as a venue for the display of their flawless collection, but as a hub of art historical research and education. The museum sponsors the college’s world-class art history graduate program have developed a truly symbiotic relationship that has produced curators and directors who have worked in the greatest museums in the country and internationally.

Alexandre Jean Dubois-Drahonet (French, 1791-1834), Portrait of Achille Deban de Laborde, 1817, Oil on canvas, 59 x 39.6 in. Clark Art Institute, 2017.2.The Clarks’ judiciously ecclectic approach has continued in the museum they founded. The permanent collection has grown significantly since 1955 as the Clark Art Institute very selectively acquires pieces to flesh out certain areas, time periods and subject matters. One of its latest acquisitions is the Portrait of Achille Deban de Laborde (1817) by Alexandre-Jean Dubois-Drahonet, a French portraitist who may not have the highest name recognition today, but who was preeminent in his field and specialized in studies of military uniforms, several of which are now in the collection of Windsor Castle. Purchased at auction this past April for $295,500, far above its pre-sale estimate, it is a full-length oil on canvas painting of a boy dressed in full Napoleonic military uniform.

The striking garb and composition of the portrait is a tribute to Achille’s father, Baron Jean-Baptiste Deban de Laborde, a First Empire Hussar who was died in combat at the Battle of Wagram in 1809. His son was just one year old at the time. Seven years later, he sat for a portrait wearing a child-sized version of his father’s uniform with its characteristic silver frogging and wee tasselled hessian boots. The youth leans on a ceremonial sword his father was given as an award for bravery as squadron leader at the Battle of Marengo in 1800. His sabre and its scabbard are on the floor on the lower right. Pinned to the velvet drapery in the upper left of the painting is the late baron’s 1804 Légion d’honneur medal, among others. On the couch behind Achille are Jean-Baptiste’s plumed shako cap and sabretache (a pouch worn on cavalrymen’s belt). The cap bears the number 8, Jean-Baptiste’s hussar regiment.

“This beautiful painting enhances the Clark’s collection of early nineteenth-century portraiture,” said Olivier Meslay, Felda and Dena Hardymon Director. “It invites a close comparison to the Jacques-Louis David portrait Comte Henri-Amédée-Mercure de Turenne-d’Aynac (1816) that is in our collection, and provides a poignant juxtaposition between a Napoleonic war hero and a child honoring one who was lost on the battlefield.”

Dubois-Drahonet primarily worked as a portraitist but also produced a number of studies of military uniforms. His work was notable for its clean lines and a command of light similar to that of his contemporary Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Drahonet exhibited at the Salon from 1812 to 1834 and was awarded a medal in 1827. The portrait of Achille Deban de Laborde combines Drahonet’s talent for portraiture with his detailed knowledge of military uniform and accoutrements.

“The Dubois-Drahonet and David portraits were created within one year of each other, and both represent bold statements of Napoleonic support in a time of staunch anti-imperial sentiment,” said Esther Bell, Robert and Martha Berman Lipp Senior Curator. “David was living in exile when he painted comte de Turenne. In painting such a daring portrait memorializing a soldier with a distinguished military career under Napoleon, Dubois-Drahonet and his patrons were taking a political risk.”

They took it twice, in fact, because that same year Achille’s older brother Edouard-César Deban de Laborde was also immportalized in a portrait by Dubois-Drahonet. The son and heir is even more elaborately kitted out in uniform as he wraps a garland of flowers around the laurel-crowned marble bust of his noble but sad father. When he grew up, Achille, like his father, chose a military career. Also like his father, he rose to the rank of colonel, although not in the Hussars but the Fourth Cuirassiers Regiment. When his brother Edouard died without issue in 1851, Achille inherited his father’s title too.

After it was bought from a Belgian private collector by the Clark, the Portrait of Achille Deban de Laborde spent a few months getting some love from the experts at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center. They found it in exceptional condition, its canvas, stretchers and frame all original. It just required a thorough cleaning, the removal of a discolored varnish layer (not applied by the artist) and a few fill-ins here and there of small spots where the paint had flaked off over the years. After 65 hours of conservation work over the course of weeks, the beautiful portrait was ready for primetime. It is now on display at the Clark with other early 19th century works.

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LoC acquires, digitizes rare Mesoamerican map

Saturday, November 25th, 2017

The Library of Congress has acquired an extremely rare manuscript map created by the Nahuatl people of Mexico in 1593. The Codex Quetzalecatzin, also known as the Mapa de Ecatepec-Huitziltepec, is one of very few manuscripts by indigenous Mesoamericans survive unburned, largely because it wasn’t part of the immense literary patrimony of pre-Hispanic cultures that was considered “demonic” because of its hieroglyphics, but rather the product of the Relaciones Geográficas, an extensive mapping project of colonial Spanish America ordered by King Philip II the late 16th century. Surveys sent to colonial authorities in every territory had to be filled in with a range of demographic, geographic, topographic and cartographic information, complete with an accurate and to-scale map of the area. The maps and much of the information on them were made by indigenous people based on local knowledge.

The codex maps southern Puebla from Ecatepec, today a suburb of Mexico City to the church of Santa Cruz Huitziltepec and across the provincial border into northern Oaxaca. It’s drawn in iron gall ink and painted in watercolors on paper. It is rich with hieroglyphics, colorful and compelling drawings and text labelling people and locations in Spanish and in romanized Nahuatl. While we don’t know the name of the artist/s and writers who made the Codex Quetzalecatzin, it does include unique geneaological information about an important local family — several generations of the Nahuatl “de Leon” family from 1480 through 1593 — and the interweaving of indigenous and Spanish cultures in the century after Christopher Columbus.

[T]he Librarian stated: “The acquisition of the map, because of its relevance to the early history of the European contact with the indigenous people of America, makes an important addition to the early American treasures at the Library of Congress, including the Oztoticpac Lands Map and the Huexotzinco Codex. It’s a rare document of world history and American history in general.” […]

As with many Nahua, indigenous group, manuscript maps of the period, the Codex Quetzalecatzin depicts the local community at an important point in its history and the iconography that makes up the map reflects some Spanish influence.

“The codex shows graphically the kinds of cultural interactions taking place at an important moment in American history,” said John Hessler, curator of the Jay I. Kislak Collection for the archaeology of the early Americas of the Library of Congress. “In a sense, we see the birth of what would be the start of what we would come to know as the Americas.”

Hessler added: “The codex relates to the extent of land ownership and properties of the family line known as “de Leon,” most of the members of which are portrayed on the manuscript. With Aztec stylized graphics, the map illustrates the family’s genealogy and its descent from Quetzalecatzin, who in 1480 was the major political leader of the region. It also shows churches, some Spanish place names and images suggesting a community adapting to Spanish law and rule.”

In the codex, certain features that point to indigenous authorship include pre-Hispanic stylistics, such as symbols for rivers, roads and pathways, and hieroglyphic writing. The marginal notations with alphabetic writing utilizing the Latin alphabet and the names of some of the indigenous elites, such as “don Alonso” and “don Matheo,” are clues to its colonial era composition. This is evidence that some indigenous people enjoyed the Spanish title “don” and had been baptized with Christian names.

The LoC has digitized the map and uploaded it to its website, which in case you haven’t seen it yet is one of the greatest photographic archives on the Internet and has been for years, long before other institutions got on the bandwagon of making high-resolution images available online to the general public. It’s so great, in fact, that I couldn’t even upload the full image to this article because it’s so gloriously gigantic my server can’t handle it. I mean, of course I uploaded a gigantic version, but it’s less than half the size of the original behemoth. Behold it in all its grandeur here.

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A Black Friday sale actually worth spending money on

Friday, November 24th, 2017

In a shocking development, there was one single advertisment in the avalanche of Black Friday gimmick sales spam currently suffocating my email inbox that is actually worth sharing with people of the history nerdly persuasion. I’ve written before about Exhibition on Screen productions, films capturing the background and execution of blockbuster art exhibitions. I’ve only had the opportunity to watch one of them on the big screen, but if I’d had my way, I would have watched them all. The distribution is just very limited is all.

For one day only, ie, today, Friday, November 24th, every film in stock on their website is 50% off. Some of them are on DVD and only available in PAL format so they won’t work in most players in the US. Many of them are digital downloads which are a) easily viewed anywhere in the world, and b) cheap as hell. I’m limbering up my clickin’ finger because there’s going to be a lot of compensatory binging in my near future. I might be amenable to burning them as a stocking stuffers, but I make no guaratees.

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, Michelangelo – Love and Death, The Impressionists and the Man Who Made Them, The Curious World of Hieronymus Bosch, Girl with a Pearl Earring – and other treasures from the Mauritshuis and Leonardo from the National Gallery London will all be mine. Oh yes. They will be mine. For less than $3.50 a pop.

My one crushing disappointment is that their Domus Aurea documentary is out of stock. You would not believe how little material is out there about the recent restoration and new virtual reality exhibition of Nero’s Golden House. The site doesn’t have a bookstore and the general bookstore had diddly squat about the palace beyond a few cheesy pages in a tour book that didn’t even begin to touch on all the new archaeological information and technology.

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