Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Monumental Tiepolo back on display after 4-year restoration

Wednesday, June 20th, 2018

Bacchus and Ariadne (1743/1745), a monumental oil-on-canvas painting by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, is back on display at Washington’s National Gallery of Art after a four-year conservation. The painting is believed to be part of a series of mythological scenes representing the four elements: earth, water, air and fire, only three of which are known to survive today. Bacchus and Ariadne represented earth.

We know from a letter Tieopolo wrote in 1764 that he painted the series to adorn a Venice palace. We don’t know which palace as the only reference in the letter to the owner are the initials “V.E.” Bacchus and Ariadne only decorated V.E.’s palace for 60 years or so before it was bought by a collector and moved out of Venice for good. The meticulous restoration has revealed long-lost original details that were painted over when the work was first moved at the end of the 18th century or lost as the condition deteriorated over time.

The project’s painting conservator, Sarah Gowen Murray, worked closely with colleagues in painting conservation, scientific research, and preventive conservation to treat the painting and conduct analysis of the work. Overpaint removal uncovered tall vertical leaves on the left and right sides of the composition. Infrared imaging—conducted by John Delaney, senior imaging scientist—and analysis of cross-section samples of those areas—examined and interpreted by Barbara Berrie, head of the scientific research department—indicated that the leaves were originally bound together by gold ribbons. A precedent for the ribbons was established in another work by Tiepolo, Castigo dei Serpenti (The Scourge of the Snakes) (1732–1735) at the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice. These findings, archived documentation images, and other works by the artist were then consulted to reconstruct the missing elements with inpainting.

Other discoveries made during the treatment include indications of significant compositional changes made by Tiepolo, suggesting that Bacchus and Ariadne may have been the first painting of the series. X-radiographs exposed curved forms at the lower-right corner extending beneath the griffin and the jaguar—perhaps initial attempts by the artist to incorporate the composition into the work’s surrounding architecture.

One characteristic feature of Tieopolo’s mature works that has been brought back to life with this restoration is the coolness of his color palette. This set him apart from other Venetian painters of his period and allowed his frescoes and large-scale paintings like this one to convey a realistic sense of daylight. The illumination effect would have been a particularly desirable feature in monumental works intended to decorate the walls of large palaces. Bacchus and Ariadne, for example, were commissioned to hang over a staircase.

X-rays have found that there was a ledge painted along the bottom edge with griffin-like creatures at each end of the ledge. A cornice framed the top of the painting as well, curving down. The right side had a column with a vine of acanthus leaves wrapped around it. These architectural features are thought to have been created to match the location where the painting was originally located. They were painted over, likely after the work was acquired by the Artaria family who hung it in their Como estate. Inventory records note its presence there in 1798. The ledge, columns and griffins were painted out and a figure of Rhea was added to the lower left of the composition. The conservation restored the architectural elements, doubtless much to the relief of the putto on the top left who now has his perch back instead of floating unmoored.

The X-rays also found a great deal of damage to the canvas itself — tears, holes — and areas of inpainting and overpainting from later interventions that were not well done to begin with and had discolored and flaked over the years. The varnish was even worse. Darkened and discolored, the varnish layers had mutated the cool daylight palette of the original to a bilious jaundice. A full relining of the canvas and careful thinning of the varnish layers performed in 1960 was unable to solve the problem, but conservation technology has changed enormously over the past 60 years. The recent treatment has brought back Tieopolo’s light blue sky.

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Chinese vase carried in a shoebox to huge payday

Sunday, June 17th, 2018

An 18th century imperial Chinese vase carried by its owner to Sotheby’s Paris office in a shoebox sold for €16,182,800 ($25.1 million) at an auction on Tuesday. That’s more than 20 times the pre-sale estimate ($775,000 to $1.1 million) and is the highest price ever paid for a single object at Sotheby’s Paris and sets a new record for Chinese porcelain sold anywhere in France.

The sellers inherited the vase from their grandparents who had inherited it from an uncle. An inventory of the uncle’s apartment after his death in 1947 records the vase and several other Chinese pieces, including a bronze mirror in a carved lacquer box that the sellers also consigned to Sotheby’s for sale. The family treasure was kept in the attic for years until the sellers decided to have some of the old stuff appraised.

“This person [the seller] took the train, then the metro and walked on foot through the doors of Sotheby’s and into my office with the vase in a shoebox protected by newspaper,” Sotheby’s Asian arts expert Olivier Valmier said.

“When she put the box on my desk and we opened it we were all stunned by the beauty of the piece.”

A red stamp on the bottom of the vase is the seal of the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736 to 1796), avid collector of Chinese traditional and Western art who had both Chinese and Western artists at his court. The fusion of styles produced innovative designs, colors and perspective particular to his reign.

The vase is a unique artwork, the only known example of its kind. It is a Famille-Rose or yangcai porcelain made in the imperial workshops of Jingdezhen . The whole category is extremely rare, found almost exclusively in museums, and the decoration of this one has no comparables. Around the center of the vase is a beautiful hilly landscape dotted with pine trees, a waterfall and incredibly detailed deer and cranes. Around the neck and bottom are brocade-like borders of floral and pearl designs with gold accents. This kind of object was not part of the workshop’s regular production lines. They were either one-offs or part of a pair, the absolute cream of the artist crop.

The sellers knew it was of some value, but had no idea that it was the antiquities version of a winning lottery ticket. Nor did they know that it was as old as it was or that it bore the imprimatur of a Quin dynasty emperor.

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Another stolen Columbus letter returned to Italy

Friday, June 15th, 2018

Yet another rare copy of the letter Christopher Columbus wrote reporting his discovery of the “Indies” has been returned to the institution from which it was stolen. Two years ago the letter, stolen from Florence’s Riccardiana Library before 1990 and replaced with a forgery, was found in the Library of Congress and returned to Florence. Just last week a copy found in a private collection and returned to the the National Library of Catalonia in Barcelona. This time it’s the Vatican Library’s turn.

All three of them were replaced by plausible forgeries and the originals smuggled out of the countries of origin, eventually making their way to the United States. The Vatican acquired its copy in 1921 as part of a larger collection of rare books and manuscripts bequeathed by bibliophile Giovanni Francesco De Rossi. They’re not sure when it was stolen, but likely before 2007 when security at the library was massively increased. The forgery was noticed by a rare book and manuscript expert who also spotted similar substitutions in other European libraries and alerted Homeland Security to the thefts in 2011.

It was purchased for $875,000 by the collector, David Parsons of Atlanta, Georgia, from a rare book dealer in 2004. Nine years later, Parsons asked the same rare book expert to examine his volume to determine its authenticity. The expert found that the letter was in a newer binding, but was otherwise identical to the Vatican’s copy. Parsons died in 2014. HSI agents contacted his widow Mary last year about the suspected theft. The rare book expert’s assessment was confirmed when the letter and the Vatican’s volume were compared side by side. The dimensions of the binding and the remains of the original sewing on the letter were a perfect match. Mary Parsons relinquished all property claims and the letter was returned to the Vatican in an official ceremony on Thursday, June 14th.

As in the news stories about the repatriation of the Riccardiana Library’s letter, there is persistent confusion about when the original was written to whom and the copies derived from it. Columbus wrote the letter in February 1493, one of two he sent to his Spanish patrons after his arrival in Palos in March. The persistent error is that the copies were not made from the letter he sent to monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, but rather from the one he sent to finance minister Luis de Santangel. From what we know, the two letters were near duplicates in the content regarding the Indies, but it’s a lazy shorthand to elide the fact that the published letter was not, in fact, written to the monarchs. Ferdinand and Isabella deliberately kept their letter under wraps so we don’t know exactly what Columbus wrote to them. It was never published and the original is lost. It was the Santangel letter that spread like wildfire less than a month after its dispatch.

The Santangel letter was first published in Spanish by Pere Posa in April of 1493, a few weeks after Columbus sent it. The next month a Latin translation of it was printed in Rome by Stephen Plannck. As that edition had a glaring omission in the introduction — Queen Isabella’s name was left out — Plannck quickly printed a second edition. That one included the names of both monarchs. It also changed the name of the recipient from Raphael Sanxis to Gabriel Sanchez, neither of them accurate, the second a mistaken assumption by translator Aliander de Cosco.

Not to be peevish about it, but it’s blatantly clear from the official photograph of the first page of the letter released by the US Embassy to the Holy See that it is a print of Plannck’s second edition, and some of the stories even note that it’s a Plannck II while still claiming it was written to Ferdinand and Isabella. You don’t have to read Latin to identify the tell-tale names, including the recipient who while misnamed, is explicitly NOT Ferdinand and/or Isabella. Also, it wasn’t “copied by hand in Latin.” It was translated into Latin and printed, as in on a printing press. That’s just sloppy.

Here’s a selection of Christopher Columbus’ impressions of the lands, people and resources he claimed for Spain from an English translation of the first published copy of the Spanish letter:

Española is a marvel; the mountains and hills, and plains, and fields, and the soil, so beautiful and rich for planting and sowing, for breeding cattle of all sorts, for building of towns and villages. There could be no believing, without seeing, such harbours as are here, as well as the many and great rivers, and excellent waters, most of which contain gold. In the trees and fruits and plants, there are great diversities from those of Juana. In this, there are many spiceries, and great mines of gold and other metals.

The people of this island, and of all the others that I have found and seen, or not seen, all go naked, men and women, just as their mothers bring them forth ; although some women cover a single place with the leaf of a plant, or a cotton something which they make for that purpose. They have no iron or steel, nor any weapons ; nor are they fit thereunto ; not because they be not a well-formed people and of fair stature, but that they are most wondrously timorous. They have no other weapons than the stems of reeds in their seeding state, on the end of which they fix little sharpened stakes. Even these, they dare not use ; for many times has it happened that I sent two or three men ashore to some village to parley, and countless numbers of them sallied forth, but as soon as they saw those approach, they fled away in such wise that even a father would not wait for his son. And this was not because any hurt had ever done to any of them : — on the contrary, at every headland where I have gone and been able to hold speech with them, I gave them of everything which I had, as well cloth as many other things, without accepting aught therefor — ; but such they are, incurably timid.

It is true that since they have become more assured, and are losing that terror, they are artless and generous with what they have, to such a degree as no one would believe but him who had seen it. Of anything they have, if it be asked for, they never say no, but do rather invite the person to accept it, and show as much lovingness as though they would give their hearts.[…] They took even pieces of broken barrel-hoops, and gave whatever they had, like senseless brutes ; insomuch that it seemed to me ill. I forbade it, and I gave gratuitously a thousand useful things that I carried, in order that they may conceive affection, and furthermore may be made Christians ; for they are inclined to the love and service of their Highnesses and of all the Castilian nation, and they strive to combine in giving us things which they have in abundance, and of which we are in need.

And they knew no sect, nor idolatry ; save that they all believe that power and goodness are in the sky, and they believed very firmly that I, with these ships and crews, came from the sky ; and in such opinion, they received me at every place where I landed, after they had lost their terror. And this comes not because they are ignorant : on the contrary, they are men of very subtle wit, who navigate all those seas, and who give a marvellously good account of every thing — but because they never saw men wearing clothes nor the like of our ships. And as soon as I arrived in the Indies, in the first island that I found, I took some of them by force, to the intent that they should learn [our speech] and give me information of what there was in those parts. And so it was, that very soon they understood [us] and we them, what by speech or what by signs ; and those [Indians] have been of much service. To this day I carry them [with me] who are still of the opinion that I come from heaven [as appears] from much conversation which they have had with me. […]

They have in all the islands very many canoes, after the manner of rowing-galleys, some larger, some smaller ; and a good many are larger than a galley of eighteen benches. They are not so wide, because they are made of a single log of timber, but a galley could not keep up with them in rowing, for their motion is a thing beyond belief. And with these, they navigate through all those islands which are numberless, and ply their traffic. I have seen some of those canoes with seventy, and eighty, men in them, each one with his oar. In all those islands, I saw not much diversity in the looks of the people, nor in their manners and language ; but they all understand each other, which is a thing of singular towardness for what I hope their Highnesses will determine, as to making them conversant with our holy faith, unto which they are well disposed.

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YouTube masterclass on the Cosmati pavement

Thursday, June 14th, 2018

I see from the recent story on the opening of Westminster Abbey’s triforium galleries that I am not alone in my obsession with its Cosmati pavement, the glorious inlaid semi-precious stone, marble, metal and glass mosaic in front of the High Altar. It was commissioned by King Henry III for his rebuild of the less glamorous Abbey built by Edward the Confessor. Odoricus, an Italian mosaicist trained in the geometric, abstract, allegorical Cosmati style, brought tesserae from Rome and combined them with local materials to create a unique pavement.

The mosaic was finished in 1268 and has been the epicenter of monarchical ceremony ever since. Thirty-eight kings and queens have been crowned on the Cosmati pavement. Trod upon for centuries by the softest royal slipper and roughest pilgrim clog alike, the pavement suffered greatly from wear and ground-in dirt. The marble tiles, which Odoricus is believed to have sourced from the remains of ancient Roman floors, likely had a millennium’s head start on wear, and layer upon layer of wax and polish only served to darken and dim a surface that had once been vividly colored and highly reflective.

Concerned about its deteriorating condition, church officials covered most of the Cosmati pavement with carpet in the 1870s. That’s how it remained, revealed in part or on rare ceremonial occasions until 2008 when Westminster Abbey undertook a comprehensive two-year conservation project. The team cleaned the surface, removing the old wax, polish and dirt with specialized solvents. Stone and glass conservators stabilized damaged areas, repairing damaged glass, stone and mortar. The last step was applying a new protective coating to make it possible for the pavement to be displayed safely and to its best shiny, colorful advantage.

When the conserved pavement was finally revealed in 2010, I yearned to write about it but how could I without proper high resolution before-and-after images? That would be just be cruel. Unfortunately, no such photographs were to be found, not from the Abbey’s communications department, not in the press, not from funders like the Getty which is always great about providing high-res pictures when it comes to its own projects, not even in a publication that I could buy. To this day, almost a decade later, as far as I know there are no books whatsoever documenting the conservation.

The recent discussion on the Cosmati pavement view from the triforium drove me to try one more time. I checked a site dedicated to the conservation that the Abbey had put up in 2012, hoping its sad little 500-pixel images had been upgraded, but the site doesn’t exist anymore. Then I checked YouTube.

Y’all, Westminster Abbey’s channel has a playlist of 51, count’em 51, videos covering the history, symbolism and conservation of the Cosmati pavement. These films are absolutely riveting. Interested in the background of Henry III’s commissioning of the mosaic? Done. Curious about the cosmological significance of the design and how the precise date of the end of the world is calculated in the inscription? Keep watching. How about those glass tesserae so atypical in Cosmati style mosaics? Six videos about them enough for you? Want to hear from the stone masons about the Purbeck Marble background repair? The mortar repair? The yellow limestone repair? The black marble repair? Boom, a video for each.

Clear your social calendar for the next few days and make way for the greatest playlist ever played.

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Francis Drake’s immortalized tell-tale wart

Tuesday, June 12th, 2018

A portrait of Sir Francis Drake recently identified by the wart on his nose is going up for auction at Bonhams’ July 4th Old Master sale in London. Portraits of Drake painted from life are extremely rare. The wart doesn’t appear in later works and reproductions. Its presence on this work marked the sitter as Drake himself (it had been misidentified as his partner and rival Sir John Norreys) and the painting as one of the earliest made of the famed pirate, explorer and hero of the showdown with the Spanish Armada.

Analysis of the paint and materials indicates the portrait was painted in the mid-1570s. His successful circumnavigation of the globe on the Golden Hind was still a few years away, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada that would make him Britain’s greatest national hero was more than a decade in the future. He had made an enormous amount money, however. He began by assisting his cousin John Hawkins in his mercantile ventures in the Caribbean in the 1560s, notably selling slaves captured in raids on Portuguese ships and towns in West Africa. (Hawkins is widely considered the first English slave trader.)

Under his own command in the early 1570s Drake established a thriving and hugely lucrative career in piracy, attacking Spanish shipping and settlements in Caribbean. Drake and his crew plundered coin and cargo from clothing to slaves, amassing so much merchandise it wouldn’t fit on their ships and had to use boats they’d raided to carry it. When he returned to Plymouth from one of those voyages in June of 1571, he had three ships full of 100,000 pounds worth of Spanish goods, cash and slaves, the equivalent of a quarter of the yearly income of the English crown.

In 1573 he captured the Spanish Silver Train, 14 mules laden with 20 tons of Peruvian gold, silver and gems, in Nombre de Dios on the Atlantic coast of Panama. This daring exploit made him a big celebrity back home, even though the government could not officially acknowledge his success (and the massive boost it provided Elizabeth’s treasury) because of a recent truce signed with Philip II of Spain.

Flush with plunder, the adulation of crowds and keen to climb the social ladder, Drake invested his plunder money in Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex’s campaign to subdue Ulster. In 1575, Drake joined the fight in person, deploying the same ships he’d used to harry the small inlets of the Caribbean against the coast of Antrim. Drake’s fleet was critical to Essex’s taking of Rathlin Island, refuge of Clan MacDonnell. Cannon fire from the ships breached the walls of the castle forcing its surrender. Essex then slaughtered everyone, the surrendered officers and troops, the elderly, women and children who had sought shelter in its in caves.

It was against this backdrop of his increasing wealth and standing that the portrait was painted. He is depicted in great military finery, wearing a set of blackened and gilded half-armour etched with symbols of arms (crossed swords, shields, horses, halberds, spears). It’s a style of armour manufactured in northern Italy, likely Milan, and would have been extraordinary expensive. A matching beplumed jousting helmet is on a table to his right. The nouveau-riche Drake, son of a Devonshire farmer, could never claim the status of ancient nobility symbolized by the jousting armour, but he could buy the trappings of it and have himself painted showing them off.

In his left hand he holds a rapier. In his right a ceremonial baton, the sign of high-ranking military officer who has commanded troops in battle. Commander’s batons were usually presented to distinguished field generals by the king (or queen in this case). The Atrim expedition was a private venture funded by Essex and investors for profit (albeit with the agreement of the crown). Drake didn’t get Queen Elizabeth I’s backing for his raids until the late 1570s and he wasn’t even knighted until 1581, so this is a rather generous self-assessment for a privateer, to put it mildly.

The portrait has been on display for the past two years at Buckland Abbey, Drake’s home, purchased after his return from circumnavigating the globe, now administered by the National Trust. They declined to purchase it. If Bonhams pre-sale estimate of $400,000 – 670,000 is anything to go by, they may simply not have been able to afford it.

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Westminster Abbey gallery open after 700 years

Monday, June 11th, 2018

Seven hundred years after it was built, Westminster Abbey’s eastern triforium has opened to the public for the first time. Soaring 52 feet above the Abbey floor, the gallery provides a one-of-a-kind view of the cruciform architecture of nave and apse, the Great West Door, the shrine of Edward the Confessor, and my personal obsession, the Cosmati Pavement in front of the Grand Altar whose intricate geometry is best appreciated from above.

It’s not just a great viewing perch. The triforium has been transformed into the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries, a fitting exhibition space for 300 objects from the Abbey’s collection. It is divided into four sections with their own themes: construction of the Abbey, worship and daily life, relationship with the monarchy and the church’s pivotal role in preserving the national memory.

Artifacts on display include the Litlyngton Missal, an illuminated Latin manuscript that is one of the largest medieval manuscripts known, the Liber Regalis, the 14th century guide to coronations and royal funerals that remains to this day the basis of those ceremonies, the Westminster Retable, the oldest altarpiece in England that is believed to have originally adorned the Westminster Abbey of Henry III’s day. There is also a remarkable collection of royal funeral effigies, 21 of them dating from the 14th through the 17th centuries.

Among them are Mary I and Edward III (who had eyebrows made of dog hair, sadly missing today) and Catherine de Valois, wife of Henry V, slender in her flowing red robe. These would have been placed on the coffin for the funeral procession, bewigged, fully dressed in robes of state and carrying the orb and sceptre. For this reason, they are jointed, like life-size dolls.

Then there are the personal details: for example, the painted head of Henry VII, probably by the Florentine sculptor Pietro Torrigiano, may be a death mask because his mouth is slightly twisted – he died from a stroke. Just nearby is the long, tightly-laced corset worn by the effigy of his grand-daughter Elizabeth I, which would have been topped off with a ruff and a crown.

On Friday, June 8th, the Queen and Prince of Wales officially opened the new galleries and came face-to-effigy with their predecessors. They opened to the public on Monday. The space is small and the number of visitors allowed is limited, so tickets (which must be bought in addition to the general Abbey admission ticket) are timed in 15-minute intervals.

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Battlefield dig finds Napoleonic mass graves

Saturday, June 9th, 2018

The Battle of Wagram took place on July 5 and 6th, 1809, near what is today the Austrian town of Deutsch-Wagram. In the clash between the forces of Napoleon’s French Empire and the Austrian Empire, an estimated 55,000 soldiers died, one of whom was the Baron Jean-Baptiste Deban de Laborde, the French Hussar whose sons would later be so memorably depicted in miniature version of his uniforms.

The general area of the battlefield was know but its precise location was not and no archaeological explorations were done until circumstances — ie, the construction of a new highway from Vienna to Slovakia — forced a survey in accordance with cultural heritage laws. Archaeologists with the firm Novetus were contracted to excavate the route of the highway that goes through Deutsch-Wagram.

Excavations began in March of 2017 and it’s such a complicated project covering such an emormous territory — one site out of many is the size of 27 football fields — that it’s expected to continue until at least the end of 2018. They have definitely found the battlefield, first and foremost, and several mass graves where the dead were buried where they fell. They have also unearthed a wealth of artifacts, including a soldier’s whistle, metal uniform fittings like buckles and buttons, small glass vials that may have contained medicines and scads of ammunition.

The researchers are mapping the hastily dug mass graves and campsites, as well as the thousands of musket balls, bullets, buttons and personal items that were dropped on the field. They hope to get a more detailed look at how the two-day battle went down. Bioarchaeologists are also examining the bones of the soldiers — and discovering just how unhealthy many of them were before they died in the war. […]

Of the 50 skeletons excavated so far, most of the individuals are young men between about 16 and 30 years old, and Binder said their bones bear traces of scurvy from vitamin C deficiency, inflammation of the joints from long marches carrying heavy loads, and infections like pneumonia and other diseases that would have spread in the cramped conditions of the military camp.

The battlefield of the Battle of Aspern-Essling which took place only six weeks before Wagram was excavated earlier and a comparison between the conditions of the bodies unearthed at the sites shows a marked increase in respiratory diseases in the month and a half between the battles. Napoleon’s forces were defeated by Archduke Charles of Austria’s at Aspern-Essling, the first time he’d lost a battle in a decade, but he was able to retreat without crippling losses (both sides has the same casualty count of around 23,000; 7,000 French troops killed in action, 6,300 Austrian) and regroup to win the day at Wagram. The study of the remains shows the real toll taken on soldiers’ bodies by the constant campaigns, win or lose.

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Branwell Brontë’s portrait of his sisters goes home

Thursday, June 7th, 2018

The only known surviving portrait taken from life of sibling literary luminaries Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë has gone home. Part of the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London, the painting is on display at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth for the first time since 1984 to take part in an exhibition honoring the bicentenary of Emily’s birthday (July 30th, 1818). Emily, author of Wuthering Heights, was the fifth of six children, born between brother Patrick Branwell and youngest sister Anne. This is the only undisputed portrait of Emily (experts disagree about whether another painting by Branwell is of Emily or Anne).

It was painted by Branwell Brontë around 1834 at the Haworth parsonage, the family’s home on the Yorkshire moors for many isolated years of their childhood. That parsonage is now the Brontë Parsonage Museum. It usually has to make do with a copy of the famous group portrait, but the original work is now being exhibited in the place where it was painted in Emily’s honor. The honor is a transitory one, however. The painting will only be on view at the parsonage through August 31st.

The work has quite the checkered history. Branwell originally included a self-portrait in the group between Emily and Charlotte, but for unknown reasons he painted himself out, covering his likeness with a weirdly random green ectoplasmic pillar. Because of that odd feature, the painting is known as the Pillar Portrait.

Patrick died in September 1848, followed less than two months later by Emily. Anne died five months after her sister in May of 1849. Charlotte was the last survivor of the Brontë siblings.

Her friend and biographer, novelist Elizabeth Gaskell (author of Cranford and North and South, among others) saw the portrait when she visited Charlotte at Haworth in 1853. She described it in less than glowing terms in her bestselling biography of the author, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, published in 1857:

I have seen an oil painting of [Branwell’s], done I know not when, but probably about this time [1835]. It was a group of his sisters, life-size, three-quarters’ length; not much better than sign-painting, as to manipulation; but the likenesses were, I should think, admirable. I could only judge of the fidelity with which the other two were depicted, from the striking resemblance which Charlotte, upholding the great frame of canvas, and consequently standing right behind it, bore to her own representation, though it must have been ten years and more since the portraits were taken. The picture was divided, almost in the middle, by a great pillar. On the side of the column which was lighted by the sun, stood Charlotte, in the womanly dress of that day of gigot sleeves and large collars. On the deeply shadowed side, was Emily, with Anne’s gentle face resting on her shoulder. Emily’s countenance struck me as full of power; Charlotte’s of solicitude; Anne’s of tenderness. The two younger seemed hardly to have attained their full growth, though Emily was taller than Charlotte; they had cropped hair, and a more girlish dress. I remember looking on those two sad, earnest, shadowed faces, and wondering whether I could trace the mysterious expression which is said to foretell an early death. I had some fond superstitious hope that the column divided their fates from hers, who stood apart in the canvas, as in life she survived. I liked to see that the bright side of the pillar was towards her — that the light in the picture fell on her: I might more truly have sought in her presentment — nay, in her living face — for the sign of death — in her prime. They were good likenesses, however badly executed.

Charlotte lived at Haworth until her tragically premature death in 1855. She had married her father’s curate Arthur Bell Nicholls in 1854 and became pregnant shortly thereafter. She and her unborn child died nine months after the wedding. Charlotte was just shy of her 39th birthday.

Nicholls stayed on as Patrick Brontë’s curate until the latter’s death in 1861, then he moved back to his hometown of Banagher, Ireland. He sold the contents of Haworth but kept manuscripts, ephemera and personal effects, including the group painting even though he apparently hated it. He put it on top of an upstairs cupboard and let people believe it was lost for decades.

It was rediscovered in 1913, seven years after Nicholls’ death, by his second wife and cousin, Mary. By then it was out of its frame, off its stretcher and folded in four. The widow told her niece that Nicholls “disliked them very much. He thought they were very ugly representations of the girls, and I think meant to destroy them, but perhaps shrank from doing so — you see, there is only one other existing portrait of Charlotte, and none at all of Emily and Anne.”

That last bit isn’t true. There was actually a portrait by Branwell of Emily or Anne, (scholars disagree) found on top of the same cupboard as the Pillar Portrait. It was cut out of a group portrait, the rest of which has been lost.

Mary Nicholls sold the group portrait in 1914 to the National Portrait Gallery. Most of the rest of the manuscripts and Brontë memorabilia she sold after her husband’s death or that was sold after her death in 1916 are now part of the Brontë Parsonage Museum collection.

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Ramps, ropes used to place red hats on moai

Wednesday, June 6th, 2018

Researchers have long sought to pinpoint how the monumental heads (moai) of Easter Island (Rapa Nui) were put in place. The statues are up to 33 feet high and weigh up to 81 tons. They were carved from volcanic tuff quarried in one place on the east side of the island Rano Raraku and then moved to their final locations, an arduous task, to put it mildly. The latest studies suggest they were likely walked into place, rocked left and right along carefully prepared roads much like we’d move a refrigerator today.

That still leaves the question of how hats (pukao) were put on some of the moai. The red scoria the pukao were made of was quarried from a different site on the west side of the island. While not as massive as the moai, the largest of the hats weigh 13 tons, so the logistics of transporting them to their final destinations on top of heads as much as 33 feet high were just as challenging.

Previously researchers hypothesized that they were joined to the moai and then put in place together, but a new study focused on the archaeological evidence and 3D imaging to determine that the pukao were added after the statues were already in place. Red scoria chips have been found around statues wearing the hats, which strongly indicates they were carved into their final shapes only after they’d been moved. As those final shapes are variants of cylinders and cones, they were probably carved into cylinders at the quarry and then rolled to where the statues, already firmly in place, awaited their chapeaux.

So far so goo, but how then to lift a dozen tons of hat onto 80 tons of head? The research team used photogrammetry (combining hundreds of high resolution photographs to create a detailed model) to identify any similarities common to all the hats on statues. They used 3D imaging to create models from the photographs that would allow them to analyze the pukao and moai in far greater detail than possible with the naked eye. They discovered only one feature common to all the hats: indentations at the base that fit the tops of the heads. Had the hats been slid into place, the edges of the indentations would have been ground down because the stone is so soft.

“The best explanation for the transport of the pukao (hats) from the quarry is by rolling the raw material to the location of the moai (statues),” said Lipo. “Once at the moai, the pukao were rolled up large ramps to the top of a standing statue using a parbuckling technique.”

Parbuckling is a simple and efficient technique for rolling objects and is often used to right ships that have capsized. The center of a long rope is fixed to the top of a ramp and the two trailing ends are wrapped around the cylinder to be moved. The rope ends are then brought to the top where workers pull on the ropes to move the cylinder up the ramp.

Besides reducing the force needed to move the hats, this arrangement also makes it easier to stabilize the hat on the trip up because the hat typically will not roll back down the slope. The researchers report in the current issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science, that 15 or fewer workers could move the largest preform hats up the ramps.

Once the hat was at the top of the ramp, it could not simply be pushed into place because of the ridges on the margin of the hat base indentation. Rather, the researchers believe that the hats were tipped up onto the statues.

First the hat would be modified to its final form, some including a second, smaller cylindrical piece on top.

The hats could be rotated 90 degrees and then levered up with small wooden levers to sit on the statue tops, or the ramp could be slightly to the side, so that rotation in the small space at the top of the ramp would be unnecessary. Then the hat would simply be levered and pivoted on edge and into place.

The ramps were then disassembled and became the wings of the platform surrounding the statues.

The results of the study have been published in the Journal of Archaeological Sciences.

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CT of hawk mummy finds it’s a stillborn baby

Sunday, June 3rd, 2018

A small wrapped mummy believed to be a hawk in the Egyptian collection of the Maidstone Museum in Kent, England, has been revealed to instead contain the complete remains of a severely deformed stillborn baby or late-term fetus. The mummy was labelled “EA 493 – Mummified Hawk Ptolemaic Period,” a conclusion drawn from its cartonnage outer wrapping which was painted to look like a bird. Its shape and size was comparable to other hawks and the birds held great religious symbolism in traditional Egyptian polytheism so were mummified in large numbers.

It was first CT scanned in 2016 when the Museum received a grant to create a new display space for its Egyptian and Greek artifacts. The star of the museum’s Egyptian collection, the mummy of Ta-Kush, the only adult human mummy in Kent, would take pride of place in the new gallery, so the museum undertook to examine Ta-Kush in greater detail, working with the Kent Institute of Medicine and Science to CT scan the mummy and with FaceLab at Liverpool John Moores University to create a facial reconstruction based on the scan.

All 30 of the mummies in the collection were also CT scanned, including the ostensible hawk. That first scan revealed that it was no hawk at all, but rather a tiny, probably fetal, human. The clinical CT scanner could not capture the remains in sufficient detail for a thorough examination because of their minute size. The museum contacted mummy expert Andrew Nelson of Western University in Ontario, and he arranged with
Nikon Metrology (UK) to conduct a micro-CT scan at a resolution 10 times higher than the clinical CT scan.

The scans produced are some of the highest-resolution images of a mummy ever taken, and by far the highest-resolution images of a mummified fetus. Nelson and a multi-disciplinary international team of experts analyzed the scans. They found that the mummy was a stillborn male at 23 to 28 weeks gestation who was severely anencephalic, a malformation in which the fetus’ skull and brain never develop properly.

The images show well-formed toes and fingers but a skull with severe malformations, says Nelson, a bioarchaeologist and professor of anthropology at Western. “The whole top part of his skull isn’t formed. The arches of the vertebrae of his spine haven’t closed. His earbones are at the back of his head.”

There are no bones to shape the broad roof and sides of the skull, where the brain would ordinarily grow. “In this individual, this part of the vault never formed and there probably was no real brain,” Nelson says.

That makes it one of just two anencephalic mummies known to exist (the other was described in 1826), and by far the most-studied fetal mummy in history. […]

The research provides important clues to the maternal diet – anencephaly can result from lack of folic acid, found in green vegetables – and raises new questions about whether mummification in this case took place because fetuses were believed to have some power as talismans, Nelson says.

“It would have been a tragic moment for the family to lose their infant and to give birth to a very strange-looking fetus, not a normal-looking fetus at all. So this was a very special individual,” Nelson says.

There are only nine mummies of human fetuses known to exist and this is the only anencephalic one to have been scientifically studied. It is a unique find and of great archaeological significance, much more so than the mummy of Ta-Kush which launched the project. It wasn’t going to go on display in the new gallery; it will be an important part of it now.

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