Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

82 British skeletons found in Dutch mass grave

Wednesday, May 11th, 2022

The remains of dozens of young men found in mass graves at the site of a defunct medieval castle moat in Vianen, central Netherlands, have been identified as British soldiers from the late 18th century.

The graves were discovered in November 2020 during drainage work to separate rainwater from sewage in the historic center of Vianen. To extend the city’s canal, municipal authorities chose the site of the former Batestein Castle (built in 1370 and abandoned after a fire in 1696) which had once had a moat on the south side of the grounds. Bones were found during the moat dig. At first it was just a few bones from one or two skeletons at most, but as they dug, they just kept finding more. Two weeks after the excavation began, the team had unearthed the skeletal remains of 44 individuals. By the end of January, the tally had risen to 81. In total, 82 skeletons were found in three mass grave pits.

Some of the bodies had been stacked, and the presence of hand-forged nails suggested a few had been interred in coffins, perhaps shared coffins. Preliminary osteological examination found the remains belonged to young males in their teens and early 20s. There were some indications of sharp-force trauma on two skeletons, suggesting the young men may have fallen in battle.

To date the remains, identify any additional traces of violence and their possible national origin, the bones were recovered and transferred to specialized laboratories in the UK. Forensic anthropologists discovered that the sharp-force trauma was not from a violent battle, but rather from a bone saw, likely deployed during an autopsy. What was endemic among the skeletons was not evidence of violence, but evidence of one or more infections, including meningitis, pneumonia, sinus infections and a non-specific whole-body inflammation. The bones also showed consistent signs of poverty in childhood marked by malnutrition and hard labor.

Radiocarbon dating found the bodies were buried later than initially hypothesized, the late 18th century rather than the 15th or 16th. Archival research confirmed that a field hospital was set up in the ruins of Batestein Castle during the First Coalition War (1792-1797) when European forces (allied English, Dutch, Spanish, Austrian and Prussian troops) fought against the army of Revolutionary France.

Samples were taken from six of the skeletons and isotope analysis of their bones concluded that one came from southern England, possibly Cornwall, another from southern Cornwall and a third from an urban English environment. Two more may have been from the Netherlands but of possible English descent while the other was from Germany.

The men would have been treated at a field hospital at Batestein Castle in Vianen. As it was a mass grave and they all died under the same circumstances, a sample of six was sufficient, archaeologist Hans Veenstra told the BBC. […]

From late 1794-95, British soldiers were treated a short distance from the mass grave, and the researchers believe that the poor and cramped conditions of army life led to reduced resistance to bacterial infection.

The average age of the adult victims was about 26 although some of those who died were just teenagers. Around 60% showed traces of one or more infections which all had one cause – pneumococcal bacteria.


Tiny Bible found in Leeds Central Library

Monday, May 9th, 2022

Librarians at the Leeds Central Library took advantage of the lockdowns to thoroughly survey and catalogue the rare book and special collections. In the process, they documented more than 3,000 items that had fallen through the cracks, including a Bible so small that you need a magnifying glass to read it.

The tiny tome is just 1.9 by 1.3 inches in dimension but contains the entire Old and New Testaments printed on 876 pages of India paper. It was printed in 1911 as a replica of the 1539 Great Bible, a choice so ironic it had to have been intentional, because the Great Bible was printed in 1539 by order of Thomas Cromwell who issued an directive that all churches place a copy of “the largest volume in English” in an accessible location so that all parishioners could read it at will. The Bibles would be chained to the lecterns and pulpits to keep them secure, earning the Great Bible the nickname “Chained Bible.”

When the tiny copy was printed, it was billed as the smallest Bible in the world, which it probably was not, but it was certainly in the running. (My great-grandmother gave me a tiny Bible about this size when I was a child, and it only contained the New Testament and Psalms.)

[Rhian Isaac, special collections senior librarian at Leeds City Library,] said its origins are a mystery as it only resurfaced when the library decided to do a comprehensive survey during lockdown closures.

Asked where it came from, she said: “We don’t know. It’s a bit of a mystery, really. A lot of items in our collection were either bought over time or they might have been donated.

Another notable new find in the collection is a fake: Oliver Twiss, a shameless knock-off of Charles Dickens’ classic Oliver Twist. It was one of many novels plagiarized from Dickens published by future Penny Dreadful press magnate Edward Lloyd who claimed he was just giving people on a budget the chance to enjoy a popular book since Dickens’ publishers refused to offer any low-cost options. He certainly leaned into the “misunderstanding,” though, claiming his versions were written/edited by one ‘Bos,’ itself a rip-off of Dickens’ pen name, Boz. Other titles by “Bos” Lloyd published with intent to deceive were Martin Guzzlewit, The Penny Pickwick and Nickelas Nickelbery.

Dickens was enraged by Lloyd’s theft and his publishers sued on the grounds that The Penny Pickwick was a “fraudulent imitation” of The Pickwick Papers, its cheap covers meant to deceive the unwary into buying the fake thinking it was the real thing. The judge ruled that no reasonable person could confuse so crappy a counterfeit for the real thing, and the publishers made no copyright argument to protect the integrity of the book’s content, so the floodgates opened and everyone and their mother started cranking out fake Dickens stories. The characters were rough cognates with variant names and coarser behaviors tailored to appeal to the perceived tastes of the penny buyer, and the would-be Dickenses took all kinds of liberties with the stories. Oliver Twiss, for example, is punished at the workhouse for fighting off bullies, not for asking for more delicious gruel, and he ends up earning a degree at Oxford.

Rhian Isaac encourages everyone to come and see these curious volumes in person. They’ll even supply the magnifying glass.

She added: “We ask people to get in touch and we can bring them out for people to see.

“You don’t have to be an academic or an researcher. If you’re just interested, we can get them out for you and you can come and read them in our beautiful grade II-listed building, which is a wonderful place to come and do some studying.

“We would rather these books were used and read. That’s what they were made for and that’s what we encourage people to come in and do, instead of locking them away.”


Viking hoard dodges auction bullet

Friday, April 29th, 2022

Here’s an intriguing case of unintended consequences in cultural heritage law.  Meet the Everlöv Hoard:

The Everlöv Hoard is a large group of more than 950 silver objects –912 coins, 40 pieces of jewelry — from the Viking Age discovered in southern Sweden’s Skåne province in the 1980s. The oldest coin dates to the 9th century, the youngest to 1018, indicating the hoard was assembled in the late Viking era. The composition of the objects mark them as a single deposition, but the original find site is unknown.

Many of coins are from Bavaria, which is unusual in Swedish hoards. The hoard also contains an unusually high number of Anglo-Scandinavian coins, ie, coins struck by Scandinavian kings in imitation of the ones struck by the king of England. Among the objects are several extremely rare pieces: a buckle with intricately enlaced zoomorphic figures decorated with filigree and granulation, a Slavic lunula and an oversized jewelry bracteate minted by Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor, aka Saint Henry the Exuberant.

The discovery was not made in the usual way; nobody found it by metal detecting or in a happy ploughing accident. It was not dug up at all, in fact. The current owner found it in a chiffonier that had been passed down through generations of the family. (Side note: finding a Viking silver hoard in an old piece furniture has to be in my top 3 greatest lifetime fantasies.)

The hoard was catalogued and briefly exhibited in 1986 at Lund University’s Historical Museum. The museum didn’t get to keep it, however. They didn’t even get to study it. The hoard remained in private hands and was never exhibited again nor made available to researchers.

According to the Swedish Historic Environment Law, any archaeological finds are property of the state and must be reported to county officials. The state can then choose whether to redeem them for a fee. A version of this law has been on the books for centuries, so whoever found this hoard and stashed it in the chiffonier was breaking the law, but that person has been dead a long time. If an ancient artifact qualifies as an inheritance — like, say, if it was found inside heirloom furniture — then ownership goes to the individual who found it.

The state tried to redeem the hoard anyway when it emerged in the 1980s, but the atypical circumstances made it a thorny legal issue and a court ruled that the hoard was owned by the person who found it in the chiffonier. As the law is currently written, there is no mechanism for the state to claim an archaeological object on the grounds of its cultural importance regardless of how or when it was discovered, so that was that. The hoard all but disappeared.

Earlier this month, news broke that the Everlöv Hoard would be sold at auction on April 29th. Even worse, it was being offered in individual lots, so the whole hoard could have been scattered to the four winds. An uproar ensued as archaeologists and researchers protested the sale. The hoard as a whole is far more significant than the sum of its parts, especially the Bavarian through-line which might indicate a previously unknown trade route linking Sweden and southern Germany. Besides, the case could create a dangerous precedent wherein bad actors could claim a fresh find was a surprise legacy.

Literally the day before the scheduled auction, the Everlöv Hoard was saved from dispersal by the Gunnar Ekström Foundation for Numismatic Research and the Sven Svensson Foundation for Numismatic Research who pooled their resources and bought the whole kit and kaboodle behind the scenes. The auction is off and the hoard will now enter the collection of the Royal Coin Cabinet at Stockholm’s Economy Museum where it can and will be studied to the nerdiest heart’s content.


Terrible Tilly lighthouse for sale

Thursday, April 28th, 2022

Tillamook Rock Lighthouse off the north coast of Oregon is perched on a storm-tossed rocky island that can only be reached by helicopter. It is covered in bird guano and sea lion excrement and the windows are all boarded up. The sea lions have knocked down the door. The interior is being used as a columbarium, a depository for human cinerary remains, including those of the parents of the current owner. It is a National Wildlife Refuge and cannot be visited during nesting season from April to September. And all of this can be yours for $6.5 million.

Terrible Tilly, so dubbed for its terrible storms and dangerous navigation conditions, was commissioned by Congress in 1878. Construction on the remote basalt stack in the middle of stormy seas was challenging, and the lighthouse took a year and a half to build. One man, a surveyor, was swept out to sea and drowned in the planning stage, cementing Tilly’s Terrible reputation before the first brick was laid.

The first-order fresnel lens was first lit on January 21st, 1881. By the time it was decommissioned in 1957, it had become the most expensive lighthouse in the United States to operate. Tilly then passed into private ownership, changing hands several times. It was acquired by the Eternity at Sea Columbarium in 1980, but they lost their license in 1999 for violations including proper storage.

Legal difficulties notwithstanding, the columbarium is still the crux of the sales pitch.

The plan is for the lighthouse to appeal as an alternative to scattering cremated remains at sea, by encasing them in titanium urns in a bank of niches.

David Adams, a funeral business consultant with the Johnson Consulting Group in Scottsdale, Arizona, who is brokering the sale, is aiming for an official pitch by Memorial Day.

“It’s going to have to take somebody with an entrepreneurial spirit,” he said.

The cremation rate in the United States was low when Morissette, a 77-year-old Oregon resident with a background in real estate development, purchased the lighthouse over four decades ago. The rate reached 56% in 2020 and is rising, the Cremation Association of North America said.

“I find it intriguing some people still like the romance of scattering ashes at sea: ‘Dad’s out in the ocean and Mom’s still floating with sharks,'” Adams said.

“Although romantic in many regards, it is somewhat final. There is no real place to focus on, to go back and memorialize,” he said.

The lighthouse, he added, “gives them a specific focal point.”

Well yes, but a specific focal point that can only accessed half the year and then only by chartering a helicopter. On the other hand, what a view:


18th c. gold box recovered 19 years after manor raid

Tuesday, April 26th, 2022

An 18th century gold box stolen from the Rothschild estate of Waddesdon Manor 19 years ago has been recovered. The box was one of more than 100 stolen by a gang of masked men in blue boilersuits in the wee hours of June 10th, 2003. They broke a window and raided the Rothschild collection of small boxes, rings, bottles and watches, stealing millions of dollars worth of highly portable precious objects in less than four minutes.

The manor had excellent security and the thieves were so precise in targeting the high-value pieces that police believe they were professionals working on commission. They disappeared without a trace and the police investigation went nowhere. Only a handful of the looted objects have been found in the two decades since the theft.

Last August, one of the stolen gold boxes resurfaced at a small regional auction. The auction house contacted the Art Loss Register (ALR), an international database of stolen art, as part of their due diligence process and ALR experts flagged it as one of the boxes taken in the Waddesdon raid. Staff at Waddesdon confirmed the identification.

The gold box that has surfaced is a French bonbonniere dated 1775-1781 and made in Paris, a centre for the production of gold boxes in the 18th century. These small circular boxes were personal accessories, kept in a pocket, in a boudoir or salon, and used for sweets. Often embellished with painted or enamelled scenes, this one has a miniature of an unknown woman holding a basket of roses on its lid. It is decorated with gold piqué (inlaid) stars on a dark blue ground and has a tortoiseshell interior. […]

The box has now been returned to Waddesdon and will go on display from 27 April in the Rothschild Treasury, a gallery that houses more than 300 objects made from rare and precious materials that celebrates the Rothschild family as collectors of extraordinary objects.

This is serendipitous timing for this particular gold box to return home to Waddesdon, as it was acquired by Alice de Rothschild (1847-1922). Alice was the sister of Ferdinand de Rothschild (1839-1898), who built Waddesdon, and she inherited the Manor and its contents from him. This spring Waddesdon is marking the centenary of her death by celebrating her life, collections and legacy with Alice’s Wonderlands – a comprehensive programme of exhibitions and displays that highlight her pivotal role in Waddesdon’s history.

Pippa Shirley, Director of Collections, Historic properties and Landscapes at Waddesdon says “I am absolutely delighted that this box has returned, and very grateful to the Art Loss Register for its part in its successful recovery. The 2003 theft was deeply traumatic for everyone at Waddesdon – I remember it vividly – and this feels such a positive outcome and gives us hope that the other boxes may yet come back to us. It is also such a happy coincidence that it should reappear in the year in which we are celebrating Alice de Rothschild and her extraordinary contribution to the collections here.”

The bonbonnière will be in the most august of company in the Rothschild Treasury gallery. It goes on display next gifts of jewelry from Queen Victoria, gold tableware, a Boucheron diamond and pearl tiara, and a carved amber casket from 1660 the glows like fire in the light and is believed to have been purchased by the founder of the Rothschild dynasty, banker Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812). There’s also a literal august object: a cameo portrait of Augustus Caesar’s grandson Gaius.


Museum acquires lost Charlotte Brontë mini-book

Monday, April 25th, 2022

The Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, West Yorkshire, has acquired A Book of Rhymes, a newly-rediscovered miniature manuscript  written and hand-bound by Charlotte Brontë in 1829. Just 3.8 x 2.5 inches, smaller than a playing card, the 15-page manuscript was the last mini-book of Charlotte Brontë’s known to be in private hands. It will now return to Charlotte’s childhood home where it was written.

Between August and December of 1829, Charlotte and her brother Branwell produced six issues of a miniature magazine they named Blackwood’s Young Men’s Magazine. In 1830 they rebranded the publication as The Young Men’s Magazine and released another six issues between August and December. The manuscripts were written in tiny handwriting mimicking the regularity of print and bound with hand-sewn covers made of sugar paper.

They were inspired by the real literary periodicals like Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine that the family read avidly. Each issue contained short stories, poetry, art critiques and even advertisements, all set against the context of the city of Glasstown, capital of Angria, the imaginary world the Brontë siblings had invented as the background story for a box of 12 toy soldiers Branwell had been given for his 9th birthday.

A BOOK OF RHYMES comprises : i). The Beauty of Nature; ii). A Short Poem; iii). Meditations while Journeying in a Canadian Forest; iv). Song of an Exile; v). On Seeing the Ruins of the Tower of Babel; vi). A Thing of fourteen lines; vii). A Bit of a rhyme; viii). Lines written on the Bank of a River one fine Summer Evening; ix). Spring, a Song; x). Autumn, a Song. xi). Contents.

On the verso of her title page, Charlotte writes: “The following are attempts at rhyming of an inferior nature it must be acknowledged but they are nevertheless my best.” At the end of this Book of “Ryhmes” she refers to the secondary world created by the Brontë children amongst themselves, while asserting her authorship and creative control over that world:

“This book is written by myself but I pretend that the Marquis of Duro & Lord Charles Wellesley in the Young Men’s World have written one like it, & the Songs marked in the Index so * are written by the Marquis of Duro and those marked so † are written by Lord Charles Wellesley.” At the head of the page she also alludes to one of her best known early productions, Tales of the Islanders: “I began this book, the second volume of the Tales of the Islanders, 2 magazines for December, and the Characters of the most Celebrated Men of the Present time on the 26th of October, 1829, & finished them all by the 17 of December, 1829”.

The mini-manuscripts were kept together for decades after Charlotte’s death in 1855, first by her widower Rev. A.B. Nicholls, then by the reverend’s second wife. A Book of Rhymes was known to Brontë scholars because the 10 poems in the book were listed in the catalogue of works Charlotte compiled in her own hand and mentioned in Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1857 biography of Charlotte, but none of the poems had ever been published. After the second Mrs. Nicholls died, the manuscripts were sold off by her estate and dispersed into British and US collections.

A Book of Rhymes was last seen in November 1916 when it was sold in New York and then disappeared from public view altogether for more than a century. It emerged again four weeks ago when James Cummins Bookseller announced it had been rediscovered in a private collection and would be sold at the New York International Antiquarian Book Fair on April 21st. The price tag was $1.25 million.

The seller was an anonymous private collector who thankfully prioritized the long-term preservation of the book. James Cummins Bookseller reached out to the Friends of the National Libraries in the UK and offered them first dibs if they could raise the purchase price. They only had two weeks to accomplish this daunting task. The organization reached out to multiple institutional and private donors and was able to meet the goal just under the wire. Once the sale was made, the Friends of the National Libraries donated the little book to the Haworth Parsonage Museum which is already home to nine other little books and will soon welcome another seven from the Blavatnik Honresfield Library.

The Haworth Parsonage Museum  will conserve and digitize A Book of Ryhmes before putting it on display later this year.


Theater of Herculaneum reopens

Saturday, April 23rd, 2022

Herculaneum’s theater was built in the 1st century A.D. during the reign of Augustus. Iniscriptions found at the site document the name of the sponsor — Lucius Annius Mammianus Rufus — and of the architect — Publius Numisius. It had a capacity of about 2,500 people (half of Pompeii’s theater) and was designed in the traditional Roman fashion with a cavea divided into three horizontal orders corresponding to the social status of the ticket-holder.

The ancient theater was the first monument to remerge from the hardened volcanic rock that had covered the Vesuvian sites for 1,650 years. What would later prove to be the ruins of the theater were first encountered by a farmer digging a well the early 1700s. When the news that ancient remains had been found filtered back to local potentate Prince Emanuele Maurizio of Lorraine, Duke of Elbeuf, in 1709 he bought the property and funded excavations that recovered, among other artworks, three statues of women that were the first major sculptures recovered from Herculaneum.

The Herculaneum women, elegantly garbed in draped gowns, originally decorated the stage of the Roman theater. Representing honorable women of the elite, they are copies of Greek originals from the 4th century B.C. that were popular throughout the Mediterranean in the imperial era. Unearthed just before excavations ceased in 1711 out of concern that the modern town above would collapse, the statues are now in the Dresden Skulpturensammlung.

The prince had no idea what he was pillaging. He thought it was a Temple to Hercules. It wasn’t identified as a theater until excavations resumed in 1738 by order of King of Naples and Sicily Charles III Bourbon. Much like the Duke of Elbeuf, his aim had little to do with archaeology and everything to do with harvesting statuary and antiquities to furnish his new palace, and they were systematic about it, digging tunnels that paralleled the architecture to strip it of its decorative statuary, including portraits of the imperial family, local magistrates, gilt bronze equestrian statues and chariots with bronze horses. Even the columns were pillaged. The Bourbon looting program ended in 1762 under pressure from renown art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann who had sternly criticized the treasure hunting approach to excavation.

It was a popular stop on the Grand Tour in the 18th and 19th centuries, accessed by a Bourbon-era staircase built 65 feet down into the hardened volcanic rock separating the ancient city from the modern one. Visitors today will tread the same path, descending into the theater through the 18th century tunnels. All tours will be guided and limited to no more than 10 people at a time.

“The theater is located in a nerve center for the restitching of the two Herculaneums, the ancient and the modern, where we have concentrated the efforts of urban regeneration to create new public spaces with the collaboration of the Municipality and the Packard Humanities Institute. The theater area is also a privileged place to access the famous Resina market and the historic center of Herculaneum…. “The visit will be a real exploration experience,” says park director Sirano, “on the trail of visitors who over the centuries have passed through the wells and tunnels created by the engineers of the Bourbon army by torchlight. An underground path that transports us back through the centuries and makes us the protagonists of a discovery that is renewed every time before our astonished eyes.”

The theater will be open to visitors ever Saturday from now until December, minus a two-month summer break in July and August.


1896 glider restored for new exhibition

Saturday, April 16th, 2022

A rare 19th century glider has been restored and will go on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. The glider was made in 1896 by German aviator Otto Lilienthal, the first man to successfully make consistent, repeated, thoroughly documented and witnessed flights. He was dubbed “The Flying Man” and 1891, the year when his flights began, is considered the dawn of human heavier-than-air flight.

He literally wrote the book on wing aerodynamics, observing the flight of birds for translation to flying machines. One of his glider models, the Lilienthal Normalsegelapparat (“Normal soaring apparatus” would make a pretty great band name), was the first aircraft in series production. His manufacturing company, Maschinenfabrik Otto Lilienthal, was the first airplane production company in the world.

Unfortunately Otto Lilienthal would pay for his pioneering vision with his life, dying on August 9th, 1896, when his glider stalled and he plunged 50 feet to the ground. He broke his neck in the fall and died in the hospital the next day. His last words were “Sacrifices must be made.”

There were 10 documented Lilienthal Normalsegelapparat examples sold between 1893 and 1896. The only American buyer was newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst bought his glider in late April 1896. Lilienthal’s daring flights had generated a great deal of public interest and Hearst staged flight tests for public spectacle and to increase the circulation of the New York Journal. The dream lasted a few days only. On May 3rd, the glider, piloted by Frank Ver Beck, an illustrator known for his comedic drawings of animals, crashed. Ver Beck was unharmed, but the glider sustained some broken ribs on the right wing.

The Hearst glider was put in mothballs until it was acquired by John Brisben Walker, editor of Cosmopolitan. He displayed it once in 1905 at the debut event of the Aero Club of America before donating it to the Smithsonian in 1906. Restoration of the fragile winged machine began in November 2019 and it took experts 18 months to restore it not to its pristine condition, but to the broken-rib condition it was in right after the crash.

According to Smithsonian records, an employee rebuilt the Lilienthal glider in 1919. But for this conservation treatment, curators determined that the horizontal stabilizer had been lost after the crash, and its 1919 copy was inaccurate and incorrectly positioned. The original vertical fin was too damaged to be reattached, so it was preserved and placed in storage.

But the broken ribs from the crash, which are part of the glider’s history and identity, says [chief conservator Malcolm] Collum, were preserved. “As a rare and special artifact, we consider events like that part of its operational history,” he says. “Just like a fighter plane that comes back… and has combat damage like bullet holes…we consider that to be sacred.” During previous restoration efforts, Collum says, “a lot of historical manufacturing details were just skimmed over.”

Smithsonian conservators worked with colleagues at the Otto Lilienthal Museum and the Deutsches Museum in Germany searching for details in the historical record. “What really differentiates this project from previous restoration work: Every time it was restored in the past, they were using … the wrong information, and not studying the artifact itself,” Collum says. “In this process, we’ve actually done the technical analysis, done the archival research, and collaborated with colleagues in Germany to bring out as many original historical details as possible.”

In some places where the wood needed support, they used glue to reinforce it. They did make a discovery. They had not realized the glider had an impact bar, so they added one after finding the original mounting hardware. And they added a new plain-weave cotton fabric, as the original was long gone. And the tail, which had been poorly fabricated in a 1967 restoration, was replaced with historically accurate components made with bamboo and willow.

The Smithsonian’s restored Lilienthal glider will go on display in Early Flight, an exhibition exploring the first decade of the airplane era, which opens this fall.


Still no takers for the Villa Aurora

Monday, April 11th, 2022

Villa Aurora, the 16th century mansion in one of Rome’s most expensive neighborhoods that boasts Caravaggio’s only known ceiling painting has failed to sell at auction for the second time.

The villa was listed for €471 million when it was first put up for auction in January, an astronomical sum based on the valuation of art experts. The Caravaggio alone could easily run a hundred million plus even if it weren’t attached to a whole villa, so the exorbitant price tag didn’t seem incongruous. There were no takers, however, not even lowball opening bids. Total radio silence.

A second auction was scheduled for Thursday, April 7th, and this time the price would drop 20% to €377 million. Even at a discount, the Villa Aurora failed to attract a single bid, so the quarrelling heirs of the late Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi are going to have to take it to the auction mattresses again on June 30th when the villa will be offered at auction for another 20% drop in price to €301 million. If there are STILL no takers at that point, the widow Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi and the prince’s three sons from a previous marriage will have to agree to ANOTHER price drop.

The problem is that the American-born princess does not want to sell. Prince Nicolò’s will granted her lifetime rights to live on the property as long as she wanted to, and should she choose not to, Villa Aurora was to be sold and the proceeds divided between his wife and sons. The Boncompagni Ludovisi sons contested the will, disputing her lifetime right of occupancy, and a court decision forced the sale.

So the four parties who are responsible for negotiating a new price if June’s auction fails to attract bidders are not exactly on the same page here. Should they be unable to come up with a lower figure for the fourth bite at the apple, the judge will step in and decide the price.

According to Beniamino Milioto, the princess’s lawyer, interested parties will have to put down a 10% deposit to qualify to bid, plus proof of enough assets to close the sale and complete a restoration plan said to cost at least €10m.

Milioto said that while there had been multiple informal expressions of interest, including from Microsoft’s Bill Gates, nobody had completed the process of qualifying to bid for either round.

The villa and its property are under the protection of Italy’s ministry of culture, meaning that when a qualifying bid is filed, the Italian state will have a chance to match the price and turn the villa into a cultural site. A petition calling for this to happen has attracted more than 35,000 signatures, a level that requires the cash-strapped Italian government to consider the acquisition. But there is no indication a state purchase is in the works.

Whoever acquires the 40-room villa will become owner of a vast collection of art that goes beyond Caravaggio’s 2.75-metre fresco of the gods Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto. Its gardens include a sculpture by Michelangelo, and in the villa are other ceilings featuring frescoes by the baroque master Guercino and a spiral staircase created by the 16th- and 17th-century architect Carlo Maderno, best known for designing the facade of St Peter’s Basilica.

The villa also includes a telescope given to the Ludovisi family by Galileo and a door that was once part of an ancient Venetian warship.

BRB. Off to buy a Powerball ticket.


17th c. polychrome wall paintings found in salt castle

Thursday, April 7th, 2022

Renovations at the Saltworks Castle in Wieliczka, southern Poland, have revealed surviving sections of the original 17th century polychrome decorative painting on the walls of five rooms. The headquarters of the UNESCO World Heritage Wieliczka Salt Mine for 700 years, the Castle is now home to the Krakow Saltworks Museum dedicated to the history of salt and of the mine. The museum has been undergoing a refurbishment of previously unused rooms to expand the castle’s exhibition facilities. The paintings were discovered when 300 years of plaster and paint covering them were removed.

The polychrome paintings include floral and plant motifs — bouquets in vases, leafy wreaths — arabesque decorations and the coat of arms of the Vasa family.  One of the rooms has a particularly spectacular array of trompe l’oeil architectural elements in classicist style like columns, arches and landscapes in the distance between them.

They were found on the first floor of the eastern part of the castle which has rooms dating back to the 16th century. The directors of the salt mine lived there in the 18th and 19th centuries, but there were no records describing the wall decoration, so the discovery of a large number of paintings with well-preserved color came as a shock to restorers.

The plan to use the rooms as temporary and permanent exhibition space will now have to find a way to showcase the treasures they’ve found on the very walls.

“The preserved layers, from different periods, intertwine; in some places they are preserved only in small fragments, and in some – in large ones “- emphasized the conservator. “We plan to expose all layers to show them as the history of this object. If such possibilities arise and such a decision is made, we can possibly remove some of the outer layers – this is called a transfer, transfer to a new substrate – and display them in a different part of the castle , wherever the available exhibition space will allow it “- explained Chojkowski.

The “delamination” method allows the reconstruction of a larger area of ​​earlier polychromes. “The fact that one of them is younger does not mean that it has a lower value, because it can be much more interesting. For us, partial removal or transfer of layers to a new substrate is so important that there are probably even earlier plasters here. now it is difficult to say whether there is also any layer of polychrome there “- said the conservator.





May 2022


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