Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Watching Brutus (and other things) in person

Sunday, December 23rd, 2018

Here’s where I admit that yesterday’s post was a stealth preview of coming attractions, for today I went to the Clark and saw Brutus Condemning His Sons to Death in person. It’s in a small room just off the 18th/early 19th century French art gallery with the preparatory drawing and engraving that were part of the same auction lot with the painting itself. The oil painting of Brutus is hanging on the back wall, the focal point when you walk in or walk by the gallery. Against the left wall is the preparatory drawing; against the right wall is the engraving.

Brutus Condemning His Sons to Death by Guillaume Guillon Lethière, 1788, Clark Art Institute.

Meanwhile, in the main room of the French gallery, last year’s handsome young fella, Portrait of Achille Deban de Laborde (1817) by Alexandre-Jean Dubois-Drahonet, has been moved slightly a couple of spots away from its previous location. I approve heartily as it is now possible to take a picture head-on without the glare from the lighting. Last year awkward angles were required.

Last but certainly not least, I learned a new word today courtesy of the outstanding exhibition Turner and Constable: The Inhabited Landscape. As the name indicates, the show focuses on landscapes which both men painted with distinctive mastery. Unlike many other landscape artists, however, when JMW Turner and John Constable included people in their landscapes they did so with very deliberate meaning instead of as mere indicators of the scale and perspective. Using people in landscapes to indicate scale is called staffage, pronounced in French like stahf-AHJH. I did not know that. Be warned, I intend to put it to use in numerous tortured metaphors going forward.

Here’s an example from Constable. It’s called Ploughing Scene in Suffolk (1824-1825) and even though the human figures are small in the broad vista of farmland, they are absolutely pivotal to the theme. The position of one of them in the dead center of the painting underscores his importance, as does the care Constable took in depicting the plough in precise detail. Ergo, farmers ploughing are not staffage.

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Watching Brutus watch his sons executed

Saturday, December 22nd, 2018

After seven months of conservation and more than two centuries of private ownership, Brutus Condemning His Sons to Death by Guillaume Guillon Lethière has gone on public display at the Clark Art Institute. The neoclassical painting depicts Lucius Junius Brutus, leader of the revolt against Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the last king of Rome, and founder of the Roman Republic, stoically watching the execution of his sons for conspiring with the Tarquins to restore the monarchy. One son has already been decapitated and the executioner is holding the severed head aloft before the crowds.

Lethière was born in 1760 in the French colony of Guadeloupe, the illegitimate son of government functionary Pierre Guillon and Marie-Françoise Pepayë, a mulatto former slave. His last name is actually a reference to his birth order. He was his father’s third illegitimate child. While Guillon would not officially recognize his son until 1799, he was very much involved in his life. The young Guillaume moved to France with his father when he was 14 and enrolled in the Academy of Rouen, a tuition-free art school founded by Jean-Baptiste Descamps. His talents were quickly recognized and in 1777 he enrolled at the Académie Royale in Paris in the studio of Gabriel François Doyen. He competed for the Prix de Rome twice and lost, but made such a strong impression with the wealthy, noble and connected Comte de Montmorin that the count secured him the pension and stay at the French Academy in Rome that the prize would have given him.

It was in Rome, fittingly enough, that Lethière created Brutus Condemning His Sons to Death. He was a fervent neoclassicist by then, having eschewed Doyen’s Baroque style in favor of Jacques-Louis David’s integration of Enlightenment political principles in scenes from classical antiquity. Painted in 1788, Lethière’s vision of the Brutus story pre-dated David’s famed The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons by a year, and what a year was there, my friends. In 1789, the Bastille fell, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was passed and feudalism was abolished. Even so, David’s far less gory version of the execution of the Brutus sons caused consternation among the authorities. They thought its vision of Republican honor against tyranny even at enormous personal cost might incite anti-monarchical passions. And there are no decapitated heads held proudly aloft in that one.

David had already begun working on his masterpiece (it was 14 feet wide and took two years to complete) when Lethière finished his at the French Academy in Rome. The director of the Academy praised its emotional expressiveness in a letter, but if it was exhibited in public when it arrived in Paris that fall or thereabouts there is no record of it. It was definitely seen because German critic G.A. von Halem visited David’s studio during a trip to Paris in 1790 and compared the two works: “Lethière … showed the bloody head of one son. But one flees before blood and one suffers the double fear that the blood of the second son will be shed…. David has made the best choice. He has opted for the moment which follows the execution, and yet he has spared us the horrible sight of the place of execution.”

That horrible sight would become a common one when the Reign of Terror started in 1793. When it ended with Robespierre’s execution a year or so later, 17,000 people had been executed. That’s a lot of heads held proudly aloft. The year after that, Brutus Condemning His Sons to Death was exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1795. It was shown again in the Paris Salon of 1801. It elicited negative reviews both times; the explicit violence made people uncomfortable.

The painting would not be seen in public again for almost two hundred years until it was loaned for an exhibition dedicated to Guillaume Guillon Lethière in Point-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, in 1991. After that it made two appearances at the Musée de la Révolution Française, one in 1992, one in 1996, and that’s it. In the 230 years since its creation, it has been exhibited for a grand total of six months. Now it is finally on display for good.

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Prized papyrus declared a forgery

Friday, December 14th, 2018

An ostensibly ancient document attributed to Greek geographer Artemidorus of Ephesos has been conclusively declared a fake after an extensive investigation by the Turin Public Prosecutor’s Office.

The ownership record was nebulous, a sadly common state of affairs for most of the papyri bought on the antiquities market. The claim was that the fragments of papyrus were part of a roll of random discarded documents that had been crumpled up together to stuff something, maybe an animal mummy. It was purported to have been acquired in the first half of the 20th century by Saiyd Khashaba Pasha and then lost or sold after World War II. It was exported out of Egypt legally in 1971 and imported into Germany by antiquities dealer Serop Simonian. The roll was unwrapped in Germany in the early 1980s and 200 document fragments were revealed, 50 of them from a single document.

It was puzzled back together and published in 1998. The recto consisted of three columns of prose, two drawings of bearded heads, 23 drawings of hands, feet and heads and a small section of a map. The verso was covered by more than 40 drawings of animals, each one named, and two more columns of prose.

The map alone was priceless, the most ancient extant one from the Greco-Roman world and the only one found on papyrus. The quantity and quality of the drawings are unique among papyri. The prose is an oddly convoluted discussion of geography. Fourteen lines significantly overlaps a surviving fragment of text by pioneering geographer Artemidorus of Ephesos who was one of the main sources used by later geographers and historians like Strabo and Pliny the Elder whose works have survived. The works of Artemidorus are largely lost, surviving only in quotations from the works of later authors.

In 2004, it was acquired by the Compagnia San Paolo Art Foundation, the non-profit foundation of Turin’s Banco di San Paolo, for 2.75 million euros ($3,369,850). The fragments were sent to the Laboratoria di Papirologia of the State University of Milan for additional study and conservation. The foundation wanted to donate it to Turin’s famed Egyptian Museum, the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities outside of Egypt, but the then-director of the museum, Eleni Vassilika objected strenuously. She didn’t trust its provenance. To be more specific, she knew for a fact that Simonian trafficked in fakes having dealt with his shenanigans when she was director of the Hildesheim museum. She also knew that he had a nasty history of smuggling artifacts in through Switzerland, going so far as to saw the larger ones to make them easier to conceal in shipment.

Her superiors disagreed. Many prestigious, reputable experts attributed the papyrus to Ardemidorus of Ephesos. Radiocarbon testing found the papyrus dated to between 15 and 85 A.D. and the ink was judged consistent with the types produced in the 1st century. The issue was far from decided. Scholars continued to debate its authenticity. Luciano Canfora proposed in several papers, books and articles published from 2007 onwards that it was a fraud perpetrated by notorious 19th century forger Constantine Simonides. His contentions were hotly debated by scholars who pointed to the C14 dating of the papyrus and authentic-seeming stylistic elements as evidence of it being a real 1st century document, albeit an idiosyncratic one.

A 2013 publication by Canfora caught the attention of the Turin Public Prosecutor’s Office which initiated an investigation in 2013. Five years later, the investigation has concluded that the preponderance of the evidence points indicates that the Artemidorus Papyrus is indeed a fake. The ink from the drawings, previously untested out of preservation concerns, is much more recent than the 1st century. The papyrus shows signs of having been placed on a zinc metal screen and then subjected to treatment with acids that transferred the zinc.

The documentation tracing its recent history — the legal export authorization from Egypt dated April 1971 in which it is destribed as “paper bag with partial images in gold,” the German government’s release of the papyrus at the time of the 2004 sale describing it as being nothing of value to cultural patrimony — dismisses it as worthless. Egypt appraised its market value as 20 lire.

Unfortunately nothing will come of this finding beyond a few red faces. The statute of limitations has long since expired, so the foundation is out 2.75 million euros and Serop Simonian will get off scott free.

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Bronze Age jewelry found in Slovakia

Thursday, December 6th, 2018

Archaeologists excavating in the village of Hozelec in northern Slovakia have unearthed a unique trove of Bronze Age jewelry. The site was excavated from April to July of this year as part of a study of Hozeleck’s history, but nobody expected to find Bronze Age artifacts. The team discovered small fragments of bronze spirals, funnel-shaped pins and three bronze discs.

The funnel-shaped objects are highly unusual because they seem to be made of a white metal. It’s possible that it’s bronze with a high tin content in the alloy. Another possibility is that the alloy was treated by some means, perhaps etched with an organic acid or heated to the exact temperature necessary to raise the white metal to the surface. Either way, the whiteness of the funnel pins indicates advanced metallurgic techniques that were previously unknown in Bronze Age finds in Slovakia.

Rarest of all, remnants of leather were found attached to the spirals, funnels and discs. This is likely all that’s left of the bag the spirals and funnels were buried in, with the perforated discs used to sew the top of the bag shut. The organic remains were radiocarbon dated to approximately 3,000 years ago. That dates the metal artifacts to the Middle or Late Bronze Age. It’s also only the second time ever that Bronze Age hide has been found in Slovakia, and the last time was 40 years ago.

The Bronze Age pieces were discovered early in the dig. Artifacts of much younger age were discovered in subsequent weeks, including Celtic buckles, a spade, firearm and horseshoes from the Middle Ages, a 1616 solidus coin, a link chain, a copper hook, knives and assorted other objects that were likely accidentally lost.

The finds have been put on temporary display at the Spiš Museum’s Historical Town Hall. Museum experts will study them further before a permanent exhibition is arranged.

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A Roman sarcophagus fit for a pug

Wednesday, December 5th, 2018


A marble sarcophagus in which a young Roman man and then a show business pug (retired) were laid to their putative eternal rest could not perform its duties. The remains of both are long gone, and the coffin sold for its handsomely stark design, good condition and its checkered past.

The sarcophagus was made in late 3rd, early 4th century Rome (the city, not the Empire in general). The vertical striggilations around a central tabula ansata (tablet with handles) were typical design elements for sarcophagi of the period. The tabula is inscribed with seven lines of Latin that translate to: “To the Spirits of the departed. To Gaius Messius Sequmdinus [i.e. Secundinus], who lived 17 years and four months.”

Young Gaius’ family could afford an expensive marble sarcophagus and a prime burial location. It was unearthed in 1828 on the Appia near the tomb of Cecilia Metella by Richard Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville, 1st Duke of Buckingham and Chandos. The grandson of one Prime Minister (George Grenville) and nephew of another (William Grenville), Richard Grenville was an Oxford alumn, Member of Parliament, Privy Councillor, Knight of the Garter and holder of a number of other sinecure positions granted by his uncle.

He’d already climbed the political ladder as far as he could be bothered and squandered absurd amount of cash on a variety of dissipated pursuits when he hit the continent for the Grand Tour. He was past 50, so not your usual British Grand Tourist. More like a fugitive from irate creditors. Still he spent, indulging his penchant for archaeology by excavating the burial sites outside the walls of Rome. Gaius Messius Sequmdinus’ sarcophagus was a good enough find to schlep all the way back to Buckinghamshire. His remains, on the other hand, were left behind.

In 1837, Gaius Messius’ coffin was pressed into service again when the Duke’s beloved pug Harlequin died of advanced old age. The Duke was inconsolable over the loss of his dog. Harlequin was placed in the sarcophagus and buried on the grounds of Stowe House, seat of the Dukes of Buckingham.

Unfortunately for the pug (and for the family, I suppose) the next Duke of Buckingham was as terrible with money as his father had been. He was such a spendthrift that by 1847 he was forced to take a page out of Daddy’s book and run to Europe to dodge the creditors he owed a million a half pounds. The next year there was nowhere left to run and the patrimony of the Grenvilles and of all those heiresses whose maiden names got integrated into the hyper-hyphenation was sold to the highest bidder in a much-celebrated auction at Stowe.

The sarcophagus is listed as a lot in the catalogue, but it’s almost incidental. The real star is Harlequin.

A Roman sarcophagus, found by the late Duke of Buckingham, in an excavation made by him at Rome, in 1828, near the tomb of Cecilia Metella. It then contained the skeleton of the Roman youth whose name it bears – the bones of which were carefully replaced in the earth. It recently stood in the flower-garden at Stowe, and in it were deposited the remains of the late Duke’s favorite dog, who died of extreme old age in 1837. This trifling circumstance is mentioned because to all the Duke’s numerous visitors and friends, this little dog Harlequin was well known as a most sagacious and intelligent little animal; and his attachment to his master was very extraordinary. He was a native of Bologna, of a very rare family called the red-nosed pugs. He was small in stature, but of the utmost symmetry of form. His latter years were embittered by the effects of a quarrel with a large poodle, arising from jealousy, and in this encounter, he lost one of his eyes, by a bite from his furious rival. When the Duke met with him at Bologna, he was a chief actor in a travelling showman’s company; but he could be seldom prevailed upon to display his talents in dancing, after he was purchased from his former master, and promoted into a higher grade of society.

It wouldn’t do to have an actor in the family donchaknow. Fortune-dissipating wastrels, sure. We’ll crank those by the score until there’s nothing left to squander, but a trained dancer is a step too far.

The sarcophagus sold at Sotheby’s Ancient Sculpture sale on Tuesday for £40,000 ($51,000) edging out the high side of the pre-sale estimate by £5,000.

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Ohio university returns looted mosaics to Turkey

Sunday, December 2nd, 2018

Bowling Green State University has agreed to repatriate 12 mosaics to Turkey after discovering they had been looted from the ancient site of Zeugma. The university bought the mosaics in 1965 for $35,000 from New York antiquities dealer Peter Marks. There was little paperwork on the provenance of these mosaics, but the claim was that they were from Antioch, modern-day Antakya also in Turkey, raised by Princeton University archaeologists in an approved excavation in the 1930s and exported legally as their share of the finds according to the old partage system.

Those excavations, led by eminent archaeologist George W. Elderkin, discovered literally hundreds of mosaics in elite villas of the ancient city which had been one of the most important in the Roman Empire. Many of them were lifted, divided among the sponsors and either stored, exhibited or installed as architectural features. Princeton had a bit of mosaic fire sale in the early 1960s, and many smaller institutions scored Antioch mosaic panels at that time.

So the Antioch origin wasn’t an outlandish proposition in and of itself, but there was some shadiness. For example, the fact that 11 of the 12 mosaics panels were pulled up in a haphazard fashion with ragged, broken floral and geometric pieces attached the main figural panel should have raise red flags. It didn’t.

Many decades later in 2012, the sections were conserved so they could go on display in a handsomely lit underfloor installation covered with a thick coating of protective glass in the newly opened Wolfe Center for the Arts at BSGU. Dr. Stephanie Langin-Hooper, then assistant professor of ancient art history at BSGU, was asked to find out more about the mosaics and present her findings at a symposium dedicated to the artworks. She invited colleague Dr. Rebecca Molholt, an expert in Roman mosaics at Brown University, to work with her in researching the pieces.

They looked for the mosaics in Princeton’s enormous archaeological archive documentating more than a hundred excavations including the Elderkin digs. They couldn’t find the BGSU mosaics anywhere in the archive. When they looked further afield, they discovered the far more likely source was ancient Zeugma, only this was no approved excavation and partage arrangement.

“That site had been extensively looted … and comparing photographs of looted sites, we were able to pinpoint the exact location, the particular room in a mosaic house, where the fragments came from,” Ms. Langin-Hooper said. “A lot of the mosaic was looted and BGSU does not have all of it. Some of the mosaic, we don’t know where it is. It could be at another university, or lost or who knows, but there was enough there, the particular geometric patterning, the coloring, the size of the tesserae, the individual tiles, everything was a match.”

The pieces of chiseled stone and glass depicting masks of ancient Greek figures and birds surrounded by geometric and floral patterns in yellows, whites, reds, greens, and browns, formed part of a frame of a mosaic panel known as “Gypsy Girl,” a symbol for the city of Gaziantep. The professors discovered that 11 of the pieces, measuring about 12 by 12 inches, were part of the same floor. The 12th piece, 2 by 3 feet in size, depicts the mask of an ancient Greek female figure and was determined by Ms. Langin-Hooper and Ms. Molholt to have come from the same villa.

“Its edges are straight and even, indicating that they were cleaned up and possibly repaired or restored, sometime before the mosaic was purchased by BGSU,” Ms. Langin-Hooper wrote in an article.

To BGSU’s major credit, they contacted the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism and informed them of the recent findings. Ministry experts investigated the mosaics and confirmed that the professors’ were right.

“As a public university, we have a special obligation to contribute to the public good. That obligation extends to the global community,” Rogers said. “The preservation and care of the mosaics has been a priority for BGSU for the last 53 years. We have relied upon the expertise of scholars to guide us, both when we acquired the pieces and now. Thanks to the work of Dr. Langin-Hooper and others, it is clear today that the best place for these precious artifacts is back in the Republic of Turkey at the Zeugma Mosaic Museum. We greatly appreciate the collegiality of the Turkish Ministry of Culture in working with us through this process.”

The agreement was signed on Monday, November 19th. Its terms stipulate that the mosaics will be crated, packed and transported the long way home. The cost will be paid by Turkey’s directorate. When they arrive, conservators will puzzle the mosaic panels together with other pieces found during legal excavations at Zeugma in the 1990s. BGSU will receive high-quality replicas of the mosaics and a plaque explaining the whole story. It hasn’t been decided yet where they will be displayed.

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Prison inmates find Ottoman coin hoard

Saturday, December 1st, 2018

Inmates from Pleven Prison in northern Bulgaria have unearthed a large hoard of Ottoman silver coins. The inmates were doing agricultural work on prison grounds on November 9th when they accidentally dug up some coins about a foot under the surface. The coins were cached in two large pots and buried in the 19th century. There are 7,046 of them weighing a combined total of 18.4 pounds.

They are all Ottoman Turkish akçes, the chief monetary unit of the Ottoman Empire from the 15th century until 1687 when they were replaced by the kuruş. After that, the gradual devaluation increased to Weimar-like levels. By the time they were buried, an akçe contained a meager 0.048 grams of silver, a steep plummet from their original .85 gram content.

“They are from different coin issues, and of different face value, and they were probably collected over many years,” says archaeologist Vladimir Naydenov, as cited by the press service of Pleven Municipality.

“It is curious that at the time, this amount of money could buy three houses in Odrin [Edirne] (a former capital of the Ottoman Empire, and a major city in today’s European Turkey – editor’s note),” he adds.

“The 19th century is actually not that well known that is why the treasure is valuable as a source of historical information,” the archaeologist notes.

The experts from the Pleven Museum of History hypothesize that larger Ottoman coins might have also been buried where the hoard from the treasure pot was discovered. Yet, for the time being no more coins have been found at the spot.

This is the third time pots full of treasure have been unearthed in Bulgaria in this year alone. One was of 18th century coins, the other of Tartar loot from around 1400. Their coin counts were far lower but they also included jewelry.

The coins and pots are now at the Pleven Regional Museum of History where they will be thoroughly cleaned, conserved and restored. Numismatists will analyze them to identify with as much precision possible the date and location they were minted. They also hope to discover more about when they buried and why.

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Garage sale toothbrush cup is 4,000 years old

Friday, November 30th, 2018

A pottery vessel bought at a garage sale for a pittance turns out to be a 4,000-year-old archaeological treasure. An avid collector of antiquities and oddities, Karl Martin bought this pot and another at a car boot sale in Willington, Derbyshire, for £4 (a whopping five bucks and a dime at the current rate of exchange). He thought it might be old, very old even, and he liked its simple line painted animal figures, but he didn’t research it further at the time. He just put it to use in his bathroom to hold his toothbrush and paste. Martin says he even got a few toothpaste smears on it and thought nothing of it.

He didn’t follow up on his old toothbrush pot, even though his passion for antiquities had inspired him to get a job at Hansons Auctioneers two years before his bargain purchase. He was at work, in fact, when he saw line painted pottery that reminded him of his old toothbrush holder and asked Hansons’ antiquities expert James Brenchley to look at his pot. He identified it as an ancient piece of pottery made in the Indus Valley area in around 1900 B.C.

James Brenchley, head of antiquities at Hansons Auctioneers, said: “This is an Indus Valley Harappan Civilisation pottery jar dating back to 1900 BC. This was a Bronze Age civilisation mainly in the north western regions of South Asia.

“Along with Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, it was one of three early cradles of civilisations of the Old World, and of the three, the most widespread. The civilisation was primarily located in modern-day India and Pakistan as well as Afghanistan.”

“I do come across items like this from time to time and was familiar with the painting technique. It was probably brought back to the UK years ago by wealthy travellers.”

Martin decided to put up for auction at Hansons’ antiquities sale November 26th. He made a tidy profit considering his £4 investment but it was no windfall. The hammer price was £80.

“Perhaps I should have held on to it. I feel a bit guilty about keeping my toothbrush in it now.”

Uh, yeah friend. Of course you should have kept it. I’ll take free and clear title to a cool ancient pot over a hundred bucks any day. Besides, you owed it a little mantelpiece display or something after all those years it suffered watching you spit into a sink.

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More than 100 funerary bundles found in Bolivia

Sunday, November 18th, 2018

The remains of more than 100 individuals and grave goods have been discovered in a quarry near the modern-day town of Viacha, Bolivia, 18 miles southwest of La Paz. Archaeological material was first found at the site by miners three months ago. They reported it to the authorities and Bolivian government archaeologists began official excavations.

They first encountered two tombs in an underground necropolis carved into the limestone. One chamber contained about 108 funerary bundles. It had been looted and the human remains had suffered significant deterioration, but many grave goods still remained. A small circular hole just 27.5 inches in diameter opened to a chimney nine feet deep. When archaeologists lowered themselves down, they discovered another two tombs, these intact and unlooted.

There were wood and pottery artifacts in the tombs, and more than 150 pieces of bronze jewelry — necklaces, bracelets, brooches, women’s hair ornaments and two rare u-shaped headbands worn by nobility. Also in the tomb with the bundles were 30 intact pottery vessels of a type used by the Inca for burial rites. Some of the skulls are elongated, evidence of intentional cranial deformation, a common practice in the Americas (and world-wide) that was often a signifier of high social status. The skulls and diverse artifacts indicate people on different rungs of the social ladder were all buried together in the communal graves.

The burials date to around 1100-1200 A.D. in the period after the decline of the Tiwanaku Empire which had been the dominant polity in western Bolivia between 600 and 1000. They belonged to the Pacajes people, part of the Aymara kingdom which spread over the Andean highlands of western Bolivia, southern Peru and northern Chile from at least 1200. The area was conquered by the Inca during the reign of Huayna Capac (1493–1524) who expanded the empire to its greatest extent before dying of the smallpox the Spanish brought to America.

Little is known about when the Inca conquered the Aymara and exactly what the power dynamics were. It’s believed the Aymara had some level of autonomy. The discovery of Inca pottery in the Pacajes tombs is therefore of major historical significance as it is a unique find that attests to the blending of cultural practices after the Inca take-over in the 15th century.

The remains, especially the soft tissues, quickly began to deteriorate further when exposed to microorganisms, humidity and saline air, so archaeologist have removed the contents of the tombs to an archaeological center where they will be studied and conserved in controlled conditions. At this point, the remains and artifacts have not yet been declared national patrimony which means the local municipality of Viacha bears the responsibility of finding a permanent place for them that will provide the conditions for their preservation.

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If these gilded Chippendale torchères could talk…

Saturday, November 10th, 2018

A pair of five-foot torchères made by iconic cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale that witnessed some of the juiciest scandals of the Georgian era have entered the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art and are now on display there. The museum acquired the candle-holders for $640,000 in a July sale of Thomas Chippendale works at Christie’s London. The seller was Washington D.C. collector S. Jon Gerstenfeld who had owned them since 1995. In the 220 years before then, the giltwood torchères illuminated the sexy goings-on at Brocket Hall in Hertforshire.

Of columnar form with finely carved acanthus leaves, swags, fluting, and oval masks depicting the Roman goddess Diana, these remarkable works exhibit Chippendale’s masterful understanding of neoclassical proportion, scale, and ornament. Monumental in size, they were designed in 1773 for the grand drawing room of Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire, England, the county seat of Sir Peniston Lamb.

Thomas Chippendale is perhaps best known for his landmark book of furniture designs, The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director (first published in 1754), which was highly admired and widely used as a source of inspiration by cabinetmakers and architects in both Europe and America. As such, Chippendale is most often associated with the many works in mahogany or walnut that follow his designs. These torchères are among the very few pieces made by the master himself and are therefore considered exceedingly rare.

Originally part of a set of four (the other pair were sold separately in 1994), the candle holders adorned a room that was already replete with Chippendale furnishings. The estate of Brocket Hall was purchased in 1746 by Matthew Lamb, a wealthy barrister and Member of Parliament who would be enobled nine years later and created 1st Baronet of Brocket Hall. In 1760 he built the stately neoclassical mansion that stands today. The Grand Saloon, a banquet hall built sparing no expense to make it fine enough to receive royalty, was filled with furniture custom-made by Thomas Chippendale. This room alone cost £1,500, the price to construct an entire mansion at that time.

When his father died in 1768, Peniston Lamb acceded to the baronetcy and became the master of Brocket Hall. He married Elizabeth Milbanke in April of 1769 and significantly boosted by her beauty, charm and facility for making friends and lovers at the highest levels of English society, Lord and Lady Melbourne quickly advanced socially and politically. The fact that less than a year after their marriage Lord Melbourne was already cavorting with an actress better known for her private performances posed no obstacle.

The actress in question, Sophia Baddeley, wrote in her memoirs (published under the pseudonym Elizabeth Steele in the voice of a faux roommate following “as told to” convention) about Lord Melbourne’s pursuit of her.

This gentleman was about twenty-one years of age, and had been married about ten months to a very amiable woman. For a length of time, he used every means to engage her [Sophia’s] attention at Ranelagh, but finding that an improper place for an interview, at least such a one as he wished, he applied to a friend, in confidence, to make her, in his name, an offer of share in his fortune, in exchange for the possession of her heart. This friend brought her a letter, including a bill for 300£. which he very politely pressed her acceptance of, as a bagatelle, and to consider it only as a proof of his esteem, and that liberality which his affection for her would study to convince her of.

Sophia of course nobly declined this offer on the grounds that Lamb should pay all this attention and consideration to his lovely wife, not her. He redoubled his efforts and next thing you know, they were found together “drinking tea,” her memoirs would have it. Melbourne “threw up the parlour window, and precipitately leaped out.” My, such a guilty reaction for someone caught in the innocuous act of sipping tea. Oh and, just out sheer politeness, I’m sure, “as an atonement for his intrusion,” Melbourne “left bank notes on the parlous table, to the amount of two hundred pounds.”

Lady Melbourne was no slouch in the extramarital activities department. She caught the eye of the Prince of Wales, the future King George IV, when she was in her early 30s, had been married for a decade and was in an active relationship with George Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont, widely believed to be the father of her second son William, the future Lord Melbourne, who would find himself notoriously cuckholded when his wife, Lady Caroline Lamb, had a scandalous affair with Lord Byron. She famously had (Lady Melbourne hated her daughter-in-law but was a friend and confidant to Byron even during the intensely public affair that so humiliated her son. Byron would later marry her niece.)

MP and historian Sir Nathaniel Wraxall wrote about her in his posthumous memoirs:

“A commanding figure, exceeding the middle height, full of grace and dignity, an animated countenance, intelligent features, captivating manners and conversation; all these, and many other attractions, enlived by coquetry, met in Lady Melbourne. Her husband had been principally known by the distinguished place that he occupies in the annals of meretricious pleasure, the memoirs of Mrs. Bellamy or Mrs. Baddeley, the syrens and courtesans of a former age.

The annals of meretricious pleasure were surely illuminated by the Chippendale torchères. The Prince of Wales was a frequent vision to Brocket Hall where he enjoyed the liberal hospitality of the lady of the house without complaint from its lord. And what did have to complain about when there was so much benefit to be had from his wife’s liaisons with the highest aristocracy in the land? Melbourne’s irrelevance in Parliament and penchant for ladies of ill-repute were no barrier to advancement. In 1770, he was made an Irish Baron. In 1781 he got bumped up to Viscount (also Irish) and in 1784 he was appointed Gentleman of the Bedchamber to his Royal Highness, who was (not coincidentally) entertaining Lady Melbourne in that bedchamber at the time. In 1815, during the Regency of the Prince, Melbourne got the boost all the way up the Peerage ladder when he was created Baron of the United Kingdom.

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