Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Rarely seen liturgical textiles on display in Vienna

Tuesday, August 30th, 2016

The Imperial Treasury at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna is home to an extraordinary collection of treasures accumulated by the House of Habsburg over hundreds of years. Jewels, vessels made of gold, silver and gemstones, furniture, paintings, the imperial regalia of the Holy Roman Empire and opulent vestments are on display in the Secular Treasury, including one of my favorite historic textiles of all time, the Mantle of Roger II, made in 1133-4 for the Norman king of Sicily. The crimson samite mantle was embroidered in gold by Arabic craftsmen in Palermo who created a breathtaking split scene of lions attacking dromedaries on both sides of a stylized date palm. It made its way to the Holy Roman Empire through marriage by the early 13th century and to Vienna in 1801.

The Ecclesiastical Treasury features chalices, relics, monstrances, tabernacles and liturgical vestments. Its collection of 18th century religious textiles, most of which were donated to the Church by Emperor Charles VI, his wife Elisabeth Christine and their Empress Maria Theresa, mother of Marie Antoinette of France. The vestments were made of the most expensive French and Italian silks and satins that were then lavishly embroidered.

The extensive holdings of the Ecclesiastical Treasury in Vienna are largely unknown to the general public; they comprise mainly vestments and liturgical textiles that were used to celebrate Mass or during religious festivities. Totalling around 1,700 artefacts, the collection includes both sets of vestments and individual textiles. Many of these precious garments were donated by members of the House of Habsburg who for centuries ruled the Holy Roman Empire. The pomp and circumstance associated with this high office is reflected in the costliness of these sumptuous textiles, the finest of which date from the Baroque, the apogee of Habsburg piety. Unlike mediaeval ecclesiastical textiles, baroque vestments generally feature not figurative but purely ornamental decorations. Precious secular silks adorned with a variety of designs frequently function as the base material, which is then elaborately embellished with appliqués, lace or gold-, silver- and silk embroidery to produce opulent textile works of art.

The leading benefactress in the 18th century was Maria Theresia (1717-1780). She donated precious textiles for use in the imperial palace chapel and the chapels of the different imperial summer residences at Schönbrunn, Laxenburg and Hetzendorf, as well as in St. Augustine’s church in Vienna. The latter evolved into a major stage for Habsburg piety. Here newly-appointed bishops were invested. All these places were lavishly appointed with sumptuous ecclesiastical textiles.

These textiles are so fragile they are kept in conservation cabinets and cannot be on permanent display. Select pieces can be seen now in the special exhibition Praise of God, and the embroidery alone is mind-blowing.


Export of Queen Victoria’s coronet barred for now

Monday, August 29th, 2016

You might think a sapphire and diamond coronet designed by Prince Albert for Queen Victoria the year they were married would never be in danger of being exported out of the UK, but it is. The Culture Ministry has placed a temporary export ban on Queen Victoria’s coronet in the hopes that a buyer in the UK, ideally an institution, can raise the £5 million ($6,554,000) plus £1 million ($1,310,725) VAT to match the purchase price.

In the happy days before her widowhood, Victoria loved brightly colored gems, and Albert designed the coronet to match a sapphire and diamond brooch he had given to Victoria as a wedding present. Victoria was delighted with these gifts, writing in her journal “My dear Albert has such good taste and arranges everything for me about my jewellery.” In the case of the coronet, Albert arranged for Joseph Kitching, Goldsmith & Jeweller To His Serene Highness the Prince of Saxe-Coburg, to make it using gemstones that Victoria had gotten as gifts from her uncle King William IV and his wife Queen Adelaide. The small crown — just 4.5 inches wide — has 11 kite- and cushion-cut sapphires mounted in gold surrounded by diamonds mounted in silver. It cost £415.

Victoria wore the coronet two years later in 1842 when she sat for one of the most famous portraits of the young queen by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. The fashionable artist’s first portrait of Queen Victoria captured her in white silk satin and lace gown reminiscent of her groundbreaking wedding dress which would launch the white wedding trend. The sapphire and diamond brooch Albert had given her the day before their wedding is pinned to her bosom, just as it was on her wedding dress. The coronet encircles the tidy bun on the back of her head. The painting became an iconic representation of Queen Victoria all over the world.

Prince Albert’s death in 1861 sent Victoria into a period of inconsolable mourning that lasted for years. She wore black and made no public appearances, executing the duties of the monarch in seclusion at her favorite royal residences, avoiding Buckingham Palace and London as much as possible. Breaking two centuries of uninterrupted tradition, she refused to attend the State Opening of Parliament for five years, finally returning to the duty in 1866 under duress. The new Prime Minister Edward Smith-Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby, and future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli pressured the queen to attend the ceremony to quell politicians’ and the public’s increasing discontent with her withdrawal from public life. She did it with great reluctance, grumbling that it would be a terrible “shock to her nerves.” Instead of wearing the coronation crown, whose weight had caused her some pain during her coronation, she wore the little coronet, a reminder of her beloved husband.

Neither Queen Alexandra nor Queen Mary wore the sapphire coronet. In 1922 King George V and Queen Mary gifted it to Princess Mary, their only daughter, as a wedding present when she married Viscount Lascelles, the future 6th Earl of Harewood, in 1922. Mary, Princess Royal after 1932 and Countess of Harewood after 1929, wore the coronet often on public occasions. After her death in 1965, the coronet fell out of view. It emerged in 1997 for an exhibition at the renown Wartski jewelers in London, on loan from the Countess of Harewood. In 2002 it was exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Tiaras exhibition.

At some point after that it was sold to a dealer in London. The overseas owner requesting the export license bought it from that dealer. Whenever an export license is requested, the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) studies the piece and determines whether its historical and cultural value is too significant to let it leave the country without a fight.

RCEWA member Philippa Glanville said:

“Key to the self-image of the young Victoria, this exquisite coronet was designed by her husband Prince Albert. Worn in her popular state portrait by Winterhalter of 1842, the year it was made, its combination of personal meaning and formality explains why she chose to wear it in 1866, emerging from mourning for the State Opening of Parliament. It evokes vividly the shared romantic taste of the time, and its form has become familiar through many reproductions. Its departure would be a great loss, given its beauty, its associations and its history.”

Individuals and institutions have until December 27th, 2016, to raise the money or at least raise enough money to indicate they have a chance of matching the price if given a little more time. In that case, the temporary ban may be extended to June 27th, 2017.

If I were Queen Elizabeth II, I would be whipping out my checkbook right now. Which raises the question: are the Queen’s checkbooks plain or the kind with designs? I’m thinking horses in a field or Corgis at frolic.

Confederate spy Belle Boyd’s flag up for auction

Sunday, August 28th, 2016

Belle Boyd was still a teenager when her career as a spy for the Confederate States of America began. Born in Martinsburg, Virginia (today West Virginia), she was 17 when war broke out in 1861. Her family, while not rich, was of old Virginia stock and she received a decent secondary education before making her debut in Washington, D.C. The whirlwind of balls and box socials was interrupted by Fort Sumter and she left D.C. to return home. Her father volunteered for the Confederate Army.

Within months Martinsburg was occupied by Federal troops. According to her autobiography, Belle Boyd saw to it that the town was occupied by one fewer Union soldier on July 4th, 1861. A group of soldiers had busted into their house, hearing that there might be Confederate flags within. When they went to raise the Union flag over the house, Belle’s mother protested and a solider retorted “in language as offensive as is possible to conceive.” Enraged, Belle whipped out the pistol she had concealed on her person and mortally wounded the Yankee soldier. The commander of the Union garrison in town investigated the shooting and declared it justified. He assigned sentries to guard the house and its residents from further interference.

And that’s how Belle Boyd got to know a passel of Union officers, charming information out of them with her wit, boldness and flirtatiousness. Mind you, there are no reports of any such shooting taking place in the official Union Army records. The account could be Belle Boyd’s fictionalized version of events invented or exaggerated for a stronger lead-up to her later spying activities which do appear on the record.

The exploit that would make her famous took place in May, 1862, just after her 18th birthday. Either by pressing her ear to a knothole in the floor or a knothole in the wardrobe (accounts differ), she eavesdropped on Union General James Shield’s conversation with his staff at a hotel in Front Royal, Virginia. She found out that Shield’s troops were leaving, that Union numbers would be significantly reduced. Riding a horse through Union lines with fraudulent passes, Belle reached General Stonewall Jackson’s army and relayed a message to him via an officer: “The Yankee force is very small. Tell him to charge right down and he will catch them all.” On May 23rd, 1862, Jackson charged right down and defeated Colonel John R. Kenly at the Battle of Front Royal in a rout.

News of Belle Boyd’s daring late-night run spread quickly. There were stories in southern and northern newspapers about it. She was described in the northern press as the “Siren of the Shenandoah” and “Cleopatra of the Secession.” Stonewall Jackson sent her a lovely personal thank you note and awarded her the Southern Cross of Honor. She also received an honorary commission as a Captain in Jackson’s army and an honorary appointment as his aide-de-camp.

Belle revelled in the attention. She made no attempt to hide her actions, instead telling the story, often with embellishments including a claim that carrying a Confederate flag, she had led Jackson’s men onto the battlefield. She repeated that claim to one Frederic Sears Grand d’ Hauteville, a Union captain on the staff of General Nathaniel Banks, when she met him at Front Royal on June 10th and gave him the flag she said she had been waving when she “led the attack” on Union troops.

Another officer serving under General Nathaniel Banks wrote about Belle and the flag in a letter home on July 28th, 1862. That officer was Robert Gould Shaw, famously played by Matthew Broderick in the Oscar-winning movie Glory.

“Perhaps you have seen some accounts of a young lady at Front Royal, named Belle Boyd. There was quite a long and ridiculous letter about her copied into the ‘Evening Post’ the other day. I have seen her several times, but never had any conversation with her. Other men who have talked with her, tell me that she never asked for any information about our army, or gave them the slightest reason to suppose her a spy; and they were probably as capable of judging as the correspondent who wrote about her. She gave Fred. d’ Hauteville a very pretty Secession flag, which she said she carried when she went out to meet Jackson’s troops coming into Front Royal.”

After seeing significant action, Frederic d’ Hauteville resigned his commission in 1863 and married socialite and scion of two great New York dynasties, Elizabeth Stuyvesant Fish. She died just 10 months later and d’ Hauteville withdrew to his family chateau on Lake Geneva. The flag traveled to Switzerland with him and remained in the house until it was sold for the first time in 2015. Yes, you read that right. A genuine historical artifact was found in a real life private Swiss collection under entirely legitimate circumstances.

Now it is going up for auction again, for the first time in the United States.

Eleven star flags of this pattern are generally dated in the brief timespan from July 1861, when Tennessee and North Carolina joined the Confederacy, until November 28, 1861, when two additional stars were added to the flag to mark the establishment of Confederate governments in Missouri and Kentucky. Made sometime in that timespan, perhaps even by Boyd herself, this flag was packed away and preserved before it was even a year old. The flag exhibits an unusual canton configuration. While one side features the eleven stars in a circle, typical of First National flags, the other side has but a single star in the center of the canton. [...]

Its condition has remained immaculate, retaining the short ribbons along its hoist and showing no tears, holes, fraying, loss, or staining. A small handwritten note has been loosely stitched to the flag, testifying to its provenance. The note reads: “Confederate flag. Taken by F.S.G d’H. and given by him to E.S.F. in 1862 (?). To be given to Freddie d’ Hauteville when he is fifteen.” The handwriting is that of Frederic d’ Hauteville, who has spelled out his name in initials. E.S.F. represents the initials of his late wife, Elizabeth Stuyvesant Fish. Freddy, his son by his second wife, was born in 1873, thus dating this note some years before his 15th birthday in 1888.

The auction will take place on September 17th, 2016, but the lot is already open for online bidding. The opening bid is $50,000. Heritage Auctions expects it to sell for much more than that, and given its impeccable provenance and exquisite condition, it may even break the record for a flag of the First National pattern. The record for Confederate flag sold at auction is the battle flag of J.E.B. Stuart which sold for $956,000 in 2006.

National Trust acquires iconic Jacobean miniature

Saturday, August 27th, 2016


The National Trust has acquired a very fine early 17th century miniature by Isaac Oliver for £2.1 million ($2,760,000), a new record for a British miniature. The miniature is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest British examples of the art form. It has been on display at the Powis Castle in Powys, Wales, which was bequeathed to the National Trust by 4th earl of Powis in 1952. The anonymous seller, believed to be in the family of the Earls of Powis, sold the miniature at a discount — it was valued at £5.2 million ($6,830,000) — in exchange for tax concessions. Even so, the National Trust had to raise funds to buy the piece and save it for the nation before it went up for public sale. The Art Fund contributed £300,000 ($394,000), the National Heritage Memorial Fund £1.5 million ($1,970,000) and the National Trust pulled together the rest from various sources.

The subject of the miniature is Edward Herbert, 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648), a soldier, diplomat, statesman, poet, playwright and philosopher. His first cousin was Sir William Herbert, 1st Lord Powis. Scholars believe the miniature has been in the Powis family almost since it was first painted.

The cabinet miniature measures nine by seven inches and presents him as a chivalric hero of medieval romance, reclining in a verdant glade by a babbling brook. Lying recumbent with his head propped up on one hand, Herbert strikes the pose of the melancholic, symbolic of deep thought and contemplation. This isn’t just the image of a philosophically minded young man, however. Herbert is the Melancholy Knight here, shown in repose after dueling in a joust. His shield, decorated with a winged heart rising from the flames and the inscription “Magia Sympathiae,” (“sympathetic magic,” an element in Herbert’s metaphysical treatise De Veritate on the pursuit of truth) covers his arm, while in the background his elegant suit of armour is perched between two trees and his page holds a helmet so extravagantly beplumed that the red feathers obscure the page’s face entirely. To the right of the page, Herbert’s armoured white destrier paws the ground spiritedly. In the far distance, painted in blue, is a city on a river.

Edward Herbert was a dashing figure of the era, famed for his bravery, intellect and success with the ladies. The miniature was painted around 1610-1614, a time when Herbert had distinguished himself in highly chivalric fashion while volunteering under Philip William, Prince of Orange, in the Low Countries. From 1609 through 1614, the Dutch Republic was involved in the War of the Jülich Succession over who would control the United Duchies of Jülich-Cleves-Berg. Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II claimed the duchy, as did Wolfgang William, Duke of Palatinate-Neuburg, John Sigismund, Elector of Brandenburg, and the Prince of Orange representing the interests of the Dutch Republic.

In 1610, the emperor’s troops occupied the fortified citadel of Jülich and the armies of the Republic, Palatinate-Newburg and Brandenburg came together to besiege it. Herbert stepped forward to propose a classic solution to the conflict: he offered to fight the Holy Roman Emperor’s chosen champion in single combat. The victorious champion would win the duchy for his lord. Rudolph II declined. The siege lasted 35 days before the Imperial troops surrendered and withdrew and Rudolph renounced his claim to the duchy.

Born in France the son of a Huguenot goldsmith named Pierre Olivier who anglicized his last name when he fled persecution in Rouen and moved to England, Isaac Oliver was 27 and already an experienced painter when he became a pupil in the workshop of painter Nicholas Hilliard who was a popular miniature portraitist of the Tudor court.

Hilliard was limited in his skills, however, sticking largely to relatively flat head-and-shoulders portraits. When Oliver began painting miniatures under Hilliard in 1587 he was quickly recognized as a great talent and an innovator of the genre, which was less than 70 years old at that time. His portraits covered more of the body, used more and brighter colors, added chiaroscuro shadow elements that gave the features more depth and dimension. Oliver introduced the naturalism of Renaissance Italian and Flemish painters to British miniatures, and his works were widely collected by the young and fashionable.

There is an extremely juicy backstory to the miniature, one that appropriately enough for Herbert involves a married woman, a pissed off husband, attempted murder and attempted duels. The tale is recounted by Edward Herbert himself in his scandalous autobiography which was only published a century after his death by Horace Walpole, publisher, author and son of the first prime minister of Britain Robert Walpole, who had borrowed it from the then-Earl of Powis. Walpole called it “the most curious and entertaining book in the world,” and with good reason.

According to Herbert, the miniature was commissioned not by the Herberts but by the wife of one Sir John Ayres. She had purloined a copy of the original painting, now lost, and had Oliver make a version in miniature to wear “about her neck, so low that she hid it under her breasts,” a placement that Herbert acknowledges gave Sir John reasonable cause for suspicion. Then this happened:

Coming one day into her chamber, I saw her through the curtains lying upon her bed with a wax candle in one hand, and the picture I formerly mentioned in the other. I coming thereupon somewhat boldly to her, she blew out the candle, and hid the picture from me; myself thereupon being curious to know what that was she held in her hand, got the candle to be lighted again, by means whereof I found it was my picture she looked upon with more earnestness and passion than I could have easily believed, especially since myself was not engaged in any affection towards her.

Why, who could think there was illicit affection between them, just because he found himself in her rooms with the lights out while she fondled a miniature of him she kept in her cleavage? Sir John, apparently, because word got out that he planned to kill Herbert in his bed. When several titled personages alerted Edward Herbert to the contract out on his head, he enlisted his cousin Sir William Herbert to ask Sir John Ayres to refrain from murdering him in his sickbed until they could meet in an honorable duel once Edward was recovered from a fever.

The appeal fell on deaf ears, but their communication led Sir John to change his plans from murder in bed to murder on the streets. He and four men-at-arms attacked Herbert, recently recovered from his illness and on his way to Whitehall. A fierce battle ensued in which Herbert fended off five men, broke his sword, took a dagger blow from ribs to hip and still managed to pin Sir John down and whup him like he owed him money with the busted remnant of his sword. Ayres’ men dragged his body to safety.

Herbert recovered from his knife wound and wrote to Ayres again suggesting an honorable duel between them. Ayres replied that Herbert “had whored his wife, and that he would kill [him] with a musket out of a window.” The Privy Council got involved, adjudicating the dispute between them. Lady Ayres wrote a letter denying her husband’s allegations and the lords oohed and aahed over Herbert’s brave Dumas-like derring-do. Ayres did not try to kill him again.

What’s missing in this self-servingly dashing narrative is an explanation of how the portrait wound up with the Powis Herberts. Perhaps Lady Ayres handed it over. Perhaps this whole story is, let’s just say, richly embellished.

The miniature will now spend several months getting treatment from conservators. Once it is in tip-top shape, it may be loaned to other museums — the piece has been loaned to institutions like the Victoria & Albert in the past — before returning the Powis Castle for permanent display.

Crusader-era grenade in group of artifacts turned in to authorities

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016

A group of artifacts recently turned in to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) include a striking embossed hand grenade from the Crusader era. The objects were collected by the late Marcel Mazliah who worked at the Orot Rabin power station in Hadera on the northwest Mediterranean coast of Israel since it was built in 1973. Over the years, he found a broad assortment of archaeological treasures in the sea, probably lost in shipwrecks or simply overboard.

The Mazliah family contacted the IAA after Marcel died and they inherited his less-than-legal collection. An expert went to their home to examine the artifacts and was surprised to find such significant pieces.

According to Mrs. Ayala Lester, a curator with the Israel Antiquities Authority, “The finds include a toggle pin and the head of a knife from the Middle Bronze Age (from more than 3,500 years ago). The other items, among them, two mortars and two pestles, fragments of candlesticks, etc. date to the Fatimid period (eleventh century CE). The items were apparently manufactured in Syria and were brought to Israel. The finds are evidence of the metal trade that was conducted during this period”.

The hand grenade is a handsome example of a weapon in common use by Islamic forces during the Crusader (1099-1187), Ayyubid (1187-1250) and Mamluk (1260-1516) periods. It is made of unglazed ceramic and embossed with grooves and tear drop-shaped designs. It has a domed top over a spherical body that tapers to a point. They were filled with incendiary material – petroleum, naphtha, Greek fire — and thrown or catapulted into the enemy camp where they exploded fire that water could not put out on their targets. There’s a small hole in the top into which flammable liquid could be poured and a wick added once the grenade was loaded.

Some scholars believe these vessels were not weapons, but rather perfume bottles. They’re certainly pretty enough for it and it seems counterintuitive that someone would bother to decorate an explosive projectile whose sole function is to destroy itself and take people down with it. On the other hand, their shape makes them markedly unsuited for placement on a dresser, requiring a rack or holder to keep them vertical, and the decorations also have the practical function of making the devices easier to grip in the hand or set snugly in the sling of a catapult. A smooth clay grenade would be dangerously easy to drop.

There is historical and archaeological evidence of this type of vessel being used in war. For one thing, clusters of them have been found in fortresses, castles and moats. The 12th century historian Mardi ibn Ali al-Tarsusi mentioned in the military manual he wrote for Saladin in 1187 that terracotta vessels with incendiary contents were launched from catapults or thrown from ramparts. Other sources from the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries describe the clay gourds in more detail, explaining how they were used in battle and the various launching methods. Chemical analysis of residue inside several similar pieces discovered traces of rock salt, pine resin and other flammable materials. One gourd on display in the National Museum of Damascus has an inscription that leaves no question as to its bellicose purpose: “This kind of projectile is useful for targeting the enemy.”

The IAA is grateful that the family has voluntarily come forward and handed the artifacts over to the state. Officials plan to give the Mazliah family with a certificate of appreciation and, which is way cooler, have invited the family to visit the IAA laboratories where the artifacts will be studied and conserved.

Tiny publisher to publish Voynich Manuscript facsimile

Monday, August 22nd, 2016

The Voynich Manuscript, a folio of mysterious illustrations and hand-written texts written in an unknown language or code, has been bedevilling linguists and cryptographers for almost 600 years. Radiocarbon dating of the book’s vellum leaves found it was produced between 1404 and 1438, and even though the ink cannot be dated at present, researchers believe the manuscript was written relatively close to the parchment’s age. There’s a documented history of alchemists, scholars, occultists, even one emperor (Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II) succumbing to its fascination since the 1600s. It fell off the radar in the late 17th century only to be rediscovered in 1912 inside a trunk at the Jesuit College at Frascati near Rome by Polish antiquarian and book dealer Wilfrid Voynich.

Voynich was obsessed with attempting to decipher the manuscript, dedicating the last 18 years of his life to the pursuit. Since then, everyone from professional codebreakers from both World Wars to amateur puzzlers have tried to crack the code. It has become the a cryptological Holy Grail, and Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which was owned the volume since 1969, gets thousands of emails a month from people claiming to have cracked the code. Fully 90% of traffic to the library’s website goes to the digitized images of the manuscript.

The Beinecke Library gets constant requests to loan the codex out to museums, institutions and researchers — it is the second most requested book after the Gutenberg Bible — but they mainly keep it locked up in a vault for its own protection. If everyone who wanted to turn its pages did so, its condition would quickly deteriorate. In 2005, a small Spanish publishing company called Siloé which specializes in printing precise facsimiles of historic manuscripts learned of the Voynich Manuscript and campaigned with the Beinecke to be allowed to make a specialized reproduction of it. Ten years later, the deal was done and the obscure publishers in the historic center of Burgos in northern Spain were granted the right to make the first ever copy of the Voynich Manuscript.

Siloe … has bought the rights to make 898 exact replicas of the Voynich — so faithful that every stain, hole, sewn-up tear in the parchment will be reproduced.

The company always publishes 898 replicas of each work it clones — a number which is a palindrome, or a figure that reads the same backwards or forwards — after the success of their first facsimile that they made 696 copies of… another palindrome.

The publishing house plans to sell the facsimiles for 7,000 to 8,000 euros ($7,800 to $8,900) apiece once completed — and close to 300 people have already put in pre-orders.

The first high resolution photographs of the 252 pages of the manuscript were taken earlier this year and Siloé experts are now working on mock-ups. It’s no easy task reproducing a codex that has lived a rich and varied life over 600 years. Each folio is bound by hand and the delicate vellum has been exposed to diverse, sometimes damaging, climactic conditions. Some pages are dehydrated. Others are almost burnt from exposure to heat and light. Then there are the complexities inherent in this particular codex which has leaves that unfold into triples and quadruple pages.

Once the images are sorted out, the book will be printed on special paper developed by the company. Made from a thick paste, the paper will be treated so that the final product has the stiff feel of the Voynich vellum. The printed pages will then be then bound and aged to match the original.

It’ll be about 18 months before the first facsimiles go to print. The 300 copies that have already been sold in advance were all purchased by individuals — institutions have to wait to buy things when they actually exist — but one of the main reasons the Beinecke agreed to the copy was so facsimiles to go to museums and schools for scholars to peruse without fear of damaging the original. There must be some sort of reservation option with such a limited run already being more than a third claimed. I could find no means to preorder on the publisher’s website. Perhaps there will be more information available on the site once we get closer to publication.

Hercules Room restoration begins

Sunday, August 21st, 2016

Thanks to a generous grant from the Silvano Toti Foundation, the Hercules Room of Rome’s Palazzo Venezia is now getting a much-needed restoration. The Palazzo Venezia was built in the middle of the 15th century at the behest of Cardinal Pietro Barbo, the future Pope Paul II. The stones used to build it were taken from the Colosseum, just a short jaunt to the southeast. One of the first buildings in Rome with Renaissance architectural elements, the Palazzo Venezia would outlive many later Renaissance buildings which were damaged or destroyed by the troops of the Holy Roman Emperor during the Sack of Rome in 1527.

In 1564 the Pope granted use of the palace to the Most Serene Republic of Venice for its embassy. From the end of the 18th century until World War I, it was the seat for the Austrian ambassador to the Holy See. At war with Austria-Hungary, the Italian state claimed it in 1916. Benito Mussolini claimed the Map Room in the Palazzo Venezia for his office and many a newsreel captures him speechifying from the balcony to adoring crowds below. He even built a secret bunker in the basement.

Today the palace is a national museum, home to thousands of works of art. While the building was modified repeatedly over five centuries, it still holds many original decorations from the 15th century. The Hercules Room is perhaps the most sterling example, with its frescoes depicting the Labours of Hercules and elaborately carved and painted wooden ceiling. Located on the piano nobile (the first floor where the receiving and private rooms of the noble family were), the Hercules Room was at one end of the Pietro Barbo’s apartment. Once he was elevated to the Throne of Saint Peter and got new digs in the Vatican, the room was used to store pontifical vestments. The highest part of the walls are decorated with eight panels displaying scenes from the Labours — Hercules and the Nemean lion, Hercules and Antaeus, Hercules with one of Geryon’s head of cattle, Hercules and Geryon, Hercules slaying the dragon Ladon, guardian of the Apples of the Hesperides, Hercules and the Ceryneian Hind, Hercules and the Stymphalian Birds, and lastly, Hercules and the centaur Nessus. Frescoed between the Labour panels are little putti, garlands, architectural motifs and the coat of arms of Pope Paul II.

Some past scholars have attributed to the great master of perspective and antique motifs Andrea Mantegna who famously frescoed the exquisite Camera degli Sposi in the Ducal Palace of Mantua. Others attributed them to an unnamed artist at the pontifical court. The artist remains unknown today, although scholars believe he was probably from northern Italy. The restoration and study of the frescoes will give experts the opportunity to revisit the authorship question.

The restoration is expected to take four months, from July to October. They will be a busy four months. On the agenda are the cleaning of the frescoes, the strengthening of the plaster layer and paint layers, revising past restorations and disinfecting and disinfesting the wood ceiling. Restorers will also investigate the techniques used in the original painting of the frescoes.

Restorers Isabella Righetti and Rita Ciardi told ANSA that renovation work is urgently needed because of repeated and heavy-handed work carried out in the past. [...]

The restorers also said dried pigments used in previous restoration works hid the artworks’ original colors.

“By cleaning them, we hope to rediscover the polish of the paintings, which were supposed to look like large windows that were open towards the outside”.

Free guided tours of the room will be offered to the public starting in September so visitors will have the chance to view the restorers at work.


Ötzi used wild, domestic animals for clothes

Friday, August 19th, 2016

Hot on the heels of the protein analysis that determined the animal products used to clothe Iron Age mummies, researchers at the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman have discovered new information about Ötzi the Iceman’s couture. The Iceman died and was naturally mummified in the gelid Öztal Alps about 5,300 years ago. The glacier that preserved his body and much of his clothes and accessories isn’t the acidic environment of the Danish peat bogs, but 5,300 years in ice still takes a toll on the structure of leather and fur. Since 1992, researchers have attempted to identify the animal source of the Iceman’s couture by microscopic analysis, peptide analysis of keratin and collagen content, and in 2012, the first genetic analysis extracted mitochondrial DNA from fragments of leather that could not be connected to a specific garment.

A new DNA study has expanded on those earlier studies, taking samples nine samples of leather and hide from the Iceman’s coat, leggings, fur hat, hay-stuffed shoes, loincloth and quiver. They were able to sequence the full mitochondrial genomes of each sample and thus identify the animals from which the materials originated.

The sample from Ötzi’s quiver, which was previously believed to made of chamois leather, was in fact from roe deer hide, although researchers cannot exclude the possibility that the quiver was made from the hide of more than one animal so there could be chamois areas that haven’t been sampled yet. The hat was made from brown bear. The rest of his wardrobe was crafted from domestic animals. A sample from a leather strap on one of the shoes was made from a cattle hide. His leggings, which were thought to be made from wild wolf, fox or dog, were actually made from goat hide. The loincloth, previously believed to have been made from goat hide, was in fact sheep hide. The hide coat was made of a mixture of goat and sheepskin, stitched together from the skins of at least four animals.

The species of goat and sheep are genetically closer to modern domestic sheep than wild ones, which is why researchers believe these were domestic goats and sheep rather than trapped or hunted wild ones. In fact, the species of all the domestic animals — cattle, sheep and goat — used to make the Iceman’s attire are members of haplogroups frequently seen in the same species that live all over Europe today.

That, says [the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman's Niall] O’Sullivan, shows that while Ötzi was likely to be from an agricultural or herding community, he was an enterprising chap. “It is possible that he might have used his hunting ability to capture and kill a bear, or it [could be] that he came across a dying bear and opportunistically took the skin and used it as leather,” says O’Sullivan. “It shows us that he was opportunistic and resourceful and used to the best of his ability the scarce resources which were available to him in a very harsh environment.”

The iceman, it seems, was also adept at a bit of make do and mend. “The Copper Age neolithic style of making leather was very primitive, clothing would have decomposed and degraded quite quickly under normal circumstances,” says O’Sullivan. “So he had to rapidly change his clothes and he was probably constantly renewing the clothes and augmenting it so that bits didn’t fall apart.”

In addition to the new information about Ötzi and Copper Age clothing revealed by this study, the results have wider implications for future analyses of ancient and prehistoric artifacts. The fact that full mitochondrial genomes were successfully sequenced from samples of degraded skins and furs more than 5,000 years old bodes well for their recovery in other organic archaeological materials.

The full report was published in Scientific Reports and can be read here.

Lost Dürer engraving found in French flea market

Sunday, August 14th, 2016

An 500-year-old engraving by Albrecht Dürer lost since World War II turned up in flea market in France. A retired archaeologist and art collector found copperplate engraving entitled Mary Crowned by an Angel at a stall of assorted tchotchkes in Sarrebourg in northeastern France close to the German border. Priced to move at just a few euros, the engraving had been acquired by the stall owner at a home clearance sale. Mary Crowned by an Angel

The buyer recognized it as a Dürer engraving and quickly bought it. When he examined it more closely, he saw a stamp on the back from the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart. Being a responsible, law-abiding type, he looked it up in the database of the German Lost Art Foundation which registers cultural items that were illegally seized usually by Nazis but also by other looters from private owners and institutions. The entry in the database confirmed that it was stolen and the new owner decided to return it to the museum. He and his wife went to the museum in person, long-lost Dürer engraving in hand, and gave it back.

“We are very grateful that, after more than 70 years, the work came to the hands of an art lover who did not keep his valuable find for themselves, but returned it to the public instead,” the museum’s director Christiane Lange said on Thursday.

How it got from Stuttgart 130 miles west to Sarrebourg is a mystery. It was likely stolen from storage at the end of the war in 1945 and crossed the border for a surreptitious sale. We know that at some point after the war it belonged to a former deputy mayor of Sarrebourg. None of the post-war owners can claim good faith since the stamp on the back of the engraving makes it clear that its legitimate owner was a museum.

At least the illegitimate owners treated it right, keeping it wrapped in paper and preserving it for 70 years. The engraving is in excellent condition, complete with the original matting. It depicts Mary holding a chubby baby Jesus (who looks, it must be said, distinctly over it all) while being crowned by an angel. It’s part of series of 15 engravings of Mary and the Christ Child Dürer printed at different times over the years.

The museum has not put the prodigal Mary on display yet. Officials are contemplating the best setting for their returned treasure. Perhaps a special Dürer exhibition is in order since the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart has an extensive collection of 250 prints by Dürer.

Mexican sword tip from 1830s found at Alamo

Friday, August 12th, 2016

The excavation at the Alamo has unearthed an intriguing fragment from the same period of the doomed defense of the fort that has been immortalized in film, literature and legend. It’s the broken tip of a sword, a piece about six inches long from a type of sabre known as a briquet which was manufactured in France from the Napoleonic era through 1860 and was sold to the Spanish and Mexican infantry. It would have been issued to a non-commissioned officer in the Mexican army.

The object was discovered in the area of the south wall gate where the adobe bricks were discovered. That was considered the weakest part of the fort and it saw a great deal of military action, but this is the first confirmed military artifact recovered thus far at the south wall.

Military artifacts expert Sam Nesmith, director of the Texas Institute and Museum of Military History, identified it as a Mexican briquet. He dates by its design to between October 1835 and February 1836. Until December of 1835, the Alamo was held by General Martin Perfecto de Cos, General Antonio López de Santa Anna’s brother-in-law, who ordered extensive modifications and fortifications, including strengthening the south gate right. After 56 days of siege, Cos surrendered San Antonio and the Alamo to Texian forces in December. Just a hundred men held the fort for the next two months. In the chaos of the period, requests for reinforcements went unfulfilled by the Texas government.

On February 23rd, Santa Anna, Cos and the Mexican army arrived in San Antonio and turned the tables. They besieged the Alamo for 13 days. On March 6, 1836, they attacked. Colonel Juan Morales was tasked with assaulting the south wall and gate with 100 infantry. The defenders, Davy Crockett and his Tennesseans, put up a strong fight, forcing Morales’ men to shift to the southwest corner of the palisade. They broke through there. Morales’ men turned the cannon onto the barracks and to the artillery installation on the roof of the Alamo church. Davy Crockett and James Bowie were killed in this assault.

If the dating proves accurate, this sword tip could have broken off during the famous battle itself. Nesmith doesn’t think so, though. The torquing and pattern of breakage suggested to him that the sword may have been being used as a tool in construction causing the tip to break. Somebody, perhaps during Cos’ fortifications of the wall in late 1835, could have reached for the sword as a handy device only to inadvertently break it. It wouldn’t be the first time. Another sword tip was unearthed in the Main Plaza in 2007 where Cos had his troops dig a defensive entrenchment in December of 1835.

The sword tip will go to the Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Texas San Antonio. They don’t know yet if they will clean the corrosion to restore it to a more recognizably shiny-swordy condition. The process is expensive, so they’ll have to see if there’s room in the budget.

There’s an excellent video in which an archaeologist explains the tip fragment in detail here. I can’t embed it because of cursed autoplay, but it’s just a couple of minutes long and well worth a look.

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