Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Aztec temple under supermarket opens to public

Sunday, June 24th, 2018

The 14th century temple to the wind god Ehécatl-Quetzalcóatl discovered underneath a former supermarket in Mexico City has opened to the public. The temple was found in 2014 after the old El Sardinero supermarket in the Tlatelolco neighborhood was demolished giving archaeologists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) a rare opportunity to excavate under the crowded streets of Mexico City. This site is on a heavily trafficked avenue. It has a busy shopping center, the Plaza Tlatelolco, on one side and a massive housing unit on the other. There was no way of breaking ground if it hadn’t been for the demise of the supermarket building.

Less than 10 feet under the surface, the 2014 excavation unearthed the top of a circular stone platform and the burials of 20 people and animals. A follow-up excavation in 2016 revealed the full platform, an impressive 36 feet in diameter and four feet in height with a 13-foot access platform in the front. Much of it was still covered with its original stucco, a very rare surviving feature. The second dig also found another eight human burials.

In total, the remains of 32 individuals were discovered at the site, including children and adolescents who are believed to have been sacrificed to Ehécatl-Quetzalcóatl. Ehécatl was the rain-bringer and according to early Spanish chroniclers, the amount of rain that fell was determined by the number of tears shed by the sacrificial victims.

The excavated ceremonial enclosure, almost 4,000 square feet in area, has been preserved in situ as a subterranean archaeological park. It can be accessed through the Plaza Tlatelolco shopping center on Ricardo Flores Magón Avenue. You can’t just walk in, however. Due to the limited space in the enclosure and to maintain a propitious environment, visits to the temple are by appointment only.

The underground archaeological site is the product of collaboration between property owners, the construction company and the government which by law owns all archaeological remains discovered in Mexico. In the past, Mexico City’s explosive development has come at the expense of its pre-Hispanic cultural patrimony, much of which was built over without concern for preservation. Thanks to the hard work of archaeologists and advocates, priorities have shifted over the past two decades, and the new temple site is being held up by INAH as an example of how development doesn’t have to come at the expense of archaeology and can in fact benefit from it. The shopping center will get more traffic, prestige from its underground treasure while the city’s archaeological heritage is preserved.


Beautiful bibliophile bait

Saturday, June 23rd, 2018

The Boston Public Library (BPL) has made available online more than 200 high-resolution photographs of its collection of exquisite fore-edge paintings. These are miniature masterpieces painted just inside the edge of the pages on the side of books. Some of them match the subject of the book; others are tributes to the wealthy aristocrats who commissioned them. All of them are gorgeous.

The idea of painting the outer page surface of a closed book took hold in the 17th century and became a popular trend for a while. It continued into the early 18th century but had largely fallen off the radar as the century came to a close. The Edwards family of Halifax, first William Edwards around 1755, followed by his even more innovative sons, revived the medium and turned it up to eleven.

John and James Edwards, sons of William, opened a bookshop on Pall Mall in London in 1784. They also maintained the family shop in Halifax which was much larger and may have been the place where some or most of the actual bookbinding for the Pall Mall shop was done. Both of the Edwards shops had a reputation for the elegance and quality of their bindings, but it was the London store that brought them the most rarified clientele of the age.

They used fine materials like calf leather, colored morocco, silk (for markers and end-leaves) and gold tooling to create expensive prêt-a-porter books and ultra-luxurious custom editions for bibliophiles and collectors from the staunchly respectable (vicars, scholars, assorted professionals) to the highest echelon of Britain society. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Marchioness of Rockingham and Queen Charlotte were repeat customers.

In 1785, James Edwards received a patent for a process to create transparent vellum that would line the covers and couple be painted or printed on the underside. This allowed books to be decorated to order with ink or pencil designs that would never rub off or smudge. The book’s front and back covers could be dusted and wiped clean with a wet cloth without any risk of the drawing on the delicate vellum lining would run. Family crests, monograms and initials were popular personalizations, on their own or accompanying figures drawn from the subject of the book.

The customized artwork of the vellum paintings neatly segued into fore-edge painting. Traditionally fore-edge paintings has been florals and heraldic motifs applied to the flat surface of the edge that could only be seen when the book was closed. The Edwards brothers eschews those limitations and created elaborate miniature widescreen panoramas of grand estates, landscapes, cityscapes, religious scenes, all applied to a thin sliver at the very edge of the pages so the pages had to be ever so slightly fanned out for the image to be seen. The painting became a sort of Easter egg, invisible when the book was closed because the outer surface was gilded; if the book was closed, all you saw was gold.

Their ambitious approach made bibliophiles swoon. Rev. Thomas Hartwell Home of the University of Cambridge described the technique in glowing terms in his 1814 book, An Introduction to the Study of Bibliography, Vol I:

To Messrs. Edwards, the lovers of ornamented books are indebted for a method of gilding upon marbled leaves, and decorating the edges of leaves with exquisite paintings; we have seen landscapes thus executed, with a degree of beauty and fidelity that are [sic] truly astonishing; and when held up to the light in an oblique direction, the scenery appears as delicate as in the finest productions of the pencil.

A Mrs. Thrale wrote about it in a letter to her daughter ca. 1812:

I have seen a newer – to me at least – a newer Method of displaying Elegance, in which, if you do not exceed all Your Competitors, it will be your own fault. Tis in Bookbinding – a White smooth Vellum cover to – [Mason] The English Garden – for example: must be painted with some Device relative to the subject on both sides – and the Leaves apparently gilt, must when you hold them in a particular manner – slanting, exhibit a beautiful Miniature Landscape painted likewise by the Lady; but concealed when the Book is shut. They are ten Guineas each, if you purchase; and Edwards of Pall Mall is the Owner of the Invention; but perhaps I am talking of a well known contrivance, which however surprized me.

We don’t know who painted the Edwards fore-edge mini-masterpieces. There are no signatures. Mrs. Thrale’s attribution of authorship to “the Lady” may have just been a groundless assumption on her part. Other accounts by people more closely connected to the Edwards suggest they were painted by one of the brothers, possibly John who made some of the finest of the vellum binding paintings.

Edwards weren’t the only bookbinders to create beautiful fore-edges. The Boston Public Library’s collection, amassed by Albert H. Wiggin in the second half of the 1940s, is the second largest in the country and the largest public collection. Its 258 volumes feature the work of several bookbinders and some of the most important fore-edge paintings extant, including a few very rare signed works.

Browse through the gallery here or click Browse to look through them by subject, category or title.


Gold watch from Pulaski wreck stopped at crucial moment

Friday, June 22nd, 2018

The exploration of the wreck of the steamship Pulaski has ramped up for the summer dive season and propitious weather conditions have allowed teams to dive for longer periods. They have already recovered more than 150 gold and silver coins and assorted artifacts like thimbles, nails, ceramics and keys. One find, however, stands out for both material and historical value and because it’s like something from an Agatha Christie novel. It’s a solid gold pocket watch stopped at 11:05, five minutes after the boiler exploded and the ship began its rapid descent under the waves.

The watch was found inside a concretion about the size of a grapefruit. An intricate gold chain was visible, threaded through the chunk of hardened sand, rock, shells and marine debris. Only one small curve of the watch emerged from the edge of the concretion. It wasn’t clear until the concretion was removed that it was a gold watch and its fob, still attached as they had been in the pocket of the wealthy gentleman passenger who lost them in the disaster.

“We were shocked,” said Max Spiegel of Certified Collectables Group, which is handling preservation of Pulaski artifacts.

“It’s very unusual to see an artifact with that sort of impression of a historic moment, when a ship sank. Think about how fragile the watch’s hands are, yet they survived in that exact position. It’s one of the most exciting finds we’ve handled, and we’ve done a half dozen shipwrecks.”

Eye witnesses reported that the starboard boiler exploded at around 11:00 PM, but the reports from survivors could be contradictory, not surprising given the chaos of the explosion and sinking. Finding the stopped watch confirms the timeline.

The pocket watch is still in the process of being conserved. It is richly engraved and there are many of those details have yet to be revealed.


Civil War limb pit found at Manassas

Thursday, June 21st, 2018

Archaeologists have unearthed a gristly testament to the horrors of the Civil War at Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia: a pit containing the skeletal remains of amputated limbs. This is the first Civil War surgeon’s limb pit ever found and professionally excavated. The pit also contained the complete skeletal remains of two men, the first recorded find of whole bodies and amputated limbs buried in the same grave from the Civil War.

The men of the First and Second battles of Bull Run were left on the field near Manassas rather than collected and buried in cemeteries, so there are human remains scattered throughout the park. The National Park Service maintains many Civil War battlefields as historic sites and as hallowed ground, preserving them rather than exploring them as archaeological sites.

The excavation of the limb pit is a very rare exception precipitated by an inadvertent find of bone fragments in 2014. Park staff suspected the bones might be human and enlisted the aid of experts from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History to confirm it. They did. After much careful planning, a joint team of archaeologists from the National Park Service and the Smithsonian excavated a small area of the find site between October 19th and the 21st, 2015.

In those two days, the team unearthed the skeletons of the two soldiers, 11 limbs and a few artifacts. The soldiers proved pivotal to determining whether the pit dated to the first or second of the Manassas battles. One of soldiers was found with lead buckshot in his bones and metal buttons running down his chest. The buttons were of a type used in Union sack coats which weren’t in production yet in 1861. The pit is from the Second Battle of Bull Run (also known as the Second Battle of Manassas) took place on August 28-30, 1862. The other soldier was shot with an Enfield bullet that is still lodged high up his femur. Stable isotope analysis revealed that both soldiers were raised in the northeastern United States.

In dialogue with Bies at the Manassas site, and with the aid of military medical logs and other primary sources, Owsley and Bruwelheide pinned down what likely happened. Following the Second Battle of Bull Run, Union battlefield surgeons would have been admitted to the grounds by Confederate gatekeepers, with all but their most rudimentary supplies confiscated (it’s likely that chloroform was unavailable, meaning the procedures described above would have been undertaken with the patients conscious and suffering). There at the site, surgeons would have hastily operated on soldiers who had been baking in the sun and soaking in the rain without food for days on end. “Some of these amputations were probably done in less than ten minutes,” Owsley says.

The exactitude of the amputations under the circumstances was striking. Forensically, Owsley says, “you can read how the doctor’s positioned and how he’s cutting through the bone, and what pace he’s using in different locations. These were done by an experienced surgeon. This was not novice work.” […]

But what of the two full skeletons? Why were those men buried with the severed limbs of their brothers in arms? Owsley says the answer is simple. In the early days of the war, before the advent of sophisticated triage, the categories battlefield surgeons relied on were simple: those worth trying to save by amputation, and those beyond saving. The two men left in the shallow grave with the remains of their peers fell into the latter classification.

The remains of the two soldiers have been transferred in a solemn ceremony to the US Army. They will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery later this summer.


Monumental Tiepolo back on display after 4-year restoration

Wednesday, June 20th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chinese vase carried in a shoebox to huge payday

Sunday, June 17th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Another stolen Columbus letter returned to Italy

Friday, June 15th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


YouTube masterclass on the Cosmati pavement

Thursday, June 14th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Francis Drake’s immortalized tell-tale wart

Tuesday, June 12th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Westminster Abbey gallery open after 700 years

Monday, June 11th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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





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