Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Update: Ponte Vedra shipwreck moved to safety

Thursday, April 19th, 2018

Weeks after it washed up on Ponte Vedra Beach, the remains of a shipwreck have been safely removed from the beach to the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve. Construction Debris Removal Inc. donated their time and equipment and experts from the Lighthouse Archeological Maritime Program (LAMP) collaborated to prepare the delicate wooden hull for transport and move it to its new home just over the highway. The team worked all day in the hot sun to make it happen, finally getting the ship to a protected location near the Guana Dam at the end of the afternoon.

The 48-foot-long section of a ship is a weighty thing, hence the front loader. The head of the construction company estimates that it weighed 6,000 pounds. Archaeologists think, based on its dimensions and construction, that the complete ship would have been something in the neighborhood of 100-150 feet long and was probably a coastal trading ship with a crew of around 20 men.

Chuck Meide, director of maritime research at the St. Augustine Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program, thinks it was built in the southeast in first half the 19th century, not the 18th century as originally speculated.

That, [Meide] said, he and others based not only on the size of the frame members, or what are called “futtocks,” but also those deteriorating surface features that could be seen on them.

Marks on them, Meide said, appear to have been made by band saws and circular saws. Those would have been steam powered and not in widespread use until the 1830s, he said

What Meide called a “deliberate pattern” of alternating softwood and hardwood timbers for the futtocks also added another clue about origin.

“That’s kind of interesting,” he said.

It suggests that the builder was taking advantage of the strength of the hardwood, “but the abundance of softwood would have made it a lot cheaper,” he explained. That points to a smaller shipbuilder in the South as opposed to a more industrial shipyard in the north that would have been more likely to use all hardwoods, Meide said.

The hot sun and roiling waters of the Florida beach were major threats to this intriguing relic. Just as it washed ashore during a spring break storm, it could have been swept back out to the Atlantic ocean at any time. Even as the thousands of people who flocked to see the wreck and read about it in national news reports hoped it would be rescued before that happened, the logistics proved challenging and several attempts at salvage failed. Meanwhile, the sun had three weeks to dry the wood and bake away the extremely rare surviving chisel marks, graffiti and Roman numerals left by the builders that had been clearly visible when the ship first appeared on the beach.

Even though the building marks have faded significantly, it seems the deterioration has stabilized for now. Conservators will now be able to work to preserve the shipwreck for the long-term. The GTM Research Reserve is committed to research and protection of of its estuarine environment, but it doesn’t have the budget or expertise to conserve a wooden hull. The St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum is taking on that task, and they need funding to do it.

The St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum is trying to raise money to pay for further study of the shipwreck, which includes archaeological analysis, the generation of three-dimensional computer models of the shipwreck, wood species identification, and tree-ring dating. With your help the Museum will be able to pay for the production of interpretive signage so that at least a portion of the shipwreck can be saved and displayed for the public to see. We hope that will be at the Guana-Tolomato-Matanzas Research Reserve, which has a Visitor Center very close to where the shipwreck was found, but our Museum will be in charge of the archaeology and interpretation.

The museum has set up a donate link on its Facebook page. So far only $620 have been raised. The goal is $10,000.

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Unbelievable 3D-printed 1st c. Roman helmet

Wednesday, April 18th, 2018

Custom Prototypes has created what can only be described as a masterpiece of historical recreation. It’s made of 3D-printed stainless steel and resin (aka stereolithography or SLA plastic), which sounds easy but is far, far from it. For one thing, steel doesn’t come out of the printer all shiny and pretty. The helmet started out as a dull plastic-looking affair requiring a bristling mass of supports in what would become the hollow part that needed to be removed before the finished product could look anything like the original.

Then all the individually printed stainless steel parts — helmet base, decorative elements — had to be sanded, polished and buffed to a high gloss. Once that was done, the resin pieces were printed in clear plastic, including the fantastic mohawk, and then painted and dyed to look like gemstones. That’s not an easy process either, making little plastic bits look like jade or lapis lazuli or feathers.

It helps to elevate the material when you electroplate the base, figures and reliefs with nickel, copper, chrome and just for good measure, 24 carat gold. Pieced all together the final work may bear zero relation to any actual Roman helmet that ever existed, but it sure looks spectacular.

Most of all, it’s a testament to how much is possible with 3D printing technology and months of hard work. This video documents the fascinating process.

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18th c. shipwreck hull scanned for posterity

Sunday, April 15th, 2018

The remains of a rare 18th century shipwreck caused much excitement when they were discovered by beachcombers on Ponte Vedra Beach in northeastern Florida last month. All that’s left of the ship is a large section of wooden hull, but 47-feet sections of 300-year-old ships don’t wash up ashore all in one piece very often, and this one is surprisingly well-preserved. Wooden pegs and Roman numeral markers used in its construction are still intact.

Julia Turner and her eight-year-old son stumbled on the wreckage during a walk on the beach on March 28th, 2018. They had been looking for shark teeth and shells when the found a ship’s hull instead. At first Julia thought it was just some old fencing or maybe part of a pier, but she soon realized it was the remnants of a shipwreck.

Archaeologists from the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum started documenting the discovery that very same day. They made field drawings, mapped the hull and its context. Because it was found on state land — Ponte Vedra is a public beach — the shipwreck cannot be moved or interfered with in any way. Even the archaeologists could only observe very carefully, take copious notes to share with any relevant state authorities who would then determine what to do next. The next day, officials decided to attempt recovery, but the heavy crane necessary to remove such a large and heavy section of ship got stuck in the sand. A second attempt on Friday also came to naught.

The news of the find spread quickly and drew crowds, some of whom were a little too keen to get up close and personal with the wreck. The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office had to deploy a deputy to guard the hull while archaeologists did their thing to keep the overly enthusiastic from interfering with the fragile artifact.

Since archaeologists weren’t officially tasked with salvage and the wreck could be reclaimed by the ocean at any time, the team went with plan B and arranged for a laser scanner to be brought to the site from the University of South Florida. On Saturday, March 31st, four days after the hull washed ashore, it was laser scanned for posterity. Now, barely two weeks later, the first 3D model of the Ponte Vedra Shipwreck has been made available online.

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Coleridge’s remains found in a wine cellar

Saturday, April 14th, 2018

The remains of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge have been rediscovered in a bricked-up wine cellar. Their loss was of recent duration. Just before his death in 1834, the author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was lodging at the home of a doctor in Highgate, north London, who was attempting to treat him. When those attempts failed to prevent the poet’s death, he was buried in Old Highgate Chapel near the parish church across the street.

In 1961, an alarm was raised about the condition of the vault. It was derelict and Coleridge’s remains were no longer safe. A fundraising campaign that received contributions from all over the world was launched and its success allowed Coleridge’s remains, those of his wife Sarah, his daughter Sarah, her husband and their son to be moved to St. Michael’s Parish Church where they were placed in a section of the crypt that in the 17th century had been a wine cellar. When the church was built on the site of the former Ashhurst House in 1831, the old wine cellar had been absorbed into the large crypt of the new St Michael’s and largely forgotten. Coleridge got a marker in the floor of the church, but the coffins themselves were bricked up and forgotten about.

[I]n the words of Drew Clode, a member of the St Michael’s stewardship committee, “poor Coleridge was moved from a tip to a tip – they put the coffins in a convenient space which was dry and secure, and quite suitable, bricked them up and forgot about them, and never did anything about the rest of the space”.

As people died or moved away from the parish, the exact location of the coffins was forgotten, until a recent excavation revealed the entrance to the wine vault. The gap was just large enough to shine a torch through the ventilation block in the 1960s brick wall, and the excavators discovered the five lead coffins. They lay not where most thought, in the far corner of the crypt, but almost directly below the inscription “Beneath this stone lies the body of Samuel Taylor Coleridge” on the prominent memorial slab in the nave. “So that was a bit of a clue really,” said Clode.

Pilgrims do visit the church to pay their respects to the poet, and it would be nice to have more than just a marker for them to see. St. Michael’s authorities want to clear the crypt and make it accessible without having to follow a labyrinthine path through piles of brick and stone.

“From a safety point of view it would be quite impossible to bring members of the public down here,” said the vicar, Kunle Ayodeji. “But we hope that the whole crypt can be cleared as a space for meetings and other uses, which would also allow access to Coleridge’s cellar. I don’t think we would open up a view of the coffins, but we could place a suitable inscription on the wall.”

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FBI recovers stolen Chagall 30 years after theft

Thursday, April 12th, 2018

A Chagall oil painting that was stolen in a heist of valuables from the apartment of a New York couple in 1988 has been recovered by the FBI. Ernest and Rose Heller were 85 and 88 years old respectively when they returned to their Manhattan apartment after an Aspen vacation to find it had been burgled. Missing along with the Chagall were jewelry, china, silver and 13 other paintings from their small but significant collection by artists including Renoir, Hopper and Picasso. The building’s security system had remained silent the entire time.

Because of security having been neutralized, authorities at the time suspected it was an inside job. One man who worked there and had access to the building’s security system would later be convicted on federal charges of moving stolen goods across state lines. Some of the counts related to the Heller theft, others to art stolen from other New York homes, so it seems the Chagall fell into the hands of a whole theft ring with multi-state operation.

Even with the insider arrested and convicted, none of the loot from the Heller apartment was recovered. Ernest was quoted in the press at the time of the theft saying that he didn’t think he’d ever see any of the pieces from “a lifetime of collecting” again. Sadly, he was right. He and his wife passed away many years ago, leaving their possessions almost entirely to charity.

The FBI’s Art Crime Team tracked down the painting with the help of a gallery in Washington, DC. According to a complaint filed today in US District Court and titled United States v. One Oil Painting Entitled Othello and Desdemona by Marc Chagall for the District of Columbia, “Person 1” approached “Person 2” in the late 1980s or early ’90s, for help selling the stolen Chagall to persons involved with Bulgarian organized crime. The deal fell through, and the first party accused the second, who wound up with the painting, of stealing the work. (Because of the ongoing investigation into the other paintings whereabouts, the FBI is not revealing the names of any of the parties involved.)

Person 2 brought the painting to the DC gallery in 2011, and again in 2017. An unidentified third party had previously brought the painting to the gallery back in 1989. All three times, the dealer said they could not help sell the piece without proof of ownership and provenance. Encouraged by the gallery, Person 2 finally contacted the FBI, who took possession of the painting in January 2017.

Because the insurance company paid out for the stolen objects, it is technically the owner of the painting, and would be even if the Hellers were alive. In this case it has agreed to waive its legitimate ownership claim and the painting will be sold auction to benefit the charities in the Hellers’ will.

Chagall paintings can go for dizzying sums these days. The most recent windfall went to the former owners of Les Amoureux, which sold at Sotheby’s in New York last November for a record $28.45 million. Experts are doubtful that this piece would be one of the artist’s multi-million dollar sellers, however. The image is a little muddy, not particularly appealing and its many decades on the lam have not done its condition any favors. A similar work recently sold for $600,000, so that’s what it’s been appraised at. On the other hand, Ernest Heller was intrigued by its early date — it was painted in 1911 — and his own father bought it in Paris just two years after it was made for $50, likely from Chagall himself. Also its recent history might make it more desirable because heist stories are always juicy.

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One of the earliest Persian garden carpets in the world to go on display in the US for the first time

Tuesday, April 10th, 2018

One of the greatest Persian carpets in the world is traveling from Glasgow to the United States for the first time to go on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Wagner Garden Carpet was made in Kirman, modern-day southeastern Iran, in the 17th century. It one of the three earliest Persian garden carpets known in the world (the other two are at the Albert Hall in Jaipur, India, and the Museum of Industrial Art in Vienna, Austria) but its design is unique. There are no other carpets known that use its base pattern in whole or in part.

Its four-quartered garden layout is inspired by the Safavid royal gardens and the concept of the earthly paradise described in the Quran. In the middle is a basin where the channels that divide the garden meet. All along the H-shaped channels trees, plants and shrubs flower and animals — birds, butterflies, goats, rabbits, lions, gazelles, peacocks, leopards — roam amidst their lushness. Fish and waterfowl frolic in the canals.

It was named after its German owner who acquired it at the turn of the century. Sir William Burrell bought it in 1939 from the Royal Bank of Scotland. He displayed it in his drawing room at Hutton Castle in Northumberland, but only owned it for five years before donating it to the City of Glasgow.

It is huge, more than 17 feet long and 14 feet wide. The warps are all cotton; the wefts wool, cotton and silk; the pile wool. Because of its massive size and the delicate condition of its textiles, it has only been on display twice in the past three decades, and has never been seen outside the UK since the Burrell purchase in 1939. It is traveling now only because the Burrell Collection closed for an extensive £66 million refurbishment in October 2016 and doesn’t reopen until late 2020.

Dr Frances Fowle, Burrell Trustees chairman, said: “The Burrell Trustees are delighted to support the loan of one of the world’s most spectacular and important carpets to one of the world’s greatest museums.

“The loan will raise international awareness of the significance of Sir William Burrell’s collection while the museum undergoes much-needed refurbishment.” […]

While on display in New York the artwork will accompanied by a supporting display relating to the importance of gardens in Islamic culture and a full public programme including a symposium and a guest lecture by Noorah al Gailani, curator of Islamic Civilisations at Glasgow Museums and the Burrell Collection.

It will be exhibited at the Met’s Islamic Galleries from July 10th through October 7th, 2018.

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Ardennes baker recreates World War I bread

Monday, April 9th, 2018

A baker in Sedan, in northeastern France’s Ardennes region, is creating exact replicas of the bread that was distributed to French infantrymen during World War I. The soldiers were nicknamed “poilus,” meaning “hairy ones,” a reference to their propensity for facial hair which was a tell-tale sign of their country rustic origins. Baker Christophe Guénard calls his reproductions of the bread they lived on from 1914 to 1918 “Le pain des poilus” and wraps it in a tricolor ribbon.

Guénard began researching the “pain de guerre” because he wanted to create a leavener from scratch instead of using yeast or chemical leaveners like baking soda. He scoured archives in Paris and zeroed in on the 1914-1918 period when boulangers supplying the infantry on the front lines, bound by the exigencies and deprivations of wartime, had to create the most bare bones product they could. At the same time, this bread would be the main food keeping the poilus on the front lines going. It was the bulk of their intake; they ate half a loaf in the morning, half in the evening.

He found it was made of white flour, but it’s plain, with none of the additives, enzymes, dairy derivatives and other enhancements typical of bread flour. There are no chemical leaveners in the flour, nor was yeast used. Instead, they made a leavener from scratch, the very technique Guénard had been looking for, by macerating raisins in water for 10 days. The liquid (raisins strained out, of course) was then mixed with the plain white flour to create the dough. More flour was added over time to feed the raisin leavener.

“Every day, when I make this bread, I say we did the same during the war,” says Jerome Pirois, floury hands kneading a ball of dough, before a baking at 250° C for 35 minutes.

The baker is busy preparing about sixty loaves for the next day: “This is another way of working bread. When the boss told me about it, I educated myself. There’s a history behind it.”

“It is a great idea, it is this type of popular initiative that must be taken and which people support,” rejoices … Serge Barcellini, Comptroller General of the Armies and President of the French Souvenir, who moved to Sedan.

The bakery sells 120 loaves of Poilus every week for 12.50 euros apiece. A percentage of each sale is donated to Le Souvenir Français, the association that maintains war memorials and keeps the memory of war dead alive. The Ardennes region was one of the epicenters of slaughter of the Western Front, so the dreadful losses of World War I are still very much present in a way they may not be in other parts of France.

With the commemoration of the Centenary coming to an end this year, “the risk is that the memory of 14-18 collapses with memory consequences and economic consequences in the frontline regions,” he says.

But “to enter a bakery and have a direct and authentic memory” of the conflict feeds the interest of the population for this period, he adds.

The bakery now wishes to pass on its recipe to other craftsmen and make it travel out of the department, marked by the battle of the Ardennes in August 1914, to “make the product live”, enthuses Mr. Guénard.

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Painting by Dutch master found in Iowa gallery closet

Thursday, April 5th, 2018

Robert Warren, Executive Director of the Hoyt Sherman Place gallery in Des Moines, Iowa, was looking for some Civil War flags in a flower closet. He didn’t find any. Instead, wedged between a table and the wall, he found a late 16th century panel painting by Dutch master Otto van Veen. It had suffered significant water damage after spending who knows how long in a small, uninsultated room full of jumbled stuff, and before then experienced unfortunate attempts at restoration. It was also unsigned.

The scene depicts the figures of Apollo and Venus accompanied by her son Cupid. Venus, the Roman Goddess of Love, Beauty, and Fertility, is portrayed as an artist painting a landscape that includes a small image of Pegasus on the horizon. Apollo, holding a lyre, is the Roman God of Music, Poetry, and more. Cupid is the Roman God of Desire, Affection, and Erotic Love. The painting also contains four still-lifes referencing Venus’ beauty and fertility: a collection of jewelry, a basket of fruit and flowers, a sprig of roses, and a bowl of oysters. A fifth still-life of her painting supplies occupies the lower right corner.

The painting was coated with layers of discolored varnish and former restoration work that flattened the three-dimensional quality of the scene and falsified the artist’s intended palette. Areas of former loss were present along splits in the wood and throughout scattered areas especially pronounced in the left third of the painting. The surface was heavily overpainted after a succession of former restoration attempts.

Chicago conservator Barry Bauman conserved the piece, cleaning it, repairing flaking paint and faulty restorations. The artist was identified as Otto van Veen who painted it in Antwerp in the last years of the 16th century. It was brought to Des Moines by the Collins family who had owned it since at least the 1880s when they lived in New York and loaned it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The painting moved to Des Moines with them and the family donated it to the Hoyt Sherman Place gallery in the 1923. It is Des Moines’ earliest Old Master painting.

Born in Leiden to a prominent Catholic family, van Veen studied in Rome and built a successful studio in Antwerp where he received numerous commissions for altar pieces and other religious themed works from churches and aristocratic patrons. He also took in students, most famously Peter Paul Rubens who studied under van Veen from 1594 to 1600, just the time when he painted Apollo and Daphne. A humanist and scholar, van Veen would go on to publish three emblem books (illustrated compendia of symbols and allegories used in art accompanied by a motto from a famous author, usually from antiquity). His most popular by far was Amorum emblemata (published in 1608), which is replete with Cupids.

So even though Apollo and Venus might seem to lean towards the profane for someone with a thriving business painting Christian iconography, in fact it fits his education, understanding and pedagogical approach to perfection. There are so many symbols of love layered in the panel it would have made a very useful addition to the Amorum emblemata.

All those layers may be the reason the masterpiece was hidden away in the storage closet. When it was donated to the gallery, the Hoyt Sherman Place was run by the upstanding ladies of the Des Moines Women’s Club. They founded the Club in 1885 with the express purpose of creating an art museum open to the public free of charge. After more than two decades of hosting temporary exhibitions at various sites, in 1907 the DMWC finally found a permanent home when the city rented them the historic Hoyt Sherman Place for the token sum of $1 a year. The Club built an addition to house its art collection and the Hoyt Sherman Place gallery opened as the first public art gallery in Des Moines.

In 1921 construction began on another addition that would expand the gallery and create an elegant auditorium for performances and exhibitions. The closet where Warren discovered the Van Veen’s masterpiece is located on the balcony of the auditorium. He speculates that all the nudity, sex and fertility symbols were a little too spicy for the Des Moines Women’s Club when it was donated in the 1920s. At that time, there wasn’t a single nude in the 54-work collection.

Apollo and Venus debuted at the gallery in a preview last month. It will be displayed as part of the permanent collection this summer.

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FBI identifies Middle Kingdom mummy head

Wednesday, April 4th, 2018

More than a century after its discovery and four millennia after it was entombed, the head of a Middle Kingdom (2040-1640 B.C.) mummy has been identified by FBI forensic specialists using DNA analysis. Even with all the advances in the retrieval of archaeological DNA over the past decade, the odds of success were slim because this poor head has been through the wringer. First, it was entombed in the necropolis of Deir el-Bersha on the east bank of the Nile in Middle Egypt where the blazing heat of the Eastern Desert destroys DNA in short order.

Then it was abused in the most callous fashion by looters who broke into the tomb in antiquity. After plundering the tomb of its precious metals, the thieves tossed aside a mummified body which ended up in two pieces — the torso, sans limbs, and the head. They tried to set the limestone chamber on fire to obscure the evidence of their crime, but thankfully failed and what was left of the human remains, not to mention some exceptional wood artifacts, survived.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of years later, the tomb’s denizens had another close call, this time at the hand of archaeologists. George Reisner and Handford Lyman Story discovered the burial shaft of what they would name Tomb 10A under some boulders in 1915. The shaft was 30 feet long and space very tight, so Reisner and Story dynamited their way in.

Recklessly explosive entry notwithstanding, the team found beautiful and rare painted wooden coffins, figurines and pottery that had been roughly piled up and tossed around by the ancient looters. Four coffins, canes and dozens of models depicting daily life on the estate of a high official including 58 boats, artisan workshops and a religious procession featuring a male priest leading female bearers of offerings. It was the largest assemblage of Middle Kingdom funerary artifacts ever discovered.

They also found a mummified head on top of one of those coffins and the disarticulated torso in a corner. The wood objects and the head were sent to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which had co-sponsored the dig, in 1921. They had their next brush with destruction on the trip across the Atlantic when the ship caught fire. The crew managed to control the flames and the contents of the tomb made it through with minimal water damage.

At the time, there wasn’t a great deal of interest in these types of materials, so most of them were put in storage. Only the religious procession and the finest painted of the coffins were put on display. Finally in 2009 the full assemblage was rescued from obscurity and displayed in an exhibition dedicated to the finds: The Secrets of Tomb 10A: Egypt 2000 BC.

The mummified head was one of the stand-out items. Its serene visage, head wrap with painted on eyebrows and curly hair visible through the linen bandages made a striking impression, as did the fact that nobody knew for sure who the head had belonged to in life. Inscriptions had identified the tomb as that of the Great Overlord of the Hare (15th) Nome, Djehutihotep, and his wife, but it wasn’t clear whether the head was male or female. Expert opinions differed and even as recently as 2009 it was thought to be impossible to retrieve viable, uncontaminated DNA from an Egyptian mummy.

The MFA had doctors at Massachusetts General extract a molar from the head in the hope it might contain a precious clean sample protected by the tooth’s enamel. Several teams of scientists tried to recover DNA from the tooth since the 2009 extraction, but to no avail. In 2016, the FBI’s forensic specialists were enlisted.

The F.B.I. had never before worked on a specimen so old. If its scientists could extract genetic material from the 4,000-year-old mummy, they would add a powerful DNA collecting technique to their forensics arsenal and also unlock a new way of deciphering Egypt’s ancient past.

“I honestly didn’t expect it to work because at the time there was this belief that it was not possible to get DNA from ancient Egyptian remains,” said Odile Loreille a forensic scientist at the F.B.I. But in the journal Genes in March, Dr. Loreille and her colleagues reported that they had retrieved ancient DNA from the head. And after more than a century of uncertainty, the mystery of the mummy’s identity had been laid to rest. […]

In the F.B.I.’s clean lab, Dr. Loreille drilled into the tooth’s core and collected a tiny bit of powder. She then dissolved the tooth dust to make a DNA library that allowed her to amplify the amount of DNA she was working with, like a copy machine, and bring it up to detectable levels.

To determine whether what she had extracted was ancient DNA or contamination from modern people, she analyzed how damaged the sample was. It showed signs of heavy damage, confirmation that she was studying the mummy’s genetic material.

She plugged her data into computer software that analyzed the ratio of chromosomes in the sample. “When you have a female you have more reads on X. When you have a male you have X and Y,” she said.

The program spit out “male.”

And thus at long last, the Great Overlord Djehutynakht reclaimed his head.

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University of Aberdeen painting is by Canaletto

Friday, March 30th, 2018

A painting donated to the University of Aberdeen 153 years ago has been authenticated as a work by the Venetian master Canaletto. It was long believed to have been the work of his studio or school, but university art history professor John Gash and leading Canaletto expert Charles Beddington are convinced it was painted by the hand of Giovanni Antonio Canal (1697–1768) himself.

Canaletto is famed for his views of Venice, but this work is more unusual in his oeuvre. It’s a capriccio, a fantasy composite of ancient ruins that don’t exist in real life, in this case a temple on which a modern cottage has been built. Peasant women hang out the wash they’ve done in the two fountains at the base and side of the ancient temple. On the left is a pyramid highly reminiscent of Rome’s Pyramid of Cestius, the only pyramid in Italy, which makes an appearance in several of Canaletto’s works.

There are three other capricci by Canaletto that share some features with the Aberdeen painting, and a collection of etchings by the artist also includes architectural and figural elements in common with this work. While it is not signed, many of Canaletto’s paintings were left unsigned by the artist. This one has a telltale mark of the artist, however: in the center of the ruined temple is a large circle which bears the coat of arms of his family.

It was bequeathed to the university by physician Alexander Henderson who died on his estate Caskieben in Dyce, Aberdeenshire, in 1863. Henderson, an Aberdeenshire native who had attended Marischal College (which in 1860 merged with King’d College to become the University of Aberdeen) as a teenager, later went to medical school in Edinburgh where he had a successful practice. He was best known for having exposed Ann Moore, the fasting woman of Tutbury, as a fraud who had been eating just fine under the very noses of previous examining physicians. After moving to London, his medical career fell by the wayside, superseeded by his interests in art, literature and fine wines, on which he became a published expert. He traveled the continent collecting art and antiquities, amassing a notable collection of ancient Greek pottery mainly acquired from the freshly excavated ruins of Herculaneum.

In his 1857 will, he left his alma mater Marischal College his entire collection which he described in far too modest terms:

“To the Museum of the said College, my pictures, drawings, marbles, Vases, bronzes, and medals which, though not of high value, may assist in forming and diffusing among my fellow townsmen a taste for the fine arts, and may lead to farther [sic.] bequests of a similar kind.”

Two years after his death, the Aberdeen Journal printed an article listing the donated works and noting they were on display in a hall of Marischal College. The Ruins of a Temple was attributed to “B. Canaletti” which is not an accurate name. The author might have meant Bernardo Bellotto, Canaletto’s nephew, student and collaborator who was known to have used his patron’s nickname, but no art historians today think there’s even a slim chance of Bellotto having painted the capriccio.

“It was often thought to be from the Canaletto school – that is, by one of Canaletto’s pupils or someone imitating his style,” explains Mr Gash. “However I and others have long suspected it was a real Canaletto and now we have been able to confirm this.

“It is clear from the technique and the style, as in the language of forms and composition, that this is a Canaletto and is in fact an autograph work of the highest quality.”

The painting had previously decorated the University’s Principal’s house but has now been revealed as one of the University’s treasures.

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