Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Stinky cheese found on 17th c. Swedish shipwreck

Wednesday, July 27th, 2016

Divers have recovered a tin of very old, very stinky cheese from the wreck of the Swedish royal ship Kronan off the coast of Öland in the Baltic Sea. The ship went down in 1676, so the cheese is 340 years old. (One hopes it hadn’t been on the ship a full year or more before it went down.)

“It looks a bit like some kind of granular Roquefort cheese. It’s been in the mud, so it’s reasonably well preserved, but at the same time it has been at the bottom of the sea for 340 years – we’re not talking Tutankhamun’s burial chamber,” [Lars Einarsson of the Kalmar County Museum] said.

Einarsson said the thick, gooey find smells strongly of cheese and yeast.

“I think it smells quite nice, because I like exotic food. But I would not want to taste it.”

I wonder why. What, you can’t handle 340-years worth of bacterial growth in unpasteurized cheese, Mr. Einarsson? Somebody get Andrew Zimmern over there.

The cheese is being kept cool at the Kalmar County Museum for now. It will be subjected to a battery of scientific test to identify it first as cheese (it’s almost certainly a dairy product, but it could have gone bad and been contaminated by God knows what to make it clumpy and smell like cheese), and then perhaps what type it is.

The royal ship Kronan was built by shipwright Francis Sheldon who had fled England after participating in a failed attempt to free King Charles I from prison. He was received in Sweden most warmly by King Charles X Gustavus who promptly put him to work building ships for his navy. In 1655, the Swedish admiralty hired Sheldon as master shipwright of the navy. He was in the right place at the right time. In the 1660s Sweden began a program of replacing its aging fleet with new warships, larger, more heavily armoured and armed, capable of withstanding the popular tactic of brutal broadside attacks that had replaced the old-fashioned style of short-range artillery exchanges culminating in boarding the wounded but functional enemy vessel.

Construction on the Kronan began on October 27th, 1665, when the keel was laid in Stockholm’s royal shipyard. It was meant to replace the previous flagship and bearer of the name which was by then 33 years old. Made entirely out of oak (about 20 acres of a 100-year-old oak forest was cut down to make the ship), the Kronan was 197 feet long and 42 feet wide, the third or fourth largest ship in the world at that time. It took another three years before the hull was laid. The admiralty and Sheldon fought the whole time, them accusing him of delaying construction by working on private projects, including a lucrative side business selling some of that oak to England; he accused them of holding back promised funds making it impossible for him and his crew to do the job.

Finally in 1672 the Kronan was finished. The gaudy ship, so known because of the decorative style meant to intimidate the enemy with gloriously gilded details, sailed for the first time in December in the celebration of Charles XI’s coronation. When loaded for bear, the ship carried 126 bronze cannons on three decks. It was manned by a large crew of 500 sailors and 350 soldiers. In 1675, the new Kronan officially became the flagship of Sweden’s royal navy. It only had a year to live.

During a storm before the beginning of an action at the Battle of Öland on June 1st, 1676, the Kronan capsized after making a sharp turn with too much sail unfurled. The gunpowder stores ignited and the bow of the ship exploded. Laden with cannon, coin, weapons and the personal items of nearly a thousand men who called it home much of the year, the Kronan sank rapidly, taking 800 souls with it. Only 50 men survived. Its fellow gaudy ship the Svärdet, whose wreck was found in 2011, sank after a fireship attack in the same battle, an immense toll on Sweden’s navy inflicted in just one encounter.

Some of the cannons were salvaged from the Kronan wreck in the 1680s, but it wasn’t until 200 years later that the wreck of the Kronan was rediscovered off the southwest coast of Öland and fully explored by maritime archaeologists. It was found by Anders Franzén, famous for having found the exceptional wreck of the Vasa in Stockholm harbour, and has been dived regularly ever since. In the 36 years since its discovery, more than 30,000 artifacts have been recovered from the wreck site, including Sweden’s largest ever find of gold coins — 255 ducats minted in Sweden, central Europe, Egypt, Syria and Turkey — and Sweden’s largest ever find of silver coins.

The dives this month that discovered the cheese also found another 14 gold coins, the most that have been recovered the Kronan in 16 years, a large number of pharmaceuticals, many of them for gastrointestinal illnesses (cheese, we’re looking in your direction), and a very rare gold and diamond ring. A jeweler in Kalmar who examined the ring said it was the oldest diamond ring he’d ever seen.

The wreck is about 90% mapped now. Lars Einarsson estimates it will take another three years of summer dives to complete the survey, which means the Kronan will have provided archaeologists with fascinating new material every year for 40 years. The Kalmar County Museum has a permanent exhibition dedicated to the Kronan with many of the artifacts recovered from wreck on display. Visitors can even load one of the cannons.

Explore the Apollo 11 Command Module

Monday, July 25th, 2016

The Smithsonian’s 3D model of the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia is complete and ready to explore with a click of a mouse. The incredibly close quarters were home to Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins during the first manned lunar landing voyage from the launch of the Saturn V rocket on July 16th, 1969, until splashdown on July 24th. (Armstrong and Aldrin spent a day or so on the Lunar Module Eagle.)

The creation of the model was challenging thanks to the reflective aluminium surfaces and the intricacies of the interior dashboard. All the buttons, toggles and gizmos put the laser scanners through their paces, so much so that the technology used by the institution to scan other objects in its collection couldn’t quite cut it. The Smithsonian partnered with Autodesk Inc. whose experts created custom scanning equipment and whose advanced software converted the scan data into a model that is pretty damn amazing, to my civilian eye.

Now you can turn around in the cramped space, examining every detail in high resolution. You couldn’t get anywhere near that close at the National Air and Space Museum. You can’t see inside the Command Module at all, in fact. Click the quote bubble icon on the top left of the screen to get a diagram and annotations about the compartment. If you also click on the marker icon (the one that looks like a Ouija paddle), labels will pop up throughout the space. Click on the labels to get more details. The globe icon at the top gives you an excellent guided tour through the labeled areas. That was my favorite because of how smoothly it moves from stage to stage.

The Smithsonian has also made 3D print ready files available for download should you wish to print up a your own miniature Apollo 11 Command Module, and virtual reality renders for viewing with VR goggles. They have also some of the raw data available in medium resolution. They’re working on getting the highest resolution models available.

This video gives an overview of the complex laser scanning process of the Command Module.

Gems of Australia’s rich quilting history

Friday, July 22nd, 2016

A new exhibit at the National Gallery of Victoria is putting on display an exceptional collection of quilts and related pieces from Australia’s rich history of patchwork. Making the Australian Quilt: 1800–1950 brings together almost 100 quilts, blankets, coverlets, and patchwork clothes from museums and private collections all over the country. They date to the first decades of English colonization through the middle of the 20th century. Some of the pieces have never been on public display, like the Hexagon quilt made in 1811 by Sarah Wall (nee Litherland or Leatherland), an English convict who arrived in Australia about the HMS Earl Cornwallis in 1801, 13 years after the first convicts arrived in Botany Bay and eight years after the first free settlers. Hers is the earliest known pierced hexagon quilt made in Australia.

Others are so fragile they’ve only been shown very rarely. The most signficant of these is The Rajah Quilt, made in 1841 by the female convicts transported to Australia aboard the HMS Rajah. It is the only known surviving quilt made during the voyage from London to Van Diemen’s Land. The necessary supplies were donated by The British Ladies Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners. Founded in 1821 by the Quaker prison reform advocate Elizabeth Fry, the society distributed bibles, combs, sewing supplies for personal use and all the materials needed for a collaborative quilt — 100 needles, pins, white, black, red and blue cotton thread, black wool, 24 hanks of coloured thread, and two pounds of patchwork pieces — to female convicts, first at Newgate prison, and then to transportees.

Elizabeth Fry had a great impact on the way women sentenced to transportation were treated. She ensured they were taken to the ships in closed carriages so they wouldn’t be subject to the stone-throwing, filth projectiles and derision of the public. Loaded onto ships weeks before they sailed, the prisoners were horribly neglected. Fry and the ladies of the Society visited them every day, tending to their needs and giving them care packages that included the needlecraft supplies.

Fry thought patchwork in particular was ideal employment for women prisoners, because it taught them how to sew and, because it’s so complex and time-consuming, it gave them something to focus on during the long dreary hours of confinement. At the end, they’d have new skills and a beautiful result to show for their hard work. Patchwork converted the drudgery of a prison sentence, or a dangerous, unpleasant three-month ship voyage across the world, into productive time. It also had a meditative quality, an inward-looking contemplation which in Fry’s Quaker philosophy led to spiritual salvation.

The 180 female convicts on the Rajah were given patchwork materials by the Society and guidance in the person of Miss Keiza Hayter. Hayter was not a convict. She had worked with Fry at the Millbank Penitentiary, and Fry recommended her to Lady Jane Franklin to help found the Tasmanian Ladies’ Society for the Reformation of Female Prisoners. Yes, that Lady Jane Franklin. John Franklin was lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land when the Rajah unloaded its women convicts and their quilt, and Lady Franklin was in regular contact with Elizabeth Fry. It was Fry who inspired her prison reform efforts in Tasmania, a colony largely populated with current and former convicts, although Jane did not share Fry’s focus on rehabilitation. Lady Franklin believed hard labour, long stretches of solitary confinement and shaving female prisoners’ heads were more effective means to instill “corrective discipline” than contemplation and job training.

Keiza Hayter’s mission on the Rajah was to instill useful values and skills in the transportees. Part of that was the improvement of their minds and characters through needlework. Experts believe Hayter oversaw the design of the quilt. It has a central square of Broderie Perse (appliquéd chintz that resembles Persian embroidery) from which twelve frames radiate forming a medallion quilt. Florals and birds decorate the center and frames. Experts believe at least 29 of the transportees worked on the quilt. The passenger manifest lists 15 women whose professions were tailoring/needlework, but there’s evidence on the quilt itself that novices worked on it as well. Small bloodstains were probably left by less experienced women when they stuck themselves with needles.

A silk yarn inscription expresses the convicts’ proper sentiments of gratitude and industriousness.

TO THE LADIES
of the
Convict ship committee.
This quilt worked by the Convicts
of the ship Rajah during their voyage
to van Diemans Land is presented as a
testimony to the gratitude with which
they remember their exertions for their
welfare while in England and during
their passage and also as proof that
they have not neglected the Ladies
kind admonition of being industrious.

June 1841

The quilt is now in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Australia. It has survived in remarkable condition, all told, but it is very fragile and light-sensitive so for conservation’s sake, it is only displayed once a year.

That’s just scratching the surface of the beautiful works on view at this exhibition which opens today and runs through November 16th. Because the museum was kind enough to supply outstanding photographs of many stand-out pieces and because I know there are many needlework afficionados reading this, here’s a generous complement of quilt porn to take you into the weekend. And not just quilts either. The Press Dress, an unbelievable ball gown worn by Mrs. William W. Dobbs to the the Mayor of Melbourne’s fancy dress ball in 1866, was made of silk satin printed with pages of 14 different Melbourne newspapers, including The Age, The Australasian, Herald and Punch. I love the table cover made from cigar silk, too. Oh! And the Westbury Sampler quilt! It’s all deadly.









Oldest papyri from oldest port go on display

Wednesday, July 20th, 2016

Dating to around 2600 B.C., the harbor at Wadi al-Jarf on the Red Sea in Egypt is the oldest port complex ever discovered in the world. It was built during the reign of the Pharaoh Snefru (ca. 2620–2580 B.C.), the founder of the 4th Dynasty, and was primarily used for boat travel to the Egypt’s main copper and turquoise mines on the Sinai Peninsula. An L-shaped pier extended east from the shore into the water for 160 meters (525 feet) before turning southeast for 120 meters (394 feet). Its remains are still clearly visible at low tide. The pier created a breakwater and large sheltered area where ships could be moored. This was confirmed when a group of at least 22 limestone ship anchors were found south of the east branch of the pier.

Carved into limestone hills next to a water spring, archaeologists found a warehouse system of 30 storage galleries, the largest of which are more than 100 feet long. They average about 10 feet wide and eight feet high. The galleries were used to store boat parts, shipping materials and food and water supplies for the seafaring voyages. They were also used to make repairs on ships. There are pottery kilns nearby and large quantities of pottery believed to have been used as a water containers have been found in the galleries.

In 2013, archaeologists discovered hundreds of papyrus fragments, some of them more than two feet long. The papyri had been deposited in front of galleries G1 and G2 where large blocking stones were placed to close off the entrance to the galleries. Written in hieratic (simplified hieroglyphics used by priests and scribes), several of the papyri were dated to the end of the reign of the Pharaoh Khufu (ca. 2580–2550 B.C.). One of the documents was very specific, noting it was written the year after the 13th cattle count of Khufu’s reign. The cattle count was done every other year, so the year after the 13th cattle count was the 27th year, which according to our current best information was the last year of his reign. The precise dating identifies this papyrus as the oldest ever discovered in Egypt.

There are two types of documents in the papyrus group: accounts organized in tables anyone who has ever worked in Excel will immediately recognize, and the logbook of a Memphis official named Merer. The accounting tables record deliveries of food from areas elsewhere in Egypt including the Nile Delta. Revenue is recorded in red; outlay in black. Merer’s archive recorded the daily activities of his team of around 200 men, and as archaeological luck would have it, most of the surviving papyri don’t cover the minutiae of their operations at Wadi al-Jarf, but rather their work relating to the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza. There are descriptions of quarrying the limestone, the transportation over the Nile and canals of massive blocks of stone from the quarries of Tura to the “Horizon of Khufu,” meaning the Giza construction site. These limestone blocks were probably used for the outer layer of the Great Pyramid, now lost, but which would have glowed white in the Egyptian sun.

Merer’s logbook was found in the same archaeological context as the 13th cattle count document. It confirms that in Khufu’s last regnal year, the pyramid was in the final stage of construction. It also identifies the role of a major player, the pharaoh’s half-brother Ankh-haf who as “chief for all the works of the king” was in charge of this last phase of the Great Pyramid’s construction.

A selection of the papyri, including the 13th cattle count document, the largest pieces of Merer’s journal and the accounting spreadsheets have gone on display for the first time at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. It will be a lightning quick exhibition, unfortunately, so unless you’re in Egypt right now or plan to be there in the next week or so, you’ll miss it. It opened on July 14th and closes on July 29th.

Museum acquires rare 17th c. stained glass window

Tuesday, July 19th, 2016

M – Museum Leuven and the City of Leuven have acquired an early stained-glass window by 17th century Flemish master Jan de Caumont. Leuven was a center of stained glass production, and while the museum has an extensive collection of pieces from the 15th through the 19th century, it had no single important stained glass window by Jan de Caumont. This piece plugs a major hole in its collection and will join its series of 27 Caumont glass medallions on display.

Jan de Caumont was born in Doullens, Picardy, northern France, in around 1577. He moved to Leuven, then in the Duchy of Brabant which was part of the Spanish Netherlands, and became a citizen in 1607. He married a local girl, Anna Boels, whose family owned a prominent glass workshop. Jan went to work for his wife’s uncle Simon in the workshop and made a name for himself as a glass painter. In 1626, he took over the company and was appointed the official glass painter of the City of Leuven.

He was commissioned to make stained glass for churches and monasteries in Leuven and all over the duchy. His most famous work was a series of 41 windows he made for the Premonstratensian cloister of Park Abbey, a monastery in Heverlee, two miles south of Leuven. Abbot Jean Maes commissioned the windows depicting scenes from the life of Saint Nortbertus, founder of the order, in 1635. Installation was complete by 1644. The monastery was disrupted by the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars, so much so that in order to revive its fortunes, the monastery sold all 41 windows in 1828. They wound up dispersed in museums and private collections in the UK and US. In the 20th century, three complete windows and several pieces were returned to Park Abbey and are now back in the clerestory bays.

The stained glass produced in the Low Countries in the late 16th and early 17th centuries was different from the medieval style in that artists actually painted on the glass rather than composing a mosaic from pieces of different colored glass. This approach allowed painters to create fine details on panes of glass without thick black lead lines. Jan de Caumont painted grey monochrome details (a technique known as grisaille) on both sides of the glass. On the outside, he applied several shades of silver stain and translucent flesh tones. On the inside, he used shades of blue and purple enamel and opaque red paint. To make green, he combined blue enamel on the inside and silver on the outside.

Those techniques are in fine evidence on the window acquired by the M. Made in 1618, it is a rare example of a window from the early part of his career before his appointment as the city glass painter. It’s a donor window, which makes it even more rare since there are few Flemish donor windows and they’re usually smaller than this one or part of a historical building. The donor in question was Margaretha Vekemans, wife of Alexander van den Broeck, a treasurer of Antwerp and one of the wealthiest men in the city. Margaretha and her daughter are depicted in the window. Dressed in the most fashionable finery of the era, with ermine sashes, lace cuffs, majestic ruffs and jewelry, the ladies are on their knees praying. Behind them stand St Agnes and St Elizabeth of Hungary, respectively embracing mother and daughter.

There is a corresponding window featuring Alexander van den Broeck with St John the Baptist. It is now in the church of Saint Gwenllwyfo in Llanwenllwyfo, Anglesey, Wales. Originally both windows are believed to have been donated by the Vekemans/van den Broeck family to the Carthusian monastery in Lier. It was a common practice for wealthy donors to give something beautiful, expensive and very clearly identifiable as coming from them to their favorite church or monastery.

Eastman museum buys only known box of first Kodak Film

Thursday, July 14th, 2016

George Eastman was a 23-year-old bank clerk when he caught the photography bug in 1877. While keeping his day job, he began to tinker with camera technology, trying to simplify the complex procedures and bulky apparatus require to take a picture at the time. Negatives were still made on glass plates. Photographers had to coat a plate with a light-sensitive silver nitrate emulsion under a dark drape then quickly slide it into a big, heavy box mounted on a tripod.

Eastman’s idea was to make a dry plate that was evenly and thinly coated ahead of time with silver nitrate and gelatine and dried for easy use. He received a patent for a dry coating apparatus (pdf) on April 13th, 1880. Still working out of his home in Rochester, New York, he founded the Eastman Dry-Plate Company. In 1884 he developed another innovation, flexible photographic film (pdf) that could be rolled for compact storage. The accordingly renamed the Eastman Dry-Plate and Film Company was soon a full-service camera supply company, selling all manner of photography accessories — squeegees, enlargers, roll holders — in addition to its patented dry plates and photographic film.

Its greatest breakthrough came in 1888 when George Eastman patented his first camera (pdf). He called it the Kodak, a name he created by moving letters around on a page until he found a combination that looked sharp and couldn’t be mispronounced. This camera was compact, lightweight, portable and so easy to operate anyone could do it, not just professionals or dedicated amateurs. All the operator had to do was pull up a string to arm the shutter, aim at the subject and press a button.

The Kodak Camera came preloaded with a roll of film that took 100 circular pictures 2.5 inches in diameter. Once the customers had taken their 100 pictures, they would send the camera to the Rochester factory where the film was developed and the photographs printed. The pictures were then returned to the customer along with the camera loaded with a fresh roll of film. The camera cost $25 and the development, printing and reloading cost $10. It was marketed in advertisements with the slogan “You press the button, we do the rest.”

The camera was a huge success, particularly with women. Before the Kodak, buyers of photography products were almost entirely professionals. The Kodak Camera made photography accessible to the general population and the general population thanked him by buying his cameras in droves. In 1892 George acknowledged the fulcrum of his success by changing the name of the company to the Eastman Kodak Company.

Today the George Eastman Museum, formerly housed in George’s Rochester mansion until it outgrew the space, has a vast collection of cameras, photographic materials and films, and is a pioneer in film preservation. The museum recently acquired the only known surviving box of Kodak Film (originally American Film) used in Kodak Camera No. 1, and one of only three boxes known to survive of the 1889 generation of camera film, Kodak Transparent Film.

Now a part of the museum’s internationally renowned technology collection, these unopened boxes of film complete the Eastman Museum’s holdings related to the original Kodak camera — adding to its examples of the camera, case, shipping box, and sample images.

“These two rolls of film make a critical contribution to the Eastman Museum’s holdings of photographic technology—considered the leading collection of its kind in the world,” said Bruce Barnes, Ron and Donna Fielding Director, George Eastman Museum. “Given their importance and rarity, these boxes of film are not only among of the most significant objects in our technology collection, they are also extremely important to the evolution of photography and the history of Rochester, New York.” [...]

Eastman’s Transparent Film was the flexible photographic material used by most people experimenting with early motion pictures. Thomas Edison’s assistant W. K. L. Dickson used Kodak Transparent Film (which was 70 millimeters wide), slit in half to 35mm and then perforated, as the flexible medium to store images to be presented in the Edison Kinetoscope, the first 35mm motion picture viewing device.

The acquisition of the rolls was funded in part by the man who is largely responsible for the demise of film — Steven Sasson, inventor of digital photography — and by former Eastman Kodak employee and current author on Kodak Film Robert Shanebrook and his wife Lynne. The newly acquired boxes of film are now on display at the George Eastman Museum.

Restoration of Napoleon’s horse Vizir begins

Tuesday, July 12th, 2016

The grey-white Arabian stallion Vizir was born in 1793 in the Ottoman Empire. Sultan Selim III presented the steed to then-First Consul of France Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, a diplomatic gift marking the peace treaty between the Ottoman Empire and France after three years of war. According to legend, Selim sent the horse to Napoleon with this final wish: “Go, my dear Vizir. Go for Mahomet, go for your Sultan and become Napoleon’s most famous horse.”

Napoleon had more than a hundred horses, all of them trained to face battle conditions with steely resolve, and several of them became famous by name for participating in important battles and surviving. (Anywhere from 10 to 20 horses were said to have been shot out from under Napoleon in the heat of battle.) Vizir was painted in equestrian portraits with Napoleon by artists including Baron Gros, Hippolyte Bellangé, Charles Thevenin and Horace Vernet for a Sèvres porcelain series on Napoleon’s horses.

He wasn’t just a handsome model. Napoleon first rode Vizir into battle in 1805. Bearing the stamp of the imperial stables, a crowned “N” on his left haunch, Vizir carried the emperor in the Battle of Jena on October 14th, 1806, and in many other battles in the Prussian and Polish campaigns. He was not enlisted for duty during Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign, lucky for him, or the subsequent ones in Germany and France because as a 20-year-old, he was considered too old for battle.

Vizir was still beloved by the emperor who took him with him to exile on the island of Elba in 1814, and then back to France again during the Hundred Days, although he kept him safe behind the lines. After Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Vizir retired and was taken in by Philippe de Chaulaire, a squire of the imperial stables. Vizir died on July 30th, 1826, at the venerable age of 33.

M. de Chaulaire had him taxidermied, but fearing the anti-Napoleonic political climate of the Bourbon Restoration, he sold Vizir to William Clark, an Englishman living in northern France. Clark felt the same political pressure after Louis-Napoleon’s failed coup and in 1839 passed Vizir along to another Englishman, John Greaves. Greaves smuggled the stuffed horse out of France into England by dumping the framing, unstitching his skin and stashing it in his suitcase. Safe in England, Vizir was remounted and put on display at Manchester’s Natural History Museum in 1843.

Vizir returned to France in 1868 when the museum, forced to close its doors due to financial problems, gifted him to Louis-Napoleon, now Emperor Napoleon III, during a visit to England. Not knowing what else to do with a large stuffed horse, Napoleon III stored it in the Louvre where it remained in storage for 30 years until it was rediscovered in 1904 and transferred to the newly founded Museum of the Army in 1905. There Vizir would find a permanent home just a few steps from the Invalides where his former master rests eternally.

Very popular with visitors, Vizir has been on display ever since, but his many posthumous adventures have left him in bad shape. In May, the museum launched a crowdfunding project to give them the wherewithal to restore Vizir, and donors met the goal of 15,000 euro within two weeks. The final amount raised was 20,534 euros ($23,130).

Now Yveline Huguet and Jack Thiney, taxidermists and specialists in the restoration of organic material, are hard at work on Vizir’s sadly degraded hide. They have X-rayed him and are working on a thorough cleaning, rehydrating the hide, filling in several large cracks and restoring the color which has turned a sallow yellowish color over the years, a far cry from the white-gray he was famous for. The project is expected to take about four weeks. Once the restoration is complete, Vizir will be displayed in a new climate-controlled case which will prevent further degradation.

Four 17th c. tapestries repatriated to Sweden

Wednesday, July 6th, 2016

The National Museum of Sweden, has acquired four tapestries that graced an elegant home in late 17th century Stockholm but have been out of the country for more than a century. A large bequest from Gunnar and Ulla Trygg gave the museum, which has no acquisitions budget, the rare opportunity to bring these wall hangings home. They are in exceptional condition.

The tapestries were made in the early 1690s. They were commissioned by Swedish architect Nicodemus Tessin the Younger to adorn the Stockholm home of Swedish statesman Carl Piper, a commoner whose abilities earned him advancement and a noble title at the court of King Charles XI. In 1690, he married Christina Törne, the daughter of a rich merchant who also happened to be Piper’s stepbrother. His father-in-law/stepbrother gifted the couple a handsome property in Stockholm’s old town. Tessin, then the premier architect in the country who could count the king and queen among his clientele, was given the task of refurbishing the old house.

Later known as the Grotesques de Berain, the tapestries were mistakenly thought to be the design of Jean Bérain the Elder, a Dutch artist in Paris known for his arabesques and grotesques who was a good friend of Nicodemus Tessin’s, but extensive surviving correspondence between Tessin and Daniel Cronström, the Swedish envoy to Paris, proves that the artist was in fact someone else. Cronström’s was Tessin’s go-to guy in France, a close friend who could negotiate directly with the purveyors of the most fashionable goods and services in Paris. The real designer for the Piper tapestry series was Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer, a Flemish painter who worked for both of the great tapestry workshops in France: Gobelins and Beauvais. He specialized in floral still-lives and was in demand both for his tapestry cartoons and for decorative painting. He worked under Charles Le Brun, then director of the Gobelins factory, on the fresco decorations for royal residence the Château de Marly and under Jean Bérain at the Dauphin’s residence the Château de Meudon.

Tessin commissioned two suites of tapestries from Beauvais: one with a “port de mer” (harbour scenes) theme, the other “grotesques,” meaning a style drawn from the frescoes of ancient Rome which were usually discovered in underground cave-like spaces or “grotte,” in Italian. Curling foliage elements embrace mythological figures (Bacchus, Pan), animals (elephants, peacocks) and heroic figures against the background of Classical architectural elements. Beauvais’ grotesque motif was hugely popular from the time of its launch in 1688 for another 40 years. Carl Piper’s set did not have his coat of arms or monogram in the border because Tessin was in a hurry and the customization would take too much time to complete. Cronström had the idea of making matching chairs with Piper’s monogram. It is a lot easier and faster to weave a monogram onto an upholstered chair than a big ol’ wall hanging. Some of those chairs have survived. Here’s one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The tapestries were installed in the Piper palace in early 1696. After that, it’s not clear what happened to them. Carl Piper was taken prisoner in 1709 after the Battle of Poltava in the Great Northern War. He was largely blamed for Sweden’s terrible defeat, accused of having taken bribes from England to sway King Charles XI to the calamitous invasion of Russia which had concluded in such ignominy. Piper and his wife (who did indeed get a lovely pair of diamond earrings as a “gift” from the Duke of Marlborough) were disgraced. Carl died in captivity in Russia in 1716. His formidable wife, who had wielded great power when her husband was an important royal minister, went on to become a real estate mogul, industrialist and philanthropist of immense success.

At some point before 1909, the tapestries left Sweden, probably in the late 19th century. In 1909 they were sold to Louise Mackay, an American collector, who bequeathed them to her son Clarence. After his death in 1938, they were sold at Christie’s in New York and the grotesque tapestry suite was split up. Two other tapestries from the series are now in museums in England and Spain.

The National Museum is proud to have repatriated four of the tapestries from the grotesque suite. Their exquisite condition and brilliant color would make them a catch for any museum (compare them to the matching armchair to see how pristine they are), but they’re even more significant thanks to that surviving correspondence between Tessin and Cronström. The letters make these suites of tapestries the best-documented personal orders for French tapestries from the 17th century. They’re also the first documented order of tapestries with matching chair upholstery.

Inscribed wood barrel stave found at Vindolanda

Tuesday, July 5th, 2016

The Vindolanda site in Northumberland just south of Hadrian’s Wall is best known for the more than 700 wooden writing tablets preserved for millennia in the waterlogged soil, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to organic archaeological remains. Vindolanda has the largest collection of Roman leather in the world. Everything from thousands of leather shoes of all sizes so perfectly preserved the museum display case looks like a shoe store, to purses and buckets have been unearthed there, as well as fragile textiles like a child’s sock.

Then there’s the wood. In 2014, archaeologists found a wooden toilet seat, the first of its kind ever discovered. Now the anaerobic soil has produced another handsome wood everyday treasure: an engraved barrel stave. The stave dates to around 90 A.D. and is in exceptional condition, smooth as slate with a maker’s brand and numerals still pristine on the surface. The brand is incomplete with the visible part reading “ALBIN.NORB.” We don’t know what was in it, but the numeral indicates there were 1,200 of them in the barrel.

The wood is pine and archaeologists believe the barrel was imported from Spain.

[Dr Andrew Birley, CEO and Director of Excavations for the Trust] went on to say “the barrel stave has been one of the highlights of the season so far and we hope over the coming weeks we will know more about ALBIN – NORB as images of the stave have been sent to specialists in both Spain and here in the UK for further interpretation. However, we can guess that ALBIN could mean ALBINVS, the name of the manufacturer of the barrel, and NORB is the place of origin”.

Albinus is a cognomen, a family name, and so is Norbanus. They wouldn’t go together as the name of one person, which is why the NORB is likelier as a place designation, ie, Albinus from Norba. Cities were often named after the families names of important men. Norba Caesarina (modern-day Cáceres in southwestern Spain), for example, was named after its founder Gaius Norbanus Flaccus, proconsul of Spain from 36 to 34 B.C., and his boss Octavian who was going by Gaius Julius Caesar, courtesy of his posthumous adoption by his assassinated great-uncle, at the time.

The barrel stave is one of 1,463 wooden artifacts that have been unearthed at Vindolanda over the decades. It’s the largest and most varied collection of ancient wooden objects in Britain, but it’s been locked away in storage for years for conservation purposes. The Heritage Lottery Fund has just approved a £1.3 million ($1.7 million) grant that will fund the display of this exceptional collection for the first time.

Unlocking Vindolanda’s Wooden Underworld will see the creation of a new gallery dedicated solely to the display of the wooden objects found at the fort and settlement site. The gallery will have custom display cases with climate control features that will allow the wood to be on public view without compromising the temperature and humidity levels necessary to preserve the wood.

The barrel stave may be among the artifacts on display in the dedicated wood gallery. The toilet seat definitely will be, along with a wagon wheel, a potters’ wheel head, a bread shovel, axles and large wooden water pipes made out of alder logs bored down the length of them. The new gallery is scheduled to open in 2018.

Altenberg Abbey treasures reunited after 200 years

Thursday, June 30th, 2016


More than two centuries after they were scattered, a medieval altarpiece, reliquaries and art works from the Premonstratensian convent of Altenberg in central Germany have been reunited at Frankfurt’s Städel Museum. Heaven on Display. The Altenberg Altar and Its Imagery brings together 37 precious devotional objects from the late 13th and early 14th centuries that have been in separate collections since Napoleon was cutting a swath through Europe.

The star of the show is the Early Gothic Altenberg Altar, a folding high altar retable with a shrine cabinet, a polychrome statue of the Madonna and Child in the middle niche and painted panels on each side. The wings, some of the earliest surviving examples of German panel painting, are part the Städel’s permanent collection, but the rest is on loan. Other objects include reliquaries the once were kept in the shrine cabinet of the altarpiece, goldsmithery, 13th century altar crosses, figural glass paintings from an early 14th century window and two embroidered linen altar cloths made around 1330.

The altar cloths are large, elaborately decorated pieces that were placed on the altar in front of the retable. No other altar cloths from the Early Gothic period in Germany have survived.

Sometime before 1192, Emperor Barbarossa granted the convent the status of imperial immediacy, which put it under the direct rule of the Holy Roman Emperor, exempting it from vassalage to the local lords, essentially a guarantee of independence. The daughters of area nobles joined the convent and endowments from their families over time transformed a small, obscure abbey into one of wealth and power.

One of those daughters was Gertrude, the child of St. Elizabeth of Hungary and Louis IV, Landgrave of Thuringia, who died a few months before Gertrude was born. After her beloved husband’s death, Elizabeth dedicated her life to asceticism and charitable works, so much so that she gave up basically everything in the world that she loved, including her children. Little Gertrude was two years old when she was sent to live with the canoness of Aldenberg. She took the veil and became cannoness herself when she was just 21. Her rule lasted until her death 49 years later.

Elizabeth was already dead by the time her daughter dedicated her own life to piety and mortification of the flesh, felled by a fever when she was 24 years old. Only five years later she was canonized. Gertrude collected relics of the mother she had only had childhood memories of, if any, for the abbey. The works on display are examples of Gertrude’s devotion to her literally sainted mother. There’s a tapestry from 1270 woven with scenes from the life of Elizabeth and Louis IV which may have been hung behind the altar on important occasions before the altarpiece was built, an arm reliquary shaped like an arm and containing an arm, Elizabeth’s silver jug and a ring that once belonged to Louis.

The convent managed to retain its imperial status through the Reformation, the decline of imperial power and rise of the princes after the Thirty Years’ War. It came to an end with the Final Recess of 1803 when Napoleon compensated German princes who had lost lands west of the Rhine to France with ecclesiastical territories. Altenberg, monastery, church and extensive agricultural and forested lands, became the personal property of the Princes of Solms-Braunfels who had long coveted it. They turned the convent into a summer residence and distributed its works of art and devotional objects throughout their castles. The altar went to Braunfels Castle, the arm reliquary of St. Elisabeth to the chapel of Sayn Palace.

From there they made their way into museums and collections around the world. The Städel Museum in got the wings of the altar in 1925. Other collections including those of the city of Frankfurt, Munich’s Bayerische Nationalmuseum, the Hermitage in St Petersburg and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City all have bits and pieces of Altenberg. It’s an impressive feat reuniting so many elements of the medieval convent to put the objects in some semblance of their original context.

The exhibition is on right now and runs through September 25th, 2016.

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