Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

V&A receives major Fabergé donation

Monday, March 27th, 2017

The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) is the proud new owner of nine exceptional works by Carl Fabergé donated by the son of the late Kenneth Snowman, one of the world’s most prominent Fabergé experts. Two rare works by 18th century goldsmith Johann Christian Neuber were also part of the donation. Nicholas Snowman donated the pieces in the Kenneth and Sallie Snowman Collection under the Cultural Gifts Scheme, a program that allows the donation of significant cultural heritage objects in exchange for tax savings in the amount of 30% of their market value, in this case a discount of £615,000 ($772,000).

The Fabergé pieces in the donation include four animals masterfully carved out of chalcedony and agate for Queen Alexandra, wife of King Edward VII and Tsar Nicholas II’s aunt, herself an accomplished wood carver. Alexandra’s Fabergé animals are a hissing baboon, a sturgeon, a kangaroo and a chinchilla. Other animals in the collection include a seal carved out of obsidian with such dazzling attention to detail that the skin texture is perfectly matched to the stone, and a quartz hare inspired by Japanese netsuke. One of the objects, a rock crystal letter opener, has a moving sentimental collection to the last of the Romanovs. It was present given by Tsarina Alexandra to her onetime English governess, Miss Jackson, for Christmas in 1900. Miss Jackson had become a surrogate mother for Alexandra after her own mother died from diphtheria, contracted during her tireless nursing of her entire family when they were stricken by the disease. Alexandra was just six years old when her mother died, so Miss Jackson provided much-needed support to the bereft child.

Kenneth Snowman is a Fabergé legend. The son of jeweller Emanuel Snowman and Harriet Wartski, daughter of Morris Wartski, founder of the Wartski company which, thanks to Emanuel’s buying trips to the Soviet Union in the 20s and 30s when Fabergé had dropped out of cultural consciousness, became the leading dealers and experts in Fabergé’s exquisite Imperial Eggs and the many jeweled and enamelled treasures he made for the aristocracy of pre-Revolutionary Russia. Born in 1919, as a child Kenneth played with some of the nine Imperial Eggs his father brought home from the Soviet Union. Little wonder, then, that as an adult he become a published Fabergé scholar, curator and world-renown expert. When his father-in-law died, he became chairman of Wartski, which you might recall played an integral role in the stranger-than-fiction saga of the lost Imperial Egg found by a scrap metal dealer in the US midwest.

Nicholas Snowman’s choice of the V&A was a tribute to his father’s deep bonds with the institution.

The donor, Nicholas Snowman, son of Kenneth, said: “In 1977 my father curated a major Fabergé exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum to honour the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. He was devoted to the V&A.”

He said following the latest donation the V&A now “possesses the most significant public collection of Fabergé in Britain and its important collection of gold boxes has been enriched enormously.”

Tristram Hunt, director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, said: “Nicholas Snowman’s Cultural Gift is the most important donation of Fabergé ever made to a British public collection and will greatly enrich the V&A’s jewellery holdings. It is an act of great generosity and cultural philanthropy.”

Underscoring the generosity of the act is a 13th object Nicholas Snowman donated the V&A, only he didn’t do it directly. He deliberately donated a 16th century cameo portrait of Elizabeth I later mounted a ring to the Art Fund who then (by arrangement) donated it the V&A. He did this in recognition of the Art Fund’s hugely successful campaign to acquire the Armada Portrait for the Royal Museums Greenwich.


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Vindolanda toilet seat to get setting worthy of its greatness

Friday, March 24th, 2017

The Roman fort and settlement of Vindolanda just south of Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland is perhaps best known for the 1,700 wooden writing tablets from the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. that have been found there, preserved for 2,000 years in the site’s anaerobic soil. Because of the unique insight this record of daily correspondence gives us into the daily lives of the ancient Romans and Britons who lived at Vindolanda, the tablets were voted Britain’s top archaeological treasure by British Museum curators in 2003. They have been extensively studied and displayed at the Vindolanda Museum.

Less known are the many other wooden objects discovered at Vindolanda. Almost 1,500 artifacts have been unearthed from that blessedly waterlogged soil — cart axles, bread shovels, potter’s wheels, plank flooring, joists, that amazing inscribed barrel stave and my personal favorite, the only Roman wooden toilet seat ever discovered.

They even found intact water pipes made of alder wood logs, bark still on them, that had been drilled through the length with an augur, creating a hollow center 5 centimeters (two inches) in diameter. There were 30 yards of pipes joined with oak junction boxes to create a network of water mains supplying Vindolanda with fresh water from a local spring. The ends of the logs were tapered to fit a hole in a block of oak. On the other side of the block another hole was drilled and another tapered log fitted into it. That was some quality joinery. With nary a single iron or lead fitting to keep the pipes together and almost two millennia after they were installed, the alder water pipes were still working when they were excavated in 2003, carrying fresh water to a building that archaeologists believe may have been a hospital. Lead pipes, even tile ones, are fairly common in the Roman world, but wood pipes are very rare — usually only the metal collars survive — and ones still in working order are rarer than hen’s teeth. As far as I was able to ascertain, the Vindolanda pipes are unique.

As rare and historically significant as they are, none of these wooden treasures have not been exhibited. Conserving, stabilizing and storing them them once they have been removed from their protective environment is expensive, difficult work. Creating a display space with the technology to ensure the long-term preservation of the wooden objects while making them viewable to the public is a far greater challenge still.

A Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant has gotten the ball rolling. The Vindolanda Trust was able to secure a development grant of £20,400 ($25,400) from the HLF to develop the plans for a new addition to the site’s already excellent museum. The new space will be dedicated solely to the wooden artifacts that have been hidden away in storage for years. Unlocking Vindolanda’s Wooden Underworld will

The popular museum will be expanded to create a new gallery with special display cases allowing temperature and humidity to be kept at safe levels. Not only will this mean their story can finally be told but it will also ensure they survive for future generations to enjoy.

Visitors will also hear the incredible survival story of the collection – from the science behind how they lasted two millennia, to their conservation and the research that is uncovering their origins.

Now, obviously the new gallery will cost vast sums more than the initial grant. This is just the first step. The Vindolanda Trust must have a fully developed and budgeted plan for the new gallery before the HLF can consider a much larger grant for the actual construction phase. Once the plans are complete, the Trust will apply for the full grant of £1,339,000 ($1,670,000). Then we can gaze in awe at the toilet seat and give it its proper respect. Some might be tempted to take a bunch of selfies squatting in front of the display case, but we’re all too dignified for those sorts of shenanigans, am I right?

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Algiers subway dig reveals 2000 years of history

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

Construction of a new subway line and station in Algiers has revealed archaeological remains dating from Roman times through the French colonial period. Remains were first discovered in 2009 during archaeological surveys along the proposed subway line. The full excavation began in 2013, recovering archaeological materials going back to the 1st century B.C.

The site is in the historic Casbah area of Algiers which was founded in the 3rd century B.C. by Punic Phoenicians as a small trading post. It became a Roman colony 146 B.C. after the Fall of Carthage and its name was Latinized from Yksm (“Island of the Seagulls”) to Icosium. Icosium became part of the Roman client state of Mauretania in the late 1st century B.C. which became a Roman province under Caligula in 40 A.D. Mauretania was divided into two provinces, Mauretania Tingitana and Mauretania Caesariensis, the latter of which included Icosium.

During the chaotic decades of imperial musical chairs, barbarian invasions, epidemics and economic woes that became known as the Crisis of the Third Century, Berber tribes made incursions into what is now Algeria contracting the areas of Romans control. A fortified city on the sea, Icosium held out a long time, but was sacked in 371 A.D. by the Berber Prince Firmus during his revolt against Romanus, the military commander of Rome’s Africa Province. Icosium never recovered and disappeared from the historical record in the 5th century.

The city of Algiers was founded by Berbers in the mid-10th century. The Casbah, a fortified citadel common in North African cities, was built over what had once been Icosium on the cliffs overlooking the sea. In the late 15th century Algiers was conquered by Spain, but their occupation would not last. The Ottoman admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa tossed the Spanish out permanently in 1525 and established Algiers as the capital of an Ottoman regency which would become the empire’s primary base in the region. The Ottoman Regency of Algiers lasted until the French took the city in 1830.

The French pillaged Algiers, destroying religious sites like the Es Sayida mosque in the Casbah. Between the French and the long line of conquerors that preceded them, it didn’t seem likely that there would be much of Algiers’ history left to find below the surface. Nobody imagined they’d unearth such a wealth of archaeological materials, even from the long gap between the fall of Icosium and the rise of Berber Algiers.

Finds over the 3,000 square meters (32,300 square feet) of the excavation site include a public building with mosaic flooring dating to the 5th century, a 7th century Byzantine necropolis with dozens of graves, large numbers of Roman-era architectural elements — columns, capitals, pediments — ancient catapult balls and 385 coins. The excavation even found parts of the Es Sayida mosque, a thoroughly unexpected survival given that the French colonial government built a square over the levelled mosque and named it King’s Square, renamed Martyrs Square after Algeria won its independence in 1962.

Algeria has some of the most significant Roman architecture still standing in the world, but none of it is in Algiers. That makes the metro ruins exceptionally important, so much so that the city completely changed its plans for the line and station. The Martyrs Square subway station, originally planned to be 8,000 square meters in area, will now take up only 3,250 square meters and will have a museum built into it. The train line is going way underground, as much as 115 deep, to avoid interfering with the ancient remains.

The Martyrs Square station is set to open in November, part of an extension to the main metro line inaugurated in October 2011.

The museum will open shortly afterwards, covering 1,200 square metres and organised chronologically.

Some of the remains will be exposed to a depth of over seven metres.

“In Rome or Athens, museums present particular periods, whereas here the visitor can embrace the whole history of Algiers over 2,000 years,” [archaeologist and excavation co-director Kamel] Stiti said.

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Nerd Party at the Getty with Dr. Irving Finkel

Sunday, March 12th, 2017

Dr. Irving Finkel, world-renown cuneiform expert, Assistant Keeper of Mesopotamian tablets at the British Museum and author of the thoroughly delightful book The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, is bringing his enormous brain and limitless enthusiasm for ancient Mesopotamian history and culture to the United States. On April 1st, (no, this is not a clever months-in-advance prank; I deserve neither such praise nor such censure), Dr. Finkel will be giving a lecture at the Getty Villa museum in Malibu. The topic will be the Ark before Noah: the ancient Babylonian Flood stories that predate the version in Genesis.

Dr. Finkel’s translation of a previously unknown Babylonian clay tablet from around 1750 B.C. recounting the Akkadian version of the Flood myth starring Atra-Hasis as the Noah figure revealed a treasury of engineering details about the construction of the great ark found on none of the other surviving Atra-Hasis tablets. It was round, for one thing, and made of woven and coiled palm-fiber ropes slathered with bitumen. There was enough detail in the tablet to allow for an attempted recreation of the ark on a much reduced scale, of course. A wonderful documentary was made about the attempt.

In the lecture, Dr. Finkel will talk about the tablet, his translation and research. It will be held at 2:00 PM in the auditorium of the Getty Villa in Malibu. Tickets are free and can be booked by phone or on the Getty’s website. The auditorium opens at 1:30 and seating is first come, first served.

April 1st is a Saturday. Make a weekend of it, because on Sunday, April 2nd, Dr. Finkel will be back at the Getty Villa being even cooler than he was the day before, if that’s possible. You see, in addition to being able to sight-read cuneiform and write grippingly about ancient tablet inscriptions, Dr. Finkel is also an expert on the Royal Game of Ur, a stone, shell and lapis lazuli board game from 2600 B.C. that was discovered in the Royal Cemetery of Ur in Iraq by archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley during the 1926-1927 dig season. It is believed to be a race game where the aim is to beat your opponent to the finish line, like backgammon which may be a descendant of the Royal Game and/or its older Egyptian cousin Senet.

Much of what we know about how the game was played comes from, you guessed it, a cuneiform tablet also in the British Museum. This tablet was inscribed in 177-176 B.C. by Babylonian astronomer Itti-Marduk-balatu, who was kind enough to sign his work. By then the game was thousands of years old and the way it was played had changed. It was also used for divining the future, which is why an astronomer would be an appropriate person to explain the whole system. The front of the tablet has a diagram explaining how to use the central squares to tell fortunes.

As curator of the British Museum’s enormous 130,000-piece clay tablet collection, Finkel has had opportunity to research Itti-Marduk-balatu’s instructional.

This extraordinary board game, played for a good three thousand years over half the ancient world with unceasing enjoyment, has bewitched Irving Finkel of the British Museum since boyhood. Tutankhamun of Egypt played it, as did Assyrian king Assurbanipal. Due to Finkel’s extensive research of an ancient cuneiform tablet containing original rules, we can see why the game endured. In this illustrated talk, he describes some of the remarkable discoveries and heart-thumping adventures of a lifetime’s fascination. Halfway through a magnum opus on the subject, he offers fascinating insight into board game history and the lives of the Assyrians. Be prepared to sit on no more than the edge of your seats.

I CAN’T BE ANY MORE EXCITED THAN THIS ALREADY, GETTY PEOPLE!

Or so I thought. Then I read this next bit in the press release.

Join Dr. Finkel either before or after the talk for a friendly tournament featuring the ancient game of Ur. Learn how Ur was played, compete against your friends and family, and make your own version of a game.
1:00-2:00 p.m. and 3:00-4:00 p.m.
Villa Education Studio/Court
This is a free, drop-in program.

Pardon me while I get a paper bag to hyperventilate into. This is so insanely cool. All you Californians, California-adjacents and California-bound must get to the Getty Villa the first weekend in April. Anyone who plays the Royal Game of Ur with Irving Finkel must report back and I will write you up like superstars you are. (Get pictures!)

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Only surviving view of Renaissance Lisbon street identified

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

Most of Lisbon was at church when the earthquake hit. It was November 1st, 1755, All Saints’ Day, and the devout were at mass. The first shock struck at 9:40 AM with an estimated magnitude of 8.0 on the Richter scale. It lasted no more than six minutes, according to eye-witness accounts, but wreaked immense havoc in that time. Fissures as much as 15 feet long opened on the city streets. Almost all of the stone churches, particularly vulnerable as the tallest structures in the city, collapsed, killing the worshippers within. Aftershocks and 10:00 AM and noon compounded the destruction.

Then came the fire. The candles in the churches and chapels are believed to have started dozens of small fires all over the city. The three massive tsunamis that struck the city in short succession after the quake only added to the devastation. They didn’t even have the decency to help put out the fires. Fed by the destruction of the quake and the impossibility of dousing the flames, the conflagration spread throughout Lisbon, burning for five days. By the time it was all over, 85% of Lisbon was in ruins, tens of thousands were dead and millions of pounds in trade goods were lost.

The city was rebuilt with notable efficiency, but its medieval downtown was irretrievably lost, including its main commercial thoroughfare, the Rua Nova dos Mercadores. There was little surviving evidence of what Lisbon had been. Paintings of the city were typically distant panoramic views, not the details of individual streets.

One very salient exception survived and was rediscovered in 2009 (pdf) by Annemarie Jordan Gschwend and Kate Lowe hanging on the walls of Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire. Kelmscott was briefly home to both William Morris, of Arts and Crafts Movement fame, and the pre-Raphaelite painter and collector Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Morris and Rossetti leased the country estate for a time, and the latter lived there for a few months in 1871 and then off and on for two years (1872-1874). He left abruptly after a falling out with Morris, leaving much of his treasured art collection behind in his haste.

An avid collector of Old Masters when they could still be had for a song, Rossetti trawled the print shops, art and antiques shops of London for bargains. On April 3rd, 1866, he wrote to watercolorist George Price Boyce that he’d made an offer on a wonderful piece and hoped Boyce would stop by the shop to give it a look.

It is a large landscape with about 120 figures of the school of Velasquez — not by the great V. himself. I must needs feel pretty
sure, though it is so fine it almost might be but in abundance of interest as to subject & in grandeur of landscape, nothing could
well be more delightful.

His bid was accepted. In a letter to Edward Burne-Jones a couple of months later, Rossetti was considerably less circumspect about the authorship of his new treasure, calling it “the undoubted and stupendous Velasquez.” He was wrong both times. The painting was neither by Velasquez nor by his school. He did get the peninsula right, at least.

Rossetti is known to have altered his Old Master paintings, overpainting them, “restoring” them, cropping them so they’d fit in his rooms which were crammed to the gills with paintings already. He took a drastic approach to the not-Velasquez. Some time between the purchase in 1866 and his departure from Kelmscott eight years later, Rossetti cut the wide panorama in two and framed them to hang as companion pieces. Yup, another one for the “because people are crazy” file. I mean, he’s so enthralled with the “120 figures” depicted in the piece but then he chops it in half? Nuts.

The view of Lisbon captured in the painting gives it international significance. The Rua Nova dos Mercadores was Lisbon’s largest road and the commercial center of the city. There are records of it going back to the 13th century. By the 16th century, Portugal was the capital of a global empire and the Rua Nova dos Mercadores offered every kind of luxury import — cotton textiles from India, silks from the Far East, Ming porcelain, exotic medicines (rhino horn, bezoar stones) — in a dozens of shops. Records from 1552 count 20 textile shops, 11 bookstores, six porcelain shops and nine drug stores occupying the ground floors of the 90 or so buildings lining the street.

The architecture of the street — the iron railing, the portico with 149 columns, the tall narrow houses with flat roofs at each end and peaked roofs in the middle — was one of the key pieces of information that allowed Gschwend and Lowe to identify it as Lisbon’s Rua Nova dos Mercadores.

Here’s a virtual recreation of the street as it was before the earthquake.

There was a lot more business going on that just road traffic retail. The iron fence in the midground of the painting was a sort of velvet rope. Within its protective confines, merchants, bankers and assorted salesmen made deals and talked shop without having to rub shoulders with the hoi polloi. The painting depicts these wealthy traders and money men dressed in black cloaks and hats, a look known as the Spanish style, mingling behind the iron fence, while in front and to the side street vendors, children, farmers, labourers, performers, assorted foreign types and slaves hustle and bustle.

The high proportion of Africans in the picture was another of the key features that identified it as a depiction of pre-earthquake Lisbon. Lisbon was unique for a European city of its time for its large number of black people, mostly slaves, imported from Portuguese bases in western Africa. For more than a hundred years, Portugal dominated the slave trade and transported thousands of them to Lisbon itself. By 1551, an estimated 10% of the population of 100,000 was black. In 1578, about 20% of the 250,000 Lisbonites were black.

It’s not just the multicultural population in the picture that underscores Portugal’s imperial reach. Even the animals attest to it. In the second half of the painting, you can see a dog mauling a bird in the bottom left corner. Look closely at that bird. It’s a turkey, a New World bird that Portugal introduced not just to its capital, but to India, Africa and the Far East as well.

The global empire captured in the details of Rua Nova dos Mercadores will be the focus of a new exhibition at Lisbon’s Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga. The Global City: Lisbon in the Renaissance aims to recreate some of the Lisbon obliterated in the earthquake. The Rua Nova paintings will be displayed in Lisbon for the first time (that we know of), and will be accompanied by precious objects and artworks from all over the empire, like an intricately carved snake-themed ivory salt cellar base from Sierra Leone and a Processional Cross once owned by Catherine of Braganca made out of a narwhal tusk and containing the relics of Saint Thomas Becket. All told, the museum has assembled an unprecedented group of 249 pieces from 77 lenders from private collectors to public institutions.

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The last days of the Romanovs

Tuesday, March 7th, 2017

Marking the centennial of the Russian Revolution this year, The Hague Museum of Photography is hosting an exhibition of pictures capturing the last days of the Romanov family before their execution by Bolshevik soldiers. The photographs were taken by Pierre Gilliard, a tutor to the Romanov children and an intimate friend of the family.

Pierre Gilliard was born in Vaud, Switzerland, in 1879. He became a teacher and, Swiss tutors being all the rage in aristocratic circles, in fall of 1904 accepted a position as French tutor to Duke Sergei, the son of Duke George of Leuchtenberg who was Tsar Nicholas II’s cousin. The family spent their summers at the Duke’s datcha at Peterhof on the south shore of the Gulf of Finland. Peter the Great built the Grand Palace of Peterhof, known as the Russian Versailles, while working on the construction of St. Petersburg, but he preferred his little maisonette of Monplaisir to the grandeur of the big house. Tsar Nicholas II avoided the giant formal palace too, spending the summers with his beloved family in the charmingly oxymoronic Cottage Palace.

Tsarina Alexandra and the Duchess of Leuchtenberg were close friends and during the summer of 1905 the two families socialized often. That’s when Gilliard first met the imperial family. In September of 1905, Gilliard picked up two new pupils: the Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana, Nicholas and Alexandra’s eldest daughters, then 10 and eight years old respectively. In his memoirs he described them and their mother as polite and considerate and his pupils clever, albeit very much behind where he thought they should be in their command of French.

The third daughter, eight-year-old Grand Duchess Maria joined her sisters’ lessons in 1907, and Grand Duchess Anastasia followed in 1909. Gilliard continued to tutor Duke Sergei until 1909, after which he focused on his imperial students. He taught the girls in the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo five times a week as long as they were in residence, and when the Grand Duchesses failed to make as much progress as Gilliard, the Tsar and Tsarina had hoped, he joined the family during their months-long summer sojourns at Livadia Palace in the Crimea.

It is a testament to how trusted a member of the royal household Gilliard had become that he was given the responsibility of tutoring the Tsarevitch Alexei. The heir to the Russian Empire was a very sick little boy, afflicted terribly by the hemophilia that Queen Victoria’s genes had spread throughout the royal families of Europe. (Alexandra’s mother was Princess Alice, Victoria’s favorite daughter.) His illness was a state secret and hidden from everyone. Gilliard was one of a very small inner circle who knew how sick he was and from what.

So close was he to the Tsar’s family that he chose to join them in exile after the February Revolution and Nicholas’ abdication in August of 1917. The family and a select group of the most loyal family and retainers were first confined to Tsarskoye Selo for five months and then sent to Tobolsk, Siberia, where they lived in the Governor’s Mansion. It was no Grand Palace, but it was downright luxurious compared to what was to come. When the White Army got too close to Tobolsk in April of 1918, the Romanov’s were moved to Yekaterinburg. They were imprisoned in Ipatiev House, the home of local industrialist, and were subjected to a million petty indignities by their Bolshevik guards.

Gilliard went with them as far as he could. He made it to the train platform at Yekaterinburg, but then, for some unfathomable reason, the Bolsheviks refused to let him out of the train and told him he was free to go. He didn’t go. He remained in the city hoping to catch a glimpse of the imperial family, a glimpse he never got. The Tsar, Tsarina, Tsarevitch and Grand Duchesses were shot and bayoneted to death on July 17th, 1918.

In Gilliard’s memoirs, Thirteen Years at the Russian Court, he wrote movingly about what a loving, close family they were, all the more so under the extreme duress of their last days. He describes entering Ipatiev House on July 25th after the fall of Yekaterinburg and the Bolshevik announcement that the Tsar, and only the Tsar, had been executed while the rest of the family was in a “safe location.”

I went down to the bottom floor, the greater part of which was below the level of the ground. It was with intense emotion that I entered the room in which perhaps – I was still in doubt – they had met their death. Its appearance was sinister beyond expression. The only light filtered through a barred window at the height of a man’s head. The walls and flour showed numerous traces of bullets and bayonet scars. The first glance showed that an odious crime had been perpetrated there and that several people had been done to death. But who? How?

I became convinced that the Tsar had perished and, granting that, I could not believe that the Tsarina had survived him. At Tobolsk, when Commissary Yakovlev had come to take away the Tsar, I had seen her throw herself in where the danger seemed to her greatest. I had seen her, brokenhearted after hours of mental torture, torn desperately between her feelings as a wife and a mother, abandon her sick boy to follow the husband whose life seemed in danger. Yes, it was possible they might have died together, the victims of these brutes. But the children? They too massacred? I could not believe it. My whole being revolted at the idea. And yet everything proved that there had been many victims.

The Soviets continued to deny having slaughtered the imperial family until 1922. Gilliard stayed in Siberia for three years, helping magistrate Nicholas Sokolov investigate the murders. He married Alexandra Alexandrovna Tagleva, Grand Duchess Anastasia’s former nanny and one of the loyal few who went into exile with the Romanovs in 1919. They returned to Switzerland in 1922 where Gilliard returned to his study, becoming a professor of French at the University of Lausanne in 1926. He and his wife both interviewed Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, and concluded she was a fraud. Gilliard wrote a book debunking her claims, but there was so much mystique around the alleged Anastasia that plenty of people bought her ludicrous story until DNA evidence proved once and for all that she was a mentally ill Polish factory worker by the name of Franziska Schanzkowska. He also debunked the first of many Alexei impostors.

An avid amateur photographer, Gilliard took many pictures of the family at leisure — Alexei playing with his dog Joy, the Grand Duchesses putting on a Moliere play, the Tsar shoveling snow — and on official occasions. The original negatives are now in the collection of the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne. For the new exhibition at the Hague Museum of Photography, more than 70 enlarged gelatin silver prints have been made from those original negatives. I hope they digitize them all because there are a lot of sad, grainy, copies-of-copies of Gilliard’s pictures out there. It would be wonderful to be able to see the last happy days of the Romanovs in high resolution. The exhibition runs through June 11th of the this year.

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The Colosseum after antiquity

Monday, March 6th, 2017

The Colosseum is the most visited monument in the world today. The great amphitheater built in Rome during the reigns of the Flavian dynasty emperors Vespasian and Titus (72-80 A.D.) is an icon of ancient Roman engineering and bloodlust, but it has outlived the empire that created it by 1,500 years. The Colosseum saw many changes in its long post-antiquity lifespan, its architecture altered by activity both human and seismic, dedicated to a wide variety of uses from cemetery to shopping mall to fortress. That rich later history is overshadowed by its ancient resume, and the millions of tourists who flock to the Colosseum every year hear a lot more about the gladiatorial combat of the 1st century than about the butchers’ stalls of the 11th.

A new exhibition seeks to correct that oversight. Colosseum. An Icon is the first exhibition to tell the full story of the Flavian Amphitheater, from the gladiators to the butchers and beyond. It covers the numerous attempts at repair and restoration, how the space was repurposed over the centuries, the construction of brick buttresses in the 19th century to keep the outer walls from collapse, how it became a favorite subject of artists from the Renaissance through the Grand Tour era, launching it as the iconic representation of the city of Rome and ancient Roman grandeur. That image spread even wider when moneyed travelers brought back fine marble miniatures and micromosaics of the Colosseum as souvenirs in the 19th century.

The exhibition also illustrates the profound shift in attitude towards the amphitheater from Christians in general and the Papacy in particular. The last recorded games were held in 523 A.D., an animal hunt celebrating the consulship of Anicius Maximus, and already then the Colosseum was very much reduced. The top gallery had collapsed, entrances were impassable, the hypogeum flooded. Neglect, earthquakes and the failure of the unmaintained drainage system took an enormous toll on the building. Travel writers in the Middle Ages thought it was some sort of pagan temple and associated it with nefarious demonic goings-on.

That demon-haunted reputation clung to the Colosseum well into the Renaissance. Renown goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini had a raucously occult experience at the amphitheater in the 1530s which he recounts in his memoirs.

We went together to the Coliseum; and there the priest, having arrayed himself in necromancer’s robes, began to describe circles on the earth with the finest ceremonies that can be imagined. I must say that he had made us bring precious perfumes and fire, and also drugs of fetid odour. When the preliminaries were completed, he made the entrance into the circle; and taking us by the hand, introduced us one by one inside it. Then he assigned our several functions; to the necromancer, his comrade, he gave the pentacle to hold; the other two of us had to look after the fire and the perfumes; and then he began his incantations. This lasted more than an hour and a half; when several legions appeared, and the Coliseum was all full of devils.

As late as 1594, the Popes were still renting the Colosseum out to glue makers and contemplating converting the whole structure into a factory with residences for the workers in the top galleries. That changed in the Jubilee year of 1675, when Pope Clement X declared the Colosseum a sacred site of martyrdom for all the Christians said to have been condemned to death in the arena. (There is little evidence that Christians were martyred at the Colosseum, btw, and the stories of martyrdom in the amphitheater only began circulating in the Renaissance.) Clement had ambitious plans to dedicate a church to the martyrs inside the Colosseum, asking the great polymath Gianlorenzo Bernini to design it. It was too expensive, though, so Clement just had a cross installed in the arena instead.

The idea didn’t die with him. Twenty years later, architect Carlo Fontana was enlisted to design a prospective Church of the Holy Martyrs inside the Colosseum. Again, the church never happened, but he studied the amphitheater in great detail for this project and wrote a book about its architecture, ancient history, current condition and the proposed church that was published posthumously in 1725. (Random History Blog connection: Fontana’s original architectural drawing of the church in the Colosseum is in the collection of the wonderful Sir John Sloane’s Museum in London.) The architectural model and several of Fontana’s drawings are on display in the new exhibition.

The major restoration of the Colosseum, which is still ongoing, discovered many objects and remains from its later life which are will be part of the exhibition. An abundance of butchered animal bones and cooking utensils were found, a testament to the butchers, eateries and private residences which rented space in the ground-level vaults through the 12th century. Of course they unearthed ancient sculptures and architectural details galore. They will join one of only two surviving statues of the 160 that adorned the arches of the second and third-floor arcades when the Colosseum was first built.

The restoration also discovered traces of the Colosseum’s life as a fortress for the powerful Roman noble Frangipani family. Restorers found holes bored into travertine blocks on the top tier of the southern wall. The holes held beams that supported a wooden walkway used by Frangipani soldiers as a lookout station. The find was announced Monday at the press conference about the new exhibition.

Colosseum. An Icon opens Wednesday, March 8th and runs almost a full year until January 7th, 2018. It’s at the Colosseum, in case that wasn’t clear.

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Unique Lodz Ghetto photos at the MFA, Boston

Sunday, March 5th, 2017

The Lodz Ghetto was the second largest (after the Warsaw Ghetto) of more than 1,000 ghettos created to corral Jews in cities as the first step in the “cleansing,” ie, extermination, of European Jewry. Conditions were appalling by design, so that the overcrowding, disease and starvation would do the Nazi’s murderous work for them. Starting in 1942, ghetto residents were regularly deported to concentration camps. Chelmo, the first extermination camp with a gassing system (trucks, not chambers), opened in December of 1941 just 30 miles from Lodz; its first victims came from the Lodz Ghetto, 70,000 of them in 1942 alone.

Because the Lodz Ghetto was uniquely productive — its factories produced uniforms and other materials for the war effort — it lasted longer than any other World War II ghetto, from 1940 until 1944. In August of 1944 it too was liquidated; everyone was rounded up and sent to their deaths, most of them to Auschwitz-Birkenau. By the end of the war, more than 200,000 Jews had passed through the Lodz Ghetto on, their way to almost certain death at Chelmno and Auschwitz. When the Red Army liberated Lodz on January 19th, 1945, only 877 survivors, 12 of them children, emerged from their hiding places in the ghetto. Out of the 223,000 Jews who lived in Lodz before Hitler’s invasion of Poland, just 10,000 survived the war.

One of those survivors was Henryk Ross, a Polish Jew who before the war had been a journalist and sports photographer. He was employed as an official photographer for the Jewish Council, aka the Judenrat, ostensibly a self-governing body which administered the day-to-day operations of the ghetto and enforced Nazi orders. Working for the council’s the Department of Statistics, Ross’ job was to take pictures of the ghetto factories, demonstrating their productivity, and of the registered workers for their identification cards.

Ross and the other Department of Statistics photographer, Mendel Grossman, secretly took unauthorized photographs of the horrors all around them. Ross captured the deportations, destruction and deprivations — barefoot workers pushing carts of human excrement out of the ghetto (there was no plumbing or sewage), public executions, children torn from their parents during the Sperre, the September 1942 mass deportation of almost all of the children under 10 to Chelmo where they would be murdered. He also captured small moments of daily life, even happy ones, amidst the nightmare, like young lovers kissing behind a shrub and a children’s birthday party. The variety and range of Ross pictures underscored the class divisions that persisted even in so extreme a context. His photos show the contrasts of ghetto life — the workers, the destitute, the well-fed and well-dressed elite.

In the summer of 1944 when it became clear the Nazis were winding down operations in the ghetto and preparing for the final slaughter, Henryk Ross saw the writing on the wall. Not expecting to survive, he buried 6,000 negatives. His wife and a few select friends helped him, so they knew where Ross’ photographic treasure trove was hidden should he die. As it happened, Ross was not deported to the extermination camps. He was one of the 800 Jews ordered to clean the ghetto. Of course they Nazis were going to kill them all once the clean-up was done — they had eight mass graves dug already — but the Soviets arrived before they could get to it.

After the liberation of Lodz, Ross dug his negatives back up and found that more than half of them had survived. He later said of his fateful decision: “Just before the closure of the ghetto I buried my negatives in the ground in order that there should be some record of our tragedy, namely the total elimination of the Jews from Lodz by the Nazi executioners. I was anticipating the total destruction of Polish Jewry. I wanted to leave a historical record of our martyrdom.”

He certainly got his wish — his pictures were used as evidence in the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann — but he left a broader historical record than that, documenting the realities of life and death in the ghetto.

Ross’ collection of photographs and film was donated to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in 2007. The AGO has collaborated with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) to organize an exhibition of Henryk Ross’ Lodz Ghetto photographs, plus film of the Eichmann trial and Lodz artifacts like identification cards from the ghetto, notices and announcements. Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross debuted at the AGO last year. It will open at the MFA on March 25th and runs through July 30th, 2017.

The AGO has created an exceptional website with more than 4000 images from the Henryk Ross collection. You can search by keyword and create an online collection of your own for the price of a free registration.

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Torc hoard is earliest Iron Age gold found in Britain

Tuesday, February 28th, 2017

It’s the first gold hoard of the year! We’ve had Bronze Age weapons and Roman copper vessels packed with plants. Now we have a group of four ancient gold torcs discovered by metal detectorists in a cow pasture in Leekfrith on the Staffordshire Moorlands.

The torcs were found last December by Mark Hambleton and Joe Kania. Hambleton had scanned the field some two decades ago without success. They were about to give up when Joe Kania’s machine signalled the presence of metal. All they’d found up to that point was trash and a 19th century coin or two, so Hambleton had already packed up his metal detector when Kania pulled a gold torc out of the ground. Then another. And another. And another. Three of them are necklaces, one a bracelet. Three are complete and intact, the fourth broken, likely by agricultural interference. The torcs were about six inches beneath the surface about a meter (three feet) apart from each other.

Hambleton spent a fitful night failing to sleep with the hoard by his side. The next morning, the finders alerted the Portable Antiquities Scheme to their discovery. Stoke-On-Trent City Council dispatched archaeologists to the field but they found no evidence of further treasure. Hambleton and Kania defied the odds again, though, returning to the spot last Sunday where they discovered the second half of the broken torc.

The Leekfrith Iron Age Torcs were examined by Dr. Julia Farley, the British Museum’s Curator of British & European Iron Age Collections. She determined they were not of British origin, but likely from what is today Germany or France. Analysis of the gold content found that it was no less than 80% in every torc, making them more than 18 carat gold which is 75% pure. The torcs weigh between 31 grams for the smallest piece, the incomplete bracelet, and 230 grams for the largest. The one bracelet stirred particular excitement because it is decorated, etched with lines inside loops. This is some of the earliest Celtic art ever discovered in Britain. All of the workmanship on the torcs is extremely high quality. One of them even has an incredibly rare maker’s mark.

Dr. Farley:

“This unique find is of international importance. It dates to around 400–250 BC, and is probably the earliest Iron Age gold work ever discovered in Britain.

“The torcs were probably worn by wealthy and powerful women, perhaps people from the continent who had married into the local community. Piecing together how these objects came to be carefully buried in a Staffordshire field will give us an invaluable insight into life in Iron Age Britain.”

A coroner’s inquest was held in North Staffordshire on Tuesday. Coroner Ian Smith asked questions of experts about the hoard, its continental origin and how they pieces may have made their way to Leekfrith. After hearing testimony about the torcs’ age and precious metal content, the coroner ruled that the pieces are treasure trove. The next step is for the independent experts of the Treasure Valuation Committee to determine fair value of the torcs. Local museums will then be offered the first opportunity to raise the amount of the valuation. That money will be divided between the finders and the landowner.

Stoke-on-Trent, which is bidding to be a 2021 UK City of Culture, is mighty keen to secure the torc hoard. Another little hoard you might have heard of, the Staffordshire Hoard, spends half its time in Stoke and it has brought millions of tourists and their cash to the region. The Leekfrith Iron Age Torcs will be on display in the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-On-Trent, one of two local museums that share custody of the exceptional Staffordshire Hoard, for three weeks before they go back to the British Museum for valuation.

See Joe Kania and Mark Hambleton tell the story of the discovery (notice the awesome traditional dry stone walls behind them as they goof around for the camera in beginning; I love a quality dry stone wall) and Staffordshire officials glow with happiness over their shiny new babies in this video:

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Galloway Viking Hoard Campaign launched

Thursday, February 23rd, 2017

A new campaign has been launched to keep the Galloway Viking Hoard for exhibition in the county where it was found. Buried in the 10th century, the hoard was discovered by a metal detectorist in field near Castle Douglas in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, in September of 2014. Archaeologists excavated the hoard and found more than 100 silver and gold pieces, from ingots to jewelry to fragments of Byzantine silk to an extremely rare Carolingian pot stuffed with more treasure. The Galloway Viking Hoard is the largest Viking treasure found in Scotland since 1891.

Since then, the Carolingian pot CT has been scanned and painstakingly excavated in the laboratory and the other objects cleaned and stabilized, but there’s still much more to be learned from this unique assemblage of artifacts. Bordered by the Cumbria, with its high Norse population, to the south, and the Viking-dominated Irish Sea to the west, Galloway had a strong Viking presence from the 9th until the 11th century. The person who buried the hoard was almost certain Norse, burying his or her most precious valuables, many of them heirlooms, handed down spoils from long-ago raids on Anglo-Saxon, Irish French and/or German communities. No other Viking hoard has been found with such a wide variety of objects — gold, silver, glass, enamel, textiles — from such a wide geographic area. The rare survival of textiles, the precision wrapping of each object and careful burial in order of priority makes this hoard a particularly rich source of information about Viking Galloway beyond just the value and significance of the precious objects.

The news of the hoard made headlines all over the world and electrified its home county of Dumfries and Galloway. A pre-existing plan to convert the Kirkcudbright Town Hall into a major art gallery gained whole new steam with the prospect of the Galloway Viking Hoard as the centerpiece of the collection. The budget for the conversion was cranked way up and hefty contributions secured from the Heritage Lottery fund, the Kirkcudbright Common Good Fund and the council itself. The new Kirkcudbright Art Gallery would be a secure, state-of-the-art setting for the display of the hoard near where it was discovered.

But the course of true hoard love never did run smooth, and some David-and-Goliath museum drama has churned in the background of this campaign. The Kirkcudbright Art Gallery doesn’t actually exist yet, while National Museums Scotland (NMS) sure does. NMS wants the Galloway Hoard. The Dumfries and Galloway Council released a statement last month expressing their support for a joint bid with NMS that would give the county and the national museum joint custody of the hoard.

In order to find a way forward, our Council has conducted a detailed options appraisal. This appraisal highlighted 3 main options that our Council could take. We could apply for sole ownership of the Hoard, we could enter into a joint agreement with NMS, or we could withdraw our interest in homing the Hoard. This appraisal provided many positive and negative reasons why each option should be explored, but mainly highlighted that the Hoard needs to have some connection with Kirkcudbright and the region, and that applying for sole ownership would bring serious financial pressures with it. It was therefore decided by Members at the meeting on 24 January to pursue a joint agreement with NMS, but for adjustments to be made to the current proposal, to give Kirkcudbright Gallery and Dumfries and Galloway as a whole, a more flexible position in terms of a joint ownership of the Galloway Viking Hoard.

NMS totally ghosted them. Requests from the council that National Museums Scotland spell out the details of the partnership and clarify how much time the hoard would spend in Kirkcudbright went unanswered. With deadlines on the horizon and the ominous prospect of a deep-pocketed national museum bidding against the scrappy county underdog, the Galloway Viking Hoard Campaign has taken matters in hand.

[Campaign chair Cathy Agnew] said: “This is a time for Scotland to take the lead. The Galloway Viking Hoard is quite extraordinary and should have pride of place in a specially created exhibition space in the new Kirkcudbright Art Gallery. Remarkable finds have so often been whisked away from the communities where they were discovered only to become a small feature in a large national museum. This is a very old-fashioned approach and in 2017 we should be making sure that regions fully benefit from their cultural riches.

“Having a collection of this kind in Dumfries and Galloway would act as a powerful magnet to bring in visitors from all over the country and overseas, benefiting the local economy by encouraging them to spend time here visiting historic sites.”

The Scottish Archaeological Finds Allocation Panel (SAFAP), the body of the Treasure Trove Unit tasked with advising the Queen’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer which museum a treasure should be allocated to and how much the ex gratia payment to the finder and landowner should be, is scheduled to meet on March 23rd to determine their recommendation for the Galloway Viking Hoard. The campaign is hoping to make some substantial noise before that meeting in the hopes of boosting Dumfries and Galloway’s bid. The website is still a work a progress — there isn’t even a donation button yet — but for now the campaign is asking for people to send letters to the Dumfries and Galloway Council and SAFAP. They also have an email sign-up if you’d like to receive updates on the campaign.

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