Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Trunk of undelivered 17th c. letters rediscovered

Monday, November 30th, 2015

Yale University music historian Rebekah Ahrendt was researching a theatrical troupe that entertained audiences in turn of the 18th century The Hague when she came across a notice in a 1938 French journal describing a collection of undelivered letters at a museum. Intrigued, Ahrendt tracked down the collection at the Museum voor Communicatie in The Hague where it had lain undisturbed and unremarked since 1926. She found a trunk waterproofed with sealskin and filled with 2,600 letters sent from France, Spain and the Spanish Netherlands between 1689 and 1707.

The letters were collected by The Hague postmasters Simon de Brienne and his wife, Maria Germain. Any letters that could not be delivered because the recipients could not be found, or if found they refused receipt or could not or would not pay the postage due, the couple kept. (At the time the recipient paid postage, not the sender.) Most postmasters destroyed such letters, but the de Briennes hoped someone might someday take delivery and pay the postage so they put them in the trunk as a kind of fingers-crossed savings account.

Simon de Brienne was good at making money. Born in France, he was a servant of Prince Rupert of the Rhine, the younger son of German prince Frederick V, Elector Palatine, and maternal nephew of King Charles I of England. He was arrived in The Hague in 1669 and was appointed Postmaster seven years later. His wife was appointed postmistress in 1686. His new job didn’t stop Simon from working his royal connections. He was employed as chamberlain to William of Nassau, Prince of Orange, and when his boss became King William III of England, Scotland, and Ireland in the Glorious Revoultion of 1688, the Briennes went with him to England. As a trusted confidant, Simon was given a plum position as Keeper of the Wardrobe at Kensington Palace in 1689. Ten years later, he sold the office for £1550 and a cask of the best Burgundy wine. They returned to The Hague shortly thereafter.

The collection, still in Simon de Brienne’s original trunk, was bequeathed to the museum in 1926. Out of the 2,600 letters in the trunk, 2,000 are opened and 600 are sealed. They include missives from people from all walks of life — noblemen, merchants, singers, actors, spies, peasants, Hugenot exiles, women, men — and are written in French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch and Latin. Most of the correspondence that has survived from this period was written by the elite. To have such a wide range of society represented in their own voice (many of the letters were written phonetically with little punctuation in the dialect of the writer rather than in the formal, educated hand of the highly literate) is unique.

One open letter from the collection has been transcribed and translated manages to delicately suggest a pregnancy scandal without actually coming out and saying it. It was sent to a wealthy Jewish merchant in The Hague.

“I am writing on behalf of your friend and mine and she realized as soon as she left the opera company in The Hague to go to Paris that she had made a terrible mistake. Now she needs your help to come back to The Hague. You can divine without difficulty the true cause of her despair. I cannot put it into so many words; what I ought to say to you is so excessive. Content yourself with thinking on it, and returning her to life by procuring her return.”

The letter wound up in de Brienne’s collection because it is marked “niet hebben,” which means it was refused.

It’s not just the content of the letters that are of interest to historians. Scholars who study paper, postal systems, economics, linguistics and seals will find in this collection a unique source of information from the late 17th and early 18th century. It will be an invaluable resource for the nascent study of letterlocking, the practice of folding a letter in complex ways to convert it into its own envelope.

Ahrendt has already made significant historical discoveries in her own specialty.

As a music historian, Ahrendt found the correspondence between musicians especially interesting and says the information these missives contain casts a different light on the development of the musical labor industry: “This archive is truly a cultural history of musicians. I was surprised to learn that musicians traveled so much during that time period. We have so few witnesses to describe what daily life was like for your average musician, and these letters tell of large networks of these musicians traveling frequently. This is completely different from what we previously believed about the history of musicians.”

Brienne also put his own records as postmaster in trunk, giving historians another unique view into the business of mail. The accounting books for incoming and outgoing mail lists the price for every letter.

blockquote>”We discovered how postal routes and the financial system of that time worked. There is documentation of the point at which you paid a rider or a boatman to transport your post. We learned about the connection between the post office in Hague and the post office in Paris. We even found nasty letters from the Parisian postmaster saying that he hadn’t been paid properly,” says Ahrendt.

This pearl of great price won’t just be available to those who are fortunate enough to study them in person. An interdisciplinary team of researchers from Yale University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Universities of Leiden, Groningen, and Oxford is working on digitizing this exceptional archive. The project is called Signed, Sealed, & Undelivered and the website is already live although the content is limited as of yet. Right now the Letters section is a slideshow of beautiful high resolution images of seals and letters, some with brief summaries describing the image, some labeled only with an archive number. Click on the icon with the four boxes in the bottom right corner of the screen to browse the letters index via a topic gallery instead.

Thanks to the latest scanning technology, the sealed letters won’t be opened, but they will seen nonetheless.

Dr Nadine Akkerman, from the University of Leiden, says: “Because early modern ink contained iron, incredibly delicate scanning can detect it on the paper. By scanning each layer of paper in a letter packet, we should be able to piece the letters back like jigsaw puzzles and read them without breaking the seals.”

Earlier this year they tested the technology by creating a bundle of 20 stacked letters, each written with quills and iron gall ink, folded using period accurate letterlocking formats and sealed with two different kinds of wax. The bundle was then scanned with high contrast TDI CT (Time Delay Integration, computed tomography) and the contents were revealed without damaging the folds and seals. This video is a fly-through of the test scan.


Kitchen of Shakespeare’s last home found

Sunday, November 29th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating the site of William Shakespeare’s last home, New Place, in Stratford-upon-Avon, have discovered the remains of the property’s kitchen. They have identified a fire hearth (the Tudor equivalent of an oven) and a cold pit (the fridge) and a brew house where the playwright’s staff would have made beer and preserved food by pickling and salting. They also found fragments of dishes and cups. The latest archaeological finds have made it possible to create accurate drawings of what New Place looked like in Shakespeare’s time.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has raised half the £5.25 million needed to restore and redesign the site of New Place from sources including the Heritage Lottery Fund. (Click here to help the Trust raise the second half.) The three sections of the property — Nash’s House, home of Shakespeare’s granddaughter Elizabeth and her husband Thomas Nast built adjacent to the New Place home, the Knot Garden, a sunken garden inspired by Jacobean designs installed on the grounds after World War I, and the Great Garden, a former priory garden incorporated into the New Place property in the mid-16th century — will be refurbished and reconceived as a museum and garden dedicated to Shakespeare, his life, family and works. The archaeological surveys of the site are part of this program.

The house that would become known as New Place was originally built by Hugh Clopton, a wealthy mercer (a merchant specializing in the trade of imported luxury fabrics and dress accessories) who had made his fortune in London where he served terms as Sheriff and Lord Mayor. He was a proud native son and benefactor of Stratford-upon-Avon, rebuilding a guild chapel, replacing a rickety wooden bridge with a beautiful stone arch bridge and leaving provisions in his will for further improvements to the city along with funds to help support maidens, scholars and apprentice mercers. Even as he held important guild and municipal offices in London, in about 1483 Clopton had a new house built for himself in his hometown on Chapel Street. It was the second largest house in town.

The property stayed in the Clopton family until the mid-16th century when it passed to the recusant Catholic Underhill family. Shakespeare purchased the house and property including gardens, two barns and an orchard, from William Underhill on May 4th, 1597, for £120 in silver. It was a grand home, with impressively wide frontage, 20 rooms and 10 fireplaces, but by the time Shakespeare bought it, the house, which had been described by antiquary John Leland sixty years earlier as a “praty house of bricke and tymbre” was in “great ruyne and decay and unrepayred.” Renovations began immediately. Shakespeare’s wife Anne seems to have moved in full-time right away; William split his time between Statford and London for a while before moving permanently into New Place in 1610. There he planted the first mulberry tree in Stratford, according to legend with his own two hands.

The Bard lived there until his death on April 23rd, 1616. He bequeathed the property to his daughter Susanna Hall who lived there until her death in 1649. It then went to her daughter Elizabeth. Elizabeth died in 1670. After her husband’s Thomas’ death in 1674, New Place was sold to Sir Edward Walker who in turn left it to his daughter, wife of Sir John Clopton. Thus by 1700, New Place once again belonged to the Clopton family. Sir John had it almost entirely rebuilt before 1702 for his son Hugh.

Sir Hugh Clopton took pride in the association of his family home with William Shakespeare. He opened New Place to visitors and told stories of questionable likelihood about finding epigrams scratched onto the windows by Shakespeare and his daughters (his only son, Hamnet, had died the year before they bought the house). The next owner would not be so genial.

Reverend Francis Gastrell, a canon of Lichfield Cathedral, bought the property from the Clopton estate in 1753. He had no interest in opening his home to literary pilgrims and was sick to death of people showing up at his house expecting to get a show the way they had in Sir Hugh’s day. In 1756, he chopped down the mulberry tree that was the focus of many a literary pilgrim’s attention thanks to the story that it had been planted by the Bard himself. In 1759, he got into a dispute with the city on whether he should pay the full tax rate or get a reduced rate because he lived part of the time in Lichfield. Vowing New Place would never be assessed again, he razed it to the ground.

Several depictions of New Place in the 18th century survive. Engraver and antiquary George Vertue visited Stratford in 1737. He sketched New Place and took notes describing the property as a two storey, half-timbered building with an attic, five gabled bays and a central gateway facing onto Chapel Street. Scholars now believe the Vertue sketch is not of the home itself, but of a gatehouse with servants’ quarters and a long gallery. There’s also an extant print of a drawing by Samuel Winter of the main house ca. 1759.

The New Place property was sold multiple times in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Parts of it were sold piecemeal and became detached from the original property. What had once been the Great Garden became the Royal Shakespearean Theatre in 1829, but it didn’t even survive 50 years. Shakespeare enthusiast J.O. Halliwell launched a fundraising campaign in 1861 to acquire the full grounds of New Place. He cleared some parts of the property of its later construction and excavated the site in 1862 and 1863, finding parts of the original 15th century home and the 18th century rebuild. In 1872 the former Royal Shakespearean Theatre was demolished. The grounds were redesigned as a pleasure garden and in 1884, the entire New Place property was transferred the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Because the site is now a listed park and garden, so the Trust can’t just reconstruct the house as they think it was when Shakespeare lived there. Instead, they’ve designed an imaginative way to convey the important areas of the structure within the parameters of the garden. Brass lines in the ground will mark the footprint and key areas of the previous structures. Halliwell’s excavations will be of aid in this because he never had them backfilled which has helped archaeologists determine which part of the buildings were in which location and where else to dig to find undisturbed archaeological features. The garden will be re-landscaped with themes evoking Shakespeare.

The redesign was originally scheduled to be complete in time to commemorate the anniversary of William Shakespeare death in April of 2016, but the archaeological discoveries have pushed back the opening date to the summer.


Speaking of the Rijksmuseum…

Saturday, November 21st, 2015

Some of you might remember the greatest of all flashmobs that was created to celebrate the reopening of the museum and the return of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch to its original location. It’s been more than two years since I posted it, and I still regularly rewatch the video. It’s just so, so good. A quick refresher for those of you not as obsessed as I or for anyone who may have missed it the first time:

The only bad thing about that sublime video is that it’s too short. I said at the time that I wished there were a director’s cut so we could see more of the story as it unfolds. Well, there isn’t a director’s cut, but there’s a making of video! It was uploaded a week after the first one and since I watched the embed on the blog entry rather than going to the YouTube channel, despite my repeated viewings I didn’t realize the second one was there. I’m making up for it now, though. I’ve already watched it three times. I love the curator puttering around like a kid at Christmas fixing people’s costumes and props. Click the CC icon for English subtitles.

There’s one thing I wish they’d addressed that has niggled at me all these years: why did they cast the taller man as Willem van Ruytenburch (in the fabulous yellow outfit) and the shorter man as Frans Banninck Cocq (in the center with the red sash)? In the painting van Ruytenburch’s shortness is very noticeable, and since he was Banninck Cocq’s lieutenant, their comparative height was a meaningful distinction that communicated their difference in status. The curator sniffed about the purple outfit one of the guards was wearing as inaccurate. Surely he had something to say about the choice to make van Ruytenburch so tall.


Vermeer’s Little Street discovered

Friday, November 20th, 2015

The exact street in Delft that Johannes Vermeer depicted in his 1658 painting View of Houses in Delft, better known as The Little Street, has been identified. It’s the Vlamingstraat, at the current house numbers 40 and 42, and even though the original buildings are gone, it’s eerie how similar the modern scene is to the 17th century one even though the details are very different.

The Little Street can be regarded as “the earliest ‘portrait’ of the exterior of an ordinary house in northern European art”, according to Grijzenhout. It represents yet another indication of Johannes Vermeer’s innovation.

For nearly a century, scholars have debated whether The Little Street depicts a real pair of buildings or if it was conjured up in Vermeer’s imagination. The most widely accepted theory was that it represented a view from the inn owned by Vermeer, the Mechelen. His back windows overlooked almshouses in Voldersgracht, although the scene would not have been quite as in the painting so the artist must have produced his own interpretation. The almshouses were demolished in 1661 and a 20th century building now houses the Vermeer Centrum, which presents reproductions of the artist’s work.

University of Amsterdam professor of Art History Frans Grijzenhout tossed out the theory and found the site by consulting what some might consider a painfully mundane city record from 1667: the ledger of the dredging of the canals in the town of Delft, also known as the quay dues register. The register records the taxes paid by everyone with a canal-front home for the dredging of the canal and maintenance of the quay. Because homeowners only paid taxes for the canal works in front of their property, the ledger is meticulously precise about the width every house and alley between them, accurate to around 15 centimeters (6 inches).

Grijzenhout found a property on the Vlamingstraat, a lower-end neighborhood in eastern Delft, which had two houses 6.3 metres (about 21 feet) wide separated by two alleys about 1.2 meters (four feet) wide. Additional historical research, Google Maps data and analysis of the modern-day location confirmed that Vlamingstraat 40-42 fits. No other property in Delft matches the unique configuration in The Little Street.

The houses that stand on the site now were built in the late 1800s. The reason the painting and street today look alike even though the buildings are so different is that bricked entryway into the alley next to the house on the right. It’s a skinnier opening than it used to be thanks to the larger house on the left, but it is still recognizable.

Grijzenhout also discovered during his research that the house on the right of the painting was owned by Ariaentgen Claes van der Minne, Vermeer’s widowed aunt. She sold tripe and that alley next to her house was nicknamed the Penspoort or Trip Gate after her business. Vermeer’s mother and sister lived across the canal from the aunt, so this was a view he must have seen very many times. It’s even possible that the figures in the painting are family members; maybe that’s his aunt working in the doorway of her house. The personal connection explains why he selected this scene to paint. Out of the 35 known surviving works by Vermeer, just two of them are townscapes, both of them in Delft. The second is View of Delft (1660-1) and it’s more of a skyline scene. It is now part of the permanent collection of the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague.

The Little Street and the discovery of its location are the focus of an exhibition running through March 13th, 2016, at the Rijksmuseum. After that, the exhibition will move to the Museum Prinsenhof Delft from March 25th through July 17th, 2016. The Museum Prinsenhof Delft is thrilled to host the first Vermeer painting to visit the city in 60 years, and for it to be a painting so important to the history of the city makes it all the more special. Visitors to the museum will be able to see the painting and then walk in Vermeer’s footsteps to the street itself. The museum is going all out to give tourists the full Vermeer experience, creating walking routes and a virtual reality app that will put people in the middle of Vermeer’s Delft.

Google Art Project has put together a neat virtual exhibition that combines high resolution views of the painting with Google Street View tours of the Vlamingstraat location.


Second Lod mosaic found during construction of visitor center for first

Monday, November 16th, 2015

The Lod mosaic, one of the largest and most complete Roman mosaic floors ever found, was discovered by accident during highway construction in the Israeli city of Lod, 10 miles southeast of Tel Aviv, in 1996. The initial excavation revealed a floor 50 feet long by 27 feet wide with a series of kaleidoscopic mosaics depicting animals at hunt, great sea creatures and fish crowding ships, urns and floral garlands, birds perched on branches and small, individual birds and fish all framed with bold black lines, geometric shapes and intricate knots. The total mosaic covered 600 square feet and was composed of two million individual tesserae (tiles).

Pottery sherds and coins found littering the floor dated it to the early 4th century A.D., and while no other parts of the structure were found, archaeologists believe it was a private home whose frescoed mud-brick walls had collapsed onto the floor preserving the mosaics for 1,700 years. Different sections of the mosaic were installed at different times and designed by different artists. The three north panels — individual animals in hexagonal frames, the largest panel with smaller animal and hunting scenes in triangular frames around a central octagonal mountain hunting scene, the great marine scene — were made by one mosaicist. The two south panel with birds on branches and fish and birds in frames were made by another. The urn and garland panel between them was made by a third artist, the least accomplished of the three, and was likely the last one to be installed. It probably took around three years for the whole floor to be completed.

The exceptional beauty and rarity of find vaulted the mosaic to international fame. The mosaic was opened to the public for one weekend and during those two days 10,000 people came to see it. The Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) didn’t have the budget to properly conserve such a huge masterpiece, so after that one weekend of public display, the floor was reburied for its own protection.

In 2009, a $2.5 million gift from the Shelby White and the Leon Levy Foundation gave the Israel Antiquities Authority the wherewithal to re-excavate the mosaic, lift it from the floor (they found footprints and drawing lines in the mortar bedding), clean it and conserve it for exhibition. The three sections of the north panel, the best preserved and most intricate design, toured the United States starting in 2010 and moved on to Europe in 2013. It is now at the Cini Gallery in Venice.

The donation also made possible the construction of the Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Archaeological Center, a museum dedicated to the mosaic built on the discovery site. The traveling panels were reinstalled in their original location and the building went up around the floor. The center was originally scheduled to open in late 2014, but that date was pushed back, and with good reason. Between June and November of 2014, IAA archaeologists surveyed an unexcavated area south of the previously unearthed mosaic in advance of construction.
The IAA announced Monday that during the survey they discovered another huge mosaic just yards away from where the first one was found.

The second Lod mosaic is 36 feet by 42 feet and is part of the same private villa. The newly discovered mosaic shares the same themes of animals at hunt, fish, birds, urns and floral elements, and is of outstanding artistic quality. This mosaic decorated the floor of the villa’s courtyard, while the first mosaic decorated the floors of several reception rooms where the homeowner would have entertained clients and guests. The courtyard was surrounded by porticos, covered walkways, with lines of columns supporting the ceiling, none of which survive, although numerous fragments of wall frescoes have been recovered.

This elegant, expensively appointed home was part of a wealthy enclave during the Roman and Byzantine eras. Founded by Canaanites around 5600–5250 B.C., the city of Lydda was destroyed by Rome during the First Jewish War (66 A.D.) and besieged in the Second Jewish War (115-117 A.D.) Much of the Jewish population was slaughtered and the Christian population increased significantly in the years afterwards. In 200 A.D. the emperor Septimius Severus granted it city status and named it Colonia Lucia Septimia Severa Diospolis. It was the district capital and a regional center of commerce and government administration. The owner of the villa was part of the city elite, either an official or a rich merchant.

The site is bounded by modern buildings on the east side, so the entire home cannot be excavated. The new discovery will be incorporated into the visitor center.

For an in-depth examination of the first Lod mosaic and its significance, watch these videos compiled by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. First is a short film documenting the original find and the lifting of the mosaic in 2009. The next to are lectures given during the mosaic’s stop at the Met in 2011 about the discovery of the mosaic, the interpretation of its imagery and the influence of Rome on local art.


Museo dell’Opera del Duomo reopens in Florence

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015

After more than 20 years of planning and execution and 45 million euros spent, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (the Museum of the Works of the Cathedral) in Florence reopened to the public on Thursday. More than 750 artworks — paintings, textiles, architectural models, sculptures — are on display in a completely redesigned space that finally allows the museum to exhibit monumental pieces from the exterior and interior of the Duomo, the Baptistery of San Giovanni and Giotto’s Campanile (bell tower). The Museum of the Works now houses the largest collection of Florentine sculptures from the Middle Ages and Renaissance in the world, statues and reliefs in marble, bronze and precious metals by such towering figures as Lorenzo Ghiberti, Donatello, Luca della Robbia, Antonio Pollaiolo, Andrea del Verrocchio, Antonio del Pollaiolo and Michelangelo Buonarotti.

More than 200 of these works have never before been on public display before because exhibition space was so limited. The acquisition in 1998 of the Theater of the Intrepids, an 18th century playhouse built on the site of Renaissance artists’ workshops that had once belonged to the Opera, allowed the museum to more than double its space. Because the theater had long since been gutted and was being used as a parking lot, there was nothing of historical or architectural interest to preserve. This allowed the architects to restructure the old museum and the theater, fusing them together into a single logical space. There are now more than 6,000 square meters (64,600 square feet) of room for the masterpieces from the history of the construction of this great church to spread out and breathe in 25 rooms over three floors. To accommodate monumental pieces that were made to be viewed from afar, several large halls were created ranging in size from sixty to a hundred feet long with ceilings twenty to fifty feet high.

The flexibility afforded by the theater large, empty theater building solved the museum’s thorniest problem: how to properly exhibit the elements of the Duomo’s original facade designed by Arnolfo di Cambio in the late 13th, early 14th century. Arnolfo’s facade was incomplete at the time of his death (sometime between 1302 and 1310), covering only the bottom third of the church. Standing next to the multicolored marble facades of the Baptistery and Campanile, its whiteness where finished and roughness where unfinished were much criticized. Over the years various contests were launched to find a solution but they came to naught. Finally in 1587, the Medici Grand Duke ordered the court architect to demolish the facade and replace it with a brick veneer painted in Mannerist style. In 1688 that was repainted with fake columns and architectural details on the occasion of the wedding of Grand Duke Ferdinand to Violante Beatrice of Bavaria. That paint job was faded to all but nothingness by the mid-19th century. The white, green and red marble facade we know today is shockingly recent, designed by Emilio de Fabris to coordinate with the other striped structures in the complex and constructed between 1876 and 1886.

The Opera managed to keep most of the facade, despite the inexplicable lack of care taken to preserve the works during demolition, in its store rooms. It also kept in its archives the only surviving drawing of Arnolfo’s original facade: a 17th century copy of a sketch drawn by Bernardino Poccetti in 1587 just before demolition. When the Museo dell’Opera opened in 1891, the monumental figures from the facade couldn’t possibly fit. The best it could do was exhibit a little wooden maquette of the facade while more than 100 original pieces — 40 statues, 60+ architectural features — stagnated in storage.

The lofty spaces of the theater gave the museum the opportunity to do something extremely cool about the facade: reconstruct the whole damn thing indoors. Using the Poccetti sketch as a guide, architects recreated the 14th century facade along one wall of the 1,500-square-foot great hall. The sculptures and reliefs were positioned in their original locations, with a few select pieces of particular importance being brought down to the museum floor so visitors can actually see them while plaster copies were put in their original places.

Across from the reconstructed Arnolfo facade is another monumental installation: the Baptistery facade. The famous Gates of Paradise, Ghiberti’s gilded bronze panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament in high relief that once graced the east wall of the Baptistery, the north door, an earlier work by Ghiberti made to match the first doors by Andrea Pisano, and said Pisano doors, all extensively restored, are installed in the facade, topped by the monumental sculptures that topped them in the 16th century. (Copies of the doors now take the brunt of the weather and pollution in the Baptistery itself.)

Other rooms are dedicated to important works and history, like Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene (1455), Michelangelo’s unfinished and all the more beautiful for it Bandini Pietà (ca. 1547–1553), and the two intricately carved choir lofts that once stood above the doors of the sacristies inside the Duomo, one by Luca della Robbia (completed in 1438), the other by Donatello (completed in 1439). These masterpieces of early Renaissance sculpture were removed by order of groomzilla Grand Duke Ferdinand because he considered them too passe’ for his fashionable wedding. He replaced them with massive Baroque choir lofts.

The great dome of the cathedral designed and built by architect, artist, goldsmith and inventor Filippo Brunelleschi also get its own hall. It houses original wooden models of the cupola and lantern and, incredibly, some of the pulleys and gear Brunelleschi devised to get construction materials 170 feet off the ground. I haven’t been able to determine if the 9-foot scale model of the dome discovered under the floor of the theater during construction in 2012 has been integrated into the museum as was discussed at the time.

(Speaking of Brunelleschi’s dome, you have to watch this documentary about its construction. Master masons from the United States go to Florence and join in a project to build a scale model of the dome to see if they can figure out how he did it. It is absolutely riveting viewing. It’s fascinating to see Brunelleschi’s genius brought to life by masters who clearly feel the noble history of their craft with every brick they lay.)

Basically, this is a whole new museum. If you’ve been to the Museo dell’Opera before, you have all the reason you need to get back there stat because its previous incarnation bears no resemblance to its current splendor.


Royal Collection restorers find hidden pooper

Monday, November 2nd, 2015

A painting in the Royal Collection has been hiding a man captured in the moment of answering a call of nature for more than a hundred years. A Village Fair with a Church Behind by 17th century Dutch painter Isack van Ostade is a vibrant, bustling scene of peasants exploring market wares in a fictional village under the shadow of an unrealistically large church. Restorers were cleaning the oil-on-canvas work in preparation for an upcoming exhibition when they found that a shrub in the bottom right corner was a relatively recent overpainting. When they removed the bush, they found a man popping a proverbial squat, trousers down, head bent in concentration.

Here is the painting before cleaning:

Here it is after cleaning:

The canvas entered the Royal Collection in 1810 when it was acquired by the future King George IV, then the Prince of Wales. It hung in Carlton House, the Prince’s London home. Exhibition curator and surveyor of The Queen’s Pictures Desmond Shawe-Taylor notes that the notoriously dissipated “George IV loved that kind of thing … Being a man of the world, [he didn't] mind a few rude jokes.” His successors were not quite so enamored of toilet humor. Restorers believe the rustic pooping fellow was probably painted over the last time the canvas was restored in 1903, after it was moved to the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace.

The modification took place two years into the reign of Queen Victoria’s son, Edward VII, who was himself was no stranger to bawdiness. Dubbed Edward the Caresser by Henry James, he was a regular at a number of exclusive Parisian brothels, particularly Le Chabanais where he kept his custom-made sex chair. He wouldn’t have had any direct involvement in the pooper cover-up. It was likely a curatorial decision to bring the painting in line with the proprieties of a time when the mere discussion of a much-needed women’s public lavoratory took five years because council members couldn’t even talk about bodily functions without terminal monocle popping. Displaying a painting of a man dropping a deuce next to a church, no less, would have been cause for great consternation. Another ribald Dutch painting bought by George IV, A Village Revel by Jan Steen (1673), was altered around the same time when a man’s naked buttocks on the tavern sign were covered with a bull’s head.

Desmond Shawe-Taylor again:

“Dutch artists often include people or animals answering the call of nature partly as a joke and partly to remind viewers of that crucial word ‘nature’, the inspiration for their art. Queen Victoria thought the Dutch pictures in her collection were painted in a ‘low style’; two years after her death perhaps a royal advisor felt similarly.”

The painter of A Village Fair with a Church Behind, Isack van Ostade, was born in Haarlem in 1621. He was trained by his older brother Adriaen who had a strong influence on his early works. Once he struck out on his own in 1642, Isack shifted his focus from the rustic interiors that characterized his brother’s work to peasant genre works set in a detailed but fictional landscape. He specialized in winter scenes and crowded exteriors, like the series of paintings he did of people milling about outside roadside inns. His signature touch in these busy scenes full of people and animals was a white horse, unmissably luminescent in the center left of A Village Fair with a Church Behind. Isack died at the tragically young age of 28. His short life was a prolific one; he completed about 400 paintings in the decade he had.

The painting is one of 27 Dutch 17th and 18th century works from the Royal Collection that will be on display in Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer, an exhibition exploring the quotidian captured in rich detail by artists like Jan Steen and Johannes Vermeer. The exhibition runs from November 13th, 2015, to February 14th, 2016, in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace.


Bejeweled, gilded silver Tiffany bike on display

Sunday, November 1st, 2015

The summer the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History opened a new wing dedicated to business and innovation. One section of it, the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object Project, explores how certain consumer goods — clocks, ready-to-wear clothes, refrigerators — both drove and embodied social change in the US. Bicycles, for instance, gave women a whole new independence of movement and helped support the Victorian dress reform movement which sought to liberate women from the restrictive fashions of the day and advocated less binding, less bulky, more practical garments for use in sports and activities like swimming or bicycling.

One of the pieces on display is a sparkling example of the roles innovation and fashion played in the bicycling craze of the late 19th century. It’s a Ladies Columbia Bicycle made in 1896 by the Pope Manufacturing Company at its Hartford, Connecticut, factory, then the largest bicycle factory in the world. It was a safety bicycle, so-called because unlike its predecessor the penny-farthing, it put pedals close to the ground for easier balance and stopping and had a chain-drive that allowed for much smaller wheels. By 1896 those wheels were inflatable pneumatic tires which gave a much smoother, faster ride than the boneshaker of yore with its hard rubber tires.

What makes this particular Ladies Columbia Bicycle stand out among the 60 bicycles in the Smithsonian collection is what happened to it after it came off the line at the Hartford factory: it was decorated with silver, gold, diamonds and emeralds by Tiffany & Co. Introduced in late 1895 for the Christmas shopping season, the Pope Manufacturing Company’s glamorous Tiffany Bicycle was more of a marketing tool than a big seller, and no wonder since it cost a prohibitive $500 before customization. In its newspaper ads to Tiffany Bike was used as a lure to induce potential buyers to visit the company’s local branch where a wide array of affordable models were available for purchase.

The Tiffany Bicycle in the Smithsonian belonged to Mary Noble Wiley of Montgomery, Alabama, wife of Spanish-American War veteran and United States Representative from the state of Alabama Ariosto Appling Wiley. The nickel-plated steel frame was decorated by Tiffany with floral and filigree designs in sterling silver covered with a thin layer of gold. The handlebars have ivory grips with silver bands and gold embossed designs. The lamp is sterling silver with a rock crystal lens. The wheel rims are made of bird’s eye maple. To keep Mrs. Wiley’s skirts from getting caught in the chain and wheel spokes, twine was tautly threaded over them. Mrs. Wiley’s initials — MNW — were monogrammed onto the front tube in gold and studded with 12 small diamonds and eight small emeralds.

Unfortunately we know very little about its creation and acquisition. Mary, known as Wiley gave it to her son Noble Wiley in 1915 to keep for his then-infant daughter Hulit to enjoy when she was old enough. Noble packed it away in a special bicycle trunk where it remained for 15 years until he had cause to unpack it and recall how awesome it was. He wrote a letter to Tiffany & Co in New York City asking for more information about it. That letter has survived, but alas any response he may have received has not. In 1950 he donated it to the Smithsonian Institution.

It was selected for display in the Object Project and earlier this year conservator Diana Galante cleaned and restored it to make it ready for its closeup. She found that years of polishing had eroded some of the gilding, exposing the silver beneath to tarnish. The original rubber tires, whose sulfurous fumes played a part in the tarnishing process, were cracked and misshapen, a decay that is all but unavoidable in the life cycle of century-old natural rubber.

After an initial cleaning to remove grime and old wax, the bicycle’s tarnish problem needed to be addressed. Galante used gentle abrasives to remove the corrosion returning the silver to its original shine. She coated the gilded areas were resin to keep them from tarnishing while on display. Visitors can see it now on display at the National Museum of American History in a custom enclosed display case (which will also help prevent tarnish while keeping this literal jewel of a bike safe), suspended in a mount specially designed to keep the rubber wheels from having to bear the weight of the bike.


The King Is Dead at Versailles

Friday, October 30th, 2015

The long, drawn-out, painful death of King Louis XIV of France was thoroughly documented and published in the memoirs of some of the men who witnessed it. It was so slow that the king himself took the opportunity to plan it out thoroughly, concerned about the state of his soul and the future of his realm which he had so materially damaged with endless warfare and extravagant spending. After he finally breathed his last, the elaborate funerary traditions of the monarchy kicked in, and the political ramifications of the succession — Louis outlived his legitimate sons and grandsons leaving his five-year-old great-grandson Louis, Duke of Anjou, as heir to the throne — had to be addressed. The death of any king was of great national and international import; the death of the Sun King more so that most.

The health of Louis XIV had been in decline for the last year of his life. Rumors abounded in the hothouse environment of the royal court at Versailles that his legs were dangerously swollen. In London wagers were laid on how long he would live. Head physician Guy-Crescent Fagon, who despite having basically bled to death Louis’ beloved grandson, granddaughter-in-law and great-grandson when they were struck with measles still held the full confidence of the king and his secret wife Madame de Maintenon, insisted there was nothing seriously wrong with Louis. The king’s head surgeon was not so complacent, but his appeals to Fagon and Mme de Maintenon went unheeded.

On August 11th, 1715, Louis felt a sudden intense pain in his left leg. Fagon chalked it up to sciatica and prescribed a purgative, but when the pain increased to the point where he couldn’t even walk the short distance to Mme de Maintenon’s chambers, Fagon was finally persuaded to call in consulting physicians. Mareschal was able to assuage the king’s pain by rubbing the leg with hot cloths, but the relief was temporary. The physicians arrived from Paris on August 14th. They felt the king’s pulse and after much discussion prescribed asses’ milk which they then unprescribed because in the hours they spent yammering the king’s pain had abated.

Mareschal continued to massage the leg because it was the only thing that made him feel better even if just for an hour, and on August 17th he saw that a red spot on the leg had developed into a sore. The surgeon now realized the king had gangrene, that only amputation could save his life. Fagon kept his head firmly embedded in the sand. More doctors’ consultations, more asses’ milk, a bath in spiced Burgundy wine and other useless treatments ensued until the leg’s blackened and swollen condition made it impossible for Fagon to deny that this was a surgeon’s issue and Mareschal took the lead.

He had a team of consulting surgeons brought in on August 25th. They took one look at the leg and knew it was just a matter of time. It was too late to amputate. Louis himself realized that he wasn’t bouncing back from this one. He asked Mareschal how long he had left to live and the surgeon told him he had maybe two days. The king began to put his affairs in order. He received the last rites from the Cardinal of Rohan, had the entire court pass before his bed to give their last farewells and brought the young dauphin in to give him the benefit of his final counsel. Reportedly Louis XIV told the soon-to-be Louis XV that he had loved war too much, that it was the ruination of the people, that he should not imitate his taste for expensive construction, that he should spend money alleviating the suffering of his people instead.

The Sun King died on September 1st, 1715, having reigned 72 years (54 if you subtract the regency) of his 77 years of life.

The next day his body was autopsied, a long-standing custom for members of the royal family. L’Ouverture (the opening), as the procedure was called, was performed on the state dining table before an array of courtiers and doctors. Mareschal did the honors. From the autopsy report:

The exterior of the left side was found gangrenous from the extremity of the foot to the top of the head; the skin peeling every where, but less on the right than on the left; the body extremely distended and bloated; the bowels much altered with inflammation, especially those on the left side; the large intestines extraordinarily dilated. The kidneys were fairly normal and natural; but in the left one was found a small stone similar to those the King had several times passed without pain while in health. The liver, spleen and stomach were in a normal condition, both externally and internally. The lungs, as well as the chest, normal; the heart in very good condition, of ordinary size; the terminals of the great vessels ossified. All the muscles of the throat gangrenous. On opening the head, the dura mater was found adherent to the cranium, and the pia mater marked with black areas along the falx; the brain sound, in natural condition, outside and within. The interior of the left thigh, where the King’s disease began was completely gangrenous in every part; all the blood in all the vessels totally disorganized, and very scanty in amount.

The opening concluded, Mareschal embalmed the body. As per a tradition begun with the death of Capetian monarch Philip the Fair in 1314, Louis’ body was divided in three parts, like ancient France had been under Caesar. His viscera were removed and placed in one reliquary, his heart in another and his body in a double coffin of lead and oak. The coffin was displayed for a week in Versailles’ Mercury Room. It left Versailles for Paris the evening of September 8th, arriving at Saint-Denis at dawn the next morning. The coffin was placed in the Bourbon tomb. The entrails were entombed at Notre-Dame. The heart went to the Church of the Jesuits.

The royal tombs and reliquaries of France were desecrated and destroyed during the French Revolution. Louis XIV’s heart was sold to an artist to use in the production of prized glaze called “mummie” made by macerating an embalmed human heart in alcohol and herbs. The artist, Saint-Martin, kept a chunk of the heart and returned it to the state after the restoration of the monarchy.

In honor of the 300th anniversary of Louis XIV’s death, the Palace of Versailles is putting on an exhibition dedicated to his final days, autopsy, funeral and the continuing significance of the ritual in the context of Revolution and Restoration. The King is Dead is the first exhibition dedicated to the monarch’s death.

The exhibition will bring together works of art and historical documents of major importance from the largest French and foreign collections, including ceremonial portraits, funeral statues and effigies, gravestones, the manuscript for the account of the autopsy of the king, coins from the Saint-Denis Treasury, gold medals, emblems and ornaments, and furniture of funeral liturgy. Some of the pieces on display have never been exhibited in public.

Exhibiting these masterpieces has required grand scenography effects. Scenographer Pier Luigi Pizzi was asked by Béatrix Saule, the exhibition’s Head Curator, to design the layout for this great Baroque show. Across the nine sections, visitors will discover a veritable funeral opera conducted by the artist.


Carlo Crivelli: the best Renaissance painter you’ve never heard of

Saturday, October 24th, 2015

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston has opened the first monographic exhibition in the United States of the works of Carlo Crivelli, a Venetian artist of the 15th century whose genius has been unjustly neglected, overshadowed by his more famous (and more Florentine) contemporaries.

Born in Venice to a family of painters in around 1430-35, Carlo Crivelli’s first appears in the historical record in 1457, and he was already an independent master by then and therefore at least 25 years old. The record in question documents the scandal that drove Carlo out of Venice. On March 7th, 1457, the prosecutor asked the Council of Forty, the Republic of Venice’s version of the Supreme Court, to pass sentence on Carlo Crivelli for adultery. Apparently he was having an affair with Tarsia, wife of a sailor named Francesco Cortese. He had spirited her away from Francesco’s brother’s house and for months had “carnal knowledge of her in contempt of God and holy matrimony.” Carlo was sentenced to six months in prison and a fine of 200 lire. That was actually a relatively light sentence for the time.

After he served his time, Carlo went to Padua where he worked in Francesco Squarcione’s studio. Squarcione was the first artist to market himself as a teacher of the new Renaissance style, imparting lessons in linear perspective and assiduously collecting antiquities to give his students classical models to copy. Andrea Mantegna had apprenticed under Squarcione in the 1440s, and the master’s obsession with Roman antiquity was thoroughly inculcated into the pupil. Mantegna and Crivelli share an intense attention to architectural detail, the use of forced perspective and a bold, black outline that gives forms a chiseled sharpness. Crivelli may even have studied under Mantegna briefly.

Crivelli spent a few years in Dalmatia with Giorgio Schiavone, aka Juraj Ćulinović, who he likely met in Padua through Squarcione. By 1468, he was in Le Marche, a region of central Italy on the Adriatic coast, where he would remain until his death in around 1494. Most of his surviving works and all of the ones he explicitly dated were painted during his years in Le Marche. He received prestigious commissions for religious works, primarily altarpieces, the largest and most elaborate of which were the monumental high altarpieces for the cathedrals of Ascoli Piceno and Camerino. The pieces on display at the Gardner were on the main not composed as individual works but rather as sections of altarpieces that at some point were sawn apart and sold separately to collections and museums in Europe and the United States. Isabella Stewart Gardner brought the first Crivelli painting to the United States when she bought Saint George Slaying the Dragon in 1897.

At a time when leading painters in Florence were espousing naturalism, Crivelli embraced the elongated figures, rich colors and ornate gold backgrounds of the International Gothic style of the century before his. To that he added a detailed realism, painstakingly rendering every textile, brick and hair to a degree unmatched by any one of his Italian peers. To create the illusion of depth, dimension and texture, he took trompe l’oeil to new heights by creating gemstones, the ornamental features of armor, brocades and silks, even tears, in gesso, and then covering them with paint and gold leaf. He added more decorative details to gilded areas with a punch or stylus, given them palpable texture. He combined still life with the garlands of ancient sarcophaguses and created a swag of ripe, luscious, oversized fruits or placed individual pieces — his signature cucumber crops up practically everywhere — in panel after panel. It’s like the Byzantine icon and Northern European realism and Italian Renaissance illusionism had a beautiful baby.

While he was highly esteemed during his lifetime — he was knighted for his artistic contributions — Carlo Crivelli was forgotten all too soon. Florence-centric Vasari didn’t include him in his seminal biography of the artists and he was consistently overlooked until the 19th century when the Pre-Raphaelites rediscovered him. Revival or no, mainstream critics still pooh-poohed Crivelli as a throwback of sorts, too enamoured of the old-fashioned medieval style to be worth emulating. This is from an 1863 article about the “London Art Scene” in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine:

Its manner is severe, hard, quaint, and even fantastic. It is remarkable for elaboration of detail. And as a further characteristic of the school, or rather of the individual master, should be observed the introduction of gold not only in the background, but extending even to the gilding of the dress and the illumination of the hair. Making allowance for the period when painted, this is truly a glorious work ; but to revive this obsolete style, as attempted in Germany and England, except, perhaps, for strict architectural decoration, were certainly a monstrous mistake, of which we imagine our artists are by this time thoroughly convinced.

Even today when such judgments on ideal artistic progression are as passé as the above author held Crivelli’s work to be, he still flies under the radar, which is why it has taken until now for a US museum to dedicate a whole show just to him. Loans from major museums in Europe and the United States have allowed the Gardner to bring together 23 of his paintings and the only drawing known to have survived. Four of the six panels from the Porto San Giorgio altarpiece, one of which is the Gardner’s Saint George, have been reunited in the show.

Ornament and Illusion: Carlo Crivelli of Venice runs through January 26th, 2016. To find out more about the artist, you must visit the Gardner’s excellent website dedicated to the exhibition and Crivelli’s work. There is video and audio about the conservation of Saint George, a slider showing those bold, black lines in the underdrawing, a digital reassembling of the altarpiece of Porto San Giorgio, detailed views of those amazing 3D textures he achieved with gesso and much more.





December 2015
« Nov    


Add to Technorati Favorites