Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Coachman’s great-grandson donates Victorian carriage to museum

Wednesday, January 5th, 2022

The descendant of coachman Thomas Pedler has donated the carriage his great-grandfather drove in the Victorian era to the National Trust Carriage Museum at Arlington Court in Devonshire. The carriage belonged to Robert Chichester, cousin of Colonel John Chichester who built the current Arlington Court in the 1820s, so the donation still keeps this glorious conveyance in the family.

The museum in the stables of Arlington Court houses more than 40 carriages from a range of backgrounds and purposes, including the gilded Speaker’s State Coach, a glass hearse, an entirely utilitarian servant’s cart and private luxury coaches like this one. The collection began in 1964 with a donation of eight carriages from the Marquess of Bute. The National Trust set them up in the Victorian stable block of Arlington Court because the stables were still present, in good condition and empty instead of having been converted to other uses (cafes, shops, public restrooms) like many of the stables under the Trust’s care. The collection grew from there, even requiring construction of an annex to fit them. This is the first carriage with any connection to the Chichester family in the museum.

Robert Chichester and family lived in a manor named Hall near the village of Bishop’s Tawton in North Devon. The estate had been in Chichester family since the 16th century, but Robert built the current mansion between 1844 and 1847. The carriage followed. After its heyday, it was retired into one of the outbuildings where it was neglected, literally used as a chicken coop, until its rediscovery in 1996. It was sold at auction that year.

Painted a distinctive bright yellow with a black roof over the passenger compartment, the carriage still carries the crest of the Chichester family on the doors. It was originally designed as a family travelling carriage or town chariot, it was converted at a later point in the 19th century to a slightly larger and less formal carriage for regular family use.

Thomas Pedler’s great grandson, Mr Garth Pedler, acquired the carriage in 1996 when it came up for sale, because of the family connection. He had some conservation work carried out on the carriage and has since gifted it to the National Trust, who will be doing further conservation on it.  […]

Joanna Cairns, National Trust registrar said: ‘The process of moving the Victorian carriage from its current home near Totnes to Arlington has been fascinating. Due to its size and age, a specialist art handling company transported the carriage to Arlington Court. Once here it was then transferred into another specialist lorry where it went through a 24-hour process of warm air treatment to kill woodworm (and any other pests). Once it had the all-clear, it was admitted into the museum to ensure no pests could affect the rest of the collection.’

Now that it has been officially introduced to the museum, the carriage will undergo extensive analysis and conservation. Conservation of carriages is complicated because there are so many moving parts and different materials, all of which require specialized treatment. This one’s stint as a chicken coop adds a layer of difficulty, albeit not as much as you might think thanks to Garth Pedler who engaged National Trust Carriage Museum experts to conserve the carriage after he acquired it in 1996.

Conservators will also make a detailed study of the carriage’s construction and modification because they are significant examples of local craftsmanship with several unusual features (ie, a u-shaped window in the front quarter panels, a step and join where the lace of the front interior meets the rest of the interior). The carriage was built by Pettle of Barnstaple, a carriage-building company less than 10 miles from Arlington Court. His name is on the hub caps of the carriage wheels.

As of last month, the carriage has been put on display at Arlington Court’s National Trust Carriage Museum.

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Louvre raises funds to reunite Venus cameo cup

Tuesday, January 4th, 2022

The Louvre has launched a fundraising campaign to acquire an exquisitely carved Italian Renaissance agate cameo of Venus and Cupid that once belonged to Louis XIV. If the campaign succeeds, the cameo will be reunited with its original carved stone and silver-gilt cup for the first time since it disappeared into private collections after the French Revolution.

Carved in meticulous detail from a single agate stone from Graubünden, Germany, the cameo depicts Venus at languid rest on a shell (the one she was born in, perhaps) with her son Cupid curled up next to her holding her hand. The carving takes full advantage of the natural color variations and swirls of the agate to set Venus’ pearlescent pale skin against the rich ochres of the shell underneath her. The cameo is rimmed with a silver-gilt border and a gilt swan, neck elegantly curved, wings outstretched, overlooks the loving scene of mother and babe.

It was made in the early 17th century by Giovanni Ambrogio Miseroni, scion of a Milanese family of hardstone carvers whose works were prized among the aristocracy and nobility of Europe for hundreds of years. (Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II was so pleased with their work he ennobled Giovanni and his brothers around the same time this cameo was carved.) Miseroni mounted the cameo as a lid onto a carved agate cup which was a hardstone masterpiece in its own right.

The cameo first appears on the historical record in 1661 in the inventory of the massive collection of Cardinal Jules Mazarin after his death. The inventory listing describes the vessel  thus:

A large shell-shaped cup carved from a single piece of German agate, upheld by a silver-gilt dolphin placed on a shell that is also of silver gilt, with another large German shell as its lid, also shell-shaped, carved with a nude Venus lying on a drapery next to a small Cupid and decorated with a silver-gilt rim.

It was one of the three most valuable vessels in the Mazarin collection, and Louis XIV acquired all three of them after the Cardinal’s death. They were in the royal collection until 1796 when they fell victim to a shortsighted (to put it mildly) scheme by the Revolutionary government to pay off creditors in kind with objects from the onetime royal collection. The Miseroni cup disappeared into a private collection, untraced and unpublished, for almost 200 years.

During that time, the cameo was detached from the cup. The cup emerged at auction on its own in 1968 and was acquired the Louvre. It has been on display with other masterpieces of hardstone art in the Galerie d’Apollon ever since.

Because the cameo disappeared without a trace long before it could be photographed, it was only known from written descriptions. When the lost cameo was included in a 2001 catalogue of the hardstone vessels in the royal collection, the owner recognized it from the description. It was sold at auction in London in 2011 and the Louvre tried but failed to buy it then. Now it has another bite at the apple, and the museum is aiming high so it doesn’t get outsold this time. The total price is 2.6 million euros. The public fundraising goal is at least one million euros before February 25th. Click here to contribute.

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Swedish National Museum acquired gold box with portrait of Gustavus III

Sunday, December 26th, 2021

The National Museum has acquired a unique jeweled gold box with an enamel miniature of King Gustavus III of Sweden. The portrait was made by court enameller Johan Georg Henrichsen and is one of very few surviving jeweled presentation portrait boxes from the Swedish monarch.

Jewel-encrusted portraits of the monarch were the most prestigious token of appreciation. The tradition developed at the French court in the 17th century and soon became a model for other European royal houses of the time. These portraits might take the form of a pendant or be mounted in a jewelled setting on the lid of a gold box. Queen Kristina was the first Swedish monarch to adopt this French fashion, which then flourished in the 18th century. Gustav III frequently handed out gold boxes as a sign of royal favour. Contemporary historical sources show that the king took a great personal interest in the design and gave detailed instructions. Sometimes the decoration consisted of his monogram in diamonds, and in other cases his portrait was framed with jewels.

Various specialist craftsmen collaborated to create the boxes. A silversmith would first produce the basic gold box, which would then be decorated by an engraver and adorned with gemstones by a jeweller. A miniaturist then added the portrait, while the case was produced by another specialist, often a bookbinder.

The gold box itself was an import. It was made in Hanau, Germany, by a master silversmith. It is oval and decorated on all sides by engine-turned guilloché waves and circles. The smith used two different colors of gold to give the patterns contrast and added a chased acanthus border to the edges. The edges were also chased with four cartouches of urns below scrolls.

Once the box arrived in Stockholm, Henrichsen added the king’s portrait in enamel based on a portrait by Lorens Pasch the Younger. A court jeweler added an oval border of diamonds around the portrait and a floral vine of diamonds to the base of the lid underneath the portrait.

Gustavus III presented it to John Mackenzie, 4th Lord MacLeod, upon his retirement from the Swedish Army in 1778. Mackenzie and his father had been avid supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie in the Jacobite rising of 1745. He was captured after the Battle of Culloden in 1746 and charged with high treason. After two years, he agreed to give up all properties and rights to his ancestral Earldom in exchange for a pardon. He left Scotland and in 1750 took a commission in Swedish Pomerania as a mercenary. He served the Swedish crown with distinction for 27 years, ending his career as a lieutenant general and receiving the chivalric Order of the Sword of Sweden.

In 1778 he received a full amnesty and his properties were restored to him. He retired from service in Sweden to return to Britain, and the king gave him the precious gold box as a token of thanks.

It remained in the family for almost 200 years. The Mackenzie heirs sold it in 1969 and it passed through various hands before selling at auction at Sotheby’s London earlier this year for $220,000. The museum was able to buy it thanks to a  donation from the Anna and Hjalmar Wicander Foundation. It will go on display in the National Museum’s Treasury alongside a miniature portrait of Mackenzie.

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Savonarola returns to his priory cell

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2021

Terracotta bust of Girolamo Savonarola, late 15th/early16th c., by Fra' Mattia della Robbia. Photo courtesy Ministero della Cultura Direzione regionale musei della Toscana.A previously unpublished bust of Renaissance firebrand friar Girolamo Savonarola has gone on public display for the first time at the convent of San Marco where Savonarola was once prior. It dates to the late 15th or early 16th century and is also the only surviving in-the-round sculpture of Savonarola known to have been made in the Renaissance.

The polychrome terracotta bust is a departure from the classic representation of Savonarola in profile, black hood pulled low on his forehead, originally created by Dominican painter Fra Bartolomeo. The frontal portrait bust captures the severe expression and hooked nose seen in the Bartolomeo painting, but with piercing light blue eyes.

What’s more, it was made by someone who knew him personally. The sculptor was Marco della Robbia, aka Fra Mattia, son of Andrea della Robbia and fervent follower of Girolamo Savonarola. Mattia was one of the friars who took up arms to fight the authorities when they arrested Savonarola at San Marco on April 8th, 1498.

The bust is on long-term loan to the Museum of San Marco from lawyer and collector Alessandro Kiniger. It has been installed in the room where, according to tradition, Savonarola lived when he was prior. It is on display alongside the famous profile portrait by Fra Bartolomeo, another work by Bartolomeo depicting St. Peter with the face of Savonarola, and autograph manuscripts of sermons written and delivered by Savonarola.

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Getty acquires 1st century bust of Germanicus

Tuesday, December 7th, 2021

The Getty Museum has acquired an extraordinary 1st century portrait bust of Germanicus Julius Caesar, triumphant general, grandson of Mark Anthony, grand-nephew of the emperor Augustus, nephew and adopted son of Augustus’ successor Tiberius, father of Tiberius’ successor Caligula and older brother of Caligula’s successor Claudius.

“This stunning portrait bust adds an extraordinary sculpture to the Villa’s collection of Roman portraits,” says Timothy Potts, Maria Hummer-Tuttle and Robert Tuttle Director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “It is among the finest and best-preserved portraits of the young Germanicus at the time of his adoption in AD 4 by his uncle, the soon-to-be Roman emperor Tiberius and complements nicely other Roman busts in the antiquities collection at the Villa.”

The bust depicts the young Germanicus before the depositio barbae, the Roman ritual first shaving of the beard. While the image, or portrait type, was created at the time of his adoption, this bust is a posthumous portrait of the popular general, who was being groomed to be emperor but died young. Ten copies are known today of Germanicus’ “Adoption type” portrait—identified by the facial features and careful arrangement of the locks of hair over the forehead.

While the original of the portrait type was likely carved after Germanicus’ adoption in 4 A.D., the copies are believed to have been made in the reign of Caligula or a few years into Claudius’ (ca. 37-45  A.D.). Germanicus was still enormously beloved by the Roman people when Caligula ascended the throne, and the new emperor promoted his father and their connection with portraiture of Germanicus as the brilliant young general destined for imperial greatness before his untimely (and highly suspicious) death at age 33.

The bust’s documented ownership history goes back to 1798-99 when it was bought in Rome by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, despoiler of the Parthenon Frieze. Elgin, on his way to Constantinople to serve as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, had his private secretary buy “marbles” in Rome and ship them to Constantinople to decorate the official residence of the ambassador. His term ended in 1803, and the statuary was shipped to Broomhall House in Scotland, seat of the Earls of Elgin. Germanicus stayed in Broomhall for two centuries until it was sold at auction by Elgin’s descendants in 2012 for an eye-watering $8,146,500.

The bust will first be displayed in December 2021 as part of an exhibition highlighting new acquisitions–Recent Acquisitions 2021: Collecting for the Museum–at the Getty Center and then go on permanent view at the Getty Villa Museum in the Early Roman Imperial Sculpture gallery in 2022.

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Rijksmuseum to hold largest Vermeer exhibition ever

Sunday, December 5th, 2021

The Rijksmuseum has announced that in spring of 2023, it will stage an retrospective dedicated to Dutch Baroque master Johannes Vermeer that will be the largest Vermeer exhibition ever. It is the first exhibition dedicated solely to Vermeer in the museum’s history.

A slow, deliberate painter who drew minor attention in his lifetime and whose genius was only really appreciated after his rediscovery by art historians in the 19th century, Vermeer only produced around 35 paintings that can be confidently attributed to him. His few works are the gems of any collection lucky enough to have secured one of them and are rarely loaned out. The Rijksmuseum has four of them — The Little Street, The Milkmaid, Woman Reading a Letter and The Love Letter.

The new show is a collaboration with the Mauritshuis in The Hague which boasts three Vermeers of its own in its permanent collection, including the most famous of them all, Girl with a Pearl Earring. Girl will join her Mauritshuis siblings, View of Delft and Diana and her Nymphs, on display at the exhibition, alongside all four of the Rijksmuseum’s Vermeer works. That will bring together the seven Vermeer paintings in Dutch possession for the first time, and they will be excellent company for masterpieces from other collections like The Geographer (Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main), Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid (The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin) and Woman Holding a Balance (The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC). The recently-restored Girl Reading a Letter at the Open Window from the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden will also be loaned for the exhibition. This will be the first time the painting is displayed in the Netherlands.

Curators, restorers and researchers from the Rijksmuseum and Mauritshuis will work together to take full advantage of the opportunity presented by the exhibition to study the seven Vermeers from their institutions and the ones on loan from other collections as well.

Taco Dibbits, Director of the Rijksmuseum: “Vermeer is one of the most famous painters in the Netherlands, along with Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Mondrian. We would not have thought it possible that so many museums are willing to lend their masterpieces. We are incredibly grateful to them. With this exhibition we can introduce a new generation to Vermeer’s painting at the highest level and present the results of the latest research.”

The exhibition runs from February 10th, 2023, until June 4th.

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17th c. celestial globe restored

Wednesday, November 24th, 2021

A rare 17th century celestial globe in the collection of the Museo Galileo in Florence has been restored to its former glory after six months of study, cleaning and repair. The conservation restored the full legibility of the globe, bringing back the vivid colors and details of the imagery and text.

The Globe Celeste was begun by Joost de Hondt, aka Hondius, in 1611. Hondt was one of the three preeminent cartographers in Amsterdam at a time when the constant flow of new geographic information made the creation of updated maps and globes a highly profitable business. When he died in 1612, his son Jodocus Hondius the Younger completed the globe with Adriaen Veen. Dedicated to the “lords of the United Provinces of Belgium,” the celestial globe depicts the constellations and stars, using the ancient observations of Claudius Ptolemy as the base, but with major updates from astronomers and explorers of the Age of Discovery, including the stars north of the Tropic of Capricorn observed by Tycho Brahe, whose portrait is on the globe, and the new southern hemisphere constellations first documented by Pietre Diercksz Keyser and Frederick de Houtman.

The globe is made of 12 strips of paper 5.5 inches wide at their widest points. Each strip is divided into two parts and topped with circular caps on the ends. They were printed with meticulously detailed copper plate engravings and then colored in with pigments and dyes after assembly over a spherical shell with a single axis supporting it in the interior. It was then coated in protective lacquer of shellac or another natural resin to allow the globe to be handled without damaging the surface.

The restoration has revealed new information about the structure of the globe. It was built up from a tiny nucleus just a few millimeters in diameter. Nineteen layers later, they had a globe 21 inches in diameter. Once it was dry, a small opening was made and the material inside crushed and removed. An oak plank was then inserted through the ends and fixed with brass pins to keep the sphere’s axis stable.

Researchers found no documentation of past restorations, so they deployed non-invasive techniques like ultraviolet fluorescence, false color infrared and X-rays to identify materials used in the original and in past interventions.

The surface of the globe had at least two depressions potentially caused by accidental falls, as well as areas where rubbing and scratches were evident, making the images and constellations difficult to decipher. Delicate cleaning enabled the recovery of the original shades of the constellations painted in yellow, red, green, blue, and brown, restoring the beauty of the images.

In order to reposition the paper cover more accurately, it was decided to completely remove the strip of paper and lift the cap to see inside the globe, where new observations were made on the nature and thickness of the layers, as well as the surprise discovery of a twig of willow wood with two tied paper parcels that were most likely inserted to improve a depression in the paper during a restoration of which there had previously been no record. It was decided to remove the twig, given it no longer served a use and was not part of the original structure, and the paper parcels revealed a folded piece of newspaper dated December 24, 1942, indicating that it was restored in those years.

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Wooden bird revealed to be Anne Boleyn’s falcon

Monday, November 8th, 2021

A carved wooden falcon that sold at auction in 2019 for  £75 ($100) has been identified as a 16th century heraldic badge of Anne Boleyn that once adorned Hampton Court Palace. With this updated provenance, the oak falcon’s market value has skyrocketed to an estimated £200,000 ($270,000).

The falcon was one of the new architectural features King Henry VIII ordered be added to Hampton Court Palace before his marriage to Anne. The white falcon was on the crest of the Butler family who had held the title of Earls of Ormond. Anne’s father Thomas Boleyn was related to the Butlers through his mother, and in 1529 Henry browbeat the legitimate Butler claimant to the Ormond earldom to settle for another title so he could give this one to the father of his inamorata.

Anne took the white falcon as the centerpiece of her own heraldic emblem shortly before her wedding. It stands on a tree stump (representing Henry’s Plantagenet ancestry) from which red and white roses grow. These aren’t Tudor roses with red petals on the outside and white ones on the inside, but individual red roses alternating with white roses, symbolic of Henry’s dual claim to the throne through his Lancastrian father, Henry of Richmond, and his mother Elizabeth of York.

The bird wears an imperial crown and carries a heavy scepter in its talon, an unmistakable message Henry was sending that his power was absolute inside his realm, even overriding that of the pope, and that Anne would be his queen. Three years, one tumultuous marriage, several spurious charges of adultery and a decapitation later, Henry ordered all traces of Anne Boleyn obliterated from his palaces as a kind of Tudor damnatio memoriae.

Today there are two royal falcons surviving on the ceiling of Hampton Court’s Great Hall. This example was in a more accessible location, likely in her private apartments, and may have been salvaged by a supporter who wanted to preserve the memory Henry sought to eradicate.

Tudor historian and curator for Historic Royal Palaces Tracy Borman says:

“What’s really interesting about it is that – unlike the Great Hall examples – this one wears an imperial crown. That was an absolute nod to the fact that Henry by now had got imperial ambitions. He was trying to supplant the pope’s authority, promoting himself as some kind of emperor rather than just a king. There are other crowned falcons that we know about, that were used for example at Anne’s coronation in the pageant. But there’s no mention of imperial crowns, so this is very much Henry and Anne doing their very best for a kind of PR stunt. The decoration of Hampton Court was all about their ambitions and their defiance of the pope.”

The falcon was acquired by Paul Fitzsimmons, founder of Marhamchurch Antiques, which specializes in oak furniture from the 15th through 17th centuries. It was described in the auction catalogue as a “antique carved wood bird,” but Fitzimmons recognized its quality and its likely connection to royalty given the crown and scepter, but didn’t initially realize it was one of Anne Boleyn’s badges. After careful restoration removed the coating of black soot, the falcon was revealed to be in impeccable condition, complete with original gilding and polychrome paint.

Fitzsimmons has arranged a long-term loan of the falcon to Hampton Court Palace so the antique carved wood bird will come home to roost.

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Oldest Cornish text goes on display

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2021

The oldest surviving manuscript in the Cornish language and the earliest book known to have been in Cornwall have gone on display in Cornwall for the first time. Pascon Agan Arluth and the Bodmin Gospels, on loan from the British Library, are the star attractions at the Treasures from Medieval Cornwall exhibition at Kresen Kernow, the archive center that holds historical, archaeological and photographic records relating to Cornwall’s history, in Redruth.

The Bodmin Gospels and the Cornish poem the Pascon Agan Arluth (meaning “The Passion of our Lord”) are on loan from the British Library for this special exhibition. The Bodmin Gospels is the earliest book whose presence in Cornwall is documented on the historical record. It was written in Brittany in the late 9th century but by the 940s it was in Cornwall at the priory of St. Petroc.

For the next 150 years, clerics recorded the manumission of enslaved people in the margins and blank pages of the Gospel. The names of 129 freed slaves are listed in the manuscript, 84% of whom had Cornish names. The vast majority of the 34 former slave owners listed had English names. The Bodmin Gospels is therefore of great historical significance both for its age, its early presence in Cornwall and as the sole surviving source of the names of these formerly enslaved individuals, their masters and the witnesses to the manumission. It is a unique record of early medieval Cornwall, both its literate and landed elite and its ordinary people.

The Pascon Agan Arluth manuscript was written in the 15th century, a copy of a poem composed in the 14th century. It is the earliest surviving complete Cornish text. Decorated in the top and bottom margins with 10 colored drawings, it is also the earliest known illustrated manuscript in Cornish and the only surviving illustrated Cornish manuscript from the Middle Ages.

The loaned treasures are joined by important documents already in the Kresen Kernow’s archives, including a handsomely illustrated medieval calendar and the cartulary of Glasney College, a 15th century register of the history, regulations, grants, taxes, rents and canons of the most important religious center in Cornwall. It was the center of Cornish language scholarship from its founding in the 13th century until its destruction in the dissolution of the monasteries in 1548.

Built in the historic Redruth Brewery site, the new state-of-the-art center houses more than 1.5 million manuscripts, books, newspapers, maps and photographs from the Cornwall Record Office, the Cornish Studies Library and the Historic Environment Record. Treasures from Medieval Cornwall runs through January 22nd, 2022. The Kresen Kernow ‘s Treasure Gallery where the manuscripts are being exhibited is small. Only six people will be allowed in a time, so it’s best to book tickets in advance.

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Restoration of Michelangelo’s Bandini Pietà complete

Tuesday, September 28th, 2021

The restoration of Michelangelo’s Bandini Pietà at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo has been completed, revealing the original marble and answering questions that have long been asked about this iconic masterpiece. The restoration began November 23, 2019, and was supposed to be completed by summer of 2020, but a certain virus had other ideas. Conservators were able to get back to work in September of last year, and now the rejuvenated Pietà is back.

Michelangelo sculpted three pietàs over his lifetime. The first, now in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, features a preternaturally young Mary seated with Jesus’ body draped across her lap. The second, the Rondanini Pietà now at the Castello Sforzesco in Milan, features a more mature Mary standing up, holding the body of her son. Only the Bandini Pietà has figures other than Mary and Christ, and indeed, the dominant figure in the composition is Nicodemus who looms large behind Mary the Mother, Mary Magdalene and the limp, twisted form of Jesus.

This was Michelangelo’s most audacious sculpture. He was inspired by the Laocoon Group, a large sculpture depicting the death of the Trojan priest and his sons that had been praised by Pliny in antiquity. The Laocoon was rediscovered in 1506 under a vineyard next to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Michelangelo, dispatched by Pope Julius II, was present to witness its excavation and its exceptional artistry had a strong influence on him. He too wanted to create a group of figures out of a single massive block of marble, only his masterpiece would beat the Laocoon in size and number of figures. It was meant to adorn a chapel in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome where Michelangelo planned to be buried. That the face of Nicodemus is a self-portrait of Michelangelo was a sculptural representation of his devotion to Christ.

He worked on this group for almost a decade, starting in 1547 when he was in his mid-70s and concluding in 1555. The story told by Michelangelo’s friends and fellow artists Giorgio Vasari and Ascanio Condivi was that Michelangelo, enraged by the intractable flaws he kept encountering throughout the three-ton block of marble, took a hammer to the work until his servant Antonio da Casteldurante begged him to stop. Michelangelo agreed to let Antonio keep the sculpture and its broken pieces and to let Florentine sculptor Tiberio Calcagni, a friend and collaborator of his, repair it. Calcagni bought it from Casteldurante on behalf of banker Francesco Bandini.

Bandini kept it the garden of his villa in Rome and it remained in the family after his death. It passed through a couple of hands before being sold to Cosimo III de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, in 1671. It took three years for him to figure out how to transport the huge piece to Florence. The Pietà has been in Florence ever since in several different locations.

Aside from occasional cleanings, no restoration work has been recorded after Calcagni reattached body parts and controversially altered Mary Magdalene’s face. There is one documented intervention. In 1882, a plaster cast was made of the sculpture. The residue from the plaster left the marble surface dry with large areas of bright white marring the surface. Restorers tried to fix that by applying layers of wax on top of the residue, and over time the wax darkened and mixed with dust to change the surface colors to a deep, uneven amber.

To address these issues in the least invasive manner possible, a multi-disciplinary team of conservators studied and documented the condition of the Pietà. They then cleaned and restored it in a custom-built “open laboratory” so visitors could see them at work behind a plexiglass wall. In the process, the team discovered that much of the origin story relayed for 500 years is likely apocryphal.

Diagnostic inspection led to the discovery that the marble came from quarries in Seravezza, in the province of Lucca, rather than from Carrara as had been believed. This discovery is significant because the quarries in Seravezza were owned by the Medici, and Giovanni de’ Medici, soon to be Pope Leo X, had enjoined Michelangelo to use marble from the quarry for the façade of the church of San Lorenzo in Florence. How this huge block of marble got to Rome where Michelangelo carved this Pietà from it between 1547 and 1555 is still a mystery.

Michelangelo was unhappy with the quality of the marble from these quarries because it revealed sudden veining and minute cracks difficult to detect from the surface. Thanks to the restoration, it has proven possible to confirm that the block used for the Pietà was indeed flawed, as Vasari tells us.  In his Lives of the Artists, Vasari describes it as hard and full of impurities and that sparks flew from it with every blow of the chisel. Numerous small inclusions of pyrite were discovered, and they most certainly would have caused sparks when hit with a chisel. More importantly, the presence of numerous minute cracks, particularly on the back and front of the base, suggests that Michelangelo may well have encountered them when carving Christ and the Virgin’s left arms and was forced to stop working on it. This is a more likely hypothesis than that of a now ageing Michelangelo, unhappy with the result, trying to destroy the sculpture in a moment of distress and frustration by taking a hammer to it, because the restorers found no sign of any hammer blows, unless, of course, they were erased later by someone else.

Based on these discoveries, it was decided to proceed by first conducting cleaning trials in order to identify the most suitable methodology. Once established, the restoration process proper began where the deposits were thickest, using a non-invasive, gradual, and controlled method of cotton pads soaked in deionised and lightly heated water. For the wax build-up applied to the group’s surface, small, closely spaced splashes and drippings caused by candles on Florence Cathedral’s high altar, behind which the group had stood for 220 years, cleaning with water was supplemented with the use of a scalpel in the toughest areas.

The open laboratory will remain in place for six months so that visitors to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, accompanied by guides, can see the Pietà up close. The tours of the laboratory run through March 30th, 2022.

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