Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

National Museum’s Viking Ireland video series

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

The National Museum of Ireland has put together a wonderful video series based on their Viking Ireland exhibit. It’s a tour of Viking history in Ireland as seen through some of the artifacts on display. Each of the eight videos is short and eminently digestible, a sort of capsule history on topics like Viking swords and trade. It also makes you want to go to the museum something fierce, which is obviously the entire point, so job well done, National Museum of Ireland!

The first video is about the Viking battle axe. The stars are three axe heads found together in 2013 in a boat in Lough Corrib, Galway, that date to the 11th or early 12th century. They are three different sizes and, thanks to the survival of small parts of the cherry wood handles still attached to the axe heads and other wood fragments from the rest of the handles, researchers are able to hypothesize that the two smaller ones were probably wielded by one hand, while the largest was probably a two-handed weapon. They’re late enough in date that they almost certainly belonged to Irish warriors, not Vikings. It was the Vikings who brought the battle axe to Ireland. Before that they had axes tools, built heavy to help split wood, but the Viking weapons were designed to be light and sharp, with the maximum amount of cutting edge for minimum amount of weight.

Next is the Viking sword, a more expensive weapon than the axe and every warrior’s most prized possession. The video focuses on a sword discovered in the River Shannon near Banagher in 2012. It dates to between 925 and 975 A.D. The blade may be of German manufacture while the hilt was made in Scandinavia. The coolest part of the video is the X-rays of the sword which gave conservators information about which areas needed work and provided more details about manufacture like the use of silver wire in the hilt.

The Viking Wealth & Trade video has some neat shiny stuff like some pretty huge penannular brooches that were both status symbols for the men who wore them and a means of portable wealth. I loved the set of woven silver cones found in a cave in Kilkenny. They aren’t very heavy in silver so they were purely decorative rather than a potential source of bullion. They were probably attached and hung as tassel from the edges of cloth and worn by a woman.

It was Vikings who introduced coin to Ireland. Before they came Ireland was a barter economy, with cattle as the primary currency. The Vikings were introduced to coin by trade with the Byzantine Empire and Arabic merchants and by plundering the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which minted coins starting in the 7th century. The video shows one of the first coins struck in Ireland, a silver penny from 995-997, struck in Dublin by King Sitric Silkenbeard.

The Viking Women in Ireland video is a little thin on details. You see some beautiful ornaments found in graves from pre-Christian burials — large oval brooches used to fasten straps of traditional Scandinavian pinafore with glass bead chains strung between them. The highlight for me is a whalebone plaque similar to the one unearthed in Lilleberge (see this post) which the British Museum speculated might be used for food service, but the National Museum of Ireland thinks were used in textile production, maybe to stretch linen or other fabrics, in conjunction with a glass smoother.

Arrival of Vikings & Beliefs is centered on remains and artifacts found in burials in Islandbridge, Dublin, the largest Viking burial site outside of Scandinavia. Featured is a skeleton buried with a sword and spearhead, one of the earliest preserved Viking burials in Ireland. There’s also a splendid collection of swords, axes, spearheads and bosses from shields excavated from the 19th century on. Islandbridge excavations are still making new discoveries, including early single-edged sword from the 9th c., a spearhead, ringpin and the human remains of male 18-20 who grew up outside of Ireland and came to the island a couple of years before his death.

The Irish & the Vikings video is about how the two cultures came together. The Vikings created an urban commercial culture with Dublin as the center of trade and manufacture, while the Irish remained rural and agricultural, living in small groups on crannogs and in ringforts. The presence of urban Viking settlements provided new markets for Irish agriculture, cattle, leather, wool. There are some fabulous surviving textiles in the video.

Despite their disparate living arrangements and cultures — the Irish spoke a different language, had different legal and political systems — there was significant overlap in the material culture as the Irish quickly adopted Viking weapons, tools, jewelry. Not to be missed at the 2:51 mark is the Hnefatafl gaming board, a Chinese checkers or draughts sort of game with pegholes in the board decorated in Viking style.

Also striking is the late 10th c./early 11th c. slave chain found near Ardakillen crannog in County Roscommon. There was slavery in Ireland before the Vikings, mainly prisoners of war, but the Vikings made it into a thriving industry. They set up slave emporiums in Dublin, tapping into a vast trade network that meant an Irish war captive could end up anywhere from Scandinavia to north Africa.

Daily Life in Viking Ireland looks at the two best preserved Viking settlements: Dublin and Waterford. Because the environment is water-logged, the most exceptional organic remains have been found, like bedding that is still green after 1,000 years. Through a scale model drawn from a Dublin excavation, you see the dawn of the European town design, the six different types of houses, the layout of streets and defenses. Artifacts show the daily life in these towns. Pieces of of walrus bone and tusks were worked there, and there was a huge amber trade. More than 3,000 pieces of Baltic amber from the Viking era have been found in Dublin, the second greatest amount of amber found in Europe.

It’s not just about Vikings and the Irish. There’s an amazing leather scabbard at the 4:13 mark that was made by an English man. We know this because he so generously engraved his name on it: Edric me fecit (Edric made me). Around 4:50 you get an awesome tour of tools — his own and ones for other trades — made by a Dublin blacksmith, including the earliest datable spurs and stirrups in Ireland.

Last but not least is the Legacy of the Vikings in Ireland. By the 10th century, the Viking settlers had intermarried with the Irish and the hybrid Hiberno-Norse brought together Viking and Christian design elements. The Crozier of Clonmacnoise looks like a stylized Viking horse head. The Shrine of the Cathach, a decorated gold box meant to hold a 6th century Irish psalter thought to have been written by Saint Columba himself, is inscribed with the name of its maker: Sitric Mac Maghe (no idea if I’m spelling that correctly), a Scandinavian first name and an Irish family name.

Then there’s the jaw-dropping beauty of the Cross of Cong, a processional cross from the 12th century that was created to hold a fragment of the True Cross. It’s an outstanding example of the late Viking Urnes art style which features stylized animals in combat with snakes symbolizing the battle of good against evil.

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18th c. gilded French salon reopens in San Francisco

Monday, April 7th, 2014

After 233 years, eight moves including one transatlantic and one transcontinental, and a meticulous 18-month conservation, the Salon Doré reopened Saturday at the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco. The long strange journey of this gilded room began in 1781 when it was created as the formal receiving room for the Hôtel de La Trémoille, the palace of Jean-Bretagne-Godfroy, duc de la Trémoille and his wife Marie-Maximilienne, Princesse de Salm-Kirbourg, on rue Saint-Dominique in Paris’ fashionable Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood where many of the old aristocracy had town homes.

The paneling (boiserie in French) was neoclassical in design, with 15-foot gilded Corinthian pilasters framing four arched mirrors and four large doors. It was similar in style to the 18th century neoclassical decoration of the Hôtel de Salm, which was built on the Rue de Lille for Marie-Maximilienne’s relative Prince Frederick III, Fürst of Salm-Kyrburg, between 1782 and 1787. The Hôtel de Salm is now the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur. The Legion of Honor building in San Francisco which now houses the Salon Doré was designed to be a 2/3 scale replica of the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur.

The de la Trémoilles suffered greatly during the French Revolution. They were dedicated royalists, very close to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. In 1789, Jean-Bretagne-Godfroy, Marie-Maximilienne and their eldest son Charles Bretagne Marie fled France, with father and son joining the émigré army assembled by Louis Joseph de Bourbon, Prince of Condé, in Coblenz, Germany. Charles Bretagne’s wife Louise-Emmanuelle de Châtillon, whom he had wed the same year the Salon Doré was built, would not leave Marie Antoinette’s side. She was arrested after the fall of the Tuileries palace on August 10, 1792, because she refused to testify against the queen. In September she managed to make a break for it, leaving the country in disguise and joining her husband in England. Two of Jean-Bretagne-Godfroy and Marie-Maximilienne’s sons were guillotined at the peak of the Terror in 1794.

By the mid-19th century, the Hôtel de La Trémoille belonged to the Marquise de Croix but he didn’t get to enjoy it for long. In 1877, the house was demolished during the third phase of Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s renovation of Paris. Haussmann himself was no longer in charge by then, having been fired by Emperor Napoleon III in 1870 under pressure from Republican opponents in Parliament. The emperor died in 1873 and despite the intense opposition to Haussmann’s renovations when the Napoleon III wanted them, four years later the Third Republic picked up where he left off and finished remodeling of Paris into a city of wide boulevards and elegant squares. The rue Saint-Dominique where the Hôtel de La Trémoille stood became part of today’s Boulevard Saint-Germain.

The Marquise de Croix stripped the paneling off the walls before the demolition and had it installed in a first floor room in her new home, the Hôtel d’Humières on the rue de Lille. In 1905, this historic mansion also met a painfully premature demise and apartment buildings were constructed in its place. Again the Salon Doré’s boiserie was saved and in 1918, it was installed as the “French salon” in the Italianate mansion of financier Otto Kahn on East 91st Street in New York City.

The mansion was sold shortly after Kahn’s death in 1934 to the Convent of the Sacred Heart and is now schoolhouse to some very lucky middle and high school students. The Salon Doré was not part of the deal. It was stripped yet again and sold to the Duveen Brothers art dealership where it was installed a showroom in the firm’s Fifth Avenue gallery. In 1952, Duveen sold the room to steel magnate Richard Rheem who hired the French decorating firm Decour to install the salon in La Dolphine, his mansion in Burlingame, California.

In 1959, Rheem donated the Salon Doré to the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. At the time, the museum had a policy against period rooms, but they changed it solely to accommodate the beautiful and historic Salon Doré. It was installed in 1962 and the Legion of Honor became the proud owner of one of the finest examples of French neoclassical interior design in the world. The path wasn’t smooth yet, however. In 1990 the boiserie was stripped once more as part of a major seismic retrofit of the building. When it was reinstalled, it was in a different room minus the parquet floor, ceiling, windows and two of the four doors.

All the moves and reinstallations had left the room far from its original configuration. The museum didn’t even know the proper history of the salon because the Duveens had lied about its provenance to connect it to a more famous palace and architect and presumably charge a higher price for it. Martin Chapman, the museum’s curator of European decorative arts and sculpture, recognized the importance of the room and decided to thoroughly research it so it could be restored to a more period accurate condition.

In 2013, the room was closed for a full refurbishment. The paneling was removed for restoration of its carved elements and gilding. Watch it come down in this time lapse video:

“The aim of this project has been to reinstate this paneling as an architectural entity as well as recreating its program for furnishing based on the 1790 inventory of the room. It was also to provide a full picture of how these salons functioned in the years before the Revolution swept away the culture of the ancien régime and to understand the essential relationship between the furniture and the interior architecture,” said Martin Chapman.

In order to achieve this extensive restoration project, a laboratory was set up in an adjacent gallery that could be viewed by visitors to the museum. In this space, up to 16 specialists worked on the carving and gilding under the direction of Fine Arts Museums’ head objects conservator, Lesley Bone, and the Museums’ conservator of frames and gilded surfaces, Natasa Morovic. The furniture’s upholstery was researched and executed by Xavier Bonnet of Atelier Saint-Louis, Paris. The silk incorporated in the room was woven by Tassinari and Chatel in Lyon, France to a design matched to an 18th century document in that city’s Musée de Tissus et des Arts décoratifs. The trimming by Declercq was laboriously made using traditional techniques and designs derived from 18th century models.

You can see the gilding restoration in this video:

And the master carver doing his magic in this one:

Cutting edge technology worked side-by-side with traditional crafts. Conservators used 3D printer to recreate the missing cradle of an 18th French century clock for the Salon Doré.

The restored panels were installed according to the original floor plan in a new room with period appropriate parquet flooring donated by French antiques dealer Benjamin Steinitz, a coved ceiling, windows and new lighting. Some of the furniture and accessories (a chandelier, three Sèvres vase) came from the Legion of Honor’s collection. Other pieces — a large mirror, a console, chairs — were purchased from various antiques dealers in Paris.

The end result is nothing short of exquisite.

“The Salon Doré will be the only pre-Revolutionary Parisian salon in the United States displayed with its full complement of furnishings. Returning the room to its original glory and revealing its initial purpose, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco present the Salon Doré as an example of how a period room can engage a 21st century audience,” said Colin B. Bailey, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

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Anglo-Saxon ring engraved with Christian and pagan symbols

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014


The Saffron Walden Museum in Essex has acquired a rare Anglo-Saxon gold ring engraved with a combination of Christian and pagan symbols. The ring was discovered in 2011 by metal detectorist Tony Carter in Uttlesford, Essex, and was declared treasure. In order to buy the ring and four other gold and silver artifacts discovered in the area, the museum had to raised £60,000 and £7,500 in donations. Since the grants were matching funds, the donations were necessary for the whole plan to come together. The campaign was successful and now all five pieces are going on display in a new showcase starting April 5th.

The ring, dubbed the North-Essex Ring, is the centerpiece of the new display. It’s a gold signet ring with a rectangular bezel and a heavy hoop 26.6mm in diameter at the widest point. It weighs a total of 20.1 grams and its composition is 92-94% gold, 5-6% silver and the rest a copper alloy. The square bezel and broad hoop are a Frankish form — for comparison see this Frankish ring from approximately the same period unearthed in the Mulsanne, France, and now in the British Museum — but the decoration on the North-Essex Ring is distinctly Anglo-Saxon.

On the bezel is engraved a belted male figure, possibly naked despite the presence of the belt. There is no visible clothing like the male and female figures on the Mulsanne ring wear. The man is holding a bird in one hand and a staff topped with a cross in the other. Above his head is another bird, bigger and more detailed. Both of the birds have curved beaks, indicating they’re birds of prey and the detail in the larger one identifies it as a Style II design, a zoomorphic style in which whole animals are depicted in an elongated, stylized fashion. Some of the pieces from the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial are decorated in Style II.

The decoration and ring style date the piece to around 580-650 A.D., a period when the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Kent, Essex and East Anglia were first introduced to Christianity. Pope Gregory I sent Augustine, a Benedictine monk who would become the first Archbishop of Canterbury, on a mission to convert King Æthelberht of Kent in 597 A.D. The combination of pre-Christian North European motifs and the Christian crossed staff makes the ring an extremely rare example of religious syncretism from this transitional period.

Another of the five objects secured by the Saffron Walden Museum is also a rare example from a transitional period in British history, albeit a much later one. It’s a gold ring from the 16th or early 17th century. The band is decorated with circular medallions in which are engraved scenes from the passion of the Christ. This imagery is Catholic, but from a time when people had to hide their adherence to Roman Catholicism to save their necks.

They don’t have a religious significance, but there are two historically significant gold coins in the new collection. They’re Gallo-Belgic class four gold staters struck in the Somme area in northwest France in the mid-2nd century B.C. Both of them are quite worn, one of them bent along the edge, indicating they were in circulation for some time before winding up in the ground. Very few class four gold staters have been found in Britain, and these are the earliest ever discovered in the district.

The last two artifacts are a silver hooked tag from the 9th century A.D. decorated with stylized animals that once held niello accents although the black enamel is long gone. (it’s known as Trewhiddle-style decoration) and an identified silver object with engraved niello animal figures from the 8th or 9th century.

All of the artifacts will be on display together starting April 5th. The museum has made a replica of the North-Essex Ring available so visitors can handle it and appreciate its size and decoration in person, which I think is a nifty idea that more museums should incorporate in their exhibitions.

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Stolen Renoir on display at Baltimore Museum of Art

Monday, March 31st, 2014

Sixty-two years after it was stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art, Renoir’s Paysage Bords de Seine is once again on display in the museum’s galleries. The little 5 1/2″-by-9″ landscape, reputedly painted by the Impressionist master for his mistress on a linen napkin at a cafe on the shores of the Seine in 1879, first made the news in 2012 when it was put up for auction by a woman (later revealed to be one Marcia “Martha” Fuqua) who claimed she bought it at a flea market for $7 in a box lot along with a plastic cow and a Paul Bunyan doll. That story soon turned out to have more than a few gaping holes which were exposed when a Washington Post reporter discovered evidence in the archives of the Baltimore Museum of Art that the painting had been stolen from the museum on November 17th, 1951.

The sale was canceled while a federal court decided who owned legal title to the painting. Possible contenders were the museum, Fuqua and the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company which had paid the museum $2,500 after the theft. The insurance company declined to pursue their own claim because they believed that the Renoir should return to the Baltimore Museum of Art. In January, the court decided that even if Fuqua was an “innocent owner” who had no idea the painting was stolen when she acquired it, a thief cannot pass title to a new owner, innocent or otherwise. The landscape was going back to the museum.

Since then, BMA conservators have treated the work — it was in excellent condition and only needed a surface cleaning — to prepare it for its triumphant return. On March 30th, The Renoir Returns exhibition opened to the general public. Paysage Bords de Seine is on display with more than 20 other important pieces bequeathed to the museum by collector and benefactor Saidie Adler May. A dedicated collector of Impressionist and early 20th century art, Saidie Adler May left her entire collection to the Baltimore Museum of Art, but this is the first time, believe it or not, that the museum has dedicated an exhibition to Saidie May’s donations. Works from the May collection by Mondrian, Klee and Miró join the Renoir in the two-gallery show. May’s own artwork also gets display space next to the masterworks.

Earlier articles said that according the records of the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in Paris, the painting was purchased by Herbert L. May, Saidie’s estranged husband, in 1926. According to the BMA’s press release about the exhibition, however, Saidie and Herbert bought the painting together in November of 1925. Museum researchers discovered a diary in which she wrote about her acquisition of the Renoir. She bought it from Bernheim-Jeune along with an oil sketch by Georges Seurat, paying $2,000 for both. The diary entry and the original receipt of the purchase are part of the exhibition, as is the Seurat.

Researchers also found evidence supporting the linen napkin story.

New research conducted by the BMA’s conservation and textile departments confirms part of Saidie May’s story about Renoir painting the landscape on a linen napkin at a restaurant on the Seine for his mistress. Since Renoir was not married at the time, there is no conclusive information about the identity of his mistress, but the surface of the painting is in fact a linen damask with an elaborate geometric weave. It was unusual for painters to use this type of fabric as a background, but very common for table linens of that period. It turns out to have been a good choice, as linen increases in strength when wet and is smoother than wool and cotton.

As for what happened to the painting between 1951 and 2012, it doesn’t look like we’ll be getting answers any time soon. The FBI has closed its investigation because they don’t have enough evidence to arrest someone for the theft or even for knowingly possessing stolen goods. There are too many contradictory stories to pin anything on anyone.

One key witness, and possible suspect, was Martha Fuqua’s mother Marcia Fouquet. She was an art student in Baltimore in 1951 and had at least one friend who worked at the museum. Borders and family, including her son Matt, recall seeing the painting in her home in the 80s and 90s. The FBI did interview her before her death in September of 2013, but didn’t actually ask her if she was involved in the theft or even if she had the painting hanging in her home. Special agent in charge of the investigation Gregg Horner says: “I did not ask her about the Renoir. I did not feel that the timing was right. She’s a very interesting lady, very well-educated. We had a nice, pleasant conversation. I talked to her in general terms about her art.” He never followed up with her because of her precipitous decline in health (she was 85 years old and had cancer). “Given her illness,” Horner said, “I didn’t think it was appropriate.”

I am completely perplexed by this. It’s not idle curiosity, after all. He’s an agent investigating a crime. What is the point of interviewing a witness/suspect IF YOU DON’T ASK THEM ABOUT THE CRIME? I mean, a pleasant conversation about her art? Bizarre.

Anyway, there’s a silver lining to the theft, because now there’s this crazy adventure to add to the history of the painting and the museum is poised to take full advantage of the little landscape’s new notoriety (don’t forget to buy the magnet at the gift shop!). It’s also brought Saidie Adler May’s invaluable contributions some well-deserved and belated recognition. The Renoir Returns runs through July 20, 2014.

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Wadsworth Atheneum acquires Artemisia Gentileschi self-portrait

Sunday, March 30th, 2014

The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, the oldest public art museum in the United States, has acquired a rare self-portrait of Baroque master Artemisia Gentileschi. Self-Portrait as a Lute Player was the leading lot in Christie’s Old Master Paintings auction on January 29th. With a pre-sale estimate of $3-5 million, the painting failed to meet the reserve and did not sell at the auction. Christie’s then offered it to the Wadsworth Atheneum which last December received a $9.6 million donation from the Charles H. Schwartz Fund for European Art earmarked for the acquisition of pre-19th century art. The final price the museum paid has not been released, but curator Oliver Tostmann says it was significantly less than the low estimate of $3 million.

Self-Portrait as a Lute Player is the first work by Artemisia Gentileschi in a New England museum. It’s also the first painting in the museum’s Baroque Italian art collection that was done by a woman. It will join works by her father, Orazio Gentileschi, and by Caravaggio, the great innovator of the age who was a strong influence on Artemisia’s mature work. Orazio is represented by a painting of Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (1621-24), a subject that Artemisia returned to repeatedly in what may be her most famous and dramatic works. The Wadsworth Atheneum’s Caravaggio is Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy painted in 1594.

The Morgan Memorial Building, home of the Wadsworth’s European collection, is currently in the last two years of a five-year refurbishment project so Artemisia’s Lute Player won’t be on display right away. When the building reopens in Fall of 2015, she will be the centerpiece of the inaugural exhibition. The premier members of the museum’s Society of Daniel Wadsworth will be given a special preview of the work this spring (you can join, but it’ll cost ya $2,500.)

One of no more than three known self-portraits that are thought to have been painted by Artemisia Gentileschi (the others are Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting in the Royal Collection in London and the Allegory of Inclination, a fresco on the ceiling of the art gallery in Casa Buonarroti in Florence) is probably the most recognizable), Self-Portrait as a Lute Player was painted around 1616-1617 when Artemisia was 25 years old and had just been inducted into the prestigious Accademia del Disegno in Florence, the first woman ever to be accepted into that august assemblage of artists.

Her patrons included Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, a great-nephew of the great Michelangelo, and Cosimo II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. It’s likely that the latter commissioned Lute Player since it appears in the inventory of the Villa Medici at Artimino in 1638, only 20 or so years after it was painted. The inventory describes it as “A picture on canvas 1 1/2 braccia high and 1 1/4 braccia wide in a black frame bordered in gold, the portrait of Artemisia playing a lute painted by her own hand.” (A Florentine braccio is 58.4 centimeters, which would make the portrait 87.6 cm x 73 cm when in fact it’s 77.5 x 71.8 cm, but it was probably trimmed by idiots over the centuries. You can see the bottom edge crops the arm and lute awkwardly.)

Her success at the Florentine court was unprecedented for a woman and was all more astonishing considering the personal horror that brought her to the city. In 1611, when she was 17 years old, Artemisia Gentileschi was raped by Agostino Tassi, a colleague of her father’s and full-on psycho stalker who had already raped at least two women (his sister-in-law and one of his wives, the latter of whom disappeared and was probably murdered by bandits Tassi hired). The rape trial lasted seven months and all except a few final pages of the transcripts have survived. Artemisia, per standard legal practice in the Papal States at that time for all woman who accused someone of rape, was tortured with thumbscrews to prove she wasn’t lying. Tassi was convicted but only served eight months in prison after the judge pardoned him.

Even though Tassi’s testimony — denials coupled with completely fictitious claims about Artemisia’s purported promiscuity which fit handily into the blame-the-victim template that still haunts the halls of justice today — was blatantly false and widely seen as such, the scandal of the trial generated so much malicious gossip against her that a few months after Tassi’s conviction, she was hastily married to Pierantonio Stiattesi, a mediocre Florentine artist, and left Rome with him to start afresh in Florence where she supported them with her commissions. Her husband proved to be a deadbeat who ran up huge debts and forced her to leave Florence with creditors baying for blood. She dumped the bum and moved back to Rome in 1621 without him.

Her immense gifts have been recognized by art critics from the beginning, but for many centuries the rape trial overshadowed her talent. It was 20th century feminist analysis that brought Artemisia Gentileschi back into the spotlight to take her rightful place among the greatest artists of her era.

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Christian tattoo found on 8th c. Sudanese mummy

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

Researchers have discovered a unique Christian tattoo on the inner thigh of a mummy unearthed in a cemetery along the banks of the Nile in Sudan nine years ago. The woman, who was 5’2″ tall and between 20 and 35 years old at the time of her death, was wrapped in a linen and wool shroud and buried around 700 A.D. The arid heat of the desert naturally mummified her, preserving some soft tissues like skin and internal organs. The skin of her inner thigh is so well preserved that the ink is still visible to the naked eye, but it’s quite faint. It wasn’t until last year when the mummy was given a CT scan at a London hospital and photographed with infra-red reflectography that British Museum archaeologists were able to identify the tattoo as a monogram of the letters Μιχαήλ, meaning Michael.

This is an exceptionally rare find. It’s the first tattoo of any kind found from this period in the Nile Valley. Michael was the patron saint of Christian medieval Sudan, so his name is invoked frequently in inscriptions. The monogram, which stacks the letters of Michael’s name so it looks almost like an upside angel, has been found engraved on stele and in graffiti on churches from that time, but this is the first tattoo of the symbol ever discovered.

The purpose of the tattoo is, of course, unknown, since the only person who could tell us has been dead for 1,300 years. I imagine it had much the same purpose as religious iconography has in tattoos today: expressing reverence, faith, or asking for the intercession of the saint. It could also have been a protective invocation, in the same way that words from the Christian gospels were used to ward off evil in the 12th century Makurian crypt found at the archaeological site of Old Dongola, Sudan.

I wasn’t able to found out where precisely she was discovered — the Nile runs through all of modern Sudan and there are many archaeological sites along its banks — but my best guess is that it was one of the Merowe Dam Archaeological Salvage Project excavations which focused on several medieval Christian cemeteries threatened by the construction of a dam at the Fourth Cataract (the most impassable of the Nile’s rapids). The opening scene in the Telegraph’s video looks like the Fourth Cataract where the rapids have carved out several small islands, some of which have Christian cemeteries. If that is the location, it’s south of Old Dongola, but still in the Kingdom of Makuria.

It is not clear who did the tattoo in ancient Sudan, and whether it was visible to other natives.

High up on her inner thigh, it may or may not have been out of view. And for all its scientific expertise, the British Museum admits to being unclear as to what exactly was the fashionable length of skirt worn by an ordinary Nile dwelling female in AD 700.

I don’t see her inner thigh tattoo being designed for public display. It seems like a deliberately private location no matter how short skirts may have been in Sudan 1,300 years ago. It’s going to be on public display now, though. This mummy is the youngest of eight from various periods in the Nile Valley that will be features in the British Museum’s Ancient Lives: New Discoveries. The show runs from May 22nd through November 30th and will use interactive technology to tell the stories of these eight people’s lives and deaths.

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Anne of Brittany’s heart reliquary returns to Blois

Monday, March 24th, 2014

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Anne of Brittany, twice queen of France and the last ruler of an independent Brittany. Over the course of the year there will be a number of cultural events dedicated to the memory of this erudite and strong-willed duchess who fought her entire life for Breton independence with her body as the final battlefield.

That’s not entirely metaphoric either. Anne was her father Duke Francis II of Brittany’s only surviving heir. He tried desperately to marry her to someone anti-French to ensure the duchy would not end up annexed by France, but after he lost the Battle of Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier in 1488, he was forced to agree to a peace treaty that required the French king’s approval of Anne’s marriage. Francis died a month later, making Anne Duchess of Brittany at 11 years old.

Now obviously she had advisors — her father’s will left guardianship of her to John of Rieux, Marshal of Brittany, historian and diplomat Philippe, Count of Commines, and Anne’s governess Madame Laval — but even at so young an age she took the reins of power firmly in her own hands. When Anne of Beaujeau, regent for her brother King Charles VIII of France, took advantage of the child duchess’ perceived weakness and attacked Brittany, Anne reacted decisively. She appointed her most trusted councilors to government positions, convened the States General of Brittany, pawned her own jewelry to raise much-needed funds for the depleted treasury, minted viable coinage out of silver-tipped leather and called on the King of England, Henry VII, to help her fend off the French.

The English turned out to be slow in sending help, but Austria and Spain sent troops to her aid. Meanwhile, the question of who she would marry became ever more pressing. Like her father, Anne cared first and foremost about which suitor could guarantee Breton independence. She did have her limits, though, and refused to marry Alain I, Lord of Albret, who had fought for Francis II against the French, because she considered him a scary brute (which by all accounts he was). Albret went into a rage at her refusal and sent troops to claim her by force. Anne, still a pre-teen at this point, met Albret’s forces head-on, mounting a horse and leading her archers against them.

That wouldn’t be the last time she took to the saddle to confront a bully. When she decided to accept the suit of Maximilian I of Austria, future Holy Roman Emperor, the man her father had wanted her to marry who she considered to be the strongest ally against France, Albret occupied Nantes and handed the castle over to the French. She and a small cadre of loyal barons (John of Rieux and Phillipe de Commines had sided with Albret because they believed he was the only hope for an independent Brittany) and some Spanish and German mercenaries rode up to the walls of Nantes and demanded they allow her entry as their sovereign. After two weeks of negotiations went nowhere, Anne’s party left only to be followed by Rieux and his soldiers. She started him down too, turning around to face him and excoriate him for his disloyalty. Her bravery was so admired that Rieux let her go.

The marriage to Maximilian did not solve her problems. France considered it a violation of the treaty since it was done without the approval of the king. Charles VIII besieged the city of Rennes and took it. Austria was of no help because Maximilian was busy fighting in Hungary. With France occupying four of Brittany’s main cities, Brittany’s nobles divided into two factions and money tight, Anne agreed to marry Charles. Since her marriage to Maximilian had been done by proxy (Maximilian sent an envoy to act in his lieu and they did this weird ceremonial thing where he put one bare knee on the bed to symbolize a consummation that never actually happened), it was easily annulled.

Marriage to Anne was the means by which Charles planned to finally take Brittany for France, if not in his lifetime then shortly thereafter. He put a clause in the marriage contract ensuring that whichever spouse outlived the other would rule Brittany. Just to cover all his bases, another clause stipulated that if he pre-deceased Anne, she would marry the next king of France, thereby giving France a second bite at the Brittany apple.

Married at 14, Anne would bear Charles seven children, none of whom survived, before he himself died when she was 21. As per the contract, she was to marry his heir, Louis XII, but he was already married. She told him she’d go through with it if he managed to get his marriage annulled within a year, then returned to Brittany and set about the business of ruling, something Charles had not allowed her to do when they were married. Much to Anne’s chagrin, Louis XII was able to get that annulment from Pope Alexander VI (aka Rodrigo Borgia) in exchange for some French estates for his son Cesare. Thus the Dowager Queen of France became Queen of France for a second time, the only woman ever to bear that distinction.

Anne of Brittany’s courts were centers of learning and art. She sponsored poets and scholars who introduced Renaissance humanism to France. She commissioned the first Renaissance style sculpture in France: the exceptionally beautiful tomb of her father, Francis II, and mother, Margaret of Foix, now in the Nantes Cathedral. The four cardinal virtues grace each corner of the tomb and the figure of Prudence bears Anne’s face. Four books of hours commissioned by her have survived, all of them masterpieces of illumination done after print was already established in France. You can leaf through the Grandes Heures of Anne of Brittany on the Bibliothèque Nationale de France website, and it’s worth it for the incredibly accurate illuminations of 337 different plants in the page borders alone.

Anne died desperately young of kidney stones just a few weeks short of her 37th birthday. She had at least seven more children with Louis, although only four survived their births and only two of them, daughters Claude and Renée, survived their mother. To her last breath she struggled against the seismic forces driving Brittany into French hands. With none of their male children surviving, Louis had betrothed Claude, Anne’s eldest daughter and heir, to his cousin and the heir to the French throne Francis of Angoulême. Anne knew that Claude’s inheritance and marriage would sound the death knell of Breton independence, so she left the duchy to her younger daughter Renée in her will, but Louis just ignored it.

A few months after Anne’s death, Claude and Francis married and a few months after that Louis died. Francis I was crowned on what would have been Anne’s 38th birthday. He made his and Claude’s son heir to the Duchy of Brittany and from then on, it was a province of France.

After her death, Anne was buried in the Basilica of Saint Denis, as was traditional for French sovereigns, but she left instructions in her will that her heart be removed and sent to Brittany. A beautiful gold reliquary was made to hold her heart, inscribed in old French with the following dedication: “In this little vessel of fine gold, pure and clean, rests a heart greater than any lady in the world ever had. Anne was her name, twice queen in France, Duchess of the Bretons, royal and sovereign.” It was first placed in her father’s tomb as she had willed and later moved to Saint Pierre Cathedral in Nantes.

The reliquary had a close brush with oblivion during the Revolution as part of the orgy of anti-monarchical destruction. In 1792 Anne’s heart was thrown away like so much trash and the reliquary ordered to be melted down. Thankfully it never happened. The artifact was kept in the Bibliothèque Nationale until in 1819 it was returned to Nantes. Its permanent home has been the Dobrée Museum since the late 19th century.

Now the reliquary is ushering in Anne of Brittany season with an exhibition at the Royal Château of Blois where she died. The exhibition brings together the reliquary with contemporary descriptions and illuminations of her hugely elaborate 40-day funeral.

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Stolen Rembrandt found after 15 years

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

Rembrandt has the dubious distinction of being the most stolen old master, with 337 works of his listed on the Art Loss Register‘s database of stolen or lost art. One of those works, L’enfant à la Bulle de Savon (Child with a Soap Bubble), has been recovered after 15 years.

The painting was stolen from the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Draguignan, a town about 50 miles from Nice in France’s southeastern Provence region, on Bastille Day (July 14th) of 1999. Burglars broke in through the municipal library adjoining the museum while a military parade of tanks and armoured vehicles rumbled by. The alarm went off, but by the time the police arrived, the thieves and Child with a Soap Bubble were gone.

The date of the theft is almost poetic when you consider that the museum’s extensive collection of art and antiquities was seeded primarily by confiscations from aristocrats during the French Revolution. It’s a small town, but in 1790 Draguignan was made the prefecture (administrative capital) of the department of Var, so many of the goodies confiscated in the area were collected there, ultimately giving the modest town a very impressive museum. The Rembrandt painting was confiscated in 1794 from the Château de Valbelle, a medieval castle near the town of Tourves (40 miles west of Draguignan) that was used by the Revolutionary government as a hospital in 1792 and was sacked for its treasures a year later leaving it in ruins today.

After nearly 15 years with no leads, the Central Office for the Fight against Traffic in Cultural Goods (OCBC) in conjunction with the Nice police found the painting and made two arrests in just one day. On Monday, March 17th, they received a tip that a shady deal was scheduled to go down in a hotel the next day. On Tuesday, March 18th, they arrested two men, one in a building (presumably the hotel), the other in a car. One of them had the painting in his possession.

The men are 46 and 53 years old. One was formerly an insurance salesman and both of them were already known to the authorities as petty criminals. They have both reportedly confessed to their roles in the crime and have been charged with concealing a theft and conspiracy.

They weren’t charged with the theft itself, however. In a shocking turn of events, the actual thief has now stepped forward. Perhaps fearing that he was about to be snitched upon, the man turned himself into the police Wednesday on the advice of his attorney.

“He wants to draw a line under the matter. He is ready to take responsibility for his actions,” said his lawyer Franck Dupouy. “He now has a settled family life, he has children and a job, and therefore wishes to conclude this matter.”

The man kept the painting at his home up until 15 days ago, Dupouy said, and had “wrapped it with great care”.

His client “never earned a single centime” from the sale of the painting. “He was cheated,” he said, without explaining further.

Cheated by Fric and Frac there 15 days ago? Because they didn’t earn a single centime either since they were busted trying to make the sale. Anyway, whatever he’s babbling about, he did take reasonable good care of the painting. The museum’s current curator Jeanine Bussièresa and her predecessor Régis Fabre who was curator at the time of the theft examined the painting to confirm it was the one stolen and they found it in good condition. It’s missing its frame, but other than that, it hasn’t suffered from spending a decade and a half wrapped up in this guy’s house.

The museum is delighted to have one of its most important paintings back, although there are questions about its attribution to Rembrandt. Since the painting’s disappearance in 1999, new technologies have developed to authenticate works. Now that he’s home safe and sound, Child with a Soap Bubble will be analyzed for conservation and to determine whether it was painted by the Dutch master himself or one of his students.

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Turner’s burning Parliament is in fact burning Tower

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

A series of nine watercolors by Joseph Mallord William Turner in the Tate Gallery, long thought to be studies for two oil paintings called The Burning of the Houses of Parliament or The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, in fact depict a later fire at an entirely different landmark: the Tower of London. The original identification was made in 1909 by art historian and Turner biographer A.J. Finberg who helped catalogue some of the massive Turner Bequest. Not all experts were persuaded that Finberg’s identification was correct, but there didn’t seem to be a viable alternative hypothesis so the Parliament title stood.

The fire at the old Houses of Parliament took place on October 16th, 1834. Fire broke out just before 7:00 PM and quickly devoured the Houses of Lords, Commons and all the adjacent buildings. Tens of thousands assembled to watch the flames and Turner was among them with his sketchbook. Later that year or early in 1835, he completed two different versions of the subject based off the quick sketches he drew from the south bank of the Thames. Those oil paintings are now in the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The watercolors are painted in broad, nearly abstract strokes of color making the shape of the buildings hard to distinguish. It was Matthew Imms, Tuner Curator at the Tate working on a new comprehensive catalog of the Bequest, who researched new possible candidates for the conflagration. His starting point was the dating. That abstract style is indicative of Turner’s later work, so Imms dug through periodicals of the late 1830s and Turner’s papers looking for any other major city fire the artist may have witnessed. That’s when he came across prints and descriptions of the Tower of London fire of 1841 and found architectural features that matched certain elements of the watercolors.

“The building that burned was called The Grand Storehouse, in the late 17th-century English Baroque style—red brick with stone dressings—and it held the historic armoury collections of cannons, and all the guns and rifles and so on that had been used in previous campaigns. Whether there was anything flammable among those, I’m not sure,” Imms says, “but they kept tents in the roof, so that would be good kindling.”

“The cupola and long, tall windows of the ill-fated building are the dominant architectural details in the watercolours, but more familiar buildings also stand out. There’s a classical pediment in one of the watercolours, with what seems to be the White Tower in the background,” he says. “It’s one of the ones that people thought was Westminster Abbey, but the turrets are too small and far apart, so we think it’s the White Tower.”

Although no direct references to witnessing the fire have yet been found in his papers, there is correspondence that proves he asked for permission to visit the grounds right after the fire. On November 3rd, 1841, just four days after the fire broke out the night of October 30th, Turner received a letter from the Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, hero of Waterloo and commandant of the Tower, refusing him access. Nobody was to be admitted unless they had legitimate business there.

Some of the series of nine watercolors will go on display at the Tate starting on September 10th. They will be part of The EY Exhibition: Late Turner – Painting Set Free, a show dedicated to Turner’s glowing later works. They will be redated based on the new research. No word yet on whether they’ll be renamed.

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Auschwitz museum gets rare camp tattoo stamps

Monday, March 17th, 2014

An anonymous donor has given the Auschwitz Museum five stamps used to tattoo prisoners at the death camp. Each metal block is embedded with a group of small, sharp needles arranged in the shape of a number, in this case one zero, two threes and two that could be either sixes or nines depending on which end is up. Only one other Nazi tattooing tool is known to exist — it’s in the Military Medical Museum in Saint Petersburg — which makes these grim survivals as rare as they are compelling.

“It is one of the most important findings of the recent years. We couldn’t believe that original tools for tattooing prisoners could be discovered after such a long time,” emphasised Dr. Piotr M.A. Cywiński, Director of the Auschwitz Museum. “Even a tattooed number is rare to be seen now as the last prisoners pass away. Those stamps will greatly enrich the new main exhibition that is currently being prepared,” he added.

To preserve the anonymity of the donor, the museum has released limited information about the artifacts. All they’re saying right now is that the stamps were found on or near one of the evacuation routes the Nazis used to move prisoners west when the Soviets were baring down on them from the east in January of 1945. About 56,000 prisoners were marched out of Auschwitz in columns through Upper and Lower Silesia. Most met up with trains and were transported the rest of the way. The routes covered an area 30 to 35 miles north and south of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, and one march was 155 miles long; a lot of ground in which to find five small metal plates.

Tattooing of prisoners began at Auschwitz in 1941 with Soviet prisoners of war. Serial numbers were first patches sewn into uniforms or attached with badges or armbands, but as more prisoners arrived and more of them died, clothing-based identification was found wanting. If their uniforms were tattered or lost, then their serial numbers were gone too. Prisoners also sometimes traded their worn clothes for pieces in better condition that had belonged to deceased inmates. Tattoos were durable and could not be exchanged.

The first tattoos were applied using a metal stamp with interchangeable numbered plates. The needled stamps were punched against the prisoner’s skin and then ink rubbed into the wound. The early Soviet prisoners were tattooed on the chest. Later the location of the tattoo moved to the left upper forearm, first the outside and then the inside. The metal plate stamps were eventually replaced with fixed needles on a wooden shaft that were dipped in ink and then pushed into the skin.

The tattoo was applied to prisoners at registration when they were assigned their serial numbers. In spring of 1942, Auschwitz authorities expanded the pool of tattooed prisoners from Soviets to other prisoners (Jews, Roma, reeducation candidates, political prisoners), retroactively tattooing people who were already registered. Eventually everyone who survived the initial sorting process was tattooed. People who were sent directly to the gas chambers were not.

Although other camps appear to have used serial number tattoos at times, Auschwitz was the only camp to have systematically tattooed its prisoners. The recently unveiled stamps, therefore, are of great significance to the history of Auschwitz. Up until now, the museum has only had a replica of the Military Medical Museum’s tattooing device on display. The plates will be kept in the museum’s archives while the main exhibition area is revamped, after which they will go on display in the redesigned space.

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