Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Britain’s first Roman fleet diploma goes on display

Friday, July 21st, 2017

The first complete Roman fleet diploma ever found in Britain has gone on display at Durham University’s Museum of Archaeology. The inscribed copper alloy plaques record the rights granted an honorably discharged sailor after many years of loyal service. The recipient of the fleet diploma, one Tigernos, is Britain’s first named sailor.

Roman Military Diplomas were the physical proof of rights granted to non-citizen soldiers to mark their honourable discharge on retirement after 26 years of service. This diploma was issued by the emperor Antoninus Pius (AD 138-191) to Tigernos, a native of Lanchester, Co. Durham, in around AD 150. The diploma granted him and his descendants Roman citizenship and the legal right of marriage. To earn the diploma he had served in the Classis Germanica -the Roman fleet in Germany, most likely for 26 years, before being honourably discharged on his retirement.

It was discovered in February of last year by metal detectorist Mark Houston near Longovicium, the Roman fort in Lanchester, County Durham. Houston found the plates about eight inches below the surface in a spot where his detector had signalled loud and clear. He saw the tell-tale green of copper and cleaned around it, revealing a small stack of copper plates. He had no idea what it was at first, or even that it was ancient. He thought it might be the remains of a motorcycle battery or some other old piece of machinery.

So Houston dug them up, took them home and cleaned them. It was only when he put them on the window sill where the sunlight streamed over them that he saw there were letters engraved on the copper sheets. He took a closer look through a magnifying glass and realized it was Latin. Understanding that what he thought were old motorcycle parts could be ancient artifacts, Mark Houston contacted the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) and reported his discovery. PAS experts and Dr. Roger Tomlin from Oxford University have been studying and conserving it ever since.

The thin sheets of copper alloy were originally two rectangular plates stitched together by metal wires threaded through holes in the plates. Over time, the two rectangles corroded and broke into eight fragments, so some areas of the inscription are damaged, missing or illegible. Researchers are still working out as much of the inscription as they can, but what they’ve already been about to transcribe and translate paints a detailed picture, listing names of military cohorts, commanders, governors and consuls as well as the recipient and his father.

The Emperor Caesar Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius, son of the deified Hadrianus, grandson of the deified Trajanus conqueror of Parthia, great-grandson of the deified Nerva, pontifex maximus, in his 13th year of tribunician power [150 A.D.], twice acclaimed Imperator, four times consul, father of his country, has granted to the cavalrymen and infantrymen of the Germany Army Dutiful and Loyal (PF) who have served in the 4 alae and 14 cohorts which are called Noricorum, Sulpicia CR, Africorum Veterana, I Thracum, I Flavia Hispanorum, I Latobicorum et Varcianorum, I Pannoniorum et Dalmatarum, II Civium Romanorum (CR), I Raetorum, VI Brittonum PF, II Asturum PF, I Classica PF, III and VI Breucorum, I Lucensium PF, II Varcianorum, VI Raetorum, IV Thracum, and are in Lower Germany under Salvius Iulianus, who have served 25 years, likewise soldiers of the Fleet 26 years, and have been honourably discharged, whose names are written below, Roman citizenship to those who do not have it, and the right of legal marriage with the wives they had when citizenship was given to them, or with those they later marry, but only one each.

The 13th day before the Kalends of December [November 19] in the consulship of Gaius Curtius Justus and Gaius Julius Julianus.

To Velvotigernus son of Magiotigernus, a Briton, ex-private soldier of the German Fleet Dutiful and Loyal which Marcus Ulpius Ulpianus commands.

I love the “only one wife each” stipulation.

There are only 800 Roman fleet diplomas known to exist, and most of them are incomplete because the children of the recipient would break off pieces to use as proof of their citizenship. Because this is the only complete example found in Britain, it is of enormous archaeological and historical import. Even so, the plates fell through a loophole in the UK’s Treasure Act: the only complete Roman fleet diploma ever discovered in Britain is not made of precious metal, therefore it’s not official treasure and the finder can dispose of it as he wishes. This is the same loophole that allowed the spectacular Crosby-Garret helmet to be sold to the highest bidder at auction instead of in a museum. Thankfully in this case the finder agreed to sell the diploma plates to the Museum of Archaeology at Durham University and split the proceeds with the landowner.

As of July 20th, Velvotigernus’ fleet diploma is on permanent display the museum’s Palace Green Library.

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Michelangelo river god model restored

Saturday, July 15th, 2017

A rare and fragile model of a river god made by Michelangelo Buonarotti in around 1525 has been restored to its original condition and placed on public view after years in storage. Made out of wood, clay, sand, wool and oakum fibers on an iron wire framework, the model was an ephemeral work. These were not built to last; models were use objects meant to be discarded after the permanent marble sculptures were finished. In this case, Michelangelo never did get around to making the sculpture, so the model is all we have to show for it. It is one of very few life-sized models ever created by Michelangelo.

The statue in question was a river god or river allegory that was to recline on the right side at the foot of the tomb of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Lord of Florence, Duke of Urbino and the father of Catherine de’ Medici, Queen of France. Michelangelo’s client, Pope Clement VII, insisted that he create life-sized models for the tomb sculptures in the (vain) hope that it would speed up production by allowing the master to delegate some of the execution to secondary artists without loss of quality. Another three river gods were planned for the base of the tomb, but Michelangelo only completed this model and the one for its twin on the left side. None of the finished sculptures of the river gods were ever made.

After he left Florence for Rome in 1534, the two models stayed in the New Sacristy of the San Lorenzo basilica, the grand chapel designed and sculpted by Michelangelo to house the palatial new Medici dynasty tombs, along with all the completed statuary. They were still there two decades later, but by the end of the 16th century, the right model was in the private collection of Cosimo I de’ Medici. The left model was lost. The only known version of it extant today is Michelangelo’s very rough work sketch in the British Museum.

In 1583, the surviving model was donated to the Academy of Art and Design which is today the oldest fine arts academy in the world, founded by Cosimo I in 1563. At the time of the donation, less than 60 years after it was made, the model had condition problems. The first recorded restoration of the work took place in 1590.

Over the centuries, the river god fell down an art historical memory hole until it was rediscovered in 1906 by German sculptor and long-time resident of Florence Adolf von Hildebrand and German art historian Adolf Gottschewski. The new attention the model received spurred the Academy to move it to the Galleria dell’Accademia where it was displayed near the David and other sculptures Michelangelo carved in marble.

The model was on display there until 1965 when it was moved to the Casa Buonarroti museum for its own preservation and to add to the museum’s collection of Michelangelo models. The Academy still owns the piece, however, and three years ago they engaged the services of Florence’s top restoration masters at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure to stabilize the deteriorating model.They mended areas of the surface that had come apart and strengthened the structure to prepare it for future transport and exhibition. They also analyzed the dark paint that gave the work a bronzed effect and discovered it was a later alteration. Michelangelo’s original choice was the paint the model in lead white to make it look like the marble the finished product would be made out of and so that it would match the completed sculptures in the New Sacristy. Opificio conservators painstakingly removed the dark paint, revealing and restoring Michelangelo’s original white lead layer.

The restored model made its official debut at the Refectory of the Basilica of Santa Croce on July 11th. In September it will go on display at a major exhibition on the art of 16th century Florence at Palazzo Strozzi. After that, it will be on permanent view at the Academy of Art and Design.

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Pietà by pioneer Netherlandish painter loaned to Rijskmuseum

Thursday, July 13th, 2017

Johan Maelwael, also known by the French version of his name Jean Malouel, was born in Nijmegen in around 1365. Nijmegen was part of the Duchy of Guelders then (now the province of Gelderland in the Netherlands) and had just joined the Hanseatic League in 1364. The prosperity that came with the increase in trade and commerce engendered a flourishing of the arts. Johan came from an artistic family — his father and uncle were successful artists — and he trained in his father Willem’s workshop from an early age.

He started his professional career as a painter of heraldic imagery at the court of the Dukes of Guelders in his hometown of Nijmegen. That experience proved desirable and portable, and in 1396 he moved to Paris where he specialized in painting heraldic and armorial images for Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France. Isabeau was a great patron of the arts who during this period had built something of a shadow court thanks to her husband’s increasingly frequent bouts of mental illness. (Whenever the King succumbed to one of his spells, which lasted months at a time, he did not recognize Isabeau and demanded that strange woman be removed from his presence.)

Maelwael’s work for the Queen lasted no more than a year, and by the summer of 1397 Maelwael was in Dijon, capital of the Duchy of Burgundy, where he was appointed court painter to Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. The appointment came with the rank of valet de chambre and a hefty salary. Maelwael would keep the job even after Philip’s death in 1404, remaining court painter to his son and successor John the Fearless.

At the Burgundy court, Maelwael again painted heraldic images on banners, pennants, flags and armour, but he also went further afield. Among other works, the dukes commissioned large-scale murals, devotional panel paintings, elaborate altarpieces for the Carthusian monastery of Champmol where Philip’s tomb was located, and the painting and gilding of sculptures. He experimented with new approaches and pioneered what would become known as the International Gothic style.

The greatest surviving example of this is a tondo known as La Grande Pietà, a tempera on wood panel painting that many art historians consider to be the first proper tondo of the Renaissance. The iconography is not typical of later Renaissance pietas because in addition to the dead Christ held by his disconsolate mother Mary, God the Father is also in the picture, holding up the body of his sacrificed Son. Two angels help hold up the body, and a four more balance out the composition on the left side, adding splashes of color and a variety of anguished facial expressions. On the far right is a facepalming St. John.

On the back of the round is an example of the specialty that launched Maelwael’s illustrious career: the coat of arms of Philip the Bold of Burgundy. This suggests the painting was commissioned by Philip before his death, and the unusual combination of a pieta and the Holy Trinity suggests it may have been intended for the Burgundy tombs at Champmol since the monastery was dedicated to the Trinity and the ducal family also evinced a particular devotion to the Trinity.

Besides the imagery, Maelwael also included unusual features in the technical aspects of the painting. The frame of the tondo was carved out of the wood panel, something I don’t recall seeing in any other example of the form. His use of transparent glazes over the tempera was also ground-breaking. Early Netherlandish master Jan van Eyck, who a decade after Maelwael’s death followed in his footsteps as painter to the Duke of Burgundy (Philip the Bold, in his time), would take those transparent glazes and run with them.

One of the reasons the tondo is so special is that it is one of very few extant works that can be conclusively attributed to Johan Maelwael. Acquired by the Louvre in 1864, La Grande Pietà is one of the treasures of the museum’s early Flemish collection. It hasn’t left Paris since 1962, but come this fall, the greatest surviving masterpiece of the first painter of the Northern Renaissance will be heading to the Netherlands for the first time in its existence when it goes on display at the Rijksmuseum.

At the Burgundian court, Maelwael painted flags, banners and armour; he designed patterns for fabrics; he executed large religious paintings; he created refined miniatures in illuminated manuscripts; he decorated sculptures with gold-leaf and color and he painted small devotional pieces and portraits. Around 1400 Maelwael introduced his three talented nephews as miniature painters in France: the legendary Limbourg brothers Herman, Johan and Paul.

For the first time, Maelwael’s paintings will be exhibited alongside medieval art treasures, manuscripts, precious metalwork and sculpture – from among others, the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the MET in New York and the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. Maelwael’s paintings will be juxtaposed not only with the sculpture of his contemporaries Claus Sluter and Claes van Werve, but also with the richly decorated illuminated manuscripts of the Limbourg brothers.

The Johan Maelwael exhibition will run at the Rijksmuseum from October 6th, 2017, through January 7th, 2018.

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Oldest madeira collection found in New Jersey museum

Tuesday, July 11th, 2017

Workers renovating Liberty Hall Museum at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, discovered a rare collection of Madeira wines, some dating back to Colonial times. Museum staff knew the Kean family had wine storage shelves in the cellar, but they were obscured by a plaster and plywood wall built during Prohibition. When workers broke through the wall and the locked wooden cage behind it, they found a collection of 18th and 19th century wines far larger than they realized. There are three cases containing more than 50 bottles of Madeira, the oldest of which date to 1796. The attic held an unexpected wine cache as well, not in bottles but in 42 demijohns dating to the 1820s. It’s the oldest and largest known collection of Madeira in the United States.

The museum staffers cataloged the cases and jugs of Madeira as they were discovered. While some of the stock needed to be researched online, most of the wine was still labeled with handwritten tags, or could be looked up in the thousands of Liberty Hall documents dating more than 200 years.

“We have the receipts from the liquor store, or the liquor distributor in New York, in Elizabeth or wherever,” [Liberty Hall director of operations Bill] Schroh said. “We can also trace the purchaser, when it was purchased and who it was purchased from.”

Part of the research showed some of the Madeira was imported by Robert Lenox, a millionaire merchant from New York who owned land in the heart of Harlem, which is where the borough’s main avenue gets its name.

Liberty Hall was the country home of William Livingston, scion of a prominent New York family and a successful lawyer. When he bought the land in Elizabethtown (now Elizabeth), New Jersey, he planned to retire to the estate. He was intimately involved in the design of the 14-room Georgian home and of the landscaping and orchards on the 120-acre property. He and his wife settled in to their happy retirement home in 1773, but Livingston’s retirement wouldn’t even last a full year. Revolution pulled him back into political and military action. He was a delegate to both Continental Congresses, was a general in the New Jersey militia and was New Jersey’s first elected governor in 1776.

Livingston was only able to return to Liberty Hall in 1783 and the estate had been rudely treated by the British who trashed the place on the regular searching for him when he was a wanted man. American soldiers also looted the home. Livingston lovingly repaired the home and gardens, even as he continued to serve as governor until his death in 1790.

The hall was purchased by Peter Kean, the son of Livingston’s niece Susan, in 1811. Peter and his mother maintained the estate for the next 22 years. In 1833, Susan’s grandson Colonel John Kean inherited it and over the course of six decades, transformed the Georgian home into a 50-room Victorian mansion. It has remained in the Kean family who have worked to preserve it and open it to the public as a museum displaying original artifacts from the Livingston and Kean families in rooms dedicated to different time periods.

It seems the wines were collected by both the Livingstons and the Keans.

Some of the original Madeira stock was shipped to the second generation who lived at Liberty Hall, in anticipation of John Adams’ presidency. Although Liberty Hall President John Kean was well aware of the wine collection, he couldn’t have imagined its historical significance.

“We knew there was a lot of liquor down here, but we had no idea as to the age of it,” said Kean, first cousin to New Jersey’s former governor. “I think the most exciting part of it was to find liquor, or Madeira in this case, that goes back so far. And then trying to trace why it was here and who owned it.”

Madeira was a popular tipple for the early American upper crust, because unlike most wines at that time, it can take a lot of jostling of the kind sure to be experienced on a trans-Atlantic ocean voyage. The fortified dessert wine also lasts far longer than other wines without spoiling or turning to vinegar. In the 18th century, the 13 colonies bought 95% of the Madeira produced on the Portuguese archipelago and gentlemen of wealth and good taste would have a selection of Madeiras in their cellars (or attics). The Liberty Hall collection has six different kinds of Madeira.

The newly liberated cellar space with its original wooden shelves, now restored and structurally reinforced, is open to the public, along with some of the bottles and demijohns. John Kean had the opportunity to taste a sample from one of the Madeiras and he said it tasted fine, like a sweet sherry. The bottles from 1796 have not been sampled. They might be whipped out for an appropriate special occasion in the future: a visit from the President of Portugal.

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Wedgwood First Day’s Vase saved

Thursday, July 6th, 2017

One of four vases made by Josiah Wedgwood on the opening day of his new Etruria Works at Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, has been acquired by the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery after coming within a razor’s width of being exported out of the UK by an overseas buyer. The vase was bought at a Christie’s auction on July 7th, 2016 for £482,500 ($625,759). In December, Culture Minister Matt Hancock placed a temporary export bar on the vase as an object of its rarity and national significance to British art, industrial and ceramic history. It would have been the only one of the four First Day’s Vases to leave the UK. Two are in the Victoria and Albert Museum; the other is still owned by the Wedgwood family.

After a fundraising campaign that saw donations from hundreds of members of the public, private businesses and institutions like the Art Fund and National Heritage Memorial Fund, Stoke-on-Trent City Council and the Friends of the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery were able to raise the £482,500 purchase price to keep the vase in the UK. They have negotiated with the auction buyer and have worked out the exchange. The vase will now go back to the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery where it was on display, loaned by the owner, the granddaughter of Cecil Wedgwood, from 1981 until it was withdrawn in 2016 to be sold to the highest bidder.

Made of Black Basalt and decorated with a painting technique Wedgwood termed “encaustic” (hand-painted with enamel pigments and a clay slip then fired), six First Day’s Vases, each slightly different, were thrown by Josiah Wedgwood himself on June 13th, 1769, the opening day of his new Etruria factory. His partner Thomas Bentley turned the wheel. Four of the six vases survived the firing process. Wedgwood, who had a real understanding from the very beginning of the importance of preserving his company’s history, specifically noted in a letter to Bentley’s workshop that the vases “sho’d be finish’d as high as you please but not sold, they being the first fruits of Etruria.”

The figures are copied from a 5th century B.C. Attic red-figure vase in the collection of antiquarian Sir William Hamilton (whose wife, Emma Hamilton, was very notoriously and very scandalously the lover of Admiral Horatio Nelson for seven years before his death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805). The vase was published in the illustrated catalogue of Hamilton’s vase collection in 1766 and Josiah Wedgwood got a preview copy of the book because of his connection to Sir William. Hamilton was a generous patron to Wedgwood, giving him access to his collection of vases so he could study and often times duplicate their forms and decoration.

The piece that inspired Josiah Wedgwood’s First Vase is an elaborately painted water jar that features dense and complex groupings of figures from Greek mythology — the kidnapping of the Leukippides, Heracles in the garden of the Hesperides — and was considered by art historians of the 18th and 19th centuries as one of the greatest extant examples of Greek design. Today it is known as the Meidias Hydria now that its artist has been identified as the Meidias Painter. It was acquired by the British Museum in 1772 when Hamilton sold his entire vase collection to the institution.

Wedgwood getting access to Hamilton’s collection and an early view of the high quality plates in the catalogue before any other artist gave him a great advantage in the market. Neo-classical decorative arts were all the rage, and Josiah Wedgwood was ideally positioned to fulfill the public’s craving. Modelled in both shape and decoration directly from the original ancient vessels, the First Day’s Vases tapped into this market with a verisimilitude that none of Wedgwood competitors could boast of, and the influence of Hamilton’s antiquities was felt throughout the Wedgwood line, in vases, tableware, reliefs and patterns.

At the foot of all four of the First Day’s Vases is the inscription “Artes Etrurae Renascuntur,” meaning the Arts of Etruria are Reborn. Josiah Wedgwood played a large role in popularizing neo-classicism, and these vases, the name of his factory, the duplication of elements of ancient vases but on an industrial scale, underscore how central the inspiration of antiquity was to Wedgwood. It was the foundational idea behind the Etruria Works.

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Miniature apothecary’s shop in cabinet form

Saturday, July 1st, 2017

If the shamelessly indulgent excess of Baroque pietre dure cabinets are too ostentatious for your tastes, the Rijksmuseum has an alternative for you: an 18th century collector’s cabinet that opens into a miniature apothecary shop complete with every Barbie Dream Apothecary Shop accessory you could possibly conceive of in your nerdiest of fantasies.

It doesn’t have the glorious riot of colors and patterns you see in the hard stone inlay, but by no means was this a modest piece. About eight feet high and three feet wide and deep, the cabinet is made of oak and pine wood with veneers of walnut and olive wood, plus shell and ivory inlays and gold-plated copper accents. When its doors and drawers are closed, the cabinet looks like a handsome piece expertly built out of fine woods. The way the veneers are cut and installed to create Rorschach-like complex symmetrical patterns attest to the craftsman’s skill before you even get a glimpse at the spectacular interior.

It’s divided into the three horizontal sections. On the bottom is a wide, deep two-door closet in which important books and larger items in the collection were kept. The middle section consists of three drawers, two small ones above one large one the full width of the cabinet. The top is another two-door closet, smaller than the bottom level and unlike the veneered ones below, these doors are mirrored.

It’s the mirrored doors that open to reveal the plethora of cubbies, drawers, shelves, bottles and more than 300 Delftware jars that are so instantly recognizable as an apothecary’s shop. The scale is so accurate that when you look at the open cabinet without seeing the rest of the cabinet, it looks like you could walk right in and buy all the basil, dried scorpion, mummy flesh and Mithdridatum you need. (All of those materials are listed on the labels of the Delft pots, btw.) There’s even a faux tiled floor made with inlaid wood veneers that looks totally real.

Painted panels on both sides of the central wall represent the medical motif. The top left painting depicts Apollo, Greek god of healing, standing on a pedestal inscribed “Ars longa” (art is long). His counterpoint on the right side is the grim skeletonized figure of death holding his scythe, standing on a pedestal inscribed “Vita brevis” (life is short). Life and death are the stocks in trade of the medical professional, then as now, and the phrase “Ars longa, vita brevis” is a Latinized version of an aphorism written by the Greek physician Hippocrates, the Father of Modern Medicine. The most prominent painted panel is the one on the center bottom in which a doctor examines a urine flask (which is a large part of what doctors did back then, other than read ancient sources). The painting to the right of this is a pharmacology student cooking something up in the lab; to one to the left is a room filled with books. They’re depictions of the practical, hands-on work, the book learning and the staring at pee that symbolize the broader medical profession, including pharmacology.

A pair of gilded putti hover at the top of the central wall. Above their heads they hold up a crown made of medicinal plants and in their other hands, a draped banner which bears the motto “Pietas, scientia, temperantia, vigilantia, et studium assiduum ornant pharmacopceum” (piety, knowledge, temperance, vigilance and assiduous study are ornaments to the pharmacist). The left, central and right walls of the miniature shop are covered head to toe with pharmacological specimens, each to its own, often labeled, jar or drawer. The Delft jars, some with spouts, others smooth-lipped, are all custom-made to fit the shop. There are dozens of them, each painted with their own label.

But no self-respecting cabinet would lay it all out there. Hidden compartments are a must, and this cabinet is no exception. The back “wall” of the shop conceals 56 more drawers, each divided into multiple compartments. Only five of them are empty. The rest still contain specimens of almost 2,000 plants, seeds, animal body parts, minerals, rocks and fossils, all deemed to have medicinal use back then. The whole back wall slides up to reveal its secret cache of drawers.

The maker of this masterpiece is unknown. Researchers have discovered that the cabinet was made around 1730 in Amsterdam, and the combination of quality materials, intensive attention to detail and the specificity of the pharmacological motif indicates this was a very expensive custom-made piece of furniture commissioned by a wealthy doctor or pharmacist. In the 18th century, the Dutch bourgeoisie, flush with profits from flourishing trade and business, enjoyed the conspicuous consumption the aristocracy had always indulged in, but put their own stamp on it. Instead of making collector’s cabinets that looked like church facades inlaid with a multitude of the hardest, most prized semi-precious stones, the kind of thing popes and princes were into it, the businessmen sought to create luxury versions of their own environments. What better way for a medical man to show off his collection of animal, vegetable and mineral specimens than in a cabinet that looks like a dollhouse version of his flawlessly appointed shop?

The Rijksmuseum acquired the cabinet in 1956, but it has very seldom been on display. It needed a great deal of study and conservation before it could be stabilized for its own safety and those of visitors. More than 50 experts were involved in this research project, and good thing too, because they found samples of uraninite and two other uranium-heavy minerals that had to be locked up in lead boxes and put into storage in accordance with the regulatory provisions of the Dutch Nuclear Energy Act.

The cabinet has now been conserved and has gone on display in the Rijksmuseum’s 18th century gallery. It is the only known 18th century miniature apothecary’s shop in the Netherlands, and will be displayed fully open so visitors can enjoy the cabinet in all its detail. The results of the research project has been published in a large-format book — so large the photographs capture the miniatures almost in real size — which can be preordered on Amazon (cost: $60) or purchased directly from the Rijksmuseum’s online store (cost: €40) starting July 3rd.

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Touch a 1,000-year-old Viking palisade

Tuesday, June 27th, 2017

The town of Jelling in Jutland, Denmark, was the seat of the earliest kings of Denmark in the 10th century. Today the Jelling complex consists of two large burial mounds, two monumental runestones and a small church built on the site of three earlier wooden churches going back 1,000 years. The combination of tumuli, runestones and church capture the transition from the traditional Norse religion to Christianity. King Gorm the Old, the first king of Denmark, dedicated the smaller and older of the runestones. The inscription translates to: “King Gormr made this monument in memory of Thyrvé, his wife, Denmark’s adornment.” His son Harald Bluetooth had the second, much larger stone raised and its runic inscription reads: “King Harald bade this monument be made in memory of Gorm his father and Thyra his mother, that Harald who won for himself all Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christians.”

Within the perimeter of Jelling, the massive cultural shift from the reign of Gorm (936- ca. 958) to that of Harald (958– ca. 986) is documented in language, funerary and religious architecture. That’s why the Jelling mounds, runestones and church are on the UNESCO World Heritage List and why the site is one of the most important in Danish history.

In 2006, archaeologists were able to explore a previously inaccessible area: the bed of a pond across from Gorm’s Mound. Before a planned renovation, the pond was pumped dry giving archaeologists the opportunity to excavate the mucky bottom looking for remains of the large wooden stockade that once encircled the royal estate at Jelling. Postholes from the stockade had been found before, but no physical remains. The stockade was known to have intersected part of what is now the pond, and therefore there was a chance the thick clay and mud on the bottom of the pond had preserved the organic remains of the stockade’s timbers. Viking-era reports suggested there had been a body of water in the area when the stockade was built, so conditions for preservation of wood may have existed on site since the 10th century.

Excavation along what was believed to be the stockade line hit the jackpot almost immediately. Just over two feet under the pond bed surface, archaeologists unearthed four large oak posts. Radiocarbon dating of samples taken from three of posts found that all samples were approximately 1,000 years old. In later excavations (2012-3), archaeologists found vertical stakes also made of oak. They are 4-5 inches thick and were driven directly into the clay of the pond bed two-by-two. There was no ditch dug into the soil first as in evidence elsewhere along the palisade line. This could only have been accomplished if the site was already watery when the stockade was built in the 10th century by Harald Bluetooth who greatly enhanced the Jelling defenses.

King Harald’s stockade was a huge, kite-shaped fence measuring around 1180 x 1180 feet, totaling just under a mile of wooden palisades at least 10 feet high. There’s evidence of some sort of superstructure at the top of the fence, perhaps a parapet for defenders to patrol. It is by far the largest Viking fenced-in space ever discovered in Denmark or Scandinavia. It’s also the only kite-shaped palisade known. The discovery of the timbers has been a boon to research on the architecture and layout of Jelling. Excavations also unearthed evidence of three different longhouses and a boat burial, although no boat remains have survived.

So far, the oak posts and vertical stakes are all of the physical remains archaeologists have found of the stockade. One of their dearest wishes came true when they found a timber large enough among the thick, square planks to be dated with dendrochronological examination (i.e., tree ring counting). The wood posts and stakes were recovered from the pond site and transported to the National Museum’s Conservation Department in Brede. They were dendrochronologically dated to between 958 and 985 A.D., with 968 A.D. the likeliest year for the felling of the oak tree.

Vertical oak planks from the defensive stockade at Jelling, 10th century. Photo courtesy the National Museum of Denmark.Even if the widest dates prove accurate, these years fall squarely into the reign of Harald Bluetooth, confirming the timbers found were part of Harald’s defensive expansion. After four years, the timbers have been stabilized and will go on display starting June 29th at the National Museum’s Jelling branch. The exhibition will explain to visitors the challenges in building such a huge structure in Jelling a thousand years ago. Just securing enough large oak trees for a palisade a mile long would have been enormously difficult; cutting them down, processing them and carrying them to Jelling added exponentially to the level of difficulty.

The surviving wood planks and posts will be displayed in custom cases, protected from light, heat, fluctuating moisture levels, humans and the wide variety of damaging microorganisms we take with us wherever we go. All except for one small fragment from the palisade that would have disappeared compared to the larger pieces behind the glass. Curators therefore decided to allow guests to touch a piece of a 10th century Viking stockade that once enclosed the royal compound of kings Gorm and Harald. Since it was Harald Bluetooth who ordered this stockade built, it’s eminently possibly that he even touched that same sliver of wood that Jelling visitors will now get to touch.

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Previously unknown daguerreotype of Sophia Thoreau gifted to museum

Thursday, June 22nd, 2017

The Concord Museum in Concord, Massachusetts, has an extensive collection of artifacts from Concord’s Native American, Colonial, Revolutionary and 19th century history. The town’s pivotal role in the opening salvos of the War of Independence, the Battles of Lexington and Concord, is represented by, among other treasures, the lantern Paul Revere had hung in the steeple of Boston’s Old North Church to warn the colonial militia that the British regulars were coming by land, and the Amos Barrett powder horn which was used at the Battle of Concord on April 19th, 1775.

Concord is just as prominent in 19th century literary history. Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose father was raised in Concord, moved there in 1835 and his circle of Transcendentalist writers and thinkers grew around him. The likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott wrote seminal works as part of Emerson’s Concord crew.

It’s Henry David Thoreau, however, who left his greatest mark on Concord and its museum. He was one of Emerson’s circle, but he didn’t follow him to Concord; Thoreau was a native Concordian, the son of a local pencil maker father and committed abolitionist mother. Their family home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Walden Pond, where he lived in a little cottage for two years and wrote his seminal work Walden is in Concord. He wrote Civil Disobedience after spending a night in Concord jail for refusing to pay taxes in protest of slavery.

Unlike Emerson’s, Thoreau’s writings were largely dismissed during his lifetime, especially his political essays which would have such a profound influence on world-changing figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. His writings on natural history, primarily Walden, got more attention, but they received mixed reviews at best. Even though his friend and literary luminary Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered the eulogy at his funeral after he died of tuberculosis in 1862, Thoreau didn’t even get his own individual obituary. It was lumped in with a group of other people who had recently died.

His younger sister Sophia, an accomplished botanist whose precision and artistry in mounting specimens was and is staggering, took on the responsibility of maintaining her brother’s legacy. They had been very close — Thoreau was no social butterfly and could be a cantankerous cuss even with his close friends, but he was a loving and warm sibling — and enjoyed their shared interest in naturalism. He recorded several times in his journals that she had discovered botanical specimens he’d never seen before. Her particular skill was in pressing and attaching plants to a backing sheet with strips of paper that were entirely invisible once she was done. They were so good that a professional like Louis Agassiz, Harvard’s first professor of botany, acquired some of Sophia’s specimens. Several of her specimens now in the Concord Museum include tributes to great authors including Emerson, Shakespeare, and of course her beloved brother. She wrote verses from their poetry in ink on pressed leaves.

Their bond and love of nature is sweetly illustrated in this passage from Thoreau’s journal dated May 22, 1853.

When yesterday Sophia and I were rowing past Mr. Prichard’s land, where the river is bordered by a row of elms and low willows, at 6 P.M., we heard a singular note of distress as if it were from a catbird — a loud, vibrating, catbird sort of note, as if the catbird’s mew were imitated by a smart vibrating spring. Blackbirds and others were flitting about, apparently attracted by it. At first, thinking it was merely some peevish catbird or red-wing, I was disregarding it, but on second thought turned the bows to the shore, looking into the trees as well as over the shore, thinking some bird might be in distress, caught by a snake or in a forked twig. The hovering birds dispersed at my approach; the note of distress sounded louder and nearer as I approached the shore covered with low osiers. The sound came from the ground, not from the trees. I saw a little black animal making haste to meet the boat under the osiers. A young muskrat? a mink? No, it was a little dot of a kitten. It was scarcely six inches long from the face to the base — or I might as well say the tip — of the tail, for the latter was a short, sharp pyramid, perfectly perpendicular but not swelled in the least. It was a very handsome and precocious kitten, in perfectly good condition, its breadth being considerably more than one third of its length. Leaving its mewing, it came scrambling over the stones as fast as its weak legs would permit straight to me. I took it up and dropped it into the boat, but while I was pushing off it ran to Sophia, who held it while we rowed homeward. Evidently it had not been weaned — was smaller than we remembered that kittens ever were — almost infinitely small; yet it had hailed a boat, its life being in danger, and saved itself. Its performance, considering its age and amount of experience, was more wonderful than that of any young mathematician or musician that I have read of.

Page from Thoreau's journal. Photo courtesy the Morgan Library & Museum.Sophia edited The Maine Woods, a collection of articles he’d written about his travels in what was then an unspoiled wilderness, and Cape Cod and saw them through publication. She also preserved Thoreau’s belongings, manuscripts and journals. Practically everything of Thoreau’s in museums and collections today is a result of Sophia’s commitment to her keeping her brother’s memory and literary legacy alive.

Today the Concord Museum has the largest collection of Thoreau-related objects in the world. More than 250 pieces of his furniture, glassware, books, pictures, manuscripts, pottery and textiles are in the Concord Museum, including the green pine desk on which he wrote Walden and Civil Disobedience. Fully half of the objects in the Concord Museum’s Thoreau collection came directly or indirectly from Sophia. The rest came from donations and purchases over the past 50 years.

July 12th is the bicentennial of the birth of Henry David Thoreau. The Concord Museum has even more cause to celebrate because a previously unknown daguerreotype of Sophia Thoreau has come to light and has been donated to the museum. It was bequeathed to the Concord Museum by the Geneva Frost Estate in Maine. Curator David Wood and collection’s manager Tricia Gilrein went to Maine and retrieve the rare image.

The daguerreotype of Sophia will go on display at the Concord Museum in This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal, the first major exhibition dedicated to Henry David Thoreau, which opens in Concord on September 29th, 2017. The exhibition is currently at the Morgan Library & Museum, collaborators with the Concord Museum on this very special show. Thoreau journaled his entire adult life, recording his thoughts, observations of his surroundings, books he’d read, and botanical data from Walden that scientists are still studying today. When the exhibition opens in Concord, the new image of Sophia will be displayed next to her brother’s quill pen, one of the many artifacts that she preserved for posterity. It still bears a tag with labelled in Sophia’s own hand: “The pen that brother Henry last wrote with.”

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Late medieval longsword found in Polish peat bog

Tuesday, June 20th, 2017

Museum director Bartłomiej Bartecki holding the 14th century sword found in Mircze. Photo by Wojciech Pacewicz/PAP.An intact late medieval longsword has been found in a peat bog in Poland. It was discovered in late May by excavator operator Wojciech Kot during drainage operations at the bog in the municipality of Mircze, 12 miles south of the town of Hrubieszów in southeastern Poland. The next day, Kot contacted the Fr. Stanisław Staszic Museum in Hrubieszów and the day after that he brought the sword to the museum in person. Then he took the museum experts to the peat bog where he showed them the exact find spot which is not being revealed to keep treasure hunters from despoiling it.

Detail of the handle missing its hilt. Photo by Wojciech Pacewicz/PAP.The cruciform-handled sword is corroded from centuries spent in a wetland and is missing the original hilt which would have been made out of wood, bone or antler, but it is otherwise intact from pommel to tip. Its original weight is estimated to have been just 1.5 kilos (3.3 lbs) which is light as a feather for a weapon that today is 120 centimeters (four feet) long. The elongated grip was intended for two-handed use which coupled with its long reach and light weight made the sword an agile weapon for armoured knights in battle. This design is typical of the 14th century.

On the back of sword is a symbol, an isosceles cross inside an heraldic shield, that Bartecki thinks is a maker’s mark engraved by the blacksmith. This was a very fine piece of craftsmanship. It is still well-balanced, in excellent condition and does not show any signs of having been deliberately discarded due to damage.

“The place where the discovery was made is a wetland and a peat bog. It is possible that an unlucky knight was pulled into the marsh, or simply lost his sword” – told PAP Bartłomiej Bartecki, director of Fr. Stanisław Staszic Museum in Hrubieszów. […]

The area is first appears on the historical record in the 13th century where it’s mentioned as the site of a few hunting lodges surrounded by forest. The region was part of Ruthenia (aka the Kievan Rus) then and was absorbed by the Kingdom of Poland in 1366 century after the disintegration of the Rus. The Polish governor built a castle in Hrubieszów in the late 14th century. So at least the second half of the century offered good employment opportunity for knights. Or he could have just been riding through and made a wrong turn into the bog.

Archaeologists plan to return to the find site to do a limited excavation. They’re hoping to find additional artifacts or information related to the sword, perhaps even other pieces of the knight’s equipment.

Top of the sword with engraved characters on the blade below the handle. Photo by Wojciech Pacewicz/PAP.The sword is now in Warsaw where it will be stabilized and conserved. Experts will analyze it for any marks that might help identify the owner. Engraved characters on the top of the blade beneath the handle, for example, may be associated with a particular knight or family. After conservation and study, the sword will return to Hrubieszów where it will go on display at the museum. They expect it to be back around November.

“This is a unique find in the region. It is worth pointing out that while there are similar artefacts in museum collections, their places of discovery is often unknown, and that is very important information for historians and archaeologists” – [Bartecki] noted.

Information nobody would have if it weren’t for the quick thinking and responsible actions of Wojciech Kot. Because the finder was so diligent in giving the sword to the museum and noting the find spot, museum staff will apply to the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage to grant him a reward or at least official thanks and recognition of his “exemplary attitude.”

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Record-breaking 17th c. cabinet goes on display

Monday, June 19th, 2017

An ornate 17th century cabinet with the most aristocratic of lineages inlaid with pietre dure (hard stones) and festooned with gilded figurines has gone on display at the The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The Getty bought the cabinet at a Sotheby’s auction in Paris last fall for €2.5 million ($2,790,000), a record price for a piece of Roman furniture, and they had no qualms about spending it given its exceptional quality and previous owners.

The cabinet was produced around 1620 by an unknown maker in Rome. Made of ebony, fir, chestnut, rosewood and walnut wood, the display cabinet is around six feet tall and was designed to look like a three-tiered Baroque church facade, only in a riot of vibrant colors from finely carved inlaid hard stones, including lapis lazuli, jasper, agate, carnelian and amethyst. Only the hardest, most expensive, most difficult to work stones were used in this piece, an unmistakable message to those in the know that this was a unique, top-of-the-line luxury object that only the greatest of the great could afford.

The first level of the facade is decorated with four pairs of Corinthian columns and a set of three on either side of a nice made to look like a doorway. It’s topped with a semi-circular pediment containing the gilded coat of arms of Pope Paul V, born Camillo Borghese. More Corinthian columns, slightly smaller in scale, adorn the second level which has a triangular pediment in the middle. Two gilded female allegories flank the level. The third level is a balustrade with allegories on each end and six caryatids holding up a semi-circular pediment. Silver gilt allegories recline atop the pediment while a Roman emperor stands at the apex of the roof.

Paul V commissioned this masterpiece as an elaborate display cabinet meant to hold the family’s treasures squirreled away in its many drawers and hidden compartments. Inlaid pietre dure cabinets were de rigeur in the palaces of the crowned heads of Europe in the 17th century, fitting settings for collections of even more precious objects, jewels and heirlooms.

It remained in the Borghese family until the early 1820s when it was bought from Prince Camillo Borghese by an English art dealer, possibly W. Kent. The Neoclassical veneered ebony stand was already attached to the cabinet by that time because an 1821 Christie’s catalogue entry mentions it. It was made by French cabinet maker Alexandre Louis Bellangé who mirrored the shape and columns of the cabinet and added gilt bronze capitals and scrollwork to match its gilded elements.

The cabinet didn’t sell at that 1821 auction. The next known owner is London art dealer Edward Holmes Baldock who acquired it around 1827 and flipped it right quick. That same year, he sold it to King George IV whereupon the Borghese Cabinet entered the Royal Collection. Three labels on the back indicate the cabinet’s new home was Buckingham Palace, at one point the Green Drawing Room. The royal cypher of King George V is on one of the labels.

The British royal family kept the cabinet until 1959 when it was sold by order of Queen Elizabeth II in an auction of objects from the Royal Collection. The buyer was Aladar de Zellinger Balkany, a businessman of Hungarian extraction. He left it to his son Robert de Balkany, a real estate developer who was even more an avid collector of objets d’art than his father. It decorated his palace, the Hôtel Feuquières, on the rue de Varenne in Paris until his death in 2015. The cabinet was auctioned off in 2016 in Sotheby’s Paris’ sale of the Robert de Balkany collection.

“The Borghese-Windsor cabinet is one of the finest examples of Italian pietre dure cabinets known. Works of this quality, craftsmanship, and historical significance are almost all in museums and princely private collections, so the opportunity to acquire one of the most renowned examples for the Getty is too good to pass up,” said Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “The Getty Museum’s strong collection of Roman Baroque paintings and sculpture is now greatly enhanced by the addition of a major piece of furniture from the period. This unique and imposing piece will stand out even among our renowned collection of French furniture.”

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