Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

V&A acquires watercolor of Henry VIII’s lost Nonsuch Palace

Saturday, December 10th, 2016


The Victoria and Albert museum has acquired a unique watercolor of Nonsuch Palace painted from life by Flemish artist Joris Hoefnagel. He signed and dated it 1568, which makes it the earliest surviving depiction of the grand palace and one of the earliest surviving English landscape watercolors. Only six contemporary depictions of Nonsuch are known, and this one is the most detailed and accurate. They are all the more precious because the palace was destroyed 150 years after it was built. The watercolor was sold at auction to a foreign buyer, but a temporary export ban gave British institutions the change to keep this rare glimpse into a lost Renaissance architectural masterpiece. The price tag was a steep £1 million ($1,257,450). The V&A was able to raise the money with help from grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) and the Art Fund.

Construction on the palace began in April of 1538, six months after the birth of Henry VIII’s obsessively desired son and heir, Edward. Unlike his other 13 palaces around London, this one was built from scratch, not an addition to a previous structure. Henry picked the location near Ewell in Surrey because it was next to his favorite hunting grounds. The fact that a village and church stood there was no deterrent. He paid compensation and demolished the structures to make room for a great Franco-Italianate palace whose splendour would outdo any other monarch’s (especially Henry’s archrival Francis I of France) grandest residence.

Covered in hundreds of elaborate stucco high reliefs bordered with carved and gilded slate, the palace was dubbed Nonsuch because it was sui generis, one of a kind. There was no other such palace in Europe. The reliefs in the inner courtyard depicted figures from Classical mythology and history. They were organized in three levels. On the top were Roman emperors, in the middle gods and goddesses, and on the bottom the Labours of Hercules on the west side of the courtyard and the Liberal Arts and Virtues on the east. On the south side was a relief of Henry VIII with his son Edward, a celebration of the Tudor dynasty as the culmination (at least in the king’s mind), of all those emperors, deities and muses.

The palace was unfinished when Henry VIII died in 1547 (all the important bits were done and it was entirely livable). Queen Mary I sold the palace to Henry Fitzalan, 12th Earl of Arundel, in 1557 and he finally finished it. He’s the one who probably commissioned Joris Hoefnagel to paint the palace. Nonsuch returned to the crown in 1592, purchased by Elizabeth I who loved it and used it extensively. It remained a royal property until the Civil War. After the execution of Charles I in 1649, it was confiscated along with the rest of the crown’s property and sold.

With the restoration of the monarch in 1660, Nonsuch was returned to the crown. Charles II had little interest in the Renaissance masterpiece, and 10 years later he deeded it to his mistress, the tempestuous and profligate Barbara Palmer, 1st Duchess of Cleveland and Countess of Castlemaine. In 1682, Barbara took it upon herself to demolish the palace and sell it off piecemeal to pay off her enormous gambling debts. It took years to take the whole thing apart, at least until 1688. As late as 1702, one of the turreted gate houses still stood.

Just to give you an idea of high on the “because people are crazy” scale the Duchess of Cleveland was, she didn’t even sell the stucco panels! They were busted up to bits and an estimated 100,000 fragments carted off somewhere. The first archaeological exploration of the site of the demolished palace in 1959 recovered more than 1,500 fragments with visible decoration and many more plain stucco fragments. Out of all those fragments a single panel was able to be partially reconstructed, that of a Roman soldier sitting next to his shield (now in the Museum of London). You can actually see a soldier and his shield on Hoefnagel’s watercolor, and it is located just above the spot where the fragments were discovered. This is a perfect example of why this one watercolor is so historically and culturally significant.

Mark Evans, Senior Curator of Word and Image at the V&A, said: “Painted in 1568 by the last of the great Flemish illuminators and a foremost topographical artist of the day, this is a rare and beautiful work of outstanding importance. Among the earliest surviving English landscape watercolours, it brings to life one of the greatest monuments of the English Renaissance, now lost to us. We are delighted to acquire a picture of such quality and historical importance for our visitors to enjoy.”

The Joris Hoefnagel watercolor of Nonsuch Palace is now on display in the V&A’a British Galleries.

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Yet another artwork stolen by Nazis restituted to Mosse heirs

Tuesday, December 6th, 2016

The Staatliche Museen zu Berlin has restituted a statue stolen by Nazis to the heirs of Felicia Lachmann-Mosse. You might recall Felicia, daughter of German Jewish publisher, philanthropist and collector of art and antiquities Rudolf Mosse, and the foundation representing her heirs from the recent article about the beautiful mummy portraits restituted to the family by the University of Zurich. Rudolf Mosse had been dead for more than a decade when the Nazis came to power in 1933, but his flagship newspaper the Berliner Tageblatt was still very much in print and very much opposed to National Socialism. Felicia and her husband Hans Lachmann Mosse tried to accomodate the new overlords by flipping the newspaper’s political orientation to the far right, but they soon realized that would not appease the Nazis. They fled to France through Switzerland and eventually made it to the United States.

The great Mosse collection had to be left behind. The Nazi government confiscated the Mosse publishing company, all of its newspapers, the Mosse family’s real estate and the collection. Nazi officials helped themselves to what they wanted and put the rest up for auction. Records of the art and artifacts stolen from the collection before the public auction are sketchy to non-existent. The Mosse Art Restitution Project was set up by the family in 2012 to track down and document the objects stolen from the Mosse collection and scattered during World War II and its aftermath.

A significant number of Mosse artworks made their way to the Staatliche Museen. In 2015 alone, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation restituted eight works — including a Roman sarcophagus, a 1903 Reclining Lion sculpted by August Gaul, two ancient Egyptian vessels, two 19th century Chinese lions — from the Staatliche to the heirs of Felicia Lachmann-Mosse after a systematic review of their holdings and a request for information on two of the pieces from the Mosse Art Restitution Project. This year, the restituted work is a sculpture of Susanna by Reinhold Begas, made between 1869-72.

Born in 1831 the son of painter Carl Joseph Begas, Reinhold Begas began to study sculpture when he was a boy. He’d already had extensive training when he at the age of 15 he became a student of Christian Daniel Rauch at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin. Two years later Rauch hired him to sculpt in his workshop. Four years after that he had his first notable success with a plaster Hagar and Ishmael group in the 1852 Academy exhibition. This garnered him a scholarship and the opportunity to study in Rome.

Over the next decade he taught art in Weimar, had extended stays in Berlin, Rome and Paris, developing a naturalistic style with realistic emotion that would come to characterize the neo-baroque Berlin school of sculpture. He received many commissions for portrait busts, mythological scenes, memorials, tombs, national monuments and fountains and became a favorite of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

How Begas’ Susanna got to the Staatliche is unclear. When it was published in a 1999 catalogue of artworks lost during the war, the only information available was that it had presumably been pillaged from Berlin by the Soviets in 1946 and was returned to Museum für Völkerkunde in Leipzig in 1956 or 1958. It was given to the Old National Gallery of the Staatliche Museen in 1994 and went on permanent display there when the gallery reopened in 2001.

For the time being, it will remain on display with other paintings and sculptures from prominent 19th century artists on the first floor of the Old National Gallery. Its ownership status has changed, but for now the Mosse heirs have agreed to loan it back to the museum.

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Together again at last, Master Mateo at the Prado

Sunday, December 4th, 2016

In 814 A.D., a hermit named Pelagius saw a single star of great brilliance and a shower of stars around it over the Libredón forest near Iria Flavia (modern-day Padrón), seat of the main bishopric in Galicia. Pelagius, other brother hermits and some shepherds approached the site and heard a choir of heavenly hosts singing. Bishop Theodomirus in Iria was told of this portent. He had the underbrush cleared to reveal an arch over an altar with a sarcophagus at its feet. Either from divine revelation or from a papyrus found in the sarcophagus, Theodomirus realized this was the tomb of St. James, son of Zebedee, brother of John and one of the Twelve Apostles. According to local legend, James, who was decapitated by Herod Agrippa in Jerusalem, had preached in what is now Spain and after his death his body was miraculously transported in a rudderless boat from Jaffa to Iria Flavia and thence inland for burial.

When the miraculous find was reported to King Alfonso II of Asturias and Galicia, he ordered a chapel built on the site, a modest structure of stone and mud. He added a baptistery, another church and a small monastery and built a defensive wall around the small settlement called Compostela (ostensibly a corruption of the Latin “campus stellae” or field of stars in reference to the miracle Pelagius had witnessed). The legend of St. James’ burial in Spain had spread widely in the 8th century, a cultural rallying cry against the Umayyad conquest of the Iberian peninsula, so the discovery of his relics made a huge splash. It was considered a divine sign that Iberia would be Christian again, that retaking it was a holy crusade. Alfonso notified Pope Leo III and Charlemagne of the find, and they spread the world all over Christendom. Pope Leo had lost Corsica and Sardinia to Muslim raiders from Al-Andalus in 809-810, so he was very much on board with the St. James messaging.

Soon the pilgrims were flocking in thousands to Santiago de Compostela, first from the peninsula and then from all over Europe. The Way of Saint James became the most important pilgrim destination after Rome and Jerusalem. Alfonso II’s humble chapel was replaced in 899 by a stone basilica ordered by King Alfonso III. Built in the Asturian style with three naves and a rectangular head, this church was razed to the ground a century later by Al-Mansur, defacto ruler of Al-Andalus when the Caliph Hisham was but a boy, although he made a point not to damage the holy tomb of St. James.

In 1075, Alfonso VI, King of Castile and Leon, began constructing a new church. This one was to be a grand Romanesque cathedral that could accommodate the huge numbers of pilgrims following the Way of St. James without disrupting the quotidian services of the church. The new church would have a round head for traffic flow, a gallery above the aisles for crowd management and side doors to allow pilgrims access to the crypt underneath the altar without having the stomp through the nave during regular worship.

Construction stopped and started over the next century and in 1168, Master Mateo, an architect and sculptor of French origin, was engaged by King Ferdinand II of León to create a new main façade worthy of one of the holiest sites in Christendom. The old façade was demolished and in its place rose a massive two-story portico with three arches matching the three naves. Wide piers supported the arches and Mateo decorated them with an incredibly rich density of high relief sculptures. Around the base were fantastical animals. The middle of the piers featured pilasters with sculptures of the apostles and prophets. The sculptures at the top of the piers are symbols from the Old Testament and Book of Revelation. St. James gets central placement on the mullion of the central column, and at its foot facing in towards the altar instead of out at the pilgrims is Master Mateo himself, holding a sign identifying himself as the Architectus.

The overall theme was the salvation granted by God after the Final Judgment. Each of the three entrance arches represent different aspects of the theme. The left entrance focused on the Old Testament prophets, the right on punishments of the damned, the center of Christ the savior.
In the central tympanum Christ displays his wounds surrounded by the four Evangelists and their symbols. Angels carry the instruments of the passion — the cross, crown of thorns, nails and spear — while above them are a great throng of the blessed.

The 3D carving and individual detail of the more than 200 figures were great innovations in Romanesque art, and Master Mateo worked on his magnum opus, known as the Portico of Glory, until 1211. He and his workshop also created a sculpted stone choir which was replaced by a wooden one in the 17th century.

In the 16th century, the western façade of the Portico of Glory was taken down and the figures removed. Some were installed in other locations in the cathedral. Others went to museums or private collections. Because people are crazy, some of these precious sculptures were even treated like trash, used as fill in various construction projects at the cathedral. Thankfully the crazy abated and in the 18th century the Portico of Glory was encased by a new Baroque façade for its own protection. Exposure to the elements for 500 years had damaged the sculptures. They still managed to retain some of their polychrome painted elements, although most of the surviving color is from later restorations rather than the original.

Work at the cathedral over the years has unearthed some of those discarded Master Mateo works. Now the Museo Nacional del Prado is exhibiting 14 sculptures from the Portico of Glory and the dismantled choir, some of them together again for the first time 500 years.

The present exhibition includes fourteen works, opening with the document in which Ferdinand II grants a lifetime pension to [Master] Mateo, a text that constitutes the first reference to his activities at the cathedral.

Horses from the Retinue of the Three Kings – reused as infill material for the Obradoiro staircase and recovered in 1978 still with traces of its original polychromy – and Saint Matthew came from the retro-choir and exterior façades, respectively, of the granite choir constructed by Mateo and his workshop around the year 1200.

The other works on display are from the lost west façade, including the sculptures of David and Solomon which, following the dismantling of that façade, were reinstalled on the parapet of the Obradoiro loggia where they remained until they were recently restored on site prior to their inclusion in this exhibition; and the Statue-column of a male figure with a cartouche, a damaged figure that was rediscovered this October inside the cathedral’s bell tower where it had been used as infill material and is now being presented to the public for the first time. Also on display are other architectural elements that were part of the façade such as the large Rose window which crowned the central doorway and was reconstructed from fragments found in 1961; and two Keystones with the punishment of Lust, possibly from the arch on the south side, which had the same iconographic theme as the corresponding arch of the Portico of Glory, devoted to the Last Judgment.

A custom app created for the exhibit will allow visitors to virtually tour the Portico of Glory and the stone choir as Master Mateo designed them. The exhibition opened on November 28th and will run through March 26th, 2017.

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Ancient Mixtec skull a forgery

Sunday, November 27th, 2016

An ancient turquoise-encrusted skull acquired by the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, the Netherlands, back in 1963 has been discovered to be a forgery. It was believed to be a very rare skull made by the Mixtec people of Postclassic Mexico (1200-1600 A.D.) who were renown for their craftsmanship in metal and precious stones. They made skulls and masks inlaid with turquoise, pyrite, gold and obsidian. Only about 20 Mixtec skulls decorated with precious stones are known to exist, but they are all of questionable origin. Their find sites and finders are unknown.

The National Museum of Ethnology bought theirs for the equivalent of about $20,000. Considered one of the greatest masterpieces of the genre, it is inlaid with small turquoise, shell and mother-of-pearl tiles all over the face, in circles around the eye sockets and larger rectangular tiles in the shape of a snake winding across the forehead. It was thought to date to around the 15th century.

Research into its origins took a new turn in 2010 when conservator Martin Berger heard from a colleague in Marseille that a private collector had recently donated a similar skull with the caveat that he suspected it might be a forgery. Between 2012 and 2016, Berger took the skull to Paris and back to Leiden where he and his colleagues subjected it to extensive testing. Radiocarbon dating and stable isotope analysis of tooth enamel samples found that the skull’s geographic origin and age indicated it was authentic Mixtec. The turquoise was authentic archaeological stone as well.

There was but one element left to test: the glue. The Mixtec made adhesives out of pine resin and orchids. Analysis of the glue used to affix the mosaic tiles to the skull discovered that it was a 20th century product commonly used in art restoration. That means someone in the 20th century took a genuine Mixtec skull and stuck genuine Mixtec mosaic tiles on it in a plausibly Mixtec style. So it’s a counterfeit made on an authentic foundation.

Conservators believe they know who might have done the job. There was a Mexican dentist working in the 1940s and 50s who was known to dabble in recreations of Mesoamerican artwork. In the mid-century period, Mexico’s archaeological sites were extensively looted and it would have been difficult to scare up a genuine skull and a bunch of genuine tiles. Apparently this dentist’s work appeared in more than one museum. He’s a suspect in this case because there is evidence that some of the teeth on the skull have been tampered with, and that was obviously in his professional wheelwell.

The National Museum of Ethnology is keeping the skull on display.

Asked whether he was disappointed by the revelation, Berger told the newspaper: “No.”

“In actual fact it’s given us a bizarre story and that’s exactly what museums want to do, to tell stories. It remains as one of our masterpieces — except, we’ve changed the information on the sign board.”

In any case, said Berger, the skull is only a “partial forgery”.

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New scan of crocodile mummies find 47 more

Monday, November 21st, 2016

After 17 months of renovations, the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden opened their new Egyptian galleries on November 18th. As part of the remodelling project, the museum installed 3D visualisation stations so visitors can explore mummies in the kind of extreme detail that would be otherwise be impossible. The system uses high resolution CT scans to create composite models of mummies in the collection that museum visitors can virtually unwrap on a touch screen. They can peel back every layer, examine the mummies’ features and the amulets placed in the linen wrappers from every angle. It’s the same principle as the extremely cool virtual autopsy table the British Museum created for Gebelein Man.

During the renovation, the museum worked with Swedish visualization company Interspectral to scan their mummies and create the virtual models. One of the mummies scanned appeared to be that of a giant crocodile, a representation of the crocodile god Sobek that has been in the museum’s collection since 1828. A scan in 1996 had already determined that it wasn’t one huge crocodile, but rather two adolescent crocodiles, one larger, one smaller, positioned tail to snout and then wrapped as one.

Because of the earlier scan, curators weren’t expecting to discover any new information about the mummy, but the high resolution technology revealed that there weren’t just two crocodiles wrapped in linen; there were 49, 47 of them hatchlings. Each of the babies was individually wrapped in linen bandages, placed around the adolescent crocodiles and the whole lot were bound together with palm rope to create the impression of a single 10-foot crocodile mummy. Scans have found baby crocs mummified with adults before — as with this Sobek mummy at the British Museum, for instance — but only one other example of baby crocs wrapped with adults in a palm robe binding is known.

The museum’s Egyptologists suspect that the crocodiles of different ages were mummified together as a reference to the ancient Egyptian belief in rejuvenation and new life after death. Another possibility is that no large crocodiles were available at a time when they were needed as offerings to the gods. The mummy was given the shape of one large crocodile with various kinds of stuffing: bits of wood, wads of linen, plant stems, and rope.

The museum doesn’t know where the crocodile mummy came from. Faiyum is a likely candidate because it was a center for the worship of Sobek and the Nile crocodile. Because the sacred crocodiles were bred and raised specifically for mummification and dedication to the deity as votive offerings, it’s possible the hatchlings were related. Crocodiles lay around 50 eggs at a time, so this may have been a single litter.

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Portrait of Tsar Nicholas II found behind portrait of Lenin

Monday, November 14th, 2016

In the summer of 2013, the administration of St. Petersburg’s Primary School No. 206 called in the experts at the Stieglitz Art and Industry Academy to restore a portrait of Lenin that had a substantial damage to the canvas. In the larger than life-sized portrait (nine by six feet), Lenin looks pensively off to the side. Behind him is the Peter and Paul Fortress, the citadel and prison built by Peter the Great which became a symbol of Tsarist oppression akin to the Bastille, and the domes and golden spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral, the church where all the Russian Tsars from Peter the Great on were buried.

There were multiple holes in the bottom left of the portrait. Restorers noticed a piece of boot on the other side of the canvas showing through the tears. When they removed the frame to examine the back, they found a painted over portrait of Tsar Nicholas II by Ilya Galkin Savich, a painter who was a favorite at the Imperial court. He painted Nicholas the year before he ascended the throne, at least twice immediately after he became Tsar Nicholas II, plus his wife the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and his mother the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna. The newly rediscovered portrait was commissioned the year of Nicholas’ coronation to hang in the assembly hall of the Merchant Society’s Petrovsky Trade and Commercial School. Portraits of Peter the Great and Tsar Paul I, later destroyed by the Soviets, also hung in the assembly hall.

After the 1917 Revolution, the Trade School was turned into an elementary school. In 1924, artist Vladislav Izmailovich was commissioned to paint over the portrait of the last Tsar with a new portrait of Lenin. Izmailovich was a classically trained artist who studied at fine arts in St. Petersburg, Rome, Paris and Berlin. He lived in St. Petersburg at the turn of the century where he painted landscapes, genre scenes and was in demand as a portraitist. Izmailovich also painted decorative interiors at private homes of the wealthy and was hired to restore paintings at St. Michael’s Castle, a former royal palace converted into the army’s engineering school, and at the sumptuous Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo.

His work for the moneyed elites, up to and including the royal family, did not harm his artistic career after the October Revolution. Prominent Marxist figures became subjects of his portraits. He made one of the first portraits of Lenin, a pastel in 1918. Other portrait subjects were founder of the German Communist Party Karl Liebknecht in 1918, a year before he became a socialist martyr in the failed Spartacist uprising, Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Soviet People’s Commissar of Education, in 1920, and national heroes like chemist Dmitri Mendeleev and Leonid Govorov, defender of Leningrad during World War II. Izmailovich also painted historic scenes and landscapes, managing to survive many a purge and vanishing commissar to work until just before his death in 1959 a few months shy of his 87th birthday.

It’s fascinating to think that this survivor secretly saved a portrait of the Tsar, disguising it instead of destroying it. He painted the portrait of Lenin on the reverse side, painted over the Tsar until the portrait of Nicholas was thoroughly hidden. Izmailovich used layers of greyish-white water-soluble paint that not only allowed future restorers to remove it without damaging the original painting, but actually preserved the original work.

The decision to go through with the restoration process was kicked off by an initial X-ray result, in which “we were shocked, almost to the point of humor, to discover Czar Nicholas II’s head nearly exactly the same size and placement as Lenin’s,” confirming their suspicions that there was a completed full-size portrait beneath the water-soluble paint. The restoration experts used baby soap and water to wash the paint off and reveal a “remarkably intact and preserved” portrait of Czar Nicholas II, signed by the Russian artist Ilya Galkin Savich.

Ms. Pozeluyeva and other experts at Stieglitz believe that in 1924, Izmailovich painted over the Czar Nicholas II work — still in its frame — as an urgent act of “protection” and “sympathy for the Imperial era.”

Izmailovich’s secret tsarist leanings created a unique art work: a massive double-sided formal portrait of two leaders of diametrically opposed regimes painted by two different artists at different times.

After three years of restoration, the double portrait is going on display at the end of the month at the Stieglitz Art and Industry Academy. It will be displayed on a stand with no glass case impeding visitors’ full experience of this remarkable canvas.

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Conserving The Death of Buddha

Saturday, November 12th, 2016

The depiction of the death of the Buddha surrounded by the inconsolable grief of beings, human and animal, who have yet to achieve enlightenment and the detachment from earthly desires, has a long, rich tradition in Asian art. Hanabusa Itchō’s version, painted in 1713 during the Edo period, is done in the animated, dynamic style characteristic of his work. He was known for his keen observation of daily life and for biting parodies, one of which got him exiled for 12 years when he chose the mistress of the shogun as a subject for satire. He returned to Edo in 1710 after the death of shogun he’d offended, and quickly picked up where he’d left off.

His The Death of Buddha was hugely famous during the Edo period. It belonged to a Zen temple in Tokyo which is believed to have displayed it once a year during Nehan-e (Nirvana Day), the Buddhist holiday celebrating the death of the Buddha and his passing into Mahaparinirvana, for more than 150 years. Pilgrims traveled to the temple just to see the painted scroll as viewing it was believed to be good karma.

The ownership history has a gap between 1850 and 1886. At some point before the latter date, it was acquired by Ernest Fenollosa, an American professor at Tokyo Imperial University who was an avid art historian and collector of Japanese art. In 1886, he sold his entire collection to Boston doctor Charles Goddard Weld (former Massachusetts governor William Weld is a scion of the family) conditional on its eventually going to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where Fenollosa had attended art school. Weld bequeathed it to the MFA Boston after his death in 1911.

The scroll hasn’t been on view since 1990 for its own protection. A massive piece at six feet wide and 10 feet tall, it’s the largest scroll in the museum collection and conservation for such a large, delicate piece is extremely challenging. Adding to the logistically difficulties, the scroll hasn’t been remounted since 1850 when it was still at the Zen temple in Tokyo. Because scrolls have unique pressures — they’re rolled, mounts regularly fail or being to tug, tear and pull at the painting — they’re usually remounted every century or so.

The museum began planning the complex conservation of The Death of Buddha three years ago. Active conservation began in the spring of this year in the MFA Boston laboratory. Four conservators, two from the MFA Boston and two from the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery which has an exceptional collection of Asian art and is currently being renovated allowing East Asian painting experts Andrew Hare and Jiro Ueda to join in the conservation of one the great scroll paintings of the Edo period. It is truly a conservation dream team. Three of the four, lead conservator Philip Meredith and both of the Freer experts, did the traditional ten-year apprenticeships at registered conservation studios required by Japanese government regulation for the conservation of Japan’s cultural patrimony. Meredith was only the second westerner to complete the decade-long apprenticeship.

In August, the scroll and conservation team moved to the Asian Painting Gallery to give the public the rare opportunity to watch the painstaking work in progress in an exhibition called Conservation in Action: Preserving Nirvana. The scroll had to be dismantled from mount screws to linings to silk borders. After cleaning, consolidation, crease flattening, removal of old linings, replacement with new linings and the reassembling of every part, the scroll must be stretch dried on a custom karibari drying board 18 feet long.

It’s in the home stretch now, but conservation still proceeds apace. Visitors to the MFA Boston galleries can view the team at work until January 16th, 2017. The rest of us can get a glimpse into this extraordinary labor of love and expertise in the following videos.

A fascinating overview of the conservation process:

Timelapse video of the conservation team applied temporary facing to the painting:

Here the team applies layers of protective paper, humidifying the work and removing the temporary facing. Then they turn it face down and remove old linings from the creases so that they can brush out the creases and re-flatten the painting.

In this last timelapse video, the conservators remove all the old lining paper from the back of the painting, lifting it with bamboo sticks and tweezing off the fibers that remain. They replace the old lining with fresh Mino washi, a traditional Japanese mulberry paper that is on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, adhered with wheat starch paste.

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Tiny 8th c. “horned” Odin found in Denmark

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

Søren Andersen was scanning a field near Mesinge on the Danish island of Funen this summer when he discovered a figurine of bearded man with a tidily combed pageboy haircut wearing a helmet adorned with what looked like two oversized curved horns. Less than two inches high, the figurine was originally part of a ringed pin, a long pin with a ring at the head used to fasten clothes. Its style dates it to the 8th century.

The “horns” on the helmet are probably not actual horns. Viking helmets were not horned, despite their frequent appearances in literature, comics, film and Wagnerian extravaganzas. (In fact, it was a production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876 that launched the image of the Viking in a horned helmet. Read Roberta Frank’s fantastic paper on the subject here.) A number of similar figurines have been found in Scandinavia and Russia, and archaeologists have interpreted the horns as stylized representations of Odin’s ravens Huginn and Muninn.

I know what you’re thinking. Those don’t look anything like ravens, and you’re right. They don’t. But they’re also not complete. You can see the “horns” are different sizes and have rough edges. If you look at these two comparable figurines in the National Museum of Denmark, when intact, what look like horns now could have been a circular headdress terminating in two bird heads. The idea is to represent his information-gathering ravens as flying above the Odin’s head.

It’s also possible that the figurine doesn’t represent Odin himself, but a follower wearing an outfit associated with the deity. A cast-bronze die from the Vendel Period (550-790 A.D.) found on the Swedish island of Öland depicts a man in a bear suit next to a dancing warrior carrying a spear and wearing a helmet with circular “horns” that end in bird heads. The man dressed like a bear has been interpreted as a berserker devotee of Odin who had many shape-shifting adventures, the dancing warrior as Odin. The helmeted warrior was also thought to be a berserker at one time, his outfit an homage to Odin, but recent scans of the die found that the warrior has only one eye, an iconic attribute of the deity. The Mesinge figure appears to have two eyes.

It is currently on display at the Viking Museum at Ladby with other exceptional metal detector finds, like the gold crucifix that is believed to be the oldest figure of Christ ever discovered in Denmark. After a brief stay, it will move on to the National Museum of Denmark for further study.

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Unique London museum restored to its former chaotic splendour

Monday, October 17th, 2016

After a comprehensive restoration lasting seven years and costing £7million ($8,536,000), Sir John Soane’s Museum in London has returned to its founder’s original design. The Soane is a uniquely idiosyncratic museum founded by preeminent neoclassical architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837) in his home and office at No. 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. A self-made man, he first bought No. 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1792 after he was invited to become a member of the Architects’ Club, an important milestone marking his success and the approval of his peers. He completely remodeled the building and facade. In 1806, after his appointment as Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy, he bought the house next door at No. 13 and completely rebuilt it too.

By then his library and collection of antiquities, plaster casts and architectural models was too large to fit in one property and he conceived the idea to dedicate both No. 12 and No. 13 to a museum that would allow architecture students and interested amateurs to study his models, paintings, drawings and sculptures. While at first he planned to organize his collection in categories, he abandoned that idea in favor of an eclectic, chaotic arrangement of interesting juxtapositions that would inspire creativity in visitors.

In 1812, he opened No. 13 to his students in the hope it would enhance their education. Magazine reviews were rapturous, referring to the Lincoln’s Inn Fields museum as “an Academy of Architecture.” Soane wanted to ensure that his homemade “Academy” would remain open to the public entirely unchanged even after his death. That took an extraordinary effort because his son George as the direct male heir by law would inherit his property and Soane had a terrible relationship with his son. The only way to disinherit him was by a literal Act of Parliament, so Soane campaigned assiduously to get a Private Act to preserve his beloved collection in the buildings on which he had put so decidedly personal a stamp.

In April of 1833, the Soane Museum Act was passed requiring that after Sir John’s death, the house and collection be managed by a Board of Trustees on behalf of the nation and that they be kept “as nearly as possible” just as they were. Soane died in 1837 and the terms of the Act went into effect. Over the years, changes were made both to the structures — additions, walls knocked down, doors and rooms closed off, the Model Room on the second floor converted into a curator’s apartment and later offices — and, as exhibition space retreated to the needs of administration, to the objects on display.

A solution presented itself in the form of No. 14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Soane had bought that building too in 1823, rebuilding it as he had its brethren and using the stables as a picture gallery connected to No. 13. The home itself he rented. This building was not included in the Act of Parliament. Soane left it to his family. In 2009, the museum had the chance to buy No. 14. They snapped it up and finally had much-needed office space. This gave them the freedom to embark on an extensive renovation of museum to restore it to Sir John’s original vision.

After a fundraising campaign that saw donations from many private donors and the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Opening up the Soane (OUTS) project began in 2011. The last phase of the project was completed last month, and now not only are the rooms restored to their former design with the artifacts, models and art works in the spaces where Soane wanted them to be — 365 objects that have been in storage since 1837 are now back on display — but new spaces have been opened as well. The kitchens, for example, once the exclusive domain of Soane’s servants, now give visitors a rare glimpse into a Regency era kitchen. The original 1812 range in the back kitchen is believed to be the oldest surviving patented kitchen range in the world. There’s also a custom dresser designed by Soane in the front kitchen.

Bruce Boucher, Director of Sir John Soane’s Museum says; “This is a momentous day in the history of the Soane Museum. Our extensive restoration work over the past seven years has reinstated all of Soane’s spaces which were lost over the decades following his death – many of them thought to be lost forever. Now, following the completion of this third and final phase of Opening Up the Soane, visitors can experience the Museum as fully as Sir John Soane intended”.

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Intact 1,600-year-old roasting pit unearthed in Alberta

Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

Archaeologists have unearthed a 1,600-year-old untouched roasting pit at the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in southwest Alberta, Canada. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump was used by native peoples of the North American Plains to hunt, butcher and process bison for 6,000 years. It is one of the oldest and best preserved buffalo jumps, which archaeological features still surviving on the surface and under ground.

The site has four areas that were used for different purposes: the gathering basin, where the bison would graze on the lush grasses and drink fresh water well into the fall, the drive lanes, stone cairns built in lanes that hunters would chase buffalo down, the cliff kill site, the edge of the cliff which the stampeding bison would be forced off of, and the processing area where the bison were butchered, their meat roasted, the bones boiled for grease rendering, strips of meat dried in the sun and pemmican, a highly nutritious staple made of dried meat grease, marrow and berries pounded together, made to keep people alive during the long winter.

Artifacts and remains are present throughout the site. An astonishing 36 feet of deposits have accumulated below the cliff kill site alone over the course of 5,700 years, and the processing area is repeat with kitchen tools like scrapers, knives, drills, pottery and boiling stones cracked by fire.

It was in the processing area where archaeologist Robert Dawe, now Royal Alberta Museum Inventory Curator, discovered the roasting pit in 1990. He had been excavating the area for four years when he unearthed a canine paw (probably wolf rather than dog) and the articulated leg bones of a bison calf. It was the articulation of the bones that indicated this was a roasting pit, and even more intriguingly, a roasting pit whose contents had never been eaten. The stratigraphy pointed to this as a Blackfoot site about 1,600 years old. As soon as he realized that this was an incredibly rare find, Dawe covered it back up to preserve for future excavation.

The future took 26 years to happen. Dawe returned this year and dug out the entire pit encased in a soil block and wrapped tight in layers of plaster, burlap and foil.

“This thing hasn’t seen the light of day since 1,600 years ago,” Dawe said. “Nobody has seen the contents of this meal that was prepared for a delicious feast. For some reason the people never came back and opened it up.” [...]

“This is a classic example of an earth oven,” Dawe said. “This is a common thing that is found all over the world.”

Dawe compared the earth oven or roasting pit used by the Plains people thousands of years ago to the modern luau in Hawaii.

“The idea is you dig a pit, line it with rock, and build a hot fire and let it burn down to coals,” Dawe explained. “Typically they would put down a layer of vegetation like willows here, put the food on top of the willows, another layer of willows, an insulating layer of earth, and then they would build a hot fire on top.”

“They would let it cook overnight and the heat from the upper fire would bring the heat from the coals through the animal, and in the morning it would be fall-off-the-bone tender — just delicious.”

What caused the Blackfoot to abandon this delicious slow-cooked meal is a mystery. It could have been anything from a fire to a sudden storm.

Once secured and removed, the block was then craned onto a truck and transported to the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, a newly built facility that has all the bells and whistles necessary to excavate, preserve and ultimately display this treasure. Dawe and his team will painstakingly excavate it “with toothpicks and a light vacuum cleaner,” a process that will take months. Everything they find will be conserved, the bones treated to keep them from deteriorating.

Piikani Nation elder Conrad Little Leaf conducted a traditional prayer in the Blackfoot language and made a ceremonial offering of tobacco blessing the excavation team. It was a bittersweet farewell, as Head-Smashed-In’s Marketing and Special Events Coordinator Quinton CrowShoe noted, because as something their ancestors left behind, the roasting pit and its contents are sacred to them so they would much rather the pit stay in place.

But while the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump site has an excellent interpretative center, it does not have the facilities to preserve delicate archaeological materials in ideal environmental conditions, so the roasting pit is slated to go on display at the Royal Alberta Museum’s new First Peoples gallery that will open at the end of 2017. There is still hope it might return to Head-Smashed-In should an appropriate facility be built.

Watch Conrad Little Leaf’s prayer, the removal of the pit and Robert Dawe’s explanation of the find in this video:

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