Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Freer, Sackler to release entire collections online

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

The Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery have completed a digitization project whose scope is unprecedented in the United States. Come January 1st, 2015, their entire collections, more than 40,000 works of Asian and American art, will be released online. Most of these works have never been on display so they will be seen by the public for the first time as high resolution images.

In the initial release, each work will be represented by one or more stunningly detailed images at the highest possible resolution, with complex items such as albums and manuscripts showing the most important pages. In addition, some of the most popular images will also be available for download as free computer, smartphone and social media backgrounds. Future iterations plan to offer additional functionality like sharing, curation and community-based research.

“The depth of the data we’re releasing illuminates each object’s unique history, from its original creator to how it arrived at the Smithsonian,” said Courtney O’Callaghan, director of digital media and technology at the Freer and Sackler galleries. “Now, a new generation can not only appreciate these works on their own terms, but remix this content in ways we have yet to imagine.”

The museum’s masterpieces range in time from the Neolithic to the present day, featuring especially fine groupings of Chinese jades and bronzes, Islamic art, Chinese paintings and masterworks from ancient Persia. Currently, the collection boasts 1,806 American art objects, 1,176 ancient Egyptian objects, 2,076 ancient Near Eastern objects, 10,424 Chinese objects, 2,683 Islamic objects, 1,213 South and Southeast Asian objects and smaller groupings of Korean, Armenian, Byzantine, Greek and Roman works. In addition, the Freer Study Collection — more than 10,000 objects used by scholars around the world for scientific research and reference — will be viewable for the first time.

To enable the widest possible usage, fully 90% of the images will be free of any copyright restrictions for noncommercial use. The museums hope this will engender wider study of Asian art as well as new artworks inspired by the pieces in their galleries and archives.

Very few museums in the US have digitized their entire collections, and none of them are museums specializing in Asian art. The Freer and Sackler are also the first of the Smithsonian museums to have complete online collections. It’s not surprising that they would be pioneers in this area. The Freer and Sackler are the only museums to have been in on the ground floor of both the Google Art Project digitization initiative and the Google Cultural Institute. Google did the heavy lifting on those, though. The Smithsonian staff spent nearly 6,000 work hours this year photographing and digitizing the Freer/Sackler collections.

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Vast archive of kimono stencils found in Dresden museum

Sunday, December 14th, 2014

The Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts) in Dresden has rediscovered an unparalleled archive of Japanese kimono stencils in its storage depot. More than 15,000 katagami stencils, elaborately carved paper stencils used to print patterns on kimono fabric, had slumbered uninterrupted by curatorial interest in 92 neatly stacked and numbered cases for 125 years. This is the largest collection of katagami in the world. The museum is making up for lost time now and has put 140 of the stencils on display along with historic kimonos in the Elbe Wing of the Japanisches Palais.

From the wealth of motifs in the Kunstgewerbemuseum’s collection, those depicting aspects of rain, which has a particularly significant cultural and spiritual role in a country exposed to monsoon winds and dependent on rice cultivation, have been specially chosen. The uniformity of tiny falling raindrops also seems to be reflected in the aesthetic logic of the repetitive structural designs of the printed pattern repeats. The Designs became more and more refined as the fabrics for which they were created were increasingly being produced for use by the samurai nobility for prestige and ceremonial purposes.

When the first katagami prints arrived in Europe in the 19th century, the highly sophisticated art of Japanese pattern design had a powerful influence on ornament in western fine arts, craftworks, and on the emerging discipline of industrial design.

The Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum in New York City has one of the biggest collections of katagami in the United States with almost 400 examples. You can browse a selection of them in the museum’s collection database. You can see how the esthetic inspired western textile prints beyond the deliberate references of say, Art Nouveau’s Japonisme trend (compare this flying bat katagami in the Cooper-Hewitt collection to the Verneuil bats and poppies wallpaper in this post, for example). This water pattern could easily be a mod print from the 60s.

It’s an ancient art, at least 1,000 years old. Katagami are made by layering three sheets of washi, paper handmade from the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree, and pasting them together with a persimmon juice lacquer. The final product is a flexible but strong paper browned by the tannins in the juice. Then the design is cut out of the paper using tools specific to the art. There are four cutting skills — Hiki-bori (long stripes cut towards the artist), Dogu-bori, (figurative carving using a number of cutting tools), Kiri-bori (circular holes) and Tsuki-bori (shaped punches) — that each artisan must master. The process is painstaking and requires intense focus of mind and hand.

Once cut, the stencil is backed with a delicate interlacing net, the oldest of which were made from human hair strands but they were eventually replaced by stronger and more stable silk fibers. It can then be used in the katazome technique of resist-dyeing which entails spreading rice paste over the stencil onto the fabric. That’s repeated over and over again, each placement of the stencil carefully aligned to get an even print pattern throughout the textile. When the fabric is dyed, the areas with rice paste will not change color. Traditionally one katagami is used for one kimono, although that doesn’t mean each pattern is one of a kind since it’s possible for artisans to cut several katagami at the same time by stacking the prepared sheets.

Also known as Ise-Katagami because for centuries the Ise Province (modern-day Mie Prefecture) was the center of production. Artisans would create stencils that were used all over the country. The art, expensive, time-consuming and deeply connected to traditional Japanese clothing, declined after World War II. There are few masters still working today, most of them in the town of Suzuka where you can find the Ise Katagami Stencil Museum in an Edo Period historical landmark home. Perhaps the success of this great Gucci bag with the company’s trademark double-G logo applied using katagami and lacquer on deer leather is a harbinger of new life for the art form.

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Newly shiny Bedale Hoard at Yorkshire Museum

Saturday, December 13th, 2014

The Bedale Hoard, a trove of Viking silver and Anglo-Saxon gold discovered by metal detectorists in a field near Bedale, North Yorkshire, in May of 2012, is now on display at the Yorkshire Museum after months of conservation. It dates to late 9th or early 10th century and contains almost 40 pieces: 29 silver ingots, four silver collars including a unique large one made of four twisted ropes joined at the ends, silver neck rings, a silver Permian (from the Russian Perm region) ring, a flat silver arm ring made in Viking Ireland decorated with a Hiberno-Scandinavian design, half a bossed pennanular silver brooch, and an Anglo-Saxon iron sword pommel inlaid with gold foil plaques decorated in animal motifs of the Trewhiddle style plus four oval ring mounts and six gold rivets from the same sword.

The hoard was declared treasure trove at a coroner’s inquest, and British Museum experts valued it at £51,636. In January of this year the Yorkshire Museum launched a fundraiser so they could pay the valuation price and secure the hoard. Several of the pieces are unique anywhere in the Viking world, and little is known about Viking life in the Bedale area so the museum was keen to acquire it for display and study in the county where it was found. The Art Fund and the Victoria and Albert Purchase Grant Fund chipped in £11,000 each. Smaller grants from other organizations and donations from the public raised the rest. In June, the Yorkshire Museum became the proud custodian of the Bedale Hoard.

A few pieces — the four-strand twisted neck collar, the flat silver arm ring, some of the ingots — were put on display at the museum during the campaign to inspire donations. Since the successful completion of the campaign, the York Archaeological Trust has been cleaning and conserving the hoard, making it ready for permanent display. Conservation has revealed tiny cuts in the silver that were made before the hoard was buried to test the purity of the silver. Several of the newly cleaned ingots were found to have a cross engraved on them, linking them to Christian owners at some point in their early history.

Natalie McCaul, curator of archaeology at York Museums Trust, said: “It is only now that the hoard has been conserved that we can see its real beauty and the incredible craftsmanship involved in creating some of the artefacts. The Anglo Saxon sword pommel is probably the stand out piece. This is something that has been plundered by the Vikings and the conservation has meant we can now see the fantastic and delicate gold leaf patterns much more clearly and in some cases for the first time,” she said. [...]

Conservation work has revealed the gold leaf work, which would have been done by highly skilled craftsmen, on the sword pommel for the first time.

A museum spokesman said: “The Anglo Saxon gold sword pommel, its guard and the gold rings from the handle were all removed from the weapon at some point before burial. Samples taken from the guard reveal both textile and wood fragments, suggesting the sword may have been wrapped in cloth and the hoard was buried in a wooden box.”

As of Saturday, the Bedale Hoard is on display in the Yorkshire Museum’s Medieval Gallery, and boy does it look great. It makes for spectacular before and after pictures.

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Rijksmuseum acquires Adriaen de Vries bronze

Friday, December 12th, 2014

I love it when a museum wins an auction bidding war. The institution in question is the Rijksmuseum which has just bought Bacchic Figure Supporting the Globe, a bronze statue by Adriaen de Vries, for $27,885,000 including buyer’s premium at The Exceptional Sale in Christie’s New York saleroom. Three phone bidders engaged in a four-minute battle for the Mannerist masterpiece and the Rijksmuseum came out victorious thanks to generous funding from private and public donors.

The price sets a new record for de Vries, eclipsing the previous record that was set in 1989 when The Dancing Fawn sold for £6.8 million ($10,687,560). That was the last time a major work by the artist went up for auction, so if the Rijksmuseum hadn’t committed to this purchase, who knows when the next opportunity would present itself to acquire a work by one of the greatest Dutch sculptors for the Netherlands Collection. The museum owns a small bronze relief Bacchus Finding Ariadne on Naxos (c. 1611) by de Vries, and it has a larger sculpture, Triton Blowing a Conch Shell (c. 1615 – c. 1618), on loan from the National Museum in Stockholm. Bacchic Figure Supporting the Globe, which the museum is calling simply Atlas, is the first major piece by de Vries in a public Dutch collection.

It’s a particularly fine specimen as well.

Dated 1626 and probably the last autograph work by De Vries the bronze represents the mythological figure of Atlas, a nude man supporting the globe. It displays the virtuoso and highly individual modelling style for which the sculptor was celebrated during his lifetime. This exceptionally sketchy, free and tactile style reached its apogee in the final years of his life and shows him as a true artistic innovator, centuries ahead of his time.

De Vries was born in The Hague around 1555 where he trained as a goldsmith before moving to Florence and working in the studio of Mannerist sculptor Giambologna, the Medici court sculptor, in 1581. In 1589, de Vries went to Prague by request of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, the greatest patron of the arts on the continent. In this first period of work for the emperor, he made two large bronze statues, Mercury Abducting Psyche, now in the Louvre, and Psyche Borne by Cupids, now in the Nationalmuseum Stockholm.

He then traveled back to Italy to study antiquities in Rome and on his way back made two monumental multi-figure fountains in Augsburg, Germany. In 1601 he was back in Prague where he worked for Rudolf II until the emperor’s death in 1612. Although he was still technically employed at court, Rudolf’s successor, his brother Matthias, does not appear to have commissioned any work from de Vries. The artist found other royal patrons in Germany, Austria and Denmark and continued to produce work until his death in 1626.

De Vries’ innovative approach to bronze casting, modelling and the use of patina to convey differences in color as well as texture made him hugely famous in his time. He created Atlas using the direct lost wax method which models a central wax core with the features of the final sculpture before wrapping it in a fire-resistant casing and heating it so the wax melts. Bronze is then poured into the casing and once it cools, the casing is broken off to reveal the sculpture. Naturally the process results in areas that need additional work — extra blobs of bronze to file off, holes filled, details enhanced — but Atlas appears to have been barely touched. Even the details in the vines on the base and the figure’s head are as de Vries designed them on the wax.

His talents earned Adriaen de Vries the sobriquet the Dutch Michelangelo, but the upheaval of the Thirty Years’ War and subsequent conflicts saw his works widely plundered and the memory of him in his homeland faded. The largest single collection of de Vries’ sculptures is in the Museum De Vries at Drottningholm Palace outside of Stockholm. They were all pillaged, most of them from Rudolf II’s collection by Swedish troops in the second Sack of Prague, the last battle of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, others from the Frederiksborg Palace in Denmark in 1659 during the Dano-Swedish War.

Atlas is one of few works by de Vries to have stayed put for 300 years or so, unpublished and unknown. Since it was one of the last sculptures he ever made, experts believe it was sold by his heirs after his death. The first time it appears in the record is in an engraving from around 1700 of the gardens of the Saint Martin Castle in Graz, Austria. Its path from Prague to Austria is unknown, but the sellers have among their illustrious line an ancestor named Margarethe Leopoldine, Countess Colonna von Fels, who married into the family. Her great-grandfather was Leonhard, Freiherr Colonna von Fels, a prominent Bohemian noble who had actually been present and involved in the famous 1618 Defenestration of Prague when two pro-Catholic Regents and a secretary were tossed out of a window by Bohemian Protestant nobles who justifiably feared the concessions granted them by HRE Matthias would be revoked. Margarethe was born many years later and married in 1693. By then statue would have been a family heirloom of several generations that she brought with her to Austria, perhaps as part of her dowry. She installed it in the courtyard of the family castle where it remained perched on a column until 2010.

For a long time Adriaen de Vries was one of the secrets of art-history, a highly original genius, only know by a handful of insiders. The successful international exhibition devoted to the sculptor that the Rijksmuseum organised together with the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 1998-2000, has led to a wider appreciation of his bronzes and a revaluation of his reputation; nowadays he is considered as one of the most important sculptors of the early Baroque.

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Sarcophagus with mummy of teenage boy opened

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

Conservators at Chicago’s Field Museum opened the sarcophagus of a 2,500-year-old Egyptian mummy on Friday. Excavated from the Akhmim cemetery on the east bank of the Nile about 130 miles north of Luxor in Upper Egypt, the mummy has been in the museum’s collection since 1925 when they got it from the Chicago Historical Society. Due to its fragility, the sarcophagus hadn’t been opened. It’s one of 30 complete mummies in the Field Museum collection (the oldest collection in the museum) so for decades there was no compelling reason to interfere with mummy #11517.

Now there is a compelling reason: a new exhibition, Mummies: Images of the Afterlife, which will take 20 of the mummies from the Field’s vaults on a traveling tour of select U.S. museums. In anticipation of the exhibition, researchers have been using the latest technology — CT scans, 3D imaging, stable isotope testing, DNA analysis — to find out all they can about the mummies, their history, burial rituals and current condition. To ensure they can safely travel, any urgent conservation issues need to be addressed.

CT scans done with a mobile medical scanner in 2011 revealed that mummy #11517 was a boy of about 14 years of age when he died. He was properly nourished, seemingly healthy with no injuries or disease that could be detected. An inscription on his coffin identifies the youth as Minirdis, son of Inaros, a priest of fertility god Min. As a stolist priest, Inaros was responsible for the ritual washing and dressing of Min’s statue. The position was hereditary, so if Minirdis had lived, he would have gotten the job after his father died.

Scans also revealed that the mummy and wrappings signficant condition problems. Both feet are detached from the legs. The beautiful gold-painted cartonnage mask has a large hole in the face. The shroud underneath the mask was pulled to one side, dragging the cartonnage chest piece under the mummy’s back making it dangerous to move. The shroud and linen wrappings are brittle. They’ve split open at the feet, exposing the toes. Conservators want to close the holes in the wrappings and face mask as much as possible. They also want to reattach the feet and stabilize the sarcophagus and mummy.

On Friday, the conservation team at the Field Museum lifted the coffin lid using custom-designed clamps as a cradle. Being careful not to damage the shifted cartonnage collar, they were able to raise the mummy out of the sarcophagus. The CT scans didn’t eliminate all surprises. Painted in gold on the inside bottom of the coffin was a drawing of the Goddess Nut nobody knew was there.

The exhibition debuts next year at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. It takes a combined approach of high tech and traditional display. Accompanying the mummies are exhibited in century-old display cases, there are touch table interactive displays showing multi-layer segmented scans of the mummies that visitors can unwrap at their own pace, video projections, 3D printed casts of bones and figurines, and the hyperrealist sculpture reconstructions of Elisabeth Daynès. The tech isn’t glaring or obnoxious, though. The environment is kept deliberately quiet, in sound and sight, to ensure the space has a feeling of reverence for the dead rather than sensationalizing them.

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Six gold torcs found in Jersey Celtic coin hoard

Monday, December 8th, 2014

The massive hoard of Celtic coins that was raised in a single block from a field on the Channel Island of Jersey in 2012 is proving to be even more precious a treasure trove than was immediately obvious, and that’s saying a lot since the Le Catillon II treasure is the largest Celtic coin hoard ever discovered. The original estimate of the number of coins by volume was 30,000 to 50,000. As the Jersey Museum’s conservator Neil Mahrer has worked his way down the hoard, unsticking the corroded coin cluster, the estimated number has increased to 70,000.

Finders Richard Miles and Reg Mead first began to search for the hoard when a woman told them a story 30 years ago about a pot of silver coins found when her father uprooted a tree on their farm in Grouville parish. She didn’t know exactly where this fabled discovery had happened but she knew the general area and Miles and Mead secured permission from the current landowner to search the field with metal detectors during the brief window between harvest and planting. Over the decades they scanned the property with no success until in February of 2012 they found 60 Celtic coins. They dug a little deeper and encountered a large solid object. Mead grabbed a handful of the soil on top and found a few silver coins inside. Being extremely responsible and awesome people, they immediately filled in the hole and alerted Jersey Heritage to the find.

It’s because of their dogged determination spanning three decades and their respect for the archaeological context that the Le Catillon II hoard was archaeologically excavated from the site and is now being archaeologically excavated in an extremely cool glass-walled laboratory in public view at the Jersey Museum. Richard Miles and Reg Mead are part of the conservation team. They’ve been particularly helpful in coin identification, classification and cleaning, and of course they’re superstars to museum visitors.

The first gold peeked through the vertical face of the hoard in July of 2012. When the green corrosion from the silver and silver alloy coins was washed away, a thin sheet of flattened and twisted gold that had once been a torc was revealed. Later that month, conservators found another gold torc above and to the left of the first one. Only a couple of inches of it were visible at first, but the curve looked proper to the original curve around the neck and there was no evidence of twisting or flattening. This tendered the exciting prospect that there might be an intact gold torc amidst the layers of packed coins.

It has been two and a half years since the first glimpses of torc, and only now have conservators gotten down to the layers where they are nestled. It took close to two years to get all the permits and funding sorted. During that time, Mahrer and the conservation team removed 2,000 loose coins from the surface and cleaned them. This summer, they were finally able to start work on taking apart the coin block, laser scanning each coin in the mass and after its removal to ensure they have as detailed a record of the block and coins at every possible stage. The hoard is too big and dense for X-rays to give conservators an excavation road map, so they’re only discovering what’s in there as they go along.

In the beginning the finds were coins and organic material. To preserve the organic material (mainly peat and plant stalks), the team had to move very slowly during the unsticking process. They found that, as expected, most of the coins in the hoard were staters and quarter staters of the Coriosolitae tribe. Unexpectedly, they regularly encountered petit billons, a small denomination that is so rare a few tens of them were known before this hoard. They’re so rare that nobody knows what tribe made them or when. Other numismatic surprises are two coins from the Osismii tribe, the Coriosolitae’s western neighbors: one a five-sided stater that contains some gold, one is a solid gold quarter stater of the Bull Standard type.

In November, they reached the torc area. The solid gold torc was first revealed to have a join in the back, a hole through which a pin would be inserted to close the piece around the neck. Then they found another much larger torc.

At first it appeared to be a thick, tightly curved gold torc but when cleaned back a bit it was revealed as a pair of solid gold “wheels” at the end of a thick, curved, gold torc collar. The wheels are about 4cm accross and the collar part about 15mm thick. We’ve now cleaned back enough coins to see that the torc appears to be constructed from two semi circular parts which would have fitted together to be worn. We’ve think we’ve exposed about 90% of the first part with the wheels and about 50% of the second. We don’t know what the other ends of both are like yet. The sheer size of this piece is amazing in comparison to everything else we’ve seen yet and the torc surface appears to be in good condition and of a very pure gold.

And then they found even more:

In the same way that we found the large torc while clearing around another one, we have continued to find more new pieces as we cleared around it. We’ve found another of the sheet gold objects long visible on the hoard’s side. This new one seems very similar but is possibly in better condition. We have also partially uncovered two other smaller diameter possibly solid gold torc sections, one towards the rear of the hoard and another towards its centre. As such we just don’t know how far the rich area of jewellery extends throughout the hoard’s body, but it’s certainly further than we initially thought. What we are going to do over the next few months therefore is to extend the coin removal out from the torc area to a 5cm depth over the whole surface and see what we find.

That makes a total of six torcs — five gold, one gold-plated — found so far in an area the size of a shoebox. For more about the history of the coins, the hoard and its discovery, check out the Treasure Island page on the Jersey Heritage website. Keep your eye on Neil Mahrer’s Treasure Island Blog to follow the exciting developments as the conservation continues.

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Wolsey’s Angels need rescuing and fast

Friday, December 5th, 2014

Four bronze angels created for the never-completed tomb of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, lost for centuries, could be scattered again if we can’t raise £1,540,247 by December 31st. As of right now, £3,459,753 has been raised, thanks to a £2 million grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, £500,000 from the Art Fund and donations from individuals through the Victoria & Albert museum’s Wolsey Angels Appeal. I really cannot emphasize enough how much of a monstrous travesty losing the Wolsey Angels would be.

It was Cardinal Wolsey himself, at the peak of his power in 1524, 10 years after he was appointed Cardinal Archbishop of York, on his ninth year as Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII, who commissioned the angels from Florentine sculptor and architect Benedetto da Rovezzano. Benedetto was famous by then as a builder of tombs for the notables of the short-lived Florentine Republic, church reliefs, statues for sepulchral monuments to saints. His Republican sympathies and wholesale loss of patrons after the re-establishment of the Medici rule ultimately drove him out of Florence. In 1519 he moved to London and remained there for 24 years, making sculptures and tombs for the royal court.

Wolsey’s commission was for a monumental tomb in Renaissance style with an angel standing on pillars nine feet tall in each of the four corners, but his end would come before the tomb was completed and in any case his circumstances had changed, to put it mildly. When Wolsey was unable to secure an annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, he wasn’t just fired; he was arrested. In 1529, Henry confiscated Wolsey’s property, including the residence of Hampton Court thenceforth known as Hampton Court Palace and Benedetto da Rovezzano’s four bronze angels and other finished parts of the tomb including the striking black marble sarcophagus. Wolsey died on his way to London to answer to charges of treason in November of 1530.

Henry VIII decided he would use the elements of Wolsey’s tomb to make an even grander tomb for himself, and who better to commission than Benedetto da Rovezzano? Benedetto set up a workshop and foundry at Westminster and set to work on the king’s tomb. By 1543, the tomb still wasn’t finished and Benedetto’s health was suffering so he returned to Italy. According to Vasari, Benedetto experienced vertigo and sight impairment as a result of “standing too long over the fire in the founding of metals, or by some other reasons,” and eventually went completely blind. He died around 1554.

Henry VIII died in 1547 with the tomb incomplete. He was buried with his third wife and mother of his son, Jane Seymour, in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. His three children — Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I — each said they’d have the tomb completed and Henry interred in it, but it never happened. In 1565, Elizabeth moved the tomb parts to Windsor where they were still being kept 80 years later when the dislocation of Civil War struck them. With the Parliamentarian victories in 1645, most of the tomb was sold off. Only the black sarcophagus remained at Windsor. Charles I wanted to buried in it at Westminster Abbey, but the 59 Commissioners who found him guilty of high treason against himself refused permission. Instead he was buried in Henry VIII’s vault in St. George’s Chapel on February 9th, 1649. A suitable use was eventually found for the black coffin: in 1805, King George III gifted the Wolsey-Henry-Charles sarcophagus to serve as a final resting place for Admiral Lord Nelson’s body in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

As for the angels, they disappeared after the Civil War fire sale. It took 350 years for them to turn up again. Unmoored from their illustrious history and unrecognized by appraisal exports, two of the angels came up for auction at Sotheby’s in 1994. The catalogue described them as bronze angels “in the Renaissance style,” not realizing they were originals of major historical significance by a name artist. They didn’t even include a photograph accompanying the entry in the catalogue. The pair sold for £12,000. A few years ago, the auction pair were finally recognized. Italian art historian Francesco Caglioti came across them in the possession of a Paris antiques dealer. He researched the angels and found an exact description of them in a 1530 inventory of Wolsey’s property.

Caglioti didn’t stop there. He went on a quest to find the other two angels, and against every conceivable odds, he found them in 2008 at Harrowden Hall, a Northamptonshire estate that was acquired by the Wellingborough Golf Club in the 1970s. Nobody knows when the angels got there; they were already in place when the stately home became a clubhouse. All four of them were there, as a matter of fact, because the two that were sold at Sotheby’s in 1994 had actually been stolen from the Wellingborough Golf Club in 1988. The angels were standing on posts flanking the entrance gates back then. The golf club people just figured one pair had been stolen for their lead value (they had no idea the angels were even bronze) so they moved the surviving pair indoors and wrote off the loss. As soon as they found out they had Wolsey’s Angels, the club lent them to the V&A for safekeeping.

Now here is the crux of the travesty. Because of the statute of limitations and the many hands and countries with varying applicable laws the stolen angels have passed through, the Wellingborough Gold Club cannot get the angels back from the Paris dealer. Instead, he’s going to sell his pair to the Victoria & Albert for £2.5 million. He may donate some portion of his filthy lucre to the Golf Club, but then again he may not. The Wellingborough has made the same offer for its pair of angels (they can’t be sold to the highest bidder because they are part of the heritage listing of Harrowden Hall) which is why it will cost £5 million to save the four Wolsey Angels for the nation.

Hilary Mantel, author of the Tudor-era historical novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, had this to say about the rediscovery of the Wolsey Angels:

“Thanks to the discovery of Wolsey’s angels, a great Englishman we have forgotten may have his monument at last. The recovery of Wolsey’s angels is one of those miracles that historians pray for; something that seems irrevocably lost has been there all the time. To claim the angels for the nation would connect us to one of the liveliest eras of our history and one of its most remarkable men.”

I asked Brodie Lyon, the V&A’s Annual Fund and Appeals Manager, if there was another large grant in the works to make up for the alarming shortfall and there was none that he could announce publicly, which I hope means there are arrangements going on in the background but could just as well mean that there is no plan B. We need a last minute fundraising push because if this sale doesn’t go through, it looks like those two Paris angels could wind up anywhere in the world and there isn’t a damn thing the law can do about it even though there is no dispute about the fact that they’re stolen goods of immense cultural significance to Britain.

Save the Wolsey Angels!

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Northernmost hacksilver hoard found in Aberdeenshire

Thursday, December 4th, 2014

Archaeologists from National Museums Scotland (NMS) and Aberdeen University’s Northern Picts Project have unearthed a hoard of Late Roman and Pictish silver fragments in a field in Aberdeenshire (the exact location of the hoard of more than 100 pieces is being kept secret to deter looters). It’s a hoard of hacksilver — bits of larger silver objects cut up for use as currency — made from coins, vessels, bracelets, brooches and more between the 4th and 6th century A.D. This is the northernmost hoard of Late Roman hacksilver ever discovered and the Pictish silver is unique.

As part of the Glenmorangie Research Project, an investigation into the history of early medieval Scotland funded by the Glenmorangie whisky company, National Museums Scotland experts will analyze, document and catalogue every silver fragment in the hoard. The project’s aim is to gain a better understanding of how silver went from a new, exotic Roman material to the most prestigious precious metal used to decorate high status objects in early medieval Scotland.

The discovery fits in to a sequence of silver use and re-use over several centuries that can now be studied alongside two other Scottish hacksilver hoards, the purely Late Roman silver from Traprain Law, East Lothian and the Pictish silver from Norrie’s Law, Fife.

These hoards contain a range of interesting material: earlier items from all over the Roman Empire, but also some unique objects and other later objects which have links to Ireland, the near continent and Anglo-Saxon England and give a snapshot of Scotland in Early Medieval Europe.

NMS researchers hope the comparison of the hoards will help illuminate the interactions between the late Romans and Picts. So far, the project’s investigations in northeastern Scotland have found that the area Picts were part of powerful early medieval kingdoms.

This phase of the project is expected to take three years, but you won’t have to wait that long to see some of the Aberdeenshire hoard in person. Select pieces from the hoard will go on display at the University of Aberdeen’s King’s Museum January 20th to May 31st, 2015.

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View restoration of della Francesca’s Resurrection by app

Monday, December 1st, 2014

The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca, a fresco judged by Aldous Huxley to be “the best picture in the world,” is receiving a much-needed restoration. A team from Florence’s conservation institute the Opificio delle Pietre Dure will spend a projected 18 months in the Upper Tiber Valley town of Sansepolcro, Tuscany, restoring the 15th century masterpiece and they will do it in plain view of the public thanks to a custom scaffolding bridge that will leave the painting visible while experts work on it. Public restorations are increasingly common these days, but this project will vastly expand the range of public view with an app that will allow people to follow the restoration from the comfort of their own smartphones. The app debuts in January.

Restoring The Resurrection is a complex problem. Piero della Francesca used different types of paint — fresco, tempera — and design techniques. Pigments like cinnabar red lacquer, malachite and white lead are typical of tempera. Because of the diverse materials, restorers will have to work on the painting inch by inch. The Opificio experts have studied the work using 20 non-invasive techniques — among them UV imaging, infrared imaging, careful visual examination of the surface — and found areas where the paint is discolored, flaking and cracking, and which of those are original, which past restorations. There are places where the fresco’s plaster is peeling off the wall. A 3D reconstruction of the work derived from the imaging data indicates that damage and dirt have obscured many of the painting’s unique perspectival elements.

The wall itself is in need of repair because multiple earthquakes over the centuries have caused structural problems. Although it adds another layer of difficulty to the project, treating the wall has an upside. Restorers are hoping it will answer questions about when the painting was moved to its current location. Della Francesca painted it for the Town Hall in the 1460s to celebrate Florence returning control of the building and some measure of political autonomy to Sansepolcro, but it was originally on the wall of another room in the building. The bottom-to-top perspective suggests it was once placed higher than it is now. It was thought to have been moved to its current room in the 16th century, but there are a lot of open questions about the history of the work.

In Huxley’s 1925 essay The Best Picture (pdf), he provides a whole other backstory:

The best picture in the world is painted in fresco on the wall of a room in the town hall. Some unwittingly beneficent vandal had it covered, some time after it was painted, with a thick layer of plaster, under which it lay hidden for a century or two, to be revealed at last in a state of preservation remarkably perfect for a fresco of its date. Thanks to the vandals, the visitor who now enters the Palazzo
dei Conservatori at Borgo San Sepolcro finds the stupendous Resurrection almost as Piero della Francesca left it. Its clear, yet subtly sober colours shine out from the wall with scarcely impaired freshness. Damp has blotted out nothing of the design, nor dirt obscured it. We need no imagination to help us figure forth its beauty; it stands there before us in entire and actual splendour, the greatest picture in the world.

If Huxley’s description is accurate, the condition of the work has degenerated precipitously in just 90 years.

The Resurrection has a profound connection to Sansepolcro. Piero della Francesca was a native son (the sleeping soldier in the brown armour underneath the staff of Jesus’ banner is thought to be a self-portrait). He incorporated the city’s symbolism into the painting. The rock in the bottom right depicts the stone from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that according to legend pilgrims Arcanus and Aegidius brought back from Jerusalem with them when they founded the town they then named after the church. The Christ figure from the painting is the central element of the city’s coat of arms.

Then there’s the more recent history when The Resurrection saved Sansepolcro from destruction in World War II. In 1944, Royal Horse Artillery captain Anthony Clarke was ordered shell the city in advance of Allied infantry troops. Clarke had seen the obliteration of the monastery at Monte Cassino as a result of Allied bombing, a destruction that turned out to be not just futile (the Germans weren’t occupying the monastery as the Allies believed) but counterproductive since German paratroopers moved into the ruins which gave them outstanding cover and made them very hard to dislodge. He had also read Huxley’s essay and remembered, even though he had never seen the painting, that The Resurrection was in Sansepolcro. Taking an enormous personal risk, Clarke did not relay the order to fire.

He later said his commanding officer had come on the radio urging him to get on with it so he had to stall for time, peering at the town through binoculars and assuring his commander that he could see no German targets to go after.

It was a brave action. Had Allied infantry been ambushed as they advanced on Sansepolcro, his court martial would have been brutal.

But, for the love of art, he kept the guns silent. The Germans fled and the town was liberated the following day without any damage to the 500-year-old work of art.

There’s a street named after Tony Clarke in Sansepolcro now.

The restoration is estimated to cost 200,000 euros ($250,000). The town council has scared up 40,000 euros from its threadbare budget. Former Buitoni pasta and sauce executive Also Osti has pleged 100,000 euros. A friend convinced him to donate, and he was easily persuaded because he although he now lives in Switzerland, he lived in Sansepolcro, headquarters of the Buitoni company, for many years. His son was born there. The city is working on raising the remaining 60,000 euros from other private donors. Meanwhile they have enough to get started and keep going for a while.

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Help fund Sandby ringfort excavation

Saturday, November 29th, 2014

If we ever want to find out what happened at the Sandby Borg ringfort in the 5th century A.D. that left dead bodies to rot where they fell and treasure hidden for 1,600 years, we’re going to have to contribute funds. Sandby Borg was discovered on the island of Öland off the southeastern coast of Sweden in 2010 when the presence of looting pits alerted archaeologists to the site. A scan with metal detectors found five hoards each containing highly decorated gilded silver brooches, finger rings, silver bell pendants and glass beads with millefiori designs, buried in the corners of five houses in the central block of the fort.

The next year, archaeologists from the Kalmar County Museum in Sweden returned to excavate and found human skeletons of men killed by violence. In subsequent digs, more skeletons were discovered for a total of at least 10. This summer a potentially highly significant gold solidus was found in a posthole of House 40. In September of this year, for the first time the remains of a small child aged two to five years were found, an extremely important discovery since it suggests there were families in the fort, not just adults. The child was found in the same house as a middle aged man (50-60 years old) who was found lying prone in the fireplace. He was probably struck by a weapon and fell face-down into the fireplace where he came to a gruesome end.

So far less than 3% of the fort has been excavated. Each year archaeologists have only a few short days to dig test pits and every time they’ve uncovered tantalizing evidence of the horror that befell the residents of Sandby Borg in the 5th century. They don’t have the funding to thoroughly excavate any one part of the ringfort, however, which is not only frustrating for our insatiable historical curiosity, but also potentially dangerous since it leaves precious archaeological context and material culture in danger of interference.

Enter Kickstarter. The Kalmar County Museum Department of Archaeology has started a campaign to raise 400,000 kronor ($52,000), a modest goal that will allow them to zero in on one area and produce a book about their finds.

If we reach our goal with this Kickstarter campaign, we will be able to excavate the remaining 1/3 of the house known as House 40 and produce a richly illustrated book presenting the results in English and Swedish. This is the house where at least six people are lying dead on the floor. Two of them have already been recovered, but the remaining four or more are still there. One main objective of investigating the rest of the house is to recover the skeletons. Furthermore, this particular house has proven to contain numerous potential clues to what actually happened here, and why. The Roman gold coin mentioned above is one example; some exquisite details from weaponry are another. The funding will cover both costs for personnel during fieldwork and post-excavation work and analyses, but also for the production of the book.

You have to donate at the 1,000 kronor level ($134) to get the book. If you have deeper pockets (15,000 kr, or $2,012), you can secure a VIP tour of the site personally guided by lead archaeologist Dr. Helena Victor. If you’re Oprah rich, pledge 50,000 kr ($6,700) and you get to get in the trenches and dig! God that’s such a cool reward I can’t even stand it.

The Kickstarter has been open since November 27th and has already raised 68,155 kronor just from small donors. The deadline is December 31st. A donation would make a fine present for the history nerd on your list.

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