Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Renaissance shield looted by Nazis returned to Czech Republic

Wednesday, September 15th, 2021

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has agreed to return a 16th century shield that was looted by Nazis during World War II to the Czech Republic. The pageant shield, elaborately decorated with a scene of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus capturing what is now Cartagena in southern Spain during the Second Punic War, was created by  Girolamo di Tommaso da Treviso around 1535 out of wood, linen, gesso, gold and pigment. It was part of the collection of Konopiště Castle in Benešov, about 25 miles southeast of Prague, that was stripped bare during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. It will now go back on display in the castle 80 years after it was stolen.

The complex battle scene of the Roman army assaulting the rounded crenelated towers of the city was based on a tapestry from a series depicting scenes from the life of Scipio designed by Giulio Romano for King Francis I of France. Romano drew the cartoons for the tapestries in 1531-1533. The tapestries were then woven in Brussels and sent to the king in 1535. They fell victim to the French Revolution’s orgy of anti-monarchical iconoclasm in 1797, destroyed to harvest the gold and silver threads used in the weaving. Copies of the Scipio tapestries commissioned by Louis XIV in 1688 survived the Revolution and are now in the Louvre.

(Wee digression: Cartagena was founded by Hasdrubal Barca, Hannibal’s younger brother, in 228 B.C. at the site of an earlier Iberian settlement. The Punic name for Carthage was Qart Hadasht, meaning New City, because it was founded by Phoenician colonists from Tyre (the old city). Hasdrubal named his foothold in Spain Qart Hadasht too. It was Scipio Africanus who renamed it Carthago Nova after his conquest of it in 209 B.C. to differentiate it from the original, so he basically copyedited Hasdrubal, correcting New City into the more precise New New City.)

Twenty-four inches in diameter, the round shield was made for ceremonial purposes, and the subject matter may have been chosen in homage to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who in 1535 captured Tunis, née Carthage, from the Ottoman Empire. Charles V’s victory over the Ottoman corsairs was analogized to Scipio’s defeat of Carthage, and upon his return, the Emperor was feted all over Italy.

The shield was not presented to Charles V. It stayed in Italy for more than three centuries. In the 1700s it was in the Castello del Catajo outside Padua, part of the vast collection of arms and armature amassed by the marquess Tommaso degli Obizzi. He was the last to hold the title, and he left his all of his family’s wealth and possessions to the House of Este. Those lands, estates and collections were absorbed into the Ducal House of Austria-Este, the fruit of a marriage between Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, son of Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa, and Maria Beatrice Este, last surviving heir of the Este family.

That wealth paid for Konopiště Castle. Originally built in the late 13th century, the castle was refashioned into a Baroque palace in the 1730s and 40s, but had fallen into disrepair by the end of the 19th century. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, whose assassination in 1914 would set alight the powder keg that exploded into World War I, bought the castle in 1887 with money he inherited after the death of the last scion of the Austria-Este ducal house. That inheritance included the Obizzi-Este collection of arms and armature, the third largest collection of armory and medieval weapons in Europe.

The collection, including the da Treviso shield, was installed in Konopiště Castle in 1896 where it remained even after the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire birthed Czechoslovakia. Then came the Second World War.

In 1939 the Nazi government annexed the part of Czechoslovakia where Konopiště was located, and in 1943 the German army (Wehrmacht) confiscated the Konopiště Castle armor collection, including the shield, and took it to Prague to be housed in a new military museum. However, Adolf Hitler’s arms and armor curator, Leopold Ruprecht, soon skimmed off the cream of the collection, inventoried it, and dispatched it to Vienna, intending the best for Hitler’s planned mega-museum in Linz, Austria. At the end of the war, large groups of Konopiště objects were recovered by the Allies and returned to Czech authorities in 1946, but among 15 objects that remained missing was a shield whose description was similar to the pageant shield.

Thirty years later, the pageant shield was bequeathed to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by avid collector of medieval arms Carl Otto Kretzschmar von Kienbusch. Its ownership history was threadbare and previous attempts to determine whether it was indeed the looted Konopiště Castle shield were inconclusive.

Since 2016, the museum has been collaborating with historians in the Czech Republic to evaluate the history and provenance of the Italian pageant shield. Recent research identified pre-WWII inventories which, in tandem with a photograph, dated to around 1913, showing the museum’s shield as displayed at Konopiště Castle provided by the museum, persuasively identify the shield as the one illegally taken from Konopiště Castle by the Nazis and never restituted. Based on these revelations, the Board of Trustees of the Philadelphia Museum of Art unanimously concluded that rightful title in the work belonged to the Czech Republic and approved the return of the armor at its meeting of June 17, 2021.


Vermeer’s Cupid returns

Tuesday, August 24th, 2021

A painting of Cupid hidden behind a layer of grey has reemerged on the wall behind The Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window by Johannes Vermeer. After more than three centuries of grey overpaint and four years of meticulous restoration, the Girl, now backed up by Cupid, will be the centerpiece of a new exhibition dedicated to Vermeer at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden.

Painted ca. 1659, it was bought by Augustus III of Poland, Elector of Saxony, from the prized art collection of Victor Amadeus I of Savoy, 3rd Prince of Carignano, in Paris in 1742. It became part of what is now the Dresden Gemäldegalerie. It was misattributed to Rembrandt at the time, a recognition of its quality even as the master who produced it was largely forgotten outside of the Netherlands. It wasn’t correctly attributed to Vermeer until 1859.

We know from correspondence about the purchase that the wall was already Cupidless when the painting arrived in Dresden. X-rays revealed the presence of the Cupid in 1979, but researchers at the time believed the figure had been overpainted by Vermeer himself. When a new comprehensive restoration began in 2017, conservators removing the old yellowed varnish layer discovered that the paint in the central part of the wall had markedly different solubility properties than the rest of the paint. This spurred further investigation of the paint layers which revealed that the presence of a dirt layer and binding agent between Vermeer’s original paint and the overpaint that covered the Cupid. Several decades passed between the completion of the work and the overpainting. That means it was not Vermeer’s choice to eliminate the Cupid painting towering behind the young woman as she reads her (love?) letter.

In the light of the discovery that the overpaint was not done by Vermeer, a commission of experts decided to remove the overpaint in early 2018. The ultrathin layer of paint had to be removed under magnification using a small scalpel. No other method would preserve the last varnish layer applied by Vermeer’s hand. This painstaking scalpel technique was slow going, but as of earlier this year, Cupid is back.

The composition is notably different. The Cupid painting is large, covering most of the empty space on the grey wall and providing a new dark background for the young lady’s golden hair. Cupid himself is about half the height of the girl. He holds his bow on his left side and arrows aloft in his right hand. Two masks are on the ground at his feet. They represent true love’s disdain of falsehood in favor of truth and loyalty.

Vermeer used the trope of the Cupid painting-within-a-painting four times that we know of, including in Lady Standing at a Virginal , which has been loaned to Dresden by London’s National Gallery for the new exhibition.

Along with nine other paintings by Vermeer, including the “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum) and the “Lady Standing at a Virginal” (London, National Gallery), which are closely related to the painting, some 50 works of Dutch genre painting from the second half of the 17th century will be on display. Paintings by Pieter de Hooch, Frans van Mieris, Gerard Ter Borch, Gabriel Metsu, Gerard Dou, Emanuel de Witte and Jan Steen will show the artistic environment in which Vermeer worked and with which he was in close contact. Selected examples from other artistic genres, such as drawings and prints, sculptures and historical furniture will further enrich the exhibition. A segment of the exhibition will be specifically devoted to Vermeer’s painting technique and the restoration of the “Girl Reading a Letter” in order to illustrate the complex, experimental process used in creating the painting.

Johannes Vermeer. On Reflection opens September 10, 2021, and runs through January 2, 2022.


Rijksmuseum reunites portrait glasses of famed author duo

Saturday, August 21st, 2021

The Rijksmuseum has acquired an 18th century glass goblet engraved with the portrait of one of the Netherlands most important writers, Betje Wolff. It is a matched set with a goblet bearing the portrait of Aagje Denken, her partner in writing and in life, which has been in the collection of the Rijksmuseum since 1951. Its pair was acquired from a private collection in Germany and now the two have been reunited on display.

Elisabeth Wolff-Bekker (1738–1804) and Agatha Deken (1741–1804) co-wrote The History of Miss Sara Burgerhart, the first novel written in the Dutch language. The two, already published authors, first met on October 13th, 1776, and moved in together in 1777 after the death of Betje Wolff’s husband Adriaan. They wrote together collaboratively and in 1782 published Sara Burgerhart which was an instant success. It was written in the epistolary style (as letters from the characters to each other), a genre that had vaulted to prominence a few decades earlier with the success of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. The style lends itself to realism and Wolff and Deken embraced the approach, drawing heavily on their own childhood experiences.

Politically active in the Patriot movement challenging the rule of William V of Orange as stadtholder of the Dutch Republic, the pair were were forced to flee The Hague in 1788 in the wake of the Prussian invasion of Holland to suppress the Patriot cause and restore the power of Orange. Wolff and Deken settled in Trévoux, Burgundy, and lived there for 10 years. They returned in 1797 in much reduced circumstances. The would live together in The Hague until the end of their days. Betje Wolff died on November 5th, 1804. Aagje Deken died nine days later on November 14th.

Their portrait glasses were the work of David Wolff (no relation to Betje), a glass engraver who specialized in portraits on glasses. He was the premier engraver of the 18th century Netherlands, taking the old technique of diamond-point engraving to new heights. He used the stippling engraving technique which tapped the diamond point into the glass making a dot rather than the scratching technique used to cut images and letters in traditional diamond engraving. The result is a pointillistic rendering of light and shadow via different densities of dots.

Interestingly given this history, David Wolff’s stipple-engraved subjects were usually men. The only other woman known to have received his treatment was Princess Wilhelmina of Prussia, wife of Prince William V of Orange and sister of King Frederick William II of Prussia who invaded the Netherlands in response to Patriot slights against his sister. A double portrait of them attributed to David Wolff is in the Rijksmuseum, and he also made individual portraits of the Prince and Princess on wineglasses, see these in the Corning Museum of Glass, for example.

The stipple engraving is closely linked to the political struggle between patriots and Orangists at the end of the 18th century. Both sides used glasses with dotted portraits of their male heroes to toast. Dotted formal portraits of women are rare, with the exception of Wilhelmina van Prussia (1751-1820), the wife of stadtholder Willem V. Several glasses are known of the princess, only one of the burgher women Wolff and Deken. The Rijksmuseum is currently investigating whether other glass-dotted women’s portraits have also been preserved or described. It is possible that Wolff and Deken’s political convictions and their affiliation with the patriots were the reason for having these glasses made.

The glasses have now gone on display alongside the print model for the portraits. It was made by printmaker Antoine Alexandre Joseph Cardon after an original drawing by W. Neering for the frontispiece of a 1784 book of Wolff and Deken stories.


Colonial Williamsburg acquires rare Paul Revere tankard

Thursday, August 19th, 2021

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has acquired a rare silver tankard made by Paul Revere, colonial America’s premier silversmith and the Revolution’s premier midnight righter. There are only about three dozen known Revere tankards. The tapering sides, midband, domed line and pinecone finial dates this one to around 1795, but researchers are still looking through Revere’s many extant record books to trace it directly back to its origins.

The silver tankard was sold at auction in May of this year for $112,500, including buyer’s premium. The Friends of Colonial Williamsburg Collections Fund provided the wherewithal to add this exceptional piece, one of the largest forms produced by Revere’s silver shop, to the Colonial Williamsburg museum holdings.

Colonial Williamsburg’s Revere tankard stands nearly 10 inches tall and holds 48 ounces of liquid (usually wine, ale or cider), making it weighty to lift when full. Its apparent size is enhanced by a stepped domed lid and an elongated finial. The tankard has a lighter appearance thanks to its scrolled openwork thumbpiece. It lacks engraving, which leaves the identity of the original owner a mystery. Details such as the decorative features and the substantial weight (nearly 34 troy ounces) may one day provide ownership clues through careful study of Revere’s shop records.

“Paul Revere is the best-known and most celebrated American silversmith,” said Janine E. Skerry, Colonial Williamsburg’s senior curator of metals. “A large, eye-catching object such as this tankard is a great way to connect with the public and draw both children and adults into the story of this amazing material and its role in our early history.”

The tankard will now join the other recently-acquired example of Revere silver — a small porriger made around 1765 — in the new exhibition of Colonial Williamsburg’s permanent silver collection at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum.

“Colonial Williamsburg has long sought a significant example of Revere’s work,” said Ronald L. Hurst, the Foundation’s Carlisle H. Humelsine chief curator and vice president for museums, preservation and historic resources. “With its impressive size, fine detail, and excellent condition, this tankard fills a significant void in our American silver holdings.”


Incompetent thief jailed for attempted robbery of Roman gold coin hoard

Wednesday, August 4th, 2021

One of three men who tried to steal a huge hoard of Roman gold coins from the Rhineland State Museum in Trier in 2019 has been sentenced to 2.5 to 3.5 years in prison for the bungled robbery. The trio broke into the museum ON MY BIRTHDAY (rude and disrespectful) by climbing scaffolding and prying open a window. They sledgehammered a door down and then two of them entered the gallery while the third stood guard. They were not able to break through the reinforced glass display case. When the alarm went off and the police arrived, the thieves fled empty-handed.

A 28-year-old Dutch man was later identified from DNA found on a gym bag at the crime scene. He was deported to Germany in late 2020, charged and confessed to having been an accomplice, although he denied having been one of the guys who made it inside and tried to break the display case. His confession and claim to have been the guard only is what got him the light sentence. The other two are still at large.

The hoard of 2,518 aurei was discovered September 9th, 1993, when an excavator dug up a broken bronze vessel full of soil and gold coins during construction of a hospital parking deck. That’s the coin count now, anyway. The hoard has had to deal with would-be looters before. News spread locally and treasure hunters descended on the find with metal detectors pocketing an unknown number of scattered coins before archaeologists could get to the site. The prospect of legal repercussions and difficulties converting ancient Roman coins into easy cash spurred many of the looters to return the ill-gotten coins to the Rheinisches Landesmuseum, although an estimated 100-200 are still dispersed. One of the looters is known to have paid his beer tab with them that night.

Archaeologists spent 20 years fully documenting and cataloging the treasure. They found coins minted over the course of more than a century. The aurei bear portraits of 27 emperors and a dozen empresses and imperial family members. More than 80 previously unknown coin types were found in the Trier hoard, including a portrait of Didius Julianus who ruled Rome for three months (March-June 193) after literally buying the throne when the Praetorian Guard, who had assassinated Pertinax, auctioned it off to the highest bidder.

The oldest dates to the reign of Nero in 63/64 A.D., the youngest to that of Septimius Severus in 193-196 A.D. Given the end-date, archaeologists believe the hoard was buried shortly after that outside date. Trier, Augusta Treverorum in antiquity, was the main city of the province of Gallia Belgica. [Fun fact: Didius Julianus was governor of Gallia Belgica 20 years before his face was stamped on a gold coin during his nine weeks of glory.] With its population, prosperity and political importance, it was in the cross-hairs of plenty of Germanic invasion waves, plagues and the emperor-usurper-counter-usurper rondelets.  The monumental Porta Nigra gate and the defensive walls of the town were built between 180 and 200 A.D. during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

The total weight of the hoard is 18.5 kilos (41 lbs). In buying power at the time, this much gold would have paid the annual salaries of 130 Roman soldiers, and it was almost certainly not an individual’s personal wealth, but rather an official treasury, meticulously administered and added to over time.

The largest preserved Roman Imperial gold hoard ever discovered, the Trier Gold Hoard is the centerpiece of the Rheinisches Landesmuseum’s 12,000-coin collection. Since the robbery attempt, it has been out of public view while security systems are reviewed.


Thumbprint found on Michelangelo wax model

Sunday, August 1st, 2021

A thumbprint has been found on the buttocks of a wax model of a sculpture by Michelangelo in the collection of the V&A Museum. The dark red wax figure was made around 1516-1519 and is the only autograph model by Michelangelo in the museum.

Senior curator Peta Motture says: “It is an exciting prospect that one of Michelangelo’s prints could have survived in the wax. Such marks would suggest the physical presence of the creative process of an artist. It is where mind and hand somehow come together… he destroyed a lot of [the wax models] himself. A fingerprint would be a direct connection with the artist.”

The model, or bozzetto, is a rough sketch of Young Slave, an unfinished marble sculpture now in the Galleria in Florence. It was meant to be one of the many, many statues Michelangelo planned for the tomb of Pope Julius II but never completed. The first plan for Julius’ tomb, commissioned in 1505, eight years before his death, was a monumental free-standing multi-story mausoleum with more than 40 statues, life-sized and larger, that was supposed to be installed in the Cappella Maggiore of St. Peter’s Basilica. The Young Slave was one of four intended to be used as columns, telamons in prisoner form, for the lower level of the tomb. They were deleted from the plans during one of the many downsizing redesigns and remained in Michelangelo’s studio until his death when they were given to Duke Cosimo I de Medici.

Julius died in 1513 with no tomb in sight. His heirs demanded that Michelangelo come through, albeit in much reduced form with a wall tomb. Even the smaller-scale tomb took another thirty years for Michelangelo to complete. The finished product was a modest arrangement with seven statues including the famous Moses with horns in the minor basilica of St. Peter in Chains.

Over the decades, Michelangelo created many drawings and models for this boondoggle of a papal tomb, and because he was already famous in his lifetime, his contemporaries managed to snag some of those preparatory works before the temperamental master could destroy them (which he did to many of them). The V&A’s Young Slave is one of very few surviving wax models by Michelangelo.

The wax figure is 6.5 inches high (the full-sized marble is more than seven feet tall) and was molded onto a metal armature allowing the artist to alter it easily as he worked on his final vision. Indeed, the sketch model has several points of difference from the marble, particularly in the left leg. Also the shoulders and back were never carved in the marble.

According to art historian Giorgio Vasari, who was a personal friend of Michelangelo’s, the wax was prepared by mixing animal fat, turpentine and black pitch to make it malleable but durable. The red color was produced by adding red earth, vermillion or red lead. Vasari also said that Michelangelo had a unique method for using his wax models to make the sculptures. He put the bozzetto in a box, filled it with water until the model was fully submerged, then removed the water gradually. Whatever parts peeked up above the water first, he carved out of the marble.

NB: We don’t know if this is accurate because Vasari never saw Michelangelo carve anything at all. Michelangelo adamantly refused to allow anyone to observe his process, not even his friends. That’s one of the reasons his prep sketches and models were so coveted by other artists, because it was the only way they would ever get a glimpse into how the Michelangelo magic happened. It’s also why there’s a very good chance that the thumbprint was Michelangelo’s because he was the only one who got to see his unfinished works, let alone touch them.


The Getty’s stunning Aeneas intaglio

Saturday, July 31st, 2021

The motif of Aeneas fleeing Troy was popular in Greek decorative arts, adorning vases as early as the 6th century B.C., and it took on added significance in Italy because legend had it that Aeneas settled in Latium, married a nice Latin girl and became the forefather of the dynasty culminating in Romulus and Remus and the founding of Rome. The scene from Book II of the Aeneid (and from a much earlier Greek account of the sack of Troy now lost) was frequently depicted on Roman gemstones and coins. The Getty Museum acquired one of those intaglio stones in 2019 and it is without question the most detailed, most finely rendered, most three-dimensional example known.

Made from an oval cornelian less than an inch long, the depth of field carved out of this small piece of hard stone with tiny cutting wheels, sharp tools and abrasives is extraordinary. It was made in Italy, possibly Rome itself, around 20 B.C. during the reign of Augustus, adopted son of Julius Caesar whose family traced their unbroken ancestral line directly back to Aeneas and therefore his mom Venus. Virgil dedicated The Aeneid to Augustus and makes explicit reference to the ancestral connection linking him to the Trojan hero.

[Brief explanatory digression: according to Getty curator of antiquities Kenneth Lapatin, the stone is cornelian, not carnelian which is the standard term. Apparently “carnelian” is a medieval misinterpretation of the etymology of the name. Medieval scholars believed the name of the stone was derived from the Latin “carne” (flesh) when it actually was named after the Cornus mas, aka the Cornelian cherry, which produces a deep red fruit similar to the color of the stone.]

In the foreground is Aeneas wearing a cuirass as his sole armor and pteruges, the skirt of leather strips worn by Greek and Roman soldiers. He carries his artfully draped and bemantled father Anchises on his left shoulder. Anchises carries a cylindrical contained with an X-shaped moulding, the reliquary containing the household gods and sacred objects Aeneas told him to schlep because the hero had the blood of battle of his hands. Aeneas holds the hand of his little son Ascanius/Iulus, leading him through the gates of Troy. The boy is elaborately garbed in chiton, a cloak and a Phrygian cap with a pedum (a curved stick used as a throwing weapon by hunters) over his left shoulder. The walls of the city, ashlar blocks in clear relief, still stand, but the Greek soldier in a crested helmet holding a torch on the battlements portends Troy’s destruction by fire. Aeneas climbs the ladder to the ship that will take them to safety. It is manned by three men in Phrygian caps, one at the rudder, one sounding a trumpet, one unfurling the sail. Above them all is a single star, the “sacred star” or comet sent by Jupiter as a sign to Anchises that he should flee with his son instead of sticking it out as Troy burns down around him.

Like many intaglio gems, this was likely mounted into a signet ring and impressed into wax as an identifier. As much of a masterpiece as the stone is on its own, the impression of it conveys its extraordinary craftsmanship even more clearly. I mean look at this:

It’s nuts that that kind of granular detail is even possible on a stone 7/8 × 11/16 × 1/4 inches in dimension.

The Aeneas intaglio is now on display at the Getty Villa in the Roman Treasury room.


Virtual Mesopotamian civilization

Thursday, July 29th, 2021

The Getty Villa Museum is currently hosting an exhibition dedicated to Mesopotamian history from the dawn of the first cities in the Fertile Crescent around 3200 B.C. to Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire in 331 B.C. An array of rare artifacts — sculptures, cuneiform tablets, cylinder seals, jewelry, paintings, bricks, decorative friezes — of exceptional quality, almost all of them on loan from the Louvre, are on display at the museum in Malibu through August 16th. It was scheduled to open on March 18th, 2020, but was preempted by you-know-what. The Louvre was kind enough to extend the loan for more than a year and the exhibition finally opened on April 21st.

The Getty has put together a fun and informative series of workshops and lectures to accompany the exhibition. Circumstances forced them online, which gives us the opportunity to enjoy events virtually that we would not have been able to attend in person. Want an excuse to make a ton of cookies while learning how to write cuneiform? Now you’ve got one.

For an overview of Mesopotamian history as represented by the artifacts in the exhibition, watch this lecture by Dr. Ariane Thomas, director of the Department of Near Eastern Antiquities at the Louvre. I particularly love that the inscriptions on the objects are fully translated on the presentation slides, which is essential given the central role of cuneiform to Mesopotamian civilizations. Also 22 minutes in is an excerpt from the Epic of Gilgamesh read out loud. This is the first time I’ve heard Babylonian spoken.

Delve deeper into cuneiform tablets in this presentation by historian Dr. Amanda Podany who examines the religious, political, legal and economic significance of writing in Mesopotamia and examines the lives of three ancient Mesopotamians as revealed in cuneiform inscriptions: Enheduanna (24th century B.C.), daughter of King Sargon, high priestess of the moon god Nanna, the world’s first known poet, the 18th century B.C. scribe Pagirum and Hammurabi, king and lawgiver.

Next archaeologist Tate Paulette, expert on ancient spirituous beverages, explores Mesopotamia’s rich beer culture as documented in written, artistic and archaeological records. The lecture covers the history of beer in Mesopotamia, how it was brewed and drunk, and modern attempts to recreate it.

Last but certainly not least is my favorite internationally-renown cuneiform expert, Dr. Irving Finkel of the British Museum, whose last visit to the Getty featured him taking on all comers at the Royal Game of Ur. Being a more innocent pre-pandemic era, that event was not filmed, much to my disappointment, but this time his discussion of the origins of writing is open to all of us from the comfort of our own homes via Zoom. From Laundry Lists to Liturgies: The Origins of Writing in Ancient Mesopotamia kicks off on August 11th at 11:00 AM Pacific Time. Registration is required and free. Presumably the recording will be made available on YouTube like its predecessors. See you there!


Unique Roman sarcophagus with interior reliefs conserved

Wednesday, July 21st, 2021

A unique Roman-era sarcophagus decorated on the inside is undergoing restoration in public view (pandemic permitting) at the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (RMO) in Leiden.

The sarcophagus was discovered in pieces during construction of a home in the Limburger village of Simpelveld in 1930. A hole on one of the short sides of the rectangle attests to it having been looted of valuables, probably during the turbulent Migration Period, but it still contained a few treasures: glass and ceramic vessels, a gold pin, a bead necklace, a stilus (conveying the deceased’s literacy), a silver mirror, a knife, a pair of scissors and three finger rings. The most elaborate is a gold dodecagonal ring inscribed IVNONI MEAE (“To my Juno”). Juno was the goddess of marriage, so it’s possible this was a wedding ring or gift from the deceased’s husband. Amazingly, cinerary remains were found undisturbed as well.

Carved out of a single massive block of local Nivelsteiner sandstone, the sarcophagus is 2.4 meters (7’10”) long, 1.05 meters (3’5″) wide and 76 cm (2’6″) high and weighs 800 kilos (1764 lbs). Carved out of one massive block, the sarcophagus was originally topped by two sandstone slabs fastened to the chest with metal clamps. The lid was found broken into four pieces. Just one of the smaller pieces weighs 282 kilos (622 lbs).

It’s the interior relief that makes it one of a kind. The sarcophagus is carved to look like a room in a luxurious Roman home absolutely crammed with furniture. On one of the long sides an elegant lady wearing a long-sleeves tunic and draped mantle reclines on a lectus. Her hair is dressed in the style of Faustina, wife of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, which suggests a date of between 160 and 180 A.D. To her right on one of the short ends is a wicker chair of a type known as a cathedra chair, common in the Germanic provinces. A large chest on a pedestal is next. This was the arca, the home’s safe, basically, which contained the family’s documents and cash.

Across from the lady is side table on which three glass bottles have been placed. Another table is next to it, this one a small round one with three legs named a mensa Delphica after the tripod stool the Pythian priestess sat on to pronounce the oracles of Apollo at Delphi. Its legs are decorated with lion heads. Another table, a sideboard this time, is next, followed by two shelves holding bronze vessels, and then two tankards on the ground. Then comes a cabinet with two doors and small niches of varied size. Last but certainly not least is a grand house and a smaller associated building. The house and annex are not believed to represent a specific dwelling, but the furnishings are all highly realistic depiction of Roman artifacts that have been found in the Netherlands.

A 2016 study of the cinerary remains (replete with almost 400 bone fragments) was able to confirm that the individual in the sarcophagus was a woman between 35 and 49 years old when she died. There were no lesions or evidence of osteoarthritic changes to the bones, which suggests she lived a life of leisure, and her loved ones didn’t let a little thing like death change her lifestyle. The ashes of this fine lady were laid to rest in the most refined, opulent home a Romanized resident of Germania Inferior could get in the 2nd century.

The sarcophagus was acquired by the RMO from the finder immediately after it was unearthed. Museum experts pieced the large fragments together and mounted it on a wooden frame the support its weight and make it easier to move. Three months after its discovery, the Simpleveld sarcophagus was on permanent display. Today it is one of the main attractions of the museum’s permanent The Netherlands in Roman Times exhibition, but after almost a century of use and multiple relocations, the mount has become unstable and the sarcophagus has suffered damage to the old restoration points.

Conservation began in September with a comprehensive assessment of the current condition of the sarcophagus, research into past restorations and X-rays to map the fractures and any metal pins that may have been used to knit the pieces together. Mortar, cement and other additions from past restoration attempts were removed and after much research into the archives, press articles and scholarly publications, the conservation team embarked cautiously on dismantling the sarcophagus into its component fragments.

The live restoration is scheduled to continue at least through the end of August. The sarcophagus is being reassembled and mounted on a new state-of-the-art custom chassis that will support the sarcophagus’ weight and allow it to be moved without percussive shocks or vibrations. You can follow the progress of the restoration on the conservators’ log here. This is a neat time-lapse video of the dismantling process:


King and Queen of Spain found upside down under Emperor and Empress of Mexico

Sunday, July 4th, 2021

Philadelphia Museum of Art conservators have discovered that a pair of portraits of the first Emperor and Empress of Mexico were painted over portraits of the former monarchs of Spain, King Charles IV and Maria Luisa of Parma. The matched half-length portraits of Emperor Agustín de Iturbide and Empress Ana María were painted by Mexican artist Josephus Arias Huarte in 1822, the year Agustín was proclaimed the constitutional Emperor of Mexico.

Agustín I’s reign last less than a year. He and his family were exiled. He was persuaded to return in 1824 but was arrested the minute he landed and executed by firing squad. Ana María and their children remained in exile. They moved to the United States, eventually settling in Philadelphia where she died in 1861 and is buried in the cemetery of the Church of St. John the Evangelist.

The portraits have been in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art since 1922, but they are rarely exhibited and were not seriously studied until 2017 when conservator Sarah Mastrangelo examined them for possible exhibition in the museum’s massive new galleries which open this year. With 22,000 square feet of space to fill, conservators have been examining the museum’s holdings for previously-neglected categories like indigenous American art.

Observing the Empress’ portrait under a microscope, Mastrangelo saw there were two “grounds,” the prep layer applied to the canvas. Further examination under a infrared light revealed an eye on Ana María’s belly. The ghostly image was obscured by the red paint of the ground, but an X-ray uncovered an entire portrait flipped upside down. An X-ray of her husband’s portrait revealed the same thing.

The upside down portraits were not done by the same artist. The style and technique in the originals were different, better, and the clothing predated 1822 by several decades. Mastrangelo believes they are good quality copies of portraits of King Charles IV and Queen Maria Luisa of Spain originally painted by Goya. Charles and Maria Luisa reigned from 1788 until the king was forced to abdicated by Napoleon in 1808. They were kept captive in France for four years. In 1812 they were allowed to move to Rome under the protection of Pope and were living in the Palazzo Barberini when they died 18 days apart in 1819.

So they hadn’t been on the throne of Spain for 14 years and had been dead for two when Iturbíde led the fight for Mexican Independence and took Mexico City from Spain. When he was proclaimed emperor a year after that, recycling the portraits of deposed, dead former Spanish monarchs to make coronation portraits of the new Mexican-born rulers was a satisfyingly pointed statement as well as a practical choice as there wasn’t a great deal of canvas available in Mexico at the time.

Mastrangelo consulted curators Mark Castro and Alexandra Letvin, who believe the long-hidden portraits of the Spanish royals were made in around 1799 or 1800 and based on popular prototypes developed by court artist Francisco de Goya. It is unclear if the original compositions were made in Spain or Mexico, but the canvases were in Mexico two decades later when they were reused by Huarte to paint the Iturbides upon their coronation in Mexico City in 1822.





September 2021


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