Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Vatican’s Gallery of Maps restored

Sunday, May 1st, 2016

The Gallery of Maps in the Vatican Museums contains the largest cycle of cartographic paintings ever created. The gallery on the west side of the Belvedere Courtyard connects the Sistine Chapel to the Tower of the Winds and is 120 meters (394 feet) long, longer than a football field and 20 feet wide. Its barrel-vaulted ceiling soars three storeys above the floor. The walls are covered practically floor to ceiling with frescoed maps of all the regions of Italy.

The Gallery of the Maps was commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII so that he could travel the length of Italy without having to leave the apostolic palace. Dominican friar, mathematician and cartographer Ignazio Danti was placed in charge of the project. (Danti was also on the committee that reformed the Julian calendar, correcting its ancient miscalculations by cutting out 11 days so October 4th, 1582, was followed by October 15th, 1582, after which the new Gregorian calendar, named after the Pope, kept up with astronomical time.) During the course of 18 months from 1580 to 1581, Danti and his team — Flemish artists Matthjis and Paul Bril and Italian Mannerists Gerolamo Muziano and Cesare Nebbia, Giovanni Antonio Vanosino da Varese and Ignazio’s brother Antonio Danti — painted 40 large-scale map frescoes of every region in Italy (plus Avignon, on account of it was owned by Popes for four centuries from the Babylonian Captivity until the French Revolution).

The maps are extraordinarily detailed and accurate renderings of Italy in the late 16th century. Following Danti’s meticulous cartographic cartoons, the painters stuck to what they knew was there. If there was something they weren’t sure about, they left it out. While they included traditional decorative figures like putti, sea monsters and Neptune and conflated historical elements like Roman ships with contemporary ones, the maps themselves. The topographical precision and perspective are extraordinary, lending these maps an almost 3D-like realism. Valleys, hills, lakes, even individual streets are all recognizable. Moving from southern Italy to the north, the east side of the room was painted with maps of regions that face the Adriatic Sea and the Alps; the west side featured regions facing the Tyrrhenian. Danti said that walking this corridor was like walking up Italy on the spine of the Apennines.

Every regional map is accompanied by a smaller view of its most populous city. Where you exit the gallery today are maps of Italy’s four major ports — Genoa, Venice, Ancona and Civitavecchia — and two views of the entire peninsula — ancient Italy and new Italy. At today’s entrance are maps of the minor islands and two momentous battles that were still fresh news when they were painted: the Ottoman siege of Malta in 1565 and the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, both won by the Holy League.

The ceiling vaults are painted with the patron saints of the various regions (Saint Ambrose for Milan, Saint Mark for Venice) and with important/miraculous scenes from Italian history (Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Hannibal and his elephants, the baptism of Constantine, Pope Leo I persuading Attila the Hun to withdraw from Italy, Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa meeting with Pope Alexander III, etc.) each covering the space above the maps of the locations where the events took place.

The next Pope to put his hands on the maps was not so keen on accuracy. Pope Urban VIII ordered a “restoration” in 1630 that just painted over details that had gotten blurred over the 50 years since their creation. A fresco depicting the Brenner Pass between Italy and Austria was painted over just because it was so high up on the wall it was inconvenient to repair. Born Maffeo Barberini, Pope Urban also had his family’s symbol, the bee, added to the maps wherever possible, if not advisable. (It was Urban VIII who stripped the bronze off the roof of the Pantheon to make cannon and Bernini’s baldachin in St. Peter’s Basilica, giving rise to the satiric pasquinade “Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini,” meaning “What the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did.”)

Six million people a year walk down this hall, bringing dirt, moisture and the vibrations from hundreds of millions of footballs with them that caused the plaster to lift from the walls and covered the brilliance of the original paint under layers of dust. Between that and the unfortunate past restorations, the frescoes were in dire need of attention. In 2011, the Vatican reached out to the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of the Vatican Museums’ cultural patrimony, for help in funding a new restoration of the paintings that would rescue the plaster from impending doom and return works to their former splendour.

The restoration was sponsored by the California chapter of the Patrons. Half of the $2.4 million budget was donated by one Patron; the rest was raised through a map adoption program, with each Patron adopting an individual map and funding its restoration at either the $35,000 or $70,000 level. Because the maps are so extensive and so detailed, some patrons had the unique opportunity to adopt a map that with a connection to their family histories, for example the Castignano family adopted the map of Sicily because it included the hometown of their immigrant forebears, a tiny hamlet that barely registers on other atlases, while the Stanislawskis adopted the map of Umbria because of a family history of devotion to St. Francis of Assisi.

Art restorer Francesco Prantera and his team of experts began work in September of 2012. They anchored the plaster to the wall with an organic glue, and then set to treating the frescoes. They divided each map into 64 sections, the same sections the original artists used to paint them in the 16th century. Each of the sections was covered with special tissue-thin paper to absorb the old yellowed glue from a 19th century restoration. When the paper was peeled off, the newly vibrant color was protected with an adhesive made from a Japanese red algae called funori. Because the product is so expensive (one gram will run you 100 euros), the diagnostic laboratory of the Vatican Museums made their own extract directly from the imported seaweed. The restoration team then cautiously filled in areas of paint loss, reproducing the original materials used by the artists. The stucco was made from an ancient Roman recipe. The paints were all natural and free of chemicals.

The restoration took just under four years, double what it took Danti’s team to paint the Gallery of Maps in the first place. It has been open to the public this whole time. On Saturday, April 23rd, the Patrons were given a private showing of the restored Gallery.

There are some good views of the Hall and details of the restoration in progress in this Italian language video. The narration mainly gives a quick rundown of the history you’ve just read so I won’t repeat it, but you’ll find my translation of the interesting comments from Maria Ludmilla Pustka, head restorer of the paintings and wood artifacts of the Vatican Museums, below.

Maria Ludmilla Pustka: “The restoration of a work of art can be more complex than the original execution, and the great team we put together to make this restoration happen quickly had to use a very interesting, modern methodology that approaches a biorestoration. Thus nature itself has provided us with the proper materials for a better conservation.”

Narrator: “The restoration, which focused on the precarious condition of the plaster layer and the look of the painted surfaces, has also brought to light surprising discoveries.”

Pustka: “Every map has its own secret. Among the secrets, one new discovery was a coin of Urban VIII that was found inside a stucco relief, attesting to its date of manufacture. We also found a number of signatures from the original artists and past restorers.”

Sicily goes to London

Monday, April 25th, 2016

The British Museum has opened a new exhibition, Sicily: Culture and Conquest, which brings together more than 200 artifacts from 4,000 years of Sicilian history, many of which have never been to the UK before. The exhibition focuses on two time periods when Sicily was at the forefront of art and culture: when it settled by Greek colonists in the 7th century and when it was ruled by Norman kings from 1100 to 1250.

Objects on display include pieces from the British Museum’s collection, other institutions in the UK and elsewhere, and some spectacular pieces on loan from Sicily.

A rare and spectacularly well preserved, brightly painted terracotta altar, dating to about 500 BC, is one of the highlights of the loans coming from Sicily. It shows a scene of an animal combat on the upper tier, while below stand three striking fertility goddesses. The British Museum is also fortunate to be receiving on loan a magnificent terracotta architectural sculpture of a Gorgon, the famous Greek monster, that was once perched on the highest point of a building at Gela in south-east Sicily. Terracotta ornaments were frequently used to decorate the upper levels of buildings on Sicily and are amongst the finest that have survived from the ancient world. Another important Sicilian loan is a rare and iconic marble sculpture of a warrior from ancient Akragas, modern Agrigento. Marble statues were likely to have been commissioned, carved and imported into Sicily from overseas or made by local sculptors, trained in the Greek tradition. Such rare statues decorated major temples or were part of sculptural groups, most of which are long gone.

The pieces from the Norman era emphasize what a cultural crossroads it was. The Normans conquered Muslim Sicily in 1072 and the court took full advantage of the rich well of artistic talent from diverse cultures — Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arabic — who had ruled the island before them. There’s a gold mosaic of the Virgin Mary of Byzantine style which is the sole surviving panel of the mosaics that once adorned Palermo Cathedral (only on display until June 14th), a 16th century copy of a 12th century map made by Arabic cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi for the Norman King Roger II, and a funerary inscription installed by the Christian priest Grisandus for his mother Anna in 1149. It features the eulogy in four different languages (well, three and a half): on top is Arabic written in Hebrew script, the left in Latin, the right in Greek and Arabic in actual Arabic on the bottom. The multilingual approach was common in Norman Sicily, with public inscriptions often written in several languages.

The exhibition runs through August 14th. If you aren’t likely to make it London in time (or even if you are, really), you’ll enjoy this behind the scenes look at some of the more spectacular objects in the exhibition guided by curators Peter Higgs and Dirk Booms.

And now, an avalanche of beautiful pictures.

Owner of Texel shipwreck gown identified

Thursday, April 21st, 2016

Historians Helmer Helmers from the University of Amsterdam and Nadine Akkerman from Leiden University have identified the owner of the silk gown found in the Wadden Sea off the island of Texel in North Holland. It belonged to Jean Kerr, Countess of Roxburghe, lady-in-waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria. There’s a portrait of her on Adel Foundation’s website that they were able to get from the collection of Floors Castle, seat of the current Duke of Roxburghe and Scotland’s largest inhabited castle. The photo leaves much to be desired, I’m afraid, but she’s wearing a dress that is somewhat reminiscent, albeit more elaborate, of the one wrecked at sea.

There were two key clues to the identity of the gown’s owner: the ship sank in the first half of the 17th century, and the leather book cover stamped with the coat of arms of King Charles I, the second Stuart king of England, Scotland, and Ireland. As soon as Nadine Akkerman was apprised of the find, she remembered a letter she had transcribed in 2006 written by Elizabeth Stuart, sister of Charles I and exiled Queen of Bohemia, to her old friend the diplomat and Member of Parliament Sir Thomas Roe. The letter, dated March 17th, 1642, tells how her sister-in-law Queen Henrietta Maria lost a baggage ship on the voyage from England to Holland. Her two ladies-in-waiting and their maids lost their clothes and accessories; the queen lost some silver vessels from her private chapel. The style and size of the gown strongly indicate it belonged to Jean Kerr.

The Countess of Roxburghe was born around 1585. She was descended through her maternal line from Robert II, the first Stuart King of Scotland, which made her a very high-ranking lady. She was Mistress of the Robes to the court of James I and Queen Anne, both of whom attended her marriage to Robert Kerr, 1st Lord Roxburghe, in 1614. Three years later she was dismissed from Court when her husband tried to finagle a political appointment without the knowledge of the Queen, but in 1631, with a new King, Charles I, and Queen, Henrietta Maria, on the throne, she made her way back to Court and was appointed governess to the infant Princess Mary. She was later made governess to Princess Elizabeth (born 1635) and Prince Henry (born 1640).

This voyage to Holland was an infamous one. The ostensible purpose of the trip was to deliver Charles and Henrietta Maria’s daughter Mary, then ten years old, to her 15-year-old husband William, son and heir of Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange. Their wedding had taken place on May 2nd, 1641, in London. Reuniting the couple was a convenient pretext for Henrietta Maria to leave England and head for the continent where she could drum up support for the Royalist cause.

Her baggage was actually far more significant than her daughter. On February 23rd, 1642, Queen Henrietta Maria set sail from Falmouth with her daughter, her ladies-in-waiting, and the Crown Jewels. She also carried large quantities of silver and jewels that belonged to her and Charles personally, including those vessels from her chapel that were lost in the Texel wreck. The real reason for the trip to Holland was to sell or pawn these treasures, the most valuable of which were the patrimony of Britain, to fund a war against the British. Holland was the biggest market for the trade in high-end jewels and precious metals, so her daughter’s marriage to the heir of Orange was the perfect screen for her real intent.

Henrietta Maria arrived at The Hague on March 11th, 1642, where she was met by Elizabeth Stuart who had moved to The Hague after her exile. The loss of the baggage ship, while inconvenient as losing your luggage still is even now that it’s in airports instead of the bottom of the ocean, didn’t slow her down a bit. Mere days after her arrival, she was already trying to cut deals for the sale/hocking of the valuables that she’d kept with her.

This wasn’t exactly a stealth operation. In 1641 Parliament had officially protested that a plan of hers to take the waters at Spa, in what is now Belgium, for her health was in fact a blatant attempt to “convey great Sums of Money, and other Treasure, beyond the Seas; which will not only impoverish the State, but may be employed to the Fomenting some mischievous Attempts, to the Trouble of the publick Peace.” They were right, of course. Henrietta Maria was an active partner in Charles’ military and political ventures, often an instigator. She was a French Catholic — double trouble to English Protestants — and had an enormous influence on her husband. Her attempt to sell England’s Crown Jewels to fund a war against their (also British) enemies was the kind of machination that confirmed the worst suspicions about her and Charles.

The mission didn’t go well. Potential buyers and lenders were justifiably wary about the Crown Jewels. There was no clear title and the letter signed by Charles I saying he owned them that Henrietta deployed when people raised questions was hardly persuasive. With Parliament very publicly watching her every move, prepared to reclaim any pawned objects, buyers stayed away in droves. She wrote her husband in May that: “The money is not ready, for on your jewels, they will lend nothing. I am forced to pledge all my little ones, for the great ones, nothing can be had here….”

As for Jean Kerr, after she accompanied her young charge Princess Mary to The Hague, she turned around almost immediately, returning to her even younger charges, Elizabeth and Henry. She died just a year later, on October 7th, 1643.

Runestone lost for 250 years found in garden patio

Sunday, April 17th, 2016

A thousand-year-old runestone missing for 250 years has been found in the garden of a home in the village of Boddum in Thy, northern Jutland, Denmark. It all started in November of 2015 when farmer Ole Kappel called the Museum Thy to report he had a stone with some carved lines on it lying in his garden. He asked for an expert to examine it and tell him what it was. In March, Museum Thy archaeologist Charlotte Boje Andersen and National Museum of Denmark runologist Lisbeth Imer were amazed to find that the stone lying around in Kappel’s garden was the Ydby Runestone, carved between 970 and 1020 A.D. and last seen in 1767.

“It was one of the biggest moments in my time as an archaeologists and a completely one-of-a-kind discovery that highlights how important Thy and the western part of the Limfjord were in the Viking era,” [Andersen] said.

The Ydby Runestone was first documented in 1741 by bishop and antiquarian Erik Pontoppidan in the second volume of his collection of notable Danish inscriptions, Marmora Danica. Pontoppidan reported that the stone was moved from a place known as “Hellesager,” where it had stood upright over a triangular underground tomb surrounded by stones, to the village of Flarup. In 1767, Danish naturalist and illustrator Søren Abildgaard tracked down the runestone near Flarup. He made an accurate drawing of stone and the runes on three of its four sides and recorded its location in his travel diary.

After that, the stone disappeared. We don’t know when it was displaced, but landscape painter RH Kruse looked for it assiduously in 1841 and it was no longer there. None of the residents had any information about the runestone. A local farmer told Kruse that as far as he knew, the stone hadn’t been there for 50 years. A teacher named Nissen who was an avid documenter of runestones wrote to the National Museum in 1898 that he’d learned the stone had been used to build a railway bridge and was probably underwater.

Kruse had the wrong idea, thankfully. Ole Kappel acquired the stone 25 years ago when he bought a farm property and demolished the house. Thankfully he had the presence of mind to salvage what he could, including a pile of old stones from the foundation of the farmhouse. He took some of the stones home and used them in his landscaping. In fact, he told the thrilled experts, there more of the old farmhouse stones in his front yard patio. Andersen and Imer took a look at the pavers and saw two pieces that matched the shape of the runestone. Kappel’s sons Anders and Kristian pried up the two stones and more runes were revealed.

Imer was able to identify the stone because the extant runes matched the one recorded in Abildgaard’s drawings. Translated into English, it reads: “Thorgísl and Leifi’s sons placed/ at this place/ the stone in memory of Leifi.” Based on the parts that are missing, Imer thinks the stone, which was about six feet high and three feet wide when intact, was broken into about eight sections. All together, the rediscovered pieces form about half of the original runestone.

Andersen has checked the records and she thinks the stone was swiped in the 1820s when the farm Kappel bought was built. The farm was just a few hundred meters from the runestone’s last known location. The owner appears to have helped himself to the runestone and used it as raw material to build the foundations of his farmhouse. The Kappels plan to keep looking for the other missing pieces.

The recovered stones went on display at Heltborg Museum for a month so residents of Thy could see their long-lost cultural patrimony. The stone is now in the National Museum of Denmark where experts will assess whether it should be declared treasure trove. (It should be and will be.)

Incredible 17th c. silk gown found in shipwreck

Friday, April 15th, 2016

There are hundreds of shipwrecks buried under the sands of the Wadden Sea near the island of Texel off the coast of North Holland. A natural barrier between the North Sea and Wadden Sea, Texel was an important center of maritime trade. Ships anchored in the Texel roadstead, a sheltered area in the lee of the island, waiting for propitious winds, waiting out bad weather or taking on crew and cargo, only to be wrecked in sudden unexpected storms. Many wrecks are protected by the sand, but as currents shift they can be exposed to the more damaging elements of sea. Divers from the Texel Diving Club keep an eye on the condition of wrecks and recover artifacts that have been unburied and are in danger of destruction.

In August of 2014, divers discovered that artifacts from one known wreck, a well-armed merchant ship buried since it sank in the 17th century, had been exposed. They didn’t know what the objects were at first. It was just a bundle in the sand. It was only when the brought the bundle to the surface that they realized they’d recovered antique textiles. The find was not announced to protect the site from interlopers while conservators examined and stabilized the finds.

Conservators discovered that the bundle included a unique survival in exceptional condition: a silk damask gown of such high quality that it must have belonged to a noblewoman of very high rank, perhaps even royalty. Buried under the seabed for 400 years or so, the delicate silk was spared the ravages of both oxygen and animals. The dress has a bodice with loose-fitting sleeves and sleeve caps and a full pleated skirt open in the front. The neck has an upright collar. The style is of a type seen in paintings from the early 17th century.

The dress is just one element of an extensive wardrobe that includes a jacket, silk knee socks and silk bodices woven with gold and silver thread. All of these pieces are the same size, so archaeologists believe the clothes belonged to one full-figured woman. Only the gown shows signs of significant wear, which suggests it was intended for everyday use, as does the lack of rich silver and gold embroidery seen in the bodices.

The dress has been examined by experts from the Rijksmuseum, the University of Amsterdam and the State Service for Cultural Heritage (RCE), all of whom agree that it is one of the important textile finds ever made in Europe. Professor Emmy de Groot of the University of Amsterdam called it “the Night Watch of the costume world.”

Other artifacts were recovered from the wreck site. There’s Italian pottery, a silver gilt vessel, a red velvet pouch embroidered with silver thread that contained a two-sided lice comb made of cow horn, pomanders (openwork spheres that held sweet-smelling flowers or herbs for elegant people to sniff when the environment was particularly rank), and a number of leather book covers in different sizes, some with locks. One of them is stamped in gold with the coat of arms of King Charles I, which suggests at least part of the cargo was Stuart property. Perhaps the lady with the very fine wardrobe was a member of the Stuart family.

In addition to the passenger belongings, the ship’s cargo was remarkably varied. In addition to the wardrobe and expensive personal belongings, the ship was carrying boxwood — a dense, fine-grained wood widely used for musical instruments, chess sets and decorative carving — mastic from the Greek island of Chios, crates archaeologists believe held frankincense or myrrh, tobacco and aniseed. These objects found at the same time in the same context make the find a priceless historical time capsule that sheds new light on trade, politics and how people lived and worked on ships in the 17th century.

The gown and other treasures are now on display at the Kaap Skil Museum on Texel. The finds belong to the Province of North Holland. After the month-long exhibition ends on May 16th, the artifacts from the wreck will be further studied and conserved at North Holland’s Huis van Hilde archaeology center. Once the research is complete, the Kaap Skil Museum will display the finds in a permanent exhibition.

UPDATE: The likely owner of the gown has been identified.

Viking treasure pokes finder in Denmark

Thursday, April 14th, 2016

Søren Bagge had only been metal detecting for a couple of months in August of 2015. With no particular expertise, he picked a field near Lille Karleby on the Hornsherred peninsula of Zealand, Denmark, to scan just because he happened to have grown up nearby and so could easily stop at home for coffee breaks. The first couple of days he found a few Arabic silver coins. The next signal from his metal detector was weak too, but when he dug into the top soil, he found a small silver cup. He’d felt something pointy stabbing him as he was digging up the cup, so he suspected there was more to be found in the spot and rushed to alert the Roskilde Museum.

It was the weekend, though, and nobody was around to pursue his lead. Bagge put the cup back where he found it and reburied it to keep it safe until Monday. On Monday Roskilde Museum archaeologists did a small excavation on the spot. About a foot below the surface they encountered multiple artifacts and realized they had a Viking hoard on their hands. They removed the entire lot in a soil block to excavate it with careful deliberation in laboratory conditions.


Before excavating the soil block, archaeologists took it to Roskilde Hospital where it was CT scanned in the Radiology unit. The scan showed there were a great many artifacts encased in that soil block. It gave archaeologists a blueprint of how to proceed. There is video of the block’s arrival at the hospital and the scan. This video is in Danish, but you don’t have to understand what they’re saying to appreciate the excitement of the CT reveal.

The excavation revealed an exceptional treasure of 392 pieces. The silver cup Bagge found was one of two. There were 53 gilt bronze and silver pendants, more than 300 beads made of glass, amber, rock crystal and silver, 18 Arabic and Western European coins, a braided silver chain, a bracelet or arm ring with five smaller rings attached, elaborately decorated pieces from France, Eastern Europe and Ireland or Scotland. Some of the objects of Scandinavian manufacture were already antiques when they were buried in the second half of the 10th century.

I hesitate to play favorites with so many beautiful and important pieces, but the large ball penannular brooch, also known as a thistle brooch, is breathtaking. Penannular brooches were relatively common in the Viking era, but nothing like this one has been found in Denmark before. It’s Irish or Scottish and was made in the 10th century. It’s called a thistle brooch because it is decorated with three spheres in the shaving brush shape of the thistle bud. The brooch is large — 10 inches long — with a wicked long pin. It was that pin which poked at Søren Bagge when he was digging.

These large brooches were worn by elite men, high-ranking clerics and royal family members, with the pin facing upwards. There was a law on the books in Scotland that provided compensation for people who were accidentally stuck by long-pins. In a little historical irony, the reason the thistle is the national emblem of Scotland is that, according to legend, a barefoot Norse invader stepped on a thistle during an attempted nighttime raid on a Scottish army encampment. His cries of pain warned the Scots that the Vikings were coming and Scottish forces successfully repulsed the attack.

Another impressive import/pillaged piece in the hoard is a trefoil strap mount with acanthus decoration. This was a Frankish design which would later be copied in Scandinavia, only the Norse usually put stylized animal designs or geometric shapes inside the three leaves rather than the French acanthus motif. The French used trefoils as fittings on a sword strap. The Vikings converted them into a jewelry — belt buckles, brooches — and they’re usually discovered in women’s graves where there are no swords or any other weapons, for that matter. The Frankish style dates the piece to between the late 8th century and the 10th century.

Seven hollow silver beads in the hoard are of both Scandinavian and Slavic origin. The six largest, most elaborate beads decorated with rich filigree and showing the remains of gilding were probably manufactured in Poland or West Russia in the 9th or 10th century. They are very rare finds in Scandinavia. The seventh bead, on the other hand, is rounder with a silver spiral applique’ that is more typical of Scandinavian beads.

The bracelet or arm-ring with the rings attached is certainly a Scandinavian piece. The four smaller rings are closed with a knot, and the fifth and smallest ring is threaded through a heavy silver bead. The rings would have clinked together and chimed when the wearer moved her arm. Archaeologists think the design might represent Odin’s dwarf-forged gold ring, Draupnir (“the dripper” in Old Norse), which “dripped” eight rings of equal weight to the original every ninth night. In Norse mythology, it’s a symbol of fertility and prosperity.

As for the silver cup that started all of this, it and its companion are different. One is decorated with triangle designs close to the lip. One is plain. The decorated one is bigger and heavier than the plain one. Both were likely drinking goblets for the upper echelons of Norse society. Other Viking hoards also include silver cups, one larger and more ornamented than the other. Archaeologists think the uneven sets may have been used during important banquets or festivals where the honored guest would get to use the fancier cup and the host would take the plainer one. The style of the cups indicate they were made between 700 and 1000, but since the treasure was buried up to 50 or so years before the latter date, we can shave a few years off of that broad estimate.

The treasure went on display at the Roskilde Museum in December and is now in the National Museum for further study.

Unique Pictish Stone on display at Elgin Museum

Tuesday, April 12th, 2016


Three years have passed since Andy Johnstone broke a plough on a 1,500-pound Pictish Symbol Stone in a field in Dandaleith, near Craigellachie in northeastern Scotland. Landowner Mr. Robinson reported the find to the Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service (ACAS) and its experts determined the stone is Class I, the earliest type of symbol stone. It dates to the 6th-8th century B.C. and the symbols — an eagle, a crescent, a V-rod, a mirror case symbol, a notch rectangle and Z-rod — are carved on two adjacent sides, a unique configuration so far as we know.

Mr. Robinson allowed the five and a half foot-long pink granite stone to remain on his property for a year before arrangements could be made to remove it for conservation. In 2014, the Dandaleith Stone was transferred to Graciela Ainsworth Sculpture Conservation in Leith, Edinburgh, where Graciela Ainsworth’s team conserved it, documented it and laser scanned it to create a 3D model of the stone.

Meanwhile, the symbol stone was declared a Treasure Trove and the Scottish Archaeological Finds Allocation Panel allocated the find to the Elgin Museum, Scotland’s oldest independent museum (est. 1842), in Elgin, just 15 miles north of Dandaleith. The museum then had to raise the funds to pay the landowner and finder a fee equal to its assessed market value, plus more to pay for transportation, conservation and display. The fundraising was successful, thanks to contributions from the Heritage Lottery Fund, AIM, the Art Fund, the Pilgrim’s Trust, and Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service.

On March 1st of this year, the Dandaleith Stone was transported to the Elgin Museum by Graciela Ainsworth. She also brought the carved Pictish and early Medieval stones from the museum’s permanent collection that were conserved at her Edinburgh facility. The next day, the Dandaleith Stone was hoisted into position in the museum’s new display by the Elgin Marble Company which generously donated the equipment, time and manpower necessary to raise the massive stone and install it vertically next to a new row of lit shelves to display the museum’s other, much smaller carved stones.

The new Pictish Stone display opened to the public on Saturday, March 26th. Ploughman and finder Andy Johnstone was invited to cut the ribbon at the exhibition opening.

Tiny Arabic chess piece found in museum dig

Saturday, April 9th, 2016

Archaeologists excavating the back yard of the Wallingford Museum on High Street in Wallingford, Oxfordshire, have unearthed a tiny medieval chess piece. At first museum curator thought it was a figurine of a cat, but once it was cleaned, they recognized the artifact as an Arabic chess piece carved from the tip of an antler.

[Curator Judy Dewey] said: [...] “It is one of only about 50 medieval chess pieces found in England and, at only 21.7mm high, it is unique in being the smallest medieval Arabic chess piece known in the country.

“The chess piece was made from the tip of an antler in the 12th or 13th century and is highly decorated with traditional roundels – most other such pieces are at least double the size.

This is a bishop so the other pieces in the set must have been really tiny – it may have been part of a travelling set.”

The museum’s main building was once Wallingford Priory, a Benedictine abbey that was suppressed by Cardinal Wolsey and of which only the foundations remain today, all of them underground. Wolsey secured a papal bull ordering the dissolution of Wallingford and 30 other small monasteries deemed to be rife with corruption. Funds raised from the dissolution would go to one of Wolsey’s pet projects: the construction of Cardinal College at the University of Oxford. The priory was surrendered in 1525 to notary John Allen, as witnessed by Thomas Cromwell, then Wolsey’s right hand man. It took three more years before the priory was finally suppressed for good. On July 6th, 1528, the monastery and its lands were formally transferred from the crown to Cardinal Wolsey for the construction of his college at Oxford.

Before the demise of the abbey, visitors to the castle of Wallingford were sometimes housed in the priory. Chess was deemed a game for the nobility and educated classes. Any one of those visitors might have owned a portable set, or the monks themselves may have played.

Chess was introduced to Europe from Persia by the Islamic Arabian empire, likely through Spain. The Norman French brought it with them to England after the Conquest in the 11th century. Within a hundred years the original Arabic designs and names of the pieces were altered to forms more recognizable to the elite players of northern Europe. The Vizir became the Queen, the Fars (horse) became the Knight and the Al-Fil, the war elephant, became the Bishop. The look of the pieces shifted from the non-figural representation of the Islamic tradition to the people and characters we know today.

The piece discovered at Wallingford is a war elephant, aka the future Bishop. The round protrusions represent tusks. To Christian European eyes those bumps were reminiscent of a bishop’s mitre, which is how the war elephant became a high-ranking clergyman. The piece likely dates to before the mid-12th century when the figural designs set in, increasing the game’s appeal and popularity across Christendom.

The chess piece is now on display at the Wallingford Museum. Digging is scheduled to resume this July, and archaeologists are crossing their fingers and toes that they might find more pieces from the set. It’s a long shot, however.

Met conservators repair della Robbia that fell from wall

Thursday, April 7th, 2016

Late on the night of June 30th or early in the morning of July 1st, 2008, a blue-and-white glazed terracotta relief of Saint Michael the Archangel by Andrea della Robbia (1435-1525) on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art fell from its metal wall mounts high on a wall above a doorway and crashed to the ground. A security guard found the lunette the next morning on its back on the stone floor, broken into many pieces. The gallery was closed and conservators picked up the pieces, some large — Michael’s head was undamaged — and some as small as fingernails. The pieces were bagged and numbered and removed to the museum’s Department of Objects Conservation later that day.

The Met hasn’t had the greatest luck with the mounting of their Renaissance masterpieces. At least they were able to puzzle out this jigsaw in seven years. The fall of Tullio Lombardo’s Adam in 2002 was even more catastrophic; it took 12 years to put all of his pieces back together. The museum notes all wall-mounted sculpture was reviewed after the accident, and new systems — comprehensive and regular inspections, formal approval of all mounts — were put in place to prevent something like this happening again.

Andrea della Robbia’s uncle Luca (1400-1482), who in his youth had an illustrious career a sculptor in bronze and marble, invented the blue and white tin-based glazes that made terracotta reliefs exceptionally durable, easy to clean and impervious to the vagaries of the weather. The glazed earthenware pieces were significantly less expensive than marble or bronze, and since they looked so good and needed so little care, soon della Robbia reliefs were in great demand. Luca’s clients included some of the most important people and institutions in Florence — Piero de’ Medici, Jacopo de’ Pazzi, the Duomo — and elsewhere.

Andrea, who had learned the secret glaze recipe as his uncle’s pupil, took over operations of the della Robbia workshop on Via Guelfa in Florence in the late 1460s or early 1470s. He picked up where his uncle left off, executing high-end commissions for reliefs of increasing size and architectural importance from major private clients and churches all over northern Italy. Saint Michael the Archangel was made around 1475 for the church of San Michele Arcangelo in Faenza, a town outside Ravenna known for its majolica pottery. In fact, the town is literally synonymous with majolica tin-glazed earthenware which became known as faience after Faenza. The relief was installed above the church door and remained there until 1798 when the church was demolished and Saint Michael the Archangel sold.

The Met acquired the piece in 1960 at an auction of the estate of American industrialist and diplomat Myron C. Taylor for $40,000 (about $320,000 today). The museum has one of the most important collections of della Robbia works in the United States, including an exquisite Virgin and Child. Saint Michael, however, is probably the most important of all.

There was an upside to the crash. Conservators were able to study the relief thoroughly before they went about reassembling the pieces. They found the artist’s finger and tool marks which shed new light on della Robbia’s production process. The workshop made quality artworks for refined and wealthy clients, but it also had to crank out new pieces at a canter to keep up with demand. Conservators found evidence of this in Saint Michael’s robe. It was made separately and then attached to the lunette, but the toga cracked during firing. Instead of starting over again — a time-consuming and expensive approach — they stuck it back together. It was going above a door, after all, and nobody was going to be at eye-level to see the tiny fissure lines.

The sculpture was originally made in 12 interlocking pieces. While conservators Wendy Walker and Janis Mandrus reassembled the broken pieces and filled in the areas of paint loss, conservation preparator Fred Sager developed a custom mount that secured each of the 12 sections individually to an aluminum backing plate. This makes it safer while still allowing visitors to enjoy the entire composed piece.

The most challenging part of the restoration, Ms. Walker said, was the in-painting between repaired cracks — trying to recreate the signature cobalt della Robbia blue that the critic Walter Pater described as being like “fragments of the milky sky itself, fallen into the cool streets.”

“In the morning it would look good,” she said of the modern paint, “and by noon, in a different light, you’d see and go, ‘No!’ and just want to pull your hair out.”

But another lesson the accident taught, in the end, was how durable della Robbias were made to be, despite their humble, seemingly fragile clay origins. St. Michael’s head, for example, was completely unharmed after its violent detachment the night of the fall.

“For hundreds of years, this was outside, in the elements, protected by its glaze,” Mr. Bell said. “And the amazing thing about these ceramics is that the surface still looks pretty much the same as the day it came out of the kiln.”

The relief is now back in the Met’s European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Galleries, but this time it’s been mounted about at eye level to allow visitors to get a proper look at della Robbia’s amazing details, like the facial expressions and the little babies on the scale. They’re actually souls, not babies, weighed on the scales of justice and mercy. The happy light-weight one is saved for heaven; the facepalming heavy one is doomed to hell.

Roman mosaic bonanza at the Getty

Thursday, March 31st, 2016

The Getty Museum in Los Angeles has an exceptional collection of Roman floor mosaics from the Imperial era. Some of them have been on display consistently, but others will be seen by the public for the first time in Roman Mosaics Across the Empire, a new exhibition that opened on Wednesday at the Getty Villa. It features mosaics from provinces of the Roman Empire all over the Mediterranean — Italy, France, North Africa, Syria — done in different styles with different themes.

There’s bear hunt from Baiae, outside of Naples, a head of Medusa surrounded by a glorious optical illusion-inducing geometrical design from Rome, an Orpheus surrounded by animals from Saint-Romain-en-Gal, France, a hare and two birds with geometric border panels from Antioch, Syria, a dramatic lion attacking an onager from Hadrumentum, modern-day Sousse, Tunisia. These are top quality artworks which adorned the homes of the very wealthy, public baths, even early Christian churches.

The show also features a close look at the Getty Conservation Institute’s work conserving the mosaics from the Imperial Roman heyday of Bulla Regia in Tunisia, North Africa. Known for its unique villas with subterranean floors — smart design in the heat of Tunisia — Bulla Regia had the greatest numbers of senators in Roman North Africa. It was an important city and its exquisite art and architecture testify to that importance. The GCI is working with the Institut National du Patrimoine of Tunisia and the World Monuments Fund to fully conserve one of the most important private residences in the city, the House of the Hunt, and to devise a plan for the long-term conservation and maintenance of the 400 mosaics that have already been unearthed at Bulla Regia over the past hundred years. Some of the works will be restored for display; others will be reburied. The idea is to make Bulla Regia a template for in situ conservation that can be applied to mosaics elsewhere in North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere in the Mediterranean.

Highlights of the site’s breathtaking beauty can be seen in this video about the project:

The focus on best practices of situ conservation is in marked contrast to the Getty’s past see-no-evil acquisition policy evinced in more than one of the mosaics on display in this exhibition. The Getty bought 23 panels of the Bear Hunt in 1972 from a Switzerland-based antiques dealer (surprise!) who told them only that it had been in an Italian collection. It was almost certainly illegally exported, but the museum looked the other way as it so often did. Recently Getty researchers attempted to trace the ownership history and there’s a big gap between 1929 and 1972. The last known owner in 1929 was refused an export license because there were doubts as to whether he actually had legal title to the mosaic. Somewhere in those four decades, probably closer to 1972 than 1929, the mosaic was trafficked to Zurich and thence to the Getty. Four other panels from the original mosaic were eventually found by the Italian police and are now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples.

The Getty is offering a number of lectures related to the exhibition. The Handling Session looks particularly compelling.

How were mosaics created from pieces of stone and glass? Learn how these intricate architectural decorations were made in this multisensory handling session. Touch tools and materials similar to those used by ancient mosaicists, including tesserae, slaked lime, marble dust, and nippers.

Lucky Angelenos can take an early lunch and handle tesserae every Thursday and Friday from 11:00 AM-12:00 PM through September 9th. The exhibition runs until September 12th, 2016. For those of us who won’t be able to see the mosaics live, the Getty has made a companion catalogue to the exhibition available free online: Roman Mosaics in the J. Paul Getty Museum.

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