Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Iconic Alexander Mosaic to be restored

Friday, January 8th, 2021

The iconic mosaic of Alexander the Great’s victory over the Persian forces of Darius III at the Battle of Issus will be restored in public view at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples (MANN). The project begins at the end of the month and will continue until July. A mutlidisciplinary team of experts will use the latest technology to study, clean and conserve the massive masterpiece.

The Alexander Mosaic is believed to be a copy of a Greek painting by Philoxenus of Eretria from the Hellenistic era (late 4th, early 3rd century B.C.). Pliny praised the work in his Natural History: “Philoxenus of Eretria, who painted for King Cassander a picture representing one of the battles between Alexander and Darius, a work which may bear comparison with any.” (Cassander was king of Macedon from 317 to 297 B.C., which narrows down the date of the painting.)

The mosaic was discovered in the floor of the exedra (an open-air sitting area) in the House of the Faun in Pompeii in 1832. It was made around 120-100 B.C. and is of unparalleled quality and size, a testament to the great wealth of the owners of the House of the Faun which is the largest and most elaborately decorated villa in the city. The villa occupied an entire insula (city block) and covered a whopping 32,000 square feet on two floors. The Alexander mosaic was a focal point of a dramatic visual axis down the length of the house, from the HAVE (“welcome”) mosaic on the threshold, through the 52-foot length of the atrium, the triclinium (dining room) and a small peristyle to the exedra that opened to the villa’s grand peristyle.

An estimated 1.5 million tesserae in four colors (white, yellow, red, blue/black) were arranged in fine opus vermiculatum style (meaning wormlike, for its tiny segments arranged in undulating asymmetrical lines) that used color gradations to create an incredibly detailed, smooth, realistic Detail of Alexander. Photo courtesy Museo Archeological Nazionale, Napoli.effect. It measures almost 9-by-17 feet and is 215 square feet in area. There are more than 50 people in the melee, with Alexander and Darius facing off above their armies. Alexander is astride his steed Bucephalus, leading the Macedonian cavalry; Darius stands in his chariot, his horses dynamically facing the viewer as they turn around in retreat.

In 1844, the whole mosaic was raised from the floor and transported by oxcart to what was then Naples’ Royal Bourbon Museum. They installed it in the floor where people, you know, walked on it, so in 1916 it was reinstalled on the wall where it has been on display ever since. It is a world-famous symbol of the museum, of Pompeii and one of the most-recognized images of Alexander the Great.

The Battle of Issus weighs seven tons and known issues include detaching tiles, damaged tiles, vertical and horizontal microfractures, and shifts in the underlay. Previous investigations have found that much of the deterioration in the mosaic may be due to the oxidation of the iron reinforcements and degradation of the mortar used to affix the tesserae to the background. It’s heavy weight and vertical placement put it in a constant battle with gravity as well.

The first step in the conservation process will to consolidate loose layers or mortar and tiles, doing a light cleaning of the surface and bandaging all the surface. The mosaic will then be removed with a mechanical lifting system custom-designed for this job. The entire mosaic will then be examined and analyzed to confirm the next actions to take. Between April and July, the support will be stabilized while the face of the mosaic, protected by planking, will be projected  onto a wall so conservators can see which area of the mosaic they are treating and the public can see them at work. The last step will be the removal of the bandages and planking, cleaning, any final consolidations and a new protective treatment.


Netherlands’ Roman limes seeks UNESCO status

Thursday, January 7th, 2021

The Germanic Limes, the northern frontier line of the Roman Empire from the late 1st century to the second half of the third, ran from the North Sea to the Danube. The section in what is now the Netherlands followed the line of the Lower Rhine from the Oude Rijn estuary on the North Sea to the town of Bad Breisig in modern-day Germany. The Lower Germanic Limes ended there and the Upper Germanic picked up on the other side of the Rhine.

The Netherlands limes run from Nijmegen, the second oldest city in the Netherlands founded as a Roman military camp in the 1st century B.C., to Katwijk, founded by the Emperor Claudius in the 1st century A.D. as Lugdunum Batavorum. Between them are a wealth of Roman remains, both outdoors and underground, and museums, like the Valkhof Museum in Nijmegen, owner of the exceptional Nijmegen cavalry helmet, and its associated archaeological park site of a Roman military camp.

The Lower Germanic Limes was not a fortified structure-based border like Hadrian’s Wall. There were forts alone the line, but they dotted the natural boundary of the Lower Rhine. The remains of the forts and military camps along the limes in the Netherlands today form the largest archaeological monument in the country. Netherlands heritage organizations have nominated the Roman Limes as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The results of the campaign will be announced in 2021.

Whether it achieves World Heritage status or not, the limes are an absolute dream trip for the history nerd/hiking aficionado. Flat terrain, a myriad fascinating, little-photographed sites along the way, no crowds, uninterrupted stretches of ground and river for walking, biking and kayaking. I came across a video today promoting the Netherlands Limes for the UNESCO list, and I am now officially obsessed with walking this line.

That giant mask you see in the video is a monumental replica of the Nijmegen helmet by artist Andreas Hetfeld that was installed overlooking the city’s Waal river in April of last year. There’s a staircase inside it so you can climb up and look out of its eyeholes to see a panorama of the city. How cool is that? Even cooler, they had to transport it to its current location by barge. Check out this badassness:


Journey to The Met Cloisters

Wednesday, January 6th, 2021

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s second location, The Met Cloisters, is one of my favorite museums. Dedicated to the art of the Middle Ages, the museum was completed in 1938 using both modern materials and architectural salvage from European castles, churches and monasteries. It has distinct spaces evoking those structures, nesting the artworks in the collection in a familiar context — the unicorn tapestries in a castle-like room, for example. Even the outdoors is a medieval wonderland, with its cloister garden of carefully curated plants that gives the museum its name.

Take a quick flythrough to see you for yourself:

This fall, the gardens were the subject of a fascinating webinar with The Cloisters’ horticulturalists. It gives you a glimpse behind the scenes of the work at the end of the growing season and how they curate the landscape using medieval sources. 

The museum has a ton of other virtual content. There’s an overview of the building and its content here. The audio tours are comprehensive and worth listening to even when you’re not fortunate enough to be present in person. I also love the blog about the history of The Cloisters’ Library and Archives and its dedicated librarians. 


Rubens’ handiwork restored to brilliance

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2020

London’s National Gallery has cleaned and conserved one of their greatest works by Flemish Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens. View of Het Steen in the Early Morning was dingy and yellowed from discolored varnishes applied by restorers 75 years ago. 

View of Het Steen in the Early Morning by Peter Paul Rubens, 1636, before cleaning. Photo courtesy the National Gallery.

Look at it now:View of Het Steen in the Early Morning by Peter Paul Rubens, 1636, after cleaning. Photo courtesy the National Gallery.

Rubens’ commissions were mostly portraits of aristocrats, altarpieces and large-scale historical, Biblical and mythological scenes, but he was also an art collector in his own right and a dedicated student of architecture. His townhouse in Antwerp, now known as the Rubenshuis, was extensively renovated and rebuilt based on his designs for both the exteriors and interiors.

His classical humanist education served him in good stead throughout his career, advancing him socially and professionally above the rank most artists, who no matter how elevated their clientele ultimately worked with their hands, were able to achieve. Habsburg patrons deployed Rubens on diplomatic missions when he travelled to other courts for art commissions. He was held in high esteem for his talents as an artist and as a diplomat, and was knighted by Philip IV of Spain in 1624 and Charles I of England in 1630.

In 1635, Rubens bought the Elewijt Castle, also known as the Castle of Het Steen, in the village of Elewijt 20 miles south of Antwerp. His acquisition of a landed estate was symbolic of his rise in status from artist to courtier and gentleman and he put brush to panel to capture his new demesne. He depicted his manor house and the bustle of activity — ox cart going to market, hunter and dog stalking birds — of a country estate shortly after dawn.

By then his phalanx of students at the workshop in the Rubenshuis had been executing commissions for more than two decades, all designed, overseen and finished by the master, but most of the hands-on work was being done by his employees. A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning is 7.5 feet wide and 4.2 feet high and all of it was painted by Rubens himself, probably to decorate one of the grand rooms of the Het Steen. And thus the artist became his own patron.

The discolored varnishes dramatically altered the Rubens palette, yellowing everything and eliminating the delicate warm gold accents from the sun against the white of the clouds. The contrast of the earth tones in the foreground against increasingly cool blues going backwards in the landscape was flattened as well. Now that it has been cleaned and the old varnish removed, Rubens’ original vision shines through.


Lost Great Pyramid artifact rediscovered

Wednesday, December 16th, 2020

One of only three Egyptian artifacts ever found inside the Great Pyramid of Giza has been rediscovered after going missing for 70 years. The piece of cedar wood, now broken into several fragments, was recovered by Egyptian archaeologist Abeer Eladany in the Asia collection of the University of Aberdeen. She came across a small box bearing the former flag of Egypt during a curatorial review of objects in storage. She cross-referenced it with the records of the University’s Egyptian objects and recognized it as the long-lost Great Pyramid cedar, misplaced for decades in the wrong collection.

The cedar was found in the “Queen’s Chamber” (a misnomer as Khufu’s wives were buried in their own pyramids in the complex; a niche in the east wall may have held Khufu’s ka statue, eternal resting place of the pharaoh’s soul) by British shipbuilding engineer Waynman Dixon in 1872. He was looking for shafts that connected the chamber in the center of the pyramid to the outside walls like the two that go up in a v-shape from the King’s Chamber. He almost succeeded, finding two air shafts in the same v-shape, although they don’t quite reach the outer walls. In one of the shafts Dixon found a spherical pounder of black diorite, a copper forked implement shaped like a swallow’s tail and a wood board.

It’s not clear what uses they were put to and why they were left in the shaft. The copper object has organic remains suggesting it once had a bone handle. They may have been tools used in construction of the pyramid left behind by builders, or they may have been deliberate deposits with ritual purpose.

These sole survivors of centuries of looting of the Great Pyramid made headlines at the time of their discovery. In the 1972, the pounder and the copper tool were donated to the British Museum. The cedar plank was donated to the University of Aberdeen in 1946 by the daughter of James Grant, a medical doctor who had worked with Dixon on the exploration of the Queen’s Chamber shafts.

The rediscovery of the cedar is of special interest because it can be radiocarbon dated. Testing was delayed by COVID, but is now complete and it has revealed that the cedar wood fragment is so ancient it makes the Great Pyramid look like a baby. It dates to between 3341-3094 B.C, at least 500 years before construction of the pyramid which was completed around 2560 B.C.

Neil Curtis, Head of Museums and Special Collections at the University of Aberdeen, said: “Finding the missing Dixon Relic was a surprise but the carbon dating has also been quite a revelation.

“It is even older than we had imagined. This may be because the date relates to the age of the wood, maybe from the centre of a long-lived tree. Alternatively, it could be because of the rarity of trees in ancient Egypt, which meant that wood was scarce, treasured and recycled or cared for over many years.

“It will now be for scholars to debate its use and whether it was deliberately deposited, as happened later during the New Kingdom, when pharaohs tried to emphasise continuity with the past by having antiquities buried with them.”


Galloway Hoard cross revealed in its original glory

Monday, December 14th, 2020

An Anglo-Saxon silver cross from the Galloway Hoard has been revealed in all its intricate glory after being cleaned and conserved by experts at the National Museums Scotland (NMS). The Greek cross is decorated with black niello enamel and gold leaf typical of Late Anglo-Saxon design. Each arm bears the symbols of the four evangelists (Matthew’s divine man, Mark’s lion, Luke’s cow, John’s eagle) with floral swirls and knotwork surrounding them. It was made in Northumbria in the late 9th century and is extremely rare. Only one other Anglo-Saxon pectoral cross from this period is known, and it is nowhere near as elaborately decorated.

“The cleaning has revealed that the cross, made in the 9th century, [has] a late Anglo-Saxon style of decoration.This looks like the type of thing that would be commissioned at the highest levels of society. First sons were usually kings and lords, second sons would become high-ranking clerics. It’s likely to come from one of these aristocratic families.”

The pectoral cross has survived with its intricate spiral chain, from which it would have been suspended from the neck, displayed across the chest. The chain shows that the cross was worn.

[Dr Martin Goldberg, NMS principal curator of early medieval and Viking collections,] said: “You could almost imagine someone taking it off their neck and wrapping the chain around it to bury it in the ground. It has that kind of personal touch.”

When the hoard was discovered in 2014, the cross was in the top layer. It was caked it dirt, as was the spiral chain wound around the junction of the bars. The thin silver wire of the chain is less than a millimeter in diameter and was coiled around an organic center. The core was preserved and analysis identified it as animal gut. Cleaning the tightly coiled spiral and the enameled grooves of the cross posed a challenge. Conservators used a porcupine quill and scalpel to remove the dirt as carefully as possible without damaging the metal.

Cross before conservation. Photo courtesy National Museums Scotland.

Anglo-Saxon cross during conservation. Photo courtesy National Museums Scotland.

Anglo-Saxon pectoral cross after cleaning and conservation. Photo courtesy National Museums Scotland.

The National Museums Scotland acquired the hoard in 2017 after a successful fund-raising campaign with donations from the public, non-profit heritage organizations and the government of Scotland. Museum conservators have been working ever since then to clean and conserve the objects in the hoard — more than 100 pieces from jewelry to ingots to a Carolingian pot — and preserve its extremely rare organic elements, like the cord in the spiral chain and textiles found inside the pot.

It has been dubbed a Viking treasure — the largest Viking hoard discovered in Scotland since 1891 — but the new exhibition that opens at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh on February 19th is pointedly entitled Galloway Hoard: Viking-age Treasure, emphasis on the age. The important Anglo-Saxon objects like the cross in the hoard underscore that while it was buried in the Viking era, its contents are multicultural.

Goldberg said: “At the start of the 10th century, new kingdoms were emerging in response to Viking invasions. Alfred the Great’s dynasty was laying the foundations of medieval England, and Alba, the kingdom that became medieval Scotland, is first mentioned in historical sources.

Galloway had been part of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria, said Goldberg, and was called the Saxon coast in the Irish chronicles as late as the 10th century. But this area was to become the Lordship of Galloway, named from the Gall-Gaedil, people of Scandinavian descent who spoke Gaelic and dominated the Irish Sea zone during the Viking age.

“The mixed material of the Galloway Hoard exemplifies this dynamic political and cultural environment,” Goldberg added.


Artemisia exhibition film: a review

Saturday, November 28th, 2020

This year London’s National Gallery is putting on the first exhibition in the UK dedicated solely to Baroque master Artemisia Gentileschi. The exhibition has been postponed twice due to COVID and is currently shut down until December 2nd. With major showcases like this that rely on priceless artworks loaned from other collections, changing the dates requires an enormous amount of effort and forbearance, not to mention expense, and with in-person museum attendance in ashes right now, the National Gallery is offering a curator-led film tour of the exhibition on demand for £8.

It’s an idea with possibilities, even under non-pandemic circumstances, and I was curious to see whether it was worth the price of admission, so I booked a ticket. You do you have to create an account on the National Gallery website first ; name, email, phone number and address are all required. You are allowed a single “booking,” which will grant your account access to the film tour for 48 hours. The film can only be viewed on the National Gallery website. To watch, click your email address in the upper right of the screen, and select “online films” from the menu listing under “My account” on the left. Click the Watch Now button to view.

The movie is hosted by Letizia Treves, the museum’s curator of Later Italian, Spanish and French 17th-century Paintings. She walks through the galleries, starting with works from Artemisia’s early years in Rome. Treves gives a brief biography of Artemisia and introduces the viewer to the artist’s first signed work, Susannah and the Elders, painted when she was 17 years old. Treves then relays how Artemisia was raped by her father’s colleague Agostino Tassi and how we know every detail of the ensuing trial because the original transcripts have survived. That transcript is on display in this gallery, loaned out for the first time by the State Archive in Rome.

Treves continues a chronological narration of Artemisia’s life and moves to the next gallery featuring works from her time in Florence. She painted some of her most famous pieces during this time, including two versions of Judith Beheading Holofernes, which Treves focuses on in her explanation. She then moves to the other side of the room and a series of self-portraits.

Artemisia achieved fame and success as an artist in Florence, enough that she became both author and subject of commissioned portraits when she returned to Rome. In the next gallery is a portrait of her done by another artist and portraits she made of noble subjects, but the real get are letters she wrote to her lover, rediscovered in 2011 in the Archivio Frescobaldi and on display here for the first time. Treves doesn’t read any of them verbatim, sadly, but she does summarize a few intriguing passages.

The next gallery features works from Artemisia’s artistic peak, paintings of Biblical and Classical motifs with women protagonists — Judith, Susannah, Mary Magdalene, Lucretia — done in dramatic light to satisfy buyers’ tastes for Caravaggismo. The works shift in scale and subject in the next gallery, following her move to Naples. Then under Spanish rule, Naples offered Artemisia a wide international pool of patrons, and it’s here that she painted her first monumental altarpieces. These were also her first collaborative works.

Except for a brief stay in London, she would live in Naples until her death, expanding her repertoire to literary subjects and allegories. The next gallery features a monumental Birth of St. John the Baptist she painted for the King of Spain and her last documented painting, a Susannah and the Elders. The final gallery in the show presents paintings she and her father Orazio, who were reunited in London, made in the closing years of their careers. One allegory, a personification of painting, that is likely a self-portrait is the only work documented to have been painted when she was in London.

Once the walkthrough of the exhibition’s galleries is concluded, Trevers takes a closer look at a few highlight pieces: the earliest Susannah, Judith sawing Holofernes’ head off in gore aplenty, Judith and her maidservant with the head of Holofernes in a basket, a later Susannah and the Birth of St John the Baptist.

So was the film worth the price of admission? It was interesting and a nice overview of an exhibition I’ll never get to see, but it was a little sparse for my taste. It’s short at just under half an hour, and it felt like Trevers was in a rush (which she was). Also, there was a missed opportunity here to mix media. In my ideal guided tour, there would be links that allow you to explore gigapixel images of the works themselves, plus transcripts and translations of the documents.

No regrets whatsoever, though. Museums have been brutalized this year, and I’ll gladly pay 10 bucks for content. They generate so much of it for free, it’s the very, VERY least I could do.


Dueling Dinosaurs gifted to North Carolina museum

Sunday, November 22nd, 2020

The Dueling Dinosaurs, two large dinosaurs locked in combat for 67 million years, have been gifted to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. It’s the ideal outcome for a saga that began 14 years ago and could very well have ended with the disappearance of this one-of-a-kind natural treasure into anonymous private hands.

When they were put up for auction in 2013, they were believed to be the fossils of the carnivore Nanotyrannus lancensis and the herbivore Chasmosaurine ceratopsian, but the specimens have now been identified the carnivore as a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex and the herbivore as a Triceratops horridus. In other words, this was the real-life version of the most epic clash staged in toy rooms around the world. As if that weren’t cool enough, both the T. rex and the Triceratops are the most complete fossils of their species ever discovered. Tyrannosaurus is the only 100% complete T. rex fossil ever found. They went down in loose sandstone, died and were preserved locked in position.

The dinosaur carcasses have not been studied and remain entombed within sediment from the Montana hillside where they were discovered. Because of these rare burial conditions, each bone is in its natural position and Museum scientists will have access to biological data that is typically lost in the excavation and preparation processes. Entombing sediment preserves extraordinary features such as body outlines, skin impressions and other soft tissues, as well as injuries and potential evidence of interaction, such as tyrannosaur teeth embedded in the Triceratops body. This distinct preservation will provide Museum paleontologists with an unprecedented opportunity for research and education as they work to uncover the fossils and learn from them in the years to come.

The fossils were unearthed in Montana in 2006. The finders, a rancher, his cousin and a friend who hunt fossils for fun and profit, were given permission to search by the landowners Mary Anne and Lige Murray. The unique find made headlines and with the prospect of a multi-million dollar sale in the offing, trouble ensued. The Murrays had bought the land from brothers Jerry and Robert Severson in 2005.  The brothers retained two-thirds of the mineral rights, however, and with the fossils going under the hammer in 2013, the Seversons claimed part ownership on the grounds that Montana law defined fossils as minerals.

The fossils failed to meet the reserve price of $6 million at the 2013 auction so there was no sale, but the lawsuit opened a huge can of worms. If fossils belong to whoever owns the mineral rights instead of surface rights, paleontologists would have to negotiate with landowners for access to the dig site, then separately with the mineral owners. Mineral rights change hands a lot so owners aren’t necessarily easy to determine, and corporate entities predominate. Even the Seversons’ interests are owned by LLCs. It would also cast down on legal title of fossils that are already in museum collections, potentially resulting in a cascade of new ownership claims and sell-offs.

District court ruled for the Murrays first, but in 2018 a panel of the federal 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals came down on the side of the mineral rights owners. The Murrays filed for a rehearing and the full circuit court referred the case to the Montana Supreme Court. In 2019, state legislature passed a law declaring that fossils belong to the surface estate, but the legislation was not retroactive and the Murray case still had to make its way through the legal system. In May of this year, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that fossils are not minerals but rather belong to the land in which they were discovered.

With the legalities sorted out, the nonprofit Friends of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences was able to negotiate the acquisition. The museum is going all-out to showcase and study their new dinosaurs.

“The Museum is thrilled to have the unique opportunity to house and research one of the most important paleontological discoveries of our time,” said Dr. Eric Dorfman, director and CEO of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. “Not only are we able to uncover unknown details of these animals’ anatomy and behavior, but our new dedicated facility and educational programs will allow us to engage with audiences locally, across North Carolina, and worldwide.”

The renovation will be located on the ground floor of the innovative Nature Research Center and will include high-tech exhibit spaces, an area where visitors can explore the tools and techniques used by paleontologists, and an exemplary science laboratory dubbed the “SECU DinoLab,” where scientists will research the specimens live in front of the public. Museum guests will have a unique opportunity to enter the SECU DinoLab and talk directly to the paleontology team. This state-of-the-art facility will also feature video feeds and research updates so the public, both onsite and online, can follow along live as paleontologists work to reveal and share their Dueling Dinosaurs discoveries.

“We have not yet studied this specimen; it is a scientific frontier. The preservation is phenomenal, and we plan to use every technological innovation available to reveal new information on the biology of T. rex and Triceratops. This fossil will forever change our view of the world’s two favorite dinosaurs,” said Dr. Lindsay Zanno, head of paleontology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and associate research professor at North Carolina State University. “The way we have designed the entire experience — inviting the public to follow the scientific discoveries in real time and participate in the research — will set a new standard for museums.”


Torlonia marbles exhibit opens. Seriously!

Wednesday, October 14th, 2020

Four years after the agreement was signed to display a selection of ancient sculptures from the unparalleled collection of the princely Torlonia family, one year after the announcement that would finally go on display in March 2020, and seven months after that date came and went, the Torlonia marbles exhibit has actually opened. Ninety-six marbles of the 620 in the collection have gone on display at the Palazzo Caffarelli, a newly-renovated venue that is part of the Musei Capitolini system.

This is the first time the general public has been able to see any of the Torlonia masterpieces in person since the 1940s. The Museo Torlonia, the private museum in Trastevere where the  ancient statues, reliefs, vases and busts the Torlonia amassed primarily by buying entire collections from impoverished Roman nobility, closed its doors in 1976. Not that they were ever wide open. Founded in 1875, the museum was very exclusive, with access granted to invited guests, dignitaries and scholars. So 101 years after the private museum opened, it was shut down on the pretext of roof repair. In fact, the Torlonia illegally converted the building into apartments and tossed the priceless collection into the basement to collect dust.

Since then, the state has tried to acquire the or at least arrange for its permanent display but for decades all dealmaking attempts and court cases failed. The 2016 agreement was a major breakthrough, but new problems cropped up when the pater familias Prince Alessandro Torlonia died in 2017. Those were sorted out just in time to hit the COVID wall. We’ll see if the Torlonia marbles manage to stay on display as planned this time. The exhibition is scheduled to run through June 29th, 2021.

The Torlonia Marbles: Collecting Masterpieces is arranged in five sections. Room 1 is dedicated to the Museo Torlonia. It includes the famous 1884 catalogue of its 620 marbles which was the first catalogue of an ancient sculpture collection to use photographs of all the works instead of illustrations. Room 2 features works excavated from Torlonia properties in the 19th century. Section 3 covers three rooms and is dedicated to the many marbles acquired from the 18th century collections of the Albani family and sculptor Bartolomeo Cavaceppi. Section 4 (in four rooms) features works collected by Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani in the 17th century. The final section spotlights pieces from 15th and 16th century collections of distinguished Roman families.

In a nod to the seminal catalogue that first documented the collection of the Museo Torlonia, a catalogue of the exhibition has been published that covers the artworks on display in exhaustive detail, from provenance to restorations to the latest research. Essays by specialists contextualize the pieces, delving into the history of antiquities collecting and museums themselves. The catalogue is available in English and can be bought online.


Refurbished Raphael Cartoon Court reopens

Tuesday, September 29th, 2020

The Raphael Court, the V&A gallery dedicated to the seven surviving tapestry cartoons created by Raphael, will reopen in November after a nine-month refurbishment. They’re getting in right under the wire to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death (April 6th, 1520). The upgraded Raphael Court features acoustic paneling, new furniture for more comfortable contemplation of the masterpieces and new LED lighting that reduces glare on the glass and massively improves their visibility.

The cartoons depicting scenes from the lives of Saints Peter and Paul were commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1513. He wanted monumental tapestries to decorate the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel, but to be worthy of the glorious frescoes by Michelangelo on the ceiling and wall behind the altar, the tapestries had to be designed by the greatest artist of the era instead of the staff designers in the workshop of Flemish weaver Pieter van Aelst. Raphael produced 10 elaborate cartoons the full size of the tapestries: 10 feet high and between 10 and 16 feet wide. The designs were rich in character, landscape and architectural detail and Raphael painted them with the same complex palette he used in all his works.

Tapestry cartoons were ephemera, used as weaving templates until they wore out. They were not considered artworks worthy of preservation, and even Raphael’s were only kept because van Aelst used them to make copies of the tapestries for other clients. By the early 1600s, only seven were left. They were acquired by the then-Prince of Wales (future Charles I) for £300, and managed to survive the Civil War, the Cromwellian Commonwealth and the Restoration. In 1865, Queen Victoria lent them to the South Kensington Museum in memory of her late lamented husband. That museum is now named after her and said husband.

In order to display them in a space suited to their original context, the V&A built the Raphael Court is almost identical in proportion to the Sistine Chapel. The gallery was last refurbished in the early 90s.

The work on the infrastructure took place with the cartoons in situ as they are far too fragile to get moved around (as are the tapestries they were used to create, now in the collection of the Vatican but almost never displayed). Researchers were able to take advantage of the nine months to unframe the works, scan their surfaces in high-resolution 3D, use infrared imagining and composite photography to enhance our understanding of this unique group of monumental works by one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance. The 3D scans are of special interest with the cartoons because they were punctured in order to transfer the image in the tapestry, giving them a unique texture compared to other drawings and paintings.

All of this new data will be invaluable to researchers and conservators in the study and care of the cartoons. They are also being used to create new interactive features for visitors to the museum to access via QR codes or directly from the V&A’s website.

Imagery and a suite of new interactive interpretation will be available online, accessed in the gallery via QR codes, allowing visitors to engage with the interpretation on site using their own devices. Visitors will be able to zoom in and discover the design and making of the Cartoons and Raphael’s extraordinary creative process through detailed imagery and interactive features that highlight the significance and status of the Cartoons in multiple ways. Stories told will include the Cartoons’ function as full-scale tapestry designs for the Sistine Chapel, the ingenuity of Raphael and his workshop and their design process, the rescue, life and status of the Cartoons in England from their arrival in the 17th century, and the fascination they have provoked since then up to the present day. A new publication, edited by Dr Ana Debenedetti, will further contextualise the creation and afterlife of the Cartoons, shedding light on Raphael’s artistic practice and the organisation of his large workshop, the fate of the tapestries made for the Sistine Chapel, and the rediscovery and reception of the Cartoons, especially in Britain.

Dr Ana Debenedetti, Lead Curator of the Raphael Project and Curator of Paintings at the V&A said:

“The set of seven surviving tapestry Cartoons by Raphael comprise a unique Renaissance treasure, both in terms of aesthetic value and technical achievement. Cutting-edge technology, provided by Factum Foundation, offered non-invasive methods of studying such canonical works of art by allowing us to look beneath the visible layers of paint and discover Raphael’s creative process. It is a feast for the eye to be able to enjoy the extraordinary beauty of these monumental drawings which are over 500 years old. We look forward to sharing this enhanced experience with our visitors when the gallery reopens in November to mark Raphael’s 500th anniversary.”





January 2021


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