Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

And three partridges in an apple tree

Friday, July 24th, 2020

The exceptionally intricate Roman mosaic floors discovered in the village of Yavru, Turkey, have gone on display at the provincial capital Amasya for the first time in seven years.

Archaeologists discovered the remains of a Roman villa in July of 2013 during an rescue excavation of a site targeted by looters. Large sections covering a total of 258 square feet over two rooms of the villa were found in excellent condition. A dynamic checkerboard of swirls, chevrons, triangles, zigzags, waves and other geometric patterns reminiscent of kilim rug motifs is unique on the archaeological record. The mosaic in the adjacent room features a central panel of an apple tree with three partridges enjoying its fruit.

Located in a valley in the mountains above the central south coast of the Black Sea, Amasya has the ideal temperate climate for growing fruits and is famous for its apples. The mosaic’s apple tree is a visual record of how far back the city’s association with its most famous agricultural export goes.

Archaeologists believe the villa was built around the early 3rd century by a wealthy farmer. The elite villa was converted into a church in late antiquity and later abandoned. The mosaics were raised in 2013. After extensive conservation, they were installed in the Amasya Archeology Museum against a photographic backdrop of the walls of the structure.

On a side note, when I wrote about the discovery back in 2013, all the available photos of the mosaic in situ were unnaturally brightly colored. I actually color-corrected them to tone that down a little because it was just so obviously wrong, something I have never done before or since, but I had nothing to go by to determine appropriate saturation, so they were still far too bright. Even accounting for lighting differences, it warms the cockles of my picture-obsessed heart to finally see the real palette after so many years.

 Apple tree detail today. Photo courtesy DHA.

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Morse Museum acquires Louis Comfort Tiffany iron fireplace hood

Monday, July 6th, 2020

The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park, Florida, is home to the world’s most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany, encompassing everything from lamps, vases and jewelry to windows, the incredible Daffodil Terrace and even the entire chapel he created for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Now to that great variety of masterpieces the museum has added a unique cast iron fireplace hood (pdf) that Tiffany so loved it lived in two houses with him.

Tiffany cast iron fireplace hood, ca. 1883. Photo courtesy of the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, FL.

Louis Comfort Tiffany was a passionate collector of Chinese and Japanese art, and Asian motifs inspired many of his works (bat lamp 4eva!). His New York City home on 72nd Street and Madison, and later his Long Island country estate Laurelton Hall, were replete with Japanese and Chinese antiquities, rugs, furniture, ukiyo-e woodblock prints, pottery, statues, screens, musical instruments, jade cups, textiles, hairpins, beads, tea caddies, leather tobacco pouches, lacquer boxes, incense burners, weapons, multiple complete sets of samurai armor and much more, an impossibly wide assortment of objects large and small. Tiffany’s Asian collection crowded every nook, corner and surface of Laurelton Hall, not just the two dedicated rooms — the Chinese Room and the Japanese Room.

After the Meiji government of Japan abolished the samurai class in the 1870s, specifically outlawing the wearing of swords in 1876, Western auction houses made a brisk business of selling samurai armature. Louis Comfort Tiffany began collecting samurai sword guards (tsuba) in the 1880s. They flooded the market at that time, and Tiffany bought them literally by the barrel. In 1882 he acquired 2,500 in one fell swoop from his design firm partner Lockwood de Forest. They ranged in date from the late 18th to the early 19th centuries. Most of them were made of punched or pierced iron, some also decorated with mother-of-pearl and metal inlays in natural motifs (chrysanthemums, dragonflies). He was charmed by their fine workmanship, smooth curves, openwork textures and variety as each were individually made and no two sword guards were alike. He was known to carry one in his waistcoat pocket at all times.

With such a bounty of them, he incorporated tsuba in pieces of his own manufacture, including lampshades, frames of stained glass windows and suspension chains for hanging light fixtures. He embedded them into wine casks that he then mounted on the wall of the breakfast room. Around 1883, 14 years before he would open a foundry and metal shop to manufacture brass, bronze, copper and iron fittings for his glassworks in Corona, Queens, Louis Comfort Tiffany created a cast iron smoke hood in his Fourth Street workshops. It was 66 inches tall and 55 inches wide with tsuba embedded onto it so artfully their openwork looks like it is cut directly out of the hood itself. He mounted the smoke hood over the fireplace of the library in his 72nd Street home. More tsuba decorated the chimney breast, flanking walls and the fender. Pairs of them lined the vertical dividers between the five stained glass Magnolia panels of the bay window.

The hood remained in place until 1919, the year Louis retired from Tiffany Studios, when he dismantled it from his Manhattan home and reinstalled it in the smoking room of Laurelton Hall. The smoking room contained approximately 2,000 tsuba, not counting the ones he’d used to make custom pieces. The ones that weren’t soldered to lampshades and fireplace hoods he kept in wood cabinets.

Louis Comfort Tiffany had hoped that Laurelton Hall would become an enduring testament to his aesthetic vision long after he was gone, but the endowment he established to support Laurelton as a museum after his death in 1933 fell victim to financial reversals. The foundation was forced to sell the contents of the house at a Park-Bernet auction in 1946. The mansion with its 84 rooms, outbuildings, and 60 acres was sold and subdivided. Already much degraded, Laurelton Hall was all but destroyed by fire in 1957.

Hugh F. McKean, whom Louis Comfort Tiffany had invited to live at Laurelton as artist-in-residence in 1930, bought basically everything that survived the fire. Hugh’s wife Jeannette Genius McKean had founded the Morse Museum in 1942 in honor of her grandfather, machinery manufacturer and philanthropist Charles Hosmer Morse. When Laurelton Hall burned down, she and Hugh visited the ruins. She told him, “Let’s buy everything that is left and try to save it,” and that’s exactly what they did. The Morse Museum’s unparalleled Louis Comfort Tiffany collection is the result.

They did not salvage the iron hood from the smoking room, however. It was presumed destroyed. When it turned up in New York last year, the Morse Museum snapped it up with a quickness. The museum’s collection of objects, architectural features, furnishings and materials from Laurelton Hall, the largest in the world, is displayed in a dedicated 12,000-square-foot wing. The iron fireplace hood will join its brethren in the Laurelton Gallery on October 20th of this year.

Detail of fireplace hood. Photo courtesy of the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, FL.

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Export barred for Roman dogs after wellhead gets away

Friday, July 3rd, 2020

UK Culture Minister Caroline Dinenage has placed a temporary export bar on a pair of exceptional Roman marble greyhounds from the 2nd century. The set is one of only three similar ones known to exist from the period. They sold at Bonhams London on July 3rd, 2019, for $1,005,156 including buyer’s premium. Now the new owner wishes to export the pair and a British institution has until October 2nd to scrape up the £2,000,000 plus VAT to acquire it and keep it in the country.

The objects consist of two roman marble figures of Celtic hounds, dated around the 2nd century AD. They are made of white marble, possibly north Italian white marble, but also possibly Greek (Thassian or Parian), exact provenance of marble cannot be easily surmised.

The male hound is seated upright with his head tilted upwards, wearing a studded collar, its body with a visibly defined ribcage, seated with its tail between his legs on a base.

The female Celtic hound is shown seated wearing a wide studded collar, the slender body naturalistically carved, with her right foreleg raised, her hips and left paw resting on an integral arch-shaped base. Her muzzle, ears, part of the neck and the lower half of the raised right foreleg bear signs of historic restoration (probably conducted in the 18th century).

The hounds were discovered on the grounds of the country villa of Emperor Antoninus Pius in Laurentum, about 17 miles outside of Rome. Located on the coast between Ostia and Lavinium, Laurentum was a site of great importance in the legendary history of Rome. This was the ancient capital of Latium, where Aeneas and the Trojan refugees landed and were welcomed with open arms and a marriageable daughter by King Latinus. By the late Republican era, the city itself was gone, but the Laurentine area was a popular location for the beachfront villas of the elite who could avoid the insalubrious surrounding marshland and enjoy the sea and game-filled forests. Pliny the Younger had a villa there which he describes effusively in a letter to his friend Gallus written around 100 A.D., a letter which has become one of the most important historical sources on the design and function of the Roman country villa and gardens.

Augustus had a large Laurentine estate literally two doors down from Pliny’s. It wasn’t just a cool seaside villa a few miles out of the city to him, but was also a symbolic link to his putative illustrious heritage as the Gens Julia claimed direct descent from Aeneas and Latinus’ daughter Lavinia. Later emperors expanded on the early imperial villa and used it often, particularly the Antonines.

The remains of what are believed to be this imperial villa were unearthed next to the medieval tower of Tor Paterno in 1795. The tower itself was destroyed by British shelling during the Napoleonic Wars in 1809, and the site today is part of the municipality of Ostia. In the 18th century Tor Paterno belonged to the Chigi family, and Prince Agostino III Chigi Albani Della Rovere followed in the footsteps of his father by excavating the site. As with most of the noble families who excavated their own properties, Agostino was on the hunt for spectacular sculptures to display in their private collections or to sell.

The greyhounds fell into the latter category and were sold to Dutch-British banker, author and collector Thomas Hope during his Grand Tour visit to Rome. That’s how they ended up in Britain where they remained in the Hope family until 1917 when they were sold to a private collector. His descendants put them under the hammer last year.

These aren’t the first exceptional Roman carvings from the Laurentine shore to be acquired by overseas buyers from UK sellers. The export license review system exposed an embarrassing loophole last year when the Metropolitan Museum of Art gleefully announced the arrival of an elaborately carved marble puteal (wellhead) that had been discovered at a site believed to be Pliny’s villa in 1797. Decorated with a rich reliefs depicting the stories of Narcissus and Echo and the abduction of Hylas by water nymphs, the ancient well cover was bought in 2019 from the collection of the Earls of Wemyss and March which had been a part of since the mid-19th century.

Featuring two cautionary tales about water from Greek mythology, the narrative relief seamlessly combines the legend of Narcissus and Echo with the tragic story of the abduction of Hylas by nymphs. Of the some 70 Roman marble wellheads with relief decoration known today, The Met’s is one of the finest and the only one whose iconography relates so directly to water.

“This puteal is the finest example of ancient Roman marble sculpture to enter The Met’s collection in well over half a century.” said Max Hollein, Director of the Museum. “The virtuosic carving and moving narrative are captivating, and we’re honored to introduce this exceptional object to our audiences.”

The archaeological context makes the puteal even more significant because Pliny actually wrote about the wells he used to supply the villa with fresh water in his letter to Gallus.

The convenience and charm of the situation of my villa have one drawback in that it contains no running water, but I draw my supply from wells or rather fountains, for they are situated at a high level. Indeed, it is one of the curious characteristics of the shore here that wherever you dig you find moisture ready to hand, and the water is quite fresh and not even brackish in the slightest degree, though the sea is so close by.

The Met’s gain was very much Britain’s loss, and the UK Arts Council was horrified that such an important piece had left the country with nary an attempt to bar export. Apparently the British Museum expert engaged to assess its cultural and artistic significance had decided it had been so heavily restored in the 18th century that it no longer qualified as “outstanding.” The Met’s curator disagrees, describing the 18th century restorations as “limited.” The Arts Council felt that the British Museum’s expert had not determined the object’s cultural significance according to the legally stipulated criteria, but instead focused on the price tag, noting in his report that it was a lost cause because it was unlikely that any UK institution would be able to raise the necessary funds. The Arts Council had to revise its procedures in the wake of the puteal affair.

Now, a year later, they appear to have learned their lesson as this time the Laurentine sculptures are getting the opposite treatment as the wellhead did, even though the female hound was extensively restored in the 18th century and the set come with a high price tag.

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Jakob and Elisabeth reunited after 150 years

Thursday, July 2nd, 2020

The Mauritshuis museum has acquired the portrait of Jakob Omphalius, reuniting him with his fiancée Elisabeth Bellinghausen 150 years after the diptych celebrating their union was granted an unwanted divorce.

The oil-on-panel double portrait was painted by Bartholomäus Bruyn the Elder (1493-1555) in 1538/9. Bruyn was the leading portait painter for the elite of Cologne, founder of a the first school of portraiture in the city. His realistic style was inspired by artists like Hans Holbein the Younger, and like Holbein, he was meticulous in capturing the details of their luxurious clothing and jewelry. He specialized in diptychs of engaged and married couples. Even though portraits formed the bulk of his output, Bartholomäus Bruyn did not sign them. He signed his religious art only, and attributions of his portraiture spring from stylistic comparisons with the signed pieces.

As is typical of his couple diptychs, the couple in the Mauritshuis are painted against a plan blue background. The groom looks right, the bride left off the frame, towards each other, and a marble ledge or counter begins in the man’s portrait and ends in the female one. This couple was engaged, not yet married, as attested to by the sprig of bittersweet, symbolizing a fiancee in the visual vernacular of Cologne portraiture.

The portrait of Elisabeth Bellinghausen was donated to the Rijksmuseum in 1912. At that time, only the author of the painting was known, not the identity of the sitter. In 1951, the portrait went on display at the Mauritshuis on long-term loan from the Rijksmuseum. Mauritshuis curators identified her as one of the daughters of University of Cologne law professor Peter Bellinghausen by the coat of arms on the back of the panel, but he had four daughters and there was no hint of which one this young lady might be.

The breakthrough came in 2004 when curator Ariane van Suchtelen discovered an old black-and-white photo of a portrait of a man that matched this one at the Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD) and an 1896 auction catalogue listing both portraits for sale. They were unidentified and misattributed to Jan Gossaert. The catalogue had handwritten notes by art historian  Hofstede de Groot which included sketches of the coats of arms on the back of the portraits. Curators were able to trace the coat of arms and discover the identity of the man: Jakob Omphalius, a prominent lawyer and law lecturer at the University of Cologne. He was married to Peter Bellinghausen’s daughter Elisabeth and together they would go on to have 13 children.

The happy couple were now recognized as such and known by their proper names, but the whereabouts of Jokab’s portrait were unknown since it had lost been documented at auction in 1955. In May 2019, a “portrait of an unknown man” was sold at a small Paris auction to a Geneva art gallery. The curator of a German museum saw it was the long-lost Jakob portrait and alerted the Rijksmuseum which alerted the Mauritshuis. With the financial support of the national lottery, foundations and a private donor, the Mauritshuis was able to purchase the portrait of Jakob Omphalius and reunite him with his bride.

New frames for the portraits of Jakob Omphalius and Elisabeth Bellinghausen have been made, based on another example by Bruyn. As a result, the portraits once again look like a diptych as they were originally intended (the original frames had been largely lost).

The portrait of Elisabeth has previously undergone extensive conservation treatment at the Mauritshuis. The ‘diptych’ will be displayed in the museum until 4 October, after which time the portrait of Jakob will also undergo extensive treatment in the museum’s conservation studio. The paintings, which now both form part of the Dutch national art collection, will then once again be on view as a diptych in the Mauritshuis.

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15th c. wood panel painting conserved

Tuesday, June 30th, 2020

The Detroit Institute of Art holds in its collection a small egg tempera on panel work by 15th century Venetian painter Antonio Vivarini. It’s a scene from the life of Saint Monica, long-suffering mother of Saint Augstine, in which she coverts her pagan husband Patricius on his deathbed. This was not originally a stand-alone panel painting. It was part of the predella (small action scenes in the footer of an altarpiece whose main panels feature large-scale individual figures) of a polyptych which is no longer extant. It was cut out of the frame leaving the bottom of panel is therefore wider than the top.

The original altarpiece is believed to have been in the Church of Santo Stefano in Venice. The church was extensively rebuilt in the early 15th century at a time when the cult of Saint Monica reached its zenith in popularity. When construction was completed around 1440, there was a chapel with an altar dedicated to St Monica in the left aisle. Francesco Sansovino, writing in 1581, noted that the altarpiece in the chapel had been painted by Giovanni and Antonio Vivarini (phrased as brothers, but Giovanni d’Alemagna was actually Antonio’s German brother-in-law). In the 17th century, art historian Carlo Ridolfi described Vivarini and his brother-in-law’s art in the chapel as a statue of Saint Monica standing surrounded by “picciole historiette” (wee historylets) depicting scenes from her life.

The chapel was moved to the right aisle in the 18th century but the altarpiece did not move with it. The new chapel got new art, and the old was given away to an Augustinian lay community who cut it up and sold it piecemeal. Art historians in the 20th century have traced the scattered components, identifying five panels of the lost altarpiece in museums around the world: The Marriage of St Monica is in Venice’s Gallerie dell’Accademia; The Birth of Saint Augustine is now in the Courtauld Institute of Art, London; Saint Monica at Prayer with Saint Augustine as a Child is in the Museum Amedeo Lia in La Spezia; Saint Monica Converts her Dying Husband is in the Detroit Institute of Art; Saint Ambrose Baptizes Saint Augustine in the Presence of Saint Monica is in the Accademia Carrara,  Bergamo.

The panel at the DIA is not on public view. (Well, technically nothing is right now, as the museum is closed. It reopens on July 10th.) Its condition is too delicate for display and requires conservation to keep the wood from splitting more and the prevent continuing paint loss. The DIA has posted a fascinating video about the panel conservation, the first episode of the museum’s new Conservator’s Corner series on its YouTube channel. It covers the recent history of conservation and the latest treatment and is a satisfyingly comprehensive glimpse into how the conservatorial sausage is made.

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Stolen Van Gogh “proof of life” pics circulate

Monday, June 29th, 2020

A “proof of life” picture of the Van Gogh painting stolen from a museum in March has emerged. The photograph shows the painting topped by a May 30th issue of the international edition of the New York Times on one side and a book on the other. The book is Meesterdief by Wilson Boldewijn, a biography of one of the art thieves who stole two paintings from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2002. A second photograph shows the label on the back of the painting.

(The choice of book is obviously pointed, the art crime version of a weird flex. One of the two paintings stolen in 2002 was Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen, a different scene of the same church where Van Gogh’s father was minister. Both paintings were found outside of Naples in 2016 after having been passed around as currency in a Camorra organized crime network for years.)

The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in the Spring (1884) was stolen from the Singer Laren Museum outside Amsterdam in the early hours of Monday, March 30th, what would have been Van Gogh’s 167th birthday. The smash-and-grab raid targeted the painting which was on loan from the Groninger Museum. The thieves broke in through the glass door, took the painting and fled before the police could arrive.

These are almost certainly photographs of the authentic work. The image of the label on the back of the painting is particularly telling because as far as Andreas Blühm, Director of the Groninger Museum, knows, no photograph of the label has ever been published before.

The images were received by Arthur Brand, a private eye who specializes in retrieving lost art works. He is not naming his source, but he has extensive knowledge of and connections to the art crime underworld. He has seen more than these two pictures of the stolen painting, so it seems that the thieves are circulating these snapshots to find a buyer.

“In some cases when art is stolen, the thieves get nervous, they can’t get rid of it or they think the police is on their tail so they destroy it,” [Brand] told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “So these pictures show that we are dealing with professionals. So the painting is still alive, I wanted to say.”

Brand said he had shared the photos with police investigating the theft.

Police spokeswoman Laetitia Griffioen said the photos “are part of the investigation.” She declined further comment.

Professionals though they may be, they are not handling their cash cow with anything like appropriate care. From the photo, it looks like the painting is on a garbage bag and the newspaper and book are casually plopped on top of its unprotected surface. There is also a white mark in the bottom center just below the fence posts. It could be a scratch because the original painting was done on paper and later mounted on board.

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Stockholm museum will return stolen 16th-century painting to Poland

Wednesday, June 24th, 2020

After an appeal from the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage in Warsaw and a thorough investigation, the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm has formally recommended the repatriation of 16th century painting to Poland.

The Lamentation of Christ by the School of Lucas Cranach the Elder (ca. 1538) is believed to have originally belonged to the 12th century Lubiąż Abbey, about 35 miles northwest of Wrocław, the largest Cistercian abbey in the world. Lubiąż was part of the Holy Roman Empire when the painting was made, and part of Germany from 1871 until the end of World War II after which it became part of Poland along with most of Silesia. In 1880, the painting was acquired by what was then the Schlesische Museum der Bildenden Künste in Breslau (modern-day Wrocław), predecessor to the present-day Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu. It was lost after the war.

The painting was purchased for Nationalmuseum’s collections at auction in Mariefred in 1970, for SEK 4,000.It was sold by the estate of Sigfrid Häggberg. At this date, prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was no suspicion that the painting could have been stolen; there were no illustrations of it in the available literature about Cranach, nor had the lists of evacuated objects ever been made public. The provenance information in Nationalmuseum’s inventory states that the painting belonged to Director Häggberg in Mariefred and was previously in Polish ownership.

Nationalmuseum and experts from Poland have now conducted a detailed review of the painting’s history and discovered information that was not previously available. The painting was on a list drawn up in November 1945, with objects that were evacuated from the former Schlesische Museum der Bildenden Künste in Breslau (Wroclaw) and transferred for storage in Kamenz (now Kamieniec Ząbkowick) in Poland. When Soviet troops left the occupied area at the end of February 1946, hundreds of paintings on the list were missing, including this one. Following the painting’s fate more closely is not possible until it appears in Mariefred, Sweden, where it belonged to the Warsaw-Swede Sigfrid Häggberg. During World War II, he was director of L M Ericsson’s two Polish subsidiaries. In 1942 he was arrested by the Gestapo and sentenced to death, along with three other Swedes, after being accused of helping the Polish resistance movement. Among other things, he had smuggled out documents revealing the Nazi atrocities aimed at both the Jewish and Polish peoples. His punishment was commuted to a life sentence and, after a special plea from King Gustaf V, Häggberg was released in 1944. After the war he returned to Poland to restart work at L M Ericsson. According to Häggberg’s family, he did not buy the painting but was taking care of it for an individual who had given it to him for safekeeping. This person then never returned.

It’s an unusual story for an artwork looted in World War II, as the man who spirited it out of the country appears to have done it on behalf of someone trying to protect it from being pillaged. It depends on who he was “taking care of it” for, I suppose.

The Nationalmuseum’s collection belongs to the country, so the final decision on repatriation belongs to the Swedish Government. Given the evidence that the last legal owner of The Lamentation of Christ was the Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu, it’s almost certain that Sweden’s Ministry of Culture will follow the Nationalmuseum’s recommended course of action and return to the painting to Poland.

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Hercules Segers motherlode online

Thursday, June 18th, 2020

Visionary printmaker of the Dutch Golden Age Hercules Pieterszoon Segers (ca. 1589 – ca. 1638) inspired artists whose names are much more famous than his today, most notably Rembrandt van Rijn who was an avid collector of Segers paintings and prints. Very few Segers works are known to survive today — 183 unique impressions from 53 plates and 18 paintings — and the Rijksmuseum has the largest single collection of them with 74 impressions, two oil sketches and one painting.

Segers’s prints are at the heart of the artist’s later fame. With an array of techniques whose identification has puzzled artists and scholars alike, he etched unusual colourful landscapes, seascapes, biblical scenes and other subjects. Rejecting the idea that prints from a single plate should all look the same, he produced impressions in varied colour schemes, on grounded paper or textiles, colouring his prints with the brush and altering his etching plates by adding lines in drypoint. Employing a variety of unusual techniques and materials, he turned each impression of his etchings into an individual work of art.

The collection formed the core of the landmark Segers retrospective exhibited at the Rijksmuseum in late 2016, early 2017 and subsequently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. That exhibition brought together almost all of the extant works known to exist today, including 110 prints and all 18 paintings. In preparing for the retrospective, researchers, scientists and art historians at the Rijksmuseum carried out an unprecedented in-depth study of Segers’ works. The study, which revolutionized understanding of his highly experimental techniques, was published in a new comprehensive oeuvre catalogue in 2017.

The Rijksmuseum has now made much of that information available for free in a new online collection catalogue. All of the museum’s Segers pieces can be viewed in the glorious high resolution to which the Rijksmuseum has made us accustomed with entries summarizing the results of the research and lending new insight into the artist’s process, materials and the dates of his works. The catalogue entries include all known information about the works from measurements to techniques to inscriptions and collectors’ marks usually found on the versos of prints. There are also links to works in the Rijksmuseum, other public collections and private ones that are connected in some way to the Segers prints.

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Freakishly large bead or Alice in Wonderland croquet ball?

Sunday, June 7th, 2020

From the annals of randomly-encountered treasures in museums, here is an ancient Egyptian faience ball of a hedgehog curled up in its iconic defensive posture, now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art . It’s just over two inches in diameter and, I’m sure we can all agree, cute as hell. Its little snout, ears, paws and tail are all grouped together in relief on its spherical body which is peppered with black spots representing the spines.

The ball is hollow inside and a fine crack along the equator indicates it was made in two halves that were combined. The ball was pierced through before firing with a single pointed instrument like a skewer, leaving holes above and below the relief. The National Museum of Scotland has an almost identical hedgeball but it was pierced horizontally, leaving holes left and right of the relief.

Faience figurines of animals were thousands of years old by the time this little guy was made. They were figural and used as votive deposits at temples in the Early Dynastic Period (ca. 3150-2686 B.C.). That religious tradition expanded to their use as funerary furnishings in the 12th Dynasty (1991-1802 B.C.). The Met’s ball was originally dated to the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2050-1650 B.C.) when it entered the collection 30 years ago. Newer scholarship pushes it just on the other side of the boundary to the 18th Dynasty, 1550–1450 B.C., while the NMS still tentatively places theirs in the Middle Kingdom.

The spherical iteration is almost certainly not a votive deposit or funerary figurine. It’s not a figurine at all, in fact. Nobody is quite sure what it is. The holes suggest it may have been worn as a pendant, but they are not along the sphere’s central axis, and in the case of the vertical piercings of the Met’s hedgeball, a rope or chain threaded through them could not be worn around the neck because the hedgehog’s features would be rotated 90 degrees. Besides, two and a quarter inches in diameter is way oversized for a bead, even if was an amulet meant to protect the wearer.

Scholars initially hypothesized that it might be a rattle, but the holes are too small to put in small stones or whatever else would make the noise, and there are no known ancient Egyptian rattles that are spherical in shape. The piercing isn’t a function of the firing process because only one hole would be needed to prevent cracking. There is also evidence of wear and tear: the glaze at the upper edges of the holes on the Met’s ball is chipped.

So how was our hedgehog friend worn or used? To what end this cuteness?

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Life and Death in Pompeii on film

Thursday, May 21st, 2020

In 2013, the British Museum staged an exhibition dedicated to the daily lives of the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum and how they were snuffed out by the eruption of Vesuvius. Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum was a blockbuster, selling more than 50,000 advance tickets and drawing crowds of visitors flocking to see the more 250 artifacts from the British Museum’s collection and on loan from the Archaeological Superintendency of Naples and Pompeii. The show feature some iconic pieces — the fresco portrait of baker Terentius Neo and his wife, the “CAVE CANEM” mosaic of a guard dog from the House of Orpheus, the sculpture of Pan having sex with a goat, the plaster cast of a dog writhing in its final agony — as well as lesser known but no less remarkable survivors, like a carbonized cradle, a loaf of bread, a life-sized bronze hare mould used to make cakes or terrines.

A private tour of the show was broadcast in movie theaters at the time. The hour-and-a-half film walks viewers through the exhibition guided by curators and experts including Mary Beard and Giorgio Locatelli. It covers the history of the towns’ destruction, the last two days of their ancient existence

It’s got a sexual content warning because of the many explicit artifacts typifying Roman frankness about sexuality that were found at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Mary Beard discussing whether a third figure in a fresco of a couple in a reverse cowgirl posture was part of a threesome or an ignored slave or a voyeur is good clean fun, as far as I’m concerned, as is her discussion of the triple-phallus wind chime ( “phalluses to the power of x” “with bells on!”) and the one about the “more hardcore” Pan-goat statue.

Seven years later, the British Museum has uploaded the complete film to its YouTube channel. It’s one hour and 27 minutes long and even so not nearly long enough for me. They should have made it a mini-series. Pompeii Live is free to view, of course, but like so many of its brethren, the museum has been hard-hit by the extended closure, so if you’d like to help support it, donate here

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