Diana Cecil’s lips restored to former thin splendor

Restoration of a 17th century portrait of Diana Cecil, great-granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth I’s chief advisor William Cecil, has revealed her original thin upper lip and high forehead, removing the overpaint that had artificially plumped her pucker and lowered her hairline. The conservation also revealed the signature of the artist and the date hidden in the folds of the curtain: Cornelius Johnson, 1634.

The portrait is one of two of Diana Cecil in The Suffolk Collection, a group of 400 works, many portraits of aristocrats and royals but also other masterpieces by the likes of Vermeer, Turner and Rembrandt, amassed by the Howard family from the 17th to the 20th century. Diana’s sister Elizabeth was married to a Howard, which is how the portraits came to be in the collection. The greatest portraits of The Suffolk Collection are nine full-length pieces by the premiere Jacobean portraitist William Larkin, one of which is a 1614 portrait of Diana Cecil painted when she was about 15 years old. Her high forehead and fine upper lip are in evidence even at that young age.

Diana Cecil was considered one of the great beauties of the Jacobean nobility. She married twice, first to Henry de Vere, 18th Earl of Oxford, in 1624, barely a year before his death, and again in 1629 to Thomas Bruce, who would be created 1st Earl of Elgin by King Charles I in 1633. The newly-restored portrait of Diana was made the year after her husband received that rich favor.

In the later portrait, Cecil wears a fashionable blue satin bodice and full, trailing skirt. In contrast to the earlier portrait, elite fashion is characterised by understated elegance, rather than opulently patterned fabric or complicated layering, English heritage said.

Plain silk, satin or taffeta were the height of fashion, with one or two focal points, such as the red ribbons laced across the front of Cecil’s bodice, holding the stomacher in place, and a matching red rose at her breast and a patterned fan, which she holds half-open in front of her.

The Suffolk Collection is displayed at Kenwood House, a stately neoclassical villa in Hampstead administered by English Heritage. The later portrait of Diana Cecil recently underwent conservation so that it could be put on display. It had suffered significantly from having been rolled up widthways, damaging the paint surface, and old varnish had yellowed, dimming the once-brilliant colors. The removal of the old varnish uncovered the touch-ups to her lips and hair, likely made in the late 19th or early 20th century in a failed attempt to repair some of the damage from the rolling and update her looks in keeping with beauty standards of the time while they were at it.

Alice Tate-Harte, collections conservator (fine art) at English Heritage, said in a press release: “As a paintings conservator I am often amazed by the vivid and rich colours that reveal themselves as I remove old, yellowing varnish from portraits, but finding out Diana’s features had been changed so much was certainly a surprise!

“While the original reason for overpainting could have been to cover damage from the portrait being rolled, the restorer certainly added their own preferences to ‘sweeten’ her face. I hope I’ve done Diana justice by removing those additions and presenting her natural face to the world.”

The restored portrait of Diana Cecil will go on display next to the portrait of her second husband Thomas Bruce at Kenwood House on November 30th.

Louvre acquires $26 million kitchen Cimabue

Four years after a late 13th century painting by medieval master Cimabue was discovered in the kitchen of an elderly woman in Compiegne and sold at auction to a private buyer for $26.6 million, Christ Mocked has officially entered the collection of the Louvre Museum.

It’s been a long, strange journey for the tempera-on-panel depiction of Jesus being taunted by the crowd after his trial before the Sanhedrin. Originally part of an altarpiece diptych of scenes from Christ’s Passion and crucifixion, at some point the panels were disarticulated and sold off individually to collectors keen to acquire one of only 11 known panel paintings by the great Cimabue (1240-1302). The only two other known panels believed to have been part of the original altarpiece are now in the Frick Collection in New York and the National Gallery in London, but only confirmed as the work of Cimabue in 2000.

While the Frick was acquiring its then-unattributed panel and the National Gallery’s was slumbering unrecognized in a Suffolk stately home, Christ Mocked was hanging over a hotplate in a Compiegne kitchen, mistaken by its owner for an old Russian icon. It was only when the lady, then in her 90s, decided to move out of her home and have its contents appraised by a local auction house, that its true identity was discovered. She had no idea where it came from. Louvre researchers think it may have been sold to her ancestors in 1830 by an art dealer from Pisa named Carlo Lasinio who was likely responsibly for selling the other two known panels at the same time.

When it went under the hammer in October 2019, it was the first Cimabue ever to appear at auction, so it was no surprise when the 10-inch panel blew past its pre-sale estimates to sell for nearly $27 million. The buyer was a London collector purchasing it on behalf of the Alana collection, a private collection of Italian Renaissance art in the US. The outfit filed for an export license in December and the French government promptly denied it, declaring the work a national treasure and blocking its export for 30 months to give the Louvre the chance the raise the purchase price and add the Cimabue to its collection.

It’s been more than 30 months, so there was either an extension granted or the announcement was kept under wraps until now. Either way, the Louvre managed to raise the necessary millions thanks to the big revenues from licensing its name to the Louvre Abu Dhabi and a sizable donation from the non-profit American Friends of the Louvre organization.

Christ Mocked will now join Cimabue’s monumental painted panel, Maestà, in the Paris museum. The two works are a fascinating juxtaposition of Cimabue’s range and vision. The Virgin and Child in Majesty Surrounded by Six Angels (aka Maestà) is formally posed in the Byzantine hieratic style. The other two panels of the diptych Christ Mocked was a part of are also painted in that same iconographic style, but Christ Mocked takes a very different approach. It is the first work of Cimabue that seeks to present a naturalism and verisimilitude in the expressions, postures and rendering of space. The faces of the characters in the back are hidden by those of the rows in front of them. They wear contemporary clothing against a backdrop of contemporary Tuscan architecture, conveying their humanity and modernity to the viewers of the time. The materials he used — gold, lapis lazuli, red lacquer — were among the most brilliant and expensive of the time, artfully employed by later masters like Giotto ( c. 1267-1337) and Duccio (1260-1319), who are often credited with introducing the kinds of innovations seen in Christ Mocked.

Maestà is currently undergoing restoration, and Christ Mocked is being examined by conservators. Its condition is very good, with little paint loss and almost no overpainting, so it will be cleaned and conserved to restore its vivid original color before both panels are presented to the public together in 2025.

Michelangelo’s Secret Room opens to the public

Forty-eight years after it was first discovered, the room where Michelangelo was said to have hidden from his political enemies for three months in 1530 is officially opening to the public. Whether Michelangelo actually secreted himself in the room under the New Sacristy of the Basilica of San Lorenzo until the coast was clear is unknown, but his masterful drawing is seen all over the walls.

The space is cramped, to say the least, at just 23 feet long, 6.5 feet wide and eight feet high at the highest point of the vault. The walls are decorated with figural studies, most of them larger-than-life-size, many of them overlapping, drawn in sticks of carbonized wood and red chalk. Subjects include the head of Laocoön from the ancient masterpiece of sculpture that Michelangelo had seen unearthed in 1506. Other figures reference sculptures and artworks by Michelangelo himself, like the legs of Giuliano de’ Medici from the marble idealized portrait Michelangelo sculpted for the tomb of Giuliano in the Medici chapel just above the secret room.

Michelangelo worked on the Medici mortuary chapel in the New Sacristy off and on from 1519 until his permanent move to Rome in 1534. Things only got hairy in 1527, when political upheaval after the Sack of Rome by the troops of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V spurred Florence to revolt against Medici rule and install a Republic. Michelangelo was closely involved in the Florentine Republic, appointed by the government as one of the Nine of the Militias, in charge of the fortifications of a city that was soon to be besieged by the combined forces of Spain, the Holy Roman Empire and their new ally Clement VII.

The siege was protracted, lasting a grueling 10 months until Florence finally surrendered on August 10th, 1530. Michelangelo was in the cross-hairs of Clement and the Medici, now restored to power. So he hid somewhere and he was so adept at it that even his contemporary biographers could only guess at his location. He emerged in November when the Pope announced that Michelangelo would be pardoned if he went back to work on the Medici tombs in the New Sacristy. Little did Clement know Michelangelo had been steps away from it the whole time.

The room, never publicly known or documented, was put to practical uses. The walls with their glorious sketches were plastered over (twice) and it was a charcoal dump until the middle of the 20th century when the trap door leading to it was covered with furniture. It was rediscovered in November of 1975 when restorers were cleaning a corridor under the New Sacristy on the hunt for a new possible exit for the Museum of the Medici Chapels.

The director of the Museum of the Medici Chapels at that time, Paolo Dal Poggetto, decided not to open the room to the public out of concern that the charcoal drawings would be damaged by exposure to crowds. Every once in a while someone pulled some strings and got a tour, but the general public has never been allowed to lay eyes on the walls before. The closest they’ve gotten is high-resolution images and video of the drawings displayed in several of Florence’s museums.

The completion of a new exit (the same one they were looking to build in 1975 when they found the room) and modern technology has made it possible to make the Secret Room accessible to the public in a controlled way. A maximum of four people at a time will be allowed into the room for reserved time slots for only 15 minutes with a maximum of 100 people per week. Conservation conditions will be scrupulously monitored and the new LED lighting, installed in 2018, will only be on for brief periods, alternating with long hours of darkness.

The room will open on November 15th for an experimental run lasting until March 30th, 2024. Tickets will cost a total of 38 euros and can be booked online here.

Rare 16th c. globe restored and on display

A rare 16th century globe has been restored and put on display at the Museo Galileo in Florence.

The terrestrial globe was made by Antwerp cartographer Cornelis De Jode in 1594. Most of his surviving oeuvre is a world atlas, the Speculum Orbis Terrae, he published in 1593. It sold terribly at the time, so today there are only a dozen or so copies known. Dedicated to Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau, Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg from 1587 until he was deposed, imprisoned and succeeded by his nephew in 1612, this globe is the only surviving globe by De Jode. It was previously known only from a series of cartographical sections now in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris.

Italy’s Ministry of Culture acquired the globe last November for €385,568 ($407,000) on behalf of the Regional Direction of Museums for Tuscany. It had been appeared on the market in 2016 but Italy placed an export ban on it due to its great rarity and historical significance.

It was in dire condition at the time of the sale. The printed paper surface of the globe was badly deteriorated, darked and with several gaps. Its condition was analyzed and assessed for its urgent conservation needs. The non-profit Friends of Florence foundation financed a delicate and complex intervention of cleaning and restoration by the Officina del Restauro in Florence.

The restored globe is now on permanent loan in the Museo Galileo where it will be on display alongside the museum’s important selection of terrestrial and celestial globes.

Van Gogh painting stolen in 2020 returned

The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring, an 1884 oil-on-paper-on-panel painting by Vincent van Gogh, has been returned to the Groninger Museum three-and-a-half years after it was stolen the Singer Laren museum where it was on loan for an exhibition. It was recovered by private detective Arthur Brand who specializes in recovering stolen and lost art works and has extensive contacts in the criminal underworld.

The work was one of several painted when Vincent lived in the vicarage at the church where his father was pastor. It was stolen in a brazen smash-and-grab around 3:15AM on March 30th, 2020, when the museum was closed during COVID lockdown. Two months later, Arthur Brand was sent a “proof of life” photograph of the painting next to a newspaper dated May 30th.

In August 2020, the Frans Hals painting Two Laughing Boys with a Mug of Beer was stolen from the Museum Hofje van Mevrouw van Aerden in Leerdam in a smash-and-grab with the same modus operandi. DNA evidence collected from both crime scenes pointed to a suspect dubbed Nils M. In April 2021, Nils was arrested. He was in possession of firearms and drugs at the time, but the painting was not found and he denied involvement in the thefts. Nils was convicted in 2021 and sentenced to eight years in prison and a fine he’ll never pay of €8.7 million ($9.3 million).

Nils had already sold the painting when he was nabbed. The buyer was transportation company entrepreneur and secret drug kingpin Peter Roy K, who apparently thought he could use the painting as a trade for securing a lighter sentence for his drug trafficking charges.

By 2023, however, his clever plan had failed and the painting, unsaleable due the notoriety of the theft, was an albatross around his neck. He reached out to Arthur Brand and arranged to hand over .

“We knew that the painting would go from one hand to another hand in the criminal world, but that nobody really wanted to touch it because it wasn’t worth anything,” said Brand, who is known for retrieving stolen artworks. “You could only get in trouble. So it was a little bit cursed.” […]

“Eventually, I got contacted by somebody who said: ‘Mr Brand, I could turn in the Van Gogh, but I don’t want to get into trouble.’ I had to gain his confidence, and when I had, yesterday, he decided to deliver it to my home.”

So on Monday night, an early Van Gogh worth €3-€6 million ($3.2-$6.4m) was delivered to Brand’s Amsterdam apartment wrapped in bubble wrap and stuffed into a big blue Ikea bag. The label on the back matched the one from the “proof of life” photo and Andreas Blühm, the director of the Groninger Museum who was waiting in the corner bar, confirmed its authenticity.

The painting was not treated with kid gloves during its three-year ordeal. Even in the “proof of life” pictures you could see scratches on the surface. It is now at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam where expert conservators are examining it to determine a course of treatment. There is no estimated time frame for the necessary measures. It could be weeks or months until it is back on display as the jewel in the crown of the Groninger Museum.