Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

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.”


Hyper-resolution Night Watch

Thursday, September 17th, 2020

Last year, the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death, the Rijksmuseum launched a major project to conserve The Night Watch, crafting a state-of-the-art analysis and treatment program to learn everything possible about Rembrandt’s largest and most famous masterpiece — how it was made, with what materials, how best to repair and maintain it going forward. They built a custom glass enclosure so visitors could see the museum’s most famous masterpiece during the operation.

Operation Night Watch was still in the study phase when the museum was closed in March. Analysis resumed on May 13th with new safety protocols for the team working in the glass enclosure. The restoration process, initially scheduled to begin in the fall of 2020, has been pushed back to early next year.

Meanwhile, the Rijksmuseum has posted regular updates on the study since it began last summer. There are fascinating articles on the discoveries thus far, including the pigments Rembrandt used and the chemical composition of the painting mapped using Reflectance Imaging Spectroscopy. (Spoilers: Rembrandt painted over feathers that used to be on the helmets of the watchmen in the background and he used arsenic in the gold embroidery of Willem van Ruytenburch’s yellow doublet. Other Dutch artists used arsenic in still lives. He was the first to introduce it to portraiture.) 

There are also some nifty videos. Here’s a timelapse of how they moved the colossal work to its temporary location:

This is a timelapse of the construction of the glass enclosure:

Most recently, the team created the most detailed photograph of The Night Watch ever taken. They have digitized it so everyone in the world can examine Rembrandt’s brushstrokes down to the tiniest crack.

The Rijksmuseum’s imaging team made this photograph of The Night Watch from a total of 528 exposures. The 24 rows of 22 pictures were stitched together digitally with the aid of neural networks. The final image is made up of 44.8 gigapixels (44,804,687,500 pixels), and the distance between each pixel is 20 micrometres (0.02 mm). This enables the scientists to study the painting in detail remotely. The image will also be used to accurately track any future ageing processes taking place in the painting.

Dive as deep you like into The Night Watch here


Conservators discover Michelangelo’s tool marks on Pietà

Wednesday, September 16th, 2020

Conservation of the Bandini Pietà, one of Michelangelo’s last sculptures and one of his most striking (in more ways than one), has revealed previously unknown details from its violent creation. Under centuries of grime, restorers found everything from the artist’s original chisel marks to colors left behind in past work on the white marble.

The Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, the organization which manages the works in the collection of the Duomo Museum, began a comprehensive cleaning and conservation program last November. This is the first true restoration of the sculptural group in its nearly 500-year history. Work, rudely interrupted by you-know-what, has resumed. The thorough cleaning of the surface has been completed on the back of the sculpture and is in its initial phases on the front.

Ongoing diagnostic surveys have provided information considered to be fundamental for the knowledge of the work and its restoration: there is no historic patina with the exception of traces found at the base of the sculpture, something that is still being investigated. The presence of elevated quantities of chalk from the cast executed in the 1800s has instead been confirmed. These results have led to cleaning operations first and then to start the intervention at the back. The waxes present on the surface, including those from candles that were used on the main altar of Florence’s cathedral where the sculpture was kept for over 220 years, were removed with a scalpel.

According to his Giorgio Vasari, Michelangelo began the sculpture on his own with no commission. It was 1547. He was in his early 70s and painting frescoes had become too strenuous for him. Chiseling four figures out of a hunk of Carrara marble eight feet high, on the other hand, was just a good way to pass the time and stay fit. Unlike his first and most famous Pietà now in St. Peter’s Basilica which features a youthful Virgin Mary with the body of Christ draped across her ample lap, the dominant figure is that of Nicodemus who stands behind the limp, twisted body of Jesus, helping Mary the Mother (right) and Mary Magdalene (left) support the dead Christ. Michelangelo intended it for his own tomb, and purportedly the face of Nicodemus is a self-portrait.

Papal and Medici projects for churches, palaces and bridges constantly interrupted his work on the sculpture and the piece itself became an exercise in frustration as he encountered constant flaws in the hard marble that made it impossible to complete as he’d envisioned. Vasari said it was so “full of emery” that the chisel set off sparks. He also said that Michelangelo had by this point in his life become such a terminal perfectionist that he never completed any sculpture to his satisfaction, that all his finished works were done in his youth, and even then if it had been up to him he never would have turned them over to his patrons.

Finally one evening in 1555, Michelangelo’s frustration boiled over. One of the Madonna’s elbows had broken when he was working on it. Michelangelo then deliberately broke of other body parts from the statue. His servant Antonio stopped him from completely smashing it to pieces and asked the master to give it to him as is. Antonio sold all the pieces of the broken group to the Florentine banker Francesco Bandini who enlisted Tiberio Calcagni, a sculptor and a collaborator of Michelangelo’s, to put the Pietà back together again as much as possible and fill in any blanks he could.

Calcagni’s work from around 1565 was the last clearly identifiable intervention on sculpture until the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore’s project. The conservation was performed in public view at the museum before the pandemic shut them down. Starting September 21st, guided tours of no more than five visitors will be allowed to view the work in progress.


The Blue Boy is back and bluer than ever

Sunday, September 13th, 2020

After three years of restoration (plus a little pandemic thrown in there) Thomas Gainsborough’s most iconic masterpiece, The Blue Boy, has been reinstalled in the Thornton Portrait Gallery at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, and he is looking bluer than ever.

A Portrait of a Young Gentleman was first removed from public view in August 2017 for a thorough technical analysis and conservation program to treat long-standing structural problems, discolored varnishes, bad overpaint and flaking. A full year of that painstaking work, from September 2018 through September 2019, was undertaken in public so visitors to The Huntington could see The Blue Boy unframed as conservators cured what ailed him.

I swear the above phrasing was not intentional, but I’m keeping it in because one of the cool discoveries made during the analysis of the lining was that the adhesive Gainsborough used was a paste made of rye flour and ale. The conservation team brought in a food historian to recreate the historic recipe using modern ingredients so they could utilize it in a mock-up and study the interaction between adhesive and lining.

Christina O’Connell, The Huntington’s Mary Ann and John Sturgeon Senior Paintings Conservator and leader of the project, removed several uneven layers of dirt and discolored varnish with small cotton swabs to reveal Gainsborough’s original brilliant blues and other pigments. Then, with tiny brushes, she reconnected the artist’s brushstrokes across the voids of past damage as part of the inpainting process. As O’Connell worked on the painting, she became intimately aware of Gainsborough’s every brushstroke. “It’s been an incredibly deep professional experience,” she said. “Conservation work is very much a process of discovery. I’ve not only had a view of the painting at the microscopic level, but I was also able to observe each stroke as the true colors of Gainsborough’s palette were revealed from underneath many layers of dirt and discolored varnish.”

During the process, O’Connell discovered that although Gainsborough painted The Blue Boy on a recycled canvas (as revealed in earlier X-rays), he made considerable use of a complex network of paint layers and pigments to create a painting that truly showed off his skills.

Gainsborough did not paint The Blue Boy on commission. He created it for the Royal Academy exhibition of 1770 to showcase his abilities in Van Dyck-style portraiture, hence the 17th century style of the boy’s striking clothing. Gainsborough’s aim was to take on the sine qua non of court portrait painters and to beat the revered Van Dyck at his own game. He succeeded. The Blue Boy was an immediate hit at the exhibition and Thomas Gainsborough, son of working class parents, vaulted up the social ranks from making portraits of merchants to painting nobles and aristocrats.

The Blue Boy was supposed to be reinstalled in March, but then the thing that happened happened, so his return was pushed back. Phased reopening has begun. For now, only the botanical gardens are open to visitors, but when the galleries reopen, he will be waiting for them with a whole new glow.


British Museum acquires lost Hokusai drawings

Saturday, September 5th, 2020

The British Museum has acquired a set of more than 100 illustrations by Japanese master Katsushika Hokusai that were lost for 70 years. Hokusai, today internationally famous for his iconic Great Wave print, created 103 drawings in 1829 for a book called Great Picture Book of Everything but for reasons still unknown to this day, it was never published.

His hand-inked preparatory drawings were acquired by French Art Nouveau jeweler Henri Verver (1854-1942) who was one of the first European collectors of ukiyo-e woodbloock prints, an art form that Hokusai embraced and transformed. They last appeared on the public record in 1948 when they were sold at auction and then disappeared into the penumbra of anonymous private holdings. The collection emerged again last year and the British Museum was able to arrange their purchase thanks to a grant from the Art Fund.

As might suit the illustrations for a book about everything, the drawings depicts a variety of subjects including mythology, literature, animals, plants and landscapes. Most of the drawings refer to subjects from ancient China, India, Southeast Asia and Central Asia, motifs that appear nowhere else in Hokusai’s oeuvre.

They were made during a period of great hardship in Hokusai’s life. He was 70 years old and had suffered a stroke, been widowed and was close to destitute because of his grandson’s gambling debts. He produced very little artwork during this time, which makes the drawings all the more significant.

Tim Clark, Honorary Research Fellow of the British Museum, said, “These works are a major new re-discovery, expanding considerably our knowledge of the artist’s activities at a key period in his life and work. All 103 pieces are treated with the customary fantasy, invention and brush skill found in Hokusai’s late works and it is wonderful that they can finally be enjoyed by the many lovers of his art worldwide.”

The 103 drawings and the original wood box they came in have been digitized and can be browsed in extreme close-up in the British Museum Collection online.


Mystery portrait identified as Mary Boleyn

Saturday, August 15th, 2020

A painting in the Royal Collection previously known only as Portrait of a Woman has been identified as a portrait of Mary Boleyn, older sister of Anne Boleyn and mistress of her future husband Henry VIII. The identification was made thanks to researchers with the Jordaens Van Dyck Panel Paintings Project (JVDPPP), a multidisciplinary study based in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels of oak panel paintings by 17th century masters Jacques Jordaens and Sir Anthony Van Dyck. The portrait is in the style of Flemish artist Remigius van Leemput, so not one of the two artists on the project’s masthead, but Leemput worked in Van Dyck’s studio and he specialized in making copies of the master’s paintings, especially his portraits of the British aristocracy. Not all of the originals have survived, so  van Leemput’s work is of particular interest to the researchers both for comparative purposes and to get as close to lost originals as possible.

The JVDPPP examined it and another 13 portraits of women, collectively known as the Beauties, by van Leemput that are in the Royal Collection. The other 13 are contemporary portraits, however, aristocratic 17th century women garbed and coiffed in styles of their time. The unnamed woman in Portrait of a Woman is the only one in 16th century clothing and hairstyle.

They examined it in September of 2019. Dendrochronological analysis on the oak support found that it was cut from the same Baltic tree around 1629 as the only other portrait of the 14 whose sitter was previously unknown. Archival research revealed a key clue tying the two portraits together: photographs of two paintings in private collections with inscriptions identifying the 16th century woman as Mary Boleyn and the 17th century one as Lady Herbert, ie, Margaret Smith, wife of Thomas Carey who was Mary Boleyn’s great-grandson. A few years after her portrait was painted, her husband died and she married Sir Edward Herbert.

Sir Oliver Millar, then Surveyor of H. M. The Queen’s Pictures, wrote in his 1963 book The Tudor, Stuart and Early Georgian Pictures in the collection of Her Majesty the Queen that in the 19th century the painting was believed to be one of several copies of a Hans Holbein portrait of Anne Boleyn. By 1861 it was listed in the catalogue as a “portrait of a lady” and the sitter has been anonymous for nearly 160 years until this discovery.

Desmond Shawe-Taylor, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, told the Sunday Telegraph: “It’s absolutely fascinating. We don’t have the resources to apply technical examination like dendrochronology to the whole collection, which is 7,000 paintings, so it’s wonderful to collaborate with the JVDPPP to help us in that way. One of the things that I’m endlessly trying to do is to group the paintings properly to sort out their history and their relationship to each other.

“When a stray is reunited with the family, there’s joy in heaven. It disproportionately increases the value and understanding of the whole group.”

Describing the paintings as “absolutely beautiful”, he said that the set could now be reunited.

Justin Davies, a British art historian and JVDPPP co-founder, said of the research: “It’s been a voyage of discovery. The results were remarkable and unexpected. Six of the 14 panels had been made from the same oak tree. The tree had started growing in south-west Germany before 1393 and was cut down between 1651 and 1671. In itself, this result constitutes a world record – six panel paintings from the same tree had not been recorded before.”

He added: “The remaining eight pictures are four pairs of two in terms of their trees of origin. “

The newly-identified Mary Boleyn portrait now hangs in the bedchamber of Mary, Queen of Scots, at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh.


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.


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.


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.





October 2020


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