Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Cranach painting in Royal Collection authenticated by pigeon tendon

Thursday, November 16th, 2017

Pigeon tendons have confirmed that Queen Victoria was right and a slew of subsequent Royal Collection curators were wrong: a painting she acquired is an authentic work by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Victoria bought it in 1840 as a Christmas present for her husband Prince Albert who was an avid collector of his countryman’s work and ultimately added a dozen paintings by the master himself or his workshop to the Royal Collection.

Portrait of a Lady and her Son (ca. 1510–40) is a double portrait of an Electress of the Holy Roman Empire and her apple-cheeked son wearing exquisite finery and holding hands. She and Albert did not question its attribution as a genuine Cranach, but by the early 20th century Royal Collection Trust experts reluctantly acknowledged that it was not by Cranach or even by his workshop. Instead, they believed it was painted by Franz Wolfgang Rohrich (1787–1834), who was an extremely successful Cranach forger. He cranked out more than 40 copies of the Electress holding her son’s hand and sold them to deep-pocketed collectors all over Europe. It took decades for people to cotton on to Rohrich’s fraudulent imitation game, and many of his pseudo-Cranachs are still in Europeans private and public collections.

Royal Collection Trust’s reasoning was that the style, principally the tender physical and emotional connection between mother and son, was not something seen in Cranach’s oeuvre. His figures are remote and stylized. Holding Mommy’s hand is not in Lucas Cranach the Elder’s wheelhouse. Also, while the Rohrich versions were everywhere, there was no painting that could be definitively identified as a Cranach original modified by the forger.

The issue returned to the fore recently when the Royal Collection Trust agreed to loan the portrait to an exhibition in Dusseldorf that took place earlier this year. RCT conservators and curators worked with Cologne’s University of Applied Sciences to study the painting in depth with technology that wasn’t invented when the early 20th century curators made the deattribution decision.

In collaboration with TH Köln (the University of Applied Sciences, Cologne), Royal Collection Trust’s conservators and curators examined the work ahead of its loan to the major exhibition Cranach der Alterer: Meister Marke Moderne at the Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf in spring 2017. Infrared reflectography was used to look beneath the paint surface, revealing preliminary underdrawing typical of Cranach’s work. Analysis of the pigments, metal leaf and the application of paint provided further evidence that the portrait was a work of the 16th century.

Finally an x-ray of the painting revealed that a fibrous material had been used in the preparation of the panel. Analysis of similar fibres on other works by Cranach has identified them as tendons, and in one instance DNA analysis had shown them to be pigeon tendons. Sixteenth-century glue recipes often included pigeon tendons to strengthen the mixture and counteract the natural warping and splitting of the wood.

The evidence was reviewed by Professor Dr Gunnar Heydenreich of TH Köln, an expert on Lucas Cranach the Elder, who confirmed that the painting was an original work by the master from which it appears all later versions derive.

The Royal Collection Trust conservators are ecstatic at the reattribution of the portrait to Cranach and have wasted no time in giving it a prominent position on public display. It has been installed at eye-level in the King’s Dressing Room at Windsor Castle where it will keep company with its brethren by Cranach and his workshop, including Apollo and Diana (ca. 1526), Lucretia (1530), and The Judgement of Paris (ca. 1530–35).

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Ex-grasshopper found in Van Gogh painting

Saturday, November 11th, 2017

Conservators have discovered the body of a definitely deceased grasshopper resting in disarticulated peace among Vincent van Gogh’s Olive Trees. Mary Shafter at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, was examining the work under a microscope as part of a research project for the upcoming catalogue of the museum’s collection of 104 French paintings when she spotted the little guy entombed in the deadly embrace of van Gogh’s thick impasto in the shadow of the first olive tree on the right. At first she couldn’t tell what it was; she thought it might be the leaf debris or an imprint left by leaf on the paint when it was still wet. A closer inspection at the foreign body revealed that it had a head (a decapitated one) and was animal, not vegetable.

Van Gogh liked to paint out of doors, en plein air, as the French (and art historians) call it. Conservators working on his paintings often find leaves, sand, specks of dirt, even small bugs embedded in the canvas. Grasshoppers are not so common. The members of the Nelson-Atkins team were excited by the grasshopper find, and at the prospect of the creature adding new information to the record about when Van Gogh painted Olive Trees. The general date is known, 1889, which was a troubled time for the artist. The year before he’d had his massive break-up out with his former bestie Gauguin followed in short order by the ear cutting incident. In 1889 Van Gogh checked himself into the asylum at the Monastery Saint-Paul de Mausole in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and remained there into 1890. The team hoped that if the grasshopper’s date of death could be identified from its stage in the growth/reproductive cycle or seasonal changes, then they might be able to conclusively determine whether Van Gogh painted Olive Trees during his stay in the mental health ward.

Paleoentomologist Dr. Michael S. Engel of the University of Kansas and American Museum of Natural History in New York City, came to their aid. He observed the insect under the microscope and realized that it was incomplete. The scattered body parts were missing the thorax and abdomen. He also was able to discern no sign of movement in the paint where the grasshopper’s bits were embedded, which means it was dead and dismembered before it hit the wet paint. This grasshopper was not pining for the fjords anymore by the time it landed on its eternal resting canvas. It therefore had nothing to contribute to the dating of its now thoroughly glamorous coffin.

So the trapped grasshopper came to nothing, new data-wise, but it’s still a thrilling little slice of Van Gogh’s process frozen in time. He was deeply passionate about capturing life in movement in its natural setting. In one letter to his brother Theo from 1885, he went off on an extended rant about artists who reuse the same old backdrops, tableaux vivants, orientalist and heroic themes, rehashed styles, even models in their studio set pieces, how phony and lifeless their depictions were. He named names too.

Perhaps you think that I’m wrong to comment on this — but — I’m so gripped by the thought that all these exotic paintings are painted in THE STUDIO. But just go and sit outdoors, painting on the spot itself! Then all sorts of things like the following happen — I must have picked a good hundred flies and more off the 4 canvases that you’ll be getting, not to mention dust and sand &c. — not to mention that, when one carries them across the heath and through hedgerows for a few hours, the odd branch or two scrapes across them &c. Not to mention that when one arrives on the heath after a couple of hours’ walk in this weather, one is tired and hot. Not to mention that the figures don’t stand still like professional models, and the effects that one wants to capture change as the day wears on.

That passage, which is not really a complaint so much as a recognition of how valuable working outdoors was to him despite the million irritants, explains exactly how the grasshopper likely got into the paint. He was either blown onto the wet canvas by wind or perhaps got stuck on it when Van Gogh lugged the large, heavy painting back home.

Visitors to the museum have been fascinated by the find. The grasshopper bits are less than half an inch in size and can’t possible compete with the density, vibrancy and complexity of Van Gogh’s brushstrokes, but that hasn’t stopped visitors from doing their utmost to spot the wee body parts in the shadow of that tree.

While the grasshopper becomes an engaging topic for museum visitors, more significant research on Olive Trees is underway. Analysis by Mellon Science Advisor John Twilley confirms that van Gogh used a type of red pigment that gradually faded over time. These findings suggest that areas where van Gogh employed this red, either alone or mixed with other colors, appear slightly different today than when the painting was completed.

“Color relationships were central to van Gogh’s practice,” said Aimee Marcereau DeGalan, Louis L. and Adelaide C. Ward Senior Curator of European Art. “Since we now know that portions of the canvas where van Gogh employed this particular red pigment have faded, those color relationships are altered.”

The artist’s letters often referred to his works by their dominant colors, which means the more recent changes in appearance can present uncertainty as to which painting van Gogh alluded to in his descriptions. With funding through the museum’s Andrew W. Mellon Endowment for Scientific Research in Conservation, more research is being conducted to evaluate the impact of these color shifts. The research is expected to clarify the original appearance of Olive Trees and to offer a clearer understanding of its place within van Gogh’s series of works on this theme.

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Hilarious exhibition at Frans Hals Museum

Friday, November 10th, 2017

The Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, northwest Netherlands, will tickle visitors’ funny bones with an exhibition dedicated to depictions of laughter in the paintings of Dutch Golden Age masters. The Art of Laughter: Humour in in the Golden Age is the first museum exhibition to treat the subject of hilarity in 17th century artworks with the seriousness it deserves. It’s the first show to focus on the topic at all, which is curious when you consider how rich a vein of it runs through the artworks of the period.

Frans Hals is often called ‘the master of the laugh’. More than any other painter in the Golden Age, he was able to bring a vitality to his portraits that made it appear as if his models could just step out of the past into the present. Hals was one of the few painters in the seventeenth century who dared portray his figures – often common folk – with a hearty laugh and bared teeth. Merriment and jokes are prominent features in his genre paintings; artists in the Golden Age frequently used it in their work. Now – centuries later – the visual jokes are harder to fathom. A great deal of new research into the field has been carried out, particularly in the last twenty years, and we are beginning to get an idea of the full extent of seventeenth-century humour. […]

The exhibition showcases some sixty masterpieces from the Low Countries and beyond by Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Jan Steen, Judith Leyster, Adriaen Brouwer, Gerard van Honthorst, Jan Miense Molenaer and Nicolaes Maes. Works by these and other artists will be shown in the context of an introduction and seven specific themes, including mischief, farce and love and lust, and one room is devoted to each of them. The exhibition ends with the comical self-portrait, in which painters feature in their own jokes. Thus humour eventually arrives at the artists themselves, creating an intriguing finale. There will also be a small selection of joke books, incredibly popular in the seventeenth century, which confirm the reputation of the Dutch as an unusually cheerful and humorous people. According to an Italian contemporary, the writer Lodovico Guicciardini, who was living in the Low Countries at that time, the Dutch were ‘very convivial, and above all jocular, amusing and comical with words, but sometimes too much.’

I wonder if the Frans Hals Museum has detected any hidden poopers in the artworks on display. The Edwardian curators of the Royal Collection were not amused by the Dutch penchant for ribald humor as expressed in their Golden Age paintings. It’s funny to think of the vast chasm in curatorial outlook between the priggish post-Victorians and the modern Dutch who take such pride and pleasure in the joie de vivre evinced by their Old Masters, even to the point that they’ve thorougly researched the paintings so we too can get the jokes that viewers in the 17th century would have gotten at a glance.

The paintings on display are a deep bench, loaned from institutions all over the world. In order to defray the cost of shipment, insurance, installation and security, entrance to the exhibition will cost an additional €5 on top of the general museum entrance fee. It’s still a bargain, though, because one ticket to The Art of Laughter will also get you into the companion exhibition, A Global Table, which looks at Golden Age still lifes with their tables and sideboards groaning with food, as primary sources of information on the effect of the Netherlands’ colonial holdings and global trade network on how people ate back home.

One of the 53 paintings in the Laughter exhibition, Gerard van Honthors’ absolutely charming Smiling Girl, a Courtesan, Holding an Obscene Picture, which is totally a meme waiting to happen (suggested caption: “Guess what? THIS GUY’S BUTT!”), is still in the process of being moved from the Saint Louis Art Museum. It won’t get to Haarlem until the end of the month. For now, her mischievous grin is represented by a reproduction created by artist Rinus van Hall in 24 hours. Here’s a nifty time-lapse video of him at work:

The The Art of Laughter runs from November 12th, 2017 through March 18th, 2018. A Global Table opened late last month and runs through January 7th, 2018.

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London Mithraeum is finally home again

Thursday, November 9th, 2017

The remains of the Temple of Mithras discovered under central London’s Walbrook Square in 1954 has returned to its original location and it looks great, better than it has in 50+ years. The temple, first built around 240 A.D., was unearthed by archaeologists William Francis Grimes and Audrey Williams in the very last days of a two-year archaeological survey of the site before the construction of new office buildings. The temple was identified as a Mithraeum when the beautifully sculpted head of Mithras, complete with Phrygian cap, was found. A reporter happened to be there and took a picture. Mithras’ beauty caused a sensation and almost half a million people came to visit the excavation.

The ensuing public outcry forced the city to abandon its original plan — the demolition of the temple to make way for ugly concrete squares of cheap mid-century offices — and come up with a compromise solution. The excavation would be extended and once the archaeologists were done, the temple remains would be removed and reinstalled a few hundred feet away at ground level so the public could enjoy it. In 1962, plan B was completed and London’s Mithraeum was reconstructed on an empty patch of land on Victoria Street. The objects discovered would go the Museum of London, except for the incredibly rare surviving wood benches and joists from the temple’s original floor, preserved in the waterlogged soil where the lost Walbrook River had once coursed. They were thrown out like so much trash.

Unfortunately plan B was poorly executed. Modern concrete was used to patch up holes and build up some of the lost masonry. The temple was not installed in its original configuration and was basically unrecognizable compared to how it had looked in situ. Things did not improve as the city grew up around it, leaving it looking like a random, weird, squat rectangle of brick and mortar benches.

In 2010, the Walbrook Square site was bought by Bloomberg LP who planned to build a grand new European HQ there. Of course they knew about the potential for archaeological remains under the site, so an in depth survey was commissoned and this time the soggy muck of the lost Walbrook River turned in an even more spectacular feat of preservation. The excavation unearthed entire city streets, large slices of Roman London from its earliest days in 40 A.D. to the final withdrawal of Roman troops in the 5th century. Wood streets, wood walls, wood wells, a wood door, thousands and thousands of assorted objects made of leather, wood, textiles as well as metal and stone. The oldest dated writing ever found in Britain was discovered on one of hundreds of Roman wood tablets from the Bloomberg dig.

The Bloomberg coporation has far deeper pockets than the small potatoes real estate developers in 1954, so it made ambitious plans to include all of these archaeological marvels in an underground display space in the Bloomberg. Not only would Roman London’s many layers be viewable to the public, but it would foot the bill to rescue the poor, benighted reconstructed temple remains from their incongruous street-level location and overmortared neglect. The temple would return to its original location, dismantled, cleaned of modern interpolations and reinstalled in situ as it had once been. There it would have the chance to be seen in its proper context, safe from the elements, and would even be reunited with another piece of the temple that was discovered during the recent excavation.

Tha planned opening date for the new Bloomberg building and its greatest of all basements was 2017, and right on schedule, the London Mithraeum at Bloomberg SPACE opens November 14th.

Michael Bloomberg, the founder of the company, said they were stewards of the ancient site and its artefacts. “London has a long history as a crossroads for culture and business, and we are building on that tradition.”

The Mithraeum incorporates a new daylit art gallery at ground level with an opening installation, Another View from Nowhen, by the Dublin artist Isabel Nolan. A huge glass case displays more than 600 of the 14,000 objects found on the site, including a wooden door, a hobnailed sandal, a tiny gladiator’s helmet carved in amber, and a wooden tablet with the oldest record of a financial transaction from Britain.

You can’t just walk in to see this archaeological treasure. Entrance is free of charge, but you must book first to guarantee entry. Click this link to book tickets, and have a poke around the website while you’re at it because it’s really very good. They worked hard to collect images and footage of the 1950s excavation and have incorporated them effectively on the site.



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Ghent Altarpiece restoration website is a stunner

Saturday, November 4th, 2017

As part of their 2010 agreement to fund the restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece, the Getty Foundation’s Panel Painting Initiative stipulated that the entire process be documented and photographed in dizzyingly high resolution and every detail from dendrochronology reports to pictures of a few inches worth of newly cleaned paint be uploaded to a dedicated website. Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece is a masterpiece of online information sharing, a worthy helpmeet, technologically speaking, to the massive oak panel polyptych painted in the first half of the 15th century by Hubert Van Eyck and his brother Jan that is an icon of Belgium, Early Netherlandish art and an art historical watershed.

The altarpiece, formally known as The Mystic Lamb of 1432, is in the Cathedral of St. Bavo in Ghent, Belgium, and has remained on public view during years of restoration, study, research and documentation. Not a great view, mind you, what with all the people and stuff going on, but they built a protective transparent enclosure to give visitors a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see some of the greatest people in their fields, from carpenters to retouchers, work on one of the world’s greatest pieces of art. The creation of the Closer to Van Eyck site with its dense database of information and unparalleled pictorial documentation made it possible for the whole world to see with their naked eyes things that were not only the purview of a select group of professionals, but that even said professionals could not see with their naked eyes.

When I first discovered the website in 2012, I spent a whole weekend immersed in its Chutes and Ladders-like maze of fascinating content. I checked it regularly for years afterwards, but my interest eventually petered off when I found it wasn’t getting fresh updates. I saw yesterday when writing about the Caravaggio exhibition that the Getty Foundation and the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage in Brussels had big news regarding Closer to Van Eyck. The site has had a major update and now has brand new photographs in nosebleed high res of the polyptych at various stages in the conservation process. There are more technical images available — it started out with just X-rays, now that’s just scratching the surface of their offerings — and a freaking cool feature that allows you to compare several views of the panels at the same time.

The altarpiece was painstakingly recorded at every step of the conservation process through state-of-the-art photographic and scientific documentation. Thanks to the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage’s imaging team, digital processing and design led by Frederik Temmermans of Universum Digitalis and the Vrije Universiteit Brussels, and imec’s Department of Electronics and Informatics, the altarpiece can now be viewed online in visible light, infrared, infrared reflectograph, and X-radiograph, with sharper and higher resolution images than ever before. Visitors to the site can now also adjust a timeline to view key moments in the conservation process, and have access to simultaneous viewing of images before, during, and after conservation. Users can zoom in even closer on details of the painting, exploring microscopic views of the work in 100 billion pixels. […]

“We are proud and pleased to now also offer unparalleled access to the results of the first stage of the restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece,” says Dr. Ron Spronk, professor of Art History at the Department of Art History and Art Conservation at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada and Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, who initiated and coordinated Closer to Van Eyck. “Our site provides images and research materials of unprecedented quality and scope, both on and below the paint surface that will serve both specialists and general audiences for many years to come. We truly have come much, much closer to Van Eyck.”

Not least because they discovered that the vast majority of Van Eyck’s original brushwork had been overpainted, more than 70% of it, so most of what people have been seen of the Ghent Altarpiece wasn’t Van Eyck’s paint at all. Much of the conservation work done thus far was dedicated to removing as much as the overpaint as possible to reveal the artist’s true hand without damaging the delicate original paint layers beneath.

This website is unbelievable. It’s captures all my favorite things: technology in aid of cultural patrimony, specialized skills being taught to a new generation, rich content clearly displayed for all to enjoy without firewalls or payment, and good Ghent almighty praise be to the massive photographs. The weekend is over, but you might need to take a personal day off work so you can have all the time you need to get microscope-close to Jan Van Eyck.

I would suggest you start here with a tour of the site to get a feel for the layout and organization from their very brief and clear video summaries, then bounce around the menu climbing ladders and falling down chutes. Stock up on water and snacks because you won’t be budging from your seat for hours.

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See the Borghese Caravaggios in a museum with functional climate control

Friday, November 3rd, 2017

Giving them a break from the stifling heat, pain-lifting humidity and stench of humanity, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles announced that they will be putting on a rare exhibition of three of the Borghese Gallery’s masterpieces by Michelangelo Merisi, the artist principally known as Caravaggio. The three pieces chosen for this rare departure to foreign climes are iconic: Saint Jerome Writing, also known as Saint Jerome in His Study, Boy with a Basket of Fruit and David with the Head of Goliath. The three works were painted at the beginning, middle and end of Caravaggio’s career, which makes them a great prism through which to view the artistic and personal shifts in the artist’s very turbulent life.

Boy with a Basket of Fruit (ca. 1593-94) represents the beginning of the artist’s career when he moved from Lombardy to Rome and first attracted attention as a painter of realistic genre scenes and still lifes. Saint Jerome (ca. 1605) portrays the saint as a scholar reading and annotating sacred passages in the dramatically spotlight manner that Caravaggio made famous. In David with the Head of Goliath (ca. 1610), painted at the end of the artist’s career in his more somber and expressive later style, Caravaggio included his own features in Goliath’s head, purportedly in penance for his having committed a murder in May 1606. All three paintings were acquired by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a nephew of Pope Paul V, who knew Caravaggio personally and was one of his primary patrons.

“Caravaggio continues to exert tremendous influence on art today. His exceptional combination of truth to life and drama, and that famous chiaroscuro, gave birth not only to a new style of painting, but also inspired generations of painters with his psychological naturalism,” said Davide Gasparotto, senior curator of paintings at the Getty Museum. “These rare loans are prime examples of Caravaggio’s exceptional talent and innovation.”

The loan is in aid of the Caravaggio Research Institute, a project that seeks to create a database of everything we know about Caravaggio and his work, an accessible digital reference constantly updated with the latest and greatest information from art historical research on the man to laser scans of paintings and everything in between. It will allow interested amateurs, scholars, curators, conservators, museums and other institutions to have a world of knowledge about Caravaggio at their fingertips, and for them in turn to contribute what they’ve discovered.

The project is sponsored by FENDI which somehow links it to the value of the Made in Italy brand. It’s a laudable goal that I hope to see succeed and become a standard for all researchers no matter what the subject, but how about they fork over some of the billions they make flogging logoware to fashion victims to FIX THE A/C IN THE GALLERIA BORGHESE?! Seriously it’s insane that the director of the gallery has a deep-pocketed sponsor for the research institute which is under no particular time pressure while the paint is literally peeling off the canvases in the museum itself.

Okay. Deep breaths. I’m good now, thanks. (Until the next time I recall the horrors I witnessed.)

The Getty has a pre-existing relationship with the Borghese Gallery, a fascination, even. In 2000 the Getty Research Institute (GRI) hosted an exhibition about how Prince Marcantonio Borghese IV made extensive alterations and renovations to the villa and rearranged its prized collection to turn it into a full-fledged public museum instead of a private house that allowed visitors the way it had been since Cardinal Scipione Borghese’s days. Marcantonio turned to architect Antonio Asprucci to turn his vision of the new museum into a reality, and they worked closely together on the project for two decades starting in 1775. Craftsmen, builders, painters, antiquities experts all dedicated themselves to this ambitious goal with an attention to detail that was recognized as an artistic achievement without parallel in its time.

It was enormously influential on museum design. The Louvre’s first ancient sculpture galleries were modeled after the ones at Villa Borghese and not in a coincidental way. In 1799, Napoleon hired antiquarian Ennio Quirino Visconti, the same person who had catalogued the Borghese sculpture collection, to organize the new statuary gallery of what was then called the Musée Napoleon, the first public museum in France which would open in the Palais du Louvre in 1803. Visconti consciously repeated what had been so successful at the Borghese estate: he tied the sculptures to the spaces they were in by creating ceiling and wall paintings on the same theme. Four years after what we now know as the Louvre Museum opened its doors, Napoleon made the reference to the great Borghese collection even more explicit when he strong-armed Marcantonio’s son Camillo Borghese, husband of Paolina, to sell him 300 of his family’s most important pieces which he then happily installed in the Musée Napoleon.

The GRI’s exhibition on the subject was the result of its acquisition of a group of 54 drawings, most of them by Asprucci involving their plans for the ground floor of the villa, that illustrate just how painstakingly detailed the Marcantonio/Asprucci renovation was. The drawings cover the imagery that helped create the thematic consistency between the objects on display and the villa itself, how it was to be decorated and furnished, how best to light it and how to display the statues to their greatest advantage. All that industry and dedication produced one of the great steps forward in museum design and the Borghese Gallery today is still largely arranged along the lines established by Marcantonio Borghese and Antonio Asprucci.

Caravaggio: Masterpieces from the Galleria Borghese opens at the Getty Center on November 21st and runs through February 18th, 2018.

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Irving Finkel on how to raise the dead

Tuesday, October 31st, 2017

If you thought Irving Finkel, the British Museum’s Middle East curator and foremost cuneiform expert, outdid himself in that video where he played the Royal Game of Ur, you’re going to love his Halloween themed video. In it he summarizes in his characterstically witty style the inscructions for necromancy, raising the dead for the purpose of foretelling the future, found on a tablet (K.2779) in the British Museum.

Written in Neo-Babylonian in the 7th century B.C., the tablet was one of tens of thousands discovered at Nineveh that were part of what is known as the Library of Ashurbanipal. Only the top half of it and a few fragments have survived so we don’t have the full recipe for conjuring the spirits of the dead, sad to say, and there are a few lines of magical incantantions that are untranslatable because they were written in what scholars think may be a mixed-up kind of Sumerian seeing as by the 1st milennium B.C. nobody could speak the real thing anymore. This kind of magic-speak has been found on tablets before, including ones dealing with necromancy.

There aren’t a great many specifically dedicated to the raising of ghosts and questioning them, interestingly enough. The namburbi genre this tablet is a part of usually deals with warnings and magic to repel ghosts and contain the damage they can do. Tablet 2779 is unusual in that it covers both subjects: how to raise the ghost and then how to prevent its evil from harming the home and its residents. As it was not incised in Nineveh, it’s likely the tablet was brought to the library in a deliberate attempt to flesh out the collection in subject areas that were sparsely covered.

Here’s a translation of the surviving cuneiform from K.2279, minus the couple of lines of untranslatable verse:

An incantation to enable a man to see a ghost.

Its ritual: (you crush) mouldy wood, fresh leaves of Euphrates poplar in water, oil, beer (and) wine. You dry, crush and sieve snake-tallow, lion-tallow, crab-tallow, white honey, a frog (that lives) among the pebbles, hair of a dog, hair of a cat, hair of a fox, bristle of a chameleon (and) bristle of a (red) lizard, “claw” of a frog, end-of-intestines of a frog, the left wing of a grasshopper, (and) marrow from the long bone of a goose. You mix (all this) (in) wine, water (and) milk with amhara plant. You recite the incantation three times and you anoint your eyes (with it) and you will see the ghost: he will speak with you. You can look at the ghost: he will talk with you.

In order to avert the evil (inherent) in a ghost’s cry you (sic) crush a potsherd from a ruined tell in water. He should sprinkle the house (with this water). For three days he should make offerings to the family ghosts.

He should pour out beer (flavoured with) roast barley. He should scatter juniper over a censer before Samas, pour out prime beer, offer a resent to Samas, and recite as follows:

O Samas, Judge of Heaven and Underworld, Foremost One of the Anunnaki!
O Samas, Judge of all the Lands, Samas Foremost and Resplendent One!
You keep them in check, O Samas, the Judge. You carry those from Above down to Below,
Those from Below up to Above. The ghost who has cried out in my house, whether of (my) father or mother, whether (my) brother or sister,
Whether a forgotten son of someone, whether a vagrant ghost show has no-one to care for it,
An offering has been made for him! Water has been poured out for him! May the evil in his cry away behin him!
Let the evil in his evil cry not come near me! <…> You do this repeatedly for three days, and <…>

You wash his hands, you anoint him with U.SIKIL: “It is finished”: in oil.

I love that they pour out beer for him. Very 90s rap.

The only negative thing I can say about Finkel’s explanation of the tablet is that it’s way too short. I’m hoping he does what he did with Ur and films himself actually performing the ritual. He’s already scared up a suitable skull (Mesopotamian, one hopes, although there is nothing in the literature that suggests the skulls used in these rituals needed to have belonged to any specific individual, group or time period). It’s just the ingredients for the magical brew he’s having difficulty obtaining. That, Dr. Finkel, is what the Internet is for. All you need is a little viral luck and within days you will be inundated with sufficient snake tallow, frog end-of-intestines and chameleon bristles to raise an army of the dead.

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Portland Vase keeps confounding experts after 500 years

Monday, October 30th, 2017

An interdisciplinary study at the Australian National University (ANU) has discovered evidence that the Portland Vase, a 1st century A.D. Roman cameo glass of extraordinary beauty that has captured the imagination of the artists and antiquarians for half a millennium, may have been manufactured completely differently than scholars have thought up until now.

Specifically, by using a combination of computed tomography and mathematical analysis the researchers have shown that Roman cameo glass was not made by blowing, but by a different process known as “pate de verre”.

While glass-blowing involves basically inflating a balloon of molten glass by pushing air into it through a tube, pate de verre is a form of casting. Finely crushed glass particles are mixed into a paste with a binding material (and colours), which is then put on the inner surface of a mould and then fired.

Research on Roman cameo glass fragments led by Richard Whitely of the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra focussed on studying the fine structure of air bubbles trapped between blue and white layers. The collaboration between the university’s schools of art and design, classics, and physics and engineering revealed evidence that the glass could not possibly have been produced by blowing.

“We saw a bubble configuration within the glass that results from a pressing and turning motion,” says Whiteley. “I believe that cold granulated glass has been packed into a mould and then a blob of molten blue glass introduced and pressed against mould heating the white granules from behind. You just would not get a bubble that size and flat-shaped from blowing.”

He knows whereof he speaks, because Whiteley is an experienced glass artist in his own right. His first-hand knowledge of how glass works was supported by Tim Senden from the school of physics and engineering who analyzed the data from the scans. Senden created mathematical models of the glass bubbles and found they were not compatible with bubble patterns created during the process of blowing glass.

The Portland Vase has been confounding and enchanting people if not since it was made between 1 and 25 A.D., then at least since its rediscovery in the Renaissance. It is believed to have been found in a tomb just southeast of the ancient Servian walls that still marked the official boundary between the old city (where bodies could not be buried) and the outskirts (where they could). Known as the Monte del Grano (the hill of grain), the grave purportedly contained a large marble sarcophagus thought to be the final resting place of Emperor Severus Alexander (r. 222-235 A.D.) and his mother Julia Mamaea. The imperial attribution proved to be groundless, but the legend stayed attached to the vase, which was found inside the sarcophagus and because of its exceptional quality was assumed to have been used to contain the ashes of the emperor, for centuries.

The discovery was not documented at the time so a lot of this story is nebulous in its details. It was well-established as the background of the vase by the 18th century, but the first known recorded reference to the Portland Vase was a comment by Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc who saw the artifact in the winter of 1600-1 in the collection of Cardinal del Monte. Peiresc was riveted by it as were his friends Peter Paul Rubens and antiquary Cassiano dal Pozzo whose “Paper Museum” (a collection of more than 7,000 paintings, watercolors and sketches of antiquities, botany, zoology, architecture and more) included multiple drawings of the vase. The three of them wrote to each other about it often, discussing its aesthetic attributes, imagery, original shape and date of manufacture.

As secretary to Cardinal Francesco Barberini, dal Pozza had front-row seats to the cameo glass vase. Cardinal Del Monte died in 1626 and the vase was acquired by the Cardinal’s brother Antonio, both nephews of Pope Urban VIII. That’s where the vase got its next name: the Barberini Vase. The family was the most powerful in Rome at that time and had patronage ties to artists all over Italy. Word of the rare beauty of the vase spread far and wide in the artistic community, and by the end of the century it was considered a must-see for antiquarians, artists and well-bred amateurs who would later become known as Grand Tourists.

Not that anybody had any accurate idea of where it came from or even what it was made out of at this point. Late 17th century sources from encyclopedist Bernard de Montfaucon to Giovanni Battista Piranesi, meticulous engraver of antiquities and fantasy prison landscapes, repeated the story that the vase had been found in the Monte del Grano tomb in the sarcophagus of Severus Alexander. Piranesi engraved the tomb, sarcophagus and vase in his characteristic high detail, but he hadn’t seen them together as the original context was long since scattered. Montfaucon and Piranesi both mistakenly thought the vase was made of sardonyx agate, and they weren’t the only ones to make that mistake.

Sir William Hamilton bought the vase from Scottish antiquities dealer James Byres in 1782 who had bought it from the debt-ridden Donna Cordelia Barberini-Colonna in 1780. In 1784, the vase ceased to be a Barberini and found a new home (and a new name) with the Duchess of Portland. She died the next year and her great collection was sold at a multi-day auction. The buyer of the vase kept things in the family, however, because he was the Duchess’ son, the 3rd Duke of Portland. A year after the sale, Josiah Wedgwood got permission to borrow the vase to make copies in jasperware. His versions were huge commercial hits and geometrically expanded the fame of the original vase.

The Portland Vase darkened the doorway of the British Museum in 1810 when the 4th Duke of Portland loaned it to the institution for safe-keeping, but alas, there is no safety to be found in a world full of crazy people. On February 7th, 1845, a paranoid alcoholic on a bender picked up one of the carved stones on display in the gallery and smashed the Portland Vase and its vitrine to bits. It wound up in 37 pieces but was puzzled back together by restorer John Doubleday within a year. It was finally bought by and entered the permanent collection of the British Museum in 1945.

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Update: National Museum secures Galloway Hoard

Thursday, October 26th, 2017

National Museums Scotland has successfully raised the £1.98 million ($2,550,000) necessary to acquire the Galloway Hoard. Half of the money will be given to metal detectorist Derek McLennan, who discovered the hoard in a field in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, in 2014, as an ex gratia payment in accordance with the terms of the Treasure Act which awards finders of artifacts adjudicated to be treasure a cash sum equivalent to their market value as an incentive to disclosing these kinds of discoveries instead of looting them for secret resale or to keep for themselves. The other half will go to the landowners, the Church of Scotland, which will dedicate its share to the local parish in which the treasure was found.

The Galloway Hoard was assessed by the valuation committee at such a large sum because it is the richest Viking hoard ever discovered in Britain. It includes silver jewelry, silver and gold ingots, a unique gold bird-shaped pin, a lidded silver-gilt pot, arm rings, brooches, a solid silver cross pendant decorated in enamel with the images of the Four Evangelists, bejeweled aestels (manuscript pointers), glass and crystal beads, a rock crystal jar and much more. Besides the sheer quantity and quality of the precious objects in the hoard, they are without parallel in the different places and cultures they came from. The rock crystal jar is believed to have been made in the Middle East; the lidded pot is Carolingian; the glass beads are Scandinavian; the stamp-decorated bracelets are Irish; one of the silver pieces is engraved with runes at first thought to be Scandinavian but have been found upon closer examination to be Anglian. The ages of the objects vary significantly as well. The hoard was buried in the early 10th century, but the Carolingian pot was at least a century old by then, so it was likely kept as an heirloom for several generations before being used to hold the treasures it still contained a thousand years later.

Some of the greatest of the treasures found inside the vessel are of little pecuniary but inestimable archaeological value. They are the remains of textiles that survived wrapped around several of the pieces stored inside the vessel and around the pot itself, plus leather and wood fragments. These exceedingly rare surviving organic materials, never found before in a hoard of this age, contain a wealth of information about the Viking Age, its travel and trade routes. They’re also a major conservation challenge, which is one of the reasons the Galloway Hoard was not allocated to a Galloway museum. NMS has the resources, expertise and carefully controlled conservation environment to ensure the continued survival organic remains.

The hoard has been on temporary display at the National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh since the summer. The exhibition just closed on October 1st, but fear not, the treasures will be back in public view after a period of conservation and study. Here is Martin Goldberg, curator of the museum’s Early Medieval and Viking collections, guiding viewers through the exhibition and some of the objects from the Galloway Hoard.

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Roman hair from the Capitoline Museums for Janet Stephens

Monday, October 23rd, 2017

Janet Stephens, intrepid hairdressing archaeologist, was on my mind often as I traipsed through the rooms full of Roman busts in the Capitoline Museums. Her intensive research on Roman hairstyling coming from her perspective as a professional stylist, a unique viewpoint that gave her special insight into an arena most historians know nothing about, led her to fascinating discoveries like that Roman matrons likely had their elaborate braided updos sewn together instead of wearing wigs. She also unravelled the complexity of the seni crines, the characteristic hairstyle of the Vestal Virgins.

When I interviewed her almost six years ago, I asked her what changes she’d like to see in the archaeological community if she had her choice. She replied:

I would love it if all archaeological museums would display their sculptures out in the middle of the room instead of in niches and against walls! And I wish there were mirrors behind every small sculpture displayed in a case.

The Capitoline Museums have not made her dream come true, I regret to report. It’s a damn shame because that mirror idea is brilliant. The good news is that even though the busts are still on shelves up against the walls facing the room, many of the female portraits have been turned just enough that you can see the sides and back of their hair. You might have to crane a bit to do it, but it is now possible to see the business end of the Roman women’s hairstyles and even get a pretty decent picture of several of the most interesting ones. Yes, some Stretch Armstronging is required, but nothing too contortionist for single-jointed, non-rubberized people to handle.

I looked for hair that I couldn’t recall having seen her recreate on her YouTube channel yet and that had some intricate elements to it. Nobody famous, therefore, because Janet has already done quite a few empresses and society leaders. My final choices range in date from the 1st century A.D. through the 4th, and all these nameless Roman ladies have in common are great ornatrices and fly dos.


The last woman’s hair is less complex than some of the others, perhaps, but I found its tiger-striped elegance no less intriguing, so she gets the big embed to show off the fine details.

Simple, but stripey.

All of these busts were spread out in the ancient marbles gallery, keeping company with some of the famous sculptures of antiquity. My last post on the Capitoline Museums will cover the big names too. Stay tuned!

 

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