Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Help save the Drake Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016

The Art Fund and Royal Museums Greenwich have launched a campaign to buy the iconic Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I before it’s put up for public auction. The Art Fund has contributed £1 million ($1,461,000) and Royal Museums Greenwich £400,000 ($584,000), its entire annual acquisitions budget, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. They need to raise another £8.6 million ($12,564,000) to secure the portrait for its asking price of £10 million or else it will be sold to the highest bidder.

The oil-on-panel portrait was painted in around 1590 to commemorate the scrappy English navy’s defeat of the mighty Spanish Armada in 1588 and has become an iconic representation of Queen Elizabeth. It has appeared in textbooks and inspired countless film and television portrayals of the Virgin Queen. Some scholars consider it the definitive representation of the English Renaissance.

Queen Elizabeth stands with her elegant right hand covering North America — Spain of course claimed much of South America — on a globe. Next to her shoulder is a crown representing her rule of a new global empire, and her dress, hair and jewelry are festooned with pearls, symbols of virginity and the sea. The fabric of her gown is embroidered with suns, symbols of power and enlightenment. Behind her are two scenes from the defeat of the Spanish Armada: on the left English ships in the foreground sail towards the larger Spanish fleet, on the ship Spanish ships are buffeted onto the rocky coast of Ireland or Scotland by what was termed the “Protestant Wind,” the breath of God Himself weighing in on the side of England and Protestantism.

The portrait was unusual in its time for the horizontal orientation, and was immediately popular enough to inspire multiple versions. This is one of three versions of the portrait to survive. One of them is in the National Portrait Gallery. It was trimmed on both sides to make it a vertical portrait and the English and Spanish ships in the background, the very parts of the paintings that give it its meaning, were overpainted in black. Conservators discovered the overpainting and removed it in the 1970s. The other version is at Woburn Abbey and is thankfully still intact.

The artist is unknown. Previously the National Portrait Gallery and Woburn Abbey versions were attributed to the Queen’s Serjeant Painter George Gower, but the NPG now believes all three portraits were painted by different hands and have changed the attribution of their version to an unknown artist of the British school.

The only version of the portrait still in private hands was once owned by, and likely was commissioned by, Sir Francis Drake which it makes it the most important of the three because of its close association with one of the heroes of the events depicted. It has been in his family ever since. It currently resides at Shardeloes in Buckinghamshire, the estate of the Tyrwhitt-Drake family. They’re ready to sell, and if the campaign is successful, the portrait will belong to a public institution for the first time in 425 years.

Royal Museums Greenwich would be the perfect home for this iconic painting, with its fine 16th- and 17th-century collections, maritime setting and world-renowned conservation expertise. If our campaign is successful, the portrait will hang at the newly renovated Queen’s House, on the site of the original Greenwich Palace, where Elizabeth I was born. Plans are underway for a national programme to secure the widest possible audience. The painting is in a fragile condition and bringing it into public ownership now will secure its long-term future, conservation and display.

It’s in dire need of that conservation expertise. Its background scenes of the victory over the Armada were also overpainted at one point, and the whole work is yellowed with missing flecks of paint. Half a millennium in drafty stately homes hasn’t done it any favors either. The Royal Museums Greenwich have the facilities to ensure a proper climate controlled environment that is ideal for conservation of the oil paint and oak panels.

All donations will be matched pound for pound, so whatever you can contribute is actually worth double. Click here to donate.

Mug at Auschwitz hid jewelry for 70+ years

Tuesday, May 24th, 2016

Staff at the Auschwitz Museum have discovered one person’s cherished treasures hidden under the false bottom of a mug for more than 70 years. The mug is one of more than 12,000 pieces of enameled kitchenware — pots, bowls, kettles, cups — in the museum’s collection, the quotidian things people brought with them when being deported in the desperate hope that they would have some kind of normalcy. Nazi officials encouraged this belief.

“The Germans incessantly lied to the Jews deported for extermination. They were told about resettlement, work and life in a different location. They allowed the victims take with them little luggage. In this way, the Germans were confident that in the luggage – including clothes and items needed for life – they would find the last valuables of the deported families,” said the Director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Dr. Piotr M. A. Cywiński.

“The hiding of valuable items – repeatedly mentioned in the accounts of survivors, and which was the reason for ripping and careful search of clothes and suitcases in the warehouse for looted items – so-called ‘Kanada’ – proves on the one hand to the awareness of the victims as to the robbery nature of the deportation, but on the other hand it shows that the Jewish families constantly had a ray of hope that these items will be required for their existence” stressed director Cywiński.

The owner of the mug defeated this vile scheme by creating a false bottom and hiding precious valuables in the space: a woman’s gold ring with gemstones and a gold chain necklace, coiled and wrapped in canvas. Both pieces bear the mark of a head of a knight with the number three on his right side, a symbol in common use in Poland between 1921 an 1931 for 583 gold, which means the gold content is 583 parts per thousand, or just a hair under 14 karats. While the ring is missing its central gemstone and some of the smaller ones, several of them remain snug in their settings.

The hidden treasure was discovered during routine maintenance work on the enameled kitchenware in the exhibition. Curators noticed that what had once seemed like the bottom of the mug was in fact pulling up, revealing a secret compartment. It kept its cache secure for more than 70 years before the metal gradually degraded, lifting the false bottom and separating it from the mug. Museum staff X-rayed the mug to see what the false bottom was hiding. X-ray fluorescence then confirmed the presence of copper, gold and silver. Only then did conservators carefully remove the bottom to examine the precious contents.

Through the rust you can make out a brand name and colors on the false bottom. The edges are rough, which is at least in part due to corrosion, but I think the mug’s owners cut out a circle from a discarded tin of some kind and then somehow fitted it into the mug so adeptly that it fooled the Nazis, the crews of people they had tearing apart people’s belongings looking for valuables and from 1947 to 2016, the staff of the Auschwitz Museum.

As with so many thousands of objects recovered from Auschwitz, there are no identifying marks that might help historians give credit to the ingenious person or people who so effectively hid these jewels from the Nazis and everyone else for seven decades. The mug and jewelry will kept in the museum in a manner that reflects how they were used so cleverly by desperate but hopeful people, mute but eloquent witnesses to the experience of Jews deported to the extermination camp.

Thousands of historic cosmetic, hygiene products digitized

Monday, May 23rd, 2016

Included in the National Museum of American History’s enormous collection of 90,000 artifacts in the Division of Medicine and Science are more than 2,200 historic cosmetic, hygiene and personal care products. Most of them have never been on display and outside of museum curators, people don’t even know they’re there. Thanks to a grant from Kiehl’s, a skincare company founded in 1851 which has over the years donated more than 100 items from its own past to the Smithsonian, the collection has now been digitized.

The National Museum of American History, with the support of Kiehl’s, plans to extend the collection to the Web through the Cosmetics and Personal Care Collections Digitization Project. A museum specialist will identify, photograph and provide descriptive information for the cosmetic and personal care objects collection on the Web. The project will allow the museum’s collection of cosmetics and personal care products to be accessed online for education and research around the world.

The objects date from the 19th century to the present and include everything from skin creams to soaps, perfumes, razors and tooth powders. The range of products and dates provides a fascinating view of how drastically beauty standards and personal care regimens have changed over the years. Browsing the collection you can tread the dangerously fine line between medicine and makeup, poison and perfume. The inextricable link between medicine and cosmetics was acknowledged by Congress in 1938 when it passed the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act giving the Food and Drug Administration some degree of regulatory oversight over the cosmetic industry.

The grant comes none to soon as soaps and the paper box they came in were not made to last. These were disposable items and there isn’t a lot conservators can do to keep them from crumbling to dust. Then there are the inevitable chemical reactions, like between toothpaste and its old tubes.

If you’re researching something of have a particular interest in one type of product, you can search the collection by keyword. I got a kick out of searching for poisons like arsenic and lead, which have been mainstays of skin care products since antiquity. I also had fun picking more general old-timey keywords like “tonic” and browsing all the quackery and impossible claims that ensued. If you’d just like to have a look around, click on one of the categories listed in the column to the right of the page. I enjoyed clicking on each category and then scrolling down to the filter options, clicking the date, and exploring the whole category from oldest to newest.

Did you know that after World War I, they made menstrual pads out of sphagnum moss? Apparently they were first invented during the war for use in surgical dressings and later found new life as a consumer product. That brings me back to the wonderful barrels of 14th century poop found in Odense, Denmark, in which clumps of moss were found because they were used as toilet paper. Damn good toilet paper at that.

The collection is full of cool random finds like this. The digitization project will continue to keep up with new acquisitions.

Louvre and Rijksmuseum co-parent Rembrandt portraits

Friday, May 20th, 2016

Marten Soolmans (1613-1641) was the son of a wealthy Calvinist sugar refiner who had fled Antwerp and the wars of religion for Amsterdam in 1585. In 1628, Marten, then just 15 years old, went to college in Leiden where he studied law and met a young painter named Rembrandt Van Rijn. Jurisprudence didn’t work out, so instead of a law career Marten acquired a wife in June of 1633. Oopjen Coppit (1611-1689) came from a very old, very rich Amsterdam family who had made their fortune in grain and gunpowder. Best of all, she brought a 35,000 guilder dowry with her to the marriage.

How better to spend some of that sweet dowry skrilla than on a pair of portraits painted by Rembrandt, at that time the most sought-after portraitist in the city. Marten and Oopjen had their portraits painted in 1634 when Rembrandt was 28 years old. No records of what they spent on the paintings have survived, but comparison with similar works suggests they paid at least 500 guilders per portrait.

Decisively rejecting his Calvinist roots, Marten wears a satin-edged, starched black outfit with bows, elaborate lace collars, cuffs and garters and absolutely shamelessly huge rosettes on his shoes. He holds a glove in his hand as a symbol of fidelity to his bride. Oopjen dons a delicately patterned black silk and quilted satin gown with lace details matching his, although her shoe rosettes are comparatively petite. She is draped in exquisite jewels — pearl earrings, a pearl-festooned headdress, a four-strand necklace of pearls, a three-strand pearl bracelet, a gold rings on both hands plus a third hanging from her necklace. She holds an ostrich feather fan with a thick gold chain.

They were the first and last life-sized, full-length portraits Rembrandt ever made. Created in a style rarely seen in Holland at that time, their art historical significance has garnered them the moniker of “brother and sister of the Night Watch.” Before them, full-length, life-sized paintings of people standing up in their finest of finery were the province of royalty and aristocracy, and mostly in Flanders and down south. More than just images of moneyed people of the time, these proud, regal portraits of bourgeoisie capture the zeitgeist of the young Dutch Republic, then just 50 years old, and its new elite of merchants for whom bank accounts, not bloodlines, determined social hierarchy.

The two portraits were in private collections in the Netherlands for four centuries. After the death of collector from a long line of collectors Annewies van Winter, in 1877 her nine children sold the collection virtually in its entirety to Baron Gustave de Rothschild, scion of the French branch of the banking dynasty, for 1.5 million guilders, very much against the wishes of the Dutch government which tried its utmost to keep these unique masterpieces from leaving their homeland. They just couldn’t afford to compete with the Rothschilds. The Rembrandt Association was founded in 1883 in reaction to this great loss, its goal to raise money to prevent other treasures of Dutch artistic patrimony from suffering the same fate. The portraits of Marten and Oopjen remained behind closed doors in the Rothschild collection for the next 130 years plus, leaving only once for a temporary exhibitions at the Rijksmuseum and Rotterdam’s Boymans van Beuningen Museum in 1956.

In March of 2015, news broke that Baron Eric de Rothschild was planning on selling the portraits for a nosebleed asking price of €150 million ($168 million). He applied to France’s Ministry of Culture for an export license, and much to the general horror of the French press, it was granted. Why, outlets like La Tribune de l’Art asked, weren’t the portraits declared National Treasure which would block export and delay sale for at least 30 months to give France and its museums the chance to raise the money to buy them? There was no question they qualified for the National Heritage designation, but they weren’t even submitted to the Advisory Board of National Treasures. The Ministry and the Louvre responded that they knew very well that they wouldn’t have been able to raise that kind of money in 30 months or ever, so blocking export of paintings they couldn’t possibly keep would have been “a perversion of the device,” as Heritage Director Vincent Berjot put it.

The sounds of wailing and gnashing of French teeth were sweet music to Dutch ears. They quickly set to the task of raising an ungodly €160 million to acquire both portraits. By mid-September of 2015, a preliminary deal was signed. The government of the Netherlands would chip in half the sum, the Rijksmuseum the other half.

France wasn’t licked yet, though. Three days after the announcement of the preliminary agreement, the French Culture Ministry took a page out of King Solomon’s book and offered €80 million to buy one of the portraits. Culture Minister Fleur Pellerin claimed the offer was “part of joint efforts by France and the Netherlands” to split the baby between the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum, but Dutch officials were noncommittal at best. Besides, it was unclear whether Eric de Rothschild would even consider splitting up the works.

On September 30th, 2015, France and the Netherlands published a joint press release announcing that they had indeed teamed up to buy the portraits. For months they’d been working on a deal wherein the countries would buy both portraits and share joint custody. They would pay €80 million apiece and while French acquisition law required that each party be the official owner of one painting, in fact the pair would never be separated and they would instead split their time between the two countries. The Netherlands got Marten Soolmans and France got Oopjen Coppit.

This was an unprecedented sale, the first joint acquisition by France and the Netherlands, the first artworks shared by the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum. The acquisition was concluded on February 1st, 2016, and since the portraits were already there, the Louvre was the first to put them on public display. Conservators did a basic cleaning and used “fake saliva” to restore some of their sheen before the portraits were unveiled on March 10th, 2016, in front of illustrious guests including Francois Hollande, President of France and the King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands.

They will be on display at the Louvre for three months until June 13th, after which they move to Amsterdam where they will go on display at the Rijksmuseum next to the Night Watch for three months from July 2nd through October 2nd. They will then be removed for a thorough conservation. The conservation work will also be a joint effort, headed by Sébastien Allard, Director of the Department of Paintings at the Louvre, and Taco Dibbits, Director of Collections at the Rijksmuseum.

The conserved works will go back on display at the Rijksmuseum for three months before spending another three months in the Louvre. That will be the end of the short exhibitions. After the final three months in Paris, the portraits will return to Amsterdam for five years, then to Paris for five years. After that, each museum will have them for eight years at a time. The Louvre and Rijksmuseum have agreed that the paintings will always be exhibited together and will never be loaned to any other museums.

Egyptian coffin holds youngest known mummified fetus

Friday, May 13th, 2016

A tiny ancient Egyptian coffin previously believed to hold mummified organs has been found to contain the youngest known example of a mummified fetus. Mummified fetuses are rare in the archaeological record of ancient Egypt. Two mummified fetuses in coffins were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, but they were at about 25 weeks and 37 weeks gestation. This one is only 16 to 18 weeks gestation.

The coffin was excavated in Giza in 1907 by William Matthew Flinders Petrie’s British School of Archaeology. When the 1906-1907 dig season ended, Petrie distributed the finds to more than 20 institutions in Britain and the United States. The miniature coffin went to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

The cedar wood coffin is just 44 centimeters (17 inches) long. It’s a miniature version of a Late Period Egyptian coffin probably dating to between 664 and 525 B.C. The wood has deteriorated over the years, but even through the networks of deep cracks on the exterior and interior of the coffin, the quality of the carving shines. This was an expensive piece.

Inside the coffin is a bundle wrapped in linen bandages and coated in black resin that was poured over it before the lid was put in place. Because the package is so small, curators thought it contained internal organs that were removed during the mummification process. In preparation for the museum’s bicentennial exhibition Death on the Nile: Uncovering the Afterlife of Ancient Egypt, curators wanted to find out what exactly was in that bundle. X-rays were inconclusive but there were indications that small skeletal material might be present.

Curators turned to micro CT, scanning the bundle at Cambridge University’s Department of Zoology. Fitzwilliam experts collaborated with radiologist Dr. Tom Turmezei and pediatric radiologist Dr. Owen Arthurs to examine the cross-sectional images produced by the micro CT scans. They concluded that the bundle contained the remains of a very young fetus. The fingers of both hands and toes of both feet are clearly visible, as are the long bones of the legs and arms. The skull and pelvis have collapsed, but the bones that remain allowed researchers to determine the fetus was no more than 18 weeks old. There are no signs in the surviving bones to explain why the fetus was miscarried.

The long bones of the arms are crossed over the chest, which means the tiny fetus was very carefully posed in its tiny coffin. Add to that the careful mummification and elaborate decoration of the coffin, and it’s clear the fetus was of great importance to its bereaved family.

Julie Dawson, Head of Conservation at the Fitzwilliam Museum said, “Using noninvasive modern technology to investigate this extraordinary archaeological find has provided us with striking evidence of how an unborn child might be viewed in ancient Egyptian society. The care taken in the preparation of this burial clearly demonstrates the value placed on life even in the first weeks of its inception.”

Other ancient societies, the Romans, for example, had no such care for dead babies, nevermind miscarried fetuses.

The miniature cedar coffin is now on display at the Death on the Nile exhibition, alongside some truly exquisite artifacts pertaining to Egyptian beliefs about death. It runs through May 22nd, so the clock is ticking if you want to see the exhibition. I’m including all the wonderful images of artifacts in the show that the Fitzwilliam made available to entice those of you who can make it to Cambridge and give those of us who can’t at least a taste of the marvels on display.



NPG acquires rare album of photos by Victorian pioneer

Wednesday, May 11th, 2016

The National Portrait Gallery has acquired a rare album of albumen prints by Victorian photographer Oscar Gustav Rejlander, a pioneer of art photography and photomontage. The album contains 70 photographs of known and unknown people taken in the mid-1800s. They include portraits of Rejlander, his wife Mary, Hallam Tennyson, son of Lord Alfred Tennyson, poet and essayist Sir Henry Taylor, a number of unknown sitters and models representing allegorical themes like prayer, sadness and painting. Copies of some of the portraits in the album are in museums and private collections, but most of them were previously unknown to scholarship.

Born in Sweden around 1813, Rejlander trained as a painter in Rome and moved to England where he opened a portrait photography studio in 1850. In addition to the portraits of moneyed clients, Rejlander photographed street kids and prostitutes, some of whom modeled for his allegorical works. His experiments with techniques like double-exposure and photomontage were cutting edge and one of them, an allegory called The Two Ways of Life which shows two young men presented with views of the virtuous and decadent life, made him famous. He combined 32 of his own negatives in that one montage; it took him six weeks to complete. The nudity on the sinful side caused some pearl-clutching, but Queen Victoria, who we now know had a keen appreciation for the carnal pleasures of marriage, liked it so much she bought a copy to give to Prince Albert. His innovations in the field earned him the title the father of art of photography.

It’s not known who compiled the album. It was part of the estate of Surgeon Commander Herbert Ackland Browning whose father was connected by marriage to Dr. Marsters Kendal, surgeon to the future King Edward VII. Annotations in the album indicate the album was lent to the Prince of Wales, so it’s possible it came though Dr. Kendal directly from the artist who, according to one of the notes in the album, at first refused to sell until the buyer offered “£2.2.0 for the Swedish poor.” It remained in the Browning family for 140 years, unpublished and unrecognized, until they put it up for auction in 2014.

The album was sold by Morphets of Harrogate on September 11, 2014, for a hammer price of £70,000 ($101,000) to a Canadian buyer. In February of 2015, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey placed a temporary export bar on the album because its significance to the history of photography and 19th century art. Christopher Wright of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA), the body that made the recommendation that the export license not be immediately granted, explains the album’s unique historical import:

Rejlander was one of the most popular photographers of his day, famous for pioneering combination prints and for his illustrations in Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. This particular album, a rare survival, is known to have been shown to both Pope Pius IX and the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII), who was an enthusiastic collector of his work.

The NPG already had 10 photographs by Rejlander in its collection, but the addition of this album greatly enhances its 19th century photography gallery.

Dr Phillip Prodger, Head of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, London, says: “The Rejlander album becomes one of the jewels in the crown of our already impressive collection of 19th century photographs. It transforms the way we think about one of Britain’s great artists. And it contains some of the most beautiful and expressive portraits of the Victorian era.”

The Rejlander album will go on display at the National Portrait Gallery in October. The NPG has already digitzed the prints from the album which can be seen on its website. If you’d like the turn the pages of the album and zoom in closer than the NPG photos allow (albeit with unfortunate watermarks), the auction company made a neat digital flipbook.



If the Flash album doesn’t work for you, here’s a pdf version.

USS Monitor turret conservation ramps back up

Tuesday, May 10th, 2016

Conservation of the 120-ton revolving gun turret of the USS Monitor, raised from the protected wreck site off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, on August 5th, 2002, is ramping back up this month after years of painful budgetary restrictions that saw the conservation staff reduced by half and left the massive remnant of the ironclad vessel in limbo. A year-long fundraising push has generated $1 million in donations which has allowed USS Monitor Center conservators to start a two-month campaign on the turret.

The gun turret is kept in a 90,000 gallon tank in the USS Monitor Center at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, filled with an alkaline solution of sodium hydroxide to preserve and desalinate the metal. Every Monday until the middle of July, the tank will be drained (it takes four and a half hours to drain the whole thing) so conservators can work on it. They will clean it thoroughly, inside and out, using small chisels, hammers, dental drills and air scribes (miniature compressed air jackhammers) to remove layer upon layer of concretions.

Conservators will also attempt to remove the nut-guards, shields that covered the nuts to keep them from flying out should the turret be subject to artillery fire. The exposed walls will then be excavated for small artifacts pinned there when the ship capsized and sank on New Year’s Eve, 1862. A number of discoveries have been made before behind the shields, including a monkey wrench, a bone-handled knife and a silver table spoon with the initials “SAL” engraved on the handle that researchers believe belonged to Third Assistant Engineer Samuel Augee Lewis, one of 16 crewmen who went down with the ship.

Once the cleaning and archaeological work have been completed, the turret’s newly exposed interior and exterior walls will be scanned through a 3-D photogrammetry process in order to record the progress of the electrolytic reduction and descaling treatments.

The sensitive images also may enable the conservators to uncover hidden clues imprinted on the turret’s exterior during the Monitor’s milestone clash with the CSS Virginia in Hampton Roads in March 1862, as well as its confrontation with Confederate shore batteries at Drewry’s Bluff on the James River two months later.

So discerning is the data gathered by the technique that it could provide the exact depth and circumference of both seen and unseen indentations made by enemy shot, bolts and shells, Hoffman says.

The tank will be filled up every Friday to preserve the turret over the weekend, then it all starts over again Monday. When this project is completed in mid-July, the tank will be filled back up for another long-term treatment. In total, conservators expect treatment to take 15 years before the turret can be safely exhibited in the museum without the protection of its tank, fresh water and alkaline solution. The $1 million raised is a fraction of the projected total cost of the full conservation. That’s more along the lines of $20 million, so the museum is continuing to raise funds.

One brilliant fundraising approach will be taking place over the next few months while the tank is empty during the week. For a price of 100 tax-deductible dollars a person, the USS Monitor Center’s director, historian John V. Quarstein, will lead visitors through the museum exhibition and the Batten Conservation Complex, the largest marine archaeological metals conservation lab in the world which contains the three largest pieces of the USS Monitor encased in massive conservation tanks: the vibrating side-lever steam engine, two XI-inch Dahlgren shell guns and their gun carriages, and the largest and most famous of them all, the gun turret. Visitors will have the chance to handle some of the artifacts recovered from the turret, and best of all, they’ll be allowed to go inside the drained turret tank. Waterproof boots at least eight inches high are required. Now that’s a killer gift idea for the history nerd who has everything. To schedule a tour (15 people at a time, max), contact Hannah Piner at hpiner@MarinersMuseum.org or call (757) 952-0465.

To follow the conservation project as it proceeds, check out the USS Monitor Center’s outstanding blog with entries written by the conservators doing the work. The museum’s website also has webcams trained on the three tanks so you can see the conservation as it happens.

Vatican’s Gallery of Maps restored

Sunday, May 1st, 2016

The Gallery of Maps in the Vatican Museums contains the largest cycle of cartographic paintings ever created. The gallery on the west side of the Belvedere Courtyard connects the Sistine Chapel to the Tower of the Winds and is 120 meters (394 feet) long, longer than a football field and 20 feet wide. Its barrel-vaulted ceiling soars three storeys above the floor. The walls are covered practically floor to ceiling with frescoed maps of all the regions of Italy.

The Gallery of the Maps was commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII so that he could travel the length of Italy without having to leave the apostolic palace. Dominican friar, mathematician and cartographer Ignazio Danti was placed in charge of the project. (Danti was also on the committee that reformed the Julian calendar, correcting its ancient miscalculations by cutting out 11 days so October 4th, 1582, was followed by October 15th, 1582, after which the new Gregorian calendar, named after the Pope, kept up with astronomical time.) During the course of 18 months from 1580 to 1581, Danti and his team — Flemish artists Matthjis and Paul Bril and Italian Mannerists Gerolamo Muziano and Cesare Nebbia, Giovanni Antonio Vanosino da Varese and Ignazio’s brother Antonio Danti — painted 40 large-scale map frescoes of every region in Italy (plus Avignon, on account of it was owned by Popes for four centuries from the Babylonian Captivity until the French Revolution).

The maps are extraordinarily detailed and accurate renderings of Italy in the late 16th century. Following Danti’s meticulous cartographic cartoons, the painters stuck to what they knew was there. If there was something they weren’t sure about, they left it out. While they included traditional decorative figures like putti, sea monsters and Neptune and conflated historical elements like Roman ships with contemporary ones, the maps themselves. The topographical precision and perspective are extraordinary, lending these maps an almost 3D-like realism. Valleys, hills, lakes, even individual streets are all recognizable. Moving from southern Italy to the north, the east side of the room was painted with maps of regions that face the Adriatic Sea and the Alps; the west side featured regions facing the Tyrrhenian. Danti said that walking this corridor was like walking up Italy on the spine of the Apennines.

Every regional map is accompanied by a smaller view of its most populous city. Where you exit the gallery today are maps of Italy’s four major ports — Genoa, Venice, Ancona and Civitavecchia — and two views of the entire peninsula — ancient Italy and new Italy. At today’s entrance are maps of the minor islands and two momentous battles that were still fresh news when they were painted: the Ottoman siege of Malta in 1565 and the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, both won by the Holy League.

The ceiling vaults are painted with the patron saints of the various regions (Saint Ambrose for Milan, Saint Mark for Venice) and with important/miraculous scenes from Italian history (Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Hannibal and his elephants, the baptism of Constantine, Pope Leo I persuading Attila the Hun to withdraw from Italy, Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa meeting with Pope Alexander III, etc.) each covering the space above the maps of the locations where the events took place.

The next Pope to put his hands on the maps was not so keen on accuracy. Pope Urban VIII ordered a “restoration” in 1630 that just painted over details that had gotten blurred over the 50 years since their creation. A fresco depicting the Brenner Pass between Italy and Austria was painted over just because it was so high up on the wall it was inconvenient to repair. Born Maffeo Barberini, Pope Urban also had his family’s symbol, the bee, added to the maps wherever possible, if not advisable. (It was Urban VIII who stripped the bronze off the roof of the Pantheon to make cannon and Bernini’s baldachin in St. Peter’s Basilica, giving rise to the satiric pasquinade “Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini,” meaning “What the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did.”)

Six million people a year walk down this hall, bringing dirt, moisture and the vibrations from hundreds of millions of footballs with them that caused the plaster to lift from the walls and covered the brilliance of the original paint under layers of dust. Between that and the unfortunate past restorations, the frescoes were in dire need of attention. In 2011, the Vatican reached out to the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of the Vatican Museums’ cultural patrimony, for help in funding a new restoration of the paintings that would rescue the plaster from impending doom and return works to their former splendour.

The restoration was sponsored by the California chapter of the Patrons. Half of the $2.4 million budget was donated by one Patron; the rest was raised through a map adoption program, with each Patron adopting an individual map and funding its restoration at either the $35,000 or $70,000 level. Because the maps are so extensive and so detailed, some patrons had the unique opportunity to adopt a map that with a connection to their family histories, for example the Castignano family adopted the map of Sicily because it included the hometown of their immigrant forebears, a tiny hamlet that barely registers on other atlases, while the Stanislawskis adopted the map of Umbria because of a family history of devotion to St. Francis of Assisi.

Art restorer Francesco Prantera and his team of experts began work in September of 2012. They anchored the plaster to the wall with an organic glue, and then set to treating the frescoes. They divided each map into 64 sections, the same sections the original artists used to paint them in the 16th century. Each of the sections was covered with special tissue-thin paper to absorb the old yellowed glue from a 19th century restoration. When the paper was peeled off, the newly vibrant color was protected with an adhesive made from a Japanese red algae called funori. Because the product is so expensive (one gram will run you 100 euros), the diagnostic laboratory of the Vatican Museums made their own extract directly from the imported seaweed. The restoration team then cautiously filled in areas of paint loss, reproducing the original materials used by the artists. The stucco was made from an ancient Roman recipe. The paints were all natural and free of chemicals.

The restoration took just under four years, double what it took Danti’s team to paint the Gallery of Maps in the first place. It has been open to the public this whole time. On Saturday, April 23rd, the Patrons were given a private showing of the restored Gallery.

There are some good views of the Hall and details of the restoration in progress in this Italian language video. The narration mainly gives a quick rundown of the history you’ve just read so I won’t repeat it, but you’ll find my translation of the interesting comments from Maria Ludmilla Pustka, head restorer of the paintings and wood artifacts of the Vatican Museums, below.

Maria Ludmilla Pustka: “The restoration of a work of art can be more complex than the original execution, and the great team we put together to make this restoration happen quickly had to use a very interesting, modern methodology that approaches a biorestoration. Thus nature itself has provided us with the proper materials for a better conservation.”

Narrator: “The restoration, which focused on the precarious condition of the plaster layer and the look of the painted surfaces, has also brought to light surprising discoveries.”

Pustka: “Every map has its own secret. Among the secrets, one new discovery was a coin of Urban VIII that was found inside a stucco relief, attesting to its date of manufacture. We also found a number of signatures from the original artists and past restorers.”

Sicily goes to London

Monday, April 25th, 2016

The British Museum has opened a new exhibition, Sicily: Culture and Conquest, which brings together more than 200 artifacts from 4,000 years of Sicilian history, many of which have never been to the UK before. The exhibition focuses on two time periods when Sicily was at the forefront of art and culture: when it settled by Greek colonists in the 7th century and when it was ruled by Norman kings from 1100 to 1250.

Objects on display include pieces from the British Museum’s collection, other institutions in the UK and elsewhere, and some spectacular pieces on loan from Sicily.

A rare and spectacularly well preserved, brightly painted terracotta altar, dating to about 500 BC, is one of the highlights of the loans coming from Sicily. It shows a scene of an animal combat on the upper tier, while below stand three striking fertility goddesses. The British Museum is also fortunate to be receiving on loan a magnificent terracotta architectural sculpture of a Gorgon, the famous Greek monster, that was once perched on the highest point of a building at Gela in south-east Sicily. Terracotta ornaments were frequently used to decorate the upper levels of buildings on Sicily and are amongst the finest that have survived from the ancient world. Another important Sicilian loan is a rare and iconic marble sculpture of a warrior from ancient Akragas, modern Agrigento. Marble statues were likely to have been commissioned, carved and imported into Sicily from overseas or made by local sculptors, trained in the Greek tradition. Such rare statues decorated major temples or were part of sculptural groups, most of which are long gone.

The pieces from the Norman era emphasize what a cultural crossroads it was. The Normans conquered Muslim Sicily in 1072 and the court took full advantage of the rich well of artistic talent from diverse cultures — Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arabic — who had ruled the island before them. There’s a gold mosaic of the Virgin Mary of Byzantine style which is the sole surviving panel of the mosaics that once adorned Palermo Cathedral (only on display until June 14th), a 16th century copy of a 12th century map made by Arabic cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi for the Norman King Roger II, and a funerary inscription installed by the Christian priest Grisandus for his mother Anna in 1149. It features the eulogy in four different languages (well, three and a half): on top is Arabic written in Hebrew script, the left in Latin, the right in Greek and Arabic in actual Arabic on the bottom. The multilingual approach was common in Norman Sicily, with public inscriptions often written in several languages.

The exhibition runs through August 14th. If you aren’t likely to make it London in time (or even if you are, really), you’ll enjoy this behind the scenes look at some of the more spectacular objects in the exhibition guided by curators Peter Higgs and Dirk Booms.

And now, an avalanche of beautiful pictures.

Owner of Texel shipwreck gown identified

Thursday, April 21st, 2016

Historians Helmer Helmers from the University of Amsterdam and Nadine Akkerman from Leiden University have identified the owner of the silk gown found in the Wadden Sea off the island of Texel in North Holland. It belonged to Jean Kerr, Countess of Roxburghe, lady-in-waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria. There’s a portrait of her on Adel Foundation’s website that they were able to get from the collection of Floors Castle, seat of the current Duke of Roxburghe and Scotland’s largest inhabited castle. The photo leaves much to be desired, I’m afraid, but she’s wearing a dress that is somewhat reminiscent, albeit more elaborate, of the one wrecked at sea.

There were two key clues to the identity of the gown’s owner: the ship sank in the first half of the 17th century, and the leather book cover stamped with the coat of arms of King Charles I, the second Stuart king of England, Scotland, and Ireland. As soon as Nadine Akkerman was apprised of the find, she remembered a letter she had transcribed in 2006 written by Elizabeth Stuart, sister of Charles I and exiled Queen of Bohemia, to her old friend the diplomat and Member of Parliament Sir Thomas Roe. The letter, dated March 17th, 1642, tells how her sister-in-law Queen Henrietta Maria lost a baggage ship on the voyage from England to Holland. Her two ladies-in-waiting and their maids lost their clothes and accessories; the queen lost some silver vessels from her private chapel. The style and size of the gown strongly indicate it belonged to Jean Kerr.

The Countess of Roxburghe was born around 1585. She was descended through her maternal line from Robert II, the first Stuart King of Scotland, which made her a very high-ranking lady. She was Mistress of the Robes to the court of James I and Queen Anne, both of whom attended her marriage to Robert Kerr, 1st Lord Roxburghe, in 1614. Three years later she was dismissed from Court when her husband tried to finagle a political appointment without the knowledge of the Queen, but in 1631, with a new King, Charles I, and Queen, Henrietta Maria, on the throne, she made her way back to Court and was appointed governess to the infant Princess Mary. She was later made governess to Princess Elizabeth (born 1635) and Prince Henry (born 1640).

This voyage to Holland was an infamous one. The ostensible purpose of the trip was to deliver Charles and Henrietta Maria’s daughter Mary, then ten years old, to her 15-year-old husband William, son and heir of Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange. Their wedding had taken place on May 2nd, 1641, in London. Reuniting the couple was a convenient pretext for Henrietta Maria to leave England and head for the continent where she could drum up support for the Royalist cause.

Her baggage was actually far more significant than her daughter. On February 23rd, 1642, Queen Henrietta Maria set sail from Falmouth with her daughter, her ladies-in-waiting, and the Crown Jewels. She also carried large quantities of silver and jewels that belonged to her and Charles personally, including those vessels from her chapel that were lost in the Texel wreck. The real reason for the trip to Holland was to sell or pawn these treasures, the most valuable of which were the patrimony of Britain, to fund a war against the British. Holland was the biggest market for the trade in high-end jewels and precious metals, so her daughter’s marriage to the heir of Orange was the perfect screen for her real intent.

Henrietta Maria arrived at The Hague on March 11th, 1642, where she was met by Elizabeth Stuart who had moved to The Hague after her exile. The loss of the baggage ship, while inconvenient as losing your luggage still is even now that it’s in airports instead of the bottom of the ocean, didn’t slow her down a bit. Mere days after her arrival, she was already trying to cut deals for the sale/hocking of the valuables that she’d kept with her.

This wasn’t exactly a stealth operation. In 1641 Parliament had officially protested that a plan of hers to take the waters at Spa, in what is now Belgium, for her health was in fact a blatant attempt to “convey great Sums of Money, and other Treasure, beyond the Seas; which will not only impoverish the State, but may be employed to the Fomenting some mischievous Attempts, to the Trouble of the publick Peace.” They were right, of course. Henrietta Maria was an active partner in Charles’ military and political ventures, often an instigator. She was a French Catholic — double trouble to English Protestants — and had an enormous influence on her husband. Her attempt to sell England’s Crown Jewels to fund a war against their (also British) enemies was the kind of machination that confirmed the worst suspicions about her and Charles.

The mission didn’t go well. Potential buyers and lenders were justifiably wary about the Crown Jewels. There was no clear title and the letter signed by Charles I saying he owned them that Henrietta deployed when people raised questions was hardly persuasive. With Parliament very publicly watching her every move, prepared to reclaim any pawned objects, buyers stayed away in droves. She wrote her husband in May that: “The money is not ready, for on your jewels, they will lend nothing. I am forced to pledge all my little ones, for the great ones, nothing can be had here….”

As for Jean Kerr, after she accompanied her young charge Princess Mary to The Hague, she turned around almost immediately, returning to her even younger charges, Elizabeth and Henry. She died just a year later, on October 7th, 1643.

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