Archive for the ‘Renaissance’ Category

Mary, Queen of Scots’ silver casket of doom

Friday, May 20th, 2022

A luxurious silver casket believed to have contained the scandalous letters from Mary, Queen of Scots, to the Earl of Bothwell that were the pretext for her forced abdication and long imprisonment has been acquired by National Museums Scotland. £1.8 million

The casket was made in Paris between 1493 and 1510, which makes it an extremely rare survival of luxury Renaissance French silversmithing, much of which was melted down in the late 17th century by Louis XIV to fund his endless wars. There are no other French silver caskets of this type and quality known to survive. This one just happened to have left the country a century earlier, and its association with Mary, Queen of Scots is likely a large part of the reason it was preserved so well for so long.

As the experts on Antiques Roadshow always tell people to do, a note kept with the casket explains its connection to Mary. Written in the early 1700s, the note states that the casket was owned by Mary, Marchioness of Douglas, who sold it to Anne, Duchess of Hamilton. Mary told Anne that it once belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots.

Eight letters purportedly written by Mary, Queen of Scots, were the crux of the case made for her deposition by the Earl of Moray and other Confederate Lords. The letters, they claimed, proved she had had an illicit affair with the Earl of Bothwell and had conspired with him to kill the Queen’s husband Lord Darnley. The letters proved no such thing and there’s a strong chance they were forgeries anyway, but the pretext worked. Mary was forced to abdicate and fled to England seeking the protection of her cousin Queen Elizabeth I. Instead, Elizabeth ordered an investigation into whether Mary had indeed murdered Darnley and although the inquiry was inconclusive, Mary was held captive in a sequence of castles for 19 years until 1586 when she was tried and executed for plotting to overthrow Elizabeth.

The letters and casket went to a round-robin of Scottish lords after that. Moray, regent of Scotland after Mary’s convenient removal, had the letters for a while, then James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton. Mary’s son, the future James VI, is believed to have destroyed the original letters in 1584. Only a few copies exist today.

The casket was acquired by Mary Gordon, second wife to the 1st Marquis of Douglas, in the 1630s. Whether it is the actual casket that contained the letters used against Mary is unknown, but it such a high-end piece it is entirely plausible that it belonged to her at some point.

This ornate object was made by an extremely skilled goldsmith. We can tell that the goldsmith was in Paris from two maker’s marks stamped into its external underside panel. They have a crowned fleur-de-lis identifying the casket as Parisian, which sits above two symbols for the specific goldsmith, a fire steel or strike-a-light with a small Greek-type cross beneath it. After 1506, the French king Louis XII ordered the Parisian goldsmiths to start using a new type of mark, which means the casket must have been made by this time.

The decoration on the lid is known as ‘strapwork’, with alternating wide bands of three-dimensional scrolling leaves and flowers, and narrower, flat bands of flowerlets. The decoration of the sides is very different, with pinpricked flowers, birds, a rabbit, and a running stag and dog. This work may have been done later, and further scientific work will attempt to see if it replaced a previous design.

On one side is an engraving of the arms of the Dukes of Hamilton, with their distinctive symbol of the birlinn, or galley, in the second and third quarters. Three cinquefoils appear in the first and fourth quarters. When magnified, you can see that these arms have replaced something that has been erased. According to the provenance note, these were the arms of the Marquis of Douglas, and before that, of Mary, Queen of Scots.

The casket is now on display in the National Museums Scotland’s Hawthornden Court. In August it will be moved to its permanent location in the Kingdom of the Scots gallery where other artifacts and documents connected with Mary are displayed.

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Young Knight shines again in complex landscape

Tuesday, May 17th, 2022

Young Knight in a Landscape (c. 1505) by Vittore Carpaccio is one of the most iconic masterpieces of the many masterpieces of Madrid’s Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza. A comprehensive new study and restoration program undertaken in public view in 2020 and through March of 2021 has removed yellowed varnish and muddied overpainting to reveal the original rich colors of this uniquely complex symbolic landscape. The painting is now part of a special exhibition dedicated to the work, its imagery and the restoration itself.

The large-scale painting depicts a young man in plate armour drawing or sheathing his sword. His red hose show under the armor strapped to his right leg. He stands on a path bordered by a variety of plants. A snow-white ermine is in the glad on the left. Behind him the walls of a city extend to the vanishing point, overlooking a body of water. Animals — rabbits, deer, dogs, a veritable conference of the birds — abound on land, sea and sky.

In the left middle ground immediately behind the knight, a second one emerges from a dilapidated fortress. Mounted on a dun steed, he complements the central subject with his yellow and black checkered livery that matches the standing knight’s shoes, barely visible shadows underneath his chain mail. The mounted knight is armed with pieces the standing knight doesn’t have — a pike, a helmet with visor — and a peacock is perched on his helmet.

The work contains a wide range of symbolic elements, each of which has significance and meaning: the fauna, flora, landscape, figures, all transmit an interconnected message. Each detail is located in a strategic position within the composition in order to create a narrative associated with the virtues and deeds attributed to the figure and in order to exalt his memory. Like the lance that the mounted knight holds and points towards a falcon (symbol of vision, strategy, knowledge and victory) perched on a branch at the upper right corner. In turn, this imaginary line connects with the dog that accompanies the knight and is a symbol of fidelity and sacrifice. Other “lines” radiating from the falcon link the principal figure with different details among the many to be found in this work. The result is an invisible network of lines that connects all these elements to the principal figure, forming a grid in which he appears to be trapped and thus involved in this tension.

The figure of the young knight is made up of two opposing halves: the upper half – clad in Italianate armour with simple rivets and motifs of feathers or scales on the arm guards and gorget – is shown as resigned and melancholy while the lower half, with floral motifs decorating the different parts of the German-style armour, is shown as decided and arrogant. The knight’s sword divides these two parts of the figure, a duality that is repeated throughout the painting and which refers to the opposition of good and evil, victory and defeat, the heavenly and the earthly realms.

Some scholars believe it to be a portrait of a real person rather than a pure allegory. If it is a true portrait, it would be the oldest full-length portrait known. One possible candidate proposed by the museum is Venetian naval captain Marco Gabriel, who fought Ottoman forces in the siege of Modone (a strategically important port in the Peloponnese) in 1500. He was captured and executed when the Ottomans took the city.

This hypothesis explains the presence of the walled city in the painting, which is possibly an idealised version of the fortress, as well as the destroyed building on the left of the composition from which a rider emerges; a young knight mounted on a dark charger (symbol of inner wisdom and death), accompanied by his faithful dog in an allegorical image of the knight’s soul embarking on its path towards rebirth. According to this theory, this journey is also symbolised in the trees on the other side of the scene: a leafy oak in the background, its autumnal version in the middle ground and a cut-down tree next to the principal figure from which new shoots are growing and which has a cartouche with the name of the artist and the painting’s date.

This cartouche was rediscovered underneath old overpaints during cleaning in 1958, as was the one with the inscription “Mal mori quam foedari” (Rather dead than dishonoured), rediscovered next to the ermine. 

The motto next to the stoat in his winter white fur suggests the knight may have been a member of the chivalric Order of the Ermine, an honor conferred by the Dukes (and Duchess Anne) of Brittany who had stylized black-tipped ermine tails in their coat of arms. 

The museum has created an excellent video about the restoration and technical study of the painting. Visitors to the museum will be able to enjoy that video next to the portrait in the new exhibition, but the rest of us will have to make do with YouTube and the museum’s magnificent gigapixel image of Young Knight in a Landscape which puts you eye-to-beady-eye with the ermine.

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Stolen Nostradamus manuscript returns to Rome

Thursday, May 12th, 2022

An extremely rare 500-year-old manuscript of the prophecies of Nostradamus stolen from a library in Rome more than 15 years ago has been found in Germany. It was officially returned to the library on Wednesday, May 4th.

The work, written in Latin, is entitled Profetie di Michele Nostradamo and contains the French physician’s collection of 942 quatrains ostensibly predicting future world events, many of them borrowed from ancient sources, the Bible and known history. The first printed edition was published in 1555. This manuscript dates to the same time.

The manuscript was rediscovered last year when it came up for auction in Pforzheim, Baden-Württemberg, with a starting price set at €12,000  ($12,630). The seller was an unnamed art dealer. Italy’s Carabinieri Art Squad spotted the manuscript in the auction catalogue in April 2021, days before it was scheduled to go under the hammer. One of the pages published in the catalogue bore the clearly visible stamp “Biblioteca SS. Blasi Cairoli del Urbe” dated 1991. Italian prosecutors reached out to German authorities to report the suspected theft and the lot was withdrawn from the auction. The Stuttgart police confiscated the manuscript and stored it until the repatriation process was complete.

It is not known when exactly the volume disappeared from the library of the Barnabiti Center for Historical Studies, but its absence was first noticed in 2007. Italian and German police investigated the manuscript’s movements after it was stolen. It seems from Rome it made its way to Paris where it was sold at a book flea market. It then emerged in Karlsruhe before reaching Pforzheim and the auction house. The investigation is ongoing and the seller has not yet been charged with anything.

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Michelangelo’s first sculptures restored

Friday, May 6th, 2022

Michelangelo’s first two sculptures, marble reliefs the  Madonna of the Steps and the Battle of the Centaurs carved when he was a teenager, have been restored and are on display at the Casa Buonarotti museum in Florence.

Michelangelo was just 15 years old when he moved to Florence in 1490 and joined the informal art academy sponsored by Lorenzo de’ Medici in his sculpture garden at Piazza San Marco in Florence. For two years, Michelangelo lived in the Medici Palace and studied in Lorenzo’s garden of antiquities under the guidance of Bertoldo di Giovanni, the sculptor and portrait medallist who was curator of Lorenzo’s antiquities and instructor of the young talents who studied there.

Michelangelo’s first sculpture (1490-1491) was the Madonna of the Steps, a low relief homage to Donatello’s relievo stiacciato (smashed relief) technique. The Madonna sits on a square stone block, the Christ child on her lap, his back to the viewer. On the left is the flight of stairs that gives the piece its name. At the top of the stairs a pair of putti wrestle while a third one looks away, leaning pensively over the bannister.

His second sculpture (1491-1492) was another relief, this one a dynamic, intricate, deeply-cut mythological scene of a battle between men and centaurs. Michelangelo took inspiration from Bertoldo’s largest bronze, a relief of a complex battle scene inspired by an ancient Roman sarcophagus that Lorenzo had commissioned a decade earlier.

Michelangelo kept both reliefs for his entire life. He considered the Battle of the Centaurs one of his greatest works, evidence that he should have stuck to sculpture from the beginning instead of getting sidetracked by annoying distractions like, oh, say, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. After his death in 1564, the Madonna was sold to Cosimo I de’ Medici by Michelangelo’s nephew and heir (under some duress). Grand Duke Cosimo II returned it to the Buonarroti family in 1616. The Battle of the Centaurs has been in the Buonarroti family for five unbroken centuries. Both reliefs are part of the permanent collection of the Buonarroti House.

In 2020, the museum embarked on a new conservation project for the two works. Non-invasive imaging techniques were used to assess condition and plan the subsequent interventions.

Battle of the Centaurs after restoration. Photo by Antonio Quattrone. Battle of the Centaurs before restoration. Photo by Antonio Quattrone. After twenty-five and thirty years respectively after the restorations carried out on the works, the new cleaning intervention was functional to remove the subtle stratifications of atmospheric deposits of a coherent and incoherent nature that opacified and chromatically altered the reliefs. In fact, the color of the marble, changed due to the alteration and penetration of the materials used during the nineteenth-century calculations (waxes, oils, soaps) and of the restoration materials (waxes and solvents such as the slightly amber-colored turpentine used in the case of the Battle of the Centaurs for example) has reached a balance which, after the current cleaning operation, allows the high relief to be read in its technical sculptural data in a clear and harmonious way.

The cleaning to which the works were subjected gave such results as to make the pre-existing setting no longer suitable for their best enhancement, which saw the reliefs on a light background that mortified the color and the modeling of the two marbles. In the new layout, anthracite-colored painted metal structures have been designed that make the two reliefs stand out. The story of both works is entrusted to a short, very comprehensive text on the history of collecting and art, written in anthracite-colored characters on a light gray background in both Italian and English. Furthermore, the new LED lighting allows the sculptures to be read in every detail.

Michelangelo’s two earliest masterpieces are now the in the refurbished Room of Marbles of the Casa Buonarroti.

Video of the Madonna of the Steps undergoing conservation:

Video of the Battle of the Centaurs undergoing conservation:

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The Duke of Urbino’s magical studiolo

Monday, April 18th, 2022

Inside the 15th century Ducal Palace of Urbino is a small room so spectacular that it’s hard to believe your own eyes. It is the studiolo, the tiny private study of Federico III da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino from 1444 until his death in 1482. He was an exceptionally cultured and literate man, and the palace he had built reflected his interests. His library was the second largest collection of books in Italy after the Vatican’s, and he opened it to all citizens of Urbino making it the first public library in Italy. The walls of the palace are adorned with painting by Old Masters like Raphael, Titian, Piero della Francesco and della Robbia ceramics. The doors of the throne room depicting Apollo and Athena were designed by none other than Sandro Botticelli.

Like the Botticelli doors, the duke’s studiolo is a masterpiece of a non-painterly medium: marquetry inlay, aka intarsia. Small but beautifully-appointed studies were popular in the palaces of Renaissance aristocrats. They were tiny oases of seclusion where the owners could enjoy private reflection. Federico da Montefeltro’s studiolo was in the heart of the Ducal Palace of Urbino, between rooms he used to receive and for public functions and the palace’s chapel. He used it for private contemplation, mostly, and only his most illustrious guests were invited to cross its threshold.

Now visitors to the Ducal Palace can enter this inner sanctum to be as astonished as his exalted guests must have been. The room is square with a decorative pilaster against one wall that creates two niches on either side of it. Its extreme tininess is masterfully disguised by wood inlay walls in linear perspective attributed to the workshop of brothers Giuliano and Benedetto da Maiano. The marquetry technique employed here is so vertiginously precise as to create a fully immersive illusion of depth, landscape and architecture on the flat walls of the tiny room. The pilaster, for example, is framed with fluted “columns” bracketing a basket of fruit and a squirrel in the foreground. Behind them a patio reaches back to an arched portico that opens to a hilly landscape. Beneath this scene are fretwork cabinet “doors,” one of them left open.

The lower register of the intarsia walls features fretwork panels underneath trompe l’oeil benches, some of which have lifted seats. Above the “seats” is a slim middle register consisting of small rectangular panels on which are represented ducal emblems. The top register is composed of rectangular “cabinets” divided by “columns.” Inside the cabinets are books, candles scientific instruments and musical instruments representing the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy) of the seven liberal arts. Between the cabinets are inlay figures representing the three Theological Virtues (Faith,  Hope and Charity/Love) and Federico himself with this distinctive notched nose.

(Small digression over the nose. Federico was wounded in a tournament in 1451. The injury took his right eye and damaged the bridge of his nose, severely limiting his field of vision and seemingly at one blow losing him his job as condottiero (military leader for pay) for the Sforza family of Milan. Federico ordered a surgeon to remove the damaged bridge of his nose and the eyelid of his lost eye. It was a drastic approach, but an effective one, restoring his field of vision sufficiently to get him back in the saddle, so to speak, leading men on the battlefield.)

The left niche has a closet in which the Duke’s armature, symbol of his exceptional skill at arms that earned him the reputation as one of the most successful condottieri in Renaissance Italy, is hanging at rest. This speaks to the purpose of the room. In his studiolo, he could set aside the active life for a brief time and embrace the contemplative life. Indeed, the portrait of him in the top register depicts him draped in Classical robes and holding a lance with the tip pointed downwards. The condettiere lays down his weapons here and becomes the humanist thinker.

If Urbino is a bit of reach, you can see the very similar marquetry studiolo from Federico da Montefeltro’s palace in Gubbio at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The entire room was sold by the Lancellotti family in 1937 to art and antiquities dealer Adolph Loewi. He sold it to the Met in 1939. 

This video tour of the studio is too brief for my taste, but it does convey the wonder of the space and the auto-translate CC isn’t half bad.

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Anne Boleyn’s falcon returns to Hampton Court Palace

Tuesday, March 8th, 2022

The carved gilded wood falcon that sold for a hundred bucks at auction only to reveal itself to be a 16th century heraldic badge of Anne Boleyn’s removed from Hampton Court Palace after the demise of her marriage (and of her person) has come home to roost. As of March 4th, the 500th anniversary of Anne’s first fateful encounter with King Henry VIII at the court pageant, an emblem of her brief stint as queen has gone on display in the Great Hall of Hampton Court Palace.

The falcon was acquired at auction in 2019 by dealer Paul Fitzsimmons of Marhamchurch Antiques. Fitzsimmons, a specialist in early English oak furniture and artworks, recognized its fine craftsmanship and suspected it might have a connection to the royalty because of the imperial crown and scepter. Once it was liberated from a thick coating of black paint, soot, wax and grime, the original white, red and gold paint were revealed and the falcon was brought to experts at Historic Royal Palaces for assessment.

Having carefully examined the piece, curators at Historic Royal Palaces turned to original accounts of Henry VIII’s work to enlarge and embellish Hampton Court, and to comparing the find with remaining detailing from the period, in an attempt to shed light on the falcon’s origins. This work has revealed an incredible likeness in both size and design to the 43 surviving falcon badges decorating the ‘frieze’ above the windows and hammer beams in the palace’s Great Hall, leading them to believe that the carving is an element of the room’s original Tudor scheme.

The Great Hall sits at the very heart of Hampton Court Palace and was designed both to impress and to proclaim Henry VIII’s power and magnificence. Henry’s carpenters began working on the huge timber roof – the last great medieval hammerbeam-roof hall in England– in 1532, and to celebrate his marriage to Anne Boleyn, motifs relating to the new Queen were incorporated into its design. Her coat of arms, the entwined letters H and A and her heraldic badge were all added to the Hall’s decoration. Given the fate awaiting Anne, the Great Hall was to become an unintended memorial to her reign. Records for the works show that a Michael Joyner was paid £5 4s 2d for 250 ‘of the King’s and Queens badges standing upon the Caters within the said Hall at v[5]d the piece’, bringing the name of the carving’s likely creator to light almost five centuries later.

While tradition has it that after Anne’s execution Henry completely erased references to her from his many homes and palaces, research has revealed that during alterations to Hampton Court Palace following his remarriage to Jane Seymour, two craftsmen (John Heath and Henry Blankston) were employed to repaint and adapt Hampton Court’s existing decorative scheme. It is at this point curators now believe that the white falcons were overpainted in black, thereby severing their visual association with the former Queen.

Fitzsimmons has loaned the falcon to Hampton Court Palace where it will remain for the indefinite future.

Sebastian Edwards, Deputy Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, said: “Ever since my colleague Tracy Borman first flagged the carved falcon badge as a discovery meriting further investigation, it’s been a tantalising historic ‘what if?’. While we won’t be able to say for certain whether it was originally created for Hampton Court’s Great Hall until the next time we erect a roof-height scaffold and compare it with those still in situ – which might not be for some years – the evidence that has emerged during our research lends great weight to the theory, particularly with there being one falcon less than we’d expect in the surviving decorative scheme! Either way, this is an incredibly rare example of Tudor royal ornamentation, imbued with the legend of Henry’s most famous Queen, which I hope will provide visitors to Hampton Court with a small taste of the jaw-dropping magnificence of the palace during the Tudor period.”

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Met acquires Renaissance roundel 18 years after 1st attempt

Thursday, February 24th, 2022

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has at long last acquired an exceptional Renaissance parcel-gilt bronze roundel 18 years after it first tried and failed to buy it at auction. At 16.5 inches in diameter, rimmed and embellished with gilded accents and silver inlay, it is the largest bronze roundel known from the Renaissance, and one of the most if not the most technically sophisticated, which is why the Met was more than willing to pay 27 million dollars and wait a year to not let this masterpiece slip through its fingers again.

It depicts Venus and her lover Mars flirting while her husband Vulcan labors at the forge. Venus sits in the center with Cupid on her lap driving his arrow into her breast. She has wings, the right one outstretched and fully visible, the left mostly hidden behind Mars’ shield. Mars is armed with a sword and scabbard. Vulcan is making a helmet embossed with a horse, his hammer raised mid-strike.

In the exergue below the scene is a Latin inscription reading “CYPRIA MARS ET AMOR GAVDENT VVLCANE LABORAS,” meaning “Venus, Mars and Cupid enjoy themselves while Vulcan works.” This was a popular motif in the art of northern Italy in the late 15th, early 16th centuries.

The exceptional quality of the rendering from the masks on Venus’ sandals, Mars’ decorated scabbard, even the wrinkles on Vulcan’s face delicately gilded for emphasis indicate this work was cast by a master goldsmith. Metallurgic analysis of the bronze alloy found it has an unusually high copper content comparable to Renaissance medals now in the National Gallery in Washington.

There is no definitive information about its origins and ownership history. The roundel first burst on the scene in 2003 at a Christie’s auction in London. Appraisers discovered it, unpublished and unrecognized, in an estate belonging to the heirs of George Treby III, a lawyer and MP in the first half of the 18th century. Treby was an avid collector of art and antiquities and is known to have Grand Toured in Rome in 1746. There is no documentation of his acquisition of the roundel, but given that his descendants had it for centuries, he is almost certainly the source.

The 2003 sellers had no idea it was a Renaissance piece. They assumed it was of relatively late manufacture. Christie’s experts recognized it as having been made in the late 15th century for the Gonzaga court in Mantua, Italy. There are no other versions of it known to exist, nor any roundels of this size crafted by this hand. The only cognate is a plaster relief from the Bardini Collection in Florence, and its attribution is uncertain.

Christie’s leading candidate for the master craftsman who made the roundel was Gian Marco Cavalli, known from the documentary record as having made bronzes for the Gonzaga family, but there are no works firmly attributed to him. His details fit the bill, though. He was a goldsmith, he did a commission of four silver roundels with the signs of the zodiac for the Gonzaga. His last name may even appear on the roundel in disguise. “Cavalli” means horses, and he called himself “Cavallino” in one letter, so that disproportionately large rearing horse on the helmet Vulcan is hammering out may be a sort of secret signature.

Even with an unknown maker, the roundel roused enormous interest at the 2003 auction. The Met was an active bidder, but ultimately lost out to a private collector who bought it for £6.9 million, setting a new world record for a Renaissance bronze. The buyer’s family sold the roundel to a UK art dealer in 2019 for an undisclosed amount. The dealer gave the Met a second bite at the apple, and this time money was evidently no object because the museum dropped £17 million plus £3.4 million VAT) to buy the bronze, contingent on the granting of an export license.

The UK Ministry of Culture imposed a temporary export ban to give a British institution a chance to acquire the piece for the purchase price including VAT. When nobody could be found with such deep pockets by the end of 2021, the UK granted the export license.

“The bronze roundel is an absolute masterpiece, standing apart for its historical significance, artistic virtuosity, and unique composition,” said Max Hollein, the Museum’s Marina Kellen French Director. “It is a truly transformational acquisition for The Met’s collection of Italian Renaissance sculpture. We look forward to further studying and displaying this magnificent work, one that establishes Cavalli as one of the ingenious creators of the Gonzaga court style.”

Cavalli (born about 1454, died after 1508) collaborated for over 30 years with Andrea Mantegna (1430/31–1506), the principal painter to the Gonzaga court in Mantua, and with Antico (ca. 1460–1528), the Gonzaga family’s principal sculptor. Yet the attribution of works to Cavalli remained challenging until the discovery of the roundel in a British country house in 2003. The roundel may have been made for Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua (1474–1539), the most important woman patron of the Italian Renaissance.

Dr. Sarah E. Lawrence, the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Curator in Charge of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, stated, “While The Met is rich in paintings and prints by Mantegna, and holds the largest collection of Antico’s gilt and silvered bronze sculptures outside Europe, there was no equivalent example in bronze relief in our collection. With this exciting acquisition, The Met is now one of the only museums in the world that can illustrate the fundamental collaboration between Mantegna, Antico, and Cavalli under the patronage of Isabella d’Este.” Denise Allen, Curator in the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, added: “The Mantuan roundel’s sumptuous gilding, meticulously inlaid silvering, and masterfully varied chasing identify the roundel as a masterpiece in which Cavalli expressed his superlative abilities as a goldsmith and sculptor.”

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Forensic anthropological analysis done on Bernini marble skull

Wednesday, February 16th, 2022

A marble skull by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the Dresden State Art Collections has been subjected to forensic anthropological analysis, an approach made possible by Bernini’s meticulous attention to lifelike anatomical detail in notable contrast to the stylized depictions of skulls and skeletons commonly found in Renaissance and Baroque art. This is the first forensic anthropological examination of a sculpted art work.

Commissioned by Fabio Chigi three days after his election to the papacy as Alexander VII in 1655, the skull was small in dimension but immensely important to Bernini’s career as it marked his return to papal patronage after a long career eclipse in the 1640s when he fell out of favor with Pope Innocent X over family politics and accusations that Bernini had botched construction of the bell towers of Saint Peter’s Basilica. By the end of 1655, Bernini returned to Saint Peter’s in triumph, engaged by Alexander VII to design the square in front of the basilica and the massive colonnade representing the embracing arms of Mother Church.

Bernini’s Death’s Head is a masterpiece of realistic hard stone carving. The life-sized skull was carved in the round from a single piece of white Carrara marble, with the mandible and cranium connected at the temporomandibular joints. It is so anatomically correct that researchers were able to study the carving to determine sex, age, pathology and ethnic origin of the subject just as if it were a real human skull.

“It appears that Bernini used a real biological skull as a model, as he captured details that depicted an adult male of European ancestry,” says corresponding author James T. Pokines, associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology.

Pokines used standard forensic anthropological techniques as would be done with a biological skull. These include scoring morphological traits for sex and ancestry and performing standard cranial measurements with calipers.

They found the skull is so detailed that it includes many precise anatomical features that could be examined in the same manner as a real skull. Bernini even depicted irregularities common to real skulls such as left/right asymmetry, common variations such as in the shape of a suture and tooth loss both before and after death.

That’s only scratching the surface of how much detail Bernini put into this skull. He carved, drilled and polished the stone to include foramina (hole through which nerves and blood vessels pass through bone) and the gaps between the upper and lower jaws. All of this was likely done without his usual preparatory sketches and wax models, simply because there was no point in creating artificial models when he had an actual human skull to use.

There have been repairs over the years. Bernini’s original high-finesse joined mandible had to be reattached at some point with a cement and two iron rods. This “restoration” damaged the skull, drilling into both sides of the mandible causing fractures and marble loss from teeth to cheekbones to nose to eyes.

Bernini’s marble skull isn’t a perfect replica. The foramen magnum in particular stands out because it is significantly larger than it usually is in a human skull. This was a necessary artistic decision rather than an error. The enlarged foramen was an access point through which Bernini was able to hollow out the inside of the skull. He sacrificed the precise accuracy of the dimensions of the foramen, which after all would never be visible when the skull was on display, to achieve greater realism by hollowing out the interior of the skull.

The study has been published in the journal The Seventeenth Century and can be read in its entirety here.

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No sale for the half billion Caravaggio villa

Tuesday, January 18th, 2022

Villa Aurora, the 16th century mansion in Rome that contains the only ceiling painting ever created by Caravaggio, failed to sell at auction today. With an estimated value of €471 million ($534 million) and despite the valuation of the Caravaggio painting alone at  €310 million ($351 million), not a single bid was made. The auction had been scheduled to run for 24 hours, but without even one offer to open the festivities, the auction was immediately shut down and rescheduled for April 7th.

Named after a much larger ceiling painting in the house (a depiction of the Roman goddess of the dawn, Aurora) by another Old Master Guercino, the villa was built as a hunting lodge for Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, Caravaggio’s early patron. It is right off the Via Veneto today, one of the most prestigious addresses in Rome now, but when it was built on the former Gardens of Sallust bounded by the ancient Aurelian wall, it was basically the countryside. It has been in the Ludovisi family since the 1620s, and was the sole part of the once huge Ludovisi estate that the family kept after selling the rest of it off in the late 19th century.

Even the person selling it, the Texas-born widow of the Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi, had to be forced to do so in an inheritance dispute with her late husband’s sons from his first marriage. The prince’s will granted his wife Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi 50% ownership of the villa and the right to live there until her death. The Ludovisi sons disagreed on both points and contested the will. After years of legal wrangling and liens, the court ordered in September 2020 that the villa be sold to resolve the issue.

The price was set by the court based on the valuation of an expert appraiser who pointed out that the heritage value of the villa is incalculable. More than 38,000 people signed a petition asking the Italian government to buy the property using EU funds, but even if they were inclined to spend half a billion on a villa, there’s no legal mechanism for that until an offer is made. Once an offer to purchase is lodged, Italy has the right of first refusal and can snipe the sale for the offering price.

The base price is expected to drop 20% to €376.8 million euros ($427 million) when the villa goes back under the hammer in April.

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Louvre raises funds to reunite Venus cameo cup

Tuesday, January 4th, 2022

The Louvre has launched a fundraising campaign to acquire an exquisitely carved Italian Renaissance agate cameo of Venus and Cupid that once belonged to Louis XIV. If the campaign succeeds, the cameo will be reunited with its original carved stone and silver-gilt cup for the first time since it disappeared into private collections after the French Revolution.

Carved in meticulous detail from a single agate stone from Graubünden, Germany, the cameo depicts Venus at languid rest on a shell (the one she was born in, perhaps) with her son Cupid curled up next to her holding her hand. The carving takes full advantage of the natural color variations and swirls of the agate to set Venus’ pearlescent pale skin against the rich ochres of the shell underneath her. The cameo is rimmed with a silver-gilt border and a gilt swan, neck elegantly curved, wings outstretched, overlooks the loving scene of mother and babe.

It was made in the early 17th century by Giovanni Ambrogio Miseroni, scion of a Milanese family of hardstone carvers whose works were prized among the aristocracy and nobility of Europe for hundreds of years. (Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II was so pleased with their work he ennobled Giovanni and his brothers around the same time this cameo was carved.) Miseroni mounted the cameo as a lid onto a carved agate cup which was a hardstone masterpiece in its own right.

The cameo first appears on the historical record in 1661 in the inventory of the massive collection of Cardinal Jules Mazarin after his death. The inventory listing describes the vessel  thus:

A large shell-shaped cup carved from a single piece of German agate, upheld by a silver-gilt dolphin placed on a shell that is also of silver gilt, with another large German shell as its lid, also shell-shaped, carved with a nude Venus lying on a drapery next to a small Cupid and decorated with a silver-gilt rim.

It was one of the three most valuable vessels in the Mazarin collection, and Louis XIV acquired all three of them after the Cardinal’s death. They were in the royal collection until 1796 when they fell victim to a shortsighted (to put it mildly) scheme by the Revolutionary government to pay off creditors in kind with objects from the onetime royal collection. The Miseroni cup disappeared into a private collection, untraced and unpublished, for almost 200 years.

During that time, the cameo was detached from the cup. The cup emerged at auction on its own in 1968 and was acquired the Louvre. It has been on display with other masterpieces of hardstone art in the Galerie d’Apollon ever since.

Because the cameo disappeared without a trace long before it could be photographed, it was only known from written descriptions. When the lost cameo was included in a 2001 catalogue of the hardstone vessels in the royal collection, the owner recognized it from the description. It was sold at auction in London in 2011 and the Louvre tried but failed to buy it then. Now it has another bite at the apple, and the museum is aiming high so it doesn’t get outsold this time. The total price is 2.6 million euros. The public fundraising goal is at least one million euros before February 25th. Click here to contribute.

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