Archive for the ‘Renaissance’ Category

Raphael cartoons FINALLY in high res

Monday, February 1st, 2021

The cartoons created by Renaissance master Raphael for the monumental tapestries that once adorned the walls of the Sistine Chapel are enormous at 10 feet high and between 10 and 16 feet wide. Their digital form, however, has been relatively puny. In my first post about just shy of 11 years ago, the available pictures were so inadequate I considered not writing it at all because of how disappointing it is to read about something so cool without having a chance to see it in at least some detail.

Originally a set of 10, seven of the cartoons depicting scenes from the lives of Saints Peter and Paul survive today.  They were used to create tapestries, not just the original tapestries commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1513, but for later customers who wanted a piece of Raphael’s genius in woven form, Henry VIII among them. As part of the weaving process, the cartoons were folded, cut, punctured and generally put through the wringer until they simply fell apart.

The surviving cartoons were acquired by the future King Charles I in the 1620s and while they are still today personally owned by the monarch, they have been on long-term loan to what is now the Victoria & Albert Museum since 1865. In 2019 and 2020 the V&A refurbished the Raphael Court and conservators had the opportunity to study and record the cartoons with the latest technology. They were unframed, the punctured and torn surface scanned in high-definition 3D and the images recorded in infrared and panoramic composite photography. Custom scaffolding was installed to scan the cartoons while they were still mounted on the walls of the gallery because they are too fragile to move. The 3D scans alone took 95 hours per cartoon to complete.

The reopening of the refurbished Raphael Court has been delayed by lockdown, but the new digital content collected during the process has now been made available on the V&A website, and it grants unprecedented access to the cartoons.

Through interactive features and in-depth stories, audiences will be able to learn about the extraordinary design and making of the Cartoons and their long 500-year history, exploring the monumental works of art as never before by zooming into ultra-high-resolution photography, infrared imagery, and 3D scans. […]

Key online features include The Story of the Cartoons, which explores the Cartoons’ commission, production and incredible survival, as well the complex process of translating a Cartoon into a tapestry. It also reveals in-depth details about Raphael’s compositions which translate the Biblical narrative into painterly images with their wealth of characters and complex scenes. Exploring the Cartoons uses the new HD imagery of the Cartoons to enable newcomers and specialists alike to examine the making and design of the Cartoons in more detail by zooming into high-resolution panoramic photography of their painted scenes, infrared imagery showing the charcoal drawing underneath, and 3D scans of their paper surface. Users are able to transition between the layers to see subtle differences between the underdrawing, the paint layer, and the surface texture – from the tiny pinholes that were made to translate the Cartoons into tapestries, to the composite sheets of paper that make up each Cartoon, the creases and tears, and subsequent restoration and repair throughout their lifetime.

Without further ado, check out the V&A’s new Raphael Cartoons page to finally see these extraordinary survivors in all their glorious detail.


Rare miniature portrait of Henry III identified

Friday, January 29th, 2021

A miniature portrait has been identified as a rare surviving image of King Henry III of France. Just over two inches tall, the portrait was billed as an image of Sir Walter Raleigh when it was sold sight unseen in the English countryside during lockdown last year. Conservators at Philip Mould & Co, a London art gallery that specializes in historical portraiture, identified the subject as Henry III.

When the frame was removed, experts found another notable name on the back of the portrait: Jean Decourt, in a contemporary annotation, perhaps an autograph by the artist himself, that reads “Faict par decourt 1578.” Decourt was a master miniaturist and in-house painter for Charles de Bourbon, Prince de la Roche-sur-Yon, in 1553 before going on to become court painter to Mary Queen of Scotts, widow of King Francis II of France, in 1562. He was in England in 1565-6 where he painted Queen Elizabeth I and her favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. He was appointed Peintre du Roi by King Charles IX of France after the death of François Clouet in 1572.

When Charles IX died of tuberculosis in 1574, he was succeeded by his 22-year-old brother Henry. As the fourth son of King Henry II, young Henry never expected to inherit the French throne. He had been deemed an excellent candidate for the throne of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, however, bringing French military and financial support to the table. Polish nobles elected him to the throne in 1573. He was crowned on February 21, 1574. His brother died without legitimate male issue in June. Not even six months after taking the throne, Henry ditched Poland and hightailed it back to France to claim the big prize.

He reigned for 25 years, impressive longevity in the turmoil and back-biting of the Wars of Religion. In the end, he had too many enemies to die in his sleep. He was the first King of France to be assassinated, stabbed to death in 1589 by a Catholic League partisan.

The life – and in particular, the sexuality – of Henri III has long been discussed and debated by historians. 16th century writers often referenced his fondness for wearing women’s clothing at court entertainments and for his male companions, dubbed at the time ‘mignons’, who slavishly copied the king’s dress. Indeed, the contemporary diarist, Pierre de L’Estoile’s (1546-1611) description of the mignons – who wore “their hair long, curled and recurled by artifice, with little bonnets of velvet on top of it like whores in the brothels, and the ruffles on their linen shirts [ruffs] are of starched finery and one-half foot long, so their heads look like St John’s on a platter” – could equally be applied to the fashions worn by Henri in this miniature.

It was also L’Estoile who commented on the king’s own fondness for cross-dressing: “The king made jousts, tournaments, ballets, and a great many masquerades, where he was found ordinarily dressed as a woman, working his doublet and exposing his throat, there wearing a collar of pearls and three collars of linen, two ruffled and one turned upside down, in the same way as was then worn by the ladies of the court.”

This delicate, sensitive and incredibly realistic likeness of Henri III contains all the hallmarks of Decourt’s style, in the extraordinary meticulousness of the details, the particular attention paid to the clothing, the jewels treated in volume with their cast shadows, the incredibly lifelike, modelling of the face (which is slightly pale) and in the artist’s habit of placing the reflection of light in the pupil of the eye, rather than the iris as Clouet did.

Researchers are following the trail of this extraordinary piece, trying to trace how a previously unknown royal portrait miniature wound up in England. One likely hypothesis is that it was spirited out of France during the Revolution, Pimpernel-style. Henry III wasn’t all that popular with royalists; he certainly wasn’t with revolutionaries, and very few of his portraits survived the anti-monarchical iconoclasm of the period.

Philip Mould is giving the Louvre first crack at buying the portrait which was likely painted in the Louvre itself when it was a royal palace.


Rare Armada maps saved for the nation

Wednesday, January 27th, 2021

Ten hand-drawn maps that are the only surviving contemporary drawings of the defeat of the Spanish Armada have been saved from export into an unknown private collection and will be acquired by the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN). The ink and watercolor drawing were sold to a private collector last July for £600,000. The foreign buyer applied for an export license and the Culture Minister placed a temporary bar on export to give a UK institution time to raise the purchase price and keep these irreplaceable pieces in the country. The NMRN’s campaign achieved the goal in just eight weeks, thanks to grants from the Royal Navy (£100,000), the National Heritage Memorial Fund (£212,800) and the Art Fund (£200,000), and donations from the public.

The maps were drawn by an unknown artist probably from the Netherlands as there is a Flemish language annotation in the margin of one drawing and evidence of removed inscriptions on some of the other maps. They are cognates of now-lost engravings made in 1590 by Augustine Ryther. They are not copies of those engravings, although it’s also possible they were copies of Ryther’s source: drawings by Robert Adams, the military engineer who was Surveyor of the Queen’s Works and whose abilities as a draughtsman and cartographer placed him in the ranks of the great miniaturists of the Elizabethan court. Whoever drew these maps stopped midway through the job. Researchers believe these drawings may have been intended for unauthorized publication in the Netherlands and were abandoned when the official Ryther engravings were published.

The drawings are sequential depictions of the clash progression of the engagements that resulted in the surprise victory of the heavily outnumbered English fleet over what had been Europe’s greatest naval power. On July 22nd, 1588, an invasion fleet of 138 ships was dispatched by King Philip II to conquer Britain, depose its Protestant Queen and end the harassment of its New World treasure ships by British privateers. They were sighted off the coast of Cornwall on July 29th and first engaged two days later near Plymouth by British ships commanded by Lord High Admiral Charles Howard, 2nd Baron Howard of Effingham, and Vice Admiral Francis Drake.

The first three maps depict the sighting, first engagement and its aftermath. The fourth depicts Drake’s capture of Nuestra Senora del Rosario and Howard’s pursuit of the Armada. Map five features the capture of the San Salvador and the battle off Portland Bill. The sixth continues the Portland Bill engagement, the seventh the subsequent battle off the Isle of Wight. The English pursuit of the Spanish to Calais is on map eight. The ninth map depicts the high drama of the fireship attack against the Spanish ships anchored at Calais. The final map covers the Battle of Gravelines on August 8th, the last engagement before the Spanish fleet was blown off-course to the North Sea where it met destruction at nature’s hand rather than Elizabeth’s.

The maps are incredibly detailed artistic renderings of ships’ movements over the nine days from first sighting to final clash. (See this page on the NMRN website for a thorough explanation of the drawings.) Despite their international significance, the earliest date on the record today of somebody owning the ten drawings is 1828 when they were in the collection of bibliophile antiquarian MP Roger Wilbraham. They remained in the family for seventy years before being sold at auction to London booksellers J. Pearson and Co. William Waldorf Astor bought them from J. Pearson. It was the Astor descendants who sold them last year.

The National Museum of the Royal Navy is still taking donations for the Astor Armada Drawings, now to ensure their conservation and display both in Portsmouth and on a national tour when COVID permits.


Rarely-seen Dante illustrations digitized

Monday, January 11th, 2021

This year marks the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri, diplomat, poet and author of the seminal Divine Comedy. In honor of the occasion, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence has digitized a rare set of illustrations of the Divine Comedy in high definition and made them available online for the first time. The 88 drawings illustrating the Divine Comedy were created by Mannerist painter Federico Zuccari in the late 16th century and few of them have ever been exhibited, and even then only twice, once in 1865 and once in 1993. Very little known but beloved by Dante scholars, the Zuccari drawings are widely considered the most important illustrations of Dante’s masterpiece until Gustave Doré’s burst on the scene in 1861.

Zuccari (also spelled Zuccaro) is best known today for having completed the frescoes inside the dome of Florence’s cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore (Vasari started them), but he was famous in his time and very much in demand by the crowned heads of Europe. His patrons included several popes, Queen Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots and Philip II of Spain. He was working King Philip, designing frescoes for the El Escorial palace north of Madrid, when he embarked on his illustrations of the Divine Comedy in 1586. It took him two years to complete all 88 drawings.

They entered the collection of the Uffizi in 1738, donated by Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, Electress Palatine, less than a year after she saved the Medici’s art collection for Florence in perpetuity. Today the pages are extremely fragile. They are kept in a dark, temperature and moisture-controlled environment and can only be exposed every five years. That makes them all but inaccessible to scholars as well as to the public, which is why the Uffizi has chosen to digitize them in their entirety so the works can be studied without putting them at risk.

The museum has compiled the digitized Zuccardi illustrations into a journey mirroring their original context in a bound volume. Zuccardi’s illustrations are on the right page; on the left are the verses from the Divine Comedy being illustrated, plus short synopses written by Zuccardi himself. The Zuccardi exhibition is currently only available in Italian, but an English version is imminent. Meanwhile, you can peruse the illustrations in each of three cantos —Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. Already available in English is an exhibition exploring Dante’s connection to the visual arts and how the poet and his masterpiece were represented.


16th c. soldier found in Lithuanian lake

Thursday, November 19th, 2020

Underwater archaeologists have discovered the remains of a 16th century man and his kit at the bottom of Lake Asvejas in eastern Lithuania. The skeletal remains were found at a depth of 30 feet near Dubingiai Bridge, one of the longest wooden bridges still in use in Lithuania. Marine archaeologists uncovered bones, an iron sword, two knives with wooden handles and a spur. The armaments suggest the individual was a soldier. It is the first discovery of its kind in Lithuania.

This was not a burial. No evidence has been found yet indicating how he died, but whatever caused his demise, his body sank to the bottom of the lake. All of the bones were found in situ. Protected by a layer of clay and sand sediment, some of the young man’s accessories also managed to survive– his leather boots and fragments of a thin leather belt.

The lakebed was being surveyed before structural work replacing the bridge’s rotting wood beams with metal ones. Archaeologists and amateur divers worked together to survey the site. The remains were found during an inspection of the bridge’s supports.

A previous survey in 1998 had revealed that another bridge once stood in the same place, dating to the 16th or 17th century — around the time that the medieval soldier died, [marine archaeologist Elena] Pranckėnaitė added.

“For now, we assume that those discovered human remains could be linked with the former bridge leading to Dubingiai castle, which was situated on the hilltop on the shore of Asveja Lake,” she said.

The human remains have been recovered and now being studied at the Faculty of Medicine of Vilnius University. The archaeological material is being conserved and analyzed by experts at the National Museum of Lithuania.


Llama sacrifices as tools of imperial assimilation

Thursday, October 22nd, 2020

Excavations at the Inca city of Tambo Viejo on the south coast of Peru have unearthed natural mummies of llamas that were ritually sacrificed and left as depository offerings. The discovery establishes Tambo Viejo, a new settlement founded in the Acari Valley by the Inca, as a regionally important locus of religious practice, an administrative center created by the Inca as a cultural foothold in a newly conquered area.

The Inca worshiped a diverse pantheon of deities connected to phenomena (thunder, rain), astronomy (sun, moon), the earth, topographical features (rivers, caves) as well as their ancestors. All gods and ancestors received sacrificial offerings and ritual offerings were performed very frequently. The most common sacrificial offerings were llamas and guinea pigs.

The llama was of enormous importance to the Inca economy, from their wool to their feces to their stamina and agility in carrying loads over mountains. The emperor in Cuzco frequently walked around with his white llama and the Inca Empire’s state herds are reported to have numbered in the millions.

They needed a large supply to keep up with demand for sacrifice. The Spanish chronicles described mass sacrifices in which hundreds of llamas were killed and their meat eaten in a community feast. They were sacrificed at planting time, at harvest time, to make it rain, to make it stop raining and in honor of ancestors. When things got really bad and big blood was deemed necessary to appease the gods, llamas were sacrificed by the thousands. There is archaeological evidence of mass animal sacrifices, including at Tambo Viejo.

Excavations in 2018 focused on two structures on the north end of Tambo Viejo. One brown llama was found in the center of the smaller building. It was a single burial. The larger building had four llamas (one brown, three white) buried in the center of the room. All had been buried under the floors with their heads facing the east. The llamas were all very young, neonoates to sub-adults.

The brown llama in the individual burial was missing its head and he was probably moved. The bones of infant camelids were seen on the surface in this area, so the building may have been rifled through by looters. There were more bones in the second building as well, so this was a larger sacrifice than just the mummified individuals.

The llamas were accessorized with long camelid fiber strings. The fibers were brightly died in red, green, yellow and purple and groups of each color were tied to the llamas’ ears at the tip like tassels. The llamas also wore string necklaces around their necks in matching colors. The longest strings (found on one of the white llamas) are 14 inches long; the shortest (found on the brown single burial) are three inches. The white llamas were also painted: a red dot on top of their heads and red lines from eyes to nose. They were buried with decorated guinea pigs, tropical bird feathers and food offerings including maize and black lima beans.

There is no evidence on the remains of how they were killed. Sacrificial llama remains found at other sites have shown signs of sharp cuts through the throat or into the diaphragm to remove the heart and fatal blows to the head. The Tambo Viejo llamas had their legs bent under them and were trussed up, so it’s possible they were buried alive.

Radiocarbon analysis of charcoal samples from the burials date the llamas to between 1432 and 1459. If the dates are accurate, that means the Inca took over the Acari Valley decades before 1476, the year when the conquest of the area was previously believed to have taken place.

As the Inka expanded from their Cuzco heartland, they interacted with groups who were culturally and linguistically diverse, and whose final annexation produced the great cultural fusion that characterised the Inka Empire (Morris & Thompson 1985: 24). The Inka sought to understand the economic potential of the lands and peoples brought into their empire, and to create reciprocal relationships with the newly conquered subjects.

The Inka presence probably disturbed the extant socio-cultural conditions, which the Inka attempted to normalise by befriending the locals and providing gifts and food to the conquered peoples, while also acknowledging the local huacas and gods. The Inka believed that it was not possible to take something without giving something back; this implied that the annexation of peoples and their lands required an exchange to normalise the otherwise abnormal situation. This was especially the case with groups who were annexed peacefully, such as the inhabitants of the Acari Valley. Inka recognition of local deities was a necessary step to guarantee a long-lasting relationship between the conquerors and the conquered. […]

It remains unclear whether the land within which Tambo Viejo was established had any earlier religious significance. It is evident, however, that the Inka either reinforced its religious connotations or transformed the location into one that was ritually important. As the evidence from Tambo Viejo illustrates, Inka rituals performed in the provinces aimed to project and magnify the importance of Inka ideology and religion, as manifested in the sacrifice of brown llamas to Viracocha and white llamas to the Sun. Such rituals conducted at Tambo Viejo therefore epitomised Inka imperial ideology. The llama and guinea pig offerings are the material manifestations of ritual celebrations performed at the site. Ultimately, all of these ritual acts enabled the Inka to legitimise their presence in the Acari Valley.


Refurbished Raphael Cartoon Court reopens

Tuesday, September 29th, 2020

The Raphael Court, the V&A gallery dedicated to the seven surviving tapestry cartoons created by Raphael, will reopen in November after a nine-month refurbishment. They’re getting in right under the wire to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death (April 6th, 1520). The upgraded Raphael Court features acoustic paneling, new furniture for more comfortable contemplation of the masterpieces and new LED lighting that reduces glare on the glass and massively improves their visibility.

The cartoons depicting scenes from the lives of Saints Peter and Paul were commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1513. He wanted monumental tapestries to decorate the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel, but to be worthy of the glorious frescoes by Michelangelo on the ceiling and wall behind the altar, the tapestries had to be designed by the greatest artist of the era instead of the staff designers in the workshop of Flemish weaver Pieter van Aelst. Raphael produced 10 elaborate cartoons the full size of the tapestries: 10 feet high and between 10 and 16 feet wide. The designs were rich in character, landscape and architectural detail and Raphael painted them with the same complex palette he used in all his works.

Tapestry cartoons were ephemera, used as weaving templates until they wore out. They were not considered artworks worthy of preservation, and even Raphael’s were only kept because van Aelst used them to make copies of the tapestries for other clients. By the early 1600s, only seven were left. They were acquired by the then-Prince of Wales (future Charles I) for £300, and managed to survive the Civil War, the Cromwellian Commonwealth and the Restoration. In 1865, Queen Victoria lent them to the South Kensington Museum in memory of her late lamented husband. That museum is now named after her and said husband.

In order to display them in a space suited to their original context, the V&A built the Raphael Court in almost identical proportion to the Sistine Chapel. The gallery was last refurbished in the early 90s.

The work on the infrastructure took place with the cartoons in situ as they are far too fragile to get moved around (as are the tapestries they were used to create, now in the collection of the Vatican but almost never displayed). Researchers were able to take advantage of the nine months to unframe the works, scan their surfaces in high-resolution 3D, use infrared imagining and composite photography to enhance our understanding of this unique group of monumental works by one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance. The 3D scans are of special interest with the cartoons because they were punctured in order to transfer the image in the tapestry, giving them a unique texture compared to other drawings and paintings.

All of this new data will be invaluable to researchers and conservators in the study and care of the cartoons. They are also being used to create new interactive features for visitors to the museum to access via QR codes or directly from the V&A’s website.

Imagery and a suite of new interactive interpretation will be available online, accessed in the gallery via QR codes, allowing visitors to engage with the interpretation on site using their own devices. Visitors will be able to zoom in and discover the design and making of the Cartoons and Raphael’s extraordinary creative process through detailed imagery and interactive features that highlight the significance and status of the Cartoons in multiple ways. Stories told will include the Cartoons’ function as full-scale tapestry designs for the Sistine Chapel, the ingenuity of Raphael and his workshop and their design process, the rescue, life and status of the Cartoons in England from their arrival in the 17th century, and the fascination they have provoked since then up to the present day. A new publication, edited by Dr Ana Debenedetti, will further contextualise the creation and afterlife of the Cartoons, shedding light on Raphael’s artistic practice and the organisation of his large workshop, the fate of the tapestries made for the Sistine Chapel, and the rediscovery and reception of the Cartoons, especially in Britain.

Dr Ana Debenedetti, Lead Curator of the Raphael Project and Curator of Paintings at the V&A said:

“The set of seven surviving tapestry Cartoons by Raphael comprise a unique Renaissance treasure, both in terms of aesthetic value and technical achievement. Cutting-edge technology, provided by Factum Foundation, offered non-invasive methods of studying such canonical works of art by allowing us to look beneath the visible layers of paint and discover Raphael’s creative process. It is a feast for the eye to be able to enjoy the extraordinary beauty of these monumental drawings which are over 500 years old. We look forward to sharing this enhanced experience with our visitors when the gallery reopens in November to mark Raphael’s 500th anniversary.”


Hyper-resolution Night Watch

Thursday, September 17th, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dive as deep you like into The Night Watch here


Conservators discover Michelangelo’s tool marks on Pietà

Wednesday, September 16th, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Raphael recreated lost Egyptian blue pigment

Tuesday, September 1st, 2020

Egyptian blue, the world’s first known synthetic pigment, was used for thousands of years starting around 2600 B.C. The Romans called it caeruleum (the source of the English word cerulean). Vitruvius included a recipe for it in De architectura, Book VII, Chapter 11:

Sand is ground with flowers of sulphur, till the mixture is as fine as flour, to which coarse filings of Cyprian copper are added, so as to make a paste when moistened with water; this is rolled into balls with the hand, and dried. The balls are then put into an earthen vessel, and that is placed in a furnace. Thus the copper and sand heating together by the intensity of the fire, impart to each other their different qualities, and thereby acquire their blue colour.

The knowledge of how to make Egyptian blue was lost with the Fall of the Roman Empire. Vitruvius’ works were rediscovered in a Swiss monastery library in 1414 and first published in Latin in 1486. The lost recipe of Egyptian Blue, however, would not be rediscovered until the early 19th century when chemist Humphry Davy found lumps of it in the ruins of the Baths of Titus in Rome and discovered its chemical formula (calcium copper silicate). Or so we thought.

A new study of Raphael’s fresco The Triumph of Galatea, in Rome’s Villa Farnesina, has found that the Renaissance master recreated Egyptian blue for this work, and as far as we know, this work alone. Using non-invasive macro-X-ray fluorescence (MAXRF), researchers discovered to their surprise that the blue of the sea and sky were calcium copper silicate.

The Villa Farnesina was built for banker Agostino Chigi, treasurer to Pope Julius II and the richest man in Rome, by architect Baldassare Peruzzi. Construction was completed in 1512 but the frescoing of its interior began as soon as the walls were done in 1511. Chigi commissioned the greatest artists of his time for the job. Besides Raphael,  Sebastiano del Piombo, Giovanni da Udine, Giulio Romano and Giovanni Bazzi, aka Il Sodoma.

Raphael painted The Triumph of Galatea on the wall of the loggia, a grand space that was originally the main entrance hall of the villa. It depicts the Nereid Galatea standing on a seashell drawn by two dolphin steeds while winged Cupids aim their arrows at her. A neighboring panel by del Piombo depicts the Cyclops Polyphemus who kills Galatea’s beloved, the shepherd Acis, in a jealous rage.

Galatea was completed around 1514, seven years before the first Italian edition of Vitruvius’ De architectura was published. In a letter purportedly written by Raphael to his friend Baldassare Castiglione, the artist thanked the courtier for his compliments on Galatea and linked his painted to the forms of antiquity illuminated by Vitruvius. The letter is a copy and of uncertain authenticity, but it is certain that Raphael and other Renaissance artists had read Vitruvius and been hugely influenced by him.

None of the other Raphael frescoes of Villa Farnesina use Egyptian Blue. His Cupid and Psyche fresco cycle on the ceiling of the loggia has a vast blue background, all made out of lapis lazuli pigment. That fresco has been digitized and can be explored here, btw. There are annotations explaining the incredible proliferation of botanical motifs surrounding the scenes from Greek mythology





March 2021


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