Archive for the ‘Renaissance’ Category

Caravaggio, Rubens receive Getty panel conservation grant

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

David with the Head of Goliath by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and Stormy Landscape with Jupiter, Mercury, Philemon and Baucis by Peter Paul Rubens, both in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, are the latest recipients of a conservation grant from the Getty Foundation. They join the spectacular Ghent Altarpiece and Giorgio Vasari’s The Last Supper, brutalized in Florence’s great flood of 1966, as part of the Panel Paintings Initiative, a program that funds the conservation of damaged oil on wood panel masterpieces in order to train the panel painting conservators of tomorrow.

The €300,000 ($416,000) grant will be well-spent on dealing with the major issues plaguing both paintings. The Caravaggio depiction of the Biblical David holding his sword over his shoulder in one hand and the head of Goliath in the other, one of only two known surviving panel paintings by the Baroque genius, was savaged by past restorations that shaved the wood support to the thickness of a piece of paper. The plan is to remove the panels from the rigid wood cradle that is meant to keep them from warping and then, after they’ve had a chance to breathe a little and assume their natural positions, build a new cradle that is flexible and moves with the natural expansion and contraction of the wood. Conservators will also repair the panoply of fractures on the wood panels that you can see have already had an impact on the integrity of the paint.

The Rubens painting, which in a style typical of the Flemish Baroque adds figures from mythology or religion to a landscape, depicts Jupiter and Mercury leading their favored humans Philemon and Baucis away from a storm set to destroy their entire neighborhood. It’s a story told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book 8: 679-724 and while it wasn’t an unheard of subject for a painting, it wasn’t very popular and almost all of the previous treatments set the foursome inside Philemon and Baucis’ modest little cottage.

This work is immense at 20.85 meters (68.4 feet) wide and 14.60 meters (just short of 48 feet) high [EDIT: I misread the dimensions. The painting is actually 2 meters by 1.46 meters. Thank you for the correction, Maurizio!]. Rubens made it all himself rather than enlisting the aid of his workshop painters, and did so without a commission. He used 10 pieces of wood joined together to make the vast panel and each plank has aged differently. The aging has left gaps between the 10 pieces that are clear to the naked eye.

The grant will not only enable the Kunsthistorisches Museum experts to work with some of the most accomplished and experienced panel painting conservators in the world on solving the thorny problems of the Caravaggio and Rubens masterpieces, but it will create a core of expertise that will expand in central and eastern Europe. Five conservators from Krakow, Dresden, Prague, and Vienna will be trained on these works. They will then be able to bring the invaluable expertise they learn on the job back to their homes. Two of the five are already teachers at conservation schools, so they’ll be able to immediately pay it forward to their lucky students.

Panel paintings are extremely complex to conserve because unlike artworks on canvas, they require an in-depth knowledge of carpentry as well as paint conservation in order to repair properly. It takes years to develop the necessary abilities and expertise, and there aren’t a lot of people in the pipeline. With the vast majority of current panel painting conservators approaching retirement age within the decade, in 2009 the Getty Foundation launched the Panel Paintings Initiative to bridge the alarming knowledge and experience gap.

With two more years of grant-giving to go and more years after that of continuing work, the PPI has already proven a brilliant success. More than 20 conservators have received in-depth training and years of practical experience working on some of the world’s greatest masterpieces on wood, and hundreds of other conservators and students have learned from workshops offered as part of the conservation projects, in university classes taught by people connected to the projects and from published studies.

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James IV and Margaret Tudor wedding chest found

Friday, July 25th, 2014


University of Aberdeen experts have confirmed that an oak chest acquired by a collector was made for the 1503 wedding of King James IV of Scotland and Margaret Tudor, daughter of King Henry VII of England. When antique furniture collector Aidan Harrison researched the carvings on the chest he’d acquired a few years ago, he found they were very similar to the iconography associated with the history-making union celebrated in person (there had been a proxy wedding in England a few months earlier) at Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh on August 8th, 1503. One of the carved panels on the front of the chest features the IM monogram (for James and Margaret) linked by a love knot, a symbol of their marriage that was repeated in multiple decorative elements.

Harrison brought his research to art history Professor Jane Geddes from the University of Aberdeen. The university has a facsimile of the Hours of James IV, an illuminated prayer book made as a wedding gift for Margaret (the original is now in the Austrian National Library in Vienna), so Professor Geddes was able to compare the design on the chest to the Book of Hours.

“The similarities between the carvings on the chest and the illuminations in the Book of Hours are striking. Three illuminated documents relating to the royal wedding all show the IM monogram (James and Margaret) tied together with a similar love knot, just as it is carved on the chest. This was such a trademark for the union that even the floor tiles for Linlithgow Palace were made with the same design. James gave the palace to his bride for a wedding present. The tassels on the knot are shaped as thistles, a reminder of the king and his country.

“A wooden chest was one of the most important items of medieval furniture, because aristocratic families spent so much time travelling with pack-horses all around the country to their various homes. All the royal bride’s personal items would be kept in a chest like this. It is remarkable that it has survived for so long before its significance was fully appreciated.”

The chest and the facsimile Book of Hours will go on display together at the University of Aberdeen’s Sir Duncan Rice Library. This is especially meaningful for the school because William Elphinstone, Bishop of Aberdeen, accomplished diplomat and founder of the university, played an important role in negotiating the wedding.

The hope was that the marriage of James and Margaret would end hostilities between the countries and establish a lasting peace. Their marriage treaty was signed the same day as the Treaty of Perpetual Peace (January 24th, 1502), an agreement that would prevent the countries being dragged into war over border skirmishes. Although the Treaty of Ayton had established a truce between England and Scotland in 1497, it was slated to expire in 1504. The Treaty of Perpetual Peace was the first long-term peace treaty between the countries since the Treaty of Berwick had ended the Second War of Scottish Independence in 1357.

Unfortunately it was perpetual in name only. Henry VII died in 1509 and his son Henry VIII was keen to make a name for himself on the battlefield. In 1513, Henry VIII invaded France, expecting the treaty to keep Scotland out of it. Scotland had been allied with France for centuries, however, and by the terms of the Auld Alliance of 1295, France and Scotland were to come to each other’s defense. James, hoping also to reclaim some border territory occupied by England, declared war on England and led his army into Northumberland. On September 9th, 1513, James IV met the Earl of Surrey at Flodden Field. It was a rout. James was killed along with 28 of his nobles, 50 knights and more than 10,000 infantry.

Margaret, who had opposed her husband going to war with her brother, was left regent of Scotland for her son, the future James V who was just over a year old when his father died. The crown of Scotland passed from James V to his daughter Mary, Queen of Scots, to her son James VI. After the death of Henry VIII’s daughter, Margaret’s niece, Queen Elizabeth I of England, James VI inherited the throne of England through his descent from Margaret. In 1603, a few months short of a century after James IV and Margaret spoke their vows at Holyrood Abbey, their great-grandson became James I of England and the two crowns were united.

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Medici princess freed from bad Victorian Photoshop

Monday, June 30th, 2014


A portrait of Isabella de’ Medici, daughter of Grand Duke Cosimo I of Tuscany and his wife Eleanor of Toledo, has been liberated from the atrocious Victorian overpaint that had replaced all her individuality and dignity with a cheeseball beauty standard better suited to a cookie tin lithograph than a Renaissance court painting. The portrait was acquired by the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh in 1978 when it was reported to be a portrait of Eleanor of Toledo by Bronzino. Bronzino did a portrait of Eleanor wearing a gorgeous brocade dress that is one of the most famous works of the period, but the Carnegie painting was so markedly inferior to that masterpiece that to call the attribution sloppy is a drastic understatement.

The museum’s curator of fine arts Lulu Lippincott suspected it was a modern fake and planned to deaccession the piece. Before lowering the boom, she asked chief conservator Ellen Baxter to determine whether it was a fake. Baxter found that the painting had cracks in it that were characteristic of a panel painting rather than an oil on canvas. The stamp of Francis Leedham, a 19th century British restorer who specialized in the terrifying practice of transferring paintings from wood or fresco to canvas (read a summary of the process here, if you dare), on the stretcher confirmed that this painting was already at least a century old in the Victorian era.

X-rays revealed that underneath the corny lady was the portrait of an older woman with puffy undereyes, a bit of a double chin, a handsome nose bump and significantly larger hands. This subject also sported a halo and held an alabaster urn in her meat hooks, attributes of Mary Magdalene that had been painted over after Leedham had transferred the portrait to canvas. The face and hands were extensively repainted, probably to make the distinctive subject more conventionally “pretty” and appealing to potential buyers.

It was Lulu Lippincott who identified the sitter. She compared the dress, the least tampered with element of the painting, to other portraits of Medici women and found a painting of Isabella de’ Medici wearing the same garment. Born in 1542, Isabella was a luminous figure in the Medici court during her short life. She was beautiful, vivacious, fashionable, intelligent, well-educated, a lover of the arts. Her father Cosimo doted on her. When she was 16, her father arranged a politically expedient marriage for her to Paolo Giordano Orsini, Duke of Bracciano. He was a violent man, an avid hunter, fighter and future leader of the Papal armies, but he lived in Rome and Cosimo saw to it that his daughter (and her dowry) stayed with him in Florence.

Cosimo gave her an exceptional amount of freedom for a noblewoman of her time. She ran her own household, and after Eleanor’s death in 1562 [corrected from 1559, thank you Edward!], Isabella ran her father’s too. She threw famously raucous parties and spent lavishly. Her father always covered her debts and protected her from scrutiny even as rumors of her lovers and excesses that would have doomed other society women spread far and wide. Her favorite lover was said to be Troilo Orsini, her husband Paolo’s cousin.

Things went downhill fast for Isabella after her father’s death in 1574. Her brother Francesco was now the Grand Duke, and he had no interest in indulging his sister’s peccadilloes. We don’t know what happened exactly, but in 1576 Isabella died at the Medici Villa of Cerreto Guidi near Empoli. The official story released by Francesco was that his 34-year-old sister dropped dead suddenly while washing her hair. The unofficial story is that she was strangled by her husband out of revenge for her adultery and/or to clear the way for him to marry his own mistress Vittoria Accoramboni.

Isabella was painted repeatedly during her lifetime, often by Alessandro Allori, a prominent Medici court painter and student of Bronzino’s. The Carnegie’s portrait is one of the last.

Lippincott believes that the picture was painted around 1574, and that the halo and urn were added shortly after the work was completed. The Mary Magdalene attributes transformed the portrait into a “symbol of repentance”; Isabella’s brother Francesco, who became head of the family in 1574, was less accepting of her scandalous lifestyle. “This may have been Isabella’s attempt to clean up her act,” Lippincott says.

Conservator Ellen Baxter cleaned up the portrait’s act, removing yellowed varnish and all that tragic overpaint. The age and stability of the paint layers made it a relatively straightforward process, although once the Victorian modifications were gone, there were areas of paint loss, particularly around the edges. Baxter filled in the blanks with a light, judicious hand.

Watch this video to see her in action:

Now that the Isabella has been liberated from a later era’s bad taste, attribution can be revisited. For now, the Carnegie is attributing the portrait to the circle of Alessandro Allori, although it could be the work of the master himself.

Meanwhile, Isabella is going on display in the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Faked, Forgotten, Found: Five Renaissance Paintings Investigated exhibition, a fascinating glimpse behind the conservator’s curtain as viewed through the analysis and conservation of five Renaissance paintings in the museum’s collection. The exhibition debuted Saturday and runs through September 15th.

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Rediscovered Artemisia Gentileschi Magdalene breaks record

Friday, June 27th, 2014

A rediscovered painting by Baroque master Artemisia Gentileschi sold for a world record €865,500 ($1,175,211) at a Sotheby’s auction in Paris on Thursday. The final price including buyer’s premium was far in excess of the pre-sale estimate of €200,000-300,000 ($271,568-407,352), driven up by seven bidders competing against each other.

The previous auction record for a painting by Artemisia Gentileschi was £419,500 (about $715,000 at today’s exchange rate) set at 1998 Sotheby’s sale in London. It was the same Self-Portrait as a Lute Player that failed to sell at auction due to an overly-optimistic reserve in the millions of dollars last January. The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford acquired it in a private sale for an undisclosed sum in March.

Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy was thought lost, its existent only known from an early 20th century black and white photograph in the library of an Italian art dealer. Sotheby’s experts rediscovered it in a private collection in the south of France where it had been secreted away for 80 years. The old picture is thought to have been taken when the painting was acquired by the family of the current seller for their collection.

It’s no wonder that Mary Magdalene was subject to a bidding war. It is a particularly striking example of Artemisia’s Caravaggio-influenced play of light and dark. A large canvas at 32 by 41 1/3 inches, the piece depicts the Magdalene is the throes of religious ecstasy. The conventional wisdom is that it was painted between 1613 and 1620, the period during which Gentileschi became a highly sought after and respected artist in Florence. Some scholars believe it’s an even earlier work because they see her father’s influence in the color palette while her Florentine work saw her move away from that and develop her own signature style. Her Florentine period also featured more luxurious elements, while this painting is downright Spartan. Sotheby’s Old Masters experts think she painted it shortly after the devastating rape trial in 1611 when she was still in Rome. They believe she may even have used herself as a model, since she wouldn’t have had a great deal of access to paid models as a young woman artist still in her teens.

The abandoned, blissful pose and the way the figure fills the frame is unusual. Artemisia’s father Orazio set his subjects farther back. This composition is all Artemisia, an early glimpse into her burgeoning creative vision. The religious theme illustrated by a figure bathed in a single strong beam of divine light was popular at the time (Caravaggio was a master of the form) but Artemisia’s treatment — the tight framing, Mary pictured as a regular woman without overtly religious iconography, the sheer ecstasy — takes a highly personal approach to the subject. Compare it to two other ecstatic women from her oeuvre, Cleopatra at the moment of her death and Danaë at the moment of her impregnation by Zeus as a shower of gold. Magdalene seems so much more naturalistic and unbridled rather than posed and conventional.

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Oldest handmade model skull attributed to Leonardo

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

Scale model of a skull made by Leonardo da Vinci, picture by Dr. K. BeckerA new study provides fresh evidence that a small anatomical model of a skull was made by Leonardo da Vinci. Since the 1990s, the model has been examined by doctors, art historians and geologists, among others, who have provided solid evidence in favor of the attribution, but Belgian researcher Stefaan Missinne’s take on it contributes highly significant additional information, including for the first time a date of ca. 1508.

[Names have been edited per comment from Dr. Missinne below.] Winfried and Waltraud Rolshausen came across the piece in an antiques shop in Homburg, Germany, in 1987. Winfried is a medical doctor, so they purchased the skull for 600 German marks ($415 by today’s conversion) and he put it on display in his office. In 1996, Prof. Dr. Roger Saban of Paris, then director of the museum housing the massive anatomical collection of Paris Descartes University’s medical school, recognized that it was not just a decorative sculpture, but a remarkably accurate 1/3rd scale anatomical model of a skull. Saban’s conclusion:

“A striking, unusual and rare fact for a sculptor to create this very precise, proportional 1/3 scale model, which breathes a scientific spirit wanting to conserve a three-dimensional piece, which is easier to transport in secrecy than a human skull originating from a burial site or an exploration.”

RL 19059 recto, dated by Leonardo April 2, 1498Secrecy was essential for anatomists since human dissection was against the law and custom, and Leonardo was a pioneering anatomist. Saban noted the skull model bears a remarkable similarity to one of the seminal images in the history of anatomy: Leonardo da Vinci’s 1498 drawing of a sectioned cranium, now in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle. The Windsor skull drawings on three pages, back and front, are groundbreaking innovations in anatomical illustration. RL 19059 recto was probably the first of the series (although we can’t be certain because Leonardo’s notebooks were dismembered and sold off piecemeal), and he helpfully dated it to April 2, 1498. RL 19058 and RL 19057 follow. They were Leonardo’s first forays into accurate observation-based views of human anatomy (or at least the first known to have survived), and the first anatomical drawings to employ the kind of section views used in architectural design.

Skull without a bottom jaw, RL 19057 verso, Royal Collection Windsor CastleLike the miniature model, the skull on the verso (back) of RL 19057 has no lower jaw and depicts the outer features of the skull at the same level of knowledge. Both are missing the inferior orbital fissure, and both place the sutura coronalis — a connective tissue joint that separates the front and back bones of the skull — in an unusual position at the back of the skull; other features on the cheekbones and eye sockets match as well.

There’s also a philosophical commonality between the drawings and model. According to the notes accompanying the drawings, Leonardo was studying the skull in an attempt to locate the sensus communis, the place where all the senses, all intellectual and creative faculties, come together in the brain. That spot, Leonardo theorized, was the locus of the soul. He points to the spot in the recto of RL 19058. It’s where all the lines intersect in the plane he has tilted so the seat of the soul could be seen best.

RL 19058 recto showing the place where all senses convergeThe model, which is not anatomically accurate on the inside because for structural purposes it couldn’t be as hollow as the skull actually is, does include the optic canals, the openings through which the eyes send visual information to the sensus communis where the optic nerve picks up the info and sends it to the brain. Thus the optic canals are the means by which “the visual power passes to the sensorium,” as Leonardo put it. No other skull known includes this morphological detail linked to the sensus communis.

What Saban got wrong is the material. He thought it was carved out of marble. A 2003 X-ray fluorescence analysis found that the skull was made of an “agate alabaster” extracted from the Cipollone mine just 50 miles from Florence. Missinne found an anomaly in the results: the presence of the rare metallic element iridium which does not naturally occur in alabaster from the Cipollone mine or anywhere else that we know of. That means the iridium was added, and that the skull wasn’t carved so much as modeled, created out of a mixture of ground agate, calcium and river sand (the source of the Ir) that Leonardo called “mistioni.” This was his own invention, the product of research between 1503 and 1508 mentioned in several of his surviving notebooks. He made artificial pearls with this modelling material, and in Manuscript F and the Codex Atlanticus he writes that he can use it to produce agate. That’s as close to a signature as we’re likely to get.

There are references to model skulls in Leonardo collections after his death. The first is a “detailed engraved skull made from fine calcedonia stone” listed in the 1524 inventory of Leonardo’s student and heir (and possible lover) Andrea Salai. A 1584 catalog of the Villa Riposo in Florence describes one object as “by Leonardo da Vinci there’s a skull of a dead man with all its minutiae.” There are also descriptions of a model of “a child’s skull” in a Habsburg collection in Prague and Innsbruck, which could be an interim step between its Florentine origin and rediscovery nearly 500 years later in southwestern Germany.

Read about Leonardo’s anatomical drawings in the Windsor collection in this catalog from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1981 exhibition of the Windsor drawings, Leonardo da Vinci: Nature Studies. The entire book is available free of charge to view online or download as a pdf.

 

Reference: Missinne, S.J. (2014). The oldest anatomical handmade skull of the world c. 1508: ‘The ugliness of growing old’ attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, Wiener Medizinische Wochenschrift. The full paper can be purchased or accessed via institutional login here.

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Who was Parmigianino’s Turkish Slave?

Monday, May 12th, 2014

The only thing we know for sure is that this iconic beauty was neither Turkish nor a slave. La Schiava Turca was a misnomer applied in the 18th century by a cataloger who interpreted the lady’s headdress as a turban and the gold chain in the slashes of her right sleeve as a symbol of bondage. In fact, her headpiece is a balzo, a wire net covered in fabric and gold thread that was fashionable among Northern Italian noblewomen in the 16th century thanks to trendsetter Isabella d’Este (see her 1534-6 portrait by Titian, now in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, or Portrait of a Lady (1520-25) by Bernardino Luini, now in the National Gallery of Art). The chain is expensive gold jewelry and her indigo satin dress, gossamer silk chemise and ostrich plume fan confirm that the sitter was a woman of wealth and position.

She was painted by Francesco Girolamo Mazzola, aka Parmigianino, around 1532 or 1533 when he was in Parma working on two altarpieces for the Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Steccata. Its whereabouts for the next century and a half are unknown. It appears again in a 1675 inventory of the collection of Cardinal Leopold de’ Medici in Florence. In the 18th century Parmigianino’s lady was ceded to the Uffizi Gallery along with the rest of the Medici art holdings. In 1928 the Uffizi traded it to the National Gallery of Parma and the portrait went home for good.

Since then, it has rarely left the museum and it has never crossed the Atlantic to delight American audiences. Now for the first time La Schiava Turca is traveling to the US. It is the star of The Poetry of Parmigianino’s “Schiava Turca” which runs at The Frick Collection from May 13th to July 20th and at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor museum from July 26th through October 5th. There are no portraits by Parmigianino in any public collection in the US and there are two in this show (the other is Portrait of a Man), so this is a unique opportunity.

Art historians have proposed a variety of identifications of the not-actually-a Turkish Slave. Candidates include Giulia Gonzaga around the time of her marriage to Vespasiano Colonna in 1526 when she was 14 years old, a member of the Cavalli family, a member of the Baiardo family whose scion Cavaliere Francesco Baiardo was a personal friend and big supporter of the artist, even bailing him out when he was arrested for breach of contract when he didn’t finish the Santa Maria della Steccata commission.

Another possibility is that she’s not a specific person but a depiction of an ideal figure, perhaps an allegory of love or poetry. The medallion in the center of her balzo could be a poetry reference. It’s an image of Pegasus, the winged mythological horse who created the Hippocrene spring, source of poetic inspiration. The connection between poetry and Pegasus was well-established in 16th century Italy. The prominent poet Pietro Bembo, a contemporary of Parmigianino’s, used Pegasus as his personal symbol.

She’s not the usual Renaissance allegory or muse of poetry, however. From the exhibition press release (pdf):

Her active pose — with her face turned toward the left and her body to the right — is common in depictions of men of the time, but not women. Also, her direct gaze and lively expression stand out when compared to the reserved, aloof expressions often seen in Renaissance portraits of women, in which it was considered appropriate to retain a dignified modesty. Finally, the Pegasus ornament on her headdress is an accessory borrowed from men’s fashion: it is likely a hat badge, an adornment worn almost exclusively by Renaissance men that bears a personal, usually humanist, emblem. With her frank expression, typically “masculine” pose, and an accessory appropriated from male fashion, it seems reasonable to believe that the Schiava Turca was intended to be seen not so much as the passive recipient of male poetic dedication, but to be regarded as a poet herself. After all, she wears on her head — the source of intellect and creativity — an emblem of Pegasus, the symbol of poetic inspiration.

Exhibition guest curator and Columbia University Art History lecturer Aimee Ng discovered another clue while researching the portrait. Parmigianino was known to make many preparatory drawings and studies for his paintings. There are two red chalk head drawings in Paris that art historians believe were studies for the Schiava Turca. Ng’s research found a third drawing in the Duke of Devonshire’s collection at Chatsworth, previously unconnected to any specific painting, that shares significant commonalities with La Schiava Turca and makes the poet image even more explicit.

The pen-and-ink drawing, which had not previously been linked to any specific project, shares the bust-length format of the Schiava Turca (although the woman in the drawing poses with her head facing in the same direction as her body). In the drawing, the woman wears a balzo-like headdress decorated with a wreath of laurel leaves. In the classical tradition, laurel leaves are used to crown accomplished poets. As it shows the artist experimenting with the standard iconography of poetry, the drawing may record an early idea for the Schiava Turca. In the end, Parmigianino’s use of an ornamental badge of Pegasus to mark the Schiava Turca as a poet is a more subtle (indeed, more poetic) solution.

So if she’s a poet rather than an allegory of poetry, which poet is she? Ng proposes one possible candidate: Veronica Gambara, a poet whose works while unpublished were widely circulated in manuscript form by 1530. She was also the ruler of the city of Correggio from the death of her husband in 1518 until her death in 1550, and her good friend Antonio Allegri, better known as Correggio because that’s where he was born, was Parmigianino’s former teacher. She traveled to Parma and lived in Bologna when Parmigianino lived there after the Sack of Rome. Pietro Bembo of Pegasus fame was Gambara’s mentor; they had corresponded since she was a teenager.

If it is Gambara, it’s still a highly idealized portrayal. She was born in 1485, so she would have been in her late 40s when Parmigianino painted the portrait. Rolling back the years, or even decades, was a common practice for portraits of nobility (the Titian portrait of Isabella d’Este was painted when she was over 60), so her age doesn’t exclude her.

Aimee Ng will be giving a lecture at The Frick about the Schiava Turca on Wednesday, May 14th, at 6:00 PM. If you can’t make it to New York on time, you can attend virtually here.

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Mysterious notes in 1504 Odyssey deciphered

Friday, May 9th, 2014

On April 24th, the University of Chicago Library announced a contest to decipher mysterious margin annotations in a rare edition of Homer’s Odyssey printed in Venice by Aldus Manutius in 1504. This was only the second edition of the Odyssey in Greek ever printed (the first was published in Florence in 1488) and this particular example passed through many hands, several of which left marginalia in various languages on the pages.

The two-volume book is part of the Bibliotheca Homerica Langiana (BHL), a collection of rare early print editions of Homer’s works that was donated to the library in 2007 by Michael C. Lang. Lang had noticed that in the second volume of the 1504 edition there were handwritten annotations that had some French words mixed in with what looked like a shorthand. Researchers at the library weren’t able to crack the idiosyncratic script, so they opened it up to public at large with a $1,000 reward offered by Lang for the first person to identify and translate the code. People from all over the world responded to the challenge.

Less than two weeks later, we have a winner. The feat was accomplished Daniele Metilli, a computer engineer, archival science student and general lover of cyphers, with the help of French speaker and stenographer Giulia Accetta. He’s in Italy and couldn’t make a trip to Chicago to view the book in person, so the library sent him high resolution images of two pages from Book XI of the Odyssey that have the annotations in question.

Because the shorthand was mixed with French and because one of the notes contains a legible date of April 25, 1854, Metilli and Accetta started by investigating French shorthand systems that may have been in use in the mid-19th century. The earliest French shorthand methods were created in the 17th century, one by Jacques Cossard in 1651, the next by Charles Alois Ramsay in 1665. Neither of those systems matched the one in the Odyssey. They then turned to 19th century systems but none of those worked either.

It was an appendix in a 1792 book on stenography by Théodore-Pierre Bertin that pointed them in the right direction. The appendix included a table that compared a stenographic system invented by Samuel Taylor in 1786 to a “tachygraphy” (from the Greek word for “swift”) system for the French language invented by Jean Coulon de Thévenot in 1776. The notes in the Homer edition looked very similar to the tachygraphy in the table. Metilli and Accetta located a copy of Thévenot’s manual Tachygraphie des Français, an 1819 edition of Tachéographie ou Tachygraphie française by stenography professor N. Patey and two mid-19th century French translations of the Odyssey and got to work.

In Thévenot’s system, “every consonant and vowel has a starting shape, and they combine together to form new shapes representing syllables,” Metilli wrote. “The vertical alignment is especially important, as the position of a letter above or below the line, or even the length of a letter segment can change the value of the grapheme. This explains why most notes in the Odyssey shorthand are underlined—the line being key to the transcription.”

They were able to translate almost of all of page A and some of page B. The mysterious marginalia are French translations of Greek words and phrases, questions about the text, definition comparisons, corrected errors, the kind of notes someone who was studying Greek would take. Most people wouldn’t scribble their notes in the margin of a very rare, very expensive 1504 edition, however. Why not get a cheap mass market contemporary edition if you’re going to write all over it? Also, most people in 1854 weren’t using shorthand that was popular 50 years earlier. Cracking the code has yet to solve the mystery of who this eccentric annotator was.

In his report (pdf) on the deciphering of the marginalia, Metilli proposes three possible hypotheses: 1) the notes were written by a student, 2) by a teacher, 3) by a translator. If 1) were correct, you’d expect there to be more unnoticed errors in the notes. The other two possibilities would explain the competence of the translation, and 3) would be quite likely to be familiar with shorthand systems.

Metilli then had a bit of a coup de foudre:

The main edition of the Odyssey we used as reference was translated by Édouard Sommer and published by Hachette book by book starting in 1848. While transcribing the shorthand, we had noticed how the annotations sometimes seemed to use the exact same wording as the “argument analitique” found in that edition.

The Sommer translation is very accurate and close to the text, just like our annotations. The other translations of the time (Bareste, Leconte de Lisle) look nothing like it. So it finally came to me: which year did Hachette publish book XI of the Odyssey? Which year did the annotator write his notes? The same year: 1854. What if Mr. Sommer were our mysterious annotator?

Sounds downright plausible. It still doesn’t explain why in the world he used the Manutius edition, of course, but that’s some quality Nancy Drewing right there. One thousand dollars very well deserved.

I know from the wonderful responses to the World War I shorthand post that we have several shorthand pros in the house. Be sure to check out Metilli’s report because there are all kinds of details about the system and translated passages in there. You don’t have to read French to enjoy it.

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Louvre and Prado Mona Lisas as stereoscopic image

Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

Two years ago, the Prado Museum in Madrid announced that a painting long thought to be a relatively unremarkable copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was actually painted contemporaneously with the original, likely by a student following the master as he drew and painted the portrait. Infrared reflectography found that the 18th century black overpaint obscured a hilly background almost the same as the original. When the black overpaint and varnish were removed from the Prado’s copy, further infrared and X-ray analysis found underdrawings and alterations from the tracing and all the way through the upper paint levels that matched those in 2004 scans of the Louvre Mona Lisa. That means from the initial sketches to the changes and corrections as painting progressed, the Prado copy followed along at each stage.

That’s not to say they’re identical, even underneath the cracked and yellowed varnish that darkens and discolors the original. Two German researchers studied both paintings, selecting landmark points (like the tip of her nose, say, or a particular feature in the mountains) and mapping the path from the landmarks to the observer’s sight line. These trajectories tracked perspective changes between the two versions.

They found that the background of the Prado painting, while virtually identical in shape, is 10% more zoomed in than the Louvre version’s. The expansion doesn’t follow a perspectival pattern you’d expect if the landscape were painted from life, which suggests the mountains in the background and the loggia right behind her were painted from a flat studio backdrop. The trajectories illustrated a number of perspective changes in the painting of the figure, particularly dense in Mona Lisa’s hands and head.

With the comparative perspective data, the researchers were able to calculate the positions of the canvases relative to the sitter and then they made a model of Leonardo’s studio during the painting of the Mona Lisa with Playmobil minifigs.

The original (labeled 1st) is further back and to the right of the Prado copy, and the horizontal distance between the versions is about 69.3 millimeters. The average distance between the eyes of Italian males is 64.1mm, a statistically insignificant difference which suggested to the researchers the possibility that the two paintings might have been deliberately positioned to be a stereoscopic pair which when viewed together give the impression of three dimensions

Carbon points out that Da Vinci “intensively worked on the 3D issue.” In addition, in inventory lists there were hints of the existence of two “Mona Lisa” paintings on his property at the same time, and that he owned colored spectacles, Carbon said.

This evidence “might indicate that he did not only [think] about the 3D issue theoretically but in a very practical sense in terms of experiments,” Carbon added. Also, when looking at the original colors of the two paintings the only real difference was in the sleeves, in which they are reddish in one version and greenish in the other. “This could be a hint to Leonardo’s approach to look at the two La Giocondas through red-green (red-cyan) spectacles,” he said, similar to those one might don to watch a 3D movie.

That’s a lot of speculation and there are significant counterpoints refuting this hypothesis. The hands work as a stereoscopic pair because the trajectory differences are horizontal. Most of the trajectories on the upper portion of Mona Lisa’s body like her face and hair have a vertical orientation. Still, Leonardo did write about binocular vision and depth perception, so it’s possible he had some idea there could be a dimensional payoff in the positioning of the two canvases.

You can read the whole paper here (pdf) to get the fully fleshed out argument with math and everything. It could all be pure imagination and it would be worth it for the minifig studio alone, as far as I’m concerned.

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Wadsworth Atheneum acquires Artemisia Gentileschi self-portrait

Sunday, March 30th, 2014

The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, the oldest public art museum in the United States, has acquired a rare self-portrait of Baroque master Artemisia Gentileschi. Self-Portrait as a Lute Player was the leading lot in Christie’s Old Master Paintings auction on January 29th. With a pre-sale estimate of $3-5 million, the painting failed to meet the reserve and did not sell at the auction. Christie’s then offered it to the Wadsworth Atheneum which last December received a $9.6 million donation from the Charles H. Schwartz Fund for European Art earmarked for the acquisition of pre-19th century art. The final price the museum paid has not been released, but curator Oliver Tostmann says it was significantly less than the low estimate of $3 million.

Self-Portrait as a Lute Player is the first work by Artemisia Gentileschi in a New England museum. It’s also the first painting in the museum’s Baroque Italian art collection that was done by a woman. It will join works by her father, Orazio Gentileschi, and by Caravaggio, the great innovator of the age who was a strong influence on Artemisia’s mature work. Orazio is represented by a painting of Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (1621-24), a subject that Artemisia returned to repeatedly in what may be her most famous and dramatic works. The Wadsworth Atheneum’s Caravaggio is Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy painted in 1594.

The Morgan Memorial Building, home of the Wadsworth’s European collection, is currently in the last two years of a five-year refurbishment project so Artemisia’s Lute Player won’t be on display right away. When the building reopens in Fall of 2015, she will be the centerpiece of the inaugural exhibition. The premier members of the museum’s Society of Daniel Wadsworth will be given a special preview of the work this spring (you can join, but it’ll cost ya $2,500.)

One of no more than three known self-portraits that are thought to have been painted by Artemisia Gentileschi (the others are Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting in the Royal Collection in London and the Allegory of Inclination, a fresco on the ceiling of the art gallery in Casa Buonarroti in Florence) is probably the most recognizable), Self-Portrait as a Lute Player was painted around 1616-1617 when Artemisia was 25 years old and had just been inducted into the prestigious Accademia del Disegno in Florence, the first woman ever to be accepted into that august assemblage of artists.

Her patrons included Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, a great-nephew of the great Michelangelo, and Cosimo II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. It’s likely that the latter commissioned Lute Player since it appears in the inventory of the Villa Medici at Artimino in 1638, only 20 or so years after it was painted. The inventory describes it as “A picture on canvas 1 1/2 braccia high and 1 1/4 braccia wide in a black frame bordered in gold, the portrait of Artemisia playing a lute painted by her own hand.” (A Florentine braccio is 58.4 centimeters, which would make the portrait 87.6 cm x 73 cm when in fact it’s 77.5 x 71.8 cm, but it was probably trimmed by idiots over the centuries. You can see the bottom edge crops the arm and lute awkwardly.)

Her success at the Florentine court was unprecedented for a woman and was all more astonishing considering the personal horror that brought her to the city. In 1611, when she was 17 years old, Artemisia Gentileschi was raped by Agostino Tassi, a colleague of her father’s and full-on psycho stalker who had already raped at least two women (his sister-in-law and one of his wives, the latter of whom disappeared and was probably murdered by bandits Tassi hired). The rape trial lasted seven months and all except a few final pages of the transcripts have survived. Artemisia, per standard legal practice in the Papal States at that time for all woman who accused someone of rape, was tortured with thumbscrews to prove she wasn’t lying. Tassi was convicted but only served eight months in prison after the judge pardoned him.

Even though Tassi’s testimony — denials coupled with completely fictitious claims about Artemisia’s purported promiscuity which fit handily into the blame-the-victim template that still haunts the halls of justice today — was blatantly false and widely seen as such, the scandal of the trial generated so much malicious gossip against her that a few months after Tassi’s conviction, she was hastily married to Pierantonio Stiattesi, a mediocre Florentine artist, and left Rome with him to start afresh in Florence where she supported them with her commissions. Her husband proved to be a deadbeat who ran up huge debts and forced her to leave Florence with creditors baying for blood. She dumped the bum and moved back to Rome in 1621 without him.

Her immense gifts have been recognized by art critics from the beginning, but for many centuries the rape trial overshadowed her talent. It was 20th century feminist analysis that brought Artemisia Gentileschi back into the spotlight to take her rightful place among the greatest artists of her era.

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Anne of Brittany’s heart reliquary returns to Blois

Monday, March 24th, 2014

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Anne of Brittany, twice queen of France and the last ruler of an independent Brittany. Over the course of the year there will be a number of cultural events dedicated to the memory of this erudite and strong-willed duchess who fought her entire life for Breton independence with her body as the final battlefield.

That’s not entirely metaphoric either. Anne was her father Duke Francis II of Brittany’s only surviving heir. He tried desperately to marry her to someone anti-French to ensure the duchy would not end up annexed by France, but after he lost the Battle of Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier in 1488, he was forced to agree to a peace treaty that required the French king’s approval of Anne’s marriage. Francis died a month later, making Anne Duchess of Brittany at 11 years old.

Now obviously she had advisors — her father’s will left guardianship of her to John of Rieux, Marshal of Brittany, historian and diplomat Philippe, Count of Commines, and Anne’s governess Madame Laval — but even at so young an age she took the reins of power firmly in her own hands. When Anne of Beaujeau, regent for her brother King Charles VIII of France, took advantage of the child duchess’ perceived weakness and attacked Brittany, Anne reacted decisively. She appointed her most trusted councilors to government positions, convened the States General of Brittany, pawned her own jewelry to raise much-needed funds for the depleted treasury, minted viable coinage out of silver-tipped leather and called on the King of England, Henry VII, to help her fend off the French.

The English turned out to be slow in sending help, but Austria and Spain sent troops to her aid. Meanwhile, the question of who she would marry became ever more pressing. Like her father, Anne cared first and foremost about which suitor could guarantee Breton independence. She did have her limits, though, and refused to marry Alain I, Lord of Albret, who had fought for Francis II against the French, because she considered him a scary brute (which by all accounts he was). Albret went into a rage at her refusal and sent troops to claim her by force. Anne, still a pre-teen at this point, met Albret’s forces head-on, mounting a horse and leading her archers against them.

That wouldn’t be the last time she took to the saddle to confront a bully. When she decided to accept the suit of Maximilian I of Austria, future Holy Roman Emperor, the man her father had wanted her to marry who she considered to be the strongest ally against France, Albret occupied Nantes and handed the castle over to the French. She and a small cadre of loyal barons (John of Rieux and Phillipe de Commines had sided with Albret because they believed he was the only hope for an independent Brittany) and some Spanish and German mercenaries rode up to the walls of Nantes and demanded they allow her entry as their sovereign. After two weeks of negotiations went nowhere, Anne’s party left only to be followed by Rieux and his soldiers. She started him down too, turning around to face him and excoriate him for his disloyalty. Her bravery was so admired that Rieux let her go.

The marriage to Maximilian did not solve her problems. France considered it a violation of the treaty since it was done without the approval of the king. Charles VIII besieged the city of Rennes and took it. Austria was of no help because Maximilian was busy fighting in Hungary. With France occupying four of Brittany’s main cities, Brittany’s nobles divided into two factions and money tight, Anne agreed to marry Charles. Since her marriage to Maximilian had been done by proxy (Maximilian sent an envoy to act in his lieu and they did this weird ceremonial thing where he put one bare knee on the bed to symbolize a consummation that never actually happened), it was easily annulled.

Marriage to Anne was the means by which Charles planned to finally take Brittany for France, if not in his lifetime then shortly thereafter. He put a clause in the marriage contract ensuring that whichever spouse outlived the other would rule Brittany. Just to cover all his bases, another clause stipulated that if he pre-deceased Anne, she would marry the next king of France, thereby giving France a second bite at the Brittany apple.

Married at 14, Anne would bear Charles seven children, none of whom survived, before he himself died when she was 21. As per the contract, she was to marry his heir, Louis XII, but he was already married. She told him she’d go through with it if he managed to get his marriage annulled within a year, then returned to Brittany and set about the business of ruling, something Charles had not allowed her to do when they were married. Much to Anne’s chagrin, Louis XII was able to get that annulment from Pope Alexander VI (aka Rodrigo Borgia) in exchange for some French estates for his son Cesare. Thus the Dowager Queen of France became Queen of France for a second time, the only woman ever to bear that distinction.

Anne of Brittany’s courts were centers of learning and art. She sponsored poets and scholars who introduced Renaissance humanism to France. She commissioned the first Renaissance style sculpture in France: the exceptionally beautiful tomb of her father, Francis II, and mother, Margaret of Foix, now in the Nantes Cathedral. The four cardinal virtues grace each corner of the tomb and the figure of Prudence bears Anne’s face. Four books of hours commissioned by her have survived, all of them masterpieces of illumination done after print was already established in France. You can leaf through the Grandes Heures of Anne of Brittany on the Bibliothèque Nationale de France website, and it’s worth it for the incredibly accurate illuminations of 337 different plants in the page borders alone.

Anne died desperately young of kidney stones just a few weeks short of her 37th birthday. She had at least seven more children with Louis, although only four survived their births and only two of them, daughters Claude and Renée, survived their mother. To her last breath she struggled against the seismic forces driving Brittany into French hands. With none of their male children surviving, Louis had betrothed Claude, Anne’s eldest daughter and heir, to his cousin and the heir to the French throne Francis of Angoulême. Anne knew that Claude’s inheritance and marriage would sound the death knell of Breton independence, so she left the duchy to her younger daughter Renée in her will, but Louis just ignored it.

A few months after Anne’s death, Claude and Francis married and a few months after that Louis died. Francis I was crowned on what would have been Anne’s 38th birthday. He made his and Claude’s son heir to the Duchy of Brittany and from then on, it was a province of France.

After her death, Anne was buried in the Basilica of Saint Denis, as was traditional for French sovereigns, but she left instructions in her will that her heart be removed and sent to Brittany. A beautiful gold reliquary was made to hold her heart, inscribed in old French with the following dedication: “In this little vessel of fine gold, pure and clean, rests a heart greater than any lady in the world ever had. Anne was her name, twice queen in France, Duchess of the Bretons, royal and sovereign.” It was first placed in her father’s tomb as she had willed and later moved to Saint Pierre Cathedral in Nantes.

The reliquary had a close brush with oblivion during the Revolution as part of the orgy of anti-monarchical destruction. In 1792 Anne’s heart was thrown away like so much trash and the reliquary ordered to be melted down. Thankfully it never happened. The artifact was kept in the Bibliothèque Nationale until in 1819 it was returned to Nantes. Its permanent home has been the Dobrée Museum since the late 19th century.

Now the reliquary is ushering in Anne of Brittany season with an exhibition at the Royal Château of Blois where she died. The exhibition brings together the reliquary with contemporary descriptions and illuminations of her hugely elaborate 40-day funeral.

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