Archive for the ‘Renaissance’ Category

Painting by Dutch master found in Iowa gallery closet

Thursday, April 5th, 2018

Robert Warren, Executive Director of the Hoyt Sherman Place gallery in Des Moines, Iowa, was looking for some Civil War flags in a flower closet. He didn’t find any. Instead, wedged between a table and the wall, he found a late 16th century panel painting by Dutch master Otto van Veen. It had suffered significant water damage after spending who knows how long in a small, uninsultated room full of jumbled stuff, and before then experienced unfortunate attempts at restoration. It was also unsigned.

The scene depicts the figures of Apollo and Venus accompanied by her son Cupid. Venus, the Roman Goddess of Love, Beauty, and Fertility, is portrayed as an artist painting a landscape that includes a small image of Pegasus on the horizon. Apollo, holding a lyre, is the Roman God of Music, Poetry, and more. Cupid is the Roman God of Desire, Affection, and Erotic Love. The painting also contains four still-lifes referencing Venus’ beauty and fertility: a collection of jewelry, a basket of fruit and flowers, a sprig of roses, and a bowl of oysters. A fifth still-life of her painting supplies occupies the lower right corner.

The painting was coated with layers of discolored varnish and former restoration work that flattened the three-dimensional quality of the scene and falsified the artist’s intended palette. Areas of former loss were present along splits in the wood and throughout scattered areas especially pronounced in the left third of the painting. The surface was heavily overpainted after a succession of former restoration attempts.

Chicago conservator Barry Bauman conserved the piece, cleaning it, repairing flaking paint and faulty restorations. The artist was identified as Otto van Veen who painted it in Antwerp in the last years of the 16th century. It was brought to Des Moines by the Collins family who had owned it since at least the 1880s when they lived in New York and loaned it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The painting moved to Des Moines with them and the family donated it to the Hoyt Sherman Place gallery in the 1923. It is Des Moines’ earliest Old Master painting.

Born in Leiden to a prominent Catholic family, van Veen studied in Rome and built a successful studio in Antwerp where he received numerous commissions for altar pieces and other religious themed works from churches and aristocratic patrons. He also took in students, most famously Peter Paul Rubens who studied under van Veen from 1594 to 1600, just the time when he painted Apollo and Daphne. A humanist and scholar, van Veen would go on to publish three emblem books (illustrated compendia of symbols and allegories used in art accompanied by a motto from a famous author, usually from antiquity). His most popular by far was Amorum emblemata (published in 1608), which is replete with Cupids.

So even though Apollo and Venus might seem to lean towards the profane for someone with a thriving business painting Christian iconography, in fact it fits his education, understanding and pedagogical approach to perfection. There are so many symbols of love layered in the panel it would have made a very useful addition to the Amorum emblemata.

All those layers may be the reason the masterpiece was hidden away in the storage closet. When it was donated to the gallery, the Hoyt Sherman Place was run by the upstanding ladies of the Des Moines Women’s Club. They founded the Club in 1885 with the express purpose of creating an art museum open to the public free of charge. After more than two decades of hosting temporary exhibitions at various sites, in 1907 the DMWC finally found a permanent home when the city rented them the historic Hoyt Sherman Place for the token sum of $1 a year. The Club built an addition to house its art collection and the Hoyt Sherman Place gallery opened as the first public art gallery in Des Moines.

In 1921 construction began on another addition that would expand the gallery and create an elegant auditorium for performances and exhibitions. The closet where Warren discovered the Van Veen’s masterpiece is located on the balcony of the auditorium. He speculates that all the nudity, sex and fertility symbols were a little too spicy for the Des Moines Women’s Club when it was donated in the 1920s. At that time, there wasn’t a single nude in the 54-work collection.

Apollo and Venus debuted at the gallery in a preview last month. It will be displayed as part of the permanent collection this summer.

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Mary Rose cannonballs meet synchrotron X-rays

Sunday, March 11th, 2018

When Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose sank off the Portsmouth coast on July 19th, 1545, it was carrying 1248 cast iron cannonballs, all lined up next to each other, ready to be deployed. They slumbered under 14 meters (46 feet) of sediment, a virtually oxygen free environment, along with about 19,000 other artifacts and remains until excavations began in 1979. In 1982, the whole ship was raised.

That was when its real struggle for survival began. The ship and its contents had been protected for 450 years under the sea. As soon as they were exposed to air, they began to deteriorate. After decades of constant spraying in salt water and PEG, the Mary Rose is now dry, stable and in a new display at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, but stabilizing archaeological iron is a whole other kind of challenge. Exposure to air and moisture causes iron to break down into a number of iron compounds, and that deterioration is accelerated when there’s chlorine in the mix. Sea water is rich in chlorine, and after nearly five centuries spent absorbing it, the iron cannon shot is highly susceptible to corrosion now that it’s out of the water.

Conservators have attempted to prevent this ugly fate with a variety of approaches. The bulk of the iron balls were stored in a passive environment — a high pH solution — that kept them as stable as possible to their home under the sediment. This makes them unable to be exhibited and does not remove the corrosive salts and chlorine. Some of the balls were therefore subjected to active conservation techniques, either reduction-based desalination treatments which aim to remove chlorine from iron artifacts by chemically altering the molecules of Iron(III) chloride, or washing methods which remove the chlorine by diffusion it into water solutions.

The problem is that there isn’t much solid scientific evidence to go on that points to which solution works best, whether there are any unintended consequences in the short or long term, etc. There are no real comparable treatments of archaeological iron to go by, and it’s hard to say if the condition of a given artifact is caused by a conservation technique or one of a myriad other variables.

A new study is hoping to answer some of those questions using a few of the cannon balls of the Mary Rose as the canaries in the coal mine. The shot was produced in bulk at the single iron blast furnace that existed in Tudor England; it was new when it sank and it was all buried together. Their uniformity of design, manufacturer and history, and the careful application of diverse treatment protocols after their recovery eliminates a lot of those pesky variables and gives researchers the opportunity to study in detail at the molecular level how effective the different treatments have been.

The UK National Synchroton Facility at Diamond Light Source in Didcot in Oxfordshire has deployed the ultra-bright X-ray power of the particle accelerator to analyze the iron in exceptional detail. Researchers used synchrotron X-ray powder diffraction (SXPD), absorption spectroscopy (XAS), and fluorescence (XRF) mapping to identify the precise location of the chlorine inside the balls and determine what corrosion products have formed in the conservation process.

The study did require a sacrifice, however. In order to do the initial examination, and to move forward on a long-term study that puts samples embedded in lucite on a beamline and maps the chlorine and corrosion over time, six of the shots had to be destructively sampled. It was a difficult decision, but the Mary Rose has an enormous collection that makes it possible to sacrifice a few for the good of the many, so in 2016 conservators decided to cut segments out of the cannon balls that were already showing significant signs of deterioration.

Dr Eleanor Schofield continues: “We knew that we needed to really delve into the material and find out what was going on, and that this would require destructive sampling. This decision was not taken lightly, and was justified by sacrificing a small percentage of our collection for the benefit of the rest and other collections around the world which suffer the same problem.”

Hayley Simon, who is now part way through her PhD adds: “These results represent a first step towards the development of new protective techniques. We are launching next a long duration experiment, which will observe changes in the corrosion product during long-term immersion in various conservation treatments to monitor their effects.”

The first paper charting the results of the synchroton mapping of the elements has now been published (only available free to subscribers, available for rent or purchase for the rest of us).

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Portrait of Henry VIII is truly Tudor

Thursday, February 8th, 2018

An oil on panel portrait of King Henry VIII in the Bath’s Victoria Art Gallery long believed to be a 19th century reproduction has been found to be a genuine Tudor-era artwork. It was donated to the Bath & North East Somerset Council in the 1800s and was thought to be a copy of a copy. This particular portrait of Henry was originally a mural in his apartment at Whitehall Palace by the king’s favorite court painter Hans Holbein, but the original is long gone. It was destroyed in the fire that burned down the palace in 1698.

The Whitehall mural was copied by many artists, and once the mural was lost, the copies were copied. The Victoria Art Gallery’s version is of higher quality than most of the other later copies, however, so when the painting had to be sent to specialists for conservation, the council had the wood panels dated using dendrochronology. Counting tree rings and matching their patterns doesn’t always work for thin panels (as opposed to logs or thick timbers), but researchers got lucky this time. The portrait was painted between 1537 and 1557, which makes it one the earliest surviving portraits of Henry VIII, who died exactly halfway through the estimated date range.

The dating of the painting was paid for by the Friends of the Victoria Art Gallery. The Chairman, Michael Rowe, said: “The Friends of the Gallery are committed to supporting original research into the gallery collections and were delighted to fund the dendrochronology. We look forward to further research into the origins of this important picture.”

Councillor Paul Myers, cabinet member for Economic and Community Regeneration, said: “This is one of the oldest and best pictures of Henry VIII in the world, and we are very fortunate to have it in the council’s public art collection. The painting will soon be back on display at the Victoria Art Gallery, where visitors will be able to see it for free in the Upper Gallery.”

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Largest early world map stitched together virtually

Friday, January 5th, 2018

The largest known early map of the world has been digitally stitched together into one single glorious panorama of exotic far-flung lands and mythical creatures. This virtual parturition births into the world the cartographic baby of Urbano Monte, a 16th century geographer who created the planisphere in 1587. The 60-page manuscript covered depicted all the known world from the North Pole to the much conjecture but still unknown Terra Australis way down south. The 60 manuscript pages when put together to create the complete top-down view of the earth Monte envisioned are 10 feet by 10 feet, the largest early non-mural map known.

That’s not its only intriguing attribute. It’s a North Polar projection, aka an azimuthal equidistant projection which accurately positions landmasses along global meridians. While there are a few examples of the form before Monte’s planisphere, his use of the North Polar projection in this map was a major step forward and later cartographers borrowed from it liberally. He drew every part of the map by hand on those 60 sheets, labelling every land mass, every hill, every dale, every river, country, ship and coastline, practically every tree. There are charts that record the length of days and nights during the year, the strength of the sun’s rays at different times, a lunar eclipse, a wind chart and many tidy explanations of geographic nomenclature and concepts. It is unreal, and I’m not just saying that because of the mutant fish monsters and mermen living it up in the Terra Austraulis Ignonita, which appears to have basically been Vegas before Bugsy Siegal.

It was this information dense by design. Monte included information on weather, topographic data, the amount of daylight, and tons more because he wanted it to be the complete resource for the learned statesman, a scientific planisphere that was to be secured in a wood panel and revolve above the heads of viewers via a pin through the North Pole, a slowly turning planet, if you will. The revolving map was another innovation of Monte’s.

Unfortunately he never did put the manuscript sheets together and create his great masterpiece. The masterpiece has remained bound in Italian sheep leather for 430 years. (There are two other manuscripts known, one with missing areas, the other a later one of 64 pages.) Making Urbano Monte’s dream come true is now possible without destruction, as long as you have the expertise, resources and dedication to put in the many hours of work takes. The David Rumsey Map Collection at Stanford University recently acquired the manuscript and has been digitizing its pages. They’ve done a spectacular job and the end result is an online resource that allows visitors to zoom in to enormously high resolution images of each page as well as to see a digital composite of the pages in their proper order, assembled just the way Monte instructed on one of the pages of the planisphere. There’s a top-down view of the 10×10 square map, several reprojections that map the virtual map on to the globe, as a Mercator projection, etc. Every label is easily readable thanks to the zoom, resolution and Monte’s elegant, clear-as-a-bell handwriting. It’s a digital masterpiece of an analog masterpiece.

When we georeference Monte’s map and then re-project it into Mercator projection we immediately understand why he used the north polar projection instead of Mercator’s: Monte wanted to show the entire earth as close as possible to a three-dimensional sphere using a two-dimensional surface. His projection does just that, notwithstanding the distortions around the south pole. Those same distortions exist in the Mercator’s world map, and by their outsized prominence on Monte’s map they gave him a vast area to indulge in all the speculations about Antarctica that proliferated in geographical descriptions in the 16th century. While Mercator’s projection became standard in years to come due to its ability to accurately measure distance and bearing, Monte’s polar projection gave a better view of the relationships of the continents and oceans. In the 20th century air age, the polar projection returned as a favored way to show the earth. Monte would have been pleased to see a modern version of his map used in the official emblem of the United Nations.

That is totally cromulent map. Imaging making something even remotely that accurate with colored pencils and 60 sheets of paper (well, sheepskin). You must browse through every page of this map and zoom way in to the spot all the animals, monarchs on thrones, irate mermen, even the aritst himself in not one, but two self-portraits. It’s too good not to be enjoyed in all its glory. Then you can pay homage to the master by seeing it look incredible connected as he had intended it to be 430 years ago. It’s been a long time in coming.

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Puttin’ on the Rijks

Saturday, December 9th, 2017

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), 'Portrait of Marten Soolmans', 1634. Purchased by the Kingdom of the Netherlands for the RijksmuseumWhy yes I am absurdly pleased with that title, thank you for asking. When the Rijksmuseum is putting on a show dedicated to full-length portraiture of moneyed art patrons from the Renaissance to the 20th century, certain puns become irresistible. The new exhibition, High Society will be centered around the museum’s most spectacular new babies, the portraits of wealthy merchant Marten Soolmans and his bride, heiress Oopjen Coppit painted by Rembrandt van Rijn in 1634. He was only 28 years old but already had made a name for himself as the top portraitist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), 'Portrait of Oopjen Coppit', 1634. Purchased by the Republic of France for the Musée du Louvreon the scene. He had known Soolmans since the latter’s desultory stab at law school in Leiden when he was 15, and as Oopjen Coppit was kind enough to bring an enormous pile of cash into the matrimonial home as a dowry, Marten booked the best to have himself and his wife immortalized top to bottom. These are the only full-length, life-sized portraits Rembrandt ever painted.

The pair is jointly owned by the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum who spent €80 million apiece to buy the portraits from Baron Eric de Rothschild. Because the portraits were already in France with the baron, the Louvre got first crack at displaying them in accordance with the intricacies of the shared acquisition deal. They went on display in Paris in March 2016 for three months, then moved on to Amsterdam where they had another brief three-month display next to the Night Watch before being taken off public view for much-needed conservation. The portraits had only been lightly cleaned and had “fake saliva” daubed on to bring back some of their original sheen before their debut at the Louvre.

That thorough restoration, undertaken by a joint team of experts from both national museums, is just about finished now and the wedding couple will be shown conserved, repaired, their finery back to its finest, for the first time at the new exhibition opening March 8th, 2018. It’s not the happy couple who will be peacocking it in this show. The Rijksmuseum took the opportunity to make Marten and Oopjen the fulcrum of a larger exploration of the evolution of the full-length portrait in art history, borrowing more than 35 masterpieces from private collections and museums in Paris, London, Florence, Vienna and California, among others. This is the first exhibition dedicated to this most magnificent of portrait formats.

Life-sized, standing, full-length portraiture had been the province of kings and powerful aristocrats in earlier times, and barely seen at all up north. The portraits of two proud exponents of the moneyed Dutch bourgeoisie illustrate the upwardly-mobile aspirations of the young Dutch Republic, then just 50 years old and focused on building wealth through trade and industry instead of bloodlines, currying monarchical favor and conquest. Marten and Oopjen were some of the earliest examples of the style being employed in Holland.

The earliest life-sized portraits of worthies standing around looking fabulously wealthy (or telegraphing their politics or promoting their families or celebrating their greatest beauties or their weddings, as in the case of Marten and Oopjen) that we know of were painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1514. The subjects were Henry Paolo Veronese, Count Iseppo da Porto, c. 1552. Baltimore, Walters Art Museum and Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi, Contini Bonacossi Collectionthe Pious, Duke of Saxony, and his wife Catharina, Countess of Mecklenburg. Less than a decade later the Italians stepped up to the plate with the unnamed subject in Moretto da Brescia’s Portrait of a Man (1525). The earliest known couple depicted in a full-length portrait by an Italian artist are Count Iseppo da Porto and his wife Countess Livia Thiene by Paolo Veronese (ca. 1552).

From those beginnings, the format spread north and west during the 16th and 17th centuries. Great masters like Velázquez, Anthony van Dyck and Frans Hals went big during this period, as did Rembrandt with Marten and Oopjen. The exhibition keeps going, illustrating the shift in focus from people of noble rank to people with money to socialites and even (gasp!) artists in the early 20th century. One of the last portraits to be painted from the group on display is one of Edvard Munch by Walther Rathenau (1907).

The exhibition is a short one — giant rarities don’t get loaned very often or for long — and closes on June 3rd, 2018.

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Cranach painting in Royal Collection authenticated by pigeon tendon

Thursday, November 16th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ghent Altarpiece restoration website is a stunner

Saturday, November 4th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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See the Borghese Caravaggios in a museum with functional climate control

Friday, November 3rd, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Paolina Borghese’s (unairconditioned) feet

Friday, October 20th, 2017

Set in the Mannerist splendour of Cardinal Scipione Borghese’s villa on the Pincian Hill, today the Galleria Borghese is one of Rome’s most beautiful museums. Its owner spared no expense to create a suburban party palace that would set off his superlative collection of paintings, sculpture and antiquities. Frescoed ceilings and walls, inlaid marble floors and every other sumptuous architectural feature you can imagine serve as the backdrop to one of the greatest private collections of art ever amassed.

As the nephew of Camillo Borghese, Pope Paul V, Scipione benefitted handsomely from papal nepotism (not coincidentally, the English term derives from the Italian word for nephew), first garnering the elevation to the cardinalship and then a heap of other titles, benefices and revenues that would make the most exploitative Roman tax farmer blush. Much of those moneys he spent amassing an art collection worthy of the crowned heads of Europe. One of those crowned heads, in fact, the notoriously self-crowned head of Napoleon Bonaparte, bought a large part of it from his wastrel brother-in-law Camillo Borghese in the early 19th century. It would form the nucleus of the Louvre’s collection.

Apollo and Daphne by Bernini.Before it was chipped away by his heirs after his death, the collection included 12, count them, 12 Caravaggios. Today that figure is reduced by half, still an incredible concentration of paintings by the master of dark and light in a single small museum. When Caravaggio’s Youth with a Basket of Fruit, The Young Bacchus Ill and David with the Head of Goliath come to life at night, they get to play Texas Hold ‘Em with the likes of Raphael’s La Fornarina and Woman with Unicorn, Corregio’s Danae, Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love and Boticelli’s Madonna and Child with the Young St. John the Baptist and Angels. If they need to sweeten the pot, they let figures by Rubens, Parmigianino, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Pinturicchio, Andrea del Sarto, Canaletto, and Perugino chip in. If they’re really in the mood to party, Paolina Borghese, sister of Napoleon Bonaparte and wife of Camillo Borghese, rises from the marble couch the sculptor Antonio Canova captured her on and brings the heat. Bernini’s extraordinary, almost unbelievable Apollo and Daphne are too realistically frozen in mythological time to play along.

With so many world class treasures of the arts to enjoy, the Galleria Borghese was an obvious addition to my itinerary, all the more so since it would allow me to post an update to a past story. Remember this story from 2013 about Paolina Borghese’s dainty shoes discovered in the University of Aberdeen museum archives? I was delighted to find that according to my viewcount stats, it has been consistently popular ever since, largely thanks to foot fetish websites. Well, for all you feet fans out there, here’s Canova’s representation of Princess Paolina’s doggies.

I thought I had posted about a distinctly less entertaining story, but I can’t seem to find it in the archives so I guess I never did. The Galleria Borghese needs a new climate control system. I read about this situation a couple of years ago, if I recall correctly, and it was dire then. The ancient air conditioning was so hobbled that it barely produced enough cool air to keep the areas around the units at proper temperature, so they had to leave windows open to let some of the heat out of the hot, humid rooms and institute reservation-only ticketing to control the numbers of people allowed in at any given time. When I read about it back then, they were raising money to replace and update the whole system, but it was an expensive proposition and the Italian government wasn’t exactly rushing to spend that dough.

It still hasn’t been fixed, and y’all, it was bad. I mean really, really bad. I was genuinely horrified to my core by what I saw and experienced. The larger rooms with the more popular works (mainly Renaissance Old Masters) were stultifying, and you could actually see the moisture damage on the surface of oil paintings. One was so bad the paint was cracking in a line down the middle and bubbling up. Only a few of the works even had the protection of a glass panel covering the canvas. Only one of the 20-year-old air conditioners was blowing any air. I put my hand over it and it was lukewarm. It was deeply upsetting, so much so that I almost wished I hadn’t gone because seriously they need to shut the doors to human bodies and the heat, dirt, bacteria and effluvia they inevitably bring into a space and fix this monstrous state of affairs immediately. It is a true state of emergency. I can only hope against hope that my ticket price might help right this terrible wrong.

 

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Palazzo Venezia: a hidden gem in plain sight

Tuesday, October 17th, 2017

The only reason I even darkened the doorway of the 15th century Palazzo Venezia, most recognizable today from old newsreel footage of Benito Mussolini addressing the multitudes in the Piazza Venezia from the balcony, was to see if the Duce’s last secret bunker, rediscovered in 2011 after decades hidden under the floor of a junk room, was open to visitors. It was not. I turned to leave. Then I happened to glance upward and this is what I saw:

Vaulted ceiling in the entrance hall of the Palazzo Venezia.

I left anyway because I had other things planned yesterday, but returned today, uncontrollably attracted by the promise of fine architectural and decorative features serving as the backdrop for what the website assured me was an exceptional collection of Renaissance bronze statuary, terracotta sculptures, silver decorative arts, panel paintings, carved wood pieces, majolica, Japanese and Chinese porcelains, Islamic art and woven textiles.

My reaction as I walked through the first few spaces, which are largely empty, was that the story of this museum is in the floors and ceilings. Check out the herringbone brick floor and the wood ceiling with frescoes at the top of the wall in the Loggia of the Blessings, so named because the original relatively modest structure was greatly expanded by order of Cardinal Pietro Barbo, the future Pope Paul II, who was born in Venice and wanted a dwelling worthy of his sumptuous tastes. It became a papal palace in 1469, five years after the election of Paul II to the Throne of Peter. He stood on the balcony of this loggia to deliver his weekly blessing to the faithful.


Here are some sweet floor tiles and a wood panel featuring Paul II’s symbols from rooms just off the loggia:

And then there’s the Hall of Hercules, named after the fresco series depicting his labours that line the top of the walls. My terrible pictures do it no justice whatsoever.

The glories of the Renaissance palazzo itself came to an apex in the Hall of the Globe (Sala del Mappamondo), which Mussolini picked as his headquarters as anybody would have in his place. Its stupendous decorative appeal was only enhanced in my nerdly eyes by the presence of active restorers working on one of the frescoes. Sure, there was a wall up blocking some of the view and the middle of the room was entirely cordoned off so the pictures I took are even more terrible than usual, but public restoration projects always fill my heart with joy, minor inconveniences be damned.

Up until this point the collection, a combination of Paul II’s legendary acquisitiveness and later purchases added after the palazzo became a national museum in the 1920s, was sparsely but handsomely represented. I soon realized this was a deliberate choice made to ensure the focus of the visitors would be on the beauty of the historic building itself instead of on the stuff it could be stuffed with, because y’all, they have some STUFF in the Palazzo Venezia. Here is but a tiny sampling of what it has to offer:



Then there’s the loggia with a lapidarium (a collection of engraved stonework, reliefs, tombstones, etc. from antiquity through the Renaissance) that looks down on a magical courtyard.

I didn’t even get to the temporary exhibition of Japanese art in the basement due to a prior commitment cutting my visit short. I could easily have stayed another hour and barely have scratched the surface. This museum is smack in the middle of one of the busiest tourist routes in the world. You are crushed by massive tour groups as you walk around the piazza to the Capitoline, the Roman fora, Colosseum and Palatine, and yet, there in the Palazzo Venezia, nary a soul so much as brushed up against me in the cool elegance of these magnificent rooms and loggias. Put it on the list, y’all. Put it on the list.

 

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