Archive for the ‘Renaissance’ Category

Last chance to see Royal Armoury arms in America

Monday, October 27th, 2014

For the past decade, the Frazier History Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, has had the unique distinction of being the only place outside of the UK to have a permanent exhibition of weapons and armour from Britain’s Royal Armouries. In fact, it was the first time any British national museum entered into a long-term collaboration with an institution outside of national borders. This arrangement was so special it literally required an act of Parliament to allow the artifacts to leave the country and create a Royal Armouries annex in America.

An assortment of more than 400 pieces of armature from the 11th century to the beginning of the 20th century have been on display on the third floor of the Frazier History Museum. While most of the artifacts are English, the Royal Armoury has amassed a collection of military and sporting weapons and armour from Spain, Italy, Germany, Japan, China, India and more. The Frazier exhibition features selections from all over Europe.

The items — on loan from the National Museum of Arms and Armour — have been displayed at the Frazier since its 2004 opening in downtown Louisville. The Royal Armouries collection was a prize catch for Louisville philanthropist and businessman Owsley Brown Frazier, who founded the museum.

The formal agreement creating the collaboration was signed at the Tower of London in 2003.

Both sides said Friday the partnership has been a success, and said they looked forward to working together again.

“This pioneering arrangement has brought hundreds of our best objects, vivid exposure to English history, and aspects of our common story, to a U.S. audience,” Dr. Edward Impey, director general and master of the Royal Armouries, said in a statement.

The loan and the exhibition will end on January 4th, 2015. The Royal Armouries collection will return home and artifacts will be split between the Tower of London and the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds. Ten years ago they didn’t have the room to show the objects — that was one of the reasons the loan was beneficial to both parties — but recent renovations have increased the space at the Royal Armouries museums.

The Frazier has also undergone renovations and will be reconfiguring the third floor exhibition space in keeping with a shift in its thematic focus from weaponry to history, particularly the history of Kentucky and Louisville. The Royal Armouries display will be replaced with artifacts from the museum’s expanding permanent collection, including objects from the personal collection of museum founder Owsley Frazier.

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13-angled stone found in Inca hydraulic system

Saturday, October 25th, 2014

Archaeologists exploring a stretch of the Inca trail network of Qhapaq Ñan that passes through the archaeological site of Incahuasi have discovered a stone cut with 13 angles. The trail is vast, covering 30,000 kilometers and crossing six countries. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site this June, which has drawn new attention to the network from researchers, including the section in Incahuasi. While investigating the trail, the archaeological team found a hydraulic system with two masonry fountains connected to canals carved out of the mountain rock. It was one of those fountains that has a large 13-angled cut stone in the center.

Inca masonry is famous for its finely hewn polygonal stones that fit together without mortar like intricate jigsaw puzzles. Even today, half a millennium after they were constructed, many of these dry walls are still joined so perfectly you can’t pass a piece of paper between stones. The variety of shapes and precision cutting provided exceptional seismic resistance, hence their longevity even in earthquake-prone areas.

One particular polygonal stone has become a Peruvian icon: the 12-angled stone in a wall on Hatun Rumiyoc Street in Cusco. The wall is all that remains of the palace of Inca Roca, sixth Sapa Inca (ruler) of the Kingdom of Cusco, and the Stone of Twelve Angles has become a hugely popular tourist attraction. Its unique shape features in logos from beer to railroads.

The fame of the Hatun Rumiyoc stone lends a special cachet to the discovery of a stone with 13 angles. The city of Incahuasi was built in the mid-15th century by Túpac Yupanqui, the 10th Sapa Inca, to serve as a military and administrative center of the empire he expanded south along the coast. He called it New Cusco and deliberately evoked the power and glamour of the great Inca capital by building a smaller version of its monumental structures and planned grid of streets and squares.

The dry, subtropical desert climate required the construction of extensive canal and irrigation systems for agricultural purposes. Incahuasi is 3,800 meters (12,467 feet) above sea level and was strategically located next to the Viscacha River, the water source for irrigation of the whole valley. Two mountain springs fed the fountains. The water then traveled through the canal system carved from the mountain rock in zig-zag, straight sections and waterfalls that slowed down the flow of water on its descent to the Viscacha.

Archaeologists believe the water systems had more than just a practical use. They also held ritual significance. In Andean cultures, bodies of water were considered sacred places of origin. The Incas promoted this notion, emphasizing the symbolic importance of water management as a defining standard for community membership. In Incahuasi, the canal system invoked multiple sacred origins: the mountain springs feeding the fountains, the departure point of the Viscacha to water the valley, which, once the river descends to the coast, becomes an important tributary of the Pisco River.

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Replica of Vasa bronze cannon shot

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

In late 2012, the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, home of the beautiful but unstable flagship of the Swedish fleet that sank a mile from the shore on its maiden voyage in 1628, put together a team to recreate one of the ship’s 24-pounder bronze cannons. Although Vasa went down in ignominy before it had a chance to make a name for itself, the light cannon that became known as the Vasa gun would be adopted all branches of the Swedish military as the standard artillery piece during the Thirty Years’ War. Sweden was the world’s largest exporter of cannon in the 17th century, and other European countries developed their own versions of the Vasa gun, so learning more about this particular weapon illuminates a far broader stage than just the ship or Swedish naval warfare.

The aim of the project was to make an accurate copy of the cannon and its accessories (mount, ammunition, powder, etc) and then fire it on range. The experiment would be documented with film, audio recordings, doppler radar and pressure monitoring to provide a wide range of data on the ballistic and tactical capabilities of the Vasa gun. Because Vasa was recovered in such excellent condition thanks to the cold, woodworm-inhospitable waters of the Baltic Sea, it was possible for the team to recreate every element of the weapon system, not just the barrel which is the only part that usually survives.

It took almost two years for the project to get to the firing stage. Designing and building the molds and fittings, testing the pour with an iron version first, composing the proper alloy, casting and curing the final product, was no small task. No detailed was spared to make it an exact replica, right down to the decorative motifs on the outside of the gun. The bronze 24-pounder was cast in November of last year. It is ten feet long, weighs 1.5 tons and the alloy is made of around 93% copper, 4-5% tin, and trace amounts of zinc and lead.

Here is video of the casting of the cannon at the foundry last November. The gentleman with the impressive beard is Tom Ward, a Boston sculptor and Fulbright scholar who has been documenting the creation of the replica in an outstanding blog on the Vasa Museum website which I highly recommend reading last page to first so you can see the insane amounts of work that went into this ambitious project:

It took another 11 months after that to get the cannon in proper firing order. On October 2nd, 2014, a Vasa gun fired for the first time in nearly four centuries. In this proofing run, the cannon shot four rounds, the largest of which used 3.3 kilos of powder to generate 10,400 psi of breech pressure and a muzzle velocity of 399 meters per second or mach 1.17. The ball doesn’t beat the speed of sound for long, however. Exponential drag slows it down very quickly.

On Wednesday, October 22nd, the official trials began, witnessed by 200 journalists, museum staff and members of the armed forces.

In this Swedish language video, you can see the cannon being muzzle loaded, details of the replica section of the side of Vasa‘s hull used for target practice, a nice glimpse of the gun and recoil after firing before the entire scene is obscured with smoke, and a close view of the hole left in the target. It’s quite a small hole, really, but it goes all the way through.

Here is film of the cannon being fired at different frame rates:

And here is the proverbial money shot, a detailed view of the cannon being fired at the target, a close-up of the hit, and the impact of the ball on the wood recorded on high speed film so when it’s played back you see every shard and splinter create almost a loose tornado effect. So, so cool.

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Lost Louvre portrait of Henry III found at auction

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

A late 16th portrait of King Henry III of France that has been missing from the Louvre since World War II was discovered about to go up for auction in Paris. A small work at eight by five inches, the painting was valued by the Ader-Nordmann auction house at only €400-€600 ($505-$758). One week before the October 17th auction, Pierre-Gilles Girault, assistant curator of the Royal Château de Blois, found out about the sale from a Henry III keyword alert he’d set up on a public auction search site.

The Château de Blois played a dramatic role in the bloody intrigues of Henry’s turbulent reign, and in 2010 the museum held an exhibition dedicated to the period, Renaissance celebrations and crimes, the Court of Henry III. When Girault saw the painting for sale, he recognized its rare iconography of Henry on his knees at the foot of the Cross and its unusual medium — oil on paper mounted on panel — as a work he had seen in a 1930s-era catalogue of the Louvre collection. The size was slightly different, however, so he thought it might be a contemporary copy. The museum was still interested in acquiring it to expand its Henry III materials. Even a copy of a realistic portrait of a king, whose life and reign were mired in Wars of Religion, depicted in such a heavy-handedly devout posture could well be worth the small purchase price. There are very few extant realistic portraits of Henry III, and they’re standard court paintings. This one ties Henry directly into the defining issue of his reign and of 16th century France.

Although as Duke of Anjou the Catholic Henry had played a major role fighting the Protestants in the French Wars of Religion — he was the leader of the army, defeating Hugenots forces in several battles and besieging the Hugenot city of La Rochelle — when he became king after the death of his older brother Charles IX, he took a more practical approach. With the Protestant army led by his younger brother François, formerly Duke of Alençon and now Duke of Anjou, besieging Paris, in 1576 Henry signed he Edict of Beaulieu which granted the Hugenots freedom of religion and major political concessions.

Henry I, Duke of Guise, didn’t take kindly to that. He formed the Catholic League, a coalition of French Catholic societies supported by the Pope and Philip II of Spain, to apply military and political pressure in favor of the eradication of the Hugenots. His efforts were very successful. Henry III was forced to fight both Protestants and Catholics arrayed against him, and he just didn’t have the wherewithal to pull it off. He was forced to roll back the concessions in the Edict of Beaulieu and Peace of La Rochelle and give the League everything it asked for, including that the king pay its troops. From the Treaty of Nemours in 1585 through the end of 1588, Henry was king in name only. For a short while the Duke of Guise even took Paris, forcing Henry III to flee to the royal palace at Blois in May of 1588.

With his marriage childless, Anjou dead and his presumptive heir now the Protestant Henry, King of Navarre, Henry III had good reason to fear not just for his throne, but for his life. It was the defeat of the Spanish Armada in August of 1588 that weakened the Catholic League and emboldened Henry III. In September, Henry called a meeting of the Estates General at the Château de Blois. In December, he invited the Duke of Guise and his brother Louis II, Cardinal of Guise, to the council chamber. The Duke was directed to join Henry III in the adjoining bed chamber where he was set promptly set upon by Henry’s loyal bodyguards, the Forty-five, who stabbed him to death at the foot of the king’s bed. The next day, the Cardinal of Guise met a similar fate in the castle’s dungeon. Henry’s formidable mother Catherine de’ Medici, horrified at the assassinations, died two weeks later and was buried at Blois since Paris was still held by Guise’s men. (Her body was later moved to St. Denis and would ultimately suffer the fate of all the monarchs of France buried there when in 1793 a revolutionary mob looted the cathedral and threw all the royal remains in an unmarked mass grave.)

This is why the painting of Henry III that embeds him, monarchical ermines and all, praying on the ground with human bones in the center of the apex of Catholic iconography, the Crucifixion, held such interest for the Château de Blois museum. Chief curator Elisabeth Latrémolière, in accordance with standard museum acquisition protocols, sought out expert opinions on the piece. Girault emailed the Louvre’s 16th century art curator and received an immediate response even though it was Sunday. The Louvre sent its people to examine the painting in person, and on October 14th, they verified by comparing it to the sole known pre-loss photograph of the painting taken in 1925 that it was the original work, gone missing more than 70 years ago under mysterious circumstances.

Ader Nordmann immediately withdrew the work as soon as the Louvre experts authenticated it. It was being sold as part of the estate of an elderly woman; nobody had any idea how she had acquired it or what winding road took it from the Louvre to the auction. The painting will be returned to the Louvre posthaste, but Elisabeth Latrémollière hopes the museum will throw them a bone and lend them the portrait for display at the Château de Blois. After all, if it weren’t for the Blois curators, the painting would still be lost, an unknown budget purchase in someone’s private collection.

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Adoration of the Magi cleaning reveals new details

Monday, September 29th, 2014

Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi has been in the hands of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure conservation institute in Florence since November of 2011 after Uffizi Gallery curators determined that the painting’s progressive darkening was becoming an increasingly urgent problem. After a year of preparatory work deploying a wide array of diagnostic technologies — Fourier Transform Infrared spectrometry, X-ray fluorescence, Infrared reflectography, X-Ray imaging, 3D relief for the measurement of micro deformation, Optical Coherence Tomography, chemical analysis, spectrophotometry — to analyze the paint and wood panel, conservators began cleaning the surface a year ago.

The oil on panel painting was commissioned in March 1481 by the Augustinian monks of the monastery of San Donato in Scopeto, but Leonardo, who was then a youth of 29 just starting his career, sought greener pastures with Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, and the next year moved to Milan leaving the Adoration of the Magi incomplete.

The painting on wood, measuring about 2.5 by 2.5 metres (8.2 by 8.2 feet) depicts the three wise men who paid tribute to the infant Jesus in Bethlehem, but it also includes a riot of human figures, battling horses, architectural designs, landscapes and skies.

Done on 10 slabs of wood glued together, it has blank areas, areas with under-drawings, and sections in advanced stages.

“This is perhaps the most quintessential work-in-progress in the history of art,” said Cecilia Frosinini, one of the directors of the ongoing restoration of the work, which is slated to return to Florence’s Uffizi Gallery next year.

“Leonardo never wanted this to be seen by anyone at this stage, probably not even by those who commissioned it, probably not even his assistants. This is the phase in which he was still elaborating in his mind what the final work would look like,” she said, standing in front of the piece.

The monks eventually turned to Filippino Lippi who completed his Adoration of the Magi in 1496, and Leonardo’s piece wound up in the collection of the de Medici family 100 years later. The Medici restorers filled in paint and added layers of clear and brown varnish to give it a more finished, monochromatic look.

In addition to the accumulation of dirt, smoke and pollutants, the Opificio curators had to deal with all those past restorations. The paint and varnishes have changed over the centuries, oxidizing, discoloring, sometimes separating, sometimes adhering to the original surface and blending into it, so conservators had to be very selective in deciding what to remove. The bottom layer of varnish, for example, could be kept as a fixative and a patina, so there was no danger of damaging the original paint. Their goal was not to return the painting to original condition which simply cannot be done, but to restore its readability and brightness in a way that respects the passage of time while ensuring the most authentic and stable possible result.

The cleaning phase is almost done now (about three quarters of the painting has been cleaned) and it has brought to light much of the expressiveness of Leonardo’s faces, color details like the blue of the sky, design elements like the volume of the clothing and figures previously invisible to the naked eye. You can now see builders working on the ancient temple in the left background, and even subtle sketched details. One of the horses on the right has several heads in different positions, while other horses have an extra leg, evidence that Leonardo wasn’t working from a perforated cartoon outline, but rather drawing freehand as he painted.

The cleaning is expected to be finished in 2015, after which the team will turn their attentions to the wood panels. There are four major vertical cracks that need to be fixed to restore structural integrity to the fragile work. The total cost of the four-year process is expected to be €170,000 ($218,000), which will funded by the Friends of the Uffizi Gallery. Once restoration is complete (hopefully by the end of 2015), the Adoration of the Magi will return to the Uffizi Gallery where it will be on display in a special room along with two other works by Leonardo.

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Barcaccia fountain in Piazza di Spagna restored

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014

The restored Barcaccia fountain in Piazza di Spagna, RomeThe Barcaccia fountain at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna reopened to the public Monday after a 10-month restoration. The restoration cost 209,960 euro ($268,000) and was funded entirely by the sale of advertising space on site during eight months of the work. According to Paola Conti, technical director of Technicon, the firm contracted to restore the fountain, the most time-consuming aspect was removing the calcification that in just 15 years since the last restoration had grown up to a centimeter thick. They also had to remove biological organisms that thrive in the wet, light-filled environment. Old plaster from past repairs was replaced and finally the entire structure painted with a protective coating.

The fountain was built between 1627 and 1629 by Pietro Bernini, father of Gian Lorenzo Bernini whose architecture and sculpture would come to define Baroque Rome, in the shape of the low flat-bottomed river boats used to carry cargo across the Tiber in the 17th century. This was a very unusual approach in Mannerist Rome, more sculptural than architectural, a naturalistic, deceptively simple design that symbolized the fruitfulness and plenty of a boat low in the water, laden with bounty. Legend has it that during the devastating flood of Christmas 1598, the high waters, which reached a top mark of 20 meters above sea level, carried a boat all the way to the Piazza di Spagna. When the waters receded, the boat was stranded in the exact spot of the fountain. Ostensibly that’s why Bernini built the fountain in the shape of a boat 30 years later.

Barcaccia before restorationPope Urban VIII commissioned Pietro Bernini to build the fountain as part of a program envisioned by earlier popes that would place fountains in every major piazza in Rome. Urban also wanted to celebrate his restoration of the great Acqua Vergine aqueduct, originally built in 19 B.C. by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Augustus’ son-in-law and right hand man. The pope had appointed the elder Bernini architect of the aqueduct in 1623, so having him build a new fountain to take advantage of the refreshed water source was a fitting bookend.

The Acqua Vergine is unique among Rome’s aqueducts in that it was the only one that continued to work even in the devastated Medieval city through the Renaissance revival of public works. In the 14th century, when almost the entire city population was clustered on the malarial and flood-prone banks of the Tiber because they were bound by the range of the professional water carriers, only rione Trevi, the district at the foot of the Quirinal hill blessed with a fountain fed by the Acqua Vergine, had a significant population relatively distant from the Tiber. That Trevi fountain was not the one you see today with the giant statue of Oceanus guarding ever so many tourist coins. The current fountain was built in 1762. The Medieval one was a modest affair, a rectangle with three basins, enlarged in the 15th century to a wide trough fed by three spouts.

The old Trevi Fountain in "Descrittione di Roma antica e moderna" by Federico Franzini, 1643The aqueduct was regularly maintained and repaired during the heyday of the Western Empire, but even after the Goths sacked the city in 537 A.D., specifically targeting the aqueducts, the Acqua Vergine kept trucking. This is mainly attributable to its nearby source and the predominance of underground tunnels. The water starts as rainfall in the Alban Hills, then filters through volcanic tuff before springing up in a town about eight miles east of Rome called Salone. The aqueduct starts at Salone, so it doesn’t have far to go to get to Rome, and since it was intended to water the lower-lying areas of the city, the pathways stay down low too. It was restored once in the 8th century by Pope Hadrian I and that seems to have kept it going until the 15th century when Pope Nicholas V commissioned a restoration project.

There were always issues, mind you. It needed repair and cleaning on the regular to keep the water flowing, and the city magistrates passed all kinds of laws to keep people from tainting it by bathing their livestock and doing their laundry in the Trevi basin. Then there were all the individuals illegally tapping into the conduit to water their personal homes and gardens. A pope was one of the greatest offenders on that score: Pope Julius III, who swallowed up so much Acqua Vergine for his new home, the Villa Julia (built in 1553) and its elaborate grounds and entrance fountain, that by 1559 the Trevi fountain ran dry. To address the choked supply, in 1570 Pope Pius V had the Acqua Vergine restored all the way back to Salone. Urban VIII’s intervention in 1623 extended the path of the aqueduct to supply the growing city. It was this restoration that brought the water to the location of the current Fountain of Trevi.

Piazza di Spagna; the Keats-Shelley Memorial where Keats died is the buff-colored palazzo to the right of the Spanish StepsThe Barcaccia played a more poignant historical role 200 years later. The poet John Keats lived the last few months of his life in a house on the Spanish Steps. So devastated by tuberculosis that he often cried upon waking to find himself still alive, Keats took comfort from the soothing sound of the Barcaccia’s flowing water. It made him think of a line from the Jacobean play Philaster by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher: “As you are living, all your better deeds / Shall be in water writ.” Inspired by that line, Keats asked that his tombstone be inscribed solely “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” no name, no date. When the tuberculosis finally claimed his life on February 23rd, 1821, his friend and carer Joseph Severn couldn’t quite bring himself to comply with Keats’ final wish. Instead, he took the opportunity to castigate the critics who had never appreciated Keats’ genius in life.

“This Grave / contains all that was Mortal / of a / Young English Poet / Who / on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart / at the Malicious Power of his Enemies / Desired / these Words to be / engraven on his Tomb Stone: / Here lies One / Whose Name was writ in Water. 24 February 1821″

Although the fountain was inaccessible to visitors during the restoration, it and the conservators were visible thanks to an innovative plexiglass enclosure. Seeing is nice, but the Barcaccia is an interactive experience. It was specifically designed for people to drink from. The pure and delicious Acqua Vergine springs from jets at the bow and stern. Travertine platforms at each end of the boat give you a place to stand, albeit a rather damp place, so you can stretch out and quaff mightily from the water’s spouts. At Monday’s inauguration of the pristine fountain, the mayor of Rome Ignazio Marino, culture councillor Giovanna Marinelli and the Capitoline Superintendent Claudio Parisi Presicce were the first to drink from the newly reactivated water. They used a plastic cup, though, which is just wrong, in my opinion. They should have stretched out like the rest of us, sashes and suits be damned. Virgin Water in a plastic cup? I mean really.

You can see the fountain cleaned and the waters turned back on in this Italian news story about Monday’s inauguration:

 

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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 existence 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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