Archive for the ‘Renaissance’ Category

Rialto Bridge fully restored after 425 years

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

The Rialto is by far the oldest and most famous of the four bridges that span the Grand Canal of Venice. Until the 19th century, it was the only bridge across the canal. The first iteration was built out of wood in 1255. The two sides of the bridge inclined upwards towards a central platform that could be removed to allow for the passage of taller ships. It was called the Bridge of Coin then, because of the toll for pedestrian passage. In 1458 shops were added to the sides and it was renamed the Rialto Bridge. With the popular Rialto market on the eastern bank and the bridge being the only non-nautical means to cross to Grand Canal, it had to withstand an enormous amount of traffic. It collapsed twice from the weight of crowds and had to be rebuilt. Another time the crowds viewing the passage of the spectacular 1,500-people-strong cortège of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III in 1468 put so much pressure on the iron railings that they collapsed, dozens of spectators fell into the canal and died.

In the 16th century, Venetian authorities began to explore the possibility of replacing the wooden bridge with a stone bridge. It took almost the whole century to go from concept to execution. In 1551, top architects were invited to submit stone bridge ideas, but none of the submissions were deemed acceptable because they employed multiple Roman-style arches which would be a problem for boat traffic. The great Venetian architect Andrea Palladio envisioned a three-arch bridge topped with a monumental temple-like structure that would have dwarfed the mighty Mississip’. Finally architect and engineer Antonio da Ponte designed a single-span stone bridge very similar in shape, elevation and structure to the wooden bridge. Construction began in 1588 and was completed in 1591.

Legend has it that Antonio da Ponte paid dearly for having created an icon of La Serenissima. When the bridge was almost done, the Devil himself approached the architect and demanded an offering of the first soul to cross the bridge. If da Ponte refused, Satan would forever prevent the completion of the Rialto Bridge. Unable to refuse, he tried to outsmart the Devil, arranging for a rooster to be the first living being to cross the bridge. The Devil was furious. He promised to punish the architect dearly, and so he did. In disguise, he went to da Ponte’s house and told his pregnant wife that her husband was waiting for her on the other side of the bridge. She ran across and unwittingly doomed the life she was carrying. The baby was stillborn. For years the baby’s spirit was said to haunt the Rialto until a kindly gondolier finally helped him rest in peace.

The bridge’s design caused some consternation at the time. Without arches, the full weight of the structure was shouldered entirely by the two pylons and foundations and each end. There were grave doubts among some architects, most notably Vincenzo Scamozzi, that the heavy stone bridge could stand without additional supports. And yet, it stood. Over the centuries it was repeatedly altered and repaired. The first major restoration was in 1740, but it stipulated that the arch itself could not be touched. The repairs focused on the stairs, balustrade, colonnade and paving tiles. Later restorations took a similar tack, fixing the peripherals — steps, drainage issues, shops.

More than 400 years would pass before the Rialto Bridge got a thorough top-to-bottom restoration. That’s a good thing from a historical preservation perspective, because it leaves conservators with a great deal of original material and limits the damage inflicted by well-intentioned but overly invasive interventions.

The restoration project started in 2011 with an extensive nine-phase preliminary investigation of the bridge: 1) a historical survey analyzing all the different phases of construction and repair over the centuries, 2) a photogrammetric and laser scanning survey of the bridge surface to gather precise measurements, 3) geotechnical drilling into the soil of the bridge foundations, 4) underwater inspection of the foundations, 5) archaeological analysis of the foundation coring samples, 6) monitoring a year’s worth of geological stresses and shifts, 7) a structural survey of the bridge, 8) research and analysis of the bridge’s petrographic materials and state of conservation or decay, and 9) identification of underground utilities.

Armed with reams of hard data, conservators began the hands-on part in May of 2015.

The restoration has systemically treated all of the bridge’s structural elements for the first time in more than 400 years. A team of 25 conservators dismantled the sandstone paving on the central steps and the two exterior ramps for cleaning, while workers relaid the telephone, gas and electric cables powering the bridge’s 24 shops. They strengthened the walls of the arcades and added a further layer of waterproof insulation, as well as new internal sheets to the 700 sq. m of lead sheets covering the roofs.

To protect the northern and southern balustrades from the lagoon’s brackish waters, as well as the thousands of tourists who walk across it each year, the banisters were reinforced using carbon-fibre bandages and duplex stainless steel brackets that resist corrosion. The 364 columns, which presented fractures on their capitals and bases, were also reset in molten lead and some of the cornerstones were completely replaced.

This was all done piecemeal so the bridge was never closed to visitors. Unsightly scaffolding was the worst of it. Shocking everyone who has ever had needed any construction done in Italy, the restoration finished on time (but not on budget, of course) and reusing 99% of the bridge’s materials. The remaining 1% requiring replacement was mostly paving.

The scaffolding is down now, but the official opening will take place in May at the Venice Biennale.

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Massacre of drinking cups at a 15th c. party

Monday, January 9th, 2017

Single-use paper or plastic cups are products of modern consumer culture, cheap, convenient, plentiful and easily discarded. You never have to worry about cleaning them or potential damage to wedding registry china or beloved “#1 Dad” mugs. In the 15th century there were no red Solo cups to fill at the keg line, but that didn’t mean some people couldn’t enjoy the convenience of not having to clean their drinkware or worry that a vessel might slip through drunken fingers to its untimely demise. They just had to be rich and like to show it.

Wittenberg castle, historic residence of the Electors of Saxony, has been undergoing an archaeological excavation since November in advance of the installation of a new sewage pipeline. The team has unearthed the remains of a ring wall encircling the castle site and courtyard pavers from the first castle built by the House of Ascania which ruled the Electorate of Saxony until the branch of the family died out in 1422. After that, the Duchy of Saxony passed to the House of Wettin. The third Elector from the Wettin dynasty, Frederick III, built the current castle on the site of the old Ascanian castle in 1480.

Multi-colored oven tiles decorated with secular and Biblical motifs found during the excavation date to Frederick’s time. They are very rare surviving examples of the original fixtures of the electoral castle. Ovens with such fancy tiles were hugely expensive, the kind of equipment found only in the grand homes of high-ranking aristocrats and ecclesiastical authorities. Martin Luther, who in 1517 famously nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church Frederick had built, was known to have owned one of these luxury tiled ovens. It had to have been a gift from someone very wealthy and powerful.

But it’s the fragments from thousands of porcelain cups found in the castle courtyard that captures the 15th century Electors of Saxony’s version of conspicuous consumption. The cups all date to the 15th century. They are decorated in a variety of patterns, styles and colors. Some have elaborate scrollwork or masks, some are smooth. There are fragments of bright green and yellow, and in neutral shades of brown, grey and ochre red. Except for having been smashed to bits, they are brand new. Archaeologists believe they were used only one time. Once the beverage was quaffed, the imbiber tossed his cup was over his shoulder. It shattered on the courtyard floor and servants quickly supplied the guest with a new filled cup.

“We found entire layers of cups and animal bones. They ate a lot of wild meat, especially venison,” Holger Rode, the archaeologist in charge of the dig in the castle’s courtyard in Wittenberg, told German news service dpa. “The parties took place in the summer here in the courtyard. The cups were simply thrown away. That’s equivalent to paper cups today.”

Except that porcelain mugs decorated with roll stamps and mask designs likely provided a more luxurious drinking experience. Disposable dishes were a sign of great wealth at the time and only the nobility used them at the castle.

This massive porcelain cup graveyard is unique to the castle site. Nothing like it has been found in the city of Wittenberg itself. In fact, very few individual cups from this period have been found at all, nevermind broken to pieces in huge quantities. Archaeologists think large numbers of cups were made to order before each feast to supply guests with single-use porcelain to showcase the host’s devil-may-care wealth.

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Tudor Christmas Cookalong

Saturday, December 24th, 2016

Looking for last minute holiday feast ideas? Historic Royal Palaces has some suggestions from the Tudors whose feasting prowess was legendary. They’ve posted two Tudor Christmas Cookalong videos hosted by food historian Robin Mitchener who is part of the crack team in the Hampton Court Palace kitchens that recreate period foods for the visitors to the palace.

The first video in the series is for a dish called Sauge made from leftover white meat, so maybe more of a post-Christmas dish unless you still have turkey in the freezer from Thanksgiving. It’s like a combination of chicken and egg salad, only without mayonnaise or oil. The yolks get mashed up in a monster marble mortar and pestle with spices, herbs and vinegar, though, so it does get somewhat creamed. Please note around the 2:40 mark how slickly Robin Mitchener deploys his blade.

Next is Cormarye, a marinated pork loin dish that looks legitimately delicious. In Tudor times the entire loin was roasted on a spit in one of the ginormous Hampton Court fireplaces, but the food historian has modified it to use readily available and easily pan-cooked loin steaks.

The whole YouTube channel is a treasury of cooking videos. This one from six years ago offers a Tudor-style alternative to the traditional Christmas mince pie. It’s called Ryschewys close and fryez (watch the video to learn how to pronounce it) and is a pasta parcel filled with fruits and nut paste and fried.

This one isn’t Christmas themed per se. It’s a savory cheese pie filled with all the rich dairy you’re not supposed to eat at Lent, hence the name Tartes owt of Lente. I’m sure it’s very tasty and looks relatively simple to prepare, but the key part of the video as far as I’m concerned is the unimpeded view of Robin whipping out his trusty scimitar from his hip holster. Watch out cowboys; we history nerds are coming for you.

Merry Christmahannakwanzika, all!

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Secrets of 16th c. boxwood miniatures revealed

Thursday, December 22nd, 2016

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), in collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Rijksmuseum, is hosting a groundbreaking exhibition that explores the mysterious beauty of 16th century miniature boxwood carvings. The AGO is home to the Thomson Collection of European Art which includes 12 boxwood carvings (10 prayer beads and two altarpieces), the largest collection in one place. There are only 135 known miniature boxwood carvings known to survive, so the AGO has almost 10 percent of the world’s total. Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures brings together the Thomson Collection pieces with another 50 loaned by other museums and private collections.

The miniature boxwood carvings were made during a very brief window, between 1500 and 1530, in Flanders or the Netherlands. It’s possible that only a single workshop, perhaps two, carved them all. The rise of a new moneyed merchant class with money to spend on expensive and showy objects created a market for high-end, portable religious carvings. Come the Reformation, rosaries, altarpieces and beads would go most decidedly out of fashion in Northern Europe and the window shut.

The prayer beads, also known as prayer nuts because their exteriors resemble a very symmetrical walnut shell, were devotional objects worn on a belt or on the end of rosary. About the size of golf balls, the beads open to reveal intricate, deeply layered Biblical scenes and inscriptions from the Vulgate. Their rich imagery and detail were meant to inspire contemplation and prayer. They had the ancillary benefit of being a religiously correct way to show off one’s wealth. A dense wood like boxwood holds its shape well and gives carvers the opportunity to create tiny details, but it also takes a huge amount of work and time. That makes it expensive. Features like copper or silver cases, often themselves engraved with elaborate scenes, added to the display of riches.

The space the carvers had to work in was so small and the wood so hard, that it seems almost impossible they were able to achieve such complex scenes, many with dozens of figures, human, heavenly and demonic, architectural elements, trees, symbols, all in the space of a single inch. They used specialized tools two inches long to dig deep into the wood, creating tiers of characters and landscape.

How exactly the craftsmen were able to create these elaborate compositions has been a mystery for 500 years. They must have used magnification because you can’t see how they’re put together with the naked eye. The curators and conservators of the AGO, Met and Rijksmuseum sought to break new ground in the study of the miniature marvels. X-rays weren’t enough to show how the sausage was made because the parts were too tiny. The AGO experts turned to micro-CT scanning to find the answers. The beads were carved from one piece of boxwood. The layers of the scene were carved in sections and then the discs set into the sphere with boxwood pins smaller than a seed of grass. The overlapping discs added depth and complexity to the miniatures.

Some of the carvings in the exhibition have never been seen before in North America. One of the ones making its North American debut in Toronto is the Chatsworth Rosary (ca. 1509–1526), an astounding masterwork of miniature carving which was originally owned by King Henry VIII and his devout Catholic wife Catherine of Aragon. The eleven beads are each carved on all sides with prompts for prayers, and the largest bead features Henry and Catherine at mass barely visible behind a pillar. It may have been a wedding present, and it seems Catherine kept it in the divorce. All for the best given that Henry outlawed rosaries in 1534.

The exhibition runs at the AGO through January 22nd, 2017. It opens at the Met Cloisters on February 21st, 2017, and moves to its last stop, the Rijksmuseum on June 15th, 2017. If you can’t make it to the shows, or even if you can but want to have your mind blown by the details in these pieces, the AGO has created a dedicated page with the whole collection available to peruse in extreme closeup. The zoom tool gives you an amazing view of every last nook and cranny. If that isn’t enough to slake your thirst, check out the wonderful videos below from the AGO.

Deciphering how the miniatures were made:

Micro CT scan of prayer bead:

3D Animation compiled from the Micro CT scans of the St. Jerome Boxwood Prayer Bead:

3D Animation of the Last Judgement Prayer Bead:

3D Animation of the Adoration of the Magi Altarpiece:

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V&A acquires watercolor of Henry VIII’s lost Nonsuch Palace

Saturday, December 10th, 2016


The Victoria and Albert museum has acquired a unique watercolor of Nonsuch Palace painted from life by Flemish artist Joris Hoefnagel. He signed and dated it 1568, which makes it the earliest surviving depiction of the grand palace and one of the earliest surviving English landscape watercolors. Only six contemporary depictions of Nonsuch are known, and this one is the most detailed and accurate. They are all the more precious because the palace was destroyed 150 years after it was built. The watercolor was sold at auction to a foreign buyer, but a temporary export ban gave British institutions the change to keep this rare glimpse into a lost Renaissance architectural masterpiece. The price tag was a steep £1 million ($1,257,450). The V&A was able to raise the money with help from grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) and the Art Fund.

Construction on the palace began in April of 1538, six months after the birth of Henry VIII’s obsessively desired son and heir, Edward. Unlike his other 13 palaces around London, this one was built from scratch, not an addition to a previous structure. Henry picked the location near Ewell in Surrey because it was next to his favorite hunting grounds. The fact that a village and church stood there was no deterrent. He paid compensation and demolished the structures to make room for a great Franco-Italianate palace whose splendour would outdo any other monarch’s (especially Henry’s archrival Francis I of France) grandest residence.

Covered in hundreds of elaborate stucco high reliefs bordered with carved and gilded slate, the palace was dubbed Nonsuch because it was sui generis, one of a kind. There was no other such palace in Europe. The reliefs in the inner courtyard depicted figures from Classical mythology and history. They were organized in three levels. On the top were Roman emperors, in the middle gods and goddesses, and on the bottom the Labours of Hercules on the west side of the courtyard and the Liberal Arts and Virtues on the east. On the south side was a relief of Henry VIII with his son Edward, a celebration of the Tudor dynasty as the culmination (at least in the king’s mind), of all those emperors, deities and muses.

The palace was unfinished when Henry VIII died in 1547 (all the important bits were done and it was entirely livable). Queen Mary I sold the palace to Henry Fitzalan, 12th Earl of Arundel, in 1557 and he finally finished it. He’s the one who probably commissioned Joris Hoefnagel to paint the palace. Nonsuch returned to the crown in 1592, purchased by Elizabeth I who loved it and used it extensively. It remained a royal property until the Civil War. After the execution of Charles I in 1649, it was confiscated along with the rest of the crown’s property and sold.

With the restoration of the monarch in 1660, Nonsuch was returned to the crown. Charles II had little interest in the Renaissance masterpiece, and 10 years later he deeded it to his mistress, the tempestuous and profligate Barbara Palmer, 1st Duchess of Cleveland and Countess of Castlemaine. In 1682, Barbara took it upon herself to demolish the palace and sell it off piecemeal to pay off her enormous gambling debts. It took years to take the whole thing apart, at least until 1688. As late as 1702, one of the turreted gate houses still stood.

Just to give you an idea of high on the “because people are crazy” scale the Duchess of Cleveland was, she didn’t even sell the stucco panels! They were busted up to bits and an estimated 100,000 fragments carted off somewhere. The first archaeological exploration of the site of the demolished palace in 1959 recovered more than 1,500 fragments with visible decoration and many more plain stucco fragments. Out of all those fragments a single panel was able to be partially reconstructed, that of a Roman soldier sitting next to his shield (now in the Museum of London). You can actually see a soldier and his shield on Hoefnagel’s watercolor, and it is located just above the spot where the fragments were discovered. This is a perfect example of why this one watercolor is so historically and culturally significant.

Mark Evans, Senior Curator of Word and Image at the V&A, said: “Painted in 1568 by the last of the great Flemish illuminators and a foremost topographical artist of the day, this is a rare and beautiful work of outstanding importance. Among the earliest surviving English landscape watercolours, it brings to life one of the greatest monuments of the English Renaissance, now lost to us. We are delighted to acquire a picture of such quality and historical importance for our visitors to enjoy.”

The Joris Hoefnagel watercolor of Nonsuch Palace is now on display in the V&A’a British Galleries.

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Curtain Theatre stage, secret passageway revealed

Sunday, November 13th, 2016

The remains of the Curtain Theatre, the Elizabethan playhouse in Shoreditch, north London, where Shakespeare’s Henry V and Romeo and Juliet were first staged, were first discovered by Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) in October 2011 during an exploratory excavation in advance of developement. Built in 1577, the Curtain was the second purpose-built public playhouse in London (The Theatre was the first), and the main staging venue for the plays of Shakespeare between 1597 and 1599. After that it was supplanted by the famous Globe Theatre, and the last recorded play at the Curtain was performed in 1622. Over time the exact location was lost until the MOLA team found it on (or rather under) Hewett Street.

The Curtain was believed to have been dismantled during the Commonwealth — Puritans weren’t keen on the rowdy entertainments of the public theater — but a much wider open-area excavation this year has found that in fact the theater was likely repurposed into a tenement. That has proven a great archaeological boon, because while all that remains today of the Globe and the Rose, two theaters on the South Bank famed for having staged Shakespeare’s plays, are bits and bobs of stonework from the foundations, there’s enough the Curtain left to paint a rich picture of the Elizabeth playhouse, and much of what they’ve found has entirely upended expectations.

Historians previously thought the Curtain was a polygonal structure with a thrust stage, like the more famous theaters that followed it. Archaeologists discovered that in fact it was rectangular building with a rectangular stage. The stage was 14 meters (46 feet) long and five meters (16 feet) deep, a very unusual proportion that may have made it possible to field larger numbers of players for Shakespeare’s busy battle scenes. That means that the prologue of Henry V, which alludes to the theater as a “wooden O,” must have been written after the play’s premier at the Curtain, perhaps for later performances at the Globe. Under the stage archaeologists found the remains of a tunnel that was accessed by doors on either side of the stage. Actors would have used it to exit from one side of the stage and enter from the other side out of view of the audience.

There are remains of brick walls, 1.5 meters (4’9″) at the highest, and even part of the sloping yard made of compacted gravel where the people with the cheapest tickets, known as groundlings, stood in front of the stage. Between the standing room and the more expensive seats in three sides of timber galleries, the theater could accomodate 1,200 people.

Archaeologists have found artifacts like clay pipes, wine bottles, glass beads, a comb, and one tiny broken piece of clay that looks like an egg cup but is the bottom of a bird call, perhaps used for sound effects in plays like Romeo and Juliet where the song a bird interrupts the lovers in their marriage bed. They’ve also found a group of green glazed knobs and a few sherds from money boxes.

Throughout findings, we’ve also been able to tell that The Curtain Theatre is one of earliest Elizabethan playhouses where people actually paid money to see performances and be entertained. We know this because fragments of ceramic money boxes have been found. These fragments are a really exciting find because the pots would have been used to collect the entry fees from theatregoers and then been taken to an office to be smashed and the money counted. This office was known as the ‘box office’, which is actually the origin of the term we still use today!

The Curtain Theatre has been covered now with sand and a protective membrane to keep it secure while the mixed-use development of retail, office space, homes, a park and a performance area is built around it. The new development will be called The Stage, appropriately enough, and has been redesigned in light of the discovery to display the archaeological remains of the Curtain in the new cultural and visitors center.

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Vasari’s Last Supper restored after 50 years

Saturday, November 5th, 2016

It’s been exactly 50 years since the Arno river in Florence broke its banks and flooded the historic city with 22 feet of toxic sludge. Some of the greatest art in the world, 14,000 artworks and books, were lost forever. Many thousands more pieces of Florence’s immense cultural patrimony spent a day soaked in a dangerous, volatile and destructive mixture of water, mud, gas, sewage and naphtha forced out of underground home fuel tanks by the 40-mile-an-hour floodwaters.

One of the worst hit was the monumental 21-by-8-feet panel painting The Last Supper made in 1546 by painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari. Kept in the Basilica of Santa Croce which is a few blocks from the Arno and at a lower elevation than much of the rest of the city, The Last Supper was completely submerged in filth for more than 12 hours. When the waters receded, they literally pulled the paint and gesso underlay off the five poplar panels which were now the consistency of a sponge.

The Mud Angels, volunteers who flocked to Florence to do everything they could to save its mortally wounded art, waded through the sludge scooping up any tiny fragment of paint they could find. Art conservator Marco Grassi, carpenter Ciro Castelli and others worked together to salvage the moribund panel paining. They affixed sheets of Japanese mulberry paper to the surface with methacrylate resin to keep the blistered and peeling paint from coming off. The painting was then taken apart and its five component panels laid out flat on racks in the conservatory of a lemon orchard. The relatively humid environment, it was hoped, would allow the panels to dry slowly and minimize cracking and warping. It was the best they could do at the time, but the panels dried hard anyway. They lost two centimeters in width and developed cracks. The gesso primer dried poorly too, becoming unstable and crumbly.

The technology to repair the overwhelming amount of damage simply did not exist in 1966. It wouldn’t exist for another 40+ years. The breakthrough happened in 2010, when the Getty Foundation gave a $400,000 grant to the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, the stone mosaic workshop founded in the 16th century which has become one of the world’s leading art restoration institutes, to bring The Last Supper back from the dead and enlist the great expertise and experience of retired or retiring panel-painting conservators to train a new generation.

It was backbreaking labour. Removing the mulberry paper proved a devilish task, with swaths of paint, detached from the brittle gesso layer, coming off with the paper. Fixing the panels themselves was an immense challenge as well. They had to be enlarged to their original size in order to put the curled and lifted paint back into place. Ciro Castelli devised an ingenious method to resolve that conundrum. He cut tiny slits in the back and filled them and the original dowel tracks with jigsaw puzzles of poplar wood filler. This precision system stretched the panels and will also help preserve them going forward since it gives them room to expand and contract naturally.

In 2013, the five panels were put back together for the first time since 1966. In 2014, fashion house Prada donated a big chunk of change for the last phase of restoration. With this extra boost, restorers hoped they’d be able to complete their work in time for the 50th anniversary of the flood and they succeeded. On November 4th, 2016, Giorgio Vasari’s The Last Supper went back on display at the Museo dell’Opera in the old refectory of Santa Croce.

There’s a wonderful article on the flood and restoration of the Vasari painting in The New York Times by Paula Deitz, who was in Florence on the day of the flood November 4th, 1966, in which Marco Grassi talks about his how they worked to save The Last Supper.

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Six paintings by Hercules Segers found in private collections

Wednesday, September 21st, 2016

Hercules Segers (ca. 1589 – ca. 1638) is not widely known today, but he had an enormous influence on far more famous artists of the Dutch Golden Age and the rediscovery of his works in the 19th century played a major role in the development of the modern graphic arts. Very little is known about his life. He lived and worked in comparative obscurity, experimenting with print media in a way that had never been done before and wouldn’t be done again for 400 years.

After his death, apparently from falling down the stairs while drunk, his innovative work became highly sought after, particularly by fellow artists. It was his innovative approach to printmaking that made his name. Even to contemporary eyes, his prints are incredibly fresh: moody imaginary landscapes, each print unique thanks to his constant experimentation with colored inks, tints, colored paper, cloth, textures and cropping.

There are only 183 Segers prints made from 54 plates known to survive, each of them unique. A print by Rembrandt van Rijn is actually by Hercules Segers too. Rembrandt was an avid fan and collector of Segers’ art, and reworked one of Segers’ copper plates, Tobias and the Angel, into his Flight into Egypt, keeping the landscape unchanged but altering the human figures. Rembrandt also collected Segers’ paintings, owning at least eight of them. Considering that only 12 Segers paintings were known to have survived into our time, that’s an impressive proportion.

Now that number has been expanded by 50% because researchers at the Rijksmuseum have authenticated another six paintings by Hercules Segers, all of them held in private collections. A team of specialists spent two years studying about 100 disputed or possible Segers paintings and prints for an upcoming exhibition, discovering works never before displayed to the public and confirming the authenticity of works that have been deemed doubtful at best for decades. They enlisted the latest and greatest technology in their pursuit, including infrared reflectography, X-ray fluorescence, ultraviolet photography and dendrochronological analysis on the wood panel paintings.

The three paintings, Woodland Path, Panoramic Landscape with a Town on a River and Panoramic Landscape with Two Towers, all owned privately, have never been seen before. The Mountain Landscape from Hovingham Hall in England was last shown almost fifty years ago. Alongside the four works by Segers, there are two other paintings from private collections that have long been considered doubtful but may now also be definitively added to Segers’ oeuvre. They are the River Landscape with Figures and River Landscape with a Mill. Two new prints by the artist have also been found.

The team’s extensive art historical and technical research also revealed new information about Segers’ work and materials. For instance, they found that Segers used painter’s materials in his etchings, using oil paints to make the prints. He used different paper, textiles and paints for every impression, which is why they’re all so different from each other. Hercules Segers was, researchers discovered, the first European artist to use paper from east Asia, beating Rembrandt to the punch by 20 years.

The Rijksmuseum’s research will bear fruit in an unprecedented retrospective bringing together almost all of Hercules Segers’ works. All 18 of his extant paintings and 110 of his prints will be on display at the museum from October 7th, 2016, until January 8th, 2017. At the same time, the Rembrandt House Museum will put on an exhibition, Under the Spell of Hercules Segers, about the influence of Hercules Segers on Rembrandt and other Golden Age Dutch artists, as well as his influence on graphic artists in the 20th century. After it closes at the Rijksmuseum, the Hercules Segers exhibition will then travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City where it will open on February 13th as The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers.

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Mary Rose remains and artifacts in stunning 3D

Tuesday, September 6th, 2016

I love a good 3D scan of historical and archeological materials. Be it the Apollo 11 command module, Revolutionary War-era gunboat, Anglo-Saxon stones, Pictish stones, Chinese oracle bones, a king’s grave, or a centenarian ham and peanut, I have spent untold hours turning, zooming and flipping 3D models. So when I say that the recently uploaded 3D scans of one skull and nine artifacts from the Tudor warship the Mary Rose are the best I’ve ever seen, that’s saying something.

It’s been a banner year for the Mary Rose, the flagship of Henry VIII’s navy which sank off the coast of Portsmouth on July 19th, 1545, and whose intact hull still containing the remains of the crew and 19,000 artifacts was raised from the Solent in 1982. This summer, after more than three decades of constant conservation, the stabilized ship was displayed to the public in all its glory in an extensively renovated exhibition hall of the Mary Rose Museum. The museum opened in 2013, but because the ship was still being renovated, it was partially obscured by an intricate network of pipes, sprayers, sheets of glass and scaffolding. Now it can be viewed from three balconies and wall to ceiling windows that give visitors the chance to observe the hull from multiple angles.

The new Mary Rose exhibition humanizes the vast archaeological treasure of the ship by featuring the stories of members of the crew whose remains and/or belongings were discovered on the ship. While their names are unknown, their roles could be deduced by the locations in which they were found (the cook in the galley, the Master Gunner near a gun on the deck), from osteological analysis (the longbow archers suffered from a shoulder blade condition still found in archers today), or from their stuff (the purser had a chest full of coins, the carpenter had his tools).

Yesterday the Mary Rose Museum launched a new website, Virtual Tudors, which focuses on one of those featured crewmen, the carpenter, and the artifacts found with him. He was in his mid-to-late 30s when he went down with the Mary Rose. He was a strong, well-muscled man 5’7″ tall who suffered from arthritis in his spine, ribs and left collar bone. He also had terrible teeth with extensive plaque build up and an abscess in his upper jaw so severe and painful that he could only have been able to chew on the right side of his mouth. Nearby were found a leather shoe (one of nearly 300 shoes found on board), an oak grooving plane (one of 22 found), a poplar whetstone holder and more.

The website is a collaboration of the Mary Rose Trust, Swansea University and Oxford University. For the general public, the skull of the carpenter, the shoe, plane, whetstone holder, plus two knife handles, two carved panels, a wooden spoon, a wooden mirror, and a section of the ship’s rigging have been 3D scanned and uploaded to the site. For the skull alone, 120 high resolution pictures were taken with a 39-megapixel camera. They were then stitched together to create a 15-megapixel 3D model. The level of detail is unbelievable. I must have stared at the rope from the rigging for a solid 30 minutes at the most extreme zoom, and I’ve barely started.

The digitization team is hoping that this project will have research advantages as well. Besides the publically viewable models, another 9 skulls have been scanned exclusively for examination by osteologists all over the world.

Each participant will be given a questionnaire to see what their assessment is of the skulls, which the UK team will then compare.
If the results are good, Dr Johnston said, they might help tackle scepticism from some in the field who insist that physically interacting with specimens is essential.

“Do you really need to hold the skull, or can you tell a lot from the digital one? There’s the potential to speed up science dramatically – but this needs to happen first.”

Because the pool of expertise can be much wider once resources like these are online, there is also the possibility that a new discovery will emerge.

“It might be that somebody in, I don’t know, Arizona, has a particular speciality and they say, ‘Do you realise that this person here has such-and-such a condition?’ It’d be very nice if that happened,” said Swansea biomechanist Nick Owen, who has previously studied the skeletons of archers from the Mary Rose.

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Chandos portrait cleaning may reveal the Bard’s true visage

Monday, September 5th, 2016

There are no confirmed portraits of William Shakespeare. Most of them were painted years after his death and there is little reason to believe they accurately reproduce the playwright’s features. The one with the best shot is the Chandos portrait. Painted between 1600 and 1610, a time when author portraits were increasingly popular among the moneyed literati, the Chandos portrait is not only the only extant portrait to have been painted during Shakespeare’s lifetime, but it has also been widely believed to be a portrait of the Bard since the mid-17th century when there were still people living who had known Shakespeare. None of the other contenders have so long a pedigree. It was hanging in Duke’s Theatre in London as a portrait of Shakespeare in the 1660s.

Its early history has come down to us from engraver and antiquarian George Vertue who filled 40 notebooks with his observations on art and artists of the time. Those notebooks, purchased after Vertue’s death by Horace Walpole who used them as the primary source for his five-volume Anecdotes of Painting in England, include a passage written in 1719 about the painting that would become known as the Chandos portrait.

Mr. Betterton told Mr. Keck several times that the Picture of Shakespeare he had, was painted by one John Taylor/a Player, who acted for Shakespear and this John Taylor in his will left it to Sr Willm Davenant. & at the death of Sir Will Davenant — Mr Betterton bought it, & at his death Mr. Keck bought it in whose poss. it now is.

It’s hard to know how accurate this information is. Vertue had to rely on the recollections of Robert Keck, the owner of the portrait in 1719, and there is no independently verifiable source on the mysterious actor John Taylor who purportedly painted his boss. He doesn’t appear on any surviving records of Even if the ownership history is correct, there is no proof that the sitter was William Shakespeare instead of somebody else. John Taylor could have acted in Shakespeare’s company and painted other people.

The portrait was inherited by Keck descendants until 1789 when one of them married James Brydges, 3rd Duke Chandos, who gave the painting its moniker. It remained in the Chandos line until 1848 when it was purchased by Francis Egerton, 1st Earl of Ellesmere, who donated it to the newly formed National Portrait Gallery in 1856. It was the first painting in the museum’s collection, hence its vanity plate-like inventory number of NPG 1.

By then, the portrait was viewed with suspicion by literary critics. Shakespearean scholar George Steevens said of a copy of the Chandos portrait that “our author exhibits the complexion of a Jew, or rather that of a chimney-sweeper in the jaundice.” Essayist James Hain Friswell cast doubt the sitter’s identity in similar racist terms. His argument amounted to that Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have looked like a dirty foreigner.

“One cannot readily imagine our essentially English Shakespeare to have been a dark, heavy man, with a foreign expression, of decidedly Jewish physiognomy, thin curly hair, a somewhat lubricious mouth, red-edged eyes, wanton lips, with a coarse expression and his ears tricked out with earrings.”

The difficulty in the identification of the sitter is compounded by the portrait’s extensive damage over the centuries. It was cleaned with excessive vigour, thinning the paint layers, and is coated in cracked and discolored varnish. Extensive retouching has materially altered the image, lengthening the hair and beard.

Now the NPG is seriously considering cleaning and restoring the portrait for the first time since it darkened the museum’s doorway. Outside specialists have recommended conservation, but the National Portrait Gallery’s trustees will make the final decision on whether to go forward next year.

The Chandos portrait has had no significant conservation treatment since its arrival at the gallery. A decision on cleaning has not yet been made but the work would involve the removal of discoloured varnish. The challenge for conservators will be to determine how much of the later additions to remove.

Most exciting, however, is the prospect that conservation work might provide further clues to determine whether the sitter is indeed the great dramatist—and how different the face was originally from what we see with the portrait’s present condition.

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