Archive for the ‘Renaissance’ Category

Lost Guercino found by Sopranos actor on display in US

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

A long-lost painting of Saint Sebastian by 17th century Baroque master Guercino that was found by actor Federico Castelluccio, aka mobster Furio Giunta on The Sopranos, is going on display in the United States for the first time. Its exhibition at the Princeton University Art Museum is only the second time the painting has been on display since its rediscovery. It made its world debut at an exhibition dedicated to depictions of Saint Sebastian at the Castello di Miradolo museum in Turin last October. Guercino’s work scored top billing over the likes of Titian and Rubens as the cover picture of the show.

Castelluccio, who in addition to his acting credits is also an accomplished realist painter in his own right and a collector of Renaissance and Baroque Italian paintings, found this masterpiece the way they’re found in art nerd fairy tales. He was driving through Frankfurt in 2010 when a window filled with paintings caught his eye. It was the Dobritz auction house, a small local shop crammed with works scheduled to be sold at an auction in two weeks. In a stack of paintings on the staircase to the second floor of the shop, Castelluccio saw the Guercino. It immediately leapt out at him as the work of the Baroque master, the fine chiaroscuro belying the auction house manager’s lackluster description of the piece as “an 18th-century Italian holy painting of Saint Sebastian.”

It was estimated to sell for between 1,000 and 1,500 Euros ($1,100 – 1,657), which obviously Castelluccio was more than glad to pay on the spot, but the manager insisted that he attend the auction and bid for it like anyone else. When the actor actually showed up, flying back to Frankfurt from his home in New York specifically to bid on that Saint Sebastian, the manager got an inkling that they might have something a little more interesting than some anonymous 18th century holy painting. Someone else apparently had a similar inkling, because Castelluccio wound up in a duel with a phone bidder that drove the final hammer price up to 49,000 Euros ($54,000). Castelluccio and his business partner put in the winning bid.

Then came the hard work. Castelluccio instinctively believed the painting was an authentic Guercino, not the work of his studio or a later reproduction, but one man’s good taste is not an accepted authentication standard. First the painting was cleaned, conserved and suitably framed. This painstaking process took years during which Castelluccio did assiduous research on the painting’s history. Art historians and leading Guercino experts David Stone of the University of Delaware and Nicholas Turner, the former curator of drawings at the J. Paul Getty Museum, were enlisted to thoroughly examine the work. They used X-rays, infrared reflectography and chemical pigment testing to determine the painting’s age and to compare its bones to those of known works by Guercino. They authenticated it as painted by Guercino’s hand around 1632-34.

There are only two other life-size, three-quarter view Saint Sebastians by Guercino known: a 1641 version now in the Moscow’s Pushkin Museum and one in the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico. The newly rediscovered one is the earliest of the three. While Castelluccio and his partner wound up spending about $140,000 total in acquiring, conserving, testing and researching the painting, if they were to sell it now it would certainly make millions. A King David by Guercino sold at Christie’s in London for close to $8 million (including buyer’s premium) and that was in 2010. The Christ and the Woman of Samaria bought privately by the Kimbell Art Museum that same year is thought to have gone for more than $10 million.

He and the co-owner may eventually sell the portrait, [Castelluccio] said, ideally to a prestigious institution.

A few of its previous owners have been identified, including the German countess Maria von Maltzan, a Resistance fighter during World War II who hid Jews and other escapees from the Nazis.

Once the painting was authenticated, art dealer Robert Simon, to whom Castelluccio had shown the work before it was cleaned, arranged for its loan to the Castello di Miradolo where Guercino’s Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian was seen in the public again after 350 years in obscurity. Castelluccio got it back after the exhibition closed in March and then Princeton reached out to him to see if he’d be amenable to a more local exhibition. He was and now the painting is on display at the Princeton University Art Museum as a special installation until January of 2016.

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500-year-old teratoma found in Peru skeleton

Sunday, June 28th, 2015

Oh, and it’s a good one, too. (By good I mean super gross.) Teratomas, for those of you not as repulsed/fascinated by them as I am, are benign tumors in which germ cells gone awry grow random body parts like teeth, hair, bone and soft tissue like muscle, thyroid and skin. They usually set up shop in ovaries or, more rarely, testicles because that’s where germ cells are supposed to be going about the business of making sperm and eggs during embryonic development, and often go undetected for their host’s entire life. While not uncommon, teratomas make the news because of how creepy they are — they’re not absorbed “evil” twins, no matter what the headlines might say — and how infrequently they’re found.

Teratomas are even rarer in the archaeological record. An encapsulated calcified teratoma was found in the remains of late Roman-era woman from the early 5th century unearthed from a necropolis in La Fogonussa, Spain, in 2010. Before that specimen was published, only one other example was known, found inside the skeleton of a Roman woman unearthed in 1999-2000 from a slave necropolis attached to an aristocratic villa just outside of Rome (pdf of the paper in French here). Now we can add a third to this very elite list: an ovarian teratoma discovered inside the abdominal cavity of a girl unearthed from the Colonial-era cemetery in Eten, Lambayeque Region, on the northwest coast of Peru.

Archaeologists from the Lambayeque Valley Biohistory Project (LVBP), a multidisciplinary international program founded in 2003 that studies skeletal remains on the desert north coast of Peru for what they reveal about the 10,000-year history of human settlement in the area, excavated the ruins of Eten between 2009 and 2011. The skeleton of the young woman was found in the cemetery of the Chapel of the Divino Niño Serranito de Eten, one of 500 Colonial Period burials in the chapel cemetery. Eten had been a small fishing village before the Spanish came. It was expanded into a colonial settlement called a reducción in the 1560s. Reducciónes were forced labour/Christianization resettlement towns, designed to break the cultural structure of small kin-based, self-sustaining villages scattered in the area, corral the work force in larger urbs for more efficient exploitation in the Andean silver mines and two-birds-with-a-stone conversion to Christianity. Eventually reducciónes spread throughout Spanish holdings in Central and South America, but they began in Peru, the brainchild of 5th viceroy Francisco de Toledo.

The young woman, labelled burial CNS U2-60, was one of the earliest to die in Eten after resettlement. It’s not clear what killed her, but her teratoma is so extreme that it might have been a factor. The Spain teratoma had four small, malformed teeth and bone formation inside the calcified capsule. The one found in Rome had five malformed teeth inside a fragmented spherical bony structure. The Andean teratoma has 83 pieces of bone and 37 malformed baby teeth. And that’s all that’s left now. Who knows what kind of random organ bits were in there before decomposition. It was such a large assortment of bones and teeth that at first researchers thought it might be a sacrificed animal, but its location in the abdominal cavity meant that it had to have been inside of her at the time of death, and besides, none of those bones and teeth looked like regular bones and teeth of any kind of animal.

Looking closely at the dozens of extra bony bits, [George Mason University bioarchaeologist and LVBP director Haagen] Klaus and [Brigham Young University archaeology graduate student Connie] Ericksen write that “the general morphology of the bones could be described as unclassifiable in terms of normal human or general mammalian anatomy.” The dental tissue was “approximately the size of human deciduous teeth,” and looked like either small anterior teeth or large molar-like teeth, but “in most cases, occlusal anatomy was an irregular, highly variable arrangement of cusps and cusplets,” they write. [...]

In the case of CNS U2-60, Klaus and Ericksen note that “it is not possible to determine if the lesion was benign or malignant, but a teratoma of this complexity and size likely impacted morbidity via impeded circulation.” She may not have died from the teratoma directly, but the large tumor probably made her appear pregnant and may have factored into her early death.

The Spanish woman was 30 to 40 years old when she died; the Roman woman (who was originally from the near East) was in a slightly wider age range, 25 to 45, at time of death. The fusion of her long bones indicate the Peruvian woman was in her late teens.

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Getty acquires rediscovered papal bust by Bernini

Friday, June 19th, 2015

The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles has acquired the recently rediscovered Bust of Pope Paul V carved in 1621 by Baroque master Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The bust was known to art historians from an 1893 photograph, a bronze copy now in the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen that was cast by Sebastiano Sebastiani right after the marble original was sculpted, and from Vatican archives detailing the commission of the marble and bronze versions, but it had been secreted in unknown private collections since the 19th century. It recently resurfaced in a private collection and the Getty was contacted by Sotheby’s to arrange a private sale. Obviously the museum was more than interested and since it has an enormous endowment, money was no object. We don’t know what they paid for it, but it was certainly multiple millions of dollars.

The work was one of pair of busts commissioned by Paul V’s nephew and an important early patron of Bernini’s, Cardinal Scipione Borghese.Paul V, a patron in his own right who employed Pietro Bernini, Gian Lorenzo’s father, is said to have seen some drawings done by Gian Lorenzo when he was a boy and declared “This boy will be the Michelangelo of his age.” The other bust in the pair was of Paul V’s successor Pope Gregory XV who was actually pope when Bernini carved both busts. It is now in the private collection of Joseph M. and Toby Tanenbaum. You can see how similar they are in the dignified demeanor of the popes and in the decorative carving of their garments.

Bernini’s portrait of Paul V depicts the pope almost bareheaded, his hair cut in the “tonsure of St. Peter,” which signified the renunciation of worldly fashion, and dressed in traditional pontifical vestments. The thick cope covering his shoulders is richly decorated with embroideries of the Apostles Peter and Paul – the saintly patrons of Rome – with borders of plant motifs. The cope is fastened in the middle of the chest by a complex brooch called a morse, composed of a gemstone set in an elaborate metallic frame. Underneath the cope is a surplice in thin fabric with small vertical pleats on the chest, an embroidered upper edge and a very fine, delicately carved, lace border at the neck.

Bust of Pope Paul V exemplifies Bernini’s precocious mastery in capturing his sitters’ characters and in conveying a powerful liveliness of expression,” said Anne-Lise Desmas, head of Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the Getty Museum. “Beyond its extraordinary naturalism, the sculpture manages to combine a gravitas appropriate to the Pope’s status with an air of kindness and approachability. In addition, the rich embroidery decoration of the cope is technically a tour de force in low-relief carving. Remarkably, the portrait survived through all these centuries in perfect condition.”

The bust was in the Borghese family’s enormous art collection until 1893 when it was sold to a non-Italian private collector at an auction of antiquities and artworks at the Villa Borghese in Rome. At the time of the sale the bust was mistakenly attributed to Alessandro Algardi, a sculptor who would become a rival of Bernini’s 15 years or so later, but who didn’t get to Rome until 1625 and even then only worked restoring ancient sculptures for Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi (Gregory XV’s beloved nephew) for a year or so. The Bust of Paul V was re-attributed to Bernini by Rome’s Inspector of Monuments Antonio Muñoz in a 1916 art journal article. I doubt the Borghese family would have ever sold it had they known it was a Bernini. Another bust of Paul V by Gian Lorenzo Bernini is still in Rome’s Galleria Borghese museum today.

Bernini was hugely famous and successful in his lifetime. He had a large studio and much of his work after he hit the big time was physically made by his assistants. When he was very young he collaborated on sculptures with his father. A work like this bust, therefore, that predates the studio but postdates his cooperative works with Pietro, is extremely significant because it was carved by his hand only.

Sculptures by Bernini are very rare in US museums. The Getty has another one — Boy with a Dragon — but it wasn’t made by Bernini alone; his father Pietro collaborated with his then-teenaged son in its execution. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has another father-son Bernini collaboration, the sculptural group Bacchanal: A Faun Teased by Children, made when Gian Lorenzo was just 18 years old. The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, has a pair of terracotta models of angels and the terracotta model for the Fountain of the Moor in Piazza Navona both by Gian Lorenzo. National Gallery of Art in Washington has one of only two other busts in the country, Monsignor Francesco Barberini. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) acquired the other, Portrait of a Gentleman, just this March.

With the Getty’s acquisition of Paul V, Los Angeles is now the proud host of two-thirds of the Bernini busts in the US. The bust went on display yesterday for the first time since Gian Lorenzo Bernini put chisel to marble almost 400 years ago.

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Genoa port dredge finds cannons, huge anchor

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

A dredging project in the port of Genoa has recovered a record haul of English cannons, other artillery and anchors dating from the 16th century through the 19th. The project has been ongoing since 2009 to make the port accessible to high tonnage commercial container and cruise ships. So far they’ve moved three and a half million cubic meters of port sludge which, after being sifted through for artifacts and unexploded ordnance from World War II (20 of them have been found and disarmed so far), is being used to expand the container dock of Calata Bettolo.

The artillery recovered includes five 17th century front-loading cast iron cannons almost three meters (10 feet) long each weighing around one ton. These are all of English manufacture. Earlier weapons found include two breechloading light cannons small enough to be fired by one person that are 1.5 meters (five feet) long and weigh a quintal (100 kilograms, or about 220 pounds). They are of unknown manufacture and date from the late 16th to the middle of 17th century.

The rarest piece discovered is a bronze falconetto cannon. About two meters (6’6″) long and weighing two quintals, the small caliber cannon bears the mark of the Alberghetti family, a Venetian foundry active in the second half of the 16th century. The German Landsknecht mercenary troops famously used a falconetto in the Battle of Governolo on November 25, 1526, to take down Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, scion of the Medici family and leader of the papal troops. The falconetto shot hit his right leg leaving a wound so severe the surgeon had to amputate. The operation was too late and possibly too circumspect; a recent exhumation of his remains found that only his foot was amputated when witnesses like poet Pietro Aretino reported his wound was at the knee. (Aretino wrote that the surgeon ordered 10 men to hold Giovanni down, but the warrior insisted not even 20 men could hold him down, so he just picked up the candle to illuminate his own surgery and told the doctor to get to it. The scene was too much for Aretino who fled the room to return only after it was all over. “I’m cured,” Giovanni told him.) Four days later, Giovanni dalle Bande Nere died from gangrene. The Landsknechts would take their falconetti and go on to sack Rome.

The anchor haul is impressive as well. Most of them are from the 19th century — a Rodger’s Small Palms anchor from 1832, several British Admiralty examples from the 1840s — but one is a British example from the 18th century and it’s massive. The anchor is five meters (16 feet) long and weighs four tons. It is the largest anchor and the only one of its kind ever recovered from Italian waters.

You can get a better look at how huge the anchor is in this Italian language video.

If you’re worrying about those cannons and anchors being left out in the sun, fear not. Artifacts retrieved after centuries in the ocean (eg, the Erebus‘ bell and the H. L. Hunley submarine) need to take very long baths to ensure their stability, and the artifacts are currently beginning their conservation with a leisurely desalinization treatment. Once they’ve been stabilized and cleaned of their copious incrustations, the cannons and anchors will go on display, likely at Genoa’s Galata Museo del Mare, the largest maritime museum in the Mediterranean, and at the Palace of St. George right across the street from the city’s Ancient Port.

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Family looking for broken sewer pipe finds 2,500 years of history

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

A family in Lecce, an ancient city on the tip of Italy’s boot heel, found a veritable historical complex under their feet when they began digging to find a faulty sewer pipe in 2000. Luciano Faggiano family had acquired the building at Via Ascanio Grandi 56 planning to use the first floor as a trattoria and live with his wife and youngest son upstairs. It was a historical property — part of the convent of Santa Maria delle Curti which was closed in the 17th century and the remains of whose cells are still visible in the first floor walls — but renovated with all modern conveniences. When one of those conveniences, the toilet, kept backing up, Faggiano enlisted his two older sons who no longer live at home to spend a week helping him dig underneath the house to find the broken sewer pipe causing the problem.

But one week quickly passed, as father and sons discovered a false floor that led down to another floor of medieval stone, which led to a tomb of the Messapians, who lived in the region centuries before the birth of Jesus. Soon, the family discovered a chamber used to store grain by the ancient Romans, and the basement of a Franciscan convent where nuns had once prepared the bodies of the dead.

Faggiano kept digging, removing the spoil in the trunk of his car, even tying a rope around the chest of his 12-year-old son to lower him into passages that were too small for the adults. Mrs. Faggiano was not informed of this. Eventually the neighbors got suspicious and called the cops. Since unapproved archaeological excavations are illegal, even when the original aim was sewer maintenance, the authorities blocked the dig for a year until making a deal with the Faggianos that they could continue under the supervision of archaeologists from the local Superintendence of Archaeological Goods and architects Franco and Maria Antonietta De Paolis.

All of this was done on the Faggianos’ dime and with their labor. The city just watched, ever more excitedly, as the Faggiano family’s excavations revealed the tomb of a Roman infant, other tombs and ossuaries, a deep pit that served as a charnel house where bodies were left to decompose before the bones were recovered and interred, water catchment cisterns, circular postholes cut into rock for Mesappian dwellings, grain silos, an ancient street, a well 10 meters (33 feet) deep that is still fed by the waters of the Idume, an underground river seven kilometers (4.3 miles) long that traverses the city of Lecce before emptying into the Adriatic, tunnels that may have been used by the religious orders — Templars, the Santa Maria convent and Franciscans have all inhabited the place at different times since the Middle Ages — to move around the city without being seen, a Messapian-era pavement (ca. 5th century B.C.), frescoed walls, ancient vases, an early episcopal ring, ceramics from the 1600s, an ancient altar among many other treasures.

More than 4,000 artifacts have been unearthed during the decade-plus of digging. They did find the sewer pipe after a few years, by the way, and it was broken. By then, of course, the trattoria idea was back-burnered and Luciano Faggiano rented one of the floors in the building to help fund this voyage of exploration through the layers of Lecce’s history. He’s still planning to open a trattoria, but in a new building. This one is now the Museum Faggiano where people can go down into the bowels of the structure to see the ancient history for themselves.

The museum’s website has a photo gallery which has sad little low res pictures, but the virtual tour is very satisfying as long as you click on the “View on Google Maps” link in the upper left corner which opens a lovely full screen navigation window with thumbnails to guide you through the highlights.

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Russian billionaire buys Salvator Mundi, dealer makes $50 million killing

Sunday, April 5th, 2015

When the rediscovery of Salvator Mundi, Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of Christ as the Savior of the Word, exploded onto the world stage in June of 2011, details about who owned the painting and their future plans for the work after its exhibition at the London’s National Gallery blockbuster exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan were not forthcoming. It was revealed by art trade insiders last year that the masterpiece had been privately sold by the consortium of art dealers to, whom else, an anonymous private collector in May 2013 for between $75 million and $80 million. Sotheby’s brokered the sale and of course they never kiss and tell, nor did Robert Simon, one of the few known members of the consortium, when the New York Times asked him about it.

That little item in the Times’ ArtsBeat blog had quite the unintended consequence when the anonymous private collector in question found out that the painting he’d bought for $127.5 million was sold for $50 million less that, and that wasn’t the only artwork for which he’d paid through several noses. Irked by these revelations, the collector took it to the authorities and now all that precious secrecy that the art and antiquities trade loves so much has blown up in everyone’s faces.

The owner of the Salvator Mundi is Russian potash billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, or technically the trust he’s created to shelter the vast art collection worth an estimated $2 billion he’s amassed over the past decade. More than 40 of these works — including important pieces by Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Modigliani, Magritte, Gauguin, Degas and Rothko along with the Leonardo — he acquired through his preferred art dealer, Swiss businessman Yves Bouvier who first got into art dealing by owning tax-free warehouses in the same shady freeports that so prominently feature in the looted antiquities trade. When he saw the kind of insane amounts of money changing hands, he figured out he could make the big bucks trading in the contents of the warehouses, not just the rental of the space.

Their lucrative business relationship came to a screeching halt when Rybolovlev found out at a party last New Year’s Eve that the Modigliani painting Nu Couché au Coussin Bleu he had purchased for $118 million was sold by its previous owner for $93 million. Even for the billionaire luxury goods market, a $25 million mark-up is bold. That proved to be modest by comparison to the mark-up on the Leonardo. Rybolovlev already paid Bouvier a commission of two percent on every sale — he was presented with two separate invoices each time, one for the cost of the artwork, one for two percent of its value — so he was less than pleased to find a whole other level of commission hidden in the price of the paintings.

Nine days after the New Year’s Eve party, Rybolovlev filed a criminal complaint against Bouvier in Monaco for document forgery (the invoices) and fraud (the inflated price of the art). In Monaco individuals and companies can file criminal complaints that the police and prosecutors will investigate without alerting the potential defendant. Apparently the investigation in this case bore fruit and on February 25th, Rybolovlev invited Bouvier over to his office in Monaco ostensibly to discuss payment of Rothko’s N° 6 – Violet, Green and Red he’d purchased for $140 million last year. The dealer was greeted at the door by eight cops who arrested him on charges of document forgery and fraud.

He was detained for three days until he could rustle up 10 million euros in bail money, which apparently took some time to raise despite his wallowing in filthy lucre because said lucre isn’t in fluid cash. Meanwhile, Rybolovlev’s legal team also got Singapore, where Bouvier owns freeports, to freeze $500 million of his company’s assets. Prosecutors in Geneva searcherd Bouvier’s company’s headquarters for documents related to the sales of the Modigliani nude and Salvator Mundi.

Bouvier insists he’s innocent, that he is not a broker but a seller. He bought those works from the owners fair and square and then resold them to Rybolovlev. That makes the tens of millions he made on top of the original sale price perfectly legitimate resale margin, “administrative costs,” not fraudulent hidden commissions. He says that the Russian oligarch is just using the courts to get out of paying the tens of millions he still owes on that Rothko. He claims that Rybolovlev laid the trap to have him arrested because he wanted to put him “in the gulag” and let him stew there, to intimidate him into giving up his claim to the as-yet unpaid Rothko moneys.

Rybolovlev responds that as per their agreement, he is paying off the Rothko in stages and the payments are still on schedule so there are no millions outstanding. His complaint presents evidence refuting Bouvier’s claim to be a reseller rather than a broker, namely letters in which Bouvier discusses negotiating terms of sale with owners on Rybolovlev’s behalf and insists on the importance of secrecy because if word gets out that the owner wants to sell, then they run the risk of “losing it to auction.” Or of Rybolovlev finding out that Bouvier was pocketing tens of millions in the transaction.

So the bad news is that one of fewer than 20 known surviving Leonardo da Vinci paintings is squirreled away in wherever Rybolovlev hoards his preciouses. The good news is that the we get to watch all of this play out in the light of day for a change.

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From Ming China to Persian princess to Shah Jahan to Sotheby’s

Monday, March 16th, 2015

Mahin Banu Grape Dish, Ming Dynasty, Yongle Period, ca. 1420. Image courtesy Sotheby's.The Mahin Banu Grape Dish is a serving vessel 17 inches in diameter made during the Ming Dynasty’s Yongle Period in around 1420, and that’s just where the story begins. Its voyage would take it to the royal courts of Persia, the palace of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan during the time when he was building the Taj Mahal in Agra, in the modern era to New York where it starred in exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum, and now to Sotheby’s where it is set to go up for auction at the Important Chinese Works of Art sale on March 17th (short video covering the dish’s design and history here).

Persian traders were key middlemen in the trade between east and west, so much so that Persian became a common tongue along the Silk Road. As early as the 13th century Chinese porcelain was imported into Iran, and by the early 14th century Chinese kilns were manufacturing porcelain specifically for export to Persia. The demand was great enough that Persian tastes influenced the production of porcelain in China, particularly after the chaos and violence of the Mongol invasions severely inhibited the local market for expensive porcelain goods. Kilns started to produce larger plates than would be used in Chinese food service and included more geometric decorative elements like those seen in Islamic art.

Mahin Banu Grape Dish, side view. Image courtesy Sotheby's.Chinese potters also used Persian raw materials. The cobalt blue that is now so characteristic of Ming porcelain was imported from what is today the Kerman Province of southeastern Iran. When the foreign blue underglaze first began to be used to paint the prized pure white porcelain, in fact, the Chinese elite turned their noses up at it as vulgar and barbarous. Over time they realized it was extremely kickass, and Ming blue-and-white porcelain came to be considered the sine qua non of refinement and elegance.

The dish probably made its way west to Persia under the Timurid dynasty, founded by famed Timur (aka Tamerlane) in 1370. The Timurid aristocracy loved blue and white porcelain and amassed large collections of pieces from China. The Safavid dynasty, founded in 1501 by Shah Ismail I, carried on the practice of collecting blue-and-white porcelain and it was one of Ismail’s daughters, Princess Mahin Banu Khanum, who put her stamp (figuratively and literally) on the grape dish.

Born in 1519, Mahin Banu was a highly educated, politically savvy, devout woman. She earned a reputation as a patron of the arts, architecture and religious centers. With her own money derived from her properties in Shirvan, Tabriz, Qazvin, Ray and Isfahan, Mahin Banu supported holy shrines and founded charitable organizations, including one dedicated to funding dowries for orphaned girls who would otherwise have been destitute. Her father died in 1524 when she was just five years old, and her 10-year-old brother Tahmasp I came to the throne. A chaotic regency followed which Tahmasp put an end to with the execution of the regent in 1533.

Mahin Banu was Tahmasp’s youngest full sister and his favorite, so much so that she became his right hand, not just socially or in the arts or in a religious context, but politically as well. Mahin Banu was one in a line of unmarried royal Safavid women who became trusted counselors to their brothers and fathers. Without conflicting loyalties, husbands or children to deal with, they could put all of their talents to work helping their relatives. Safavid women of wealth and rank were educated as thoroughly as their brothers. They were tutored in reading, writing, fine art, calligraphy, religion and even martial arts like archery and horseback riding.

Mahin Banu accompanied her brother in the thick of the hunt and sat on horseback by his side during ceremonies when all the other royal women watched from a distance. According to chronicler Qumi’s Khulasat al-Tavarikh, Tahmasp was so dependent on his sister’s counsel that he wouldn’t make a move without seeking her approval first. She was his top advisor in all affairs of state and acted in an official capacity, engaging in diplomatic discussions with Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s powerful wife, Hurrem Sultan. She became known as the “Queen of the Age, the Mistress of the time.”

That unmarried status was not happenstance. Tahmasp jealously guarded his sister’s celibacy, chasing off all suitors until he found a permanent solution: a ritual betrothal to Muhammad al-Mahdi, the 12th of the Twelve Imams revered in Shi’a Islam who had died 600 years earlier in the 10th century. Tradition had it that the Mahdi would return again any day — a saddled white horse was left at the palace gate every night just in case — but this engagement wasn’t based on the premise that he’d actually come back and marry the princess. It was a device to prevent her from marrying anyone else and leaving her brother’s side for her husband’s.

Rudaba Makes a Ladder of Her Tresses, Folio 72v from Shahnameh of Shah TahmaspTahmasp shared his sister’s love of art (initially; towards the end of his reign he lost interest). His court created one of the most lavishly illuminated and calligraphied copies of the Shahnameh or Book of Kings, an epic poem recounting the mythical history of the Persian empire written in the 11th century by the poet Ferdowsi, on which the top artists worked for two decades. After the masterpiece was complete, Tahmasp gave it to the Ottoman sultan Selim II as a diplomatic gift on the occasion of his accession to the throne. Contemporary sources record it was part of a train of 34 camels laden with luxurious presents including brocades and other textiles, silk carpets, books and prized porcelain from the far east.

One of the artists who contributed to Shah Tahmasp’s Shahnameh was painter, master calligrapher and head of the royal library Dust Muhammad who also taught the young Mahin Banu calligraphy, some samples of which have survived and are now in the fabulous wonderland known as the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul. He left the Safavid court in the late 1530s, traveling to Kabul which was ruled by Kamran Mirza, brother of the embattled Mughal emperor Humayun, and then in 1555 went to India by invitation of Humayun himself.

Shah Tahmasp I and Mughal Emperor Humayun meet, fresco on the wall of Chehel Sotoun Palace Isfahan.Humayun had had a tough go of it, empire-wise. He became emperor after his father’s death in 1530, but there were disgruntled parties who sought to place his uncle on the throne. He had the armies of two kings looking to reclaim the territory his father had conquered. His brothers, including Kamran Mirza, betrayed him and fought against him repeatedly. He lost much of his Hindustan territory to the forces of Sher Shah Suri and in 1543 retreated to his brother’s lands in what is today Afghanistan. Again his brother was less than supportive, leaving Humayun to seek refuge in Persia where Shah Tahmasp welcomed him with open arms and gave him the royal treatment.

When in 1545 Kamran offered to give Shah Tahmasp Kandahar in exchange for his brother’s body, dead or alive, Tahmasp refused and instead gave Humayun military support against his traitorous older brother. Mahin Banu played a major role in establishing this alliance. Tahmasp had threatened to kill Humayun at one point if he didn’t convert from Sunni to Shi’a Islam, but Mahin Banu convinced her brother to support the Mughal emperor in his attempts to reclaim his territories.

Humayun took Kandahar and Kabul, lost them (he was an awful battlefield general), took them again, and ultimately in 1555 reclaimed Hindustan in large part thanks to the thousands of Persian troops Tahmasp had loaned him. Finally returned to the Mughal throne in Delhi, Humayun invited the Persian artists and craftsmen to do for his empire what he had seen them do during the months he spent traveling in Persia and becoming enamoured with its art and architecture. The Persian influence on Mughal art would long outlast his reign.

Mahin Banu Grape Dish base, vaqf in the middle. Image courtesy Sotheby's.We know that Mahin Banu still owned the grape dish when she died in 1562 because there’s a circular cartouche (vaqf) on the base of the plate that identifies it as having been donated to the Shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth of the Twelve Imams, in Mashhad, as a pious gift. It reads: “Endowed to the Razavid Shrine, By Mahin Banu, the Safavid (princess).” According to 16-17th century chronicler Qazi Ahmad-e Qomi, all of her jewels and her porcelain collection were endowed to the shrine which she had been a dedicated patron of in life.

The next time the Mahin Banu Grape Dish appears on the historical record is at the Mughal court of Shah Jahan in 1643. Even though Mughal history intersected with Safavid Persia during the period of Mahin Banu’s ownership of the dish and even though she was so closely involved in her brother’s dealings with Humayun, the Ming vessel did not make its way to Agra through the kind of diplomatic channels that had directed 34 camels’-worth of precious objects to Selim II.

Inscription of Shah Jehan on the side of the dish's foot. Image courtesy Sotheby's.So how did the grape dish make its way from a holy shrine to Shah Jahan 80 years later? Probably as war booty that was then traded. The Shrine of Imam Reza was sacked by the Uzbek troops of Abdolmomen Khan in 1590. They picked it clean of all its many treasures, and 17th century Safavid court historian Eskandar Beyg specifically mentions “Chinese vessels” being among the precious objects stolen by the Uzbek soldiers who traded them amongst themselves “for the price of cheap ceramic shards.” Mashhad was reconquered by Shah Abbas I, grandson of Shah Tahmasp, in 1598. (Related factoid: there is only one collection of blue-and-white Ming porcelain from the Safavid dynasty still in Iran today, and it’s that of Shah Abbas I, on display in the National Museum in Tehran.)

It was probably during this period before Jahan acquired the piece that someone tried to erase the vaqf from the bottom of the dish. The inscription marked the vessel as having been endowed to the shrine. Owning it was a violation of Islamic law. Knowing that religiously observant buyers would not purchase the piece because of that, whoever was trying to unload it tried to scratch off the vaqf. Abrasion marks marred the surface, but the inscription was too deep to destroy it completely.

Instead it seems they came up with another cunning plan: cover it up. There are mysterious drill marks on the bottom of the plate that could have been used to add a mount that obscured the incriminating markings. Also, Shah Jahan inscribed his name and the year the dish was acquired on the outer edge of the foot ring. Other Shah Jahan plates have his inscription on the base, which strongly suggests there was something attached down there that made it necessary to move the standard position.

After that, there are no more handy inscriptions on the dish that might illuminate its travels back west. Sotheby’s has a lovely map tracking its known movements like unto Indiana Jones in Raiders which indicates it stopped in Quebec in the late 19th century, but this stop is not referenced in the provenance information. It goes from Shah Jahan to an art dealer in New York and thence into the hands of Alastair Bradley Martin’s and his wife Edith Park Martin’s Guennol Collection in 1967. They loaned it to museums for many years and are now selling it. The pre-sale estimate is $2.5 – 3.5 million. Considering the unbelievably rich history of the piece, its unique version of the grape pattern, its beautiful condition and the sheer madness of the Chinese antiquities market right now courtesy of lots of newly minted Chinese billionaires keen to reclaim cultural heritage scattered by war, trade, looters and time, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that estimate was left in the dust.

 

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Bedlam burial ground dig to unearth 3,000 bodies

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

The construction of the high-speed Crossrail train line in London has generated the UK’s largest archaeological project. So far more than 10,000 artifacts spanning 55 million years of history have been unearthed at more than 40 worksites over 100 kilometers (62 miles) of the city. This week, archaeologists from the Museum of London Archeaology (MOLA) began to excavate the burial ground of Bethlehem Hospital, aka Bedlam, next to the Liverpool Street railway station. While the hospital building began life as a priory in 1247, it was seized by the crown in the 1370s and by the early 1400s was detached from its religious roots and administered by the City of London as a hospital for the mentally ill.

This burial ground, known as the New Churchyard, was built in 1569 and was in use until at least 1738, spanning some prime years for death in London: the English Civil War, the Great Plague of 1665 (and three other major outbreaks of Bubonic plague) and the Great Fire of 1666. Unaffiliated with any parish church, it was London’s first municipal burial ground. When the hospital itself moved to a new facility in Moorfields in 1676, the New Churchyard continued to be used as an overflow cemetery during mass death events, by people who could not afford or did not want (for religious or political reasons) a church burial.

A single trial pit dug in 2011 found more than 100 skeletons, and preliminary surveys in 2013 and 2014 found more than 400. Archaeologists predict there are at least 3,000 individuals buried on this site and they plan to unearth them all over the next few weeks. The excavation is going on while the eastern entrance of the new Liverpool Street Crossrail station is being built, so surrounded with the noise and vibration of heavy construction, the MOLA team of 60 archaeologists will work in two shifts six days a week to dig through layer upon layer of skeletal remains. Right now they’ve dug down about a meter into the topmost layer and they’re finding individual burials were stacked on top of previous ones. When the wooden coffins decayed, the human remains pancaked downwards. Separating these bones pressed into each other over centuries is an arduous task, and they haven’t even gotten to the plague pits and mass graves in the lower layers.

The skeletons will be excavated over the next four weeks. The remains will be moved the MOLA laboratory for osteological examination and tests that will hopefully determine diet, work, demographics, geographic origin, sex, medical history and more of the thousands of people interred at Bedlam. Archaeologists hope that tests on plague victims will provide a new understanding of how the plague pathogen moved through the early modern population.

Jay Carver, Crossrail Lead Archaeologist said: “This excavation presents a unique opportunity to understand the lives and deaths of 16th and 17th century Londoners. The Bedlam burial ground spans a fascinating phase of London’s history, including the transition from the Tudor-period City into cosmopolitan early-modern London. This is probably the first time a sample of this size from this time period has been available for archaeologists to study in London. The Bedlam burial ground was used by a hugely diverse population from right across the social spectrum and from different areas of the City.”

Identification of any of the remains is unlikely, to dramatically understate the case. Since the Bedlam burial ground didn’t keep its own records of who was buried there, 16 volunteers enlisted to scour the records of parish churches who made a note when parishioners were buried at “Bedlam” or “New Churchyard.” Archaeologists also appealed to the public for any family records, lore or anecdotes that might illuminate the history of the cemetery.

Here’s a video of researchers digging through the church registers at the London Metropolitan Archives. Keep your eye open for the “New Churchyard” annotations on the records.

When that video was shot, Jay Carver said they expected to find about 1,000 relevant burial records which would be used to help interpret the archaeological data from the dig and be compiled in a single database and made available to the public for genealogical or other research. Well, they left that already lofty goal in the dust. The final tally of names and histories of individuals buried at Bedlam cemetery was more than 5,000, an incredible accomplishment that testifies loudly to the dedication of the volunteers and the phenomenal record-keeping of 16th and 17th century churches and the London Metropolitan Archives.

According to the research Dr John Lamb (also known as Lam or Lambe), an astrologer and advisor to the First Duke of Buckingham, is among those buried at the site. Lamb was said to have been stoned to death by an angry mob outside a theatre in 1628 following allegations of rape and black magic. Others identified in the research include victims of riots by ‘Fanatiques,’ noted in the diaries of Samuel Pepys in January 1661.

Plague was the most common listed form of death, followed by infant mortality and consumption. The burial ground was established in 1569 to help parishes cope with overcrowding during outbreaks of plague and other epidemics. Crossrail workers recently discovered the gravestone of Mary Godfree who died in September 1665, as a result of the ‘Great Plague’ which peaked that year.

The Bedlam Burial Ground Register can be searched on the Crossrail website.

Once the skeletons are fully excavated, the MOLA team will continue to dig down through the medieval marsh and lost Walbrook River to the Roman layer. Tunnelers installing utility cables 20 feet below the surface in 2013 encountered Roman artifacts and human remains. The Liverpool Street excavation is scheduled to finish in September after which construction on the station will begin on the site. The human remains will be reburied after they are studied.

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Dürer’s Arch of Maximilian I restored, on display

Monday, March 9th, 2015

The Arch of Honour of Maximilian I was created in 1515 by master printmaker Albrecht Dürer. It was one of three monumental works inspired by Roman imperial triumphs commissioned by the emperor to emphasize his family’s illustrious lineage, his political and military victories, his piety, strength and overall greatness. Two of them, the Arch and the Great Triumphal Chariot were designed by Dürer. For the Arch of Honour of Maximilian I alone, his workshop carved a total of 195 wood blocks, 171 of which survive at the Albertina in Vienna, which were printed on 36 large sheets of paper. (Dürer didn’t do any of the carving or printing himself. He did the drawing; Hieronymus Andreae of Nuremberg was Dürer’s blockcutter.) When placed together as a single artwork, the Arch is a massive 9′ 10″ by 11′ 6″. It’s the largest woodcut created in the Renaissance and one of the largest in the world.

Denmark’s Royal Collection of Graphic Art has two complete sets of the Arch of Honour of Maximilian I prints. They were both stored in loose leaf form initially, until the 1860s when folklorist and art historian Just Matthias Thiele, director of the Royal Collection, had one of the two glued onto canvas so the masterpiece could be display in one huge billboard-sized artwork the way Dürer and the emperor had intended for it to be seen as part of what art historian Hyatt Mayor has called “Maximilian’s program of paper grandeur.” The canvas version was on display in the Prinsens Palæ (the Prince’s Mansion) in Copenhagen, then home to the Royal Collection of Graphic Art, and remained on display there when the Prinsens Palæ became the official home of the National Museum of Denmark in 1892.

After decades exposed to direct sunlight and unstable climactic conditions, the paper had discolored, darkened and deteriorated to the point where curators decided it was no longer fit for public display. It was taken down and placed in storage. The Royal Collection of Graphic Art, now a department of the National Gallery of Denmark’s Statens Museum for Kunst (SMK), last year set SMK conservators to the arduous task of restoring the Arch in time for a major exhibition this spring.

Conservators analyzed the paper (flax and hemp fibers which means it was made of pulped clothes) and adhesives (boiled wheat paste, likely used in the mounting of the paper on the canvas, and animal skin glue likely used in the 16th century during the paper production process), examined the surface using raking light photography to reveal extensive damage to the paper (they found folds, tears, bulges, cracks) and ink. Transmitted-light photography found a watermark on the paper: a dual-headed eagle wearing the imperial crown, the Holy Roman Emperor’s coat of arms, which underscores how personally connected Maximilian I was to the project.

Once the analysis and documentation were done, the SMK conservators worked assiduously to clean the yellowed surface and stabilize the leaves. They used enzymes specifically targeted to break down the wheat paste adhesive without harming the original paper glue. Once the pages were removed from the canvas backing, conservators mended the myriad tears and folds that had developed over the centuries. They did this in public in an exhibition called Dürer under the Knife! which ran from September to December 2014 so visitors to the SMK could observe the marvels of conservation science in action on a massive piece of equally massive artistic and historical significance.

The restored Arch of Honour of Maximilian I is now on display at the Might and Glory: Dürer in the Emperor’s Service exhibition which runs from March 5th through June 21st of this year. If you can’t make it to Copenhagen by then, you can explore the cleaned and restored Arch in this huge zoomable image on the SMK website. There are a few annotations explaining the complex imagery, enough to make you wish there were about a thousand more of them. Also, it’s not as large or as sharp as the new one, but in case you, like me, can never get enough before-and-after pictures, here’s a zoomable image of the print before it was cleaned. It looks like it was soaked in black tea compared to the clean version.

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Dutch hooligans riot, vandalize Barcaccia fountain

Saturday, February 21st, 2015

Fans of the Rotterdam soccer team Feyenoord ran riot in Rome’s historic center on Thursday, throwing bottles and flares and causing serious damage to the Barcaccia fountain in Piazza di Spagna. Built by Pietro Bernini, father of famous architect and sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, between 1627 and 1629, the fountain just reopened in September after an extensive 10-month restoration. Now there are more than 110 gouges, scratches and chips on the travertine marble and several large chunks broken off the edge of the central basin.

On Friday morning public works crews sifted through broken glass, bottles and assorted trash to recover all the fragments they could find in the water. City restorers assessed the damage and it does not look good. There are broken pieces as large as 8 by 3.5 centimeters (3 by 1.4 inches). Even if the larger pieces can be reattached cleanly — not an easy feat with the highly porous travertine — the chips and scratches will likely remain. Expert Anna Maria Cerioni says that the damage to the fountain is permanent.

It’s unclear what set this barbarians off other than the usual metric ton of alcohol and whatever idiotic sports rivalry. They rampaged through the beautiful and historic Campo de’ Fiori piazza on Wednesday evening, throwing bottles at riot police and leaving the square covered in garbage. Over the two days of clashes between rioters and police, 10 police officers and three Dutch fans were wounded. A total of 28 were arrested and 19 of them have already been convicted and sentenced to six months in jail or a $50,000 fine.

All of this happened before the actual Europa League match between Feyenoord and Roma on Thursday afternoon. Additional police were dispatched to the Olympic Stadium for the event, in the expectation that violence might break out between the opposing teams’ fans, but nothing happened. The score was tied 1-1, Feyenoord moves on in the bracket and the 6,000 Dutch fans got on planes and headed home with no further trouble.

The mayor of Rome, Ignazio Marino, is incandescent with rage. He said that while several banks and organizations have contacted him offering financial support for the restoration, he thinks the Netherlands or the Feyenoord club should pay for the damage according to the principle of “who breaks it buys it.” The Dutch embassy’s public statements (you can see them on their Facebook page) focus on bringing the responsible parties to justice. “Soccer must be a party where there’s no room for violence. The Italian authorities can count on the total cooperation and committment of the Netherlands to ensure than the culpable are punished.” They also said an investigation has been opened in Holland to identify the perpetrators.

They haven’t excluded paying for it, however. When the mayor told the press after a long conversation with Dutch ambassador Michiel Den Hond that “they don’t feel responsible for the economic outlay to repair Bernini’s fountain,” Aart Heering, the ambassador’s spokesperson, said the mayor’s comment was premature, that before saying the Netherlands doesn’t want to pay for the damage, first the damages have to be quantified and the perpetrators identified.

The Feyenoord club’s general manager Eric Gudde described the rioting as “utterly reprehensible behavior … that fills every normal thinking Dutchman with horror.” There’s a bit of the No True Scotsman fallacy in the club’s reaction. The rioters aren’t real fans, you see, but rather lowlives who unlike the real fans went to Rome with the intent to “misbehave.”

Film of the clashes between rioters and police in Piazza di Spagna on Thursday:

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