Archive for the ‘Renaissance’ Category

Renaissance shield looted by Nazis returned to Czech Republic

Wednesday, September 15th, 2021

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has agreed to return a 16th century shield that was looted by Nazis during World War II to the Czech Republic. The pageant shield, elaborately decorated with a scene of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus capturing what is now Cartagena in southern Spain during the Second Punic War, was created by  Girolamo di Tommaso da Treviso around 1535 out of wood, linen, gesso, gold and pigment. It was part of the collection of Konopiště Castle in Benešov, about 25 miles southeast of Prague, that was stripped bare during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. It will now go back on display in the castle 80 years after it was stolen.

The complex battle scene of the Roman army assaulting the rounded crenelated towers of the city was based on a tapestry from a series depicting scenes from the life of Scipio designed by Giulio Romano for King Francis I of France. Romano drew the cartoons for the tapestries in 1531-1533. The tapestries were then woven in Brussels and sent to the king in 1535. They fell victim to the French Revolution’s orgy of anti-monarchical iconoclasm in 1797, destroyed to harvest the gold and silver threads used in the weaving. Copies of the Scipio tapestries commissioned by Louis XIV in 1688 survived the Revolution and are now in the Louvre.

(Wee digression: Cartagena was founded by Hasdrubal Barca, Hannibal’s younger brother, in 228 B.C. at the site of an earlier Iberian settlement. The Punic name for Carthage was Qart Hadasht, meaning New City, because it was founded by Phoenician colonists from Tyre (the old city). Hasdrubal named his foothold in Spain Qart Hadasht too. It was Scipio Africanus who renamed it Carthago Nova after his conquest of it in 209 B.C. to differentiate it from the original, so he basically copyedited Hasdrubal, correcting New City into the more precise New New City.)

Twenty-four inches in diameter, the round shield was made for ceremonial purposes, and the subject matter may have been chosen in homage to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who in 1535 captured Tunis, née Carthage, from the Ottoman Empire. Charles V’s victory over the Ottoman corsairs was analogized to Scipio’s defeat of Carthage, and upon his return, the Emperor was feted all over Italy.

The shield was not presented to Charles V. It stayed in Italy for more than three centuries. In the 1700s it was in the Castello del Catajo outside Padua, part of the vast collection of arms and armature amassed by the marquess Tommaso degli Obizzi. He was the last to hold the title, and he left his all of his family’s wealth and possessions to the House of Este. Those lands, estates and collections were absorbed into the Ducal House of Austria-Este, the fruit of a marriage between Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, son of Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa, and Maria Beatrice Este, last surviving heir of the Este family.

That wealth paid for Konopiště Castle. Originally built in the late 13th century, the castle was refashioned into a Baroque palace in the 1730s and 40s, but had fallen into disrepair by the end of the 19th century. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, whose assassination in 1914 would set alight the powder keg that exploded into World War I, bought the castle in 1887 with money he inherited after the death of the last scion of the Austria-Este ducal house. That inheritance included the Obizzi-Este collection of arms and armature, the third largest collection of armory and medieval weapons in Europe.

The collection, including the da Treviso shield, was installed in Konopiště Castle in 1896 where it remained even after the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire birthed Czechoslovakia. Then came the Second World War.

In 1939 the Nazi government annexed the part of Czechoslovakia where Konopiště was located, and in 1943 the German army (Wehrmacht) confiscated the Konopiště Castle armor collection, including the shield, and took it to Prague to be housed in a new military museum. However, Adolf Hitler’s arms and armor curator, Leopold Ruprecht, soon skimmed off the cream of the collection, inventoried it, and dispatched it to Vienna, intending the best for Hitler’s planned mega-museum in Linz, Austria. At the end of the war, large groups of Konopiště objects were recovered by the Allies and returned to Czech authorities in 1946, but among 15 objects that remained missing was a shield whose description was similar to the pageant shield.

Thirty years later, the pageant shield was bequeathed to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by avid collector of medieval arms Carl Otto Kretzschmar von Kienbusch. Its ownership history was threadbare and previous attempts to determine whether it was indeed the looted Konopiště Castle shield were inconclusive.

Since 2016, the museum has been collaborating with historians in the Czech Republic to evaluate the history and provenance of the Italian pageant shield. Recent research identified pre-WWII inventories which, in tandem with a photograph, dated to around 1913, showing the museum’s shield as displayed at Konopiště Castle provided by the museum, persuasively identify the shield as the one illegally taken from Konopiště Castle by the Nazis and never restituted. Based on these revelations, the Board of Trustees of the Philadelphia Museum of Art unanimously concluded that rightful title in the work belonged to the Czech Republic and approved the return of the armor at its meeting of June 17, 2021.


Thumbprint found on Michelangelo wax model

Sunday, August 1st, 2021

A thumbprint has been found on the buttocks of a wax model of a sculpture by Michelangelo in the collection of the V&A Museum. The dark red wax figure was made around 1516-1519 and is the only autograph model by Michelangelo in the museum.

Senior curator Peta Motture says: “It is an exciting prospect that one of Michelangelo’s prints could have survived in the wax. Such marks would suggest the physical presence of the creative process of an artist. It is where mind and hand somehow come together… he destroyed a lot of [the wax models] himself. A fingerprint would be a direct connection with the artist.”

The model, or bozzetto, is a rough sketch of Young Slave, an unfinished marble sculpture now in the Galleria in Florence. It was meant to be one of the many, many statues Michelangelo planned for the tomb of Pope Julius II but never completed. The first plan for Julius’ tomb, commissioned in 1505, eight years before his death, was a monumental free-standing multi-story mausoleum with more than 40 statues, life-sized and larger, that was supposed to be installed in the Cappella Maggiore of St. Peter’s Basilica. The Young Slave was one of four intended to be used as columns, telamons in prisoner form, for the lower level of the tomb. They were deleted from the plans during one of the many downsizing redesigns and remained in Michelangelo’s studio until his death when they were given to Duke Cosimo I de Medici.

Julius died in 1513 with no tomb in sight. His heirs demanded that Michelangelo come through, albeit in much reduced form with a wall tomb. Even the smaller-scale tomb took another thirty years for Michelangelo to complete. The finished product was a modest arrangement with seven statues including the famous Moses with horns in the minor basilica of St. Peter in Chains.

Over the decades, Michelangelo created many drawings and models for this boondoggle of a papal tomb, and because he was already famous in his lifetime, his contemporaries managed to snag some of those preparatory works before the temperamental master could destroy them (which he did to many of them). The V&A’s Young Slave is one of very few surviving wax models by Michelangelo.

The wax figure is 6.5 inches high (the full-sized marble is more than seven feet tall) and was molded onto a metal armature allowing the artist to alter it easily as he worked on his final vision. Indeed, the sketch model has several points of difference from the marble, particularly in the left leg. Also the shoulders and back were never carved in the marble.

According to art historian Giorgio Vasari, who was a personal friend of Michelangelo’s, the wax was prepared by mixing animal fat, turpentine and black pitch to make it malleable but durable. The red color was produced by adding red earth, vermillion or red lead. Vasari also said that Michelangelo had a unique method for using his wax models to make the sculptures. He put the bozzetto in a box, filled it with water until the model was fully submerged, then removed the water gradually. Whatever parts peeked up above the water first, he carved out of the marble.

NB: We don’t know if this is accurate because Vasari never saw Michelangelo carve anything at all. Michelangelo adamantly refused to allow anyone to observe his process, not even his friends. That’s one of the reasons his prep sketches and models were so coveted by other artists, because it was the only way they would ever get a glimpse into how the Michelangelo magic happened. It’s also why there’s a very good chance that the thumbprint was Michelangelo’s because he was the only one who got to see his unfinished works, let alone touch them.


NGA acquires long-lost sibling of Dossi Aeneid painting

Saturday, May 29th, 2021

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., has acquired a painting by 16th c. Ferrarese master Dosso Dossi, reuniting it with its other half, which has been in the museum since 1939.  The Trojans Building the Temple to Venus at Eryx and Making Offerings at Anchises’s Grave (c. 1520) has not been seen since the mid-19th century. It emerged at Christie’s Old Masters auction on April 21st where it was purchased  for $400,000 by an anonymous individual who then donated it to the NGA.

The Trojans and its companion piece, traditionally titled Aeneas and Achates on the Libyan Coast, were part of a cycle of 10 paintings made to encircle the cornice of the study of Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. The works depicted scenes from the Aeneid and adorned the top of the room. On the walls below them were five large-scale works by Bellini, Titian and Dossi.

The richly decorated study was one of the Camerini d’Alabastro (small rooms of alabaster), a suite of private rooms Alfonso had built and clad in white marble (hence the moniker) to make a striking backdrop for the bright colors and dynamism of the Venetian masters he’d commissioned to decorate the walls with scenes from Greco-Roman mythology. Feast of the Gods, a collaboration of Giovanni Bellini and Titian which is also in the NGA, Feast of the Cupids (Titian), Bacchanal of the Andrians (Titian), Bacchus and Ariadne  (Titian), adorned its lower walls. Dossi was not Venetian, but he was heavily influenced by Titian’s palette and finely-detailed landscapes.

The Trojans Building the Temple to Venus is a scene from Book V of The Aeneid when the Trojan refugees set out for Italy with a much-reduced fleet after Juno tricks the women into burning the ships. Some Trojans stay behind and  found a city. Aeneas makes offerings at his father’s tomb (foreground), and in the distance at Eryx a new temple to Venus is being dedicated.

When Alfonso II, the last duke of the legitimate Este line, died without heir in 1597, the Pope refused to recognize the Holy Roman Emperor’s appointment of Duke of Modena Cesare d’Este, Alfonso II’s cousin from the cadet branch of the family. Pope Clement VIII claimed Ferrara and kicked the cadet branch out of the city. Ferrara would be administered by a Papal Legate acting as a civil governor until the 19th century.

The masterpieces in the Camerino d’Alabastro and the rest of the great Este collections were confiscated by Papal Legate Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini who kept what he wanted and sold the rest. All 10 of the panels of the Aeneas frieze remained in place high on the walls until they were bought by Cardinal Scipione Borghese in 1608. The stayed in the Borghese family until they were acquired by a Spanish collector in the early 19th century. At this point they were still intact as a group. The last time they were documented together was in 1856. Sometime later, the series was dispersed. Worst of all, one of Dossi’s Aeneid paintings was cut in half, creating two works out of Aeneas and Achates on the Libyan Coast and The Trojans Building the Temple to Venus at Eryx and Making Offerings at Anchises’s Grave.

Not that the right section of this work has reemerged, it suggests the left scene has been misidentified. Instead of Aeneas and Achates preparing for departure on the Libyan Coast, a scene from Book I of the epic, it is now believed to represent the Aeneas and Achates building ships to carry them to mainland Italy from Sicily in Book V.


Hidden signatures found Anne Boleyn’s execution prayer book

Friday, May 21st, 2021

Anne Boleyn’s Book of Hours has joined Isabella Stuart’s in giving up its long-held secrets. Previously unknown inscriptions have been found that identify the close network of owners who kept the book quietly safe, at no inconsiderable risk to themselves, after her execution in 1536.

The Book of Hours, part of the collection of Hever Castle, Anne’s childhood home, was made in Paris in the 1520s for Catherine of Aragon, King Henry VIII’s first wife, and likely given to Anne when she was Catherine’s lady-in-waiting. It was printed, not handwritten, and while it is technically illuminated, it was really just colored in because the illustrations were actually woodcuts that were then painted by hand. Anne’s was a more expensive version because it was printed on vellum.

It is one of only three surviving books of Anne Boleyn’s to have signed inscriptions in her hand. The inscription written across from an image of the Coronation of the Virgin reads: “Remember me when you do pray, that hope dothe led from day to day.” Underneath it is Anne’s signature. Legend has it she carried this book to the gallows.

Medieval historian and former steward of Hever Castle Kate McCaffrey was given special permission to examine the castle’s two inscribed Anne Boleyn prayer books. In the Book of Hours, she spotted what looked like smudges. When examined under ultra-violet light, the smudges proved to be four signatures of people related to Elizabeth Hill, a childhood friend of Anne’s and part of her court. Three of the signatories were women — Hill’s mother, her aunt, her cousin — and one was a man — her uncle. They had been erased leaving only the smudges visible to the naked eye.

Using ultraviolet light and photo editing software she discovered three family names written in the book; Gage, West, and Shirley (from Sundridge, near Sevenoaks). These three names centre around a fourth, the Guildford family of Cranbrook in Kent.

Kate’s research uncovered that the book was passed from female to female, of families not only local to the Boleyn family at Hever but also connected by kin.

She explained: “It is clear that this book was passed between a network of trusted connections, from daughter to mother, from sister to niece. If the book had fallen into other hands, questions almost certainly would have been raised over the remaining presence of Anne’s signature. Instead, the book was passed carefully between a group of primarily women who were both entrusted to guard Anne’s note and encouraged to add their own.

“In a world with very limited opportunities for women to engage with religion and literature, the simple act of marking this Hours and keeping the secret of its most famous user, was one small way to generate a sense of community and expression.”



Cannon from 2nd Spanish Armada recovered from looters

Friday, May 7th, 2021

A bronze cannon from the late 16th century that was looted from the seabed of Galicia, northwestern Spain, has been recovered by the Guardia Civil. The cannon was one of three discovered on April 14th by shellfish fishermen looking for goose-barnacles. Two of them were recovered the next day, but the third was gone, looted on the same day of their discovery.

The investigation into the theft uncovered a video recording the cannon in the act of being plundered with a hook and ropes. A number of suspects were interrogated based on the information in the video. Authorities found the cannon in the home of one of the suspects. Five men and two women are currently being investigated for crimes against cultural heritage.

“We reckon one of those being investigated decided to plunder the cannon on a whim because they thought it would make a nice decorative piece,” the Guardia Civil said in a statement. “But beyond any value it might have if you melted it down, it is an important piece because of the valuable historical and archaeological information it contains – information that gets lost if you remove it from its context and the place where it was found.”

Regional archaeologists believe it belonged to one of the ships of the 2nd Spanish Armada sent by Philip II to invade Ireland and England in 1596. This armada never even made it out of Spanish waters. It was struck with powerful storms off Cape Finisterre in Galicia. The fleet was utterly incapacitated: 43 ships lost, almost 5,000 dead from drowning during the storm or from the disease that ran rampant through the crew on the ships that managed to limp into ports. The disaster ended Spain’s attempts to open a second front against England by supporting the Irish rebels, and was such a huge financial hit to the crown that Philip had to declare bankruptcy. (Again.)

The cannon has been transported to the Museum of the Sea of ​​Vigo where it will it be studied and conserved along with its two brethren. After more than four centuries under salty sea water, the metal will need a sustained program of desalination in order the stabilize the piece and keep it from rapid deterioration now that it is exposed to air.


Unframed Botticelli reveals original paint

Monday, May 3rd, 2021

The removal of the frame encasing Sandro Botticelli and Filippino Lippi’s Adoration of the Kings in London’s National Gallery has revealed original paint, giving conservators a rich source of information to restore the tempera-on-wood masterpiece. The work has suffered hardships in the six centuries since it was painted, some accidental (water damage), some blunderous (drastic overcleaning). It was bought by The National Gallery in 1857, and it was so brutally “restored” that many details were lost.

In order to conserve it by modern standards, the National Gallery team first took X-rays which showed that the painting continued underneath the top of the frame. When restorer Jill Dunkerton and conservator Britta New removed it from its frame, they found that while very dirty, the paint underneath was in excellent condition compared to the main part of the composition which was sadly flattened by the terrible 19th century cleaning. The unframing also made new sense of the proportions of the figures and their grouping in three levels. The bottom of the frame had hidden a step and made the figures on the left and center look like they were different sizes for no reason.

The painting’s dimensions — 20 inches high and 54 inches wide — suggest that it may have originally been designed to fit a piece of furniture, so it’s unclear when it was first framed. The one that was removed dates to the 19th century when framers in Florence created a custom-carved frame that would accommodate the concave warp the long panel had developed by then.

Here’s a video of the frame being removed piece by piece:

It was painted around 1470, early in the careers of Sandro Botticelli and Filippino Lippi. Botticelli had just struck out on his own after working as an apprentice in the studio of Fra Filippo Lippi, Filippino’s natural father, who had died the year before. Filippino completed his apprenticeship in Botticelli’s new workshop and was listed as his sole assistant in the guild records of 1472. In an unusual twist, The Adoration of the Kings was started by Filippino and then completed by Sandro. Generally apprentices completed the works of the masters, not the other way around. Botticelli is likely responsible for the crowd of kings, horses and onlookers on the left, the dwarf and the man gazing upwards in the central section and the shepherds on the right; Filippino’s hand is evident in the Virgin and Child, the kneeling king kissing Christ’s foot and the entourage behind him.

The distant town, lake and rocks in the center background were copied from Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata by Jan van Eyck, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Early Northern Renaissance art was much in fashion in Florence at the time, and drawings of important works made their way south where Florentine artists used versions of them in their own designs.

Botticelli and Lippi’s northern inspiration gave Jill Dunkerton a unique window into what the original would have looked like before the scrubbing. She was able to study Van Eyck’s piece to recreate some of the lost detail, and the results of her retouching are pretty spectacular so far. Check out this video of her at work. The before and after of the rocks is a particularly striking contrast.


Gloriously gory St George Altarpiece restored

Friday, April 23rd, 2021

The Saint George Altarpiece, a masterpiece of wood carving by Flemish Renaissance sculptor Jan Borman, has gone back on display at the Art & History Museum in Brussels after three years of meticulous restoration that returned it to its original gory glory.

The retable is monumental in size at 5 meters (16’5″) wide and 1.6 meters (5’3″) high and features more than 80 figures carved in exquisite detail in a high Gothic architectural setting. It depicts seven scenes from the martyrdom of Saint George, who according to a 6th century hagiography suffered more than 20 different forms of torture over seven years in an unusually dedicated but nonetheless fruitless attempt to get him to renounce his beliefs. The scenes are dynamically composed, capturing the figures mid-motion: George quartered on a wheeled mechanism, George decapitated, George sawed through the head, George cooked on a brazier, George tied to a pole and flagellated, George roasted in a brazen bull, George hanging upside down over a fire.

The altarpiece was commissioned for the Chapel of Our Lady Outside the Walls at Leuven, founded in 1364 by the Guild of Crossbowmen. In those pre-Reformation times, members of the volunteer municipal militia (think Rembrandt’s Night Watch) had religious requirements as part of the job and often endowed chapels and churches which they then used for solemn ceremonies and to intercede with their patron saints. Saint George was one of them. In Leuven, members swore their oath of allegiance to the guild in the chapel, and they were required to bequeath their coats of arms and crossbows to the chapel after their death.

Politics appears to have played an important part in the commissioning of this altarpiece as well. Saint George also happened to the patron saint of Archduke Maximilian of Austria who had recently defeated Flemish rebels and retained control of the Netherlands. The Guild had sided against Maximilian, nearly emptying their coffers over the course of the rebellion. They spent the last of their ready cash commissioning the altarpiece from Jan Borman who was a favored court artist of Maximilian’s. It seems to have done the trick as Maximilian chose not to inflict punitive measures on the Guild.

The Crossbowmen recovered from the setback. They poured money into their chapel, commissioning exceptionally fine artworks like The Descent from the Cross by Rogier Van der Weyden, now in the Prado Museum because Philip II of Spain demanded it for his palace and bullied the city council of Leuven to sell it to him over the vociferous protests of the Guild of Crossbowmen.

Alas, that would not be the last the chapel was looted. In 1798 the government of the Batavian Republic, a client state of revolutionary France, abolished all the guilds and Our Lady Outside the Walls was sold. All of the art, all of the silver decorations, the gold leaf, even the copper from the chandeliers was sold off, leaving only an empty husk of a building. It was demolished later that year and private homes built at the site.

As the only extant signed piece by Borman and the only work of his whose original commission document has survived, the retable would be a unique treasure even if it weren’t widely acknowledged to be his greatest masterpiece. Experts from the museum and the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) took the opportunity to study the work in detail, dismantling the 48 separate wooden elements. They found hidden surprises. Small parts like fingers and an earring that had fallen off and been trapped under the foreground scenes and one rough hand-carved figure of a praying man. Radiocarbon analysis found that the prayerful man dates to the late 15th century, so researchers believe it may have been a votive that Borman secretly hid in the altarpiece as a prayer for grave.

Another surprise was found when the central scene was dismantled: a parchment left behind by one Sohest declaring he had done some restoration work on it in 1835. As the surreptitious addition of a parchment into the altarpiece might suggest, Sohest didn’t prioritize non-invasive conservation in as close to original condition as possible. The restoration team discovered that the wooden pegs and nails keeping the figures attached did not match the holes. Sohest had dismantled the scenes and put them back together in the wrong order. That inexplicable mistake has now been corrected and the scenes are now in the original order.

Emmanuelle Mercier, wood sculpture expert (KIK-IRPA): “Careful observation and laboratory analyses revealed that, contrary to tradition, the altarpiece had never been covered with polychromy. That also explains the remarkably fine carving of the wood, which would be lost even under the thinnest layer of paint. Jan II Borman also amazed us with his ability to carve complex scenes, with different figures, from a single block of wood. Tree ring analysis showed that he worked with the hard type of oak found in our regions. All these elements indicate exceptional talent.”

The restorers removed dust and dirt from the countless fine reliefs, glued the pieces of wood that over the years had fallen into the case, and consolidated areas weakened by woodworm. The layers of non-original nineteenth century patina in various shades and the black layer of wax that marred several faces were also thinned down and harmonised. Thus, the plasticity of the contours comes into its own again, and all the fine details are visible.


Michelangelo’s David is largest 3D print in the world

Sunday, April 18th, 2021

As one of the most famous sculptures in the world, Michelangelo’s David has been copied many, many times. Carved out of a massive single block of Carrara marble, Michelangelo’s David is 17 feet high and weighs 12,800 pounds, so every full-size copy was hard-won. When the original statue was taken out of the elements in the Piazza della Signoria to the protected confines of the Galleria dell’Accademia in 1873, a marble replica, also carved from a single massive block of white Carrara, was erected in its former location. The only other full-scale marble replica, made by  Sollazzini and Sons Studio of Florence for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, is now in the gardens of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium museum in St. Augustine, Florida.

Casts were easier to accomplish and a lot more common. In 1873, that same year the original David moved indoors, a bronze cast of the sculpture was installed in the newly-completed Piazzale Michelangelo. Leopold II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, had a life-sized plaster cast made as a gift for Queen Victoria in 1857. That copy is now on display in the V & A’s Cast Courts. A fiberglass replica was created in 2010 and installed on a buttress of the Duomo of Florence, David’s original intended location that never happened because it was so supremely impractical.

A new replica has now been created using 3D printing technology, creating an acrylic resin version of the original that is a precise twin. It began in December when the statue of David in the Galleria was laser-scanned and photographed in highest resolution. The digital details were then transmuted through the alchemy of the 3D printer into 14 pieces making up David’s whole. The pieces were assembled by restorers at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence.

It was then moved to Nicolas Salvioli’s laboratory where restorers spent two months coating the resin statue with an inch-thick layer of Carrara marble dust mixed with glue. The team used this mixture to reproduce the bulging veins, the original finishes, smooth and rough areas, even chisel blows and flaws in the marble. The final product is the most minutely precise replica of Michelangelo’s masterpiece ever made, only far lighter at only 882 pounds.

The 3D printed David has been transported to Dubai where it will be the star of the Italian pavilion of the Dubai Expo held from October 1st, 2021, and March 2022.


Giambologna strutting ostrich for sale

Monday, April 12th, 2021

One of only three known examples of a finely chased bronze ostrich from the workshop of Renaissance master Giambologna will be sold auction next week. It was previously owned by writer, parliamentarian and avid collector Horace Walpole and has been owned by the same family since it was sold by his great-nephew along with the rest of his extraordinary collection of art and antiquities 180 years ago. The pre-sale estimate is £80,000-£120,000 ($110,000-$165,000).

Citing his impressionistically modelled bronze birds created for the grotto in the garden of the Medici Villa at Castello, near Florence, in 1567, historic scholarship has attributed the ostriches to Giambologna. Indeed, other bronze models of ostriches attributed to Giambologna include an example in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, and in the Hermitage, St Petersburg. While these examples demonstrate that the ostrich was a popular subject during the period and was clearly part of Giambologna’s oeuvre, the Austrian and Russian examples lack the drama, potency and spontaneity of movement demonstrated by the three models previously discussed. Although some sources still attribute the models to Giambologna, in recent years the scholarship has begun to diverge, with some experts now attributing the work to Giambologna’s student, and heir to his studio, Pietro Tacca (1577-1640). This pivot is in part due to the stylistic similarity observed in Tacca’s delineation of the tails of his bronze horses to the dynamic and vivacious rendering of the ostriches’ plumage.

Horace Walpole, who was as avid a documenter as he was a collector, noted in his journal that he had bought it in Paris in 1765 or 1766. It joined the rest of his vast collection at Strawberry Hill, his Gothic Revival villa in Twickenham, London. In the exhaustive 1774 inventory of Strawberry Hill, the bronze ostrich is recorded as being placed in a window between a bronze Ibis and a bronze replica of the Laocoön Group, one of dozens of fine works of art and antiquities in the first-floor Gallery. It kept company with portraits by Rubens, Van Dyck and Lely, landscapes, seascapes, busts of Roman emperors and empresses, altars, urns, antique Japanese commodes, porcelains, coins and much, much more. Walpole described it is “an ostrich, very spirited.”

His great-nephew reused the description in the catalogue of the Great Sale of Strawberry Hill in April 1842. It was listed as “a fine antique bronze of an Ostrich, very spirited in effect, on a bronze scroll stand.” It was acquired by wealthy landowner John Dunn-Gardner and his descendants are the current owners.

The other two known examples of this striding ostrich are now in the collections of the Louvre and the Fitzwilliam Museum. The Louvre’s is the earliest recorded example, first documented in 1689, and it also the most active and dynamic and because of this experts believe it was the latest of the three. The Fitzwilliam’s is believed to be the earliest, as it has a less pronounced S-curved neck and less dramatic plumage. The example up for auction is midway between the two in dynamism and movement, so is thought to be the middle ostrich child.


Restored Ghent Altarpiece returns to Saint Bavo

Saturday, March 27th, 2021

Almost a decade after a comprehensive multidisciplinary program of conservation and restoration began, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, also known as the Ghent Altarpiece, has gone back on display at Saint Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent in a new high-tech setting.

The double-sided 12-panel polyptych by Hubert and Jan van Eyck has been relocated from a small chapel near the entrance to the Sacrament chapel, one of the largest chapels in the cathedral and close to the location where the altarpiece was first installed. The space was enlarged to make way for a new bespoke display case and to aid in the flow of traffic when visitors can once again flock to see the Northern Renaissance’s greatest masterpiece.

The custom case cost more than $35 million. It is bulletproof, climate controlled and contains pneumatically controlled steel supports that allow the wings of the panels to be opened every morning and closed every evening so at different times visitors can see both the vividly colored front of the panels and the muted tones and grisailles on the reverse.

Experts from the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA, Brussels) discovered a great deal about the iconic masterpiece, removing centuries of discolored varnish, retouches and overpaint to reveal the original work by the van Eycks. From 2012 until its completion at the end of 2019, the program’s archival research, radiography, multispectral imaging and ground-breaking technical study cast new light on Van Eyck’s original vision for the polyptych. The Mystic Lamb, central figure of the composition, got a completely new face, or rather got his first, much more human-like face back.

The research, documentation and imaging data were integrated into a truly best-in-class website with high-resolution photographs of the Ghent Altarpiece. The website has been active for years, sharing the results of this seminal study of the altarpiece in granular, brushstroke-level detail. Most recently, the complete oeuvre of Jan van Eyck, his studio and followers has been added to the site, so its purview goes far beyond the altarpiece alone.

Visitors to Saint Bavo’s will first be directed to the crypt where art works and objects related to the altarpiece and the Van Eycks, including the grave of Hubert van Eyck, are exhibited. The experience is enhanced by Microsoft HoloLens, which unlike VR helmets allows users to see the space as it is while adding a digital layer of augmented reality. The headset tours will illuminate the history of the altarpiece, how it was created, the meaning of its dense allegories and portraits.

For now, pandemic measures restrict the number of visitors allowed into the crypt and the chapel — 350 tickets a day for the former, five people at a time for the latter.





September 2021


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