Archive for the ‘Renaissance’ Category

Norway’s National Museum acquires rare Artemisia Gentileschi painting

Friday, September 30th, 2022

The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo has acquired a rare work by Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (1639-40). Donated to the museum by philanthropic the DNB Savings Bank Foundation, it is one of very few paintings by the Baroque master that is unambiguous in its attribution because she signed her name in Judith’s sword. The painting was only previously known from an old black and white photograph, so until this acquisition, art historians had no idea it was signed.

Judith slaying Holofernes was a subject Artemisia revisited repeatedly. This is one of her later versions. The fine weave of the canvas indicates it was not of Italian origin, which means she has to have painted it when she was in London working with her father and brothers on commissions from King Charles I between the end of 1638 and her return to Naples in 1640.

The painting will join other works by Artemisia Gentileschi at the National Museum. These include the early work Saint Catharine of Alexandria (1614–15), on loan from a private collection, and The Penitent Mary Magdalene (1640). The National Museum also holds an earlier Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, painted by Artemisia’s father Orazio Gentileschi (between 1608 and 1612), on which she must have worked while she was in training at her father’s studio. The new acquisition means that the National Museum is the museum with the most works by Artemisia Gentileschi outside of Italy.

“We are happy that this masterpiece now will be on display at the National Museum in Oslo. Now, the museum can show four paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi, and this is rare for any museum,” says Manager for Art and culture in the DNB Savings Bank Foundation, Anders Bjørnsen.

The painting will only be on display for a few weeks before it travels to Naples for an exhibition, Artemisia Gentileschi in Naples, at the Gallerie d’Italia. The exhibition focuses on the decade she spent living and working Naples (1630-1640), which includes the two year detour in London. Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes will return to Oslo in March 2023.


Export barred on roundel manuscript gifted to Queen Elizabeth I

Sunday, September 4th, 2022

A unique presentation manuscript given to Queen Elizabeth I by Archbishop of Canterbury Matthew Parker in 1573 has been sold at auction and is at risk of leaving the UK unless a buyer can be found to keep it home. The UK’s Art Minister has placed a temporary export bar on the rare artifact in the hopes a museum or institution can raise its purchase price to keep it in the country.

The manuscript takes the unusual form of nine roundels in three rows conjoined by thin strips of vellum. In the middle of the center roundel is an oval blue and gold illumination of St. George and the Dragon bordered by the motto of the Knights of the Garter (“Honi soit qui mal y pense”). A Latin inscription around the edge of the roundel refers to the gift of an agate Archbishop Matthew Parker gave to Queen Elizabeth I.

The center roundel of the bottom row features a miniature profile portrait of Queen Elizabeth in blue. Three Latin aphorisms surround the portrait in three concentric rings. The rest of the roundels all contain inscriptions only. The top row inscriptions define agate in French. The remainder are Latin texts on agate and its property. The different languages are written in different calligraphic scripts, an elegant touch seen in other manuscripts presented to Elizabeth.

The presentation manuscript accompanied a gift, described by Matthew Parker as “a salt cellar made of gold, into the cover of which was inset a jewel, an agate, containing St George killing the dragon, along with verses in French upon the customary royal insignia; in the curved section or hollow of this was enclosed another agate, incised into which was a true likeness of the Queen on white agate. On the top of its cover, a small golden boat held a rectangular diamond.”

Experts believe the “verses in French” he mentions are the actual manuscript, that all nine roundels were folded up to form a single paper circle 1.5 inches in diameter. That disc was then inset into the cover of the precious salt cellar.

The manuscript is an extremely rare surviving artifact directly connected to the summer progresses, the Tudor monarchs’ practice of packing up the court and traveling through the country with a gigantic baggage train, crashing at the luxury pads of assorted nobles and clergy entirely on their dime. Elizabeth did more than two dozen summer progresses during her 44 years on the throne. Crowds of people assembled to behold the spectacle and pageantry of the queen, her courtiers and household parading through town.

On September 7th, 1573, the summer progress was in Canterbury where she, her retinue, the French ambassador and his entourage of 100 were invited to dine at the Archbishop’s Palace by Matthew Parker. It was the Queen’s 40th birthday, so Parker was not only responsible for the expense of feeding, housing and entertaining hundreds of people and one queen with very expensive tastes, but he also had to step up his gifting game. The salt cellar and what it contained — not salt but six Portuguese gold coins — was a showpiece gift. The Archbishop’s son John Parker recorded that for this one visit, Matthew Parker spent more than £2000 in entertainment and gifts alone, not counting the £170 in cash he gave to the Great officers of the Queen’s household.

After the queen’s death, the presentation manuscript fell out of view,  remerging a century later in the collection of John Sharp, Archbishop of York. It remained in that family for 300 years until it was sold at auction on December 7th, 2021. The new owner applied to the Culture Ministry for an export license, which has now been deferred until December 1st of this year. If a UK buyer comes forward with the recommended price of £9,450 (plus £390 VAT), the manuscript will stay. If they have a good chunk of that price with evidence of ability to raise the rest, the license will be deferred another six months.

[Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest] Member Peter Barber said:

“These evocative, obscurely-worded and miraculously preserved roundels take us back to power politics and culture at the heart of Elizabeth I’s court. They are a tangible record of a vital and dangerous moment in our religious and political history when the delicately-crafted Anglican Settlement seemed to be in danger, but their wording still has to be fully interpreted and understood.

While Tudor gift lists and sometimes the gifts themselves survive, such intrinsic – but cryptic – evidence for the mentality behind the gift -giving is perhaps unique. I fervently hope the roundels will remain in this country where outstanding collections and libraries – not least that of Archbishop Parker himself – would enable their plentiful remaining mysteries to be investigated and explained with a thoroughness that would simply not be possible elsewhere in the world.”


Padua’s 14th c. frescoes get World Heritage status

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2022

Last year, a cycle of 14th century frescoes in eight different buildings in the ancient northern Italian city of Padua were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. The frescoes cover 40,000 square feet of walls and ceilings painted by six artists over 95 years in both secular and religious buildings. What unifies them is their visual style that marks a turning point in the understanding of spatial relations and optics in European painting. These frescoes incarnate the shift from the abstract formality of Byzantine style to the naturalism and perspective of Renaissance painting.

The most famous of the sites is the Scrovegni Chapel, frescoed by Gothic master Giotto di Bondone. This is considered the greatest surviving example of his work, and not just in the sense that it is in vividly brilliant condition, but because in this pictorial cycle he introduced realistic portrayals of human emotion, spatial perspective and trompe l’oeil architectural effects. It would become a model for his contemporaries and the artists that followed him.

In just two years between 1303 and 1305, Giotto covered the entire internal surface of the chapel with 39 scenes from the Life of the Virgin and the Life of Christ divided into three rows and six columns of panels, plus the arched space of the eastern wall above the altar. The first six are scenes from the lives of Joachim and Anne, Mary’s parents, who actually aren’t in the canonical Bible, only in the apocrypha. In an art historical first, Giotto painted them kissing.

The fourth row on the bottoms of the nave walls feature smaller panels depicting the Seven Vices and Seven Virtues in a faux marble stone finish. As with the Sistine Chapel, the long view of the nave culminates in a floor-to-ceiling fresco of The Last Judgement on the entire western wall. The ceiling is a deep blue firmament dotted with gold stars and roundel portraits of the Apostles, prophets, saints, Jesus and Madonna and Child.

The context behind the art is also of great historical significance. Giotto was commissioned to paint this chapel by a banker, Enrico Scrovegni. Patrons of art on this scale were typically high clergy or royalty and aristocracy. The Scrovegni Chapel commission marked a significant shift in the social and economic status of burghers, one made explicit by Giotto’s including of the banker kneeling at the foot of Christ in The Last Judgement, firmly on the side of the Heaven-bound. He holds a model of the chapel itself, making an offering of it to God. With this, the patron was no longer a king or Pope, and he was no longer an extra making a cameo appearance in a devotional scene. He was a central figure in the very thick of the action.

Another one of the eight buildings is even more spectacular an architectural survival as it is a masterpiece of frescoing. The Palace of Reason served as Padua’s marketplace, town hall and civil court. The ground floor was completed in 1219 and is the oldest covered market in Europe, still used as such today. Two loggias were added on top of the ground floor between 1306 and 1309, and a large wooden roof shaped like the overturned hull of a ship. It was built with trusses, liberating the interior from cumbersome central columns. Originally divided into three chambers, the great hall (known as the Salone) became a single wide-open space 267 feet long when the partitions were removed after a devastating fire in 1420.

The original frescoes painted by Giotto on the vault of the Salone depicting astrological motifs, allegorical figures and religious scenes were destroyed in the fire. The room was repainted by Nicolà Miretto and Stefano da Ferrara based on the visible traces of Giotto’s originals. More than 300 panels depict the stars, their effect on human character and events, religious subjects, animals and the civic magistrates — judges, notaries — who worked in that space.

In pride of place inside the Salone is a black porphyry drum on a stepped square base. This is the infamous Pietra del Vituperio (Stone of Vituperation) where insolvent debtors were forced to sit, garbed only in their underwear, and repeat three times “Cedo Bonis” (I give up my goods). He was then relieved of his burden of debt, but had to leave the city immediately. If he returned without permission from his creditors, he would be put back on the Stone of Vituperation and dowsed with three buckets of cold water.

This was the merciful approach bankruptcy; previously debtors in Padua had been imprisoned for life. It was Saint Anthony who successfully pleaded with municipal authorities to stop giving life sentences for debt just before his death in 1231. After the good friar died, however, the city added the Pietra del Vituperio to the bankruptcy process. The stone has been in the Salone ever since, although it hasn’t been used for its original purpose in a long time.

The city has created a single-ticket track with accompanying app dubbed Padova Urbis Picta (Padua Painted City) for visitors to experience all eight of the frescoed sites in the World Heritage list.  You can take virtual guided tour of the extraordinary frescoes by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel in this digital replica with ultra-high resolution photographs. I highly recommend zooming in on the bottom right of the Last Judgement to get a closer look at the rich details of Hell and its many kinds of sinners.


“Second Sistine Chapel” restored at Europe’s oldest hospital

Friday, July 22nd, 2022

The magnificent Renaissance ward of the oldest hospital in Europe, the complex of Santo Spirito in Saxia on the Vatican banks of the Tiber in Rome, has been restored. Two years of work have repaired the carved wooden ceiling, the masonry and the interior and exterior plaster, reviving the huge expanse of frescoes and polychrome painted wood architectural elements.

The hospital started out as more of a hostel. The Schola Saxonum was founded in 727 by King Ine of Wessex on the ancient site of the pleasure gardens of the villa of Agrippina the Elder, daughter of  Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and Julia, daughter of Augustus. Located on the Tiber under the shadow of Constantine’s ancient basilica of St. Peter’s, the schola provided accomodation and assistance to English travelers on pilgrimage ad limina apostolorum (“to the threshold of the apostles”). No fewer than 10 English kings, Alfred the Great among them, are known to have lived there for extended stays when they made their pilgrimages to Rome. In 794, one of those kings, Offa of Mercia, funded the addition of a xenodochio, a small building where strangers could get a little food and sleep, to the schola’s church.

Damaged by repeated fires and Saracen raids in the 9th century, the Schola Saxonum was repaired around 850 and again in the 11th century, but its use as accommodations for the crowned heads of Northern Europe was over by then. There were no Anglo-Saxon crowned heads after the Norman Conquest of England, for one thing, and Rome was no longer the only game in town when it came to major relics and martyrdom sites. Santiago de Compostela drew in huge numbers of pilgrims to venerate the relics of Saint James the Apostle. By the end of the 12th century, Canturbury was the premier destination for English pilgrims, drawn by the martyrdom site and miraculous relics of Saint Thomas Becket, and the schola in Rome languished from neglect.

Then Innocent III had a dream. Several, actually. In 1198, the Pope was plagued by a series of recurring dreams in which fishermen on the Tiber drew up the bodies of infants in their nets, illegitimate babies thrown into the river by adulterous women seeking to eliminate the living evidence of their sin. The fishermen presented the corpses of these drowned babies to the horrified pope. An angel then commanded Innocent to build a hospice for exposed babies.

He rebuilt the schola and xenodochio into a hospital dedicated to the care of abandoned infants, the sick and indigent. Built into one of the exterior walls was a “wheel of the exposed,” a wooden lazy susan behind a little door on which infants could be placed anonymously.

In 1471, the hospital was ravaged by a fire that left it in shambles. The newly-elected Pope Sixtus IV visited the hospital and decried its dark, airless, crumbling environment. He ordered a full reconstruction of the facilities in anticipation of the upcoming 1475 jubilee year. The resulting structure, dubbed the Corsie Sistine (“Sistine Wards”), was the first example of Renaissance civic architecture built in Rome.

The hall is 120 meters (394 feet) long and 12 meters (39 feet) wide. It is divided into two spaces by an octagonal tiburio (a tower or lantern over the crossing of the galleries). Under the tiburio in the center of the Corsie is a ciborium (a canopy built four columns over an altar) that is the only known work in Rome of Renaissance master architect Andrea Palladio. The long walls facing each other are frescoed with more than 60 scenes depicting the founding of the hospital by Innocent III on one side and the life of Sixtus IV on the other. That’s 13,000 square feet of frescoes. You can see why it’s compared to the other Sistine Chapel, also built by Sixtus IV (although that one was famously frescoed under the papacy of his nephew, Julius II).

Soon hospitals built on the model of Santo Spirito in Saxia sprang up all over Europe. Before Innocent III’s dream, there were no hospitals dedicated to the care of the indigent and abandoned babies. By the end of the 15th century, there were 1,000 of them. Today the Renaissance ward is part of the modern Santo Spirito hospital complex and care and maintenance of the historic building played second fiddle to the hospital’s primary focus on patient care and medical research.

Financed by the Lazio Region for the ASL Roma 1, the restoration work has also focused on the ciborium which over the centuries, says the restorer Maria Rosaria Di Napoli, was “marked by dirt and [water] percolation from above. The greatest difficulty is balancing the different materials , because this is a jewel: we have polychrome and gilded wood, stucco, canvas, marbles. The colors were hardly seen anymore. Even the lantern, all made of wood, due to the water, had lost a lot of pictorial surface.

The Corsie Sistine is now open to visitors. In future, more historic hospitals in Italy are slated for restoration in a new initiative by the culture ministry to promote their extraordinarily deep bench of architecture and art off the beaten path of museums, churches and grand palazzi.


16th c. prayer nut sells for six times estimate

Thursday, July 7th, 2022

One of the rare 16th century miniature boxwood carved prayer beads that was displayed at the groundbreaking 2016 traveling exhibition Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures sold for six times its presale estimate at a Sotheby’s London auction on Tuesday. The intricately-carved masterpiece was estimated to sell for £60,000 – 80,000 (S72,000 – 96,000), but bidding quickly blew past those figures and the prayer bead ultimately sold for £604,800 ($726,000).

The polyptych prayer nut was carved in the northern Netherlands in the first quarter of the 16th century. It is attributed to the workshop of Adam Dircksz and is a particularly splendid example of a very short-lived art form. Barely more than two inches in diameter when closed, it is a hinged sphere carved from a single piece of boxwood. The exterior is decorated with layered open tracery. When open, the two interior hemispheres are deeply carved with scenes crammed full of people in dynamic postures. The top register depicts the Crucifixion of Christ; the bottom half depicts Christ’s trial before Pontius Pilate with tiny scenes of the Flagellation and Christ Bound in the background of the deep relief.

Two semi-circular wings close over the top half. They are carved in low relief on both sides. The exterior of the wings features a scene of Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss. The interior of the wing shows Christ carrying the cross, the Lamentation and the Entombment.

This was a pater noster prayer bead. The owner would recite the Our Father while touching the complex openwork tracery to aid in focus, then open up the hemispheres to meditate on the scriptural passages and hymns carved around the edges and the devotional scenes on the interior. It was likely worn on a belt or a large rosary.

Of the 60 or so surviving prayer nuts, only 11 of them have interior wings, and they are in museums, including one in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art which is almost identical in motif and design. It too is carved with a scene of the Crucifixion in the top half of the bead and Jesus before Pilate in the bottom half. The one that just sold came from a German private collection. They basically never come up for auction, making this one extra covetable and driving up the price.


Mary, Queen of Scots’ silver casket of doom

Friday, May 20th, 2022

A luxurious silver casket believed to have contained the scandalous letters from Mary, Queen of Scots, to the Earl of Bothwell that were the pretext for her forced abdication and long imprisonment has been acquired by National Museums Scotland. £1.8 million

The casket was made in Paris between 1493 and 1510, which makes it an extremely rare survival of luxury Renaissance French silversmithing, much of which was melted down in the late 17th century by Louis XIV to fund his endless wars. There are no other French silver caskets of this type and quality known to survive. This one just happened to have left the country a century earlier, and its association with Mary, Queen of Scots is likely a large part of the reason it was preserved so well for so long.

As the experts on Antiques Roadshow always tell people to do, a note kept with the casket explains its connection to Mary. Written in the early 1700s, the note states that the casket was owned by Mary, Marchioness of Douglas, who sold it to Anne, Duchess of Hamilton. Mary told Anne that it once belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots.

Eight letters purportedly written by Mary, Queen of Scots, were the crux of the case made for her deposition by the Earl of Moray and other Confederate Lords. The letters, they claimed, proved she had had an illicit affair with the Earl of Bothwell and had conspired with him to kill the Queen’s husband Lord Darnley. The letters proved no such thing and there’s a strong chance they were forgeries anyway, but the pretext worked. Mary was forced to abdicate and fled to England seeking the protection of her cousin Queen Elizabeth I. Instead, Elizabeth ordered an investigation into whether Mary had indeed murdered Darnley and although the inquiry was inconclusive, Mary was held captive in a sequence of castles for 19 years until 1586 when she was tried and executed for plotting to overthrow Elizabeth.

The letters and casket went to a round-robin of Scottish lords after that. Moray, regent of Scotland after Mary’s convenient removal, had the letters for a while, then James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton. Mary’s son, the future James VI, is believed to have destroyed the original letters in 1584. Only a few copies exist today.

The casket was acquired by Mary Gordon, second wife to the 1st Marquis of Douglas, in the 1630s. Whether it is the actual casket that contained the letters used against Mary is unknown, but it such a high-end piece it is entirely plausible that it belonged to her at some point.

This ornate object was made by an extremely skilled goldsmith. We can tell that the goldsmith was in Paris from two maker’s marks stamped into its external underside panel. They have a crowned fleur-de-lis identifying the casket as Parisian, which sits above two symbols for the specific goldsmith, a fire steel or strike-a-light with a small Greek-type cross beneath it. After 1506, the French king Louis XII ordered the Parisian goldsmiths to start using a new type of mark, which means the casket must have been made by this time.

The decoration on the lid is known as ‘strapwork’, with alternating wide bands of three-dimensional scrolling leaves and flowers, and narrower, flat bands of flowerlets. The decoration of the sides is very different, with pinpricked flowers, birds, a rabbit, and a running stag and dog. This work may have been done later, and further scientific work will attempt to see if it replaced a previous design.

On one side is an engraving of the arms of the Dukes of Hamilton, with their distinctive symbol of the birlinn, or galley, in the second and third quarters. Three cinquefoils appear in the first and fourth quarters. When magnified, you can see that these arms have replaced something that has been erased. According to the provenance note, these were the arms of the Marquis of Douglas, and before that, of Mary, Queen of Scots.

The casket is now on display in the National Museums Scotland’s Hawthornden Court. In August it will be moved to its permanent location in the Kingdom of the Scots gallery where other artifacts and documents connected with Mary are displayed.


Young Knight shines again in complex landscape

Tuesday, May 17th, 2022

Young Knight in a Landscape (c. 1505) by Vittore Carpaccio is one of the most iconic masterpieces of the many masterpieces of Madrid’s Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza. A comprehensive new study and restoration program undertaken in public view in 2020 and through March of 2021 has removed yellowed varnish and muddied overpainting to reveal the original rich colors of this uniquely complex symbolic landscape. The painting is now part of a special exhibition dedicated to the work, its imagery and the restoration itself.

The large-scale painting depicts a young man in plate armour drawing or sheathing his sword. His red hose show under the armor strapped to his right leg. He stands on a path bordered by a variety of plants. A snow-white ermine is in the glad on the left. Behind him the walls of a city extend to the vanishing point, overlooking a body of water. Animals — rabbits, deer, dogs, a veritable conference of the birds — abound on land, sea and sky.

In the left middle ground immediately behind the knight, a second one emerges from a dilapidated fortress. Mounted on a dun steed, he complements the central subject with his yellow and black checkered livery that matches the standing knight’s shoes, barely visible shadows underneath his chain mail. The mounted knight is armed with pieces the standing knight doesn’t have — a pike, a helmet with visor — and a peacock is perched on his helmet.

The work contains a wide range of symbolic elements, each of which has significance and meaning: the fauna, flora, landscape, figures, all transmit an interconnected message. Each detail is located in a strategic position within the composition in order to create a narrative associated with the virtues and deeds attributed to the figure and in order to exalt his memory. Like the lance that the mounted knight holds and points towards a falcon (symbol of vision, strategy, knowledge and victory) perched on a branch at the upper right corner. In turn, this imaginary line connects with the dog that accompanies the knight and is a symbol of fidelity and sacrifice. Other “lines” radiating from the falcon link the principal figure with different details among the many to be found in this work. The result is an invisible network of lines that connects all these elements to the principal figure, forming a grid in which he appears to be trapped and thus involved in this tension.

The figure of the young knight is made up of two opposing halves: the upper half – clad in Italianate armour with simple rivets and motifs of feathers or scales on the arm guards and gorget – is shown as resigned and melancholy while the lower half, with floral motifs decorating the different parts of the German-style armour, is shown as decided and arrogant. The knight’s sword divides these two parts of the figure, a duality that is repeated throughout the painting and which refers to the opposition of good and evil, victory and defeat, the heavenly and the earthly realms.

Some scholars believe it to be a portrait of a real person rather than a pure allegory. If it is a true portrait, it would be the oldest full-length portrait known. One possible candidate proposed by the museum is Venetian naval captain Marco Gabriel, who fought Ottoman forces in the siege of Modone (a strategically important port in the Peloponnese) in 1500. He was captured and executed when the Ottomans took the city.

This hypothesis explains the presence of the walled city in the painting, which is possibly an idealised version of the fortress, as well as the destroyed building on the left of the composition from which a rider emerges; a young knight mounted on a dark charger (symbol of inner wisdom and death), accompanied by his faithful dog in an allegorical image of the knight’s soul embarking on its path towards rebirth. According to this theory, this journey is also symbolised in the trees on the other side of the scene: a leafy oak in the background, its autumnal version in the middle ground and a cut-down tree next to the principal figure from which new shoots are growing and which has a cartouche with the name of the artist and the painting’s date.

This cartouche was rediscovered underneath old overpaints during cleaning in 1958, as was the one with the inscription “Mal mori quam foedari” (Rather dead than dishonoured), rediscovered next to the ermine. 

The motto next to the stoat in his winter white fur suggests the knight may have been a member of the chivalric Order of the Ermine, an honor conferred by the Dukes (and Duchess Anne) of Brittany who had stylized black-tipped ermine tails in their coat of arms. 

The museum has created an excellent video about the restoration and technical study of the painting. Visitors to the museum will be able to enjoy that video next to the portrait in the new exhibition, but the rest of us will have to make do with YouTube and the museum’s magnificent gigapixel image of Young Knight in a Landscape which puts you eye-to-beady-eye with the ermine.


Stolen Nostradamus manuscript returns to Rome

Thursday, May 12th, 2022

An extremely rare 500-year-old manuscript of the prophecies of Nostradamus stolen from a library in Rome more than 15 years ago has been found in Germany. It was officially returned to the library on Wednesday, May 4th.

The work, written in Latin, is entitled Profetie di Michele Nostradamo and contains the French physician’s collection of 942 quatrains ostensibly predicting future world events, many of them borrowed from ancient sources, the Bible and known history. The first printed edition was published in 1555. This manuscript dates to the same time.

The manuscript was rediscovered last year when it came up for auction in Pforzheim, Baden-Württemberg, with a starting price set at €12,000  ($12,630). The seller was an unnamed art dealer. Italy’s Carabinieri Art Squad spotted the manuscript in the auction catalogue in April 2021, days before it was scheduled to go under the hammer. One of the pages published in the catalogue bore the clearly visible stamp “Biblioteca SS. Blasi Cairoli del Urbe” dated 1991. Italian prosecutors reached out to German authorities to report the suspected theft and the lot was withdrawn from the auction. The Stuttgart police confiscated the manuscript and stored it until the repatriation process was complete.

It is not known when exactly the volume disappeared from the library of the Barnabiti Center for Historical Studies, but its absence was first noticed in 2007. Italian and German police investigated the manuscript’s movements after it was stolen. It seems from Rome it made its way to Paris where it was sold at a book flea market. It then emerged in Karlsruhe before reaching Pforzheim and the auction house. The investigation is ongoing and the seller has not yet been charged with anything.


Michelangelo’s first sculptures restored

Friday, May 6th, 2022

Michelangelo’s first two sculptures, marble reliefs the  Madonna of the Steps and the Battle of the Centaurs carved when he was a teenager, have been restored and are on display at the Casa Buonarotti museum in Florence.

Michelangelo was just 15 years old when he moved to Florence in 1490 and joined the informal art academy sponsored by Lorenzo de’ Medici in his sculpture garden at Piazza San Marco in Florence. For two years, Michelangelo lived in the Medici Palace and studied in Lorenzo’s garden of antiquities under the guidance of Bertoldo di Giovanni, the sculptor and portrait medallist who was curator of Lorenzo’s antiquities and instructor of the young talents who studied there.

Michelangelo’s first sculpture (1490-1491) was the Madonna of the Steps, a low relief homage to Donatello’s relievo stiacciato (smashed relief) technique. The Madonna sits on a square stone block, the Christ child on her lap, his back to the viewer. On the left is the flight of stairs that gives the piece its name. At the top of the stairs a pair of putti wrestle while a third one looks away, leaning pensively over the bannister.

His second sculpture (1491-1492) was another relief, this one a dynamic, intricate, deeply-cut mythological scene of a battle between men and centaurs. Michelangelo took inspiration from Bertoldo’s largest bronze, a relief of a complex battle scene inspired by an ancient Roman sarcophagus that Lorenzo had commissioned a decade earlier.

Michelangelo kept both reliefs for his entire life. He considered the Battle of the Centaurs one of his greatest works, evidence that he should have stuck to sculpture from the beginning instead of getting sidetracked by annoying distractions like, oh, say, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. After his death in 1564, the Madonna was sold to Cosimo I de’ Medici by Michelangelo’s nephew and heir (under some duress). Grand Duke Cosimo II returned it to the Buonarroti family in 1616. The Battle of the Centaurs has been in the Buonarroti family for five unbroken centuries. Both reliefs are part of the permanent collection of the Buonarroti House.

In 2020, the museum embarked on a new conservation project for the two works. Non-invasive imaging techniques were used to assess condition and plan the subsequent interventions.

Battle of the Centaurs after restoration. Photo by Antonio Quattrone. Battle of the Centaurs before restoration. Photo by Antonio Quattrone. After twenty-five and thirty years respectively after the restorations carried out on the works, the new cleaning intervention was functional to remove the subtle stratifications of atmospheric deposits of a coherent and incoherent nature that opacified and chromatically altered the reliefs. In fact, the color of the marble, changed due to the alteration and penetration of the materials used during the nineteenth-century calculations (waxes, oils, soaps) and of the restoration materials (waxes and solvents such as the slightly amber-colored turpentine used in the case of the Battle of the Centaurs for example) has reached a balance which, after the current cleaning operation, allows the high relief to be read in its technical sculptural data in a clear and harmonious way.

The cleaning to which the works were subjected gave such results as to make the pre-existing setting no longer suitable for their best enhancement, which saw the reliefs on a light background that mortified the color and the modeling of the two marbles. In the new layout, anthracite-colored painted metal structures have been designed that make the two reliefs stand out. The story of both works is entrusted to a short, very comprehensive text on the history of collecting and art, written in anthracite-colored characters on a light gray background in both Italian and English. Furthermore, the new LED lighting allows the sculptures to be read in every detail.

Michelangelo’s two earliest masterpieces are now the in the refurbished Room of Marbles of the Casa Buonarroti.

Video of the Madonna of the Steps undergoing conservation:

Video of the Battle of the Centaurs undergoing conservation:


The Duke of Urbino’s magical studiolo

Monday, April 18th, 2022

Inside the 15th century Ducal Palace of Urbino is a small room so spectacular that it’s hard to believe your own eyes. It is the studiolo, the tiny private study of Federico III da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino from 1444 until his death in 1482. He was an exceptionally cultured and literate man, and the palace he had built reflected his interests. His library was the second largest collection of books in Italy after the Vatican’s, and he opened it to all citizens of Urbino making it the first public library in Italy. The walls of the palace are adorned with painting by Old Masters like Raphael, Titian, Piero della Francesco and della Robbia ceramics. The doors of the throne room depicting Apollo and Athena were designed by none other than Sandro Botticelli.

Like the Botticelli doors, the duke’s studiolo is a masterpiece of a non-painterly medium: marquetry inlay, aka intarsia. Small but beautifully-appointed studies were popular in the palaces of Renaissance aristocrats. They were tiny oases of seclusion where the owners could enjoy private reflection. Federico da Montefeltro’s studiolo was in the heart of the Ducal Palace of Urbino, between rooms he used to receive and for public functions and the palace’s chapel. He used it for private contemplation, mostly, and only his most illustrious guests were invited to cross its threshold.

Now visitors to the Ducal Palace can enter this inner sanctum to be as astonished as his exalted guests must have been. The room is square with a decorative pilaster against one wall that creates two niches on either side of it. Its extreme tininess is masterfully disguised by wood inlay walls in linear perspective attributed to the workshop of brothers Giuliano and Benedetto da Maiano. The marquetry technique employed here is so vertiginously precise as to create a fully immersive illusion of depth, landscape and architecture on the flat walls of the tiny room. The pilaster, for example, is framed with fluted “columns” bracketing a basket of fruit and a squirrel in the foreground. Behind them a patio reaches back to an arched portico that opens to a hilly landscape. Beneath this scene are fretwork cabinet “doors,” one of them left open.

The lower register of the intarsia walls features fretwork panels underneath trompe l’oeil benches, some of which have lifted seats. Above the “seats” is a slim middle register consisting of small rectangular panels on which are represented ducal emblems. The top register is composed of rectangular “cabinets” divided by “columns.” Inside the cabinets are books, candles scientific instruments and musical instruments representing the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy) of the seven liberal arts. Between the cabinets are inlay figures representing the three Theological Virtues (Faith,  Hope and Charity/Love) and Federico himself with this distinctive notched nose.

(Small digression over the nose. Federico was wounded in a tournament in 1451. The injury took his right eye and damaged the bridge of his nose, severely limiting his field of vision and seemingly at one blow losing him his job as condottiero (military leader for pay) for the Sforza family of Milan. Federico ordered a surgeon to remove the damaged bridge of his nose and the eyelid of his lost eye. It was a drastic approach, but an effective one, restoring his field of vision sufficiently to get him back in the saddle, so to speak, leading men on the battlefield.)

The left niche has a closet in which the Duke’s armature, symbol of his exceptional skill at arms that earned him the reputation as one of the most successful condottieri in Renaissance Italy, is hanging at rest. This speaks to the purpose of the room. In his studiolo, he could set aside the active life for a brief time and embrace the contemplative life. Indeed, the portrait of him in the top register depicts him draped in Classical robes and holding a lance with the tip pointed downwards. The condettiere lays down his weapons here and becomes the humanist thinker.

If Urbino is a bit of reach, you can see the very similar marquetry studiolo from Federico da Montefeltro’s palace in Gubbio at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The entire room was sold by the Lancellotti family in 1937 to art and antiquities dealer Adolph Loewi. He sold it to the Met in 1939. 

This video tour of the studio is too brief for my taste, but it does convey the wonder of the space and the auto-translate CC isn’t half bad.





October 2022


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