Archive for the ‘Renaissance’ Category

Conserved Bacton Altar Cloth goes on display

Friday, May 17th, 2019

Bacton Altar Cloth, 16th century silk and embroidery textile believed to have been part of a gown worn by Queen Elizabeth I. ©Historic Royal Palaces/Courtesy of St Faith’s Church, Bacton.

After three years of study and conservation, the Bacton Altar Cloth is going on display at Hampton Court Palace. None of Elizabeth I’s clothing has survived, although a number of accessories have, so this cross-shaped piece is uniquely rare.

The embroidered silk textile was donated to  St Faith’s Church in Bacton, Herefordshire, by Blanche Parry who was one of Elizabeth’s most loyal and dedicated ladies. She served the future queen starting during the reign of Henry VIII when Princess Elizabeth was a young girl and continued uninterrupted for 57 years, reached the exalted rank of Chief Gentlewoman of Queen Elizabeth’s most honourable Privy Chamber and Keeper of Her Majesty’s jewels. The queen is known to have given Blanche clothes she longer wanted.

While there is no specific record of this particular textile being a royal hand-me-down, its materials and manufacture are so exquisite that it would have been literally illegal for a non-royal to wear such a garment. A monarchical provenance would also explain why Blanche considered the piece important enough to donate to her hometown church where her heart is also buried.

The altar cloth’s connection to Elizabeth I has been rumored for centuries. Recognizing its importance, in 1909, the church took it off the altar and placed it in a glass display case. In 2016, St. Faith’s asked Historic Royal Palaces to study the altar cloth.

On examining the textile, [Historic Royal Palaces curator Eleri] Lynn – an expert in Tudor court dress – was able to identify previously unseen features, studying the seams of the fabric to confirm it had once formed part of a skirt.

Following the exciting discovery, Historic Royal Palaces – the independent charity that cares for Hampton Court Palace – agreed to commence a conservation programme to stabilise the fragile fabric in the palace’s world-class textile studio. Further examination of the cloth by experts has added weight to Lynn’s theory that it might once have belonged to the Tudor Queen. Its creation from high-status silver chamblet silk, use of professional embroidery including real gold and silver thread, and distinct evidence of pattern-cutting all suggest that the item could have formed part of Elizabeth’s lavish wardrobe. The conservation team were also able to test the dyes within the fabric, discovering that it contained expensive Indigo and red dye sourced from Mexico – the kind of materials only available to a person a very high status.

The embroidery is truly spectacular, a profusion of flora (columbines, daffodils, roses, honeysuckle, oak leaves, acorns, mistletoe) and fauna (peacocks, other birds, frogs, dragonflies, butterflies, caterpillars, fish, dogs, dear, squirrels, a crocodile, a bear). There are also small wooden boats being rowed by tiny embroidered people.

Detail of the embroidery of the Bacton Altar Cloth from the back: the bear. ©Historic Royal Palaces/Courtesy of St Faith’s Church, Bacton.

The exhibition will delve further into the use of these motifs in the Tudor era. One of the most important works on display, and one of the most significant pieces of circumstantial evidence for the altar cloth having been part of one of Elizabeth’s gowns, is the Rainbow Portrait (c. 1600 – 02), attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. It depicts Elizabeth in an embroidered silk gown with very similar imagery. It is being loaned from Hatfield House for the exhibition and this is the first time it will be on display at Hampton Court Palace.

Accompanying the painting will be a selection of rare domestic print books dating from the Tudor period, which would have provided inspiration for many of the embroidered motifs fashionable during Elizabeth’s reign – including those found on the Bacton Altar Cloth – brought together for the first time with other stunning embroidery work from the period.

The Bacton Altar Cloth will be on display from October 12, 2019, until February 23, 2020.

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Giorgione masterpiece loaned to Wadsworth

Thursday, May 16th, 2019

An extremely rare masterpiece by the Venetian Renaissance painter Giorgione has gone on display at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, from May 15 to August 4, 2019. La Vecchia (The Old Lady), is an unusual portrait of an elderly woman who stares open-mouthed at the viewer, reminding them that they too, if they’re lucky enough to live, will share her fate. It is being loaned to the Wadsworth by the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.

La Vecchia is Giorgione’s poetic response to the natural phenomenon of aging,” says Oliver Tostmann, Susan Morse Hilles Curator of European Art of the Wadsworth. “It is a milestone in European portraiture in which Giorgione shows old age with implacable explicitness. It prompts us to confront our own mortality and the inevitable truth of growing old.”

The hyperrealistic portrayal of a haggard woman looking directly at us both attracts and repels at the same time. With her lips open as if about to speak, she gestures to herself. In her hand is a slip of paper inscribed with the words col tempo, “with time.” Painted more than 500 years ago, the unsparing naturalism and representation of the effects of aging
are unexpected, a striking departure from the more familiar, idealized portraits of the time. A recent conservation treatment, funded by [the Foundation for Italian Art and Culture], has removed discoloration and breathed new life into La Vecchia.

What little biographical information we have about Giorgione comes primarily from Vasari’s  Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. Vasari first introduces him in his chapter on Sebastiano del Piombo who began as a student of Giovanni Bellini but switched to Giorgione because the latter had “brought into Venice the newer manner, with its superior harmony and increased vividness of colouring.” Giorgione, who had himself had studied under Bellini, had such a profound influence on del Piombo’s style, Vasari states, that Sebastiano’s works were sometimes mistakenly believed to have been painted by Giorgione.

According to Vasari, Giorgione was born in 1477 (the date may or not be accurate) in Castelfranco Veneto, a small medieval town about 25 miles from Venice. Though of humble origins, Giorgione had fine manners, a love of literature and music (he was an excellent lute player) and was so dedicated to capturing nature that he always painted from life. He was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s keen grasp of anatomical realism coupled with the softness of color and shadows of his sfumato. Vasari compares Giorgione’s grasp of proportion, design and naturalism to Leonardo’s, saying his works “approached very closely to the excellence of his model.” His portraits were so life-like, Vasari says, that “the face appears to be real rather than painted.”

Giorgione’s talent was widely recognized in Renaissance Venice. He received multiple commissions for portraits, altarpieces and frescoes from the wealthiest and most important families. Sadly, his brilliant career was cut short. He was in his 30s when he died of plague in 1510. He died of plague, which Vasari says he caught from his inamorata.

Today only six paintings are indisputably attributed to him. Several of the ones Vasari mentioned are now known to have been painted by contemporaries like Titian and Sebastiano del Piombo. The only one in the United States, the Adoration of the Shepherds at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is of disputed authorship. The competing view is that it is an early work of Titian’s, and it’s a much more formal, less naturalistic scene than the portrait of La Vecchia. That’s why the Wadsworth exhibition is such a unique opportunity for people Stateside to view Giorgione’s work.

After experiencing Giorgione’ La Vecchia visitors will be invited to view the Wadsworth’s collection of Italian works of art including important Venetian Renaissance paintings by artists such as Sebastiano del Piombo, Tintoretto, and Jacopo Bassano. A group of deluxe books designed for and published by the famed Aldus Manutius—Venice’s leading purveyor of ancient and modern texts, known for their elegant design—are on view adjacent the Giorgione, as is the museum’s Andrea Previtali, Madonna and Child with a Donor in a landscape (c. 1504–05).

“Rarely do we have such a prime opportunity to reconnect with our shared humanity and with the Renaissance,” says Thomas J. Loughman, Director and CEO of the Wadsworth. “La Vecchia is without parallel in America as a major allegorical portrait by Giorgione, and this recent conservation provides the perfect occasion to learn and appreciate the
ideas behind the painting afresh.”

Giorgione (c. 1477/78–c. 1510), La Vecchia, 1502–08. Oil on canvas, 26 3/4 x 23 1/4 in. (68 x 59 cm), Gallerie dell’Accademia, cat. 272, © G.A. VE Photo Archive, Courtesy of the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities—Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice.

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Reenactor shot with medieval cannon

Monday, April 29th, 2019

A woman was hit by a cannon ball during rehearsals for a historical battle reenactment commemorating the 500th anniversary of the death of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I in Mindelheim, Swabia, southern Germany. The 23-year-old woman was loading a medieval cannon when the weapon fired unexpectedly, hitting her directly on the arm.

Police have confirmed that the woman had the necessary licence for handling cannons. They also have indicated that they do not believe the injuries were the result of deliberate action on the part of another individual.

The injury was severe. She had to be flown by helicopter to a hospital in Munich where surgeons immediately operated to save her arm from amputation. It appears they were successful, although some news accounts report she lost a finger.

She was one of 350 reenactors from the Confederation of Upper Swabian Landsknechts (named after a famed corps of mercenaries ) engaged in the group’s yearly “Spring Drill Weekend.” I’m not sure why an event commemorating the death of Maximilian I on January 2nd, 1519, would require a battle reenactment completely with medieval cannon fire beyond the fact that people just dig firing cannons. Maximilian didn’t die on the battlefield or of a wartime injury or illness. He was traveling from the royal palace in Innsbruck to attend parliament in Linz, a long, arduous journey for a man who had already been sick for a long time at this point. From the description of his symptoms, it was probably colon cancer that claimed his life. He was 60 years old.

In his younger days he had name for himself as an outstanding jouster and military leader, however. His nickname was “the Last Knight,” because he embraced the idealized virtues of chivalry and was an avid student of the “seven knightly responsibilities” (riding, climbing, shooting, swimming, wrestling, dancing & courting, jousting). At the same time, influenced by humanist philosophy, Maximilian was a great patron of the arts, spoke and read multiple languages and introduced modern concepts and technologies to the field of battle.

One example of of his novel approach was his founding of the first Landsknecht army in 1488. He wanted a reliable, well-trained, organized force that could be called up whenever necessary instead of a mishmash of feudal lords with troops loyal to them, assorted mercenaries and infantry that had to be levied and dissolved before and after every conflict. The Landsknechts were highly successful, developing a reputation for skill that saw them fight all over Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Maximilian’s successor as Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, sent them to fight the French in Italy in 1527. When they didn’t get paid in a timely fashion, they mutinied. The 14,000 Landsknecht soldiers formed the majority of the troops who decided to get paid via pillage and infamously sacked Rome. Some of them made themselves at home in very grand style indeed. In the Hall of Perspectives in the Villa Farnesina, the room where Agostino Chigi had held his lavish wedding banquet just nine years earlier, restorers found this written on the wall close to the marital bedroom: “1528 –  “Why should I who write not laugh – the Landsknechts have set the Pope on the run.”

I almost wrote about that episode in the post on the restoration of The Wedding of Alexander and Roxanne, but decided it was a bit too tangential. It goes to show just how extra of a nerd I am that I was pleased to have a pretext to bring it up now courtesy of the reenactment group even though the news story it pivots off of is so grim.

Maximilian has made his presence felt on this here long blog before now, btw.  The Triumphal Procession, a gouache 117 feet long painted by Albrecht Altdorfer in praise of the Emperor’s military accomplishments, ancestors mythical and real, pagentry and wealth, went on display for the first time since 1959 in 2012 at the Albertina Museum in Vienna. A complete print of another of the works in that series, The Arch of Honour of Maximilian I, a monumental woodcut engraved by Albrecht Dürer, was displayed in 2015 after an incredible restoration by conservators at the National Gallery of Denmark’s Statens Museum for Kunst. The British Museum’s print was conserved around the same time and the process was so excellently documented I had to post about it to share the videos and images. Last but certainly not least, Maximilian was the first husband of adolescent duchess and all-around hardass Anne of Brittany.

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Farnesina wedding frescoes to be restored

Friday, April 26th, 2019

A High Renaissance fresco in the Farnesina palace in Rome will undergo a much-needed restoration this year. The Wedding of Alexander and Roxanne by Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, known as Il Sodoma (the Sodomite), has suffered from its proximity to the rising damp and constant traffic of the Tiber. There are cracks, areas where the paint is lifting, surface deposits from water and grime and plaster loss. The cleaning, protective glazes, consolidation of plaster and paint, stucco repair and reconstruction of missing wood elements are expected to be completed within the calendar year.

Bazzi, a contemporary of Raphael and Pinturicchio, was particularly sought out for his frescoes. He counted two popes and the nobility of Siena and Rome among his patrons. The Sienese banker Agostino Chigi, treasurer to Pope Julius II, owner of an international monopoly in alum and the richest man in Rome, hired Il Sodoma along with the likes of Raphael and Sebastiano del Piombo to decorate the interior of his villa in Trastevere.

Built as an bright and airy suburban palace, this home was planned and executed as a showpiece of untrammeled wealth. Unusually for his time, Chigi used it as a headquarters for his banking business as well as his personal home, and he wanted the design to convey all the grandeur money could buy. Raphael’s Triumph of Galatea and Cupid and Psyche cycles adorn the loggia on the ground floor.

The frescoes in the master bedroom on the first floor had a more private audience in mind. Sodoma painted scenes from the life of Alexander the Great: his marriage to Roxanne and his magnanimous reception of the family of Darius after the Persian defeat at the Battle of Issus. (Ten years later he would marry one of those family members, Darius daugther Stateira. Roxanne had her killed a year later after Alexander’s death.)

The principal scene is the wedding which occupies the north wall. Although it’s not really the wedding so much as the beginning of the honeymoon. Alexander holds out his crown, offering it to his new bride, while she sits on their marriage bed, eyes demurely downcast, body covered in name only by a gossamer drape of fabric, a winged Amorino at her shoulder and a bunch more at her feet.

Chigi commissioned the work in 1519 to welcome his own bride in High Renaissance style, and the symbolism of great king marrying the daughter of a minor Bactrian nobleman was pointed. Agostino’s love life had been checkered, to put it mildly. He had had been a lover of the celebrated courtesan Imperia, among many others, but his attempts at securing social advancement through marriage, most notably with Margherita Gonzaga, daughter of the Duke of Mantua Francesco Gonzaga, never came to fruition. In 1511, he met a pretty young girl in Venice. She was from a poor family, had none of the advantages of rank and wealth he was looking for in a spouse, but he fell in love with her and moved her into the villa to live with him. Over the next seven years, they had four children together.

Then, perhaps faced with an encroaching sense of his mortality, Agostino decided to make it legal. On August 28th, 1519, the feast of St. Augustine, his name day, Agostino Chigi wed Francesca Ordeaschi. Pope Leo X was the officiant. He threw in a little extra service when he legitimized Agostino and Francesca’s children after the wedding.

Agostino Chigi died in 1520. The villa was in 1580 by  Cardinal Alessandro Farnese the Younger who gave it his name (in explicit contravention of the terms of Chigi’s will). It remained in Farnese hands until 1735 when it was given to the Bourbon King Charles III of Spain and King of Naples and Sicily by his mother Elisabetta Farnese, Queen Consort of Spain. In 1927 the Farnesina was acquired by the Italian state. Today it is the seat of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, a prestigious national science academy.

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Treasures emerge from Rijksmuseum storage

Friday, April 19th, 2019

The Rijksmuseum is showcasing some of the humble magnificence from its storage depot. This group of domestic and everyday use objects haven’t been on display for at least a hundred years, overshadowed by the museum’s extraordinary collection of masterpieces.

They’re getting their moment in the sun thanks to the Netherlands Collection Centre , a new shared storage building currently under construction in Amersfoort which will maintain the stored treasures of the Rijksmuseum, Paleis Het Loo, the Dutch Open Air Museum and the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands all in one state-of-the-art facility. To prepare for the move, the Rijksmuseum is revising their inventory entries for each piece, taking new photographs and writing new descriptions.

The objects range in date from the Middle Ages to the 19th century and will be displayed in five different galleries. The Middle Ages are represented by the museum’s entire collection of bronze mortars and pestles, used in pharmacology and perfume-making and for grinding spices in the home. The oldest mortar is a marquetry red copper and niello piece made in Khorasan, Persia, between 1100 and 1225. It is octagonal on the outside and cylindrical on the inside. The rest of the collection are of European, mosty Dutch, manufacture and decorated with all kinds of motifs from florals to lion heads to saints and hearts and slightly threatening studded ribs.

The Dutch Golden Age, so often associated with great artworks by the likes of Rembrandt, is viewed through a homier perspective in 17th century fireplace and kitchen bricks and tiles and cast iron firebacks. They performed an important function, protecting homes from areas of open flame, but that’s no reason not to make them a beautiful adornment as well. If I didn’t love my kitchen and fireplace as they are, I would be sorely tempted to get my mastic on and cover every conceivable surface with them. I mean, Scipio and Hannibal glowering at each other across a roaring fire? Yes please.

We may think of them as relatively mundane objects today, but when the mirrors in this collection were made in the 16th through 19th centuries, they were extremely expensive in materials, craftsmanship and human life as toxic mercury was essential to the process. This is reflected in their frames, which featured elaborate gilding, carving, molding and marquetry inlay. Some aren’t even looking glasses, but rather used as a striking medium for portraiture.

Small in size but not in stature are textile samples from 19th and early 20th century designers. Fabric swatches by Theo Nieuwenhuis, a student of Pierre Cuypers, architect of the Rijksmuseum whose design paid a great deal of attention to interior decoration with colorful, highly patterned wall frescoes and furnishings, are examples of the upholstery and wall textiles that once adorned Amsterdam’s Shipping House and other important city buildings. Most of the original interiors were discarded and replaced when fashions changed or they wore out.

Because the Rijksmuseum is very kind to those of us not fortunate enough to have regular access to it, almost all the objects on display in this exhibition have been collected in a Rijkstudio gallery so we can browse them online.

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Oldest sea-going Dutch ship found in North Sea salvage

Thursday, April 4th, 2019

On the night of January 1st-2nd of this year, MSC Zoe, one of the largest container ships in the world, lost at least 345 containers during a spate of rough weather in the North Sea. About 150 of them were lost north of the German island of Borkum, another 200 or so southwest of that near the Dutch island of Terschelling. Whole containers and some of their contents — including electronics, toys, clothing, furniture and potentially explosive organic peroxides — were found on the shores of Borkum, Terschelling and the Dutch islands Vlieland, Ameland and Schiermonnikoog.

With so many containers and their contents, some hazardous, adrift in the ecologically sensitive coastal waters of the Frisian islands, Dutch salvage teams have been scouring the North Sea bed to clean up the debris. A salvage crew working a busy shipping lane found wood beams and copper sheets from a shipwreck and alerted authorities.

The Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands dispatched maritime archaeologists to investigate the shipwreck. It wreck was approximately 23 feet wide and 98 feet long when intact with a carvel-built hull. It carried a large cargo of copper plates. Analysis of the wooden beams found the timbers were felled in 1536 and the ship built no later than 1540 in the Netherlands. The copper plates bear the marks of the Fugger family, a wealthy banking dynasty from present-day southwest Germany who in the 16th century owned numerous copper mines and had the monopoly on copper production.

The ship was carrying both round and square copper plates. The round ones were up to four feet in diameter and .2 inches thick. Researchers believe they were probably used to make pots and pans. The square plates, on the other hand, were probably going to be used to make the copper coins. Chemical analysis indicates they have the same composition as the Netherlands’ first copper coins. Copper coins first came into circulation in the Netherlands in 1543. Before then only gold and silver were minted, and they were the province of the wealthy. The introduction of copper coins allowed the working and middle classes in the rising urban centers of the country to engage in the burgeoning cash economy.

The 1540 date makes this ship the oldest sea-going vessel ever discovered in Dutch waters. It is also the oldest known caravel-built ship, which makes it a uniquely significant artifact of the shift from the small clinker-built ships of the Middle Ages to the large oceanic vessels that made the Netherlands a great maritime power.

“A lot of people think of the Dutch as a maritime nation, and this ship tells us something about how we became that nation,” said maritime and underwater archaeologist Martijn Manders.

Mr Manders said this shipwreck is of great importance because it dates back to a period where ship-building technology was in a transition from the medieval period to the Dutch Golden Age.

Archaeologists will return to the site, whose exact location is being kept under wraps for now, next summer when wind conditions and temperatures are more conducive to exploration. They hope to reveal more of the ship’s hull, much of which remains covered in sediment. The Coast Guard and Heritage Inspectorate will patrol the shipping lane in the interim to protect the wreck.

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14th c. gold coin found in secret drawer

Tuesday, March 19th, 2019

Today in every-history-nerd’s-childhood-fantasy-come-true news, a rare 14th century gold coin was found in the secret compartment of a modest George II-style modern bureau. Amy Clapp inherited a bureau from her great cousin last Christmas. She doesn’t remember ever having met him and she certainly knew nothing about his furnishings. It’s a 20th century piece, solidly made, attractive but nothing of great value. It has two wide drawers and two half-width ones in the front, and a bunch of small ones when the desk is open. She looked through all the drawers and cubbies before calling Hansons Auctioneers to have it appraised for sale.

Furniture expert Edward Rycroft examined the piece to assess its value. He estimated it was worth about £80 ($106). Then he looked a little deeper and found three secret drawers. One of them held secret treasure.

He said: “I know bureaus like this often have tiny, secret drawers – sometimes called coin drawers – so I always check them just in case.But in 10 years of valuing furniture I have never found anything in them – until now.”

Much to his amazement, he discovered a 22ct gold coin hidden in a secret drawer. It turned out to be rare, more than 650 years old and highly valuable.

The Raymond IV Prince of Orange Franc A Pied coin dates back to 1365. Its guide price is £1,200-£1,800 but the experts at Hansons think it could sell for as much as £3,000. According to their coin valuer Don Collins, it’s very unusual. In more than half a century of coin valuing he has never seen one exactly like it.

Amy Clapp was thrilled by the unexpected windfall as her family has been through some hard times lately. Her daughter has a genetic condition, Bardet-Biedl syndrome, which has severely affected her sight. Mrs. Clapp works for the charitable organization Bardet-Biedl Syndrome UK and plans to donate some of the proceeds to the charity. Here’s hoping it sells way above estimate when it goes up for auction next month.

The bureau goes under the hammer tomorrow. I’d buy it in a heartbeat for twice the price. God I love secret compartments.

This video shows where the secret drawer was found in the desk.

Did I run to my modern Georgian repro secretary with a similar drawer layout as soon as I saw this video to pull the drawers all the way out in breathless hope of revealing a hidden compartment? Yes. Yes I did. Was there one? No. No there was not. Someday…

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Da Gama astrolable certified as world’s oldest

Monday, March 18th, 2019

The copper alloy disc discovered in a shipwreck off the coast of Oman in 2014 has been independently verified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s earliest known marine astrolabe. The disc was found in the debris field of the Esmeralda, one of the ships in the fleet Vasco da Gama took on his second voyage to India that sank in 1503. It had a hole in the middle and two raised decorations (a Portuguese royal coat of arms and the esfera armilar, King Manuel I’s personal emblem), but no unambiguous evidence of its function could be seen with the naked eye. In 2016, laser scans by Professor Mark Williams at WMG, University of Warwick, found lines etched along the edge of the upper right quadrant exactly five degrees apart, markers used by sailors to calculate their latitude. Those findings have now been confirmed by the Guinness Book researchers.

The exact date of the astrolabe’s manufacture could not be determined, but it had to have been made after 1495 when Manuel became King of Portugal and before 1502 when the ship departed Lisbon. Before this discovery, the oldest known astrolabe was found on a Portuguese shipwreck that sank off the coast of Namibia in 1533. The Esmeralda‘s bell dating to 1498 has also been confirmed as the oldest known ship’s bell, beating the previous record-holder the venerable Mary Rose, the Tudor flagship that sank in the Solent in 1545.

Oceanographer David Mearns of Blue Water Recoveries who led the diving team that discovered the wreck, University of Warwick researchers Mark Williams and Jason Warnett have published their findings on the astrolabe in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. It’s a great paper for layperson and scholar alike. It lays out the archaeological record of marine astrolabes, how rare they are overall and how almost none of them were excavated archaeologically which makes determining their provenance and background extremely challenging. Only ten were known in 1957 when the first astrolabe register was created by David Waters, curator of navigation and astronomy at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. As of publication, there are 105 astrolabes and four alidades (sights used on astrolabes) on the current list, which you can see a cool (but alas too small) picture of on page two of the paper. The Sodré astrolabe (named after Vicente Sodré who commanded the Esmeralda) is number 108.

It also explains the whole story of how and why the Sodré brothers and their ships wound up in pieces off the coast of an Oman island and covers the excavation in which more than 2,800 objects were recovered, an incredible wealth of archaeological material that lends invaluable insight into Portuguese navigation in the Age of Discovery.

The paper goes into the astrolabe’s discovery and the results of years of study, but it also explains its significance in the larger context of the invention and earliest use of astrolabes.

What can be made of the observation that the Sodré astrolabe was only marked at 5-degree intervals and not with the 1-degree gradations seen in all other mariner’s astrolabes? Is it possible that at the time it was created the Portuguese, or at least the maker of this particular specimen, had not refined or standardized the design of their instruments to allow measuring altitude to the precision of 1-degree? Cline (1990: 130) claims that prior to the development of the heavy, open-wheel types, the early navigators were unable to take measurements within four to five degrees even on a ship that was not rolling. This might explain the absence of individual degree marks in the Sodré astrolabe if 5-degree divisions were deemed to be adequate by the navigators, presuming they could always estimate the position of the alidade between scale marks. Considering the general corroded state of the undecorated side and perimeter of the Sodré astrolabe, it is equally possible, however, that the individual gradations have been eroded away and that the faint traces of the 5-degree gradations were preserved because of their position further from the perimeter or possibly because the maker had scored them to a greater depth. […]

The astrolabe is unique in the archaeological record in a number of ways. It is the only known solid disc (type 0) mariner’s astrolabe with a verifiable provenance and age. This suggests it might be a transitional instrument in the development of mariner’s astrolabes.[…]

The Sodré astrolabe is also unique in that, of the 104-known instruments, it is the sole specimen decorated with a national symbol: the royal coat of arms of Portugal. Together with Manuel’s esfera armilar, these decorations dominate one side of the Sodré astrolabe. Their conspicuous placement, in relief, ensures that they stand out and would appear to mark the astrolabe as an object of the state. This is significant in light of Manuel’s use of royal symbolism to project his power at the precise time Portuguese ships were discovering new lands and his country was on the cusp of building the world’s first global empire.

Seriously, this is a page-turner, one of the most interesting, content-rich and comprehensible research papers I’ve read in a long time.

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Raphael’s School of Athens cartoon restored

Thursday, March 7th, 2019

The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio is widely considered the visual embodiment of the rebirth of classical philosophy and art that gave the Renaissance its name. Raphael painted the fresco for the Stanza della Segnatura, the room in the Vatican housing Pope Julius II’s library, between 1509 and 1511. The artist started with a full-scale preparatory cartoon in charcoal, red and white chalk on paper in 1508-9. It was massive, over nine feet high and 26 feet wide, and was made by gluing together 210 pieces of “royal paper” (large format sheets about 12×16 inches in dimension). More than 50 individuals, the great philosophers of antiquity centered around Plato and Aristotle, populate the cartoon, with only a couple of figures from the final fresco missing, including Heraclitus, whose face is said to be a portrait of Michelangelo, then working just down the hall on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It is the largest surviving Renaissance cartoon.

Raphael was employed by Pope Julius on the recommendation of Bramante to fresco the room. The commission served a political role as much an aesthetic one. There were already frescoes on the walls by Piero della Francesca, but he had been hired Alexander VI whose papacy was already infamous. Julius was keen to cover the walls with new frescoes that would erase the imprint of his Borgia predecessor, a sort of damnatio memoriae by artistic proxy.

Only 27 years old when he began The School of Athens, Raphael created a vision that transposed the ideas of Renaissance humanist thought into figural and architectural forms. The fluid lines of his initial drawing illuminate his creative process, the apparent ease with which he conceived an intricate mural that would take two years to complete. It’s also the only version of The School of Athens done entirely by Raphael’s own hand. He had staff to help him paint the fresco itself.

He used the cartoon as a literal outline, poking holes (still clearly visible today) through the lines of the faces, garments, folds and bodies. Because the completed cartoon was so massive, it could not be applied smoothly all at once to the plaster surface of the wall and have the trace-over last for two years of painting. Raphael instead used it to show Julius II a clear view of the full complex composition of the fresco and as a master template, drawing through the perforations onto individual papers just large enough to cover one day’s work.

Even so, the cartoon matches the finished fresco almost exactly, with only a few centimeter’s difference on the right side. The architectural design on the top part of the fresco is not on the cartoon, or rather just the foundations of it are, barely visible and only spotted by researchers in 1972. Most of the remarkable vaulted gallery in deep one-point perspective that rises above and behind Plato and Aristotle was painted directly onto the plaster.

Even in Raphael’s all-too-short lifetime (he died at age 37) the cartoon was recognized as a masterpiece in its own right. It was described as the “well-finished cartoon” because the lion’s share of the information necessary for the fresco was included: the figures, the setting, the poses, the facial expressions, the direction of the light, the highlights and lowlights of his chiaroscuro.

That a cartoon as delicate as it is massive survives intact after five centuries of wars, pillage and dispersed cultural patrimony is largely due to Cardinal Federico Borromeo (1564-1631), Archbishop of Milan and founder of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, the second public library in Europe after the Bodleian. He was an erudite man, a prolific writer and connoisseur of the arts who amassed an immense collection of 45,000 manuscripts and books with the deliberate intent of creating a library that would be an invaluable resource for scholars.

For a hundred years after its creation, the cartoon disappears from the historical record. It reappears in 1610 in a legal document stating that Fabio II Visconti Borromeo, Count of Brebbia (and holder of two far more excellent titles: Decurion of Milan and Judge of the Streets), loans the cartoon to Cardinal Borromeo until such time as Visconti requests its return. That time never came.

In 1618 the cardinal founded Pinacoteca Ambrosiana to house his great collection of paintings and drawings, including works by Caravaggio (Basket of Fruit) and Leonardo da Vinci (Portrait of a Musician) alongside Raphael’s cartoon, still technically on loan. It became officially part of the Ambrosiana collection in 1626 when the cardinal bought it from the count’s widow Bianca Spinola Borromeo for the then-astronomical sum of 600 imperial lire.

It remained at the Pinacoteca, one of its greatest treasures and biggest draws, until 1796 when the greatest scourge of Italy’s patrimony, Napoleon Bonaparte, entered Milan. Five days after his forces took the city, Napoleon proclaimed that Milan now owed France 15 million lire and any and all artworks of value. Dominique-Vivant Denon, director of the Louvre, was tasked with drawing up a list of Milan’s most important pieces that would be summarily pillaged and sent to the museum in Paris.

On June 25, 1796, box upon box of treasures from the Ambrosiana left Milan destined for the Louvre. Leonardo’s Musician was in them, his notebooks from the library’s collection and Raphael’s The School of Athens cartoon. It was subject to extensive restoration — relined with canvas, mounted on a new frame, missing parts filled in — before being put on display. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, the sculptor Antonio Canova was dispatched to the Louvre to reclaim the works taken from the Papal States. While he was at it, he arranged the return of the Ambrosiana’s stuff too. The cartoon was back in Milan by 1816.

It was restored again in 1887. This time the work done was even more extensive. The cartoon was reframed, and most significantly, was attached to a new canvas backing for support. The wars of the 20th century jerked it around some more. In 1915, with northern Italy the target of Austro-Hungarian aerial bombing, the cartoon went back to Rome for first time since it was drawn by Raphael 400 earlier. It was kept safe in the Vatican until the war was over. In 1942 it went underground, secured in the bank vault of the Cassa di Risparmio delle Provincie Lombarde, and good thing too because the Abrosiana was bombed and had to be rebuilt after the war.

The vicissitudes of the past two centuries left the cartoon worse for wear. The paper had yellowed (browned, even) making the chalk, charcoal and lead drawing hard to read and water damage was pervasive. It had also been mounted in a new frame and showcase in 1966, then state-of-the-art but inadequate for modern conservation techniques which require constant inspection and monitoring.

In 2014, the Ambrosiana launched an ambitious program of conservation and study. A team of experts from the College of Fellows of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, the Higher Institute for Conservation and Restoration of the Vatican Museums, the Milan Superintendency and the Conservation and Restoration Centre “La Venaria Reale” worked with professors from several Italian universities to preserve the work, reverse old restoration errors and create a new showcase to protect the cartoon while make it entirely visible to visitors.

Both front and back were treated. On a custom table with a moveable bridge that allowed conservators to hover over the surface, the cartoon was cleaned with low pressure micro-suction devices like those used in surgery. Old polymer glue used with strips of canvas in the 1966 restoration to expand the perimeter which had shrunk over time was removed. Conservators also repaired tears and lined the back with layers of Japanese tissue paper in different sizes and shapes to relieve stress on the supports and recover the original flatness of the cartoon. The last step was to apply a new canvas lining and mount the cartoon in a new frame.

Here’s a video of conservators in 2017 removing the first layer of Japanese tissue paper from the back of the cartoon a year after it was applied to stabilize it:

Here’s the conservation team applying canvas lining to the back of the cartoon:

After a year of study and three years of painstaking labour, the cartoon will return to its dedicated exhibition gallery at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana on March 27th.

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Rare portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, on display

Wednesday, February 20th, 2019

An extremely rare portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, painted during her lifetime has gone on display at Hever Castle. The oil-on-oak panel painting depicts Mary “en deuil blanc” (in white mourning), wearing gossamer white veils instead of the heavy blacks of full mourning she wore in a later portrait.

It is believed to have been the work of the studio of François Clouet, a miniaturist and portraitist to the French royal family, made in late 1560/early 1561 when Mary was mourning the successive deaths of her father-in-law King Henry II of France (d. July 1559), her mother Mary of Guise (June 1560) and her husband Francis II (December 1560) of France. White had been a popular mourning color in France for centuries by the time Mary donned it. She had unusually bucked that association and worn white for her 1558 wedding to the then-Dauphin of France, only to find herself having to wear white again in its traditional symbolism after his death just two and a half years later.

Another Clouet portrait of her “en deuil blanc” shows her covered from chin to chest in a white pleated gauze “barbe” (beard). The original painting is lost but the image was widely copied. The Hever painting has the same head type as the other Clouet but depicts a less severe white veil with an open collar and tiny buttons down the bust. This may have been a less strict form of mourning worn after a certain amount of time had elapsed from the bereavement.

During her active reign in Scotland from 1561 to 1568, there were few artists of note and even fewer portrait painters of royal quality. If any solo portraits of her were painted during her time in Scotland, none have survived. A double-portrait of her and her second husband Lord Darnley now at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, is the only known extant portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, painted when she was in Scotland ruling as Queen of Scots, ca. 1565.

After her forced abdication and imprisonment in England, she did get some access to court painters. Her caretaker/keeper/jailer George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, allowed her to sit for Nicholas Hilliard, the premiere miniature portraitist of the Tudor court. Copies of Hilliard’s work were distributed at Mary’s behest to her supporters during her lifetime, and after the ascension of her son James VI of Scotland to the throne of England and Ireland in 1603. He commissioned idealized versions of them to enhance his own position as king and the strength of the Stuart claim by depicting her as a martyr and victim of Tudor injustice. It’s those posthumous images of Mary that make up the bulk of her portraiture.

The Hever portrait was in a private collection in France (not Switzerland) for many years. It was thought to be a modified 17th century copy of the more famous Clouet. Dendrochronological analysis of the oak panels found that the wood dated to 1547. Coupled with stylistic examination, the age of the wood confirms that the portrait dated to the mid-16th century and was done in Mary’s lifetime.

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