Archive for the ‘Renaissance’ Category

Paolina Borghese’s (unairconditioned) feet

Friday, October 20th, 2017

Set in the Mannerist splendour of Cardinal Scipione Borghese’s villa on the Pincian Hill, today the Galleria Borghese is one of Rome’s most beautiful museums. Its owner spared no expense to create a suburban party palace that would set off his superlative collection of paintings, sculpture and antiquities. Frescoed ceilings and walls, inlaid marble floors and every other sumptuous architectural feature you can imagine serve as the backdrop to one of the greatest private collections of art ever amassed.

As the nephew of Camillo Borghese, Pope Paul V, Scipione benefitted handsomely from papal nepotism (not coincidentally, the English term derives from the Italian word for nephew), first garnering the elevation to the cardinalship and then a heap of other titles, benefices and revenues that would make the most exploitative Roman tax farmer blush. Much of those moneys he spent amassing an art collection worthy of the crowned heads of Europe. One of those crowned heads, in fact, the notoriously self-crowned head of Napoleon Bonaparte, bought a large part of it from his wastrel brother-in-law Camillo Borghese in the early 19th century. It would form the nucleus of the Louvre’s collection.

Apollo and Daphne by Bernini.Before it was chipped away by his heirs after his death, the collection included 12, count them, 12 Caravaggios. Today that figure is reduced by half, still an incredible concentration of paintings by the master of dark and light in a single small museum. When Caravaggio’s Youth with a Basket of Fruit, The Young Bacchus Ill and David with the Head of Goliath come to life at night, they get to play Texas Hold ‘Em with the likes of Raphael’s La Fornarina and Woman with Unicorn, Corregio’s Danae, Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love and Boticelli’s Madonna and Child with the Young St. John the Baptist and Angels. If they need to sweeten the pot, they let figures by Rubens, Parmigianino, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Pinturicchio, Andrea del Sarto, Canaletto, Perugino, chip in. If they’re really in the mood to party, Paolina Borghese, sister of Napoleon Bonaparte and wife of Camillo Borghese, rises from the marble couch the sculptor Antonio Canova captured her on and brings the heat. Bernini’s extraordinary, almost unbelievable Apollo and Daphne are too realistically frozen in mythological time to play along.

With so many world class treasures of the arts to enjoy, the Galleria Borghese was an obvious addition to my itinerary, all the more so since it would allow me to post an update to a past story. Remember this story from 2013 about Paolina Borghese’s dainty shoes discovered in the University of Aberdeen museum archives? I was delighted to find that according to my viewcount stats, it has been consistently popular ever since, largely thanks to foot fetish websites. Well, for all you feet fans out there, here’s Canova’s representation of Princess Paolina’s doggies.

I thought I had posted about a distinctly less entertaining story, but I can’t seem to find it in the archives so I guess I never did. The Galleria Borghese needs a new climate control system. I read about this situation a couple of years ago, if I recall correctly, and it was dire then. The ancient air conditioning was so hobbled that it barely produced enough cool air to keep the areas around the units at proper temperature, so they had to leave windows open to let some of the heat out of the hot, humid rooms and institute reservation-only ticketing to control the numbers of people allowed in at any given time. When I read about it back then, they were raising money to replace and update the whole system, but it was an expensive proposition and the Italian government wasn’t exactly rushing to spend that dough.

It still hasn’t been fixed, and y’all, it was bad. I mean really, really bad. I was genuinely horrified to my core by what I saw and experienced. The larger rooms with the more popular works (mainly Renaissance Old Masters) were stultifying and you could actually see the moisture damage on the surface of oil paintings. One was so bad the paint was cracking in a line down the middle and bubbling up. Only a few of the works even had the protection of a glass panel covering the canvas. Only one of the 20-year-old air conditioners was blowing any air. I put my hand over it and it was lukewarm. It was deeply upsetting, so much so that almost wished I hadn’t gone because seriously they need to shut the doors to human bodies and the heat, dirt, bacteria and effluvia they inevitably bring into a space and fix this monstrous state of affairs immediately. It is a true state of emergency. I can only hope against hope that my ticket price might help right this terrible wrong.

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Palazzo Venezia: a hidden gem in plain sight

Tuesday, October 17th, 2017

The only reason I even darkened the doorway of the 15th century Palazzo Venezia, most recognizable today from old newsreel footage of Benito Mussolini addressing the multitudes in the Piazza Venezia from the balcony, was to see if the Duce’s last secret bunker rediscovered in 2011 after decades hidden under the floor of a junk room, was open to visitors. It was not. I turned to leave. Then I happened to glance upward and this is what I saw:

Vaulted ceiling in the entrance hall of the Palazzo Venezia.

I left anyway because I had other things planned yesterday, but returned today, uncontrollably attracted by the promise of fine architectural and decorative features serving as the backdrop for what the website assured me was an exceptional collection of Renaissance bronze statuary, terracotta sculptures, silver decorative arts, panel paintings and carved wood pieces, majolica, Japanese and Chinese porcelains, Islamic art and woven textiles.

My reaction as I walked through the first few spaces, which are largely empty, was that the story of this museum is in the floors and ceilings. Check out the herringbone brick floor and the wood ceiling with frescoes at the top of the wall in the Loggia of the Blessings, so named because the original relatively modest structure was greatly expanded by order of Cardinal Pietro Barbo, the future Pope Paul II, who was born in Venice and wanted a dwelling worthy of his sumptuous tastes. It became a papal palace in 1469, five years after the election of Paul II to the Throne of Peter. He stood on the balcony of this loggia to deliver his weekly blessing to the faithful.


Here are some sweet floor tiles and a wood panel featuring Paul II’s symbols from rooms just off the loggia:

And then there’s the Hall of Hercules, named after the fresco series depicting his labours that line the top of the walls. My terrible pictures do it no justice whatsoever.

The glories of the Renaissance palazzo itself came to an apex in the Hall of the Globe (Sala del Mappamondo), which Mussolini picked as his headquarters as anybody would have in his place. Its stupendous decorative appeal was only enhanced in my nerdly eyes by the presence of active restorers working on one of the frescoes. Sure, there was a wall up blocking some of the view and the middle of the room was entirely cordoned off so the pictures I took are even more terrible than usual, but public restoration projects always fill my heart with joy, minor inconveniences be damned.

Up until this point the collection, a combination of Paul II’s legendary acquisitiveness and later purchases added after the palazzo became a national museum in the 1920s, was sparsely but handsomely represented. I soon realized this was a deliberate choice made to ensure the focus on the visitors would be on the beauty of the historic building itself instead of on the stuff it could be stuffed with, because y’all, they have some STUFF in the Palazzo Venezia. Here is but a tiny sampling of what it has to offer:



Then there’s the loggia with a Lapidarium (a collection of engraved stonework, reliefs, tombstones, etc. from antiquity through the Renaissance) that looks down on a magical courtyard.

I didn’t even get to the temporary exhibition of Japanese art in the basement due to a prior committment cutting my visit short. I could easily have stayed another hour and barely have scratched the surface. This museum is smack in the middle of one of the busiest tourist routes in the world. You are crushed by massive tour groups as you walk around the piazza to the Capitoline, the Roman fora, Colosseum and Palatine, and yet, there in the Palazzo Venezia, nary a soul so much as brushed up against me in the cool elegance of these magnificent rooms and loggias. Put it on the list, y’all. Put it on the list.

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Michelangelo river god model restored

Saturday, July 15th, 2017

A rare and fragile model of a river god made by Michelangelo Buonarotti in around 1525 has been restored to its original condition and placed on public view after years in storage. Made out of wood, clay, sand, wool and oakum fibers on an iron wire framework, the model was an ephemeral work. These were not built to last; models were use objects meant to be discarded after the permanent marble sculptures were finished. In this case, Michelangelo never did get around to making the sculpture, so the model is all we have to show for it. It is one of very few life-sized models ever created by Michelangelo.

The statue in question was a river god or river allegory that was to recline on the right side at the foot of the tomb of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Lord of Florence, Duke of Urbino and the father of Catherine de’ Medici, Queen of France. Michelangelo’s client, Pope Clement VII, insisted that he create life-sized models for the tomb sculptures in the (vain) hope that it would speed up production by allowing the master to delegate some of the execution to secondary artists without loss of quality. Another three river gods were planned for the base of the tomb, but Michelangelo only completed this model and the one for its twin on the left side. None of the finished sculptures of the river gods were ever made.

After he left Florence for Rome in 1534, the two models stayed in the New Sacristy of the San Lorenzo basilica, the grand chapel designed and sculpted by Michelangelo to house the palatial new Medici dynasty tombs, along with all the completed statuary. They were still there two decades later, but by the end of the 16th century, the right model was in the private collection of Cosimo I de’ Medici. The left model was lost. The only known version of it extant today is Michelangelo’s very rough work sketch in the British Museum.

In 1583, the surviving model was donated to the Academy of Art and Design which is today the oldest fine arts academy in the world, founded by Cosimo I in 1563. At the time of the donation, less than 60 years after it was made, the model had condition problems. The first recorded restoration of the work took place in 1590.

Over the centuries, the river god fell down an art historical memory hole until it was rediscovered in 1906 by German sculptor and long-time resident of Florence Adolf von Hildebrand and German art historian Adolf Gottschewski. The new attention the model received spurred the Academy to move it to the Galleria dell’Accademia where it was displayed near the David and other sculptures Michelangelo carved in marble.

The model was on display there until 1965 when it was moved to the Casa Buonarroti museum for its own preservation and to add to the museum’s collection of Michelangelo models. The Academy still owns the piece, however, and three years ago they engaged the services of Florence’s top restoration masters at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure to stabilize the deteriorating model.They mended areas of the surface that had come apart and strengthened the structure to prepare it for future transport and exhibition. They also analyzed the dark paint that gave the work a bronzed effect and discovered it was a later alteration. Michelangelo’s original choice was the paint the model in lead white to make it look like the marble the finished product would be made out of and so that it would match the completed sculptures in the New Sacristy. Opificio conservators painstakingly removed the dark paint, revealing and restoring Michelangelo’s original white lead layer.

The restored model made its official debut at the Refectory of the Basilica of Santa Croce on July 11th. In September it will go on display at a major exhibition on the art of 16th century Florence at Palazzo Strozzi. After that, it will be on permanent view at the Academy of Art and Design.

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Pietà by pioneer Netherlandish painter loaned to Rijskmuseum

Thursday, July 13th, 2017

Johan Maelwael, also known by the French version of his name Jean Malouel, was born in Nijmegen in around 1365. Nijmegen was part of the Duchy of Guelders then (now the province of Gelderland in the Netherlands) and had just joined the Hanseatic League in 1364. The prosperity that came with the increase in trade and commerce engendered a flourishing of the arts. Johan came from an artistic family — his father and uncle were successful artists — and he trained in his father Willem’s workshop from an early age.

He started his professional career as a painter of heraldic imagery at the court of the Dukes of Guelders in his hometown of Nijmegen. That experience proved desirable and portable, and in 1396 he moved to Paris where he specialized in painting heraldic and armorial images for Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France. Isabeau was a great patron of the arts who during this period had built something of a shadow court thanks to her husband’s increasingly frequent bouts of mental illness. (Whenever the King succumbed to one of his spells, which lasted months at a time, he did not recognize Isabeau and demanded that strange woman be removed from his presence.)

Maelwael’s work for the Queen lasted no more than a year, and by the summer of 1397 Maelwael was in Dijon, capital of the Duchy of Burgundy, where he was appointed court painter to Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. The appointment came with the rank of valet de chambre and a hefty salary. Maelwael would keep the job even after Philip’s death in 1404, remaining court painter to his son and successor John the Fearless.

At the Burgundy court, Maelwael again painted heraldic images on banners, pennants, flags and armour, but he also went further afield. Among other works, the dukes commissioned large-scale murals, devotional panel paintings, elaborate altarpieces for the Carthusian monastery of Champmol where Philip’s tomb was located, and the painting and gilding of sculptures. He experimented with new approaches and pioneered what would become known as the International Gothic style.

The greatest surviving example of this is a tondo known as La Grande Pietà, a tempera on wood panel painting that many art historians consider to be the first proper tondo of the Renaissance. The iconography is not typical of later Renaissance pietas because in addition to the dead Christ held by his disconsolate mother Mary, God the Father is also in the picture, holding up the body of his sacrificed Son. Two angels help hold up the body, and a four more balance out the composition on the left side, adding splashes of color and a variety of anguished facial expressions. On the far right is a facepalming St. John.

On the back of the round is an example of the specialty that launched Maelwael’s illustrious career: the coat of arms of Philip the Bold of Burgundy. This suggests the painting was commissioned by Philip before his death, and the unusual combination of a pieta and the Holy Trinity suggests it may have been intended for the Burgundy tombs at Champmol since the monastery was dedicated to the Trinity and the ducal family also evinced a particular devotion to the Trinity.

Besides the imagery, Maelwael also included unusual features in the technical aspects of the painting. The frame of the tondo was carved out of the wood panel, something I don’t recall seeing in any other example of the form. His use of transparent glazes over the tempera was also ground-breaking. Early Netherlandish master Jan van Eyck, who a decade after Maelwael’s death followed in his footsteps as painter to the Duke of Burgundy (Philip the Bold, in his time), would take those transparent glazes and run with them.

One of the reasons the tondo is so special is that it is one of very few extant works that can be conclusively attributed to Johan Maelwael. Acquired by the Louvre in 1864, La Grande Pietà is one of the treasures of the museum’s early Flemish collection. It hasn’t left Paris since 1962, but come this fall, the greatest surviving masterpiece of the first painter of the Northern Renaissance will be heading to the Netherlands for the first time in its existence when it goes on display at the Rijksmuseum.

At the Burgundian court, Maelwael painted flags, banners and armour; he designed patterns for fabrics; he executed large religious paintings; he created refined miniatures in illuminated manuscripts; he decorated sculptures with gold-leaf and color and he painted small devotional pieces and portraits. Around 1400 Maelwael introduced his three talented nephews as miniature painters in France: the legendary Limbourg brothers Herman, Johan and Paul.

For the first time, Maelwael’s paintings will be exhibited alongside medieval art treasures, manuscripts, precious metalwork and sculpture – from among others, the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the MET in New York and the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. Maelwael’s paintings will be juxtaposed not only with the sculpture of his contemporaries Claus Sluter and Claes van Werve, but also with the richly decorated illuminated manuscripts of the Limbourg brothers.

The Johan Maelwael exhibition will run at the Rijksmuseum from October 6th, 2017, through January 7th, 2018.

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Remains of temple and Ball game court found in Mexico City

Thursday, June 15th, 2017

Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a major Aztec temple and ball game court in downtown Mexico City. The remains of the massive temple dedicated to Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec god of benign rain-bringing winds, were discovered just to the north of the city’s main square, the Zocalo, behind the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral. A hotel that collapsed during the catastrophic 1985 earthquake once stood on the site. The owners of the hotel realized there were ruins underneath the rubble and alerted Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), but the century would turn before a thorough archaeological excavation of the site could be arranged.

The announcement of the discovery is the culmination of seven years of excavation work spearheaded by the Urban Archeology Program (PAU) with the collaboration of INAH. Led by archaeologist Raúl Barrera, the PAU seeks to rediscover the remains of the sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan currently buried under historic downtown Mexico City to bring to the light the Aztec history that Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés did his best to obliterate from the landscape and memory in 1521.

This temple was built 1486 and 1502, so it had only a few decades of glory before its destruction. All construction and improvements ended in 1519. Cortés and his army reached Tenochtitlan in November of 1519. Remarkably, a significant amount of the original white stucco cladding has survived. The remains of the temple attest to what a grand structure it was before it was razed by Cortés. The rectangular platform that formed its base is between 34 and 36 meters (112-118 feet) long. There are two large circular structures on top of the back part of the rectangle, the largest of which is 18 meters (59 feet) in diameter. They are separated by a walkway 1.1 meters (3.6 feet) wide.

The rectangle and circular platforms together are 4 meters (13 feet) high, a fraction of the size of the temple when it was intact. As the dozens of other monumental buildings in the sacred precinct were square, the rounded design of Ehecatl’s temple would have stood out even in an area so densely packed with architectural wonders. Archaeologist and Aztec specialist Eduardo Matos believes the top of the temple would have been carved to looked like a coiled snake, its flared nostrils acting as a dramatic entryway for priests.

About 20 feet south of the temple is another exciting find from the late Aztec period: the remains of a court where the Mesoamerican ball game was played. Archaeologists excavated a platform nine meters (30 feet) wide. On the north side is a double staircase of four steps each that was a direct path to the Temple of Ehecatl. On the south side are three overlapping walls that slope backward. These are the remains of the stands, stadium seating Aztec style.

Under the staircase, archaeologists found multiple groups of human cervical vertebrae still in their original anatomical positions. The neck bones came from 32 individuals, all of them male, all of them children ranging in age from neonates to toddlers to six-year-olds to adolescents. Cut marks on the bones indicate the children were decapitated or sacrificed as part of the ball game ritual. These are the only ritual offerings discovered in the excavation of this site, which is unique and of itself. (The Temple of Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl unearthed in another part of Mexico City in 2014-2016 included the skeletal remains of more than a dozen individuals.)

These discoveries are highly significant taken on their own, but they take on even greater significance because of what they can tell us about the geographical relationships between buildings in the sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan.

“Due to finds like these, we can show actual locations, the positioning and dimensions of each one of the structures first described in the chronicles,” said Diego Prieto, head of Mexico’s main anthropology and history institute.

The excavation isn’t completed yet, but when it’s done, the archaeological site will be converted into a museum.

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British Museum conserves Dürer’s Triumphal Arch

Sunday, June 4th, 2017

In 2014, conservators at the National Gallery of Denmark’s Statens Museum for Kunst (SMK) began an extensive program of restoration of one of their two complete sets of The Arch of Honour of Maximilian I, a monumental print designed by Albrecht Dürer in 1515 to glorify the family, good deeds and many victories of the Holy Roman Emperor. This was no rhinoceros print, as great as that is. Dürer’s workshop carved 195 wood blocks which were printed on 36 large sheets of paper which together depicted an enormous triumphal arch crammed full of details. When displayed as a single piece, the print is a massive 9′ 10″ by 11′ 6″, the largest woodcut produced during the Renaissance and still today one of the largest in the world.

Denmark’s Royal Collection of Graphic Art two sets were initially acquired and maintained in loose-leaf form. One was only affixed to a backing in the 1860s so it could be displayed in all its propagandistic glory as Dürer had intended. Decades later, the paper backing was badly discolored and the ink faded from exposure to sun. It was placed in storage for its own protection until conservators could figure out how to address its many problems. With the 500th anniversary of the print coming up in 2015 and a new exhibition, Might and Glory: Dürer in the Emperor’s Service, in which to display it, SMK conservators painstakingly peeled the original paper off the 19th century backing and restored the massive print.

When I wrote about this story in 2015, the available photographs were deeply unsatisfactory. The print is so huge and so busy, it screams for giant pics, but there were none to be found. The only saving grace was a zoomable image of the restored Triumphal Arch on the SMK website. That image is no longer accessible (or at least it hasn’t been the last few times I’ve tried). Nor were there any decent photos of the restoration work. The British Museum has now filled the void left in me two years ago.

The BM has a first edition of the print as well. It was exhibited in autumn of 2014 and 70,000 visitors went to see it in the three months it was on display. When the show was over and the exhibition dismantled, British Museum conservators were able to study and treat the print thanks to funding from private donors. They blogged about the process for years, starting with the move to the display gallery and continuing through the conservation work, blog entries that include a passel of pictures (albeit rather small for my taste).

One night at the Museum: moving Dürer’s paper triumph
Conserving Dürer’s Triumphal Arch: a moving experience
Conserving Dürer’s Triumphal Arch: photography and imaging
Spring cleaning with Dürer: conserving the Triumphal Arch
Conserving Dürer’s Triumphal Arch: coming apart at the seams
Conserving Dürer’s Triumphal Arch: it’ll all come out in the wash
Conserving Dürer’s Triumphal Arch: Getting the big picture

That’s nearly three years of documentation of the conservation of the Arch, a labour as oversized and impressive as the print itself. The British Museum’s website has a zoomable image of the print which is a) functional, and b) complete with annotations on highlighted sections. There are also two YouTube videos of the conservation. The first from 2016 is a time-lapse recording of conservators removing the linen backing from the paper sheets:

[youtube=https://youtu.be/X_DvVp6sOvU&w=430]

The second was uploaded just a couple of weeks ago and is by far the best view I’ve seen so far of the full print. It’s the only capture I’ve seen that truly conveys the massive proportions of the Triumphal Arch, and it features some excellent commentary from conservators on the challenges of dealing with such a huge print.

[youtube=https://youtu.be/cEK26P6r6xo&w=430]

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Large-scale portraits of Elizabeth I, ambassador attributed to miniaturist Hilliard

Thursday, June 1st, 2017

Two large-scale portraits in the Rothschild collection at Waddesdon Manor have been attributed to Nicholas Hilliard (1547–1619), the premiere miniature portraitist of the Tudor court. The portraits, one of Queen Elizabeth I and the other of her ambassador to France Sir Amias Paulet, were painted from life in oil on wood panels. There are references in archival documents to Hilliard having painted full-size portraits, “in greate,” they were called, and several portraits of Queen Elizabeth have been proposed as possible Hilliard works. Those attributions are based solely on stylistic comparisons with Hilliard’s miniatures, however, and it’s a tricky thing to compare features painted in watercolor-on-vellum miniatures to ones on large-scale oil paintings.

The Rothschild portraits also share features characteristic of Hilliard’s conclusively attributed miniatures, particularly the treatment of the hair, lace, faces and jewels (Hilliard trained as a goldsmith and had an exceptionally keen eye for depicting jewelry in the most minute detail), but they have something the other candidates don’t have: hard evidence tying them to a specific period, location and context that dramatically increases the likelihood that they were painted by Nicholas Hilliard.

It was conservators at the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Hamilton Kerr Institute who made the discovery while restoring the portraits.

Removal of old, discoloured varnishes revealed the brilliant red of the original background and allows the original painting technique to be fully appreciated. More exciting still was that scientific analysis carried by the Hamilton Kerr Institute showed that the paintings were made on panels constructed of French Oak rather than the Baltic oak typically used by English painters of the period.

Paulet was Elizabeth’s ambassador to France from 1576 until 1579. During that period the Queen was considering marrying François, Duke of Anjou, the son of Henry II of France and Catherine de’ Medici. When his older brother ascended the throne as Henry III in 1574, François became the next in line to the French throne. He was made Duke of Anjou an Alençon in 1576 and boldly sought the hand of Queen Elizabeth in marriage. She was in her mid-40s and decidedly Protestant; he was in his early 20s and Catholic, and not just any Catholic, but the son of the “Jezebel” who was believed to have orchestrated the slaughter of Huguenots in the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre.

In the end, Anjou went the same way as all the rest of Elizabeth’s suitors, but for a while during years when Paulet was ambassador Anjou’s suit looked like it had a real chance. Paulet played an important diplomatic role in the negotiations. From 1576 to 1578, almost his entire ambassadorship, Hilliard was in France with Paulet, often following him as part of his retinue. He traveled the country with Paulet, painting royalty and courtiers. Hilliard even painted a miniature of Anjou himself in 1577.

Both portraits have French elements in the depictions. Sir Amias Paulet wears the medallion of the Order of Saint Michel, a French order of chivalry symbolized by the Archangel Michael drawing his sword. The pelican jewel on Elizabeth’s chest features a fleur-de-lys. To top it off, not only are the portraits both painted on French oak panels; the panels of both paintings were cut from the same tree. Perhaps Paulet commissioned Hilliard to make the portraits to hang in the ambassador’s residence in Paris? It would explain why an ambassador would be the counterpart of his Queen in a pair of portraits.

Attribution is always a challenge, and experts can and do engage in heated debate over these questions, but this is pretty much as good as it gets. As the Waddesdon Manor curator puts it:

The stylistic affinities with other works by the artist, together with the evidence that links these paintings with Hilliard’s time in France, allows scholars to attribute these splendid paintings to Hilliard with unprecedented confidence.

The newly attributed portraits will be on public display for the first time at Waddesdon Manor from June 7th through October 29th in a new exhibition, Power and Portraiture: painting at the court of Elizabeth I, which explores how Elizabeth and the members of her court used portraits to carefully curate their public presentation and self-image.

[youtube=https://youtu.be/TkkL0cFBtK0&w=430]

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Restored frescoes in Domitilla catacomb unveiled

Wednesday, May 31st, 2017

The catacombs of Santa Domitilla, the oldest network of early Christian burials, covers 7.4 miles and goes down four levels and 200 feet with 26,250 individual tombs. Flavia Domitilla was the niece of the emperor Vespasian who was exiled by her cousin Domitian for religious irregularities (ancient Roman sources say she was convicted of Atheism, the Talmud says she was a convert to Judaism, Eusebius and Jerome say she was condemned as a Christian). She was not buried in the catacomb that bears her name, but it was her property — a farm outside the city — and she permitted its use as a cemetery for Christians, first members of her household, then whoever. The burials in the catacombs date from the 2nd to the 5th centuries.

Because of its great size and complexity and extremely high moisture levels (it’s 90-100% humidity at all times down there), the Domitilla catacomb has long been a conservation challenge. Traditional restoration methods aren’t effective in this environment, but moss, algae, mold, smoke, dirt and calcium carbonate concretions thrive, so much so that they completely obscured the frescoes beneath. In 2009, lasers came into the mix when the entire rabbit warren was 3D scanned and mapped down to the smallest detail for the first time.

Three years ago, lasers rode to the rescue again, only this time they were used to clean the dirt and contaminants from the blackened frescoes on the ceilings and walls of unrestored chambers. This week, the Vatican unveiled to the press the first laser-restored spaces in the catacombs of Santa Domitilla.

“The walls and ceilings were covered in algae, smoke residue and calcium from the damp,” said Barbara Mazzei, who led the team. “We knew there were frescoes­ under there, and the lasers­ let us get to them.”

Ms Mazzei said developments in laser technology had allowed the frescoes to be exposed without the risk of damage that ­removing the grime manually might have caused.

The frequency of the 2mm laser beams can be adjusted to eliminate certain colours — in this case the black of the hard residue. “We worked millimetre by millimetre to lift the grime off,” Ms Mazzei said.

Working in two tombs, they found stunning biblical images, including Jesus feeding the 5000 with bread and fish, as well as a baker with a grain measure and a cycle of frescoes showing grain arriving by ship in Rome from Egypt and bread being sold in the city. “These were rich bakers who had real prestige in Rome because the emperor guaranteed bread, as well as circuses, to the people,” Ms Mazzei said.

Two areas have been fully restored. The first is a 3rd century chamber decorated with frescoes that include multiple pagan motifs. Cupids are popular in this space, mainly in smaller tombs that were probably used to inter children. This area also shows the scars of medieval looters. Frescoes were stripped from the walls by tomb raiders who made a pretty penny cutting the art off the walls and selling them or keeping them as personal trophies.

The second restored space is the cubicle of the bakers (“dei fornai”). Christ and the Apostles decorate the walls alongside scenes of bakers. As well as glorifying the profession and their sponsors, the frescoes also have great symbolic significance because bread loomed large in Christian iconography (loaves and fishes, Last Supper, etc.).

Also looming large on the frescoes in this cubicle is a name written in all caps in black charcoal: BOSIO. This was not left in antiquity. It’s the name of the man who rediscovered the catacomb almost a thousand years after it had fallen into disuse and been forgotten.

Antonio Bosio was the illegitimate son of Giovanni Ottone Bosio, a Knight of Malta who fought in and assiduously documented the Great Siege of Malta when the Ottoman Empire tried and failed to invade the island in 1565. When he wasn’t defending against far superior forces in months-long sieges, Giovanni Ottone busied himself having sex with a servants and murdering a fellow knight from an opposing political faction in St. Peter’s Square. He eventually got amnesty for the latter activity; he got a son from the former.

Antonio was born in 1575 and was raised by his uncle Giacomo in Rome. Giacomo adopted the boy and saw to it he received a thorough education in the humanities. This was a seminal time in the history of paleochristian archaeology. The catacomb of the Giordani was discovered in 1578, a major find during a period when only a handful of early Christian underground burial galleries were known. The Giordani Catacomb, a great labyrinthine structure replete with frescoes and inscriptions in Greek and Latin, was larger and more complex than any of them.

He was just a child when Antonio first learned about the vast cities of the dead underneath his feet from his teachers and friends of his uncle’s. His fascination with these places was sealed then and only increased over time. Antonio Bosio left his name on the catacomb wall on December 10th, 1593, when he was just 17 years old. At the time he thought this network was part of the large complex of the catacombs of Saint Calixtus. It wouldn’t be recognized as the Domitilla catacomb until the 19th century, thanks to the efforts of archaeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi.

Bosio’s foray into Domitilla’s realm was also his first brush with death in the catacombs. Young Antonio, antiquary Pompeo Ugonio and a small group of other foolhardy explorers went too deep into the tunnels and couldn’t make out their return path. Then their lights went out because they’d been down there longer than they planned. Bosio would later say about this experience: “I began to fear that I should defile by my vile corpse the sepulchres of the martyrs.”

They made it out alive in the end, and Antonio spent the next 36 years studying the catacombs and all the relevant literature he could read, including all the lives of saints, histories of the church, patristic writings in Greek and Latin. Whenever he encountered a reference in the ancient sources to a possible site of a catacomb, he would explore the area over and over, looking for possible entry sites. If he heard of an accidental archaeological find during construction of a basement or foundations, he dropped everything to check it out, taking enormous personal risks to crawl through structurally unsound, collapsed structures.

Even if the roof didn’t fall in on him, exploring the catacombs could still be fatal because the warrens of corridors, chambers and niches are so complex it’s far easier to get lost in them than it is to find your way out. His graffiti had the practical purpose of marking his path should he lose his way. Perhaps his giant John Hancock in the cubicle of the Bakers helped save his life.

Bosio was a true pioneer in this field of study, so even though his methods bear no relevance to archaeology as we know it today, and he had an unfortunate habit of writing his name all over ancient frescoes, he earned the appellation he is still known by today, the Christopher Columbus of the Subterranean New World, fair and square.

The upgrades to the Domitilla catacombs include a new, small but well-appointed museum in the catacomb. It features artifacts like sarcophagus fragments, busts and inscriptions discovered during the excavations and restoration, and underscores the overlap between the art of early Christianity and Roman polytheism. The museum isn’t ready for the public yet. The hope is it will be open by the end of June. The newly restored areas of the catacombs won’t be open to visitors for months.

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1627 Knight’s Tomb in Jamestown conserved

Sunday, April 23rd, 2017

Since late last year, Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists have been excavating the Memorial Church, built in 1907 over the foundations of three 17th century churches, the earliest being the 1617 timber-frame church in which the Jamestown colonists held the first representative assembly in English North America in 1619. (The second was built in 1640, the last in 1680.) The site was excavated in 1901 by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (today known as Preservation Virginia) before construction of the Memorial Church. The foundations of the 1617 church were discovered in that dig, but archaeological priorities and methods were different then, and the APVA team poured concrete between the remains of foundation and wall thinking it would keep them intact. Archaeologists today are removing the concrete (no small task — some sections are as much as five feet deep) to uncover elements in the soil that their predecessors wouldn’t have noticed or cared about but that contain potentially significant information about the construction of the 1617 church.

Knight's Tomb in the chancel aisle of Memorial Church. Photo courtesy Historic Jamestowne.One of the aims of the new excavation is to conserve a unique ledger gravestone (a marker that lies horizontally covering the full length of a grave) known as the Knight’s Tomb. Moniker notwithstanding, there is no knight, or anyone else for that matter, buried under the stone. There was originally, but sometime in the 17th century it was moved to the chancel aisle, just inside the doorway of the brick church, and recycled as a paver. It is the only surviving ledger stone in the United States.

The slab is six by three feet in dimension and has inset carvings which once held brass plates that identified and glorified the deceased. You can see the bolt holes that once affixed the plates to the stone. In the upper right hand corner is a shield, whose brass inlay would have been a family crest. Across from it is a scroll, and in the middle is a knight in plate armor standing on a rectangular pedestal which likely contained the full funerary inscription.

Because of the loss of the brass plates, researchers aren’t certain who the knight in question was, but there aren’t a ton of candidates. There are in fact only two knights who were buried in the 1617 church: Thomas West, Lord De La Warre, who died on the transatlantic voyage and was buried in Jamestown in 1618, and Sir George Yeardley, who actually managed to land in the Americas alive and well. He was Governor of Virginia during that first General Assembly meeting held in the original church in 1619. He died in 1627 and was buried in the church.

“When you’re studying mortuary practices, when you’re studying monuments, you never want to go to the records of the person who died, you want to go to the records of their offspring, of their family members who are still living,” said [Assistant Curator with Preservation Virginia Hayden] Bassett. “They’re the people who are largely going to be dealing with the logistics of getting a massive stone over here.”

Bassett said after searching through the journals of both men’s extended families, he thinks Preservation Virginia may have found mentions of the stone by Yeardley’s step-grandson Adam Thorowgood II, whose mother married Yeardley’s youngest son, Francis.

“What they mention is that they would like to have a black marble tomb with the crest of Sir George Yeardley and the same inscription as upon the broken tomb,” Bassett said. “We believe that might reference this stone.”

Gravestone conservation expert Jonathan Appell begins to remove the Knight's Tomb from the cement. Photo courtesy Historic Jamestowne.It was unearthed by the APVA in the 1901 dig. Its brass plates were long gone by then, and the stone was broken in several fragments, all of them quite large, one of them the full bottom half of the stone. They decided to keep it pretty much where they found it, moving it just a foot south. To seal it in place and fill the joins between the fragments, the team poured Portland cement around it and into the cracks. People loved their Portland cement back then because it’s so hard and durable, but as a preservation material it’s unfortunately terrible. The contrast between its hardness and the more porous, softer period materials causes moisture problems and puts undue stress on the historic structures.

The Knight’s Tomb is no exception. To ensure its long-term health, Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists knew they’d have to get it out of that cement trap and into the hands of modern conservators who use materials that can be reversed should they cause problems down the line. On April 10th, conservator Jonathan Appell of of Atlas Preservation, an expert in the conservation of historic monumental stone memorials and gravestones, began the difficult job of releasing the ledger stone.

The cement around the edges of the gravestone was hand-chiseled away. Thankfully, the people who installed it in the floor of the Memorial Church in the early 20th century did not set it in a bed of Portland cement. Instead it was placed on slate shims over a mortared brick base, so once the cement was removed from the sides and under the edges, the stone could be pried off its base relatively easily. Once the Portland cement was gone, the stone came up in the same fragments it was first found in back in 1901. Very carefully and painstakingly, the team moved the stones up wooden ramps onto a platform where the detailed conservation will take place.

You can see some of their hard work explained by Jonathan Appell in this wonderful video on the Jamestown Rediscovery YouTube channel:

[youtube=https://youtu.be/iii316ytxPY&w=430]

That YouTube channel is a gem, very much worth following and/or bookmarking. They have several videos documenting the current excavation of the 1907 Memorial Church.

[youtube=https://youtu.be/Ae1BeL6HOOI&w=430]

[youtube=https://youtu.be/ECWf62JKTQk&w=430]

[youtube=https://youtu.be/0VdSfqRa9p8&w=430]

[youtube=https://youtu.be/SMacxPi07bQ&w=430]

Unrelated to the church and its tombs, this video about the discovery and conservation of the most complete set of jacks of plate (an armoured vest of overlapping plate sewn onto canvas) in the United States is just plain cool.

[youtube=https://youtu.be/pwrDUplLO-0&w=430]

 

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Michelangelo’s crucifix in 360 degrees

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

Michelangelo crucifix hangs in new location in the basilica of Santo Spirito in Florence. Photo by Niccolo Cambi/Massimo Sestini.A painted wooden crucifix by Michelangelo Buonarrotti has returned to its original home, the Basilica of Santa Maria del Santo Spirito in Florence, after a fresh restoration and a year on the road. Carved by the artist when he was 18 or so, it’s one of his earliest extant works. Not the earliest, though, because Michelangelo’s artistic gifts were evident from a very young age.

Michelangelo was apprenticed to Domenico Ghirlandaio, then at the peak of his popularity and productivity, in 1488. It’s a testament to Michelangelo’s indisputably immense talent (and his irascible father’s insistence) that even though he was just 13 years old, his apprenticeship contract guaranteed him a salary, six florins for the first year, eight for the second, 10 for the third. This kind of deal was very much against custom for such a young, unproven apprentice. Michelangelo was special, though, and Ghirlandaio knew it.

Battle of the Centaurs by Michelangelo, ca. 1490-2. Casa Buonarrotti.The lad didn’t end up spending three years in Ghirlandaio’s workshop as per contract anyway. In 1489, Lorenzo de’ Medici asked Ghirlandaio to send his two best students to an academy for sculptors and painters Lorenzo had founded in his palace gardens where he also maintained an extensive collection of Roman antiquities. This was a seminal period for the teenaged Michelangelo. Lorenzo took a personal interest in him, inviting him to live in the palace and exposing him to the greatest Humanist thinkers, artists and poets of the era assembled at the Medici court. He carved his first two sculptures at Lorenzo’s academy, the marble bas reliefs the Madonna of the Stairs and the Battle of the Centaurs, the latter showcasing how strongly influenced Michelangelo was by classical design already. For the rest of his life he would consider himself first and foremost a sculptor no matter how famous and in demand he became for his frescoes and paintings.

The death of Lorenzo de’ Medici on April 8th, 1492, put an abrupt end to Michelangelo’s formative idyll. He moved back in with his father, but he continued to study on his own. The Augustinian prior of the convent of Santo Spirito allowed the artist rooms to live with them from the spring of 1493 until the fall of 1494 so he could do anatomical studies of cadavers in the associated hospital of Santo Spirito. Lorenzo’s son Piero de’ Medici, called the Unfortunate, who was a big fan of Michelangelo, gave him permission to dissect and examine the hospital’s corpses, a rare opportunity for a young artist, and one he did not squander.

Detail of crucifix hanging in Santo Spirito. Photo by Niccolo Cambi/Massimo Sestini.He carved the polychrome wooden crucifix to thank the prior for giving him lodgings and an invaluable understanding of the human body. When medical professionals examined the carving a few years ago, they determined it was an accurate and realistic reproduction of a dead youth about 14 years old. It seems Michelangelo, then just a few years older than the deceased boy who served as his unwitting model, gave Santo Spirito the very fruits of the anatomical studies it had made possible.

Restored Michelangelo crucifix hanging at Santo Spirito. Photo by Maurizio Degl'Innocenti, ANSA.The sculpture hung above the high altar of Santo Spirito until the early 17th century when the altar was replaced with a more elaborate one. Michelangelo’s simple design was no longer deemed appropriate for the new setting and it was moved. After the French occupation in the late 18th century and the dissolution of the monasteries, the crucifix was considered lost. In fact, it never left Santo Spirito. It was rediscovered in 1962 by German art historian Margrit Lisner during her cataloguing of Tuscan crucifixes. It was hanging in a corridor at the convent and had been so thickly overpainted that not just its color was altered, but its form as well. With the original features dreadfully obscured in this condition, Lisner’s identification of it as the Michelangelo work was very much in doubt.

Side view of crucifix hanging at Santo Spirito. Photo by Alberto Pizzoli/AFP.Nonetheless, it was cleaned and restored and put on display in the Casa Buonarrotti Museum, where it remained until December 2000 when it was returned to the basilica of Santo Spirito. While still not universally accepted, the attribution question was largely settled the next year when Umberto Baldini, director of the cultural division of Italy’s National Research Council, declared the carving the work of Michelangelo after a thorough artistic and forensic examination.

Now it has returned to its original stomping grounds, but in a new location. When the church reinstalled it in 2000, the crucifix was affixed to a side wall and could only be seen from the front. Today it hangs above the church’s old sacristy so people can walk beneath and around it and can view it from all sides.

 

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