Archive for the ‘Renaissance’ Category

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

Monday, March 16th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Bedlam burial ground dig to unearth 3,000 bodies

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dürer’s Arch of Maximilian I restored, on display

Monday, March 9th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dutch hooligans riot, vandalize Barcaccia fountain

Saturday, February 21st, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Portrait attributed to Leonardo seized from Swiss bank vault

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

Italian financial police and the Carabinieri art theft squad teamed up with Swiss federal authorities Monday to seize a painting some believe to be a lost portrait of Isabella d’Este by Leonardo da Vinci from a bank vault in Lugano, Switzerland. Clandestine sale negotiations were ongoing when the police nabbed the work. The top asking price was 120 million euros ($135.9 million). Prosecutor Manfredi Palumbo said at a press conference that there are 70 people of interest in this investigation, all potentially part of a large illegal art smuggling ring attempting to move multiple works out of Italy into the black market.

The painting was found as a result of a fortuitous encounter during an unrelated investigation last August. The finance police in Pesaro, a town on the northeast coast of Italy in the Marche region, were looking into an insurance fraud case when they discovered documents indicating the portrait was in Switzerland. The finance police teamed up with the Carabinieri and tracked down the painting in the private vault of a Lugano trust. There’s some raw footage of the bust here. All that teal makes for a pretty sad looking Swiss bank vault.

This isn’t the paintings first sojourn in a Swiss vault. When the news of it first emerged in October of 2013, the portrait was one of 400 artworks kept in a Swiss bank by an anonymous Italian family who claimed the collection had been in Switzerland since the early 20th century. Completely unpublished and undocumented, of course, because that’s how Swiss private collections like it. Family lore whispered of it being Leonardo’s portrait of Isabelle d’Este so finally around 2009 or so, likely in advance of sale, they began intensive research on the piece. Radiocarbon dating found that the work was painted between 1460 and 1650; X-ray fluorescence found that the primer and pigments are consistent with those used by the Renaissance master. UCLA emeritus art history professor and Leonardo expert Carlo Pedretti enthusiastically authenticated the portrait as Leonardo’s work.

The question of whether Leonardo ever painted a portrait of Isabella d’Este has been much debated by art historians over the centuries. In December of 1499, Leonardo da Vinci fled Milan after the city was conquered by the French and his patron Duke Ludovico Sforza was overthrown. On the way to Venice, he stopped in Mantua where he was welcomed by Isabella d’Este, wife of Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua, who had met the artist at the double wedding where she married Francesco and her sister Beatrice d’Este married Ludovico Sforza. (Leonardo had actually designed some costumes for a joust held as part of the wedding celebrations.) He wasn’t in town for long, but Leonardo did make the time to draw a portrait of Isabella in black, red, white and ochre chalk on paper. He made at least two sketches of her portrait profile. One he took with him to Venice; the other he gave to Isabella’s husband Francesco Gonzaga. Multiple letters from Isabella to Leonardo asking him to make a painting from the sketch have survived, but there is no evidence that he ever did so. Isabella also asked him to make her another drawing after her husband gave hers away in 1501, but there’s no evidence he did that either. The sketch Leonardo gave to Gonzaga is now lost. The sketch he brought with him is now in the permanent collection of the Louvre.

The discovery of an oil painting undeniably modeled after the drawing sparked much discussion as other experts disagreed with Pedretti’s attribution. One glaring issue is that the portrait is on canvas while Leonardo and his school used wood panels. This would be the only known work he ever did on canvas. It’s also a remarkably accurate match to the sketch considering that it was ostensibly painted years after the drawing was done (Pedretti posits that it was painted in 1514 when Leonardo met Isabella again in Rome). Then there are the quality concerns. Parts of it — the crown and that atrocious palm frond she’s holding — are clearly not the work of the master.

Just to add another layer of labyrinthine complexity to this case, recall that the news of the Isabella portrait broke in the Corriere della Sera’s Sette magazine the first week of October, 2013. Less than two months earlier on August 27th, 2013, Pesaro police received a tip that a local lawyer, Sergio Shawo, was found in possession of a letter from one Emidia Cecchini, the 70-year-old putative owner of the portrait, in which she exhorts him to sell the painting for no less than 95 million euros ($107 million). By Italian law, all art works more than 50 years old cannot leave Italy without a special export license and there was no license pertaining to the portrait. Pesaro authorities asked their Swiss colleagues to execute a search warrant on the Swiss bank vault where the painting was believed to be kept, but they were unable to find it there.

So when all the big publicity about this incredible find in the Swiss vault was going down with the dueling experts and the lab testing and all that, as far as authorities were concerned at least, the painting was actively on the lam. Police suspected it had been smuggled back into Italy in a dastardly game of keep-away, and indeed it may have been before returning to Switzerland the next year where it cropped up in that insurance fraud case.

The painting is still in Switzerland for now where it will stay until legal ownership can be determined. Cecchini, the nice old lady in reduced circumstances whose grandparents put together so fine an art collection, may be the legitimate owner trying to win the lottery by the illegal export and sale of her property, or that whole 400 paintings in a Swiss vault since the early 1900s story may be a complete and total fabrication to cover an art smuggling conspiracy. Two art dealers are under investigation for involvement in this case, and they were looking to sell other Old Master works at the same time.

Once ownership is established, the Italian authorities want the painting back in Italy. Until then, additional authentication research is on hold.

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Wolsey’s Angels saved!

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

The Victoria & Albert Museum has successfully raised £5 million to purchase the four bronze angels made to decorate the tomb of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. In early December, the V&A campaign was still a million and a half short of the goal. I was hoping for a viral push thanks to the huge popularity of Wolf Hall on bookshelves, the stage and television, but in the end only £33,000 were raised from online donations. The total raised from the public appeal (online, phone, mail donations and sales of “Save the Wolsey Angels” buttons in the museum gift shop) was a rather meager £87,000. The Wedgwood campaign’s million pounds in public donations infected me with a dangerous and unwarranted optimism, I fear.

With such low figures from the general public, the V&A’s fundraising team must have worked overtime to coax donations out of donors.

The campaign was very much aided by a grant of £2 million from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Art Fund most generously contributed £500,000, and the Friends of the V&A gave £200,000; a further substantial gift was made in memory of Melvin R. Seiden, and many other private individuals and trusts, most notably the Ruddock Foundation for the Arts, also donated.

The National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund donations were already counted in early December, so it seems like those individuals and trusts with the less conspicuous but still significant contributions pulled through in the home stretch. That’s a great thing, because the loss of these statues would have been a damn crime.

Cardinal Wolsey commissioned Florentine sculptor and architect Benedetto da Rovezzano, famous for his religious and funerary sculptures, to design and build his tomb in 1524. The meter-high bronze angels were created to hold candles atop four pillars on the corners of the black marble sarcophagus that would hold the cardinal’s remains. Wolsey’s political downfall in 1529 and death on the way to his treason trial in 1530 left his extensive properties in the hands of King Henry VIII. Henry decided to keep the parts of the tomb that had been finished for his own tomb and commissioned Rovezzano to make him an even fancier one than Wolsey had planned.

It was unfinished at the time of the king’s death in 1547. The remaining Tudor monarchs all made noises about completing their father’s tomb, but it never did happen. Then the Civil War came and the Parliamentarian penchant for converting the trappings of monarchy into cash saw the angels sold off. They disappeared for more than three centuries. We now know that some time during those 330 or so years, all four angels made their way to Harrowden Hall in Northamptonshire. When stately home was acquired by the Wellingborough Golf Club in 1975, the angels were on posts flanking the entrance gates.

Two of the angels were stolen from their perches in 1988, after which the survivors were brought indoors. The stolen ones wound up at a Sotheby’s auction in 1994. Their true history was lost — the catalog described them as bronze angels “in the Renaissance style” — and they sold for £12,000. They were finally returned to their illustriousness by Italian art historian Francesco Caglioti. He found them with a Paris antiques dealer and identified them from a detailed description of them in a 1530 inventory of Wolsey’s property. In 2008, he found their sisters at the Wellingborough Golf Club.

So even though the two Paris angels were stolen property, there was no way for the UK to claim them legally on account of the statute of limitations and conflicting laws in different countries. The Paris dealer offered his pair to the V&A for £2.5 million and the golf club offered its pair for the same price.

Now that justice has been purchased at so small cost, the Wolsey Angels will be taken off public display temporarily. They will be studied, analyzed and conserved and then will find their permanent new home on view with all apposite honors at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

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Have only surviving Michelangelo bronzes been found?

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015


A pair of bronze statuettes known as the Rothschild Bronzes have been attributed to Michelangelo by an international team of multi-disciplinary experts at the University of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum. The bronzes are 16 inches wide by 2 feet 7.5 inches high and depict heroic male nudes riding panthers, likely a Bacchic procession theme. They are not a matched pair — one of the men is a bearded mature figure, the other a clean-faced youth — but they are part of a set. If the attribution is accurate, these statues will be the only known surviving bronzes by a sculptor whose works in marble have become icons of Western art.

As always in cases of disputed authorship, conclusive evidence is hard to come by and these bronzes have already been attributed to a variety of artists known and unknown. The Rothschild Bronzes are so named because they were first recorded in the art collection of Swiss banker Baron Adolphe de Rothschild published in 1878. The works were attributed to Michelangelo at that time, but it was immediately disputed. The undeniably high quality of the bronzes and their style pointed to a 16th century Italian Renaissance origin. With no signature or mark that could resolve the issue, other possible authors like sculptor and architect Jacopo Sansovino and Tiziano Aspetti, known particularly for his bronze sculptures, were mooted.

After the flurry of interest after the 1878 publication, the pair sank into relative obscurity, remaining in the Rothschild collection until in 1957 they were sold to French collector. They returned with a huge splash at Sotheby’s European Sculpture and Works of Art 900-1900 auction on July 9th, 2002. Attributed non-committally to the “Florentine School, mid-16th century,” the pre-sale estimate of £1 million – £1.5 million ($1.5 million – $2.25 million) suggested strongly that Sotheby’s had an inkling that Florentine school might turn out to be a very prestigious one indeed, although the buzz was more Cellini than Michelangelo. The pair sold to a British collector for £1.65 million ($2,478,000).

They weren’t the only softly attributed sculptures to sell big at that auction. A terracotta model for the Fountain of the Moor by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in Piazza Navona stole the show. Even though Bernini’s direct authorship was uncertain (one of his students is known to have carved the final marble piece), it was purchased by New York art dealers Salander-O’Reilly Galleries for £1.9 million ($2.85 million), more ten times the pre-sale estimate of £120,000-180,000 ($180,000 – $270,000), because they believed it was so finely figured that it bore the hand of the master himself. The next year Salander-O’Reilly sold the statue to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth where it is currently on display as the work of Bernini.

In 2003, the pair of bronzes were loaned to the Frick Collection in New York City where they were attributed not just to another artist, but a Dutch one at that. The Frick exhibited them as the work of Willem van Tetrode, a 16th century sculptor who studied in Italy and took the Italian Renaissance sculptural approach back home with him. They appeared at the Royal Academy of Arts in London’s Bronze exhibition in 2012 with a new attribution. This time they were 16th-century Italian again, but the work an unknown Roman sculptor in the “Circle of Michelangelo.”

Cambridge stepped into the fray in the autumn of 2013 when art history professor emeritus Paul Joannides noticed that a page of drawings (“Sheet of studies with the Virgin embracing the Infant Jesus” now in the Musée Fabre in Montpellier) done in 1508 by an apprentice of Michelangelo’s copying his master’s works featured a drawing of a male nude astride a panther. To investigate further, Joannides collaborated with Fitzwilliam curator Victoria Avery, conservation experts Robert van Langh and Arie Pappot from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Warwick University Medical School anatomy professor Peter Abrahams, art historian Charles Avery, Verrocchio specialist Andrew Butterfield and art critic Martin Gayford.

The team looked into every aspect of the bronzes. Oxford University scientists confirmed using thermoluminescence dating that the statues were cast between 300 and 500 years ago. The Rijksmuseum conservators sent samples from the bronzes’ cores to a neutron imaging lab in Switzerland which found that the thick walls of bronze were typical of 16th century Florentine casting. Dr. Abrahams’ examination of the nudes’ bodies found them anatomically correct down to the peroneal tendon and the transverse arch of the foot. He also found the anatomical detail of the nudes — navels, back grooves, abs — corresponded exactly with features from other Michelangelo sculptures and preparatory drawings from 1500-1510.

The investigation is ongoing, but the findings thus far are strong enough to undergird an attribution to the young Michelangelo, made after he completed the David in 1504 and as he began work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The final report of the research team will be presented at a conference on July 6th of this year. The bronzes will be on display in the Italian galleries at the Fitzwilliam Museum from February 3rd through August 9th. There’s a book detailing the research on the figures available at the museum gift shop.

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224th anniversary of Aztec Sun Stone’s rediscovery

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

On Wednesday, December 17th, Mexico City celebrated the 224th anniversary of the rediscovery of the Aztec Sun Stone, the basalt monolith carved under the reign of Moctezuma II just a few years before the Spanish conquest. The circular stone, 12 feet in diameter and weighing more than 24 tons, was originally painted in brilliant red, blue, yellow and white. Archaeologists believe it was placed on top of the main platform of the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan (modern-day Mexico City), perhaps initially intended to be a sacrificial altar but then erected vertically when the massive stone cracked so it was no longer the thick drum-shape of traditional altars.

It is a world-famous icon of Aztec sculpture, but there are competing theories on what the imagery carved onto the stone represents. According to the National Museum of Anthropology, at the center of the monolith is the face of the solar deity Tonatiuh inside the glyph “ollin” meaning “movement.” He holds a human heart in each hand and his tongue is the stone knife used for sacrifices. Four squares around his face contain the glyphs for the four previous cycles of creation and destruction. Concentric rings surrounding the central figure contain multiple calendar glyphs: the first ring has the glyphs for 20 of the 260 days in the Aztec calendar, the second features small boxes that may represent the 52 years of an Aztec century. You can examine the carving in glorious high resolution on Google Art Project.

After the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521, Hernán Cortés ordered all Aztec religious icons removed and replaced them with Christian ones. The Sun Stone was toppled and dumped carved side up on the Zócalo, the main square of Mexico City. A few decades later, Archbishop Alonso de Montúfar, the second Archbishop of Mexico, ordered the stone, which he considered an evil, satanic influence on the city’s residents, flipped carved side down and buried. There it remained entirely forgotten until December 17th, 1790, when it was unearthed less than two feet under the surface by workers repaving the square. They propped it upright next to the find spot.

Mexican astronomer, anthropologist, historian and writer Antonio de León y Gama documented the find. He commissioned Francisco de Agüera to make a highly accurate and detailed drawing of the Sun Stone, the first known image of it ever made. In 1792, León y Gama published Descripción histórica y cronológica de las dos piedras que con ocasión del nuevo empedrado que se esta formando en la plaza principal de México, se hallaron en ella el año de 1790 [Historical and Chronological Description of the Two Stones that were Discovered in 1790 in the Main Square of Mexico City] about the discovery of the stone and the statue of the Aztec earth goddess Coatlicue. It was León y Gama who, recognizing the calendar glyphs, interpreted the monolith as a timekeeping device, a giant sundial to mark astronomical events like solstices. His view dominated the scholarship for close to a hundred years. Even today the piece is commonly called the Aztec Calendar Stone.

It was Antonio de León y Gama who rescued the stone from further disrespect. The Viceroy of New Spain and the Church wanted to use the stone as a step leading up to the entrance of the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary, the church built in the shadow of the Templo Mayor ruins 20 years or so after Archbishop Alonso de Montúfar had ordered the Sun Stone buried for its satanism. Letting parishioners stomp their dirty shoes all over a sacred Aztec artifact would have been a satisfying symbol of the triumph of Christianity over paganism. It also would have been a conservation disaster. León y Gama persuaded Viceroy Juan Vicente de Güemes, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo, that since the stone wasn’t really a pagan idol like the statue of Coatlicue, but rather a calendar, it should be properly displayed, not trampled. The stone placed on the exterior wall of the Cathedral’s southwest tower where it became a popular attraction known as “Montezuma’s Clock.”

The Aztec Sun Stone stayed on the Cathedral until 1882 when it was moved along custom-built tracks two blocks to the new National Museum. Three years after that it moved the museum’s Gallery of Monoliths. In 1964, the Sun Stone was moved one last time, to the newly built National Museum of Anthropology. Now the museum can celebrate its own 50 year anniversary, the 50th anniversary of the Sun Stone’s final move and the 224th anniversary of the stone’s rediscovery all at the same time.

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16th c. Faith stolen by priest found after 70 years

Thursday, December 25th, 2014

The Tutela Patrimonio Culturale unit of the Carabinieri, a division of Italy’s national police squad dedicated to investigating stolen art and antiquities, has found a 16th century painting by Alessandro Bonvicino, better known as Moretto da Brescia, that disappeared from a church 60 years ago. It was discovered in Brescia, in the home of a businessman who had owned it for years without knowing its shady history.

Faith, one of six known paintings Moretto made depicting the allegorical figure of Faith holding the Holy Chalice, was removed from the small parish church of Santa Maria in Valverde in the community of Padernello near Brescia in 1944. It was an inside job: the thief was the parish priest, don Staurenghi. He had noble (by his standards) motives for running what proved to be a very effective, long-lasting scam. The church needed money to build an oratory, so he took it upon himself to secure funding by selling the church’s Renaissance gem to an old friend from his hometown of Verolanuova who happened to be the town magistrate.

To ensure their backdoor shenanigans weren’t found out, the magistrate hired painter and restorer Giambattista Bertelli (who not coincidentally was also from Verolanuova) to make a copy of the painting to hang in the church. He made no bones about the nature of the gig. Bertelli was explicitly told that he had to do a really good job because his work was going to be passed off as Moretto’s in the parish church and it was imperative that nobody notice the switcheroo. From October 19th until October 28th of 1944, Bertelli had the original in his studio (he would decades later note that it’s much easier to forge a painting when you have the original in your workspace) while he painted the copy on a 500-year-old canvas he’d sourced specifically for the job in Milan.

His copy of course included a later modification of Moretto’s design overpainting the Host with the three nails of the crucifixion. That iconographic alteration was the distinguishing feature of the Padernello version. While the apocryphal Faith deceived the faithful in church, in 1969 the original was restored to Moretto’s original image of the Eucharist. I’ll give you one guess who the restorer was. If you guessed Giambattista Bertelli, congratulations. Truly you have a dizzying intellect. Or you just figured out that to run a con without a false step for decades, you’ve got to dance with them that brung you. Over time the copy disappeared too and the fact that the church had ever had one of Moretto’s Faith paintings faded from memory.

The first clue to unlock the mystery was found in 1998, 54 years after the theft, in the Castle of Padernello. A group of volunteers dedicated to the conservation of the castle were cleaning up a pile of trash in an area that had been inhabited by the family of the Counts Salvadego until the 60s when they came across a “santino” (a card with holy imagery, often of a saint, that was traditionally printed to hand out on the more important days of the liturgical calendar) bearing a picture of Faith. It was labelled “Faith, parish of Padernello.” This was evidence that one of the six Moretto Faith paintings had once hung in the parish church.

Historian Gian Mario Andrico set to researching the whereabouts of the original. He found that the santino card had been printed by don Staurenghi for Easter of 1945, months after the copy was in place with no one the wiser (I’m rather in awe of his shamelessness). A few of the old timers remembered that the painting had once hung in the chapel with the baptismal font. Then Andrico tracked down Giambattista Bertelli. Proud of his meticulously maintained records documenting his involvement in this fraud (and since I’d wager his co-conspirators were dead and buried by then), Bertelli cheerfully spilled the beans.

In 2008, the Castle hosted an exhibition entitled Moretto, Faith, The Return that told the story of the purloined painting and displayed another version of it from a private collection. The Carabinieri used the catalogue from this exhibition as the starting point for an official investigation this year. It only took them a few months to locate the long-lost work along with a black-and-white photograph of it from the late 1960s. The magistrate had sold it to an antiques dealer who in turn sold it to the businessman in Brescia.

The art squad searched the church and found an altarpiece painting on the theme of the Sacred Heart that when viewed against the light showed anomalous elements. To ensure they had located the Padernello Faith instead of another version by the master or a copy, the police took the sequestered Faith, the black-and-white photograph and the altarpiece an to the laboratory of the Physics department of the State University of Milan for analysis. Infrared reflectography confirmed that the photograph was of the painting found in the apartment with it and that it was Moretto’s original. X-ray imaging found that the altarpiece had painted over a large cross that matched the one held by the allegorical Faith. Thus the fate of Bertelli’s copy was revealed.

The Carabinieri transferred legal custody of Faith to a representative of the parish but it’s not hanging in the church. Right now it’s in the Diocesan Museum of Brescia. I suspect this will be the long-term home for it, even though the church officially owns it again at long last.

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Tremors in Tuscany spark fears for David‘s safety

Sunday, December 21st, 2014

The Chianti region of Tuscany has experienced more than 250 tremors in three days, the two strongest of which measured 3.8. and 4.1 on the Richter scale. They only visible harm they caused was some minor structural damage in a town 20 miles south of Florence, but authorities are concerned that this could presage a larger seismic event that would wreak havoc on the city’s greatest artistic icon: Michelangelo’s statue of David.

A study published in the Journal of Cultural Heritage last March found that David‘s ankles and the tree stump support behind the right leg were severely weakened by microfractures. Centrifuge tests on small gypsum models of the statue revealed that under stress, the statue could collapse forward, snapping at both ankles. Vibrations from nearby construction, maintenance in the building and certainly an earthquake would be sufficient to cause catastrophic damage to the monumental sculpture. Its own six-ton weight could be sufficient to bring David down.

Small cracks in the left ankle and stump were first noticed in 1851. They may have developed during the flood of 1844 or three years later when sculptor Clemente Papi made a full-size plaster cast of David, but the recent study suggests the original source of the problem was that the statue spent almost four centuries outside the Palazzo della Signoria leaning forward at an approximately five degree angle which put undue stress on the weakest parts of the structure. (The angled placement wasn’t deliberate; researchers believe it was likely the result of the ground settling unevenly underneath the plinth.) The tilt was only corrected when David was moved indoors to the Galleria dell’Accademia in 1873.

The microfractures have been monitored assiduously since 2001 and there doesn’t appear to have been any change in them, but even if the cracks aren’t getting gradually worse, they’re dangerous enough as it is. Add to that the inherent weakness of the marble — this particular block is riddled with microscopic holes that make it particularly susceptible to deterioration — and the giant-slayer is at constant risk. A few years ago there was discussion of insulating the statue from vibrations caused by footsteps of the thousands of tourists who walk by him every day.

The museum authorities declared that David would be safe even if the city was struck by an earthquake as strong as 5.5 magnitude, and there’s never been more than a 5.4 magnitude earthquake in Florence. That’s not much reassurance, however, because a) they can’t say for sure how strong the earthquake has to be to topple the statue, and b) just because a bigger one hasn’t hit yet doesn’t mean it won’t in the future.

Thankfully this weekend’s tremors have lit a fire under key asses. Culture Minister Dario Franceschini announced that the state would fund the construction of an anti-seismic plinth to the tune of 200,000 euros ($245,000). An anti-seismic platform has already been designed to fit David‘s needs and it was discussed as a possible solution to the microfracture danger when the study made the news earlier this year, but it was all just talk at that point. The past three days of seismic activity have finally spurred action.

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