Archive for the ‘Renaissance’ Category

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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Medieval Jewish cemetery unearthed in Trastevere

Wednesday, March 29th, 2017

Medieval Jewish cemetery discovered in Trastevere. Photo courtesy the Superintendency for the Archaeological Heritage of Rome.Archaeologists have unearthed a medieval Jewish cemetery in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome. The discovery was announced last week, but it was made over the course of six years of excavations done in conjunction with the restoration of the Palazzo Leonori, now the new headquarters of the Assicurazioni di Roma insurance company. It was under the palazzo’s courtyard that 38 graves were found, neatly aligned in rows. Iron nails and wood fragments indicate the bodies were buried in coffins, now long-decayed.

Each grave contained a well-preserved, intact, articulated skeleton. The remains are of adult men and women, mostly men, and contain almost no grave goods. The only exceptions were two of the women, found wearing small gold rings, and one man who was buried with a set of iron scales, perhaps an indication of his profession or a metaphoric representation of a just man. Examination of the bones found signs of malnutrition and protein deficiencies. These were not wealthy people.

Gold ring worn by one of the women interred in the cemetery. Photo courtesy the Superintendency for the Archaeological Heritage of Rome.Because there were no grave markers discovered and with the excavation area limited by later construction, at first archaeologists weren’t sure whose bodies they’d found. They searched archives for maps and documents that might shed light on the question, and the find spot was marked on several maps as the Campus Iudeorum, or Field of the Jews, the cemetery of the Jewish community that lived in Trastevere from the mid-14th century through the mid-16th. Radiocarbon dating of the remains returned dates within that range. The lack of grave goods is also characteristic of Jewish burials. The last piece of the puzzle fell into place when a marble fragment inscribed in Hebrew with the words “here lies” was discovered nearby.

Jews have lived in Rome since the Maccabees sent a delegation in the 2nd century B.C., and by the Middle Ages the Trastevere area, with its bustling Tiber-side commerce and diverse population, was one of Rome’s main Jewish quarters. That ended abruptly in 1555, when all the Jews in Rome were ordered to pay for the privilege of being forced into the waterless, claustrophobic, flood-prone, malarial ghetto by the virulently anti-semitic Pope Paul IV. His Papal Bull, Cum nimis absurdum, decreeing their confinement to the ghetto and many other hateful provisions, minces no words. It opens:

Since it is completely senseless and inappropriate to be in a situation where Christian piety allows the Jews (whose guilt-all of their own doing-has condemned them to eternal slavery) access to our society and even to live among us; indeed, they are without gratitude to Christians, as, instead of thanks for gracious treatment, they return invective, and among themselves, instead of the slavery, which they deserve, they manage to claim superiority….

Skeleton unearthed at Jewish cemetery in Trastevere. Photo courtesy the Superintendency for the Archaeological Heritage of Rome.So the living Jews who stayed in Rome after 1555 moved across the river into the ghetto hellhole. Their deceased ancestors remained in place. It was not to be a peaceful sleep of death, alas. In 1625, our Barberini friend Pope Urban VIII found the time between tapestry appreciation, adding bees to everything and stripping ancient bronze off the Pantheon to decree that all Jews in Rome must be buried in unmarked graves. No names of Jews were to be carved in stone, period. (Exceptions were occasionally made for very prominent rabbis or wealthy men.) Extant gravestones were to be destroyed. Then in 1645, the cemetery was built over when a new city wall was constructed. This is why only a single fragment of a headstone was found in the excavation.

The Jews were allowed to move what remains they could to a new cemetery on the Aventine, but struggle followed them. Giambattista Nolli’s 1748 map of Rome marks the spot as the “Ortaccio degli Ebrei,” meaning “Garden of the Jews,” although that doesn’t convey the pejorative connotation of the suffix -accio. (The Ortaccio was the name for 16th century Rome’s red light district where the prostitutes were walled in much like Jews were in the ghetto.) Interestingly, Nolli’s map also shows how the Jews were forced to move across the river to the Aventine and may have been bumped one more time after that. The Trastevere cemetery site is on the left side of the map outlined in green. On the right side outlined in red is another “Ortaccio degli Ebrei,” presumably the active one in Nolli’s time, directly overlooking the Circus Maximus, which was itself divided into farmland. Just a hop to the southwest outlined in blue is the “Ortaccio Vecchio degli Ebrei,” or the “Old Garden of the Jews.” If that was the old one, the other one must have been (relatively) new.

Three Ortacci degli Ebrei outlined in green, red and blue on Giambattista Nolli's Map of Rome, 1748.

The Aventine cemetery had an even shorter life than the Trastevere one. It was destroyed in 1934, this time courtesy of Mussolini’s grandiose plan to redesign Rome to showcase its ancient glories. Workers dug up all of the graves, put the bones in boxes and moved them to the Campo Verano cemetery outside the Roman walls where they were reburied in the Jewish section. The last Garden of the Jews is now a rose garden. Today only a modest memorial records what had once been a field of white gravestones with generations of Roman Jews buried beneath them.

Tannery tubs and foundations, 3rd century A.D. Photo courtesy the Superintendency for the Archaeological Heritage of Rome.The Palazzo Leonori site will become a mini-museum where some of the discoveries made in the six years of excavation will be on display. Large plastered tubs identified by an inscription as part of the Coraria Septimiana, 3rd century A.D. tanneries built by the emperor Septimius Severus to tan leather products for exclusive supply to the Roman army, will be viewable to the public in the courtyard of Palazzo Leonardi, a sort of mini-archaeological park.

The human remains will not be part of any future such plans, nor will they be studied further out of respect for the dead. Presumably they will be reinterred, but no decision has been announced at this time. The archaeological team is working closely with rabbinical authorities, among them Rome’s Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, to determine the next steps.

 

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16th century aqueduct found in Italian hamlet

Saturday, March 25th, 2017

Monte Cicerale aqueduct entrance discovered during brush clearing. Photo courtesy Simone Gioia.Two forestry workers have discovered a 16th century aqueduct in the southern Italian hamlet of Monte Cicerale. Franco Avenia and Edoardo Palumbo were clearing underbrush and brambles in a wooded area above the highway when they stumbled across a small stone structure partially embedded into a hillside. A square opening in the structure led to an underground passage. The two contacted a friend of theirs, local historian Simone Gioia, who quickly ran to join them in exploring the find.

Grown man squeezes himself into 1500s aqueduct. Photo courtesy Simone Gioia.Crawling on his hands and knees through very constricted spaces, he found the oldest part of the network was a tunnel dating to around 1500. On the ground in the center of this tunnel runs an overlapping series of earthenware tiles that create a channel. Hard water rich in calcium still flows over the tiles. Their downward slope allows the water to flow indefinitely — the same gravity tech the Romans used in their aqueducts, although they went much longer distances and thus had far shallower inclines.

Monte Cicerale aqueduct with earthenware tile water channel. Photo courtesy Simone Gioia.Avenia, Palumbo and Gioia explored about 50 meters (164 feet) of the aqueduct, which was pretty damn bold of them because those tunnels are just barely big enough to fit a grown man on all fours. Simone Gioia described it as “a beautiful, albeit claustrophobic, experience.” He also noted the aqueduct is in an exceptional state of preservation.

Detail of stone walls. Photo courtesy Simone Gioia.Monte Cicerale is on the ancient Via Poseidonia that led from the ancient Greek colony of Paestum (it was called Poseidonia by the Greeks) to the very heart of the Cilento region in Campania. It has a tiny population of 312 souls, but the town of Cicerale, less than a mile away, can boast 1,200 residents. Even in the 1500s these were remote hilltop communities, sparsely populated with very limited infrastructure. The people were hard-working, poor and primarily engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry, fields of endeavor that require a steady supply of water. It seems they built themselves an aqueduct to ensure that supply using local stone and what look to me like roof tiles. They did an unreservedly great job of it too, as the photographs show. It is a true feat of engineering.

Bat friend wonders who turned on the damned lights in this aqueduct. Photo courtesy Simone Gioia.Archaeological remains attesting to the rural history of the Cilento region are extremely rare. The aqueduct is, as far as anyone knows, the oldest, most intact and most significant surviving example of this material history.

There’s no word on a professional excavation of the site, but local authorities expect the regional Collapsed stones in one of the tunnels. Photo courtesy Simone Gioia.Archaeological Superintendency to study the aqueduct, especially now that it’s made regional and national headlines (and I guess international ones too, if I count).

Simone Gioia has dozens of photographs of the aqueduct in a photo album on his Facebook page. He has also uploaded video of his exploration of the tunnels. The quality is not very good, but that’s to be expected given the circumstances. They do a fine job of conveying the constricted spaces and the excitement of the find.

Here’s his first visit:

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

Here’s the second:

[youtube=https://youtu.be/Qc9tsV75BpA&w=430]

 

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