Archive for the ‘Renaissance’ Category

17th c. Copenhagen poop reveals its secrets

Sunday, July 22nd, 2018

It’s archaeological poop time! This blog has been deprived of essential fiber for too long and I’m sure you’ve missed having a solid, well-formed poop story as much as I have. Today’s satisfying movement is brought to you by Denmark, bless its organic material-preserving waterlogged soil. Two latrines were discovered during an excavation of Kultorvet square in Copenhagen in 2011-12. The square in the city center was built over the ruins of an old Renaissance neighborhood that had burned down in 1728, and thanks to a road that had been built 40 years earlier, the latrines could be conclusively dated to the 1680s.

Like the barrels full of 14th century excrement found in Odense that were originally used to transport herring, these too were trade containers repurposed into latrines. They held Rhineland wine before finding their true vocation of converting human feces into archaeological gold. They were three feet wide and had been dug into the ground a foot apart from each other. Both were about two-thirds full of excrementitious organic material. Wood remains found around the barrels attest to there having been a shed built over them.

Archaeologists could see right away that the contents were very well-preserved. Seeds and pits were clearly visible in situ. The barrels were cut in half vertically while still in the ground to determine if they had internal stratigraphy to sample. The western barrel was all one mass, while the eastern barrel had two defined deposit layers – an upper layer of feces and straw and a lower rubble layer with very little organic material — so it was selected for analysis of its contents.

The study is more far-reaching than others performed on similar deposits. In addition to analyzing grains, fruits and seeds found in the cess, researchers also tested for pollen, parasites and animal bones. The parasite eggs were DNA-tested to determine conclusively whether they were human parasites found in feces, or had hitched a ride with animal remains discarded in the latrines.

Large samples were taken from each of the two layers and then divided into sub-samples for analyses of four different categories: grains/fruits/seeds, pollen and spores, parasite eggs and animal bones. The samples from both layers were rich in plant remains. In the upper layer, 66% of the contents were food plants while 34% were wild taxa, primarily field weeds. In the bottom layer, the proportion of culinary to wild taxa was 60%-40%.

Out of the cereal bran soup, only barley, oats and rye could be securely identified. Within the soup were a plethora of fruit seeds, first and foremost figs. There were so many fig seeds in the barrel, in fact, that archaeologists identified them during the excavation. Other fruits found in the sample included grapes, apples, pears, raspberries, blackberries, black currants, elderberries, citrus (likely either lemon or bitter orange) wild cherries, wild plums and wild strawberries. There were herbs – ground elder, dill, coriander – and seeds – mustard, flax – and in the bottom layer, a small amount of hazelnut.

Pollen species were 49% crops, 45% of that barley, with dryland species, mostly grasses, taking second place at 43% of the pollen counts.

The parasite analysis identified eggs from roundworm, whipworm and tapeworm, far more of them on the top of the latrine than the bottom. This is the first evidence of human tapeworm found in an archaeological context in Denmark.

There were an impressive variety of animal bones: 162 bone fragments in the two samples. Most of them came from the bottom layer and included the bones of herring, eel and cat. The top layer had fragments of herring, eel, cod, bird and pig bones.

The results attest to the varied diet the residents of this area of late 17th century Copenhagen had. While cereals, likely in the form of bread, porridge and beer, form the basis of their diet, they clearly had access to a wide selection of fruits either from their own gardens or from the market. Figs, grapes and citrus are Mediterranean fruits and while they can all grow in Denmark in warm, sheltered places or in greenhouses, this deposit is the first time citrus has been found in an archaeological context in Denmark. They were probably expensive imports, dried fruits or jams rather than fresh.

“The people whose latrines we have investigated were well-fed on bread, fish and meat, alongside a variety of fruit, herbs and spices,” said lead study researcher Mette Marie Hald, a senior researcher of environmental archaeology at The National Museum of Denmark.

“Most of the food items were locally grown,” she added, “but some of the food plants were exotics, showing us that it was possible to buy, for instance, cloves, which would have come all the way from Indonesia.”

The mere presence of these cloves indicates that Copenhageners had access to goods from long-distance trade, probably through the Dutch trading companies, as Indonesia was a Dutch colony at the time, Hald said.

“We know that Dutch traders lived in Copenhagen in the 1680s,” she noted. “It’s fun to think of the fact that 300 years ago, we were already part of a global trading network.”

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Buon Compleanno, Artemisia!

Sunday, July 8th, 2018

Baroque master Artemisia Gentileschi would have been 425 years old today. The first woman granted membership to Florence’s Accademia del Disegno, she was famous in her time and counted the crowned heads of Europe among her clientele. Her striking works, often featuring illustrious women from history and the Bible, have become icons of female representation during a time when women were largely excluded from the painterly ranks.

Her private life has been inextricably woven into her oeuvre. She used herself as a model frequently — a number of self-portraits of her as saints, artists and allegories, particularly from her Florentine period, have survived — and her powerful female protagonists have been adopted as symbols of empowerment in the wake of her rape and the subsequent trial of the perpetrator, her art teacher Agostino Tassi. We know from the incredible survival of the transcripts that she stood up for herself at the 1611 trial even under torture. (Rape accusers in the Papal States were subjected to the thumbscrews, among other torture techniques, to ensure their veracity.) For many years she was treated by art historians something of a curiosity, a successful woman artist with a tragic personal history that seemed to be reflected in works like Judith Slaying Holofernes.

The worm has turned for Artemisia, and the understanding of her art on its own terms rather than as mere Caravaggista works or as fodder for five-cent psychological interpretations has led to a massive uptake in interest and demand from museums and collectors. In 2014, a rediscovered Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy broke the sale record for an Artemisia Gentileschi painting when it sold for €865,500 (ca. $1,175,000). In December of 2017, another rediscovered work, Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (ca. 1615-1617), went up for auction in Paris. It broke the new record even more dramatically than the 2014 sale had broken the 1998 record, selling for €2,360,600 ($2,775,000).

Well, we can kiss that record goodbye too, because less than a year later, the dealer who acquired Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria has sold it to London’s National Gallery for £3.6 million ($4,784,000). Paying this eye-watering price was made possible by donations from the American Friends of the National Gallery, the National Gallery Trust, Art Fund, Lord and Lady Sassoon, Lady Getty, Hannah Rothschild CBE, and others who prefer to remain anonymous.

It is the first work by a female artist bought by the National Gallery in almost 30 years, and is only the 21st painting by a woman to join the 2,300 works in the NG’s permanent collection. It’s also just the third easel painting by Artemisia Gentileschi in England.

Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria depicts the saint turned toward the viewer. The figure is identifiable as the saint because of the spiked wheel on which she rests her left hand, the means by which Saint Catherine was supposed to be martyred in the 4th century by order of the Emperor Maxentius only for it to break the moment she touched it. He ordered her beheaded instead and that one did the trick. Unique for her time, Artemisia crops the scene very tightly around the upper body of the saint. This is something you see repeatedly in her portraits of herself as other people.

Letizia Treves, The James and Sarah Sassoon Curator of Later Italian, Spanish, and French 17th-century paintings at the National Gallery say:

“Artemisia is without question one of the most celebrated painters of her time, and we have long wished to acquire a painting by her for the national collection. The fact that this is a self-portrait adds enormously to the painting’s appeal and art historical significance. We are fortunate to have one of the strongest collections of Italian Baroque paintings but, with the exception of Caravaggio, no Italian artist of the 17th century surpasses Artemisia in terms of fame and popular appeal. Following conservation treatment and reframing Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria will find a natural home alongside other works by Italian Baroque painters, including Caravaggio and Artemisia’s father Orazio Gentileschi.”

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UofT acquires oldest English-language book in Canada

Monday, April 23rd, 2018

The University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library celebrated World Book Day today by announcing the acquisition of the Caxton Cicero. Printed in 1481, only four decades after the invention of the printing press in the West, the volume is believed to be the oldest English-language book in Canada, and it’s certainly the oldest in the library’s collection, eclipsing the previous record-holder (a copy of The Golden Legend printed by Caxton in 1507) by a quarter century.

William Caxton, the man who introduced movable type to England, included three translated Latin treatises in the untitled book: De Amicitia (“On Friendship”) and De Senectute (“On Old Age”) by Marcus Tullius Cicero, and De Nobilitate (“On Nobility”) by early 15th century humanist Giovane Buonaccorso da Montemagno the Younger. This was the first book by a classical ancient author to be translated into English, as well as the first Renaissance humanist author translated into English.

Unlike The Golden Legend, of which thousands of manuscripts and printed editions survive, there are only 13 known extant copies of the Caxton Cicero.

At the end of the first text, Caxton includes a colophon […], which is an imprint by the printer that includes information about the book’s publication.

The printed text states that the book is “imprinted by me simple person William Caxton into English at the pleasure, solace and reverence of men growing into old age.” The writing in ink below the statement is likely a person practising their handwriting, trying to emulate the type – likely from the end of the 15th century, says [interim head of rare books and manuscripts at Fisher Library, Pearce] Carefoote.

Through clues buried inside the book, one can trace the history of the Caxton Cicero back to one of its first owners, Thomas Shupton – thought to be a monk during the time of Henry VIII. It was then given to 16th-century politician Sir Robert Coke, who passed it on to his nephew. After his nephew’s death, the book was given to Sion College in London, which kept it until 1977 when it was bought by Mexican author Roberto Salinas Price through a rare book dealer.

U of T acquired the text from Price’s estate, which was made possible by many donors, led by the B.H. Breslauer Foundation and with the support from the University of Toronto through a matching grant.

In a random but satisfying numerological coincidence, it is the 15th millionth book in the Fisher Library collection. It will be of inestimable scholarly value to students of the classics, Renaissance, the history of the English language (Caxton’s publications were instrumental in establishing the primacy of the London dialect, standardizing English and spreading literacy), the physical object of the book and more. Library staff also plan to digitize the book so that it can be accessed by interested parties all over the world.

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Painting by Dutch master found in Iowa gallery closet

Thursday, April 5th, 2018

Robert Warren, Executive Director of the Hoyt Sherman Place gallery in Des Moines, Iowa, was looking for some Civil War flags in a flower closet. He didn’t find any. Instead, wedged between a table and the wall, he found a late 16th century panel painting by Dutch master Otto van Veen. It had suffered significant water damage after spending who knows how long in a small, uninsultated room full of jumbled stuff, and before then experienced unfortunate attempts at restoration. It was also unsigned.

The scene depicts the figures of Apollo and Venus accompanied by her son Cupid. Venus, the Roman Goddess of Love, Beauty, and Fertility, is portrayed as an artist painting a landscape that includes a small image of Pegasus on the horizon. Apollo, holding a lyre, is the Roman God of Music, Poetry, and more. Cupid is the Roman God of Desire, Affection, and Erotic Love. The painting also contains four still-lifes referencing Venus’ beauty and fertility: a collection of jewelry, a basket of fruit and flowers, a sprig of roses, and a bowl of oysters. A fifth still-life of her painting supplies occupies the lower right corner.

The painting was coated with layers of discolored varnish and former restoration work that flattened the three-dimensional quality of the scene and falsified the artist’s intended palette. Areas of former loss were present along splits in the wood and throughout scattered areas especially pronounced in the left third of the painting. The surface was heavily overpainted after a succession of former restoration attempts.

Chicago conservator Barry Bauman conserved the piece, cleaning it, repairing flaking paint and faulty restorations. The artist was identified as Otto van Veen who painted it in Antwerp in the last years of the 16th century. It was brought to Des Moines by the Collins family who had owned it since at least the 1880s when they lived in New York and loaned it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The painting moved to Des Moines with them and the family donated it to the Hoyt Sherman Place gallery in the 1923. It is Des Moines’ earliest Old Master painting.

Born in Leiden to a prominent Catholic family, van Veen studied in Rome and built a successful studio in Antwerp where he received numerous commissions for altar pieces and other religious themed works from churches and aristocratic patrons. He also took in students, most famously Peter Paul Rubens who studied under van Veen from 1594 to 1600, just the time when he painted Apollo and Daphne. A humanist and scholar, van Veen would go on to publish three emblem books (illustrated compendia of symbols and allegories used in art accompanied by a motto from a famous author, usually from antiquity). His most popular by far was Amorum emblemata (published in 1608), which is replete with Cupids.

So even though Apollo and Venus might seem to lean towards the profane for someone with a thriving business painting Christian iconography, in fact it fits his education, understanding and pedagogical approach to perfection. There are so many symbols of love layered in the panel it would have made a very useful addition to the Amorum emblemata.

All those layers may be the reason the masterpiece was hidden away in the storage closet. When it was donated to the gallery, the Hoyt Sherman Place was run by the upstanding ladies of the Des Moines Women’s Club. They founded the Club in 1885 with the express purpose of creating an art museum open to the public free of charge. After more than two decades of hosting temporary exhibitions at various sites, in 1907 the DMWC finally found a permanent home when the city rented them the historic Hoyt Sherman Place for the token sum of $1 a year. The Club built an addition to house its art collection and the Hoyt Sherman Place gallery opened as the first public art gallery in Des Moines.

In 1921 construction began on another addition that would expand the gallery and create an elegant auditorium for performances and exhibitions. The closet where Warren discovered the Van Veen’s masterpiece is located on the balcony of the auditorium. He speculates that all the nudity, sex and fertility symbols were a little too spicy for the Des Moines Women’s Club when it was donated in the 1920s. At that time, there wasn’t a single nude in the 54-work collection.

Apollo and Venus debuted at the gallery in a preview last month. It will be displayed as part of the permanent collection this summer.

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Mary Rose cannonballs meet synchrotron X-rays

Sunday, March 11th, 2018

When Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose sank off the Portsmouth coast on July 19th, 1545, it was carrying 1248 cast iron cannonballs, all lined up next to each other, ready to be deployed. They slumbered under 14 meters (46 feet) of sediment, a virtually oxygen free environment, along with about 19,000 other artifacts and remains until excavations began in 1979. In 1982, the whole ship was raised.

That was when its real struggle for survival began. The ship and its contents had been protected for 450 years under the sea. As soon as they were exposed to air, they began to deteriorate. After decades of constant spraying in salt water and PEG, the Mary Rose is now dry, stable and in a new display at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, but stabilizing archaeological iron is a whole other kind of challenge. Exposure to air and moisture causes iron to break down into a number of iron compounds, and that deterioration is accelerated when there’s chlorine in the mix. Sea water is rich in chlorine, and after nearly five centuries spent absorbing it, the iron cannon shot is highly susceptible to corrosion now that it’s out of the water.

Conservators have attempted to prevent this ugly fate with a variety of approaches. The bulk of the iron balls were stored in a passive environment — a high pH solution — that kept them as stable as possible to their home under the sediment. This makes them unable to be exhibited and does not remove the corrosive salts and chlorine. Some of the balls were therefore subjected to active conservation techniques, either reduction-based desalination treatments which aim to remove chlorine from iron artifacts by chemically altering the molecules of Iron(III) chloride, or washing methods which remove the chlorine by diffusion it into water solutions.

The problem is that there isn’t much solid scientific evidence to go on that points to which solution works best, whether there are any unintended consequences in the short or long term, etc. There are no real comparable treatments of archaeological iron to go by, and it’s hard to say if the condition of a given artifact is caused by a conservation technique or one of a myriad other variables.

A new study is hoping to answer some of those questions using a few of the cannon balls of the Mary Rose as the canaries in the coal mine. The shot was produced in bulk at the single iron blast furnace that existed in Tudor England; it was new when it sank and it was all buried together. Their uniformity of design, manufacturer and history, and the careful application of diverse treatment protocols after their recovery eliminates a lot of those pesky variables and gives researchers the opportunity to study in detail at the molecular level how effective the different treatments have been.

The UK National Synchroton Facility at Diamond Light Source in Didcot in Oxfordshire has deployed the ultra-bright X-ray power of the particle accelerator to analyze the iron in exceptional detail. Researchers used synchrotron X-ray powder diffraction (SXPD), absorption spectroscopy (XAS), and fluorescence (XRF) mapping to identify the precise location of the chlorine inside the balls and determine what corrosion products have formed in the conservation process.

The study did require a sacrifice, however. In order to do the initial examination, and to move forward on a long-term study that puts samples embedded in lucite on a beamline and maps the chlorine and corrosion over time, six of the shots had to be destructively sampled. It was a difficult decision, but the Mary Rose has an enormous collection that makes it possible to sacrifice a few for the good of the many, so in 2016 conservators decided to cut segments out of the cannon balls that were already showing significant signs of deterioration.

Dr Eleanor Schofield continues: “We knew that we needed to really delve into the material and find out what was going on, and that this would require destructive sampling. This decision was not taken lightly, and was justified by sacrificing a small percentage of our collection for the benefit of the rest and other collections around the world which suffer the same problem.”

Hayley Simon, who is now part way through her PhD adds: “These results represent a first step towards the development of new protective techniques. We are launching next a long duration experiment, which will observe changes in the corrosion product during long-term immersion in various conservation treatments to monitor their effects.”

The first paper charting the results of the synchroton mapping of the elements has now been published (only available free to subscribers, available for rent or purchase for the rest of us).

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Portrait of Henry VIII is truly Tudor

Thursday, February 8th, 2018

An oil on panel portrait of King Henry VIII in the Bath’s Victoria Art Gallery long believed to be a 19th century reproduction has been found to be a genuine Tudor-era artwork. It was donated to the Bath & North East Somerset Council in the 1800s and was thought to be a copy of a copy. This particular portrait of Henry was originally a mural in his apartment at Whitehall Palace by the king’s favorite court painter Hans Holbein, but the original is long gone. It was destroyed in the fire that burned down the palace in 1698.

The Whitehall mural was copied by many artists, and once the mural was lost, the copies were copied. The Victoria Art Gallery’s version is of higher quality than most of the other later copies, however, so when the painting had to be sent to specialists for conservation, the council had the wood panels dated using dendrochronology. Counting tree rings and matching their patterns doesn’t always work for thin panels (as opposed to logs or thick timbers), but researchers got lucky this time. The portrait was painted between 1537 and 1557, which makes it one the earliest surviving portraits of Henry VIII, who died exactly halfway through the estimated date range.

The dating of the painting was paid for by the Friends of the Victoria Art Gallery. The Chairman, Michael Rowe, said: “The Friends of the Gallery are committed to supporting original research into the gallery collections and were delighted to fund the dendrochronology. We look forward to further research into the origins of this important picture.”

Councillor Paul Myers, cabinet member for Economic and Community Regeneration, said: “This is one of the oldest and best pictures of Henry VIII in the world, and we are very fortunate to have it in the council’s public art collection. The painting will soon be back on display at the Victoria Art Gallery, where visitors will be able to see it for free in the Upper Gallery.”

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Largest early world map stitched together virtually

Friday, January 5th, 2018

The largest known early map of the world has been digitally stitched together into one single glorious panorama of exotic far-flung lands and mythical creatures. This virtual parturition births into the world the cartographic baby of Urbano Monte, a 16th century geographer who created the planisphere in 1587. The 60-page manuscript covered depicted all the known world from the North Pole to the much conjecture but still unknown Terra Australis way down south. The 60 manuscript pages when put together to create the complete top-down view of the earth Monte envisioned are 10 feet by 10 feet, the largest early non-mural map known.

That’s not its only intriguing attribute. It’s a North Polar projection, aka an azimuthal equidistant projection which accurately positions landmasses along global meridians. While there are a few examples of the form before Monte’s planisphere, his use of the North Polar projection in this map was a major step forward and later cartographers borrowed from it liberally. He drew every part of the map by hand on those 60 sheets, labelling every land mass, every hill, every dale, every river, country, ship and coastline, practically every tree. There are charts that record the length of days and nights during the year, the strength of the sun’s rays at different times, a lunar eclipse, a wind chart and many tidy explanations of geographic nomenclature and concepts. It is unreal, and I’m not just saying that because of the mutant fish monsters and mermen living it up in the Terra Austraulis Ignonita, which appears to have basically been Vegas before Bugsy Siegal.

It was this information dense by design. Monte included information on weather, topographic data, the amount of daylight, and tons more because he wanted it to be the complete resource for the learned statesman, a scientific planisphere that was to be secured in a wood panel and revolve above the heads of viewers via a pin through the North Pole, a slowly turning planet, if you will. The revolving map was another innovation of Monte’s.

Unfortunately he never did put the manuscript sheets together and create his great masterpiece. The masterpiece has remained bound in Italian sheep leather for 430 years. (There are two other manuscripts known, one with missing areas, the other a later one of 64 pages.) Making Urbano Monte’s dream come true is now possible without destruction, as long as you have the expertise, resources and dedication to put in the many hours of work takes. The David Rumsey Map Collection at Stanford University recently acquired the manuscript and has been digitizing its pages. They’ve done a spectacular job and the end result is an online resource that allows visitors to zoom in to enormously high resolution images of each page as well as to see a digital composite of the pages in their proper order, assembled just the way Monte instructed on one of the pages of the planisphere. There’s a top-down view of the 10×10 square map, several reprojections that map the virtual map on to the globe, as a Mercator projection, etc. Every label is easily readable thanks to the zoom, resolution and Monte’s elegant, clear-as-a-bell handwriting. It’s a digital masterpiece of an analog masterpiece.

When we georeference Monte’s map and then re-project it into Mercator projection we immediately understand why he used the north polar projection instead of Mercator’s: Monte wanted to show the entire earth as close as possible to a three-dimensional sphere using a two-dimensional surface. His projection does just that, notwithstanding the distortions around the south pole. Those same distortions exist in the Mercator’s world map, and by their outsized prominence on Monte’s map they gave him a vast area to indulge in all the speculations about Antarctica that proliferated in geographical descriptions in the 16th century. While Mercator’s projection became standard in years to come due to its ability to accurately measure distance and bearing, Monte’s polar projection gave a better view of the relationships of the continents and oceans. In the 20th century air age, the polar projection returned as a favored way to show the earth. Monte would have been pleased to see a modern version of his map used in the official emblem of the United Nations.

That is totally cromulent map. Imaging making something even remotely that accurate with colored pencils and 60 sheets of paper (well, sheepskin). You must browse through every page of this map and zoom way in to the spot all the animals, monarchs on thrones, irate mermen, even the aritst himself in not one, but two self-portraits. It’s too good not to be enjoyed in all its glory. Then you can pay homage to the master by seeing it look incredible connected as he had intended it to be 430 years ago. It’s been a long time in coming.

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Puttin’ on the Rijks

Saturday, December 9th, 2017

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), 'Portrait of Marten Soolmans', 1634. Purchased by the Kingdom of the Netherlands for the RijksmuseumWhy yes I am absurdly pleased with that title, thank you for asking. When the Rijksmuseum is putting on a show dedicated to full-length portraiture of moneyed art patrons from the Renaissance to the 20th century, certain puns become irresistible. The new exhibition, High Society will be centered around the museum’s most spectacular new babies, the portraits of wealthy merchant Marten Soolmans and his bride, heiress Oopjen Coppit painted by Rembrandt van Rijn in 1634. He was only 28 years old but already had made a name for himself as the top portraitist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), 'Portrait of Oopjen Coppit', 1634. Purchased by the Republic of France for the Musée du Louvreon the scene. He had known Soolmans since the latter’s desultory stab at law school in Leiden when he was 15, and as Oopjen Coppit was kind enough to bring an enormous pile of cash into the matrimonial home as a dowry, Marten booked the best to have himself and his wife immortalized top to bottom. These are the only full-length, life-sized portraits Rembrandt ever painted.

The pair is jointly owned by the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum who spent €80 million apiece to buy the portraits from Baron Eric de Rothschild. Because the portraits were already in France with the baron, the Louvre got first crack at displaying them in accordance with the intricacies of the shared acquisition deal. They went on display in Paris in March 2016 for three months, then moved on to Amsterdam where they had another brief three-month display next to the Night Watch before being taken off public view for much-needed conservation. The portraits had only been lightly cleaned and had “fake saliva” daubed on to bring back some of their original sheen before their debut at the Louvre.

That thorough restoration, undertaken by a joint team of experts from both national museums, is just about finished now and the wedding couple will be shown conserved, repaired, their finery back to its finest, for the first time at the new exhibition opening March 8th, 2018. It’s not the happy couple who will be peacocking it in this show. The Rijksmuseum took the opportunity to make Marten and Oopjen the fulcrum of a larger exploration of the evolution of the full-length portrait in art history, borrowing more than 35 masterpieces from private collections and museums in Paris, London, Florence, Vienna and California, among others. This is the first exhibition dedicated to this most magnificent of portrait formats.

Life-sized, standing, full-length portraiture had been the province of kings and powerful aristocrats in earlier times, and barely seen at all up north. The portraits of two proud exponents of the moneyed Dutch bourgeoisie illustrate the upwardly-mobile aspirations of the young Dutch Republic, then just 50 years old and focused on building wealth through trade and industry instead of bloodlines, currying monarchical favor and conquest. Marten and Oopjen were some of the earliest examples of the style being employed in Holland.

The earliest life-sized portraits of worthies standing around looking fabulously wealthy (or telegraphing their politics or promoting their families or celebrating their greatest beauties or their weddings, as in the case of Marten and Oopjen) that we know of were painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1514. The subjects were Henry Paolo Veronese, Count Iseppo da Porto, c. 1552. Baltimore, Walters Art Museum and Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi, Contini Bonacossi Collectionthe Pious, Duke of Saxony, and his wife Catharina, Countess of Mecklenburg. Less than a decade later the Italians stepped up to the plate with the unnamed subject in Moretto da Brescia’s Portrait of a Man (1525). The earliest known couple depicted in a full-length portrait by an Italian artist are Count Iseppo da Porto and his wife Countess Livia Thiene by Paolo Veronese (ca. 1552).

From those beginnings, the format spread north and west during the 16th and 17th centuries. Great masters like Velázquez, Anthony van Dyck and Frans Hals went big during this period, as did Rembrandt with Marten and Oopjen. The exhibition keeps going, illustrating the shift in focus from people of noble rank to people with money to socialites and even (gasp!) artists in the early 20th century. One of the last portraits to be painted from the group on display is one of Edvard Munch by Walther Rathenau (1907).

The exhibition is a short one — giant rarities don’t get loaned very often or for long — and closes on June 3rd, 2018.

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Cranach painting in Royal Collection authenticated by pigeon tendon

Thursday, November 16th, 2017

Pigeon tendons have confirmed that Queen Victoria was right and a slew of subsequent Royal Collection curators were wrong: a painting she acquired is an authentic work by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Victoria bought it in 1840 as a Christmas present for her husband Prince Albert who was an avid collector of his countryman’s work and ultimately added a dozen paintings by the master himself or his workshop to the Royal Collection.

Portrait of a Lady and her Son (ca. 1510–40) is a double portrait of an Electress of the Holy Roman Empire and her apple-cheeked son wearing exquisite finery and holding hands. She and Albert did not question its attribution as a genuine Cranach, but by the early 20th century Royal Collection Trust experts reluctantly acknowledged that it was not by Cranach or even by his workshop. Instead, they believed it was painted by Franz Wolfgang Rohrich (1787–1834), who was an extremely successful Cranach forger. He cranked out more than 40 copies of the Electress holding her son’s hand and sold them to deep-pocketed collectors all over Europe. It took decades for people to cotton on to Rohrich’s fraudulent imitation game, and many of his pseudo-Cranachs are still in Europeans private and public collections.

Royal Collection Trust’s reasoning was that the style, principally the tender physical and emotional connection between mother and son, was not something seen in Cranach’s oeuvre. His figures are remote and stylized. Holding Mommy’s hand is not in Lucas Cranach the Elder’s wheelhouse. Also, while the Rohrich versions were everywhere, there was no painting that could be definitively identified as a Cranach original modified by the forger.

The issue returned to the fore recently when the Royal Collection Trust agreed to loan the portrait to an exhibition in Dusseldorf that took place earlier this year. RCT conservators and curators worked with Cologne’s University of Applied Sciences to study the painting in depth with technology that wasn’t invented when the early 20th century curators made the deattribution decision.

In collaboration with TH Köln (the University of Applied Sciences, Cologne), Royal Collection Trust’s conservators and curators examined the work ahead of its loan to the major exhibition Cranach der Alterer: Meister Marke Moderne at the Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf in spring 2017. Infrared reflectography was used to look beneath the paint surface, revealing preliminary underdrawing typical of Cranach’s work. Analysis of the pigments, metal leaf and the application of paint provided further evidence that the portrait was a work of the 16th century.

Finally an x-ray of the painting revealed that a fibrous material had been used in the preparation of the panel. Analysis of similar fibres on other works by Cranach has identified them as tendons, and in one instance DNA analysis had shown them to be pigeon tendons. Sixteenth-century glue recipes often included pigeon tendons to strengthen the mixture and counteract the natural warping and splitting of the wood.

The evidence was reviewed by Professor Dr Gunnar Heydenreich of TH Köln, an expert on Lucas Cranach the Elder, who confirmed that the painting was an original work by the master from which it appears all later versions derive.

The Royal Collection Trust conservators are ecstatic at the reattribution of the portrait to Cranach and have wasted no time in giving it a prominent position on public display. It has been installed at eye-level in the King’s Dressing Room at Windsor Castle where it will keep company with its brethren by Cranach and his workshop, including Apollo and Diana (ca. 1526), Lucretia (1530), and The Judgement of Paris (ca. 1530–35).

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Ghent Altarpiece restoration website is a stunner

Saturday, November 4th, 2017

As part of their 2010 agreement to fund the restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece, the Getty Foundation’s Panel Painting Initiative stipulated that the entire process be documented and photographed in dizzyingly high resolution and every detail from dendrochronology reports to pictures of a few inches worth of newly cleaned paint be uploaded to a dedicated website. Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece is a masterpiece of online information sharing, a worthy helpmeet, technologically speaking, to the massive oak panel polyptych painted in the first half of the 15th century by Hubert Van Eyck and his brother Jan that is an icon of Belgium, Early Netherlandish art and an art historical watershed.

The altarpiece, formally known as The Mystic Lamb of 1432, is in the Cathedral of St. Bavo in Ghent, Belgium, and has remained on public view during years of restoration, study, research and documentation. Not a great view, mind you, what with all the people and stuff going on, but they built a protective transparent enclosure to give visitors a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see some of the greatest people in their fields, from carpenters to retouchers, work on one of the world’s greatest pieces of art. The creation of the Closer to Van Eyck site with its dense database of information and unparalleled pictorial documentation made it possible for the whole world to see with their naked eyes things that were not only the purview of a select group of professionals, but that even said professionals could not see with their naked eyes.

When I first discovered the website in 2012, I spent a whole weekend immersed in its Chutes and Ladders-like maze of fascinating content. I checked it regularly for years afterwards, but my interest eventually petered off when I found it wasn’t getting fresh updates. I saw yesterday when writing about the Caravaggio exhibition that the Getty Foundation and the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage in Brussels had big news regarding Closer to Van Eyck. The site has had a major update and now has brand new photographs in nosebleed high res of the polyptych at various stages in the conservation process. There are more technical images available — it started out with just X-rays, now that’s just scratching the surface of their offerings — and a freaking cool feature that allows you to compare several views of the panels at the same time.

The altarpiece was painstakingly recorded at every step of the conservation process through state-of-the-art photographic and scientific documentation. Thanks to the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage’s imaging team, digital processing and design led by Frederik Temmermans of Universum Digitalis and the Vrije Universiteit Brussels, and imec’s Department of Electronics and Informatics, the altarpiece can now be viewed online in visible light, infrared, infrared reflectograph, and X-radiograph, with sharper and higher resolution images than ever before. Visitors to the site can now also adjust a timeline to view key moments in the conservation process, and have access to simultaneous viewing of images before, during, and after conservation. Users can zoom in even closer on details of the painting, exploring microscopic views of the work in 100 billion pixels. […]

“We are proud and pleased to now also offer unparalleled access to the results of the first stage of the restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece,” says Dr. Ron Spronk, professor of Art History at the Department of Art History and Art Conservation at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada and Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, who initiated and coordinated Closer to Van Eyck. “Our site provides images and research materials of unprecedented quality and scope, both on and below the paint surface that will serve both specialists and general audiences for many years to come. We truly have come much, much closer to Van Eyck.”

Not least because they discovered that the vast majority of Van Eyck’s original brushwork had been overpainted, more than 70% of it, so most of what people have been seen of the Ghent Altarpiece wasn’t Van Eyck’s paint at all. Much of the conservation work done thus far was dedicated to removing as much as the overpaint as possible to reveal the artist’s true hand without damaging the delicate original paint layers beneath.

This website is unbelievable. It’s captures all my favorite things: technology in aid of cultural patrimony, specialized skills being taught to a new generation, rich content clearly displayed for all to enjoy without firewalls or payment, and good Ghent almighty praise be to the massive photographs. The weekend is over, but you might need to take a personal day off work so you can have all the time you need to get microscope-close to Jan Van Eyck.

I would suggest you start here with a tour of the site to get a feel for the layout and organization from their very brief and clear video summaries, then bounce around the menu climbing ladders and falling down chutes. Stock up on water and snacks because you won’t be budging from your seat for hours.

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