Cherubs by Italian Renaissance master found at Visegrád Castle

A pair of marble cherubs sculpted by Italian Early Renaissance master Benedetto da Maiano has been discovered on the grounds of Visegrád Castle, north of Budapest, Hungary. The cherub heads and wings were found during the excavation of the church of the Franciscan monastery that stood next to the royal palace in the castle complex.

The cherubs were part of a 15th century altar made of white marble. While the heads have suffered some damage, they are largely intact and display the characteristic features of Benedetto da Maiano’s deft hand in the detailing of the hair, feathers and faces. Fragments of drapery from angel statues were also found. The pieces are almost exact copies of sculptural elements on altars by Benedetto da Maiano in Naples, Florence and San Gimignano.

Born in Maiano, Tuscany, in 1442, Benedetto learned wood and marble carving first from his uncle Giuliano, and later from Antonio Rossellino. He soon eclipsed both in skill and fame. He started out working in perspective intarsia (using different colors of wood inlay to create complex architectural scenes, figures, foliage and geometric patterns with 3D depth), creating the insanely gorgeous studiolo of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, and his reputation spread far and wide.

Biographer Giorgio Vasari recounts that Benedetto da Maiano received commissions from the crowned heads of Europe, including King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary for whom he made a pair of inlaid coffers. King Matthias invited Benedetto to Buda in person to deliver the coffers, but when he presented them before the king and his court full of nobles, he found to his horror that the sea water from the voyage had softened the glue of the inlay and all his work literally fell to pieces before his aghast eyes. He was able to patch it back together to the king’s satisfaction, but he was so humiliated by the fragile wood’s failure, from them on, he switched to marble sculpture.

Benedetto was commissioned to make matching marble relief portraits of the king and his second wife Beatrice of Aragon at the time of their wedding in 1476. The portraits are recognized by art historians today as important transitional pieces marking the artist’s shift from intarsia to statuary. Vasari says he made other sculptures in clay and marble for King Matthias Corvinus before he left Hungary and returned to Florence.

First built in the 13th century, Visegrád Castle became an official royal residence in the 14th century and was further enlarged and refurbished in the 15th century. Matthias almost entirely redid the interior of the palace, and he also refounded the Franciscan monastery (started but never completely by Sigismund, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Hungary, around 1400). Mattias finished construction of the monastery and commissioned a grand high altar of white marble in Italian Renaissance style. A document in Florence from 1493 records that Benedetto had received a commission from Matthias for a marble tabernacle for a church sacristy, but the work was interrupted when the king died in 1490. This order suggests Matthias was actively engaging Benedetto da Maiano in work for the church.

Visegrád and the Franciscan monastery suffered heavily in the armed conflicts of the 1540s. In 1540, the Lower Castle was besieged by Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor, in a succession conflict that would precipitate a much larger invasion by Ottoman Emperor Suleiman the Magnificent ostensibly on behalf of the infant who had just inherited the throne of Hungary. Ferdinand’s siege damaged the monastery, and archaeologists found fragments of the altar with pieces of the windows, the window frames and lead rifle bullets, flattened from impact.

The castle was besieged again by the Ottoman Empire in 1544 and suffered heavy damage. Even after Turkish forces were ousted in 1685, the castle was never again used as a royal palace and by the 18th century was completely buried. Today the castle is open to visitors even as it undergoes a new program of excavation and restoration with the ultimate goal of returning the castle and palace complex to its glory days under Matthias Corvinus.

The unearthed artifact is of great significance as it confirms King Matthias’s vision of Hungary as a cultural and artistic hub in 15th-century Europe, where he commissioned works from leading Italian artists. “The chances of finding Renaissance works of art of similar quality and in good condition, but hitherto unknown, are now very slim,” Gergely Buzás concluded. The ongoing excavations hold promise for further significant discoveries, shedding light on Hungary’s rich medieval history.

Siena Cathedral’s spectacular baptismal font restored

The baptismal font in the Siena Cathedral, crafted by the most important sculptors of the Renaissance, including Donatello, Jacopo della Quercia and Lorenzo Ghiberti, is back in public view after three years of in-depth diagnostic investigations and innovative conservation. The complex work was carried out by specialists from the Opera and the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, the conservation workshop of the cathedral which has been maintaining and restoring elements of the cathedral complex since the 12th century.

The font is made of white marble, gilded bronze and enamelled copper and was created between 1417 and 1431. It has a hexagonal basin with six gilded bronze reliefs depicting scenes from the life of John the Baptist on each of the sides, with gilded bronze statues of the virtues between them. Two of them, Faith and Hope, were made by Donatello. He also created one of the reliefs, The Banquet of Herod. Lorenzo Ghiberti, creator of the breathtaking bronze reliefs in the door of the Baptistery of Florence, made the The Baptism of Jesus panel, and the dynamic Arrest of John the Baptist.

The bronzes were gilded with an amalgam of gold and mercury, a process known as fire gilding. It is highly susceptible to tarnishing and abrasion. The OPD conservation team removed the bronze panels and sculptures from the basin to restore them in the laboratory. The marble elements were restored in situ and a new support structure for the stone elements was designed to give access to the back of the bronzes in the future without having to dismantle them.

Out of the white marble basin rises a monumental tabernacle, also made of white marble, crowned by a slender lantern topped with a sculpture of John the Baptist. It was designed in the style of a classical temple with a segmented dome. It is adorned with marble sculptures of five Prophets in niches, one of them by Jacopo della Quercia. The sixth side features a gilded bronze door depicting the Madonna and Child by Giovanni di Turino. Above them were six bronze Spirits. Only four survive today, two by Donatello, two by Giovanni di Turino. The marbles were originally decorated with polychrome blue and gold painted details, much of which has eroded. What is left was revived by the restoration.

Because by its nature the font exposes these priceless artworks to constant moisture that is the opposite of ideal conservation conditions, the OPD will be keeping a close eye on the font, with constant environmental monitoring, a new humidity control system and a thorough inspections every six months. That will allow conservators to detect any signs of deterioration immediately and take countermeasures before damage sets in.

Ming shipwrecks illuminate maritime Silk Road

After two years of excavation, more than 900 artifacts have been recovered from two Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) shipwrecks discovered in China’s southern island province of Hainan. Excavating the deep-sea shipwrecks has required pioneering technologies including 3D laser scanners and high-definition cameras to map the sites and stitch together full panoramic views of the wreck sites using photogrammetry techniques and state-of-the-art submersible mud pumping and blowing devices to do the actual digging.

The two shipwrecks were discovered 4,900 feet deep on the northwest continental slope of the South China Sea in October of 2022. Dating to the Zhengde period (1506-1521), Ship No. 1 was carrying an enormous cargo of more than 100,000 porcelain, pottery, bronze, iron bamboo and wood artifacts intended for export. Archaeologists believe its departure point may have been Guangdong or Fujian provinces and its destination was the Malaysian center of trade Malacca. Ship No. 2 was going in the other direction, carrying timber from Malacca back to Guangdong or Fujian. It dates to the Hongzhi period, 1488-1505.

Since their discovery, a total of 890 pieces of porcelain, pottery and copper coins have been recovered from Ship No. 1, including blue-and-white porcelain, green-glazed porcelain, white-glazed porcelain, blue-and-white-glazed porcelain, enamel porcelain and brown-glazed pottery. A total of 38 objects, including wood logs, porcelain, pottery, shells and deer antlers, have been recovered from Ship No. 2. Two archaeologists firsts were discovered on the wrecks: enamelware on Ship No. 1 and ebony wood on Ship No. 2, the first of their kind ever found in shipwreck archaeology.

The shipwrecks and their rich, varied cargos shed light on the bustling activity on the Maritime Silk Road during the middle Ming Dynasty period.

The archaeologists said the two ancient ships were travelling in different directions, and the wrecks were found less than 20km (12 miles) apart. They said it was the first time vessels returning and arriving had been found near each other, indicating they were travelling on an important trade route.

“It helps us study the maritime Silk Road’s reciprocal flow,” Tang Wei, the director of the Chinese National Centre for Archaeology, said.

The artifacts recovered from the shipwrecks are currently being recorded and conserved. The Hainan Provincial Department of Tourism, Culture, Radio, Television and Sports plans to publish complete photographic catalogues of all the finds and to put a selection of the findings on display in special exhibitions and museums.

Mantua Ducal Palace brings 1528 Gonzaga tapestry home

A large “espalier” (horizontal) tapestry commissioned by a Gonzaga cardinal in 1528 has been acquired by the Ducal Palace in Mantua. Manufactured in Mantua by a Flemish master, the tapestry was offered at auction at Roseberys in London, and the Ducal Palace made the winning bid to bring the work home again. The final price including buyers premium was £15,744 ($20,000), a bargain considering the historical and artistic significance of the tapestry to Mantua.

An espalier tapestry is much wider than it is high. This one is almost 20 feet wide and 5’9″ high. It was created by Flemish emigré weaver Nicolas Karcher who moved to Mantua around the time this tapestry was made and took many commissions from the ruling Gonzaga family. It is one of the oldest examples of tapestries of Italian design made in Italy.

Art historians have found that it was sold in 1879 by an unknown Mantuan. It left Italy in 1969 and moved to the Isle of Jersey. It hasn’t been back to its homeland since, not even as a loan, which is particularly notable because the tapestry is an important piece and has been published both as part of a compendium of Gonzaga art in 1985 and as the subject of an in-depth study in 2010.

The tapestry is centered around the allegory of Justice. She stands in the middle of the wide field, holding the fasces, the bundle of rods that symbolized magistral power in ancient Rome. On the left side, Saint Peter stands between the kneeling pope and Cardinal Ercole Gonzaga. His identity is signaled by the Gonzaga coat of arms hanging on a tree. The pope is probably Clement VII as he had made Ercole Gonzaga a cardinal the year before the tapestry was woven. On the right side is Moses with horns (a depiction common the Renaissance based on a mistranslation of “rays” as “horns” in Exodus 34) presenting the tablets of the Ten Commandments to two figures, thought to be the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph, kneeling at his side. The figures are set against a lush country landscape of hills, lakes and trees.

The newly-acquired tapestry will be going on display at the Castle of San Giorgio.

Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes restored

Donatello’s bronze sculpture group depicting Judith and Holofernes (1457-1464) has returned to public display after 10 months of restoration. The sculpture was unveiled Monday at the Sala dei Gigli (Gallery of the Fleurs-de-Lis) in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, cleaned and restored using the latest technology.

Donatello took an original approach to the subject of the young Jewish heroine who saved her city by cutting off the head of the Assyrian general besieging it. He was the first to include the figure of Holofernes. The subject at this time was usually presented as just Judith holding the general’s decapitated head. Donatello captured the moment in dynamic action, Judith with her arm raised and sword in hand ready for the kill while Holofernes’ body is trapped between her legs, his limbs dangling off the edge of the statue’s base. Three Bacchic reliefs adorn the sides of the base.

The bronze was commissioned by Piero de’ Medici with the motif of Judith’s defeat of Holofernes standing as a model of freedom against tyranny for citizens to follow in defense of the Florentine Republic. After the Medici were expelled from Florence in 1495, the government of the new Republic confiscated the sculpture and moved it to the Palazzo della Signoria, the new seat of government. Piero’s original inscriptions on the plinth — one extolling Judith as a symbol of humility’s triumph over pride and virtue’s over lust, the other exhorting citizens to follow her example in defending the Florentine Republic — were removed and a new one installed marking the date of the confiscation/liberation of the bronze from the personal property of the ruler to the patrimony of Florence.

It was moved several times over the next centuries and it was out in the elements. By 1980, the bronze had suffered severe deterioration, so it was permanently moved to the Sala dei Gigli in Palazzo Vecchio. At the time of the move, the statue was given its first scientific restoration, but it was the 1980s and the techniques used then haven’t aged well. The bronze darkened over time and the protective coating turned out to be a literal dust magnet, having an electrostatic charge that attracts dust and an adhesive property the glues it to the surface.

The new restoration began with a painstaking examination and documentation of the bronze. The statue was dusted to expose as much of the surface as possible. That surface was then analyzed with new samples taken and compared to the ones collected 40 years ago.

After the diagnostic process was complete, conservators set to work addressing the problems that were identified.

Detail of bronze panel at the base of the statue. Photo courtesy A. Quattrone, Friends of Florence.The findings revealed a need for a more complex approach to renew the restorative effects of the previous work, whilst also removing the products of slow corrosion processes on the metal’s surface. The recent work has benefitted from improved understanding of the material, as well as new laser-based technology to treat the metal without the disadvantages of mechanical or chemical cleaning techniques used in the past. This work has also revealed localized areas of gilding on the bronze, which provides important information for how this statue (and others like it) can be more effectively protected in the future.