Archive for the ‘Renaissance’ Category

Six paintings by Hercules Segers found in private collections

Wednesday, September 21st, 2016

Hercules Segers (ca. 1589 – ca. 1638) is not widely known today, but he had an enormous influence on far more famous artists of the Dutch Golden Age and the rediscovery of his works in the 19th century played a major role in the development of the modern graphic arts. Very little is known about his life. He lived and worked in comparative obscurity, experimenting with print media in a way that had never been done before and wouldn’t be done again for 400 years.

After his death, apparently from falling down the stairs while drunk, his innovative work became highly sought after, particularly by fellow artists. It was his innovative approach to printmaking that made his name. Even to contemporary eyes, his prints are incredibly fresh: moody imaginary landscapes, each print unique thanks to his constant experimentation with colored inks, tints, colored paper, cloth, textures and cropping.

There are only 183 Segers prints made from 54 plates known to survive, each of them unique. A print by Rembrandt van Rijn is actually by Hercules Segers too. Rembrandt was an avid fan and collector of Segers’ art, and reworked one of Segers’ copper plates, Tobias and the Angel, into his Flight into Egypt, keeping the landscape unchanged but altering the human figures. Rembrandt also collected Segers’ paintings, owning at least eight of them. Considering that only 12 Segers paintings were known to have survived into our time, that’s an impressive proportion.

Now that number has been expanded by 50% because researchers at the Rijksmuseum have authenticated another six paintings by Hercules Segers, all of them held in private collections. A team of specialists spent two years studying about 100 disputed or possible Segers paintings and prints for an upcoming exhibition, discovering works never before displayed to the public and confirming the authenticity of works that have been deemed doubtful at best for decades. They enlisted the latest and greatest technology in their pursuit, including infrared reflectography, X-ray fluorescence, ultraviolet photography and dendrochronological analysis on the wood panel paintings.

The three paintings, Woodland Path, Panoramic Landscape with a Town on a River and Panoramic Landscape with Two Towers, all owned privately, have never been seen before. The Mountain Landscape from Hovingham Hall in England was last shown almost fifty years ago. Alongside the four works by Segers, there are two other paintings from private collections that have long been considered doubtful but may now also be definitively added to Segers’ oeuvre. They are the River Landscape with Figures and River Landscape with a Mill. Two new prints by the artist have also been found.

The team’s extensive art historical and technical research also revealed new information about Segers’ work and materials. For instance, they found that Segers used painter’s materials in his etchings, using oil paints to make the prints. He used different paper, textiles and paints for every impression, which is why they’re all so different from each other. Hercules Segers was, researchers discovered, the first European artist to use paper from east Asia, beating Rembrandt to the punch by 20 years.

The Rijksmuseum’s research will bear fruit in an unprecedented retrospective bringing together almost all of Hercules Segers’ works. All 18 of his extant paintings and 110 of his prints will be on display at the museum from October 7th, 2016, until January 8th, 2017. At the same time, the Rembrandt House Museum will put on an exhibition, Under the Spell of Hercules Segers, about the influence of Hercules Segers on Rembrandt and other Golden Age Dutch artists, as well as his influence on graphic artists in the 20th century. After it closes at the Rijksmuseum, the Hercules Segers exhibition will then travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City where it will open on February 13th as The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers.

Mary Rose remains and artifacts in stunning 3D

Tuesday, September 6th, 2016

I love a good 3D scan of historical and archeological materials. Be it the Apollo 11 command module, Revolutionary War-era gunboat, Anglo-Saxon stones, Pictish stones, Chinese oracle bones, a king’s grave, or a centenarian ham and peanut, I have spent untold hours turning, zooming and flipping 3D models. So when I say that the recently uploaded 3D scans of one skull and nine artifacts from the Tudor warship the Mary Rose are the best I’ve ever seen, that’s saying something.

It’s been a banner year for the Mary Rose, the flagship of Henry VIII’s navy which sank off the coast of Portsmouth on July 19th, 1545, and whose intact hull still containing the remains of the crew and 19,000 artifacts was raised from the Solent in 1982. This summer, after more than three decades of constant conservation, the stabilized ship was displayed to the public in all its glory in an extensively renovated exhibition hall of the Mary Rose Museum. The museum opened in 2013, but because the ship was still being renovated, it was partially obscured by an intricate network of pipes, sprayers, sheets of glass and scaffolding. Now it can be viewed from three balconies and wall to ceiling windows that give visitors the chance to observe the hull from multiple angles.

The new Mary Rose exhibition humanizes the vast archaeological treasure of the ship by featuring the stories of members of the crew whose remains and/or belongings were discovered on the ship. While their names are unknown, their roles could be deduced by the locations in which they were found (the cook in the galley, the Master Gunner near a gun on the deck), from osteological analysis (the longbow archers suffered from a shoulder blade condition still found in archers today), or from their stuff (the purser had a chest full of coins, the carpenter had his tools).

Yesterday the Mary Rose Museum launched a new website, Virtual Tudors, which focuses on one of those featured crewmen, the carpenter, and the artifacts found with him. He was in his mid-to-late 30s when he went down with the Mary Rose. He was a strong, well-muscled man 5’7″ tall who suffered from arthritis in his spine, ribs and left collar bone. He also had terrible teeth with extensive plaque build up and an abscess in his upper jaw so severe and painful that he could only have been able to chew on the right side of his mouth. Nearby were found a leather shoe (one of nearly 300 shoes found on board), an oak grooving plane (one of 22 found), a poplar whetstone holder and more.

The website is a collaboration of the Mary Rose Trust, Swansea University and Oxford University. For the general public, the skull of the carpenter, the shoe, plane, whetstone holder, plus two knife handles, two carved panels, a wooden spoon, a wooden mirror, and a section of the ship’s rigging have been 3D scanned and uploaded to the site. For the skull alone, 120 high resolution pictures were taken with a 39-megapixel camera. They were then stitched together to create a 15-megapixel 3D model. The level of detail is unbelievable. I must have stared at the rope from the rigging for a solid 30 minutes at the most extreme zoom, and I’ve barely started.

The digitization team is hoping that this project will have research advantages as well. Besides the publically viewable models, another 9 skulls have been scanned exclusively for examination by osteologists all over the world.

Each participant will be given a questionnaire to see what their assessment is of the skulls, which the UK team will then compare.
If the results are good, Dr Johnston said, they might help tackle scepticism from some in the field who insist that physically interacting with specimens is essential.

“Do you really need to hold the skull, or can you tell a lot from the digital one? There’s the potential to speed up science dramatically – but this needs to happen first.”

Because the pool of expertise can be much wider once resources like these are online, there is also the possibility that a new discovery will emerge.

“It might be that somebody in, I don’t know, Arizona, has a particular speciality and they say, ‘Do you realise that this person here has such-and-such a condition?’ It’d be very nice if that happened,” said Swansea biomechanist Nick Owen, who has previously studied the skeletons of archers from the Mary Rose.

Chandos portrait cleaning may reveal the Bard’s true visage

Monday, September 5th, 2016

There are no confirmed portraits of William Shakespeare. Most of them were painted years after his death and there is little reason to believe they accurately reproduce the playwright’s features. The one with the best shot is the Chandos portrait. Painted between 1600 and 1610, a time when author portraits were increasingly popular among the moneyed literati, the Chandos portrait is not only the only extant portrait to have been painted during Shakespeare’s lifetime, but it has also been widely believed to be a portrait of the Bard since the mid-17th century when there were still people living who had known Shakespeare. None of the other contenders have so long a pedigree. It was hanging in Duke’s Theatre in London as a portrait of Shakespeare in the 1660s.

Its early history has come down to us from engraver and antiquarian George Vertue who filled 40 notebooks with his observations on art and artists of the time. Those notebooks, purchased after Vertue’s death by Horace Walpole who used them as the primary source for his five-volume Anecdotes of Painting in England, include a passage written in 1719 about the painting that would become known as the Chandos portrait.

Mr. Betterton told Mr. Keck several times that the Picture of Shakespeare he had, was painted by one John Taylor/a Player, who acted for Shakespear and this John Taylor in his will left it to Sr Willm Davenant. & at the death of Sir Will Davenant — Mr Betterton bought it, & at his death Mr. Keck bought it in whose poss. it now is.

It’s hard to know how accurate this information is. Vertue had to rely on the recollections of Robert Keck, the owner of the portrait in 1719, and there is no independently verifiable source on the mysterious actor John Taylor who purportedly painted his boss. He doesn’t appear on any surviving records of Even if the ownership history is correct, there is no proof that the sitter was William Shakespeare instead of somebody else. John Taylor could have acted in Shakespeare’s company and painted other people.

The portrait was inherited by Keck descendants until 1789 when one of them married James Brydges, 3rd Duke Chandos, who gave the painting its moniker. It remained in the Chandos line until 1848 when it was purchased by Francis Egerton, 1st Earl of Ellesmere, who donated it to the newly formed National Portrait Gallery in 1856. It was the first painting in the museum’s collection, hence its vanity plate-like inventory number of NPG 1.

By then, the portrait was viewed with suspicion by literary critics. Shakespearean scholar George Steevens said of a copy of the Chandos portrait that “our author exhibits the complexion of a Jew, or rather that of a chimney-sweeper in the jaundice.” Essayist James Hain Friswell cast doubt the sitter’s identity in similar racist terms. His argument amounted to that Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have looked like a dirty foreigner.

“One cannot readily imagine our essentially English Shakespeare to have been a dark, heavy man, with a foreign expression, of decidedly Jewish physiognomy, thin curly hair, a somewhat lubricious mouth, red-edged eyes, wanton lips, with a coarse expression and his ears tricked out with earrings.”

The difficulty in the identification of the sitter is compounded by the portrait’s extensive damage over the centuries. It was cleaned with excessive vigour, thinning the paint layers, and is coated in cracked and discolored varnish. Extensive retouching has materially altered the image, lengthening the hair and beard.

Now the NPG is seriously considering cleaning and restoring the portrait for the first time since it darkened the museum’s doorway. Outside specialists have recommended conservation, but the National Portrait Gallery’s trustees will make the final decision on whether to go forward next year.

The Chandos portrait has had no significant conservation treatment since its arrival at the gallery. A decision on cleaning has not yet been made but the work would involve the removal of discoloured varnish. The challenge for conservators will be to determine how much of the later additions to remove.

Most exciting, however, is the prospect that conservation work might provide further clues to determine whether the sitter is indeed the great dramatist—and how different the face was originally from what we see with the portrait’s present condition.

National Trust acquires iconic Jacobean miniature

Saturday, August 27th, 2016


The National Trust has acquired a very fine early 17th century miniature by Isaac Oliver for £2.1 million ($2,760,000), a new record for a British miniature. The miniature is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest British examples of the art form. It has been on display at the Powis Castle in Powys, Wales, which was bequeathed to the National Trust by 4th earl of Powis in 1952. The anonymous seller, believed to be in the family of the Earls of Powis, sold the miniature at a discount — it was valued at £5.2 million ($6,830,000) — in exchange for tax concessions. Even so, the National Trust had to raise funds to buy the piece and save it for the nation before it went up for public sale. The Art Fund contributed £300,000 ($394,000), the National Heritage Memorial Fund £1.5 million ($1,970,000) and the National Trust pulled together the rest from various sources.

The subject of the miniature is Edward Herbert, 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648), a soldier, diplomat, statesman, poet, playwright and philosopher. His first cousin was Sir William Herbert, 1st Lord Powis. Scholars believe the miniature has been in the Powis family almost since it was first painted.

The cabinet miniature measures nine by seven inches and presents him as a chivalric hero of medieval romance, reclining in a verdant glade by a babbling brook. Lying recumbent with his head propped up on one hand, Herbert strikes the pose of the melancholic, symbolic of deep thought and contemplation. This isn’t just the image of a philosophically minded young man, however. Herbert is the Melancholy Knight here, shown in repose after dueling in a joust. His shield, decorated with a winged heart rising from the flames and the inscription “Magia Sympathiae,” (“sympathetic magic,” an element in Herbert’s metaphysical treatise De Veritate on the pursuit of truth) covers his arm, while in the background his elegant suit of armour is perched between two trees and his page holds a helmet so extravagantly beplumed that the red feathers obscure the page’s face entirely. To the right of the page, Herbert’s armoured white destrier paws the ground spiritedly. In the far distance, painted in blue, is a city on a river.

Edward Herbert was a dashing figure of the era, famed for his bravery, intellect and success with the ladies. The miniature was painted around 1610-1614, a time when Herbert had distinguished himself in highly chivalric fashion while volunteering under Philip William, Prince of Orange, in the Low Countries. From 1609 through 1614, the Dutch Republic was involved in the War of the Jülich Succession over who would control the United Duchies of Jülich-Cleves-Berg. Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II claimed the duchy, as did Wolfgang William, Duke of Palatinate-Neuburg, John Sigismund, Elector of Brandenburg, and the Prince of Orange representing the interests of the Dutch Republic.

In 1610, the emperor’s troops occupied the fortified citadel of Jülich and the armies of the Republic, Palatinate-Newburg and Brandenburg came together to besiege it. Herbert stepped forward to propose a classic solution to the conflict: he offered to fight the Holy Roman Emperor’s chosen champion in single combat. The victorious champion would win the duchy for his lord. Rudolph II declined. The siege lasted 35 days before the Imperial troops surrendered and withdrew and Rudolph renounced his claim to the duchy.

Born in France the son of a Huguenot goldsmith named Pierre Olivier who anglicized his last name when he fled persecution in Rouen and moved to England, Isaac Oliver was 27 and already an experienced painter when he became a pupil in the workshop of painter Nicholas Hilliard who was a popular miniature portraitist of the Tudor court.

Hilliard was limited in his skills, however, sticking largely to relatively flat head-and-shoulders portraits. When Oliver began painting miniatures under Hilliard in 1587 he was quickly recognized as a great talent and an innovator of the genre, which was less than 70 years old at that time. His portraits covered more of the body, used more and brighter colors, added chiaroscuro shadow elements that gave the features more depth and dimension. Oliver introduced the naturalism of Renaissance Italian and Flemish painters to British miniatures, and his works were widely collected by the young and fashionable.

There is an extremely juicy backstory to the miniature, one that appropriately enough for Herbert involves a married woman, a pissed off husband, attempted murder and attempted duels. The tale is recounted by Edward Herbert himself in his scandalous autobiography which was only published a century after his death by Horace Walpole, publisher, author and son of the first prime minister of Britain Robert Walpole, who had borrowed it from the then-Earl of Powis. Walpole called it “the most curious and entertaining book in the world,” and with good reason.

According to Herbert, the miniature was commissioned not by the Herberts but by the wife of one Sir John Ayres. She had purloined a copy of the original painting, now lost, and had Oliver make a version in miniature to wear “about her neck, so low that she hid it under her breasts,” a placement that Herbert acknowledges gave Sir John reasonable cause for suspicion. Then this happened:

Coming one day into her chamber, I saw her through the curtains lying upon her bed with a wax candle in one hand, and the picture I formerly mentioned in the other. I coming thereupon somewhat boldly to her, she blew out the candle, and hid the picture from me; myself thereupon being curious to know what that was she held in her hand, got the candle to be lighted again, by means whereof I found it was my picture she looked upon with more earnestness and passion than I could have easily believed, especially since myself was not engaged in any affection towards her.

Why, who could think there was illicit affection between them, just because he found himself in her rooms with the lights out while she fondled a miniature of him she kept in her cleavage? Sir John, apparently, because word got out that he planned to kill Herbert in his bed. When several titled personages alerted Edward Herbert to the contract out on his head, he enlisted his cousin Sir William Herbert to ask Sir John Ayres to refrain from murdering him in his sickbed until they could meet in an honorable duel once Edward was recovered from a fever.

The appeal fell on deaf ears, but their communication led Sir John to change his plans from murder in bed to murder on the streets. He and four men-at-arms attacked Herbert, recently recovered from his illness and on his way to Whitehall. A fierce battle ensued in which Herbert fended off five men, broke his sword, took a dagger blow from ribs to hip and still managed to pin Sir John down and whup him like he owed him money with the busted remnant of his sword. Ayres’ men dragged his body to safety.

Herbert recovered from his knife wound and wrote to Ayres again suggesting an honorable duel between them. Ayres replied that Herbert “had whored his wife, and that he would kill [him] with a musket out of a window.” The Privy Council got involved, adjudicating the dispute between them. Lady Ayres wrote a letter denying her husband’s allegations and the lords oohed and aahed over Herbert’s brave Dumas-like derring-do. Ayres did not try to kill him again.

What’s missing in this self-servingly dashing narrative is an explanation of how the portrait wound up with the Powis Herberts. Perhaps Lady Ayres handed it over. Perhaps this whole story is, let’s just say, richly embellished.

The miniature will now spend several months getting treatment from conservators. Once it is in tip-top shape, it may be loaned to other museums — the piece has been loaned to institutions like the Victoria & Albert in the past — before returning the Powis Castle for permanent display.

Hercules Room restoration begins

Sunday, August 21st, 2016

Thanks to a generous grant from the Silvano Toti Foundation, the Hercules Room of Rome’s Palazzo Venezia is now getting a much-needed restoration. The Palazzo Venezia was built in the middle of the 15th century at the behest of Cardinal Pietro Barbo, the future Pope Paul II. The stones used to build it were taken from the Colosseum, just a short jaunt to the southeast. One of the first buildings in Rome with Renaissance architectural elements, the Palazzo Venezia would outlive many later Renaissance buildings which were damaged or destroyed by the troops of the Holy Roman Emperor during the Sack of Rome in 1527.

In 1564 the Pope granted use of the palace to the Most Serene Republic of Venice for its embassy. From the end of the 18th century until World War I, it was the seat for the Austrian ambassador to the Holy See. At war with Austria-Hungary, the Italian state claimed it in 1916. Benito Mussolini claimed the Map Room in the Palazzo Venezia for his office and many a newsreel captures him speechifying from the balcony to adoring crowds below. He even built a secret bunker in the basement.

Today the palace is a national museum, home to thousands of works of art. While the building was modified repeatedly over five centuries, it still holds many original decorations from the 15th century. The Hercules Room is perhaps the most sterling example, with its frescoes depicting the Labours of Hercules and elaborately carved and painted wooden ceiling. Located on the piano nobile (the first floor where the receiving and private rooms of the noble family were), the Hercules Room was at one end of the Pietro Barbo’s apartment. Once he was elevated to the Throne of Saint Peter and got new digs in the Vatican, the room was used to store pontifical vestments. The highest part of the walls are decorated with eight panels displaying scenes from the Labours — Hercules and the Nemean lion, Hercules and Antaeus, Hercules with one of Geryon’s head of cattle, Hercules and Geryon, Hercules slaying the dragon Ladon, guardian of the Apples of the Hesperides, Hercules and the Ceryneian Hind, Hercules and the Stymphalian Birds, and lastly, Hercules and the centaur Nessus. Frescoed between the Labour panels are little putti, garlands, architectural motifs and the coat of arms of Pope Paul II.

Some past scholars have attributed to the great master of perspective and antique motifs Andrea Mantegna who famously frescoed the exquisite Camera degli Sposi in the Ducal Palace of Mantua. Others attributed them to an unnamed artist at the pontifical court. The artist remains unknown today, although scholars believe he was probably from northern Italy. The restoration and study of the frescoes will give experts the opportunity to revisit the authorship question.

The restoration is expected to take four months, from July to October. They will be a busy four months. On the agenda are the cleaning of the frescoes, the strengthening of the plaster layer and paint layers, revising past restorations and disinfecting and disinfesting the wood ceiling. Restorers will also investigate the techniques used in the original painting of the frescoes.

Restorers Isabella Righetti and Rita Ciardi told ANSA that renovation work is urgently needed because of repeated and heavy-handed work carried out in the past. [...]

The restorers also said dried pigments used in previous restoration works hid the artworks’ original colors.

“By cleaning them, we hope to rediscover the polish of the paintings, which were supposed to look like large windows that were open towards the outside”.

Free guided tours of the room will be offered to the public starting in September so visitors will have the chance to view the restorers at work.


Lost Dürer engraving found in French flea market

Sunday, August 14th, 2016

An 500-year-old engraving by Albrecht Dürer lost since World War II turned up in flea market in France. A retired archaeologist and art collector found copperplate engraving entitled Mary Crowned by an Angel at a stall of assorted tchotchkes in Sarrebourg in northeastern France close to the German border. Priced to move at just a few euros, the engraving had been acquired by the stall owner at a home clearance sale. Mary Crowned by an Angel

The buyer recognized it as a Dürer engraving and quickly bought it. When he examined it more closely, he saw a stamp on the back from the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart. Being a responsible, law-abiding type, he looked it up in the database of the German Lost Art Foundation which registers cultural items that were illegally seized usually by Nazis but also by other looters from private owners and institutions. The entry in the database confirmed that it was stolen and the new owner decided to return it to the museum. He and his wife went to the museum in person, long-lost Dürer engraving in hand, and gave it back.

“We are very grateful that, after more than 70 years, the work came to the hands of an art lover who did not keep his valuable find for themselves, but returned it to the public instead,” the museum’s director Christiane Lange said on Thursday.

How it got from Stuttgart 130 miles west to Sarrebourg is a mystery. It was likely stolen from storage at the end of the war in 1945 and crossed the border for a surreptitious sale. We know that at some point after the war it belonged to a former deputy mayor of Sarrebourg. None of the post-war owners can claim good faith since the stamp on the back of the engraving makes it clear that its legitimate owner was a museum.

At least the illegitimate owners treated it right, keeping it wrapped in paper and preserving it for 70 years. The engraving is in excellent condition, complete with the original matting. It depicts Mary holding a chubby baby Jesus (who looks, it must be said, distinctly over it all) while being crowned by an angel. It’s part of series of 15 engravings of Mary and the Christ Child Dürer printed at different times over the years.

The museum has not put the prodigal Mary on display yet. Officials are contemplating the best setting for their returned treasure. Perhaps a special Dürer exhibition is in order since the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart has an extensive collection of 250 prints by Dürer.

Wrecked Piombo masterpiece restored

Tuesday, June 7th, 2016

The University of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum has restored a 16th century painting by Sebastiano del Piombo that has been in dire condition for centuries. The restoration took a full decade of research and painstaking work by conservators at the museum’s Hamilton Kerr Institute to complete.

Sebastiano Luciani (he got the “del Piombo” moniker after his appointment to the Papal office of the leaden seal in 1531) was born in Venice around 1485. He started off his career in the arts as a lute player and while he was successful at a young age and very much in demand by the nobles of Venice, he soon changed course to painting, becoming a student first of Giovanni Bellini, who was by then in his 70s, and then of Giorgione a former pupil of Bellini’s who while still in his 20s had already made a name for himself and won several important commissions. Giorgione had a strong influence on the young Sebastiano, and indeed more than one of his early works were believed for centuries to be pieces by Giorgione.

In around 1511, Sebastiano moved to Rome at the behest of the powerful Sienese banker Agostino Chigi. There he met Michelangelo who had just revealed the first part of his epic fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel when Sebastiano arrived. Sebastiano was a congenial, charming fellow, enough to get along with Michelangelo who was notoriously prickly. According to Giorgio Vasari, Michelangelo appreciated the young artist’s color skills and the gracefulness of his work and decided to take him under his wing.

Shortly after he arrived in Rome, Sebastiano painted the Adoration of the Shepherds for an unknown patron. The influence of Giorgione and the Venetian school is seen in the color palette and in the landscape of the painting (see for example Giorgione’s Adoration of the Shepherds painted around the same time that is now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.), while the dynamic, animated figures show the influence of Michelangelo.

The painting first appears on the historical record in 1724 as part of the collection of the Duke of Orléans. It was attributed to Giorgione at that time, and still was in 1800 when museum founder Viscount Richard Fitzwilliam bought it at the sale of the Duke of Orléans’ collection in London after the French Revolution. The painting was part of the original bequest to his alma mater the University of Cambridge that created the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1816. It was only in 1913 that scholars attributed the Adoration of the Shepherds to Sebastiano del Piombo based on the fusion of Venetian and Roman elements that was characteristic of the artist’s work.

The painting has been in storage for 70 years because it was considered undisplayable in its condition. It was marred by thick layers of overpainting and X-rays and infrared imaging had shown that the original paint underneath was severely damaged. There was much discussion about whether conservation should even be attempted on so precarious a piece. Ten years ago, conservators at the Hamilton Kerr Institute began to seriously investigate the possibility of restoring the work. Sebastiano was a very slow painter and once he got the leaden seal job he was even slower. Most of his surviving works are portraits. A large religious piece by him is a rarity. Ultimately conservators decided that the overpainting was so atrocious, so far from the original in color and design, and enough of the critical areas of the original survived that it was worth tackling, even though it would require filling in significant areas of paint loss.

Here’s what it looked like before cleaning:

When the layers of overpaint and yellowed varnish were removed, conservators could see right away that the damage to the painting was not the result of the mere passage of time. It was caused by a botched transfer from original wood panel to canvas, probably when the Adoration was in the collection of the Duke of Orleans. Such transfers were considered a valid conservation approach at that time, particularly in the France, but they were hugely risky. On smaller works the painted surface was shaved off and applied to canvas. On larger pieces, a fabric facing was glued to the surface then either the wood was removed by carving or a corrosive until all that was left was the paint stuck to the facing. Canvas was then glued to the back and the facing carefully removed. Sometimes it worked and the painted surface adhered to the canvas. Sometimes it went horribly wrong and a precipitous amount of paint was lost.

Here’s what it looked like after the overpaint and varnish were removed:

Since the owner wanted his Old Master back on the wall, the damage was obscured by repainting. When that began to fail it was repainted again, lather, rinse, repeat. The botched transfer took place around 1750. Before the tragic events, a copy of the painting when it was still on panel was made. That copy is now in the Louvre. Without this copy, conservators would likely never have attempted this restoration because filling in the missing paint would have required too much guess work to be decently accurate. Thankfully, the original paint that survived the transfer proved resilient, tough enough to withstand the removal of multiple layers of overpainting.

In order to understand the artist’s technique, a microscopic particle of paint, smaller than the head of a pin, was taken from the Virgin’s blue robe and analysed under a microscope during research. Examination of the paint cross-section demonstrated Sebastiano’s sophisticated system of layering with an application of pink paint beneath the blue, as well as his use of superior and expensive pigments, such as ultramarine blue. This and other forms of state-of-the-art analysis greatly helped to reconstruct the missing areas. [...]

[Director of the Hamilton Kerr Institute] Rupert Featherstone added, “We have conserved over 3,000 pictures in the last forty years at the HKI, but the Sebastiano is one of our biggest projects. Some might have argued to leave the painting as an archaeological relic, but I think we have made the right judgement to restore it so it can be appreciated as the masterpiece it is, aesthetically and historically. The scientific research that was conducted to aid our understanding of the technique of the artist has been key in being able to recreate it.”

Here’s what it looks like now:

The restored Adoration of the Shepherds is the Fitzwilliam’s “Object of the Month” for June and is now on display in the museum’s Flower Gallery.

Altar cloth may be sole surviving Elizabeth I gown

Thursday, May 26th, 2016

Speaking of Queen Elizabeth I, Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) curators think an altar cloth from St Faith’s Church in Bacton, Herefordshire, may be the only known surviving piece of one of the monarch’s famously elaborate gowns. There is no conclusive proof that the cross-shaped piece of fabric once belonged to the queen herself, but there’s very solid circumstantial evidence.

The altar cloth has belonged to the small rural church for centuries. The richly embroidered cloth, long rumored to have a connection to the Virgin Queen, stopped being used as altar cloth and was placed in a glass display case in 1909. The church received it from Blanche Perry, daughter of a Welsh nobleman who was born in Bacton and became one of the queen’s most loyal and longest serving ladies. Brought to court by her aunt Lady Troy who Henry VIII appointed Lady Mistress to his children Prince Edward and Princess Elizabeth, Blanche was Elizabeth’s attendant for 57 years, ultimately rising to the exalted rank of Chief Gentlewoman of Queen Elizabeth’s most honourable Privy Chamber and Keeper of Her Majesty’s jewels, a role she held from 1565 until her death in 1590.

An epitaph she wrote for her funerary monument at St Faith’s describes her lifelong dedication to the Princess and later Queen Elizabeth, “whose cradle saw I rocked, her servant then as when she her crown achieved and remained til death my door had knocked…. A maid in court and never no man’s wife, sworn of Queen Elizabeth’s head chamber always with the Maiden Queen a maid did end my life.” She commissioned the monument at the time of her planned retirement (1576-1577), but she never did retire. She was Chief Gentlewoman until the end, after which the Queen had her buried with much pomp in St. Margaret’s, Westminster. Only her heart made it back to St Faith’s, her heart and a beautiful piece of fabric.

Experts from the Historic Royal Palaces asked to examine the textile last year. They identified it as an Elizabethan skirt panel from the late 16th century, and not just any skirt panel, but one of royal quality. It is cream silk woven through with silver thread with embroidery in colored silks, gold thread and silver thread. It was embroidered with florals — columbines, daffodils, roses, honeysuckle, oak leaves, acorns, mistletoe — and animals — birds, dragonflies, butterflies, caterpillars, frogs, fish, dogs, stags, squirrels. There are also miniature boats being rowed by tiny humans. This was professional embroidery of the highest standard.

The sumptuary laws explicitly reserved such rich garments for members of the immediate royal family. A single gown could cost the equivalent of labourer’s yearly income. Curators believe it was a gift from the Queen to Blanche Parry, a rare, valued gift that was a token of the Queen’s high esteem, love and friendship. Queen Elizabeth didn’t give away her dresses very often, and no garments from her royal wardrobe have survived, only accessories. This section is the only piece of fabric known that is likely to have come from a gown of Elizabeth’s. It survived because it was treated with reverence, very quickly converted into an altar piece and treated with utmost care for the next four centuries.

The HRP curators have removed it from its frame and frozen it to kill any critters that might have been gnawing on its delicate fibers. Conservators will now analyze it and recommend a course of action that will preserve it in the long term. After it is conserved in the laboratories of Hampton Court, HRP hopes it will go on public display. St Faith’s is still the undisputed owner, however, so they’ll have to determine where it will be exhibited in the long-term. One possibility is that a replica will be made for the church, while the original is kept in the security and ideal conservation conditions of the Historic Royal Palaces.

Help save the Drake Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016

The Art Fund and Royal Museums Greenwich have launched a campaign to buy the iconic Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I before it’s put up for public auction. The Art Fund has contributed £1 million ($1,461,000) and Royal Museums Greenwich £400,000 ($584,000), its entire annual acquisitions budget, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. They need to raise another £8.6 million ($12,564,000) to secure the portrait for its asking price of £10 million or else it will be sold to the highest bidder.

The oil-on-panel portrait was painted in around 1590 to commemorate the scrappy English navy’s defeat of the mighty Spanish Armada in 1588 and has become an iconic representation of Queen Elizabeth. It has appeared in textbooks and inspired countless film and television portrayals of the Virgin Queen. Some scholars consider it the definitive representation of the English Renaissance.

Queen Elizabeth stands with her elegant right hand covering North America — Spain of course claimed much of South America — on a globe. Next to her shoulder is a crown representing her rule of a new global empire, and her dress, hair and jewelry are festooned with pearls, symbols of virginity and the sea. The fabric of her gown is embroidered with suns, symbols of power and enlightenment. Behind her are two scenes from the defeat of the Spanish Armada: on the left English ships in the foreground sail towards the larger Spanish fleet, on the ship Spanish ships are buffeted onto the rocky coast of Ireland or Scotland by what was termed the “Protestant Wind,” the breath of God Himself weighing in on the side of England and Protestantism.

The portrait was unusual in its time for the horizontal orientation, and was immediately popular enough to inspire multiple versions. This is one of three versions of the portrait to survive. One of them is in the National Portrait Gallery. It was trimmed on both sides to make it a vertical portrait and the English and Spanish ships in the background, the very parts of the paintings that give it its meaning, were overpainted in black. Conservators discovered the overpainting and removed it in the 1970s. The other version is at Woburn Abbey and is thankfully still intact.

The artist is unknown. Previously the National Portrait Gallery and Woburn Abbey versions were attributed to the Queen’s Serjeant Painter George Gower, but the NPG now believes all three portraits were painted by different hands and have changed the attribution of their version to an unknown artist of the British school.

The only version of the portrait still in private hands was once owned by, and likely was commissioned by, Sir Francis Drake which it makes it the most important of the three because of its close association with one of the heroes of the events depicted. It has been in his family ever since. It currently resides at Shardeloes in Buckinghamshire, the estate of the Tyrwhitt-Drake family. They’re ready to sell, and if the campaign is successful, the portrait will belong to a public institution for the first time in 425 years.

Royal Museums Greenwich would be the perfect home for this iconic painting, with its fine 16th- and 17th-century collections, maritime setting and world-renowned conservation expertise. If our campaign is successful, the portrait will hang at the newly renovated Queen’s House, on the site of the original Greenwich Palace, where Elizabeth I was born. Plans are underway for a national programme to secure the widest possible audience. The painting is in a fragile condition and bringing it into public ownership now will secure its long-term future, conservation and display.

It’s in dire need of that conservation expertise. Its background scenes of the victory over the Armada were also overpainted at one point, and the whole work is yellowed with missing flecks of paint. Half a millennium in drafty stately homes hasn’t done it any favors either. The Royal Museums Greenwich have the facilities to ensure a proper climate controlled environment that is ideal for conservation of the oil paint and oak panels.

All donations will be matched pound for pound, so whatever you can contribute is actually worth double. Click here to donate.

US returns stolen Columbus letter to Italy

Saturday, May 21st, 2016

A rare printed copy of Christopher Columbus’ letter describing what the people and placed he’d found on his famous transatlantic voyage that was stolen from the Riccardiana Library in Florence, Italy, has been found in the Library of Congress and returned to Italy. Nobody knows exactly when the red leather-bound volume that included the letter along with other early printed texts from the 1490s was stolen because it was replaced with a forgery that looked surprisingly plausible despite having been printed from a photographic plate.

The director of the library, Fulvio Silvano Stacchetti, suspects it was stolen in 1950 or 1951 when it was on loan to the national library in Rome because that was only time in the recent past when it was out of their hands. Experts who have analyzed the forgery think the technology and materials used are newer than that, and what investigators have been able to trace of its history suggests a much more recent date for the theft. It was in the hands of a rare book collector in Switzerland in 1990 and was sold at Christie’s New York two years later for $330,000. In 2004 it was bequeathed to the Library of Congress.

The forgery was first spotted in 2012, when an unnamed individual doing research in the library’s rare book room encountered the volume and thought it looked fishy. He reported his suspicions to the Department of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) who contacted Italy’s crack Carabinieri Art Squad. Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent Mark Olexa, a specialist in cultural property theft, joined Carabinieri investigators and Italian experts in Florence in July of 2012 where they examined the forgery. They confirmed that it was indeed a fake, missing the Riccardiana library stamp, with the wrong sized pages, different page numbering, different stitching patterns compared to other prints of the letter, and on paper that while old, was a century younger than it should have been.

Investigators tracked the original letter to the Library of Congress where HSI agents worked with experts from the Smithsonian to confirm its real identity. They found evidence of deliberate attempts to disguise the true origin of the text. The stamp of the Riccardiana Library had been removed with chemical bleach and some of the characters altered to make them less recognizable at a glance. That’s why the American collector and Library of Congress had no idea it was stolen. (It wouldn’t have killed Christie’s to take a closer look, though, and I’ll bet dollars to donuts the Swiss dealer knew what was up.)

The investigation into the theft is still open, but on Wednesday, May 18th, the volume was formally returned to Italy in a ceremony at the Biblioteca Angelica in Rome. Italian Culture Minister Enrico Franceschini noted aptly: “It is interesting how 500 years after the letter was written it has made the same trip back and forth from America.”

This is not a copy of the original letter written to Ferdinand and Isabella, as some of the articles are describing it, nor is it quite accurate to say that the original letter was lost, as other articles have said. I mentioned in this post about the fresco that may include a depiction of the first indigenous Americans in European art that Columbus is known to have written two letters with near-identical content, one addressed to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, one to Spanish finance minister Luis de Santangel, Columbus’ patron and advocate. He sent both letters at the same time, either when he landed in Lisbon on March 4th or Palos on March 15th, 1493.

The original letter to Ferdinand and Isabella was never published, so far as we know, so there are no extant copies. The letter to Santangel made it to press within weeks. The earliest known edition of the Santangel letter was published in the original Spanish by Barcelona printer Pere Posa in April of 1493. It was believed lost until a copy was found in Spain in 1890. That copy is now in the rare book division of the New York Public Library.

The Santangel letter quickly made its way to Rome where a Latin translation was printed by Stephen Plannck by May, 1493. Plannck printed a second edition that same year. There were several changes. The first edition had only King Ferdinand’s name in the introduction, thought to be a deliberate slight resulting from the Aragonese translator Aliander de Cosco’s disdain for Castille, and the second edition had the names of both Ferdinand and Isabella in the header. The second edition also changed the name of the recipient from Raphael Sanxis to Gabriel Sanchez (Aliander was translating the Posa Spanish edition of the Santangel letter, but he mistakenly thought the king’s treasurer Sanxis was the recipient instead of the finance minister Santangel) and Italianized the name of the translator to Leander di Cosco. The recovered letter is a Plannck II edition.

Between 1493 and 1497, 17 editions of the letter were printed. An estimated 3,000 copies were distributed in major cities throughout Europe. Very few of them, around 80, have survived. About 30 of them are Plannck II letters. The figures are approximate because as a highly sought-after document, forgeries of the letter abound and authenticity can be hard to determine.

The letter will now be returned to the Riccardiana Library. The Galata Sea Museum in Columbus’ hometown of Genoa has submitted a request to the Culture Ministry that they get the letter because they’ll put it on display instead of squirreling it away in an archive where so few people will see it that they won’t notice it’s been stolen and replaced with a forgery for decades.

You can read the full text of the Santangel Columbus Letter in the original Spanish and translated into English here. This book compiled by the Lenox Library (later absorbed into the NYPL) starts with a reprint of the one pictorial edition with woodcuts said to have been drawn by Columbus himself, and a neat comparison of the four Latin editions, including both Planncks.

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