Archive for the ‘Renaissance’ Category

Leonardo da Vinci’s mechanical lion recreated

Tuesday, September 17th, 2019

A mechanical lion made by Leonardo da Vinci which once paid dazzling homage to the King of France has been recreated 500 years after the master’s death. The wood, metal and rope lion is 6’7″ high and 9’10” long is now on display at the Italian Cultural Institute in Paris.

The lion automaton was commissioned in 1515 by Pope Leo X as a gift for the new King of France, Francis I. The immediate impetus was the new king’s triumphal entry into the city of Lyons, whose emblem is the lion, on July 12th, 1515. The city gave Francis a lion of pure gold, and the pope rolled with the theme. The lion was also a shared motif between the parties as the pope’s chosen pontifical name (Leo) and the designer’s given name (Leonardo from the Old German “strong as a lion”). The lilies symbolized a connection between France and Leo X. Leo, born Giovanni de’ Medici, son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, was a native of Florence, and a stylized lily was on the coat of arms of both France (fleur-de-lis) and Florence (giglio Fiorentino).

Lyons had a thriving community of Florentine merchants and bankers. Their patron was the pope’s nephew, Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, lord of Florence, and soon-to-be father of Catherine, future queen consort of France and mother to three kings of France. It was Lorenzo who brought the lion, manufactured by Leonardo in Florence, with him to the Lyons extravaganza.

Leo had good reason to curry favor with the new king. By 1515, the Papal States and France were on opposing sides on the War of the League of Cambrai and at the same time Francis was making his processional entry into Lyon, his army was poised to cross the Alps and retake the Duchy of Milan. Leo’s attempts at rapprochement began as soon as Francis ascended the throne in January 1515. On February 22nd, the pope officiated at the wedding of his brother Giuliano de’ Medici to Philiberta of Savoy, Francis’ maternal aunt. The extravagant lion was the embodiment of the hopefully expanding bonds — familiar, commercial, political, military — between the powerful families and states.

Leonardo’s da Vinci’s walking lion was written about for decades after its smash hit debut by the likes of Vasari and even Michelangelo, but detailed plans for it, if they existed, have not survived even amidst the hundreds of pages of anatomical, architectural and conceptual notes left behind by the Renaissance man. The best account we have comes second-hand from painter Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo who in 1584 wrote that Francesco Melzi, Leonardo’s student and favorite who would accompany him to France for the last years of his life, described the mechanical lion thus: “once in front of Francis I, King of France, he made walk from his place in a hall, a Lion, made with admirable artifice, and after stopping, opened its chest full of lilies and diverse flowers.” Lomazzo later wrote that the lion was made to locomote “by power of wheels,” likely a reference to the internal gear system rather than the wheels near its feet.

The recreation now on display in Paris is based on a few sketchy notes and designs in the Codex Madrid I. Researchers from the Leonardo 3 Museum used partial diagrams, including one of a pulley and wheel connected to legs, as a foundation, but many additional extrapolations were necessary to fill in what is basically a giant blank. One important assumption was that the lion walked by means of a system of springs and gears Leonardo would have known from Italian watchmakers and from Arabic automata that were then popular in Venice.

The lion will be exhibited until October 9th.

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Spectacular finds made on Gribshunden

Saturday, September 7th, 2019

This season’s excavation of the Gribshunden, the the flagship of King Hans of Denmark which caught fire and sank while anchored off the coast of Ronneby in southeastern Sweden in 1495, has recovered some spectacular finds. An international team of researchers has been exploring the ship and recovering artifacts from it for three weeks.

It is the oldest warship ever found in Nordic waters and as one of the best-preserved ships from the late 15th century, it can provide important information about the design of some its famous contemporaries like the carracks of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama.

“We have managed to identify several new keys to the ship’s construction and we are getting closer to solving the riddle of how these kinds of ships were actually built. It increases our knowledge of an important period of transition in the world, the time of the great explorers,” says Johan Rönnby, professor in marine archaeology at Södertörn University.

The ship was said to be carrying King John’s “fatabur,” a sort of portable treasury that held his most expensive clothes and possessions. Some of the objects recovered from the wreck this summer could qualify as part of the king’s best gear: a coat of mail with a maker’s mark on one ring, a pewter plate and a elegant drinking tankard with a crown-like engraving.

Other artifacts that have been found on board are one of the oldest handguns ever found on a ship, coins, sturgeon bones and barrels, including of Danish beer from 1495.

The objects have yet to be analyzed, and more details are expected to emerge from the analysis, that will include both DNA technology and 3-D visualization. And the researchers believe there is more to be found:

“We hope to be able to return for more investigations next year—there are so many secrets down there,” concludes Brendan Foley.

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Monumental Veronese undergoes conservation

Friday, September 6th, 2019

A new conservation of “The Feast of Saint Gregory the Great,” a monumental painting by old master Paolo Veronese that was literally chopped up into bits, is to begin this month. The painting is 14’7″ x 28’10” and covers 420 square feet in area. Cut into 32 pieces by Austrian troops during the 1848 First Italian War of Independence, it has been restored three times in the past, but the last time was in 1973 and it is in urgent need of intervention.

One of a series of massive canvases Veronese created depicting a dinner scene, it still hangs in the space for which it was commissioned in 1572: the refectory of the monastery of the Madonna of Monte Berico in Vicenza. It depicts Pope Gregory I (r. 590-604)  dining with the poor, indigent and, on his right side, Jesus Christ. Giving alms and feeding the people of Rome (many of them destitute refugees of Lombard invasions) was the primary focus of Gregory’s papacy. Legend has it that he refused to eat until every poor person in Rome had eaten, and when that goal was achieved he would invite 12 of the indigent to join him for a dinner at his family dinner table. He was from a patrician family and reached the heights of a civic career in Rome before becoming a Benedictine monk, so I’m sure it was a fine table, but not quite as large as in Veronese’s vision, or as glamorously located.

Restorers from the regional superintendence will first take down the painting in order to thoroughly analyze it with a particular focus on reconstructing Veronese’s materials and painting process. A 2017 examine found a thick coating of discoloured varnish and dirt marring the surface of the painting. Before that can be address, the conservation team will create a roadmap using non-invasive analytical techniques.

X-ray fluorescence and gas chromatography will further help conservators understand the chemical composition of the pigments, binding agent and “mestica” (primer), used by the artist.

A key challenge will be distinguishing between Veronese’s hand and the work of the painting’s past restorers: Antonio Florian in 1817, Andrea Tagliapietra in 1858 (financed by the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph I, by way of compensation for his troops’ vandalism) and Antonio Lazzarin in 1973. “My aim is to pinpoint who did what, to decide whether to remove it or leave it be,” [lead conservator Valentina] Piovan says.

The guiding philosophy, however, will be for a “minimum of intervention”, she says. Nineteenth-century repairs made with oil-based pigments are not only difficult to reverse with modern water-based solvents, but can now be considered “a coherent part of the work” in their own right.

The delicate final phase of the project will involve retouching in such a way as to “imitate the granular texture of the painting”, Piovan says. “If it’s [too] smooth, you will see all the lines of the cuts in the light.”

Conservators will work on the canvas in situ for two years. So as not to disappoint the three million annual visitors to the monastery, the refectory will remain open to the public The conservation is scheduled to end in 2021.

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500-year-old mummy girl repatriated to Bolivia

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2019

The 500-year-old mummy of an Inca girl has been repatriated to Bolivia after 129 years in Michigan. This is the first time human remains have been returned to Bolivia which has in recent years made concerted efforts to reclaim its scattered cultural patrimony.

The girl, who was eight years old at the time of her death, is believed to have been a member of the Pacajes group of the Andean Aymara people. Radiocarbon dating found that she died in the second half of the 15th century, around 1470. At that time the Aymara were ruled by the Inca Empire before the arrival of the Spanish.

She was naturally mummified in the dry air of the Andes Mountains south of La Paz and remains today in an exceptional state of preservation. Her long reddish black braids are thick and entirely undisturbed even though her face is largely skeletonized. Her body was placed in a stone or adobe tower known as a chullpa, tombs built for the Aymara elite. She was wrapped in a cape made of camelid wool and small feathers were placed in her hand. In the chullpa with her were found leather sandals, a sling, a gourd full of small pebbles and a bag containing maize, fruit, beans and coca.

Not much is known about the discovery and export of the mummy and her funerary furnishings. They have been in the collection of the Michigan State University Museum since 1890 when the materials were donated by Fenton McCreery, son of the then-consul from the United States to Chile, William McCreery. The mummy was placed on public display in the museum in the 1950s and became one of its most popular exhibits, even featuring on a post card. It was removed in the 1970s when attitudes towards the exhibition of human remains began to change. She and the objects she was buried with spent the next 40 years in storage.

It was William Lovis, curator emeritus of anthropology, who started a campaign to return the mummy to her homeland. He figured since the museum wasn’t going to put the remains or artifacts on display ever again, nor were they planning on studying them any further, it would be better from a cultural heritage and scientific perspective if they were repatriated.

In October of 2018, Michigan State University’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously to relinquish legal ownership to the state of Bolivia. The remains were first transported to the Bolivian embassy in Washington, D.C., where an official transfer ceremony was held on January 22nd.  In August, the mummy and artifacts arrived in La Paz. They are now being held in a refrigerated chamber at the National Archaeology Museum.

The mummy, who has been dubbed Ñusta, the Aymara word for “princess,” will remain in cold storage while researchers study her remains with a particular focus on the condition of the body. The objects she was buried with are being examined and any conservation needs attended to before going on display at the National Archaeology Museum in La Paz later this year.

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Drawing found under Virgin of the Rocks

Friday, August 16th, 2019

Researchers at London’s National Gallery have identified original drawings by Leonardo da Vinci under The Virgin of the Rocks. An earlier examination of the work in 2004/5 had found changes to the Virgin’s pose. Vague indicators of other figures in the composition were thought to be line changes between the original pose and the final one. A new analysis using the latest imaging technology revealed there were two compositions under the painting. In the initial design, the angel and Christ child were markedly different than they turned out to be in the end.

In the abandoned composition both figures are positioned higher up, while the angel, facing out, is looking down on the Infant Christ with what appears to be a much tighter embrace. These new images were found because the drawings were made in a material that contained some zinc, so it could be seen in the macro x-ray fluorescence (MA-XRF) maps showing where this chemical element was present, and also through new infrared and hyperspectral imaging.

Why Leonardo abandoned this first composition still remains a mystery. The new research has shown how the second underdrawing, while aligning much more closely to the finished version, nonetheless displays his characteristic elaborations and adjustments from drawing to painting. For instance, the angle of the Infant Christ’s head was changed so that he was seen in profile, while some parts of the angel’s curly hair have been removed. Handprints resulting from patting down the priming on the panel to create an even layer of more or less uniform thickness can also be seen, probably the work of an assistant – but perhaps even by Leonardo himself.

It’s a particularly intriguing find given the complicated history behind the composition of the piece. Commissioned in 1483 by the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception for their chapel abutting the Church of San Francesco Grande in Milan, the painting as originally envisaged by the confraternity was a traditional Renaissance view of the Immaculate Conception — Mary, angels, an architectural setting — but Leonardo instead went his own way, creating a rocky, humid, cave-like setting and depicting the Virgin, the Christ Child and John the Baptist. This was his first commission in Milan; you’d think he might try to please his clients instead of blowing them off in favor of his own vision. The result caused some consternation among the confraternity and when Leonardo did not get paid the full amount, he sold the painting to a private buyer. That first version of the Virgin on the Rocks is now at the Louvre.

Ten years later, Leonardo began working on a second version, likely because the confraternity paid its balance. It was the exact same dimension (the arch-shaped frame was already made, after all) and the same subject, but with notable differences in composition and palette. The newly-discovered underdrawings are certainly in his hand, which is not the case for the application of the paint itself, so they uniquely show the false starts and evolution of Leonardo’s vision for the work.

Starting November 9, 2019, the National Gallery will host a new exhibition centered around The Virgin of the Rocks. Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece takes an innovative approach to give visitors an immersive experience into the context of the painting and of its creator.

A wide range of multi-sensory experiences will be presented across four separate rooms. Visitors will be able to step inside a similar chapel setting and see what art historical research suggests the painting’s setting may have looked like. They will be able to explore Leonardo’s own research, which informed the specific compositions in the painting. In addition they will see how Leonardo used his scientific studies to create strong effects of light and shadow in his painting. The modern process of discovery in a conservation studio, where the mysteries and secrets of a painting are uncovered, will also be brought to life with visitors being able to engage in detail with the latest findings underneath ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’.

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Intact Renaissance shipwreck found in Baltic Sea

Monday, July 22nd, 2019

An international team of researchers has discovered an intact shipwreck from the late 15th, early 16th century in the Baltic Sea. Nursed in the cold bosom of the Baltic, the ship is in exceptional condition and has a solid claim to being the best preserved Early Modern Period shipwreck to be discovered in our times.

The shipwreck was first spotted as a blip on a side-scan sonar in 2009 during a survey the Swedish Maritime Administration. The anomaly on the seafloor was noted as a likely shipwreck which is not surprising as the cold Baltic is full of them; it wasn’t pursued further at the time. Earlier this year that blip took more concrete form when a robotic camera dispatched by commercial seabed surveying firm MMT to investigate a potential undersea route for the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline captured video of a wooden ship.

In March, MMT experts, post-graduate students and maritime archaeologists from the University of Southampton, from the Maritime Archaeology Research Institute of Södertörn University, and students from KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm working on Artificial Intelligence applications to improving robotics functions in dark, cold underwater conditions came together to explore the shipwreck. Using the state-of-the-art ROV Surveyor Interceptor, the team illuminated the wreck and took thousands of high-resolution photographs. Those were then stitched together with photogrammetric technology to create an extremely accurate, detailed composite of the ship from every possible angle.

From their examination of the wreck, archaeologists believe it dates to the Renaissance, making it earlier than the Henry VIII’s ill-fated flagship the Mary Rose (1545) or the Swedish warship Mars (1564). Even in the cold, woodworm-less waters of the Baltic, a ship of this age is an extremely rare discovery. The later ships were larger, stronger and there were a lot more of them getting into trouble during the Northern Seven Year’s Wars (1563-1570). It has the great archaeological advantage of not having blown up like the Mars did, or having been severely damaged in any other way.

Her hull structure is preserved from the keel to the top deck with all of her masts and some elements of the standing rigging still in place, including the bowsprit and a rudimentary decorated transom stern and other elements of the ship rarely ever seen such as the wooden capstan in place and bilge pump. Still on the main deck, an incredible and rare find, the ship’s tender boat, used to ferry crew to and from the ship and leaning against the main mast. A testament of the tension on human relationships of the time are the swivel guns, which are still in place on the gun deck. 

The design of the ship is very similar to depictions of the Danish warship Gribshunden which went down off the coast of Ronneby, Sweden, in 1495. It burned down, however, so there are very scant extant remains. The name of the newly-discovered ship has not been found yet. The team has dubbed it Okänt Skepp, meaning “unknown ship.”  

The team plans to return to the shit to explore it further and retrieve one of the wooden planks for dating. Dendrochronology (tree ring analysis) can date wood with extraordinary precision, so if all goes well, a single timber could tell us the date of the wood within a year of its tree having been felled. That would 

Here is footage of the shipwreck being scanned by the ROV, followed by a 360 video of the photogrammetry model. In conclusion, this ship is awesome.

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Operation Night Watch begins today

Monday, July 8th, 2019

Operation Night Watch, the Rijksmuseum’s ambitious research and conservation project of Rembrandt’s massive masterpiece begins today, July 8th, in full public view. The monumental oil painting will remain in place instead of being moved to a lab. An ultra-transparent glass chamber has been erected around it to allow conservators and the complex technology they’ll be using to work in controlled condition even as visitors get a clear view of the action.

Never before has such a wide-ranging and thorough investigation been made of the condition of The Night Watch. The latest and most advanced research techniques will be used, ranging from digital imaging and scientific and technical research, to computer science and artificial intelligence. The research will lead to a better understanding of the painting’s original appearance and current state, and provide insight into the many changes that The Night Watch has undergone over the course of the last four centuries. The outcome of the research will be a treatment plan that will form the basis for the restoration of the painting.

Imaging techniques, including macro X-ray fluorescence scanning (macro-XRF) and infrared reflectance imaging spectroscopy (RIS), will help determine its current condition, and macro X-ray fluorescence scans will analyze the chemical make-up of the paint literally millimeter by millimeter. Each scan takes 24 hours and the team will have to do 56 of them to cover the whole work. The data will allow researchers to create an insanely detailed map of the pigments used in every layer, revealing any changes in composition and shedding new light on Rembrandt’s painting process.  

The high-resolution photography will be absolutely unprecedented. There will be 12,500 photographs taken ranging in resolution from 180 to 5 micrometres. No painting this size has ever been photographed as so high a resolution. Researchers (and the rest of us peering over their shoulders) will be able to study details invisible to the naked eye. 

The Night Watch will be removed from its frame for the initial research phase and placed on a bespoke easel. It will keep the work stable while experts study the entire canvas using two platform lifts to access every part of the masterpiece. 

For those of us who can’t attend in person, the Rijksmuseum website will offer video of the work in progress. There will also be special events on social media for the public around the world to learn more about the project. Those kick off today with an Instagram Live chat with Katrien Keune, head of Science at the Rijksmuseum. It starts at 5PM (11AM EST). If you have any questions about the research into the Night Watch and the conservation, pop over to Instagram and ask it.

You can see the extremely cool glass-walled enclosure built and the painting mounted in this time-lapse video:

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The Benois Madonna’s Italian homecoming

Sunday, June 2nd, 2019

Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna and Child with Flowers, also known as the Benois Madonna, is back in Italy for the first time in 35 years. On loan from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death, it is at the Pinacoteca Comunale di Fabriano in Le Marche until June 30th and will be on display at the National Gallery of Umbria in Perugia from July 4th through August 4th.

Created between 1478 and 1480 when the artist was in his mid-20s, the painting is believed to be Leonardo’s first work fully independent of his master Andrea del Verrocchio. Leonardo had worked in Verocchio’s studio from the time he was 14 years old, starting out as a shop errand boy and working his way up to a full apprenticeship. Even though he received his qualification as a master from the artists’ guild in 1472 and opened his own studio shortly thereafter, Leonardo continued to collaborate with Verrocchio for years, creating works very much in his former master’s style.

With Madonna and Child with Flowers, Leonardo embraced a new style and eschewing the previous generation’s formal representations of the Mother of God as the serene Queen of Heaven, introduced Mary as a young mother at home playing with her baby. The warm, palpable love between them is a different kind of allegory, a highly relatable view of the bond of spiritual motherhood captured in one sweet moment. This was Leonardo coming into his own, investing a scene from daily life with the profundity and symbolism of genre painting. The little flower, for example, that Mary holds in her fingers while the infant Christ grabs at it, is a premonitory symbol of the Crucifixion.

The composition of happy mother, baby on her lap holding a flower, was immediately popular and preeminent artists of the era created their own versions. As famous as it was, the Madonna was lost for centuries. It wasn’t seen again in public until 1909 when it was exhibited by Russian architect Leon Benois. It had apparently left Italy in the 1790s, acquired by statesman and artillery general Alexey Ivanovich Korsakov who brought it to Russia. After his death in 1821, his son Nikolai tried to sell it at auction but failed to get the price he was hoping to get. Astrakhan merchant and art collector Aleksandr Petrovic Sapozhnikov waited patiently in the wings and finally got his mitts on it between 1823 and 1824.

Sapozhnikov had it removed from its original wood panel due its age and poor condition and transferred onto canvas. During the transfer process, an ink underdrawing was revealed. Sapozhnikov’s records indicate he never doubted its authorship, but the art historical community took a while to catch up. Its attribution was confirmed by the top authority in 1908 and since then the Benois Madonna has become firmly ensconced on the very, very short list of undisputed works by Leonardo.

It was acquired by the Hermitage Museum in 1914. Marija Aleksandrovna Sapožnikova Benois, Aleksandr Petrovic Sapozhnikov’s granddaughter and Leon’s wife, agreed they would sell it at a marked discount as long as the Hermitage agreed that it would always remain in Russia. The Hermitage only loans it out for very short trips very rarely.

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Conserved Bacton Altar Cloth goes on display

Friday, May 17th, 2019

Bacton Altar Cloth, 16th century silk and embroidery textile believed to have been part of a gown worn by Queen Elizabeth I. ©Historic Royal Palaces/Courtesy of St Faith’s Church, Bacton.

After three years of study and conservation, the Bacton Altar Cloth is going on display at Hampton Court Palace. None of Elizabeth I’s clothing has survived, although a number of accessories have, so this cross-shaped piece is uniquely rare.

The embroidered silk textile was donated to  St Faith’s Church in Bacton, Herefordshire, by Blanche Parry who was one of Elizabeth’s most loyal and dedicated ladies. She served the future queen starting during the reign of Henry VIII when Princess Elizabeth was a young girl and continued uninterrupted for 57 years, reached the exalted rank of Chief Gentlewoman of Queen Elizabeth’s most honourable Privy Chamber and Keeper of Her Majesty’s jewels. The queen is known to have given Blanche clothes she longer wanted.

While there is no specific record of this particular textile being a royal hand-me-down, its materials and manufacture are so exquisite that it would have been literally illegal for a non-royal to wear such a garment. A monarchical provenance would also explain why Blanche considered the piece important enough to donate to her hometown church where her heart is also buried.

The altar cloth’s connection to Elizabeth I has been rumored for centuries. Recognizing its importance, in 1909, the church took it off the altar and placed it in a glass display case. In 2016, St. Faith’s asked Historic Royal Palaces to study the altar cloth.

On examining the textile, [Historic Royal Palaces curator Eleri] Lynn – an expert in Tudor court dress – was able to identify previously unseen features, studying the seams of the fabric to confirm it had once formed part of a skirt.

Following the exciting discovery, Historic Royal Palaces – the independent charity that cares for Hampton Court Palace – agreed to commence a conservation programme to stabilise the fragile fabric in the palace’s world-class textile studio. Further examination of the cloth by experts has added weight to Lynn’s theory that it might once have belonged to the Tudor Queen. Its creation from high-status silver chamblet silk, use of professional embroidery including real gold and silver thread, and distinct evidence of pattern-cutting all suggest that the item could have formed part of Elizabeth’s lavish wardrobe. The conservation team were also able to test the dyes within the fabric, discovering that it contained expensive Indigo and red dye sourced from Mexico – the kind of materials only available to a person a very high status.

The embroidery is truly spectacular, a profusion of flora (columbines, daffodils, roses, honeysuckle, oak leaves, acorns, mistletoe) and fauna (peacocks, other birds, frogs, dragonflies, butterflies, caterpillars, fish, dogs, dear, squirrels, a crocodile, a bear). There are also small wooden boats being rowed by tiny embroidered people.

Detail of the embroidery of the Bacton Altar Cloth from the back: the bear. ©Historic Royal Palaces/Courtesy of St Faith’s Church, Bacton.

The exhibition will delve further into the use of these motifs in the Tudor era. One of the most important works on display, and one of the most significant pieces of circumstantial evidence for the altar cloth having been part of one of Elizabeth’s gowns, is the Rainbow Portrait (c. 1600 – 02), attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. It depicts Elizabeth in an embroidered silk gown with very similar imagery. It is being loaned from Hatfield House for the exhibition and this is the first time it will be on display at Hampton Court Palace.

Accompanying the painting will be a selection of rare domestic print books dating from the Tudor period, which would have provided inspiration for many of the embroidered motifs fashionable during Elizabeth’s reign – including those found on the Bacton Altar Cloth – brought together for the first time with other stunning embroidery work from the period.

The Bacton Altar Cloth will be on display from October 12, 2019, until February 23, 2020.

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Giorgione masterpiece loaned to Wadsworth

Thursday, May 16th, 2019

An extremely rare masterpiece by the Venetian Renaissance painter Giorgione has gone on display at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, from May 15 to August 4, 2019. La Vecchia (The Old Lady), is an unusual portrait of an elderly woman who stares open-mouthed at the viewer, reminding them that they too, if they’re lucky enough to live, will share her fate. It is being loaned to the Wadsworth by the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.

La Vecchia is Giorgione’s poetic response to the natural phenomenon of aging,” says Oliver Tostmann, Susan Morse Hilles Curator of European Art of the Wadsworth. “It is a milestone in European portraiture in which Giorgione shows old age with implacable explicitness. It prompts us to confront our own mortality and the inevitable truth of growing old.”

The hyperrealistic portrayal of a haggard woman looking directly at us both attracts and repels at the same time. With her lips open as if about to speak, she gestures to herself. In her hand is a slip of paper inscribed with the words col tempo, “with time.” Painted more than 500 years ago, the unsparing naturalism and representation of the effects of aging
are unexpected, a striking departure from the more familiar, idealized portraits of the time. A recent conservation treatment, funded by [the Foundation for Italian Art and Culture], has removed discoloration and breathed new life into La Vecchia.

What little biographical information we have about Giorgione comes primarily from Vasari’s  Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. Vasari first introduces him in his chapter on Sebastiano del Piombo who began as a student of Giovanni Bellini but switched to Giorgione because the latter had “brought into Venice the newer manner, with its superior harmony and increased vividness of colouring.” Giorgione, who had himself had studied under Bellini, had such a profound influence on del Piombo’s style, Vasari states, that Sebastiano’s works were sometimes mistakenly believed to have been painted by Giorgione.

According to Vasari, Giorgione was born in 1477 (the date may or not be accurate) in Castelfranco Veneto, a small medieval town about 25 miles from Venice. Though of humble origins, Giorgione had fine manners, a love of literature and music (he was an excellent lute player) and was so dedicated to capturing nature that he always painted from life. He was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s keen grasp of anatomical realism coupled with the softness of color and shadows of his sfumato. Vasari compares Giorgione’s grasp of proportion, design and naturalism to Leonardo’s, saying his works “approached very closely to the excellence of his model.” His portraits were so life-like, Vasari says, that “the face appears to be real rather than painted.”

Giorgione’s talent was widely recognized in Renaissance Venice. He received multiple commissions for portraits, altarpieces and frescoes from the wealthiest and most important families. Sadly, his brilliant career was cut short. He was in his 30s when he died of plague in 1510. He died of plague, which Vasari says he caught from his inamorata.

Today only six paintings are indisputably attributed to him. Several of the ones Vasari mentioned are now known to have been painted by contemporaries like Titian and Sebastiano del Piombo. The only one in the United States, the Adoration of the Shepherds at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is of disputed authorship. The competing view is that it is an early work of Titian’s, and it’s a much more formal, less naturalistic scene than the portrait of La Vecchia. That’s why the Wadsworth exhibition is such a unique opportunity for people Stateside to view Giorgione’s work.

After experiencing Giorgione’ La Vecchia visitors will be invited to view the Wadsworth’s collection of Italian works of art including important Venetian Renaissance paintings by artists such as Sebastiano del Piombo, Tintoretto, and Jacopo Bassano. A group of deluxe books designed for and published by the famed Aldus Manutius—Venice’s leading purveyor of ancient and modern texts, known for their elegant design—are on view adjacent the Giorgione, as is the museum’s Andrea Previtali, Madonna and Child with a Donor in a landscape (c. 1504–05).

“Rarely do we have such a prime opportunity to reconnect with our shared humanity and with the Renaissance,” says Thomas J. Loughman, Director and CEO of the Wadsworth. “La Vecchia is without parallel in America as a major allegorical portrait by Giorgione, and this recent conservation provides the perfect occasion to learn and appreciate the
ideas behind the painting afresh.”

Giorgione (c. 1477/78–c. 1510), La Vecchia, 1502–08. Oil on canvas, 26 3/4 x 23 1/4 in. (68 x 59 cm), Gallerie dell’Accademia, cat. 272, © G.A. VE Photo Archive, Courtesy of the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities—Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice.

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