Archive for the ‘Renaissance’ Category

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.

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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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Vatican’s Gallery of Maps restored

Sunday, May 1st, 2016

The Gallery of Maps in the Vatican Museums contains the largest cycle of cartographic paintings ever created. The gallery on the west side of the Belvedere Courtyard connects the Sistine Chapel to the Tower of the Winds and is 120 meters (394 feet) long, longer than a football field and 20 feet wide. Its barrel-vaulted ceiling soars three storeys above the floor. The walls are covered practically floor to ceiling with frescoed maps of all the regions of Italy.

The Gallery of the Maps was commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII so that he could travel the length of Italy without having to leave the apostolic palace. Dominican friar, mathematician and cartographer Ignazio Danti was placed in charge of the project. (Danti was also on the committee that reformed the Julian calendar, correcting its ancient miscalculations by cutting out 11 days so October 4th, 1582, was followed by October 15th, 1582, after which the new Gregorian calendar, named after the Pope, kept up with astronomical time.) During the course of 18 months from 1580 to 1581, Danti and his team — Flemish artists Matthjis and Paul Bril and Italian Mannerists Gerolamo Muziano and Cesare Nebbia, Giovanni Antonio Vanosino da Varese and Ignazio’s brother Antonio Danti — painted 40 large-scale map frescoes of every region in Italy (plus Avignon, on account of it was owned by Popes for four centuries from the Babylonian Captivity until the French Revolution).

The maps are extraordinarily detailed and accurate renderings of Italy in the late 16th century. Following Danti’s meticulous cartographic cartoons, the painters stuck to what they knew was there. If there was something they weren’t sure about, they left it out. While they included traditional decorative figures like putti, sea monsters and Neptune and conflated historical elements like Roman ships with contemporary ones, the maps themselves. The topographical precision and perspective are extraordinary, lending these maps an almost 3D-like realism. Valleys, hills, lakes, even individual streets are all recognizable. Moving from southern Italy to the north, the east side of the room was painted with maps of regions that face the Adriatic Sea and the Alps; the west side featured regions facing the Tyrrhenian. Danti said that walking this corridor was like walking up Italy on the spine of the Apennines.

Every regional map is accompanied by a smaller view of its most populous city. Where you exit the gallery today are maps of Italy’s four major ports — Genoa, Venice, Ancona and Civitavecchia — and two views of the entire peninsula — ancient Italy and new Italy. At today’s entrance are maps of the minor islands and two momentous battles that were still fresh news when they were painted: the Ottoman siege of Malta in 1565 and the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, both won by the Holy League.

The ceiling vaults are painted with the patron saints of the various regions (Saint Ambrose for Milan, Saint Mark for Venice) and with important/miraculous scenes from Italian history (Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Hannibal and his elephants, the baptism of Constantine, Pope Leo I persuading Attila the Hun to withdraw from Italy, Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa meeting with Pope Alexander III, etc.) each covering the space above the maps of the locations where the events took place.

The next Pope to put his hands on the maps was not so keen on accuracy. Pope Urban VIII ordered a “restoration” in 1630 that just painted over details that had gotten blurred over the 50 years since their creation. A fresco depicting the Brenner Pass between Italy and Austria was painted over just because it was so high up on the wall it was inconvenient to repair. Born Maffeo Barberini, Pope Urban also had his family’s symbol, the bee, added to the maps wherever possible, if not advisable. (It was Urban VIII who stripped the bronze off the roof of the Pantheon to make cannon and Bernini’s baldachin in St. Peter’s Basilica, giving rise to the satiric pasquinade “Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini,” meaning “What the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did.”)

Six million people a year walk down this hall, bringing dirt, moisture and the vibrations from hundreds of millions of footballs with them that caused the plaster to lift from the walls and covered the brilliance of the original paint under layers of dust. Between that and the unfortunate past restorations, the frescoes were in dire need of attention. In 2011, the Vatican reached out to the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of the Vatican Museums’ cultural patrimony, for help in funding a new restoration of the paintings that would rescue the plaster from impending doom and return works to their former splendour.

The restoration was sponsored by the California chapter of the Patrons. Half of the $2.4 million budget was donated by one Patron; the rest was raised through a map adoption program, with each Patron adopting an individual map and funding its restoration at either the $35,000 or $70,000 level. Because the maps are so extensive and so detailed, some patrons had the unique opportunity to adopt a map that with a connection to their family histories, for example the Castignano family adopted the map of Sicily because it included the hometown of their immigrant forebears, a tiny hamlet that barely registers on other atlases, while the Stanislawskis adopted the map of Umbria because of a family history of devotion to St. Francis of Assisi.

Art restorer Francesco Prantera and his team of experts began work in September of 2012. They anchored the plaster to the wall with an organic glue, and then set to treating the frescoes. They divided each map into 64 sections, the same sections the original artists used to paint them in the 16th century. Each of the sections was covered with special tissue-thin paper to absorb the old yellowed glue from a 19th century restoration. When the paper was peeled off, the newly vibrant color was protected with an adhesive made from a Japanese red algae called funori. Because the product is so expensive (one gram will run you 100 euros), the diagnostic laboratory of the Vatican Museums made their own extract directly from the imported seaweed. The restoration team then cautiously filled in areas of paint loss, reproducing the original materials used by the artists. The stucco was made from an ancient Roman recipe. The paints were all natural and free of chemicals.

The restoration took just under four years, double what it took Danti’s team to paint the Gallery of Maps in the first place. It has been open to the public this whole time. On Saturday, April 23rd, the Patrons were given a private showing of the restored Gallery.

There are some good views of the Hall and details of the restoration in progress in this Italian language video. The narration mainly gives a quick rundown of the history you’ve just read so I won’t repeat it, but you’ll find my translation of the interesting comments from Maria Ludmilla Pustka, head restorer of the paintings and wood artifacts of the Vatican Museums, below.

Maria Ludmilla Pustka: “The restoration of a work of art can be more complex than the original execution, and the great team we put together to make this restoration happen quickly had to use a very interesting, modern methodology that approaches a biorestoration. Thus nature itself has provided us with the proper materials for a better conservation.”

Narrator: “The restoration, which focused on the precarious condition of the plaster layer and the look of the painted surfaces, has also brought to light surprising discoveries.”

Pustka: “Every map has its own secret. Among the secrets, one new discovery was a coin of Urban VIII that was found inside a stucco relief, attesting to its date of manufacture. We also found a number of signatures from the original artists and past restorers.”

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15th c. art stolen from prince by Nazis found

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016

Three 15th century paintings stolen from the Tuscan villa of the Prince of Luxembourg by the Nazis have been found after 72 years. The artworks were first targeted in 1940, under the extension of what had originally been anti-Semitic Italian Racial Laws instituted by Mussolini to kiss Hitler’s ass in 1938. The laws stripped Italian Jews of assets, including art works. In 1940, that law was widened to cover “enemy nationals.” Neutral Luxembourg was occupied by Nazi Germany that same year, and Prince Felix of Bourbon-Parma, husband of Charlotte, Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, and grandfather of the current Grand Duke, was suspected of colluding with the Allies. Under that pretext, the Bourbon-Parma art collection in the Prince’s Villa Borbone delle Pianore in Camaiore, near Lucca in northwest Italy, was confiscated by the Fascist government.

The Prince had other fish to fry at the time. He and his children fled Luxembourg when Germany invaded, traveling through France and Portugal before sailing to the United States. They spent a few months as the guests of General Foods heiress and then-richest women in the United States, Marjorie Merriweather Post, who had become friends with the ruling family when her husband was appointed US Ambassador to Belgium and Envoy to Luxeumbourg in 1938.

The collection remained in the villa until the spring of 1944 when it was stolen by the 16th SS Panzer Grenadier Division which a few months later would earn even more infamy with massacres of civilians. The SS ultimately planned to transport the loot to Berlin, but first the Bourbon-Parma art and many other works pillaged by the 16th Division were delivered to Dornsberg Castle in the Tyrol, then the residence of Karl Wolff, General of the Waffen-SS and Military Governor of northern Italy. Art looted from all over northern Italy was collected at Dornsberg, and organized and documented with standard Nazi efficiency.

It never got to Germany. In 1945, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives unit of the U.S. 5th Army, better known today as the Monuments Men, under the leadership of Captain Deane Keller recovered the stolen artworks from Dornsberg Castle. Prince Felix read about the liberation of the looted Bourbon-Parma collection in a news article and claimed ownership of the pieces stolen from him. Many of them were still there and the Prince got them back in 1949.

Around 40 of the works stolen from Villa della Pianore were not in Dornberg, among them marble busts of Bourbon rulers of France and paintings by Canaletto, Dosso Dossi, Paris Bordone and Perugino. Prince Felix filed a damages claim and the Italian government reimbursed him for their value, assessed at the then-astronomical sum of $4 million lire, in 1945. The missing works were never forgotten. Seventy years later, the Carabinieri Art Squad of Monza started digging through archives trying to track down these long-lost pieces. After two years of scouring the documentary and photographic archives of the Cini Foundation in Venice, the Zeri in Bologna, the Siviero and Capitoline Archives in Rome, museum center of Florence and the art library of the Castello Sforzesco in Milan, the Carabinieri discovered one of the lost pieces, a Madonna and Child by Gianni Battista Cima (1460-1518), hanging on the wall of a home in Monza in December of 2014. The family said they had inherited it from a relative who was an art dealer and had no idea of its dirty past. Another of the missing paintings, Holy Trinity by Alessio Baldovinetti (1425-1499), was found in the same home. The third work, Circumcision/Jesus Presented at the Temple by Girolamo dai Libri (1474-1555), was discovered in the home of another family who had inherited it from a collector who died in 1945.

The two families have been charged with receiving stolen goods, but the charges aren’t likely to stick. Meanwhile, the three paintings are at the Pinacoteca di Brera where conservators will give them some much needed love. The works are not in great condition, faded and damaged from their altogether too exciting adventures. The government has yet to decide where the paintings will reside permanently.

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Tombstone of early priest found in front of Mexico City cathedral

Saturday, April 16th, 2016

Engineers with the Trust of the Historic Center of Mexico City were installing one of eight new lampposts to illuminate the facade of the Metropolitan Cathedral when, digging deeper than expected, they came across the tombstone of one of the first Catholic priests in Mexico. They notified the Program of Urban Archaeology (PAU) of the Templo Mayor Museum and their archaeologists excavated the find.

The horizontal slab was found in front of the central door of the cathedral about four feet beneath the current floor. It’s a greenish volcanic stone called chiluca and is engraved around the borders with an epitaph in ancient Castilian recording the name of the priest: Miguel de Palomares. It’s followed by an inscription in Greek which has yet to be translated but could be de Palomares’ birth and death dates. Carved on the middle of the stone is a shield with three fleurs de lys, possibly a reference to the Dominican order whose emblems include fleurs de lys, although they’re usually added to the end of crosses or squeezed together to form a cross.

It’s not known whether Miguel de Palomares was a member of the Dominican order. He was a prominent figure in Mexico City in the first half of the 16th century, a member of the first church council convened in the cathedral. He died in 1542 and was buried near an altar inside the first church which was later demolished to make room for the current cathedral. Archaeologists have not yet lifted the slab and so don’t know whether his remains are still buried beneath it.

Today it’s the largest cathedral in the Americas, but the first church on the site was a more modest affair. It was built in 1524, three years after the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan. Hernán Cortés himself laid the first stone at the crossroads of the four cardinal points at the southern boundary of the Sacred Precinct. The stones used to build the church were taken from the destroyed Templo Mayor.

The first bishop of Mexico, Franciscan Juan de Zumárraga, was appointed in 1530. The Archdiocese of Mexico was established in 1546 with Zumárraga as archbishop. The church was now designated a cathedral, but it was deemed too small for the seat of an increasingly important archbishopric. The funding for a new cathedral was sorted out in 1552. Work on the foundations began in 1562 and construction would continue for centuries. The original church was demolished in 1628 when enough of the new cathedral was built to make it usable. It was finally completed in 1813.

The discovery of the slab sheds light on how Cortés didn’t just destroy the Aztec sacred architecture and reuse the materials, but rather integrated structures into the church.

The nearly 2-metre-long slab was sunk into the same level of the stucco floor of what appears to be an Aztec temple. The cathedral was simply built over the temple and apparently used the same floor. The Spaniards apparently gave the floor only a thin coat of lime whitewash before using it for their church.

“The Spaniards, Hernán Cortes and his followers, made use of the pre-Hispanic structures, the temples, the foundations, the floors,” said Raúl Barrera, an archaeologist for the government’s National Institute of Anthropology and History. “They even used the walls, the floors. They couldn’t destroy everything all at once.” [...]

Archaeologists have long known the Spaniards often appeared to prefer to build their churches atop Aztec temples, but it was thought that was for symbolic purposes, to signal the displacement of old Aztec gods by the Christian church. But it may also have been a practical decision, as the pre-Hispanic temples had good foundations, walls and floors that the Spaniards could use, saving them the trouble of building new ones.

Construction of the new cathedral damaged the tombstone. It is perforated with a large hole that likely had a post or cross embedded into it. Chiluca is a delicate stone, and since this one has already been damaged, archaeologists are being very cautious before attempting to raise the slab and transport it to the Templo Mayor Museum.

Other architectural elements from the first church have been unearthed alongside the slab. There are stones next to the slab that archaeologists believe were part of the long-defunct altar. They’ve also found the remains of a perimeter wall from the original church.

It’s very rare for archaeologists to have a chance to study known historical figures, and as Miguel de Palomares was associated with an important transitional period after the conquest, PAU experts hope they’ll find his remains which would give us new information about Catholic burial practices in the first half of the 16th century and the diet of Spanish colonists.

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Was a lost Caravaggio found in an attic in France?

Wednesday, April 13th, 2016

A leaky roof may be responsible for the rediscovery of a long-lost Caravaggio masterpiece. In the attempt to reach the leaking roof of a 17th century house outside Toulouse, in April of 2014 the homeowners broke through a door in the attic that they had never noticed was there. Behind the door was an oil painting depicting the Biblical heroine Judith beheading Assyrian general Holofernes while her begoitered maid Abra holds open a bag in which his head will be placed. It was covered in dust but otherwise in excellent condition. The family called in local auctioneer Marc Labarde to assess the painting. He cleaned the white film of grime off the face of the maid with cotton balls and water and identified it as a 17th century painting from the school of Caravaggio.

Labarde called in friend and Old Master expert Eric Turquin to examine it further. Turquin spent two years cleaning, conserving and studying the painting. He had it X-rayed and analyzed with infrared reflectography. He found key elements characteristic of Caravaggio’s work: great speed of execution, bold, secure brushstrokes and, because Caravaggio never made preparatory sketches first, changes done midstream to the positioning of Holofernes’ right hand and Judith’s face. Two Caravaggio experts examined the painting and agreed with Turquin that it was the original work lost almost 400 years ago. Another determined it was a copy, albeit a very good one.

Caravaggio painted an earlier Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598–99) which is now part of the collection of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. He made the second in Naples during the first decade of the 17th century. We know of its existence because Frans Pourbus the Younger, a Flemish painter at the Gonzaga court in Mantua, wrote about it in a letter to his boss, Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. Dated September 15th, 1607, the letter noted that Caravaggio’s Madonna of the Rosary, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, was for sale in Naples for 400 ducats. Pourbus also mentioned seeing another Caravaggio painting, a Judith and Holofernes, for sale.

What he didn’t tell Gonzaga was that both works were owned by a good friend of his, Flemish artist Louis Finson. The Duke was unwilling to spend 400 ducats on one Madonna, because a few years later Finson took it to Amsterdam with him. Finson also took Judith Beheading Holofernes to Amsterdam. Both Caravaggio works are listed in his will, but after his death in 1617, the Madonna was acquired by a consortium of artists including Peter Paul Rubens for a church in Antwerp while Judith disappears from the historical record.

Caravaggio was very famous in his lifetime, and while he never had a literal school or workshop with students like other masters did, he had followers who copied his works and painted pieces of their own that were heavily influenced by Caravaggio’s style. Louis Finson was one of the first Flemish Caravaggisti, as the followers were known, as was Rubens. Finson lived in Naples in the early 17th century when Caravaggio was there too. He owned several of Caravaggio’s original works and copied others. The Finson version of Judith Beheading Holofernes was considered a very faithful copy and since the original was lost, for close to 400 years, Finson’s copy was the only extant image of the work. Finson didn’t take it to Amsterdam and it is now on display in the Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano in Naples.

The French government has placed an export ban on the painting which means it cannot leave the country for 30 months. This will give experts plenty of time to study the work in greater detail, and will give French museums the opportunity to tap potential donors for the astronomical sum — something in the $130 million range — required to buy the work should it prove to be an authentic Caravaggio. As a contemporary copy of some quality, Louis Finson’s version will play an important role in the authentication process. One expert believes the newly discovered work is in fact another copy by Finson.

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Met conservators repair della Robbia that fell from wall

Thursday, April 7th, 2016

Late on the night of June 30th or early in the morning of July 1st, 2008, a blue-and-white glazed terracotta relief of Saint Michael the Archangel by Andrea della Robbia (1435-1525) on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art fell from its metal wall mounts high on a wall above a doorway and crashed to the ground. A security guard found the lunette the next morning on its back on the stone floor, broken into many pieces. The gallery was closed and conservators picked up the pieces, some large — Michael’s head was undamaged — and some as small as fingernails. The pieces were bagged and numbered and removed to the museum’s Department of Objects Conservation later that day.

The Met hasn’t had the greatest luck with the mounting of their Renaissance masterpieces. At least they were able to puzzle out this jigsaw in seven years. The fall of Tullio Lombardo’s Adam in 2002 was even more catastrophic; it took 12 years to put all of his pieces back together. The museum notes all wall-mounted sculpture was reviewed after the accident, and new systems — comprehensive and regular inspections, formal approval of all mounts — were put in place to prevent something like this happening again.

Andrea della Robbia’s uncle Luca (1400-1482), who in his youth had an illustrious career a sculptor in bronze and marble, invented the blue and white tin-based glazes that made terracotta reliefs exceptionally durable, easy to clean and impervious to the vagaries of the weather. The glazed earthenware pieces were significantly less expensive than marble or bronze, and since they looked so good and needed so little care, soon della Robbia reliefs were in great demand. Luca’s clients included some of the most important people and institutions in Florence — Piero de’ Medici, Jacopo de’ Pazzi, the Duomo — and elsewhere.

Andrea, who had learned the secret glaze recipe as his uncle’s pupil, took over operations of the della Robbia workshop on Via Guelfa in Florence in the late 1460s or early 1470s. He picked up where his uncle left off, executing high-end commissions for reliefs of increasing size and architectural importance from major private clients and churches all over northern Italy. Saint Michael the Archangel was made around 1475 for the church of San Michele Arcangelo in Faenza, a town outside Ravenna known for its majolica pottery. In fact, the town is literally synonymous with majolica tin-glazed earthenware which became known as faience after Faenza. The relief was installed above the church door and remained there until 1798 when the church was demolished and Saint Michael the Archangel sold.

The Met acquired the piece in 1960 at an auction of the estate of American industrialist and diplomat Myron C. Taylor for $40,000 (about $320,000 today). The museum has one of the most important collections of della Robbia works in the United States, including an exquisite Virgin and Child. Saint Michael, however, is probably the most important of all.

There was an upside to the crash. Conservators were able to study the relief thoroughly before they went about reassembling the pieces. They found the artist’s finger and tool marks which shed new light on della Robbia’s production process. The workshop made quality artworks for refined and wealthy clients, but it also had to crank out new pieces at a canter to keep up with demand. Conservators found evidence of this in Saint Michael’s robe. It was made separately and then attached to the lunette, but the toga cracked during firing. Instead of starting over again — a time-consuming and expensive approach — they stuck it back together. It was going above a door, after all, and nobody was going to be at eye-level to see the tiny fissure lines.

The sculpture was originally made in 12 interlocking pieces. While conservators Wendy Walker and Janis Mandrus reassembled the broken pieces and filled in the areas of paint loss, conservation preparator Fred Sager developed a custom mount that secured each of the 12 sections individually to an aluminum backing plate. This makes it safer while still allowing visitors to enjoy the entire composed piece.

The most challenging part of the restoration, Ms. Walker said, was the in-painting between repaired cracks — trying to recreate the signature cobalt della Robbia blue that the critic Walter Pater described as being like “fragments of the milky sky itself, fallen into the cool streets.”

“In the morning it would look good,” she said of the modern paint, “and by noon, in a different light, you’d see and go, ‘No!’ and just want to pull your hair out.”

But another lesson the accident taught, in the end, was how durable della Robbias were made to be, despite their humble, seemingly fragile clay origins. St. Michael’s head, for example, was completely unharmed after its violent detachment the night of the fall.

“For hundreds of years, this was outside, in the elements, protected by its glaze,” Mr. Bell said. “And the amazing thing about these ceramics is that the surface still looks pretty much the same as the day it came out of the kiln.”

The relief is now back in the Met’s European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Galleries, but this time it’s been mounted about at eye level to allow visitors to get a proper look at della Robbia’s amazing details, like the facial expressions and the little babies on the scale. They’re actually souls, not babies, weighed on the scales of justice and mercy. The happy light-weight one is saved for heaven; the facepalming heavy one is doomed to hell.

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Shipwreck from Vasco da Gama’s 2nd voyage to India found

Tuesday, March 15th, 2016

A rare early shipwreck from Vasco da Gama’s second voyage to India (1502-1503) has been discovered off the coast of Oman. It is the earliest Age of Discovery ship ever found and thanks to its remote location, archaeologists got there first.

Portugal sent ships on an annual journey to India, the Carreira da India, since Vasco de Gama discovered the sea route in 1498. It was a long, arduous, and very dangerous journey in the open ocean down the full length of west Africa, across the Cape of Good Hope, north up the east coast to Mombasa, modern-day Kenya, then across the Indian Ocean to Calicut (Kozhikode) in southern India. Many ships and men were lost on the India Route — one study found 219 ships were wrecked between 1498 and 1650 — and yet, very few shipwrecks have been discovered, and the few that have been were stripped bare by looters before archaeologists had a chance to explore them.

Without their contents, ships area difficult to date. The earliest Carreira da India wreck that could be conclusively dated is the São João which sank in 1552. The lack of an archaeological record for those first 54 years have left a large gap in our understanding of the early Portuguese trade to and from India. Hoping to find a wreck from that 54-year gap, researchers scoured archives looking for the possible location of two ships — the Esmeralda and São Pedro — that sank during Vasco da Gama’s second voyage to India in 1503. The two ships were captained by Vicente and Brás Sodré, brothers and da Gama’s maternal uncles, and led an independent squadron in the fleet that had separate military orders directly from Portuguese King Dom Manuel I to “make war against the ships of Meca” on the Malabar coast and corner the spice trade.

In 1503, after da Gama had returned to Portugal with the bulk of the fleet, the Sodrés went above and beyond their orders, leaving the Indian Ocean for the Gulf of Aden where they attacked and pillaged Arab ships of their cargoes of spices, prized textiles, sugar and rice. When one of the lead ships needed repairs, the squadron was moored off an island now known as Al Hallaniyah, 28 miles from the south coast of Oman. A violent storm broke them to pieces. Everyone on the Esmeralda died, including commander Vicente Sodré. Brás Sodré and most of his crew survived the wreck of the São Pedro, although Brás died a short time later of unknown causes.

The Sodré squadron’s special status, military adventurism/piracy and the demise of the lead ships made for an especially rich documentary record with multiple extant accounts of the voyage and wrecks, including an eye-witness report from the captain of another ship in the squadron. The research determined that the island where the ships had wrecked was likely Al Hallaniyah. Based on the findings, a 1998 expedition searched the area and found dozens of round stone shot and lead-iron shot typical of 16th century heavily armed ships.

The remoteness of the location made a full investigation difficult. It wasn’t until 2013 that shipwreck recovery experts Bluewater Recoveries Ltd. partnered with the Oman Ministry of Heritage and Culture to excavate the site. A geophysical survey was followed by an extremely complex excavation and artifact recovery project which ultimately retrieved 1911 objects. The ship itself is gone. The hull and masts were torn apart by the storm, and the squadron crew burned the ships after salvaging whatever they could.

Between 2013 and 2015, excavators found Portuguese, Chinese, Persian and West African ceramics which roughly dated the ship to between 1450 and 1550, a large quantity of ordnance, including 19 copper-alloy and one iron breech chambers, three handgun barrels, 91 handmade stone shot, a copper-alloy disc with the Portuguese royal coat of arms and the armillary sphere that was Don Manuel I’s personal shield from before he was king, and coins, including 12 gold Portuguese cruzados, 11 from the reign of Dom Manuel I and one from the reign of his predecessor Dom João II. One of the coins was instrumental in narrowing down the date of the wreck . It’s a silver índio, a type of coin first struck in 1499 and discontinued by 1504. They were explicitly produced for the Portuguese trade in India and because they were minted for such a short time, they are extremely rare. This is only the second one known to exist.

Another great archaeological jackpot was the discovery the ship’s bell. CT scanning found the letter M and the numbers 498 on the bell. The numbers are what’s left of the date — 1498 — of the ship’s construction and the M was the key clue to identifying the ship as likely being the Esmeralda. This is the oldest ship’s bell ever found. Here it is being excavated:

Here’s a CT scan of it:

Here it is all cleaned up and conserved:

There are more videos and information on the website dedicated to the shipwreck of the Esmeralda. The full interim report on the find can be read here.

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Only play with section believed to be in Shakespeare’s hand on display

Thursday, March 10th, 2016

A folio of a play thought to be written in Shakespeare’s own hand has gone on display at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., alongside 50 other of the most important manuscripts and printed books related to the Bard. The Shakespeare, Life of an Icon exhibition displays pieces from the Folger’s collection plus loans from the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, the British Library, the Kings, Heralds, and Pursuivants of Arms, the London Metropolitan Archives, the UK’s National Archives, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and The Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers. Many of these exhibits have never been shown in the United States before. Some haven’t been shown anywhere ever.

It’s a fascinating combination of the literary and mundane which reveal Shakespeare the man, actor and playwright. There’s Shakespeare’s copy of the contract to buy New Place, his last home in Stratford-upon-Avon, diary entries from people in the audience at his plays, the 1623 First Folio of his collected works, the only surviving letter written to Shakespeare and the only surviving copy of the first edition of Titus Andronicus which was the first Shakespeare play printed.

The only known account of Shakespeare’s death in on display as well. It’s a diary entry by John Ward, physician and vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon, written in the early 1660s, almost 50 years after the Bard’s death. He wrote: “Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting and it seems drank too hard for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted.” Shakespeare was friends with playwright Ben Jonson and although we have no explicit records of a friendship with poet Michael Drayton, they traveled very much in the same circles and would almost certainly have known each other. No contemporary accounts of how Shakespeare died and of what have survived.

The play with Shakespeare’s handwriting wasn’t actually written by him alone. The Booke of Thomas More was the collaborative effort of several writers. Its main author was Anthony Munday who wrote it between 1596 and 1601. He submitted this copy (the original draft is lost) to Edmund Tilney who had the Spuds McKenzie title of Master of the Revels but the distinctly unrevelrous job of crossing out politically sensitive material. Once he was done marking the whole thing up in red pen, Munday brought in some help to rework the script. Henry Chettle is believed to have contributed first, possibly followed by Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood and William Shakespeare.

Despite all the changes, the play about Henry VIII’s Catholic Lord Chancellor who was executed for refusing to acknowledge the king was the head of the church was never printed. There are no surviving records that indicate it was ever performed. Most of the time there are no such records, so there’s no reason to assume the play was shut up in a drawer and forgotten about. It was probably staged and just not remarked up, like the vast majority of other plays from the period. The British Library’s manuscript on loan to the Folder is the only surviving copy of the play in the world.

The portion of the play thought to have been written by William Shakespeare is a three-page revision of a (fictional) speech delivered by Thomas More to anti-immigrant rioters during the Evil May Day Riots of 1517. Tilney objected to the scenes of the riots because economic hardship and potentially violent hostility to foreigners were again major issues when he wielded the censor’s pen and he didn’t want to angry up the blood, to quote Abe Simpson. In Shakespeare’s revision, therefore, the focus of Sir Thomas More’s speech was keeping the peace.

You can read a transcript of the pages here. (Scroll down to the Semi-diplomatic transcription and click Expand.) The original spelling and the formatting might make it a tad hard to read. Thimble summary: More decries the rioters’ violence, appeals to them to empathize with the foreigners, notes that their violence might beget more violence and chaos and lastly invokes the divine authority of the King which makes all violations of the King’s laws a sin against God himself.

The oratory matches the playwright’s poetic style. Because only six signatures of Shakespeare’s on four legal documents and no other writing have survived, authenticating the revision as written by Shakespeare is a challenge. With only his signed name to go on, the sample size is so small letter-by-letter comparisons can’t be definitive so the attribution is disputed by some scholars, but it’s been generally accepted since the mid-20th century. Scholars have named the contributor of the passages believed to be by Shakespeare “Hand D.”

The complete manuscript is currently being digitized. A version was published in 1911 that had photographs of some of the manuscript, but they’re blurry and not really readable. It Harley MS 7368 will be available to peruse in high resolution next month in the British Library’s Virtual Books gallery.

Shakespeare, Life of an Icon runs through March 27th at the Folger, after which the documents will move to the British Library where they will be on display as part of its Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition.

Here’s a timelapse video of the installation of the exhibition at the Folger. I like how they project elements onto the ceiling to give an immersive feel.

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Buy Michelangelo’s country villa

Saturday, February 13th, 2016

A drop-dead gorgeous villa in Tuscany that once belonged to the Renaissance genius Michelangelo Buonarrotti can be yours today for a mere $8,441,193. Nestled in the verdant Chianti hills just 22 miles from Florence and nine miles southwest of Siena, this masonry villa looks frozen in time, like Michelangelo might storm up any second and ask just what the hell you’re doing in his house. Except it has bathrooms now. Seven of them. Also eight bedrooms, fireplaces you could spit-roast an ox in and a kitchen that pulls off that rare miracle of integrating modern conveniences with ancient glories. Don’t even get me started on the ceilings.

Michelangelo bought the property in 1549 when he was 74 years old. He was hugely famous and in demand as a painter, sculptor and architect. Just one year after Michelangelo bought the villa, Giorgio Vasari would publish his biography of the master in his seminal work of art history, the Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. It was the first biography of a living artist and testifies to the high esteem in which he was held by Vasari and most everyone else at this time. Michelangelo had had bouts of serious ill-health in the 1540s and suffered great personal losses when his close friend Vittoria Colonna and his brother Giovansimone Buonarrotti died within a year of each other, but he was still very much active, working on a variety of papal commissions and personal projects in Rome.

He’d been appointed architect of St. Peter’s Basilica in 1546 and worked on it steadily until his death. In 1542 he was commissioned by Pope Paul III to paint two frescoes, the Conversion of Saint Paul and the Crucifixion of Saint Peter, in the Pauline Chapel, a newly built chapel in the Apostolic Palace a door down from the Sistine Chapel where Michelangelo had just completed the Last Judgment in 1541. He finished the murals in 1549, the same year he bought the villa in Tuscany. You can see both frescoes, restored to their original brilliant colors in 2009, in this virtual tour of the chapel. They’re almost exactly to the right and left of your default position when you enter the room. From 1547 through 1550 he worked on completing the facade and courtyard of the Palazzo Farnese (Paul III was born Alessandro Farnese). He also started the Rondanini Pietà around 1547.

So Michelangelo was swamped with work which kept him in Rome and left him little free time to return home to his beloved Tuscany, chug Chianti and chill. (He didn’t drink, actually. Michelangelo lived something of an ascetic lifestyle.) As a committed Republican, he also had serious ideological differences with Cosimo I de’ Medici, first Granduke of Tuscany, which kept Michelangelo from returning to Florence no matter how thoroughly Cosimo showered him with inducements.

Michelangelo was in Rome when he died on February 18th, 1564, less than three weeks from his 89th birthday. His nephew Lionardo Buonarroti went to Rome to recover his uncle’s body and arrange its transport to Florence. Vasari’s second edition of the Lives claims, probably hyperbolically, that Roman authorities didn’t want to release the body because they wanted the great artist buried in St. Peter’s so Lionardo hid the corpse in a basket and smuggled it out of the city in the middle of the night. By whatever means, Michelangelo’s mortal remains were interred in the basilica of Santa Croce in Florence.

Lionardo inherited the Chianti villa after Michelangelo’s death along with everything else the artist had left behind, including the Casa Buonarroti in Florence which Michelangelo had bought but never lived in and which is now a museum with a rich family archive. The hillside villa remained in the Buonarrotti family for more than three centuries until it was sold in 1867.

The current owner has renovated it with due care for its historical significance and original elements. He also owns the original documents and deed to the home, which I presume comes with the house because you’d have to be a monster to separate the villa and the historic paperwork. That’s almost worth $8 million right there.

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