Archive for the ‘Renaissance’ Category

Forensic anthropological analysis done on Bernini marble skull

Wednesday, February 16th, 2022

A marble skull by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the Dresden State Art Collections has been subjected to forensic anthropological analysis, an approach made possible by Bernini’s meticulous attention to lifelike anatomical detail in notable contrast to the stylized depictions of skulls and skeletons commonly found in Renaissance and Baroque art. This is the first forensic anthropological examination of a sculpted art work.

Commissioned by Fabio Chigi three days after his election to the papacy as Alexander VII in 1655, the skull was small in dimension but immensely important to Bernini’s career as it marked his return to papal patronage after a long career eclipse in the 1640s when he fell out of favor with Pope Innocent X over family politics and accusations that Bernini had botched construction of the bell towers of Saint Peter’s Basilica. By the end of 1655, Bernini returned to Saint Peter’s in triumph, engaged by Alexander VII to design the square in front of the basilica and the massive colonnade representing the embracing arms of Mother Church.

Bernini’s Death’s Head is a masterpiece of realistic hard stone carving. The life-sized skull was carved in the round from a single piece of white Carrara marble, with the mandible and cranium connected at the temporomandibular joints. It is so anatomically correct that researchers were able to study the carving to determine sex, age, pathology and ethnic origin of the subject just as if it were a real human skull.

“It appears that Bernini used a real biological skull as a model, as he captured details that depicted an adult male of European ancestry,” says corresponding author James T. Pokines, associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology.

Pokines used standard forensic anthropological techniques as would be done with a biological skull. These include scoring morphological traits for sex and ancestry and performing standard cranial measurements with calipers.

They found the skull is so detailed that it includes many precise anatomical features that could be examined in the same manner as a real skull. Bernini even depicted irregularities common to real skulls such as left/right asymmetry, common variations such as in the shape of a suture and tooth loss both before and after death.

That’s only scratching the surface of how much detail Bernini put into this skull. He carved, drilled and polished the stone to include foramina (hole through which nerves and blood vessels pass through bone) and the gaps between the upper and lower jaws. All of this was likely done without his usual preparatory sketches and wax models, simply because there was no point in creating artificial models when he had an actual human skull to use.

There have been repairs over the years. Bernini’s original high-finesse joined mandible had to be reattached at some point with a cement and two iron rods. This “restoration” damaged the skull, drilling into both sides of the mandible causing fractures and marble loss from teeth to cheekbones to nose to eyes.

Bernini’s marble skull isn’t a perfect replica. The foramen magnum in particular stands out because it is significantly larger than it usually is in a human skull. This was a necessary artistic decision rather than an error. The enlarged foramen was an access point through which Bernini was able to hollow out the inside of the skull. He sacrificed the precise accuracy of the dimensions of the foramen, which after all would never be visible when the skull was on display, to achieve greater realism by hollowing out the interior of the skull.

The study has been published in the journal The Seventeenth Century and can be read in its entirety here.


No sale for the half billion Caravaggio villa

Tuesday, January 18th, 2022

Villa Aurora, the 16th century mansion in Rome that contains the only ceiling painting ever created by Caravaggio, failed to sell at auction today. With an estimated value of €471 million ($534 million) and despite the valuation of the Caravaggio painting alone at  €310 million ($351 million), not a single bid was made. The auction had been scheduled to run for 24 hours, but without even one offer to open the festivities, the auction was immediately shut down and rescheduled for April 7th.

Named after a much larger ceiling painting in the house (a depiction of the Roman goddess of the dawn, Aurora) by another Old Master Guercino, the villa was built as a hunting lodge for Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, Caravaggio’s early patron. It is right off the Via Veneto today, one of the most prestigious addresses in Rome now, but when it was built on the former Gardens of Sallust bounded by the ancient Aurelian wall, it was basically the countryside. It has been in the Ludovisi family since the 1620s, and was the sole part of the once huge Ludovisi estate that the family kept after selling the rest of it off in the late 19th century.

Even the person selling it, the Texas-born widow of the Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi, had to be forced to do so in an inheritance dispute with her late husband’s sons from his first marriage. The prince’s will granted his wife Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi 50% ownership of the villa and the right to live there until her death. The Ludovisi sons disagreed on both points and contested the will. After years of legal wrangling and liens, the court ordered in September 2020 that the villa be sold to resolve the issue.

The price was set by the court based on the valuation of an expert appraiser who pointed out that the heritage value of the villa is incalculable. More than 38,000 people signed a petition asking the Italian government to buy the property using EU funds, but even if they were inclined to spend half a billion on a villa, there’s no legal mechanism for that until an offer is made. Once an offer to purchase is lodged, Italy has the right of first refusal and can snipe the sale for the offering price.

The base price is expected to drop 20% to €376.8 million euros ($427 million) when the villa goes back under the hammer in April.


Louvre raises funds to reunite Venus cameo cup

Tuesday, January 4th, 2022

The Louvre has launched a fundraising campaign to acquire an exquisitely carved Italian Renaissance agate cameo of Venus and Cupid that once belonged to Louis XIV. If the campaign succeeds, the cameo will be reunited with its original carved stone and silver-gilt cup for the first time since it disappeared into private collections after the French Revolution.

Carved in meticulous detail from a single agate stone from Graubünden, Germany, the cameo depicts Venus at languid rest on a shell (the one she was born in, perhaps) with her son Cupid curled up next to her holding her hand. The carving takes full advantage of the natural color variations and swirls of the agate to set Venus’ pearlescent pale skin against the rich ochres of the shell underneath her. The cameo is rimmed with a silver-gilt border and a gilt swan, neck elegantly curved, wings outstretched, overlooks the loving scene of mother and babe.

It was made in the early 17th century by Giovanni Ambrogio Miseroni, scion of a Milanese family of hardstone carvers whose works were prized among the aristocracy and nobility of Europe for hundreds of years. (Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II was so pleased with their work he ennobled Giovanni and his brothers around the same time this cameo was carved.) Miseroni mounted the cameo as a lid onto a carved agate cup which was a hardstone masterpiece in its own right.

The cameo first appears on the historical record in 1661 in the inventory of the massive collection of Cardinal Jules Mazarin after his death. The inventory listing describes the vessel  thus:

A large shell-shaped cup carved from a single piece of German agate, upheld by a silver-gilt dolphin placed on a shell that is also of silver gilt, with another large German shell as its lid, also shell-shaped, carved with a nude Venus lying on a drapery next to a small Cupid and decorated with a silver-gilt rim.

It was one of the three most valuable vessels in the Mazarin collection, and Louis XIV acquired all three of them after the Cardinal’s death. They were in the royal collection until 1796 when they fell victim to a shortsighted (to put it mildly) scheme by the Revolutionary government to pay off creditors in kind with objects from the onetime royal collection. The Miseroni cup disappeared into a private collection, untraced and unpublished, for almost 200 years.

During that time, the cameo was detached from the cup. The cup emerged at auction on its own in 1968 and was acquired the Louvre. It has been on display with other masterpieces of hardstone art in the Galerie d’Apollon ever since.

Because the cameo disappeared without a trace long before it could be photographed, it was only known from written descriptions. When the lost cameo was included in a 2001 catalogue of the hardstone vessels in the royal collection, the owner recognized it from the description. It was sold at auction in London in 2011 and the Louvre tried but failed to buy it then. Now it has another bite at the apple, and the museum is aiming high so it doesn’t get outsold this time. The total price is 2.6 million euros. The public fundraising goal is at least one million euros before February 25th. Click here to contribute.


Savonarola returns to his priory cell

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2021

Terracotta bust of Girolamo Savonarola, late 15th/early16th c., by Fra' Mattia della Robbia. Photo courtesy Ministero della Cultura Direzione regionale musei della Toscana.A previously unpublished bust of Renaissance firebrand friar Girolamo Savonarola has gone on public display for the first time at the convent of San Marco where Savonarola was once prior. It dates to the late 15th or early 16th century and is also the only surviving in-the-round sculpture of Savonarola known to have been made in the Renaissance.

The polychrome terracotta bust is a departure from the classic representation of Savonarola in profile, black hood pulled low on his forehead, originally created by Dominican painter Fra Bartolomeo. The frontal portrait bust captures the severe expression and hooked nose seen in the Bartolomeo painting, but with piercing light blue eyes.

What’s more, it was made by someone who knew him personally. The sculptor was Marco della Robbia, aka Fra Mattia, son of Andrea della Robbia and fervent follower of Girolamo Savonarola. Mattia was one of the friars who took up arms to fight the authorities when they arrested Savonarola at San Marco on April 8th, 1498.

The bust is on long-term loan to the Museum of San Marco from lawyer and collector Alessandro Kiniger. It has been installed in the room where, according to tradition, Savonarola lived when he was prior. It is on display alongside the famous profile portrait by Fra Bartolomeo, another work by Bartolomeo depicting St. Peter with the face of Savonarola, and autograph manuscripts of sermons written and delivered by Savonarola.


Tudor grotesque paintings found under walls

Friday, November 12th, 2021

A complete 16th century wall painting has been discovered beneath a 19th century plaster wall at Calverley Old Hall in Leeds, Yorkshire. The painting covers the full surface of the Tudor wall. It was done in black, ochre and white pigments in the grotesque style, featuring fantastical beasts and men with climbing vine ornaments and columns. The date of the work could be as early as the 1540s. Most surviving wall paintings in English homes date to after 1575, so this could prove to be an exceptionally early example.

Grotesque was all the rage at the time, spurred by the rediscovery of the Domus Aurea in the 1480s and the Renaissance masters like Raphael and Michelangelo who were inspired by its wall frescoes. From Italy the style spread to Northern Europe where engravers printed illustrated books that were widely used as references by artisans. The grotesque wall paintings at Calverley Old Hall were likely made by local or traveling artists working off print books like these.

The Grade I-listed manor house has surviving elements that go back to 1300 and was extensively remodeled, added to and subtracted from for centuries. The last major addition dates to the first half of the 17th century. The Calverley family sold the estate in 1754 and it was divided into cottages. Except for the divider walls that separated the space for cottage tenants, the manor house is largely unaltered. The Landmark Trust bought Calverley in 1981, restoring two cottages for let. Since then it has restored the Chapel and the roof of the Great Hall, but the rest of the property, including the early 15th century timber-frame Solar Wing, unique in the country, and the interior of the late 15th century Great Hall, has simply been kept weathertight to protect it.

After a major fundraising appeal, the Landmark Trust has undertaken a comprehensive restoration of Calverley. The first phase is a thorough documentation of its current derelict state. The restorers were removing small areas of 19th century plaster in a cottage behind the Solar Wing to inspect the timber framing for any rot or damage when they spotted streaks of color on the oak. They called in specialists to investigate further. Removal of plaster from five more spots on the wall revealed the colors were part of a wall painting. Full removal off the plaster and lath exposed a complete wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling mural.

The top frieze of the mural features alternating Tudor roses and pomegranates. Symbol of the resurrection of Christ, a pomegranate (granada in Spanish) was added to the royal arms of Ferdinand and Isabella after the conquest of Granada in 1492 and their daughter Catherine of Aragon joined her family’s pomegranate to Henry VIII’s rose for her heraldic badge after her marriage in 1509. The two appeared frequently in prints, reliefs and manuscripts until the queen’s arms were replaced by the new queen’s arms when Henry married Anne Boleyn in 1533. The painting was done after both Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn died and is likely a reference to the Calverleys’ Catholicism.

So who might have commissioned these wonderful paintings? The dendrochronology suggests that the roof (and therefore main structure) of the block was built 1514-39. The block had two phases (perhaps beginning as a stair turret) and its floor was inserted later, between 1547-85. This is a tantalisingly wide span of dates that covers a multitude of national and family events. The archaeology currently suggests the later period for the paintings – but even that is excitingly early.

At the moment, the most likely person to have commissioned the painted chamber seems to be Sir William Calverley (c. 1500-1572). He was knighted in 1548, and became Sheriff of York in 1549, a man of high estate and important affairs. We believe that the painted chamber was only ever reached at first floor level from the family’s private rooms and had its own private access directly onto the gallery of the family chapel. Perhaps it was Sir William’s privy chamber, where he entertained only his closest friends and associates. Or perhaps it was his second wife, Elizabeth Sneyd’s private parlour, a refuge from vigorous Sir William’s seventeen offspring.

The Landmark Trust is now raising funds to thoroughly conserve and display this unique artistic treasure. Donate online here.


Wooden bird revealed to be Anne Boleyn’s falcon

Monday, November 8th, 2021

A carved wooden falcon that sold at auction in 2019 for  £75 ($100) has been identified as a 16th century heraldic badge of Anne Boleyn that once adorned Hampton Court Palace. With this updated provenance, the oak falcon’s market value has skyrocketed to an estimated £200,000 ($270,000).

The falcon was one of the new architectural features King Henry VIII ordered be added to Hampton Court Palace before his marriage to Anne. The white falcon was on the crest of the Butler family who had held the title of Earls of Ormond. Anne’s father Thomas Boleyn was related to the Butlers through his mother, and in 1529 Henry browbeat the legitimate Butler claimant to the Ormond earldom to settle for another title so he could give this one to the father of his inamorata.

Anne took the white falcon as the centerpiece of her own heraldic emblem shortly before her wedding. It stands on a tree stump (representing Henry’s Plantagenet ancestry) from which red and white roses grow. These aren’t Tudor roses with red petals on the outside and white ones on the inside, but individual red roses alternating with white roses, symbolic of Henry’s dual claim to the throne through his Lancastrian father, Henry of Richmond, and his mother Elizabeth of York.

The bird wears an imperial crown and carries a heavy scepter in its talon, an unmistakable message Henry was sending that his power was absolute inside his realm, even overriding that of the pope, and that Anne would be his queen. Three years, one tumultuous marriage, several spurious charges of adultery and a decapitation later, Henry ordered all traces of Anne Boleyn obliterated from his palaces as a kind of Tudor damnatio memoriae.

Today there are two royal falcons surviving on the ceiling of Hampton Court’s Great Hall. This example was in a more accessible location, likely in her private apartments, and may have been salvaged by a supporter who wanted to preserve the memory Henry sought to eradicate.

Tudor historian and curator for Historic Royal Palaces Tracy Borman says:

“What’s really interesting about it is that – unlike the Great Hall examples – this one wears an imperial crown. That was an absolute nod to the fact that Henry by now had got imperial ambitions. He was trying to supplant the pope’s authority, promoting himself as some kind of emperor rather than just a king. There are other crowned falcons that we know about, that were used for example at Anne’s coronation in the pageant. But there’s no mention of imperial crowns, so this is very much Henry and Anne doing their very best for a kind of PR stunt. The decoration of Hampton Court was all about their ambitions and their defiance of the pope.”

The falcon was acquired by Paul Fitzsimmons, founder of Marhamchurch Antiques, which specializes in oak furniture from the 15th through 17th centuries. It was described in the auction catalogue as a “antique carved wood bird,” but Fitzimmons recognized its quality and its likely connection to royalty given the crown and scepter, but didn’t initially realize it was one of Anne Boleyn’s badges. After careful restoration removed the coating of black soot, the falcon was revealed to be in impeccable condition, complete with original gilding and polychrome paint.

Fitzsimmons has arranged a long-term loan of the falcon to Hampton Court Palace so the antique carved wood bird will come home to roost.


A half billion gets you Caravaggio’s only mural

Wednesday, October 27th, 2021

Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Photo courtesy Artefact.Just kidding. It’s actually $546 million, and that’s only the opening bid. The sky’s the limit when the Villa Aurora in Rome, home to the only mural ever painted by Baroque master Caravaggio, goes under the hammer in January.

The Villa Aurora is all that remains of the grand estate built by Cardinale Ludovico Ludovisi on the site of what had once been the Horti Sallustiani, the luxurious garden palace of 1st century B.C. historian Sallust. Magnificent ancient sculptures including the Dying Gaul, the Ludovisi Gaul and the Sleeping Hermaphroditus were found when the villa was built in the 17th century. The main villa and numerous outbuildings were set in a vast landscaped garden bordered to the north by the Aurelian Walls.

The estate remained in the Ludovisi family until 1885 when everything but the Villa Aurora was sold to developers who demolished everything and chopped the land up into luxury building lots. The Boncompagni-Ludovisi bought one of those lots and built a new palace on it which is now home to the American Embassy.

The Casino dell’Aurora actually predates the lost Ludovisi estate. It was the hunting lodge of the country home (Rome was a lot smaller then) of Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, the young Caravaggio’s most dedicated patron. He commissioned Caravaggio to cover the ceiling of a room just nine feet wide with an oil painting depicting Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto. Del Monte was an alchemy buff — the small room was his lab — and the deities were allegorical representations of Paracelsus’ alchemical triad of sulphur/air (Jupiter), mercury/water (Neptune) and salt/earth (Pluto). Each of the gods is accompanied by his emblematic animal. Jupiter has his eagle, Neptune his hippocamp and Pluto his very good three-headed boi Cerberus. Caravaggio foreshortened the figures to create a dramatic perspectival effect as if the gods were standing on the ceiling.

Another masterpiece of perspective from a Baroque luminary adorns the villa’s entrance hall. Guercino, commissioned by the Ludovisi, painted an elaborate vision of Aurora’s chariot bringing in the dawn. The villa was named after this scene.

The sale of Villa Aurora comes after a lengthy inheritance dispute after the death of its owner, Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi, in 2018.

“There are other rooms decorated spectacularly but the most important works are by Caravaggio and Guercino,” said [Sapienza University history professor Alessandro] Zuccheri. “It’s a place that’s unique in the world.” […]

Because the site is protected by the ministry of culture, once a bid has been agreed at auction, the state will have the chance to buy the property at the same price.

“The state will have the right to buy it; the problem will be whether it can pay such a high price,” said Zuccheri.


16th c. dish smashes maiolica sales record

Sunday, October 10th, 2021

A 16th century maiolica dish attributed to Nicola da Urbino sold for £1,236,000 ( $1.721 million, including buyer’s premium), which sets a new world record price for maiolica and far exceeds the pre-sale estimate of £80,000-£120,000 ($109,000-$163,000). Bidding was so brisk after opening below the low estimate offers jumped up in £50,000 increments.

The dish is 11 inches in diameter and is fully painted with a scene from the Biblical account of Samson and Delilah. It’s the moment after Delilah cuts Samson’s hair and armored Philistines capture him. All this is set against a Renaissance architectural background in one-point perspective.

Nicola di Gabriele Sbraghe, called Nicola da Urbino, was a master painter of tin-glazed earthenware (maiolica) active in Urbino between 1520 and his death in 1537/8. His specialty was the “istoriato” (meaning story painting) style in which ceramics were decorated with the same biblical, historical, and mythological subjects popular in Renaissance easel paintings. Plates and bowls were painted with the same sophisticated realism and perspective embraced by Renaissance Old Masters, and often copied or were heavily inspired by specific works. Nicola was so adept at the istoriato style he was dubbed the Raphael of Maiolica Painting.

He worked at the court of Francesco Maria I della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, and his wife Eleonora Gonzaga, who was the eldest child of Francesco II, Marquess of Mantua and his wife the marchioness Isabella d’Este, an influential patron of the arts. Her daughter’s court at Urbino mirrored her mother’s sophistication, and Eleonora was friend and patron to some of the greatest authors, poets and artists of the period. She commissioned an istoriato set from Nicola da Urbino for her mother with scenes from a well-known illustrated edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

It’s not clear who commissioned this plate. It is from his early period, the first of its kind to be sold at auction. It came to the current sellers by descent from Glaswegian merchant and antiquarian James Ewing who traveled in Italy in 1844-5 and bought several important artworks on the trip. His correspondence makes no specific reference to his acquisition of the plate on this trip, but a note in one of his letters to “China pieces of the 14th century” he’d bought in Genoa is believed to have been a less than accurate description of some of the maiolica he acquired in Italy.

The overall blueness, cool flesh tones and creative composition of the piece place it in the early oeuvre of Nicola da Urbino, before 1528. The Old Master print that inspired it is described in Volume XIII (1811) of Adam Bartsch’s compendium of engravings.

[I]t relates to an acclaimed service or credenza encapsulating Nicola’s early poetical style made for an unknown client consisting of seventeen surviving pieces donated to the city of Venice by the patrician Teodoro Correr after his death in 1830. This is the largest surviving set of 16th Century ‘istoriato’ maiolica in the world in a single collection. The service, even quite recently, has been described as “one the loveliest achievements of all maiolica-painting”. There may be reasons on grounds of subject matter and style to speculate that this plate may originally have been part of this service.

In the 19th century the Correr maiolica service was thought by scholars to have been painted by the Urbino painter Timoteo Viti (1469-1523) and was seen as the jewel in the crown of the Correr collection. The painting style of Nicola’s early work that we have here seems to stylistically reference his work in the broadest sense. Viti, trained in the dynamic humanist artistic background of Bologna under Francesco Francia, is known to have worked with Raphael in the Chigi Chapel in Santa Maria della Pace in Rome circa 1511. As a friend of Raphael, Viti is reputed to have obtained or inherited the most important group of Raphael’s studio drawings and to have brought them back to Urbino after Raphael’s death. He himself died in 1523. Nicola’s knowledge of Raphael’s style of work may in part be due to links with Viti whose workshop in Urbino he may have frequented or where he may have even trained. Giovanni Antonio da Brescia copied and produced his own versions of the work of the Bolognese printmaker Marcantonio Raimondi (1480-before 1538). Raimondi had also trained under Francesco Francia and did more than anything to disseminate Raphael’s ideas in Italy and abroad from about 1510.

The dish was found unrecorded and unrecognized in a drawer at Lowood House, a country house near Melrose in the Scottish Borders overlooking the River Tweed where the hairs of James Ewing have lived since 1947. It was the meticulous research by specialists at auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull that revealed its identity.  This is the first time maiolica from Nicola’s early period to appear for sale on the market.


Restoration of Michelangelo’s Bandini Pietà complete

Tuesday, September 28th, 2021

The restoration of Michelangelo’s Bandini Pietà at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo has been completed, revealing the original marble and answering questions that have long been asked about this iconic masterpiece. The restoration began November 23, 2019, and was supposed to be completed by summer of 2020, but a certain virus had other ideas. Conservators were able to get back to work in September of last year, and now the rejuvenated Pietà is back.

Michelangelo sculpted three pietàs over his lifetime. The first, now in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, features a preternaturally young Mary seated with Jesus’ body draped across her lap. The second, the Rondanini Pietà now at the Castello Sforzesco in Milan, features a more mature Mary standing up, holding the body of her son. Only the Bandini Pietà has figures other than Mary and Christ, and indeed, the dominant figure in the composition is Nicodemus who looms large behind Mary the Mother, Mary Magdalene and the limp, twisted form of Jesus.

This was Michelangelo’s most audacious sculpture. He was inspired by the Laocoon Group, a large sculpture depicting the death of the Trojan priest and his sons that had been praised by Pliny in antiquity. The Laocoon was rediscovered in 1506 under a vineyard next to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Michelangelo, dispatched by Pope Julius II, was present to witness its excavation and its exceptional artistry had a strong influence on him. He too wanted to create a group of figures out of a single massive block of marble, only his masterpiece would beat the Laocoon in size and number of figures. It was meant to adorn a chapel in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome where Michelangelo planned to be buried. That the face of Nicodemus is a self-portrait of Michelangelo was a sculptural representation of his devotion to Christ.

He worked on this group for almost a decade, starting in 1547 when he was in his mid-70s and concluding in 1555. The story told by Michelangelo’s friends and fellow artists Giorgio Vasari and Ascanio Condivi was that Michelangelo, enraged by the intractable flaws he kept encountering throughout the three-ton block of marble, took a hammer to the work until his servant Antonio da Casteldurante begged him to stop. Michelangelo agreed to let Antonio keep the sculpture and its broken pieces and to let Florentine sculptor Tiberio Calcagni, a friend and collaborator of his, repair it. Calcagni bought it from Casteldurante on behalf of banker Francesco Bandini.

Bandini kept it the garden of his villa in Rome and it remained in the family after his death. It passed through a couple of hands before being sold to Cosimo III de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, in 1671. It took three years for him to figure out how to transport the huge piece to Florence. The Pietà has been in Florence ever since in several different locations.

Aside from occasional cleanings, no restoration work has been recorded after Calcagni reattached body parts and controversially altered Mary Magdalene’s face. There is one documented intervention. In 1882, a plaster cast was made of the sculpture. The residue from the plaster left the marble surface dry with large areas of bright white marring the surface. Restorers tried to fix that by applying layers of wax on top of the residue, and over time the wax darkened and mixed with dust to change the surface colors to a deep, uneven amber.

To address these issues in the least invasive manner possible, a multi-disciplinary team of conservators studied and documented the condition of the Pietà. They then cleaned and restored it in a custom-built “open laboratory” so visitors could see them at work behind a plexiglass wall. In the process, the team discovered that much of the origin story relayed for 500 years is likely apocryphal.

Diagnostic inspection led to the discovery that the marble came from quarries in Seravezza, in the province of Lucca, rather than from Carrara as had been believed. This discovery is significant because the quarries in Seravezza were owned by the Medici, and Giovanni de’ Medici, soon to be Pope Leo X, had enjoined Michelangelo to use marble from the quarry for the façade of the church of San Lorenzo in Florence. How this huge block of marble got to Rome where Michelangelo carved this Pietà from it between 1547 and 1555 is still a mystery.

Michelangelo was unhappy with the quality of the marble from these quarries because it revealed sudden veining and minute cracks difficult to detect from the surface. Thanks to the restoration, it has proven possible to confirm that the block used for the Pietà was indeed flawed, as Vasari tells us.  In his Lives of the Artists, Vasari describes it as hard and full of impurities and that sparks flew from it with every blow of the chisel. Numerous small inclusions of pyrite were discovered, and they most certainly would have caused sparks when hit with a chisel. More importantly, the presence of numerous minute cracks, particularly on the back and front of the base, suggests that Michelangelo may well have encountered them when carving Christ and the Virgin’s left arms and was forced to stop working on it. This is a more likely hypothesis than that of a now ageing Michelangelo, unhappy with the result, trying to destroy the sculpture in a moment of distress and frustration by taking a hammer to it, because the restorers found no sign of any hammer blows, unless, of course, they were erased later by someone else.

Based on these discoveries, it was decided to proceed by first conducting cleaning trials in order to identify the most suitable methodology. Once established, the restoration process proper began where the deposits were thickest, using a non-invasive, gradual, and controlled method of cotton pads soaked in deionised and lightly heated water. For the wax build-up applied to the group’s surface, small, closely spaced splashes and drippings caused by candles on Florence Cathedral’s high altar, behind which the group had stood for 220 years, cleaning with water was supplemented with the use of a scalpel in the toughest areas.

The open laboratory will remain in place for six months so that visitors to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, accompanied by guides, can see the Pietà up close. The tours of the laboratory run through March 30th, 2022.


Renaissance shield looted by Nazis returned to Czech Republic

Wednesday, September 15th, 2021

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has agreed to return a 16th century shield that was looted by Nazis during World War II to the Czech Republic. The pageant shield, elaborately decorated with a scene of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus capturing what is now Cartagena in southern Spain during the Second Punic War, was created by  Girolamo di Tommaso da Treviso around 1535 out of wood, linen, gesso, gold and pigment. It was part of the collection of Konopiště Castle in Benešov, about 25 miles southeast of Prague, that was stripped bare during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. It will now go back on display in the castle 80 years after it was stolen.

The complex battle scene of the Roman army assaulting the rounded crenelated towers of the city was based on a tapestry from a series depicting scenes from the life of Scipio designed by Giulio Romano for King Francis I of France. Romano drew the cartoons for the tapestries in 1531-1533. The tapestries were then woven in Brussels and sent to the king in 1535. They fell victim to the French Revolution’s orgy of anti-monarchical iconoclasm in 1797, destroyed to harvest the gold and silver threads used in the weaving. Copies of the Scipio tapestries commissioned by Louis XIV in 1688 survived the Revolution and are now in the Louvre.

(Wee digression: Cartagena was founded by Hasdrubal Barca, Hannibal’s younger brother, in 228 B.C. at the site of an earlier Iberian settlement. The Punic name for Carthage was Qart Hadasht, meaning New City, because it was founded by Phoenician colonists from Tyre (the old city). Hasdrubal named his foothold in Spain Qart Hadasht too. It was Scipio Africanus who renamed it Carthago Nova after his conquest of it in 209 B.C. to differentiate it from the original, so he basically copyedited Hasdrubal, correcting New City into the more precise New New City.)

Twenty-four inches in diameter, the round shield was made for ceremonial purposes, and the subject matter may have been chosen in homage to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who in 1535 captured Tunis, née Carthage, from the Ottoman Empire. Charles V’s victory over the Ottoman corsairs was analogized to Scipio’s defeat of Carthage, and upon his return, the Emperor was feted all over Italy.

The shield was not presented to Charles V. It stayed in Italy for more than three centuries. In the 1700s it was in the Castello del Catajo outside Padua, part of the vast collection of arms and armature amassed by the marquess Tommaso degli Obizzi. He was the last to hold the title, and he left his all of his family’s wealth and possessions to the House of Este. Those lands, estates and collections were absorbed into the Ducal House of Austria-Este, the fruit of a marriage between Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, son of Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa, and Maria Beatrice Este, last surviving heir of the Este family.

That wealth paid for Konopiště Castle. Originally built in the late 13th century, the castle was refashioned into a Baroque palace in the 1730s and 40s, but had fallen into disrepair by the end of the 19th century. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, whose assassination in 1914 would set alight the powder keg that exploded into World War I, bought the castle in 1887 with money he inherited after the death of the last scion of the Austria-Este ducal house. That inheritance included the Obizzi-Este collection of arms and armature, the third largest collection of armory and medieval weapons in Europe.

The collection, including the da Treviso shield, was installed in Konopiště Castle in 1896 where it remained even after the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire birthed Czechoslovakia. Then came the Second World War.

In 1939 the Nazi government annexed the part of Czechoslovakia where Konopiště was located, and in 1943 the German army (Wehrmacht) confiscated the Konopiště Castle armor collection, including the shield, and took it to Prague to be housed in a new military museum. However, Adolf Hitler’s arms and armor curator, Leopold Ruprecht, soon skimmed off the cream of the collection, inventoried it, and dispatched it to Vienna, intending the best for Hitler’s planned mega-museum in Linz, Austria. At the end of the war, large groups of Konopiště objects were recovered by the Allies and returned to Czech authorities in 1946, but among 15 objects that remained missing was a shield whose description was similar to the pageant shield.

Thirty years later, the pageant shield was bequeathed to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by avid collector of medieval arms Carl Otto Kretzschmar von Kienbusch. Its ownership history was threadbare and previous attempts to determine whether it was indeed the looted Konopiště Castle shield were inconclusive.

Since 2016, the museum has been collaborating with historians in the Czech Republic to evaluate the history and provenance of the Italian pageant shield. Recent research identified pre-WWII inventories which, in tandem with a photograph, dated to around 1913, showing the museum’s shield as displayed at Konopiště Castle provided by the museum, persuasively identify the shield as the one illegally taken from Konopiště Castle by the Nazis and never restituted. Based on these revelations, the Board of Trustees of the Philadelphia Museum of Art unanimously concluded that rightful title in the work belonged to the Czech Republic and approved the return of the armor at its meeting of June 17, 2021.





August 2022


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