Massive tapestries hung again after 22-year restoration

The National Trust’s longest-running textile conservation project — the cleaning and repair of 13 of Britain’s oldest and largest tapestry series — has come to an end more than 22 years after it began. The Gideon Tapestry set covers 230 feet, the full length of the long wall of the Long Gallery at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, and each tapestry took thousands of hours of stitching and two years to clean and stabilize. They are now hanging again, reunited for the first time in more than two decades.

The tapestries depict scenes from the story of Gideon, one of the Judges from the eponymous book in the Old Testament. Called by God to deliver Israel from the Midianites, Gideon led an elite army of 300 of the best Israelite warriors against them and won. He was offered a crown but declined the kingship, declaring that only God could rule the people of Israel.

The Gideon Tapestries were woven in 1578 for Sir Christopher Hatton whose coat of arms and initials were woven into the original tapestry. They were made at Oudenaarde in Belgium by an unknown weaver whose mark was a six-pointed star. The entire workshop would have been involved in the production of monumental pieces like this. Apprentices would work on the background while master weavers stitched the difficult details like faces. The design was inspired by the 13 Gideon tapestries bought by Cosimo I de’ Medici in Brussels in 1561. Today only three of the Medici series survive, and two of them match two of the Hardwick tapestries.

After Sir Christopher’s death, it was bought by the formidable Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury, known as Bess of Hardwick, in 1592 for what was then the huge sum of £326. She had patches woven of her own coat of arms and stitched them over his. The tapestry was the backdrop to dozens of portraits hung over it on the gallery’s long wall for centuries.

Hundreds of years of exposure to the sunlight, soot and dust were not kind to the tapestries. In 2001, the National Trust took on the many challenges of a full conservation of these massive tapestries. Even simply taking them down from the wall required tower scaffolding, never mind cleaning and repairing them. The largest of the tapestries, number 11 in the series, required a trolley, a level wooden track and rolling it vertically with turn handles. The Gideon Tapestry project is the largest textile conservation project in the National Trust’s history.

The lower and top borders of the tapestries were unstitched to make the mainfield easier to transport, and the hessian lining removed revealing the brilliant original color of the tapestry on the underside. The rolled tapestries were transported National Trust’s in-house Textile Conservation Studio in Norfolk for initial documentation and preparation before being sent to a specialist facility in Belgium for wet cleaning. Upon their returns, textile conservators in Norfolk repairs holes, restitched the borders and Bess of Hardwick’s coat of arms patches.

The tapestries were individually rehung in Hardwick Hall after conservation was complete at each stage of the process. The thirteenth tapestry has just been rehung, bringing the whole gang back together again.
The portraits will eventually return as well, but for the next two years the Gideon Tapestry series is being hung on its own so visitors can see it in all its massive glory.

Leonardo’s models take virtual flight

Google Arts & Culture, in collaboration with 28 museums, libraries and historic sites with collections of works by Leonardo da Vinci, has created an online hub dedicated to art, inventions and writings of the great Renaissance polymath. Inside a Genius Mind is the largest online retrospective of Leonardo’s works ever assembled with high-resolution scans of more than 3,000 drawings on 1,300 pages of Leonardo’s notebooks. His sketches, architectural designs, anatomical studies, weapons systems, flying machines and more, many of them never before available online, have been digitized and uploaded to the portal.

The online hub offers visitors a traditional route through Leonardo’s story. You can read his biography, examine his individual paintings in high definition with extensive annotations, and explore the notebooks. You can also find out more about his life and works by accessing the Leonardo Library, browsing categories of knowledge (architecture, anatomy), specific codices and different subjects in his sketches and types of inventions.

One of the world’s foremost experts in Leonardo da Vinci’s oeuvre, University of Oxford art historian Martin Kemp, has been enlisted to help curate the portal, alongside a curation team that includes a Machine Learning element. This curation team organized Leonardo’s notebooks into five themes — Secrets of Flight, Spirals, Earth as a Body, Perpetual Motion and Destruction — to allow users to move through his ideas and creative processes in the same lateral, thought-skipping way Leonardo himself used when he wrote them.

My favorite section is 10 Leonardo Inventions in 3D. Seeing models created from his notebooks has always been a highlight of museum exhibitions dedicated to Leonardo’s genius. It is sheer joy seeing his ideas and sketches converted into realistic 3D animations. The Leocopter, which the colossal bronze statue of him holds in one hand at the entrance to Fiumicino Airport in Rome, and the armoured tank both make the cut.

3D animated model of Leonardo da Vinci's flying machine.

Luxurious Last Supper tapestry exhibited in Turin

A luxurious tapestry version of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper has gone on display at the Reggia di Venaria in Turin as part of an exhibition on how popes used tapestries in rituals and ceremonies. The combination of religious ceremony and tapestry spread from the Vatican to France and from there to the other courts of Europe. The Last Supper tapestry is the keystone of the exhibition as it played an important role in the Holy Week ritual of the washing of the feet.

The tapestry was commissioned by Louise of Savoy and her son, the future King Francis I of France, around 1514 when Leonardo was still living. It’s even possible Leonardo saw it with his own eyes, as he moved to the Château du Clos Lucé in Amboise by invitation of Francis I in 1516. Francis appointed him “first painter, engineer and architect to the king” so he could spend the final three years of his life pursuing his many and varied interests in comfort and ease.

Leonardo was enormously famous in his lifetime and the Last Supper he painted on the refectory wall of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan was recognized as an innovative masterpiece as soon as it was completed in 1498. It was also instantly endangered due to Leonardo’s experimental approach, painting in tempera on dry plaster. Several copies were made in the early 16th century, the earliest documented copy commissioned in 1506.

Francis and Louise commissioned Brussels weavers to make the tapestry copy from a cartoon by an unknown artist in late 1516. It is 30 feet long and 16 feet high and woven exclusively of silk, gold and silver threads. The supper scene itself is an exact copy to scale of the original, even capturing Leonardo’s signature sfumatura technique, but the setting is very different from the minimalist space with the dark coffered ceiling of the original.

Instead, the tapestry sets the table inside a bright courtyard, draped with two millefleurs tapestries on each side with a High Renaissance architectural backdrop. A triple-arched bridge connecting two buildings inlaid with multi-colored marbles and a distant landscape of a stream flowing down hills. Above the arches hanging from the balustrade directly in line with Jesus’ head below is the coat of arms of the King of France with the golden fleurs-de-lys on a blue background. A border on all four sides is woven with symbols of Francis and Louise — salamanders, winged horses, knots and monograms.

Francis presented the tapestry to Pope Clement VII in 1533 as a lavish gift celebrating the marriage between Francis’ son, the future Henry II, and the pope’s niece Catherine de’ Medici in Marseilles. The wedding was politically important, cementing the alliance of papacy and France five years after the Sack of Rome by the forces of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

It was highly regarded, even among the Vatican’s exceptional tapestries by the likes of Raphael, and it was deployed on special occasions like the Corpus Cristi procession and Holy Week. Still, it began to deteriorate from use. It was first restored in 1681, and less than a hundred years later in 1763, Pope Pius VI had a copy made to use in processions and ceremonies, ensuring the long-term preservation of the original. It has only left the Vatican once since its presentation in 1533: in 2019 when it was exhibited at the Château du Clos Lucé, Leonardo da Vinci’s final residence, on the 500th anniversary of his death.

It was restored by the Vatican’s unique textile conservation team before its departure in 2019. You can see the team at work, stitching tulle netting to reinforce the back of the tapestry, in this fantastic video.

Cromwell’s Book of Hours depicted in Holbein portrait identified

New research has found that a luxurious printed and illuminated Book of Hours in the Wren Library of Trinity College, Cambridge, belonged to Thomas Cromwell, Chief Minister of King Henry VIII until his boss had him beheaded in 1540. The attribution is confirmed by an unimpeachable source: a portrait of Cromwell by Henry’s court painter Hans Holbein the Younger in 1532-3. The book is the only object depicted in a 16th century portrait known to survive.

The Book of Hours was printed on vellum in Paris by Germain Hardouyn in 1527/8. After printing, hand-painted illuminations were added. It was then bound in a sumptuous velvet cover with silver gilt edges and clasps (one clasp now missing). Central boxes on the front and back covers and the clasps were each set with a large garnet.

It was one of three known copies printed by Hardouyn in the same run. The other two went to no lesser personages than Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. This example is the only one of the three still in its original binding. The books were personalized for their owners, so even though they were from the same print batch, they were not identical. The printed texts are the same, but the illuminations were hand-painted and they reflect the tastes (and budgets?) of their owners. Anne’s Book of Hours is larger and has the deluxe illumination package: the drawings are more ornate and detailed with extra decoration in the borders. Catherine’s is the least elaborately decorated. Cromwell’s is in between the two queens’ in richness of detail.

That Anne, Catherine and Thomas all had the same Latin prayer book underscores how fluid the lines were between the practices of English Catholics and the Protestant reformers at this time. The three held very different beliefs; even the two Protestants Anne and Cromwell diverged significantly on doctrinal matters. Yet, Cromwell owned, used and celebrated the traditionally Catholic text, showing it off front and center on his prestigious portrait by the king’s favorite painter.

The Book of Hours was donated to the library of Trinity College in 1660 by Anne Sadler or Sadleir, wife of Ralph, a wealthy landowner whose grandfather was Sir Ralph Sadler, Thomas Cromwell’s secretary and successor as Secretary of State to Henry VIII. Ralph had been raised in Cromwell’s household since he was seven years old. Cromwell was a mentor and teacher to him and they were close friends throughout his lifetime. Sir Ralph Sadler was the executor of Cromwell’s will and, even more directly on-point, was named in the will as the recipient of all of his former mentor’s books.

Anne Sadler was also closely connected to the Tudor court (her father had been Elizabeth I’s Attorney General and later Lord Chief Justice) and was an avid collector of books and coins. Over the course of two decades (1649-1669), she donated her correspondence, diaries, manuscripts and books to Trinity College, Cambridge, which her father had attended. The Book of Hours with silver gilt borders and garnet gemstones was donated along with The Trinity Apocalypse, the college’s most famous illuminated manuscript.

The Books of Hours were probably commissioned and gifted to the recipients by a single individual. This person must have had very deep pockets to afford at least three of these extremely expensive luxury items, and a connection to all three parties. That narrows down the likely candidates to Henry or Anne herself.

Using the hallmarks on the silver binding, researchers were able to discover the maker of the silver and gemstone binding. They looked through whole books of makers’ marks to determine they weren’t English, Dutch or Flemish. Then, with the aid of French experts, the maker was identified as Pierre Mangot of Blois, goldsmith to King Francis I of France, who made the binding in 1529-30.

Anne spent the late 1510s and early 20s at the court of Francis I; this is where she was educated in literature, religion and the arts, developing a strong interest in illuminated manuscripts. She was maid of honor (a sort of junior lady-in-waiting) to Francis’ wife Queen Claude for seven years before returning to England in 1522. She knew Pierre Mangot, a fact supported by a chain Anne’s brother George had Mangot make for him a few years later.

Given the persistent connections between the Boleyn family and Francis’ goldsmith, and how extra-fancy Anne’s version of the Book of Hours is, it’s probable she commissioned the printing and gifted the copies to Cromwell and Catherine (who was at this time still married to Henry but had been publicly sidelined in favor of Anne while the king sought his annulment).

Cromwell’s Book of Hours will go on display at Hever Castle, childhood home of Anne Boleyn, where her copy is part of the permanent collection. Catherine’s copy belongs to The Morgan Library in New York City, but it was recently on loan at Hever, exhibited side-by-side with Anne’s for the first time. Catherine’s was returned to The Morgan just a week ago, so Cromwell’s is stepping in to the breach. Trinity College has digitized the Book of Hours for virtual visitors to browse.

16th c. frescoes found in Palazzo Vecchio’s “secret staircase”

Plaster removal from the vaulted ceilings and walls of an unused “secret” staircase in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio has revealed 500-year-old frescoes in the grotesque style. Surviving records note that the secret staircase was built in the middle of the 16th century to provide a quick escape route to Cosimo I de’ Medici, Duke of Tuscany, and his wife Eleonora di Toledo, from the Terrace of Saturn to the ground floor exit on Via dei Leoni. Over the centuries, the barrel vaulted ceilings and walls were covered in multiple layers of plaster. The grotesque paintings emerged after restorers painstakingly removed layer after layer to reach the original plaster. There has been some paint loss and delamination of the plaster from the wall, so as the decorated surfaces are exposed, conservators having been working to restore and stabilize them.

The Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s town hall built in the early 1300s, became the Medici ducal palace as well as the seat of government in 1540 when Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici moved there. He was the second duke of Tuscany, the first to inherit the title since its establishment as an inherited title. The first duke, Alessandro de’ Medici, was embroiled in scandals and was ultimately assassinated by a family member with a competing claim to the duchy. Alessandro had no legitimate issue, so the dukedom went to Cosimo, a distant relative from a junior branch of the family.

The teenager had never even lived in Florence and was a complete unknown in the city. He was on shaky political ground, and sought to shore up his power by associating his rule with Florence’s (and his family’s) history. Moving into the Palazzo Vecchio conveyed continuity and strength while reinforcing his position as the sole ruler of the duchy. Given the tenuousness of his position, having a secret escape route built so he and his new bride could get out of the building without having to descend the monumental staircase was only prudent.

When conservation is complete, the staircase will be integrated into the emergency exit system for the palace offices, thereby returning it to its original function.