Archive for the ‘Renaissance’ Category

Portrait attributed to Leonardo seized from Swiss bank vault

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

Italian financial police and the Carabinieri art theft squad teamed up with Swiss federal authorities Monday to seize a painting some believe to be a lost portrait of Isabella d’Este by Leonardo da Vinci from a bank vault in Lugano, Switzerland. Clandestine sale negotiations were ongoing when the police nabbed the work. The top asking price was 120 million euros ($135.9 million). Prosecutor Manfredi Palumbo said at a press conference that there are 70 people of interest in this investigation, all potentially part of a large illegal art smuggling ring attempting to move multiple works out of Italy into the black market.

The painting was found as a result of a fortuitous encounter during an unrelated investigation last August. The finance police in Pesaro, a town on the northeast coast of Italy in the Marche region, were looking into an insurance fraud case when they discovered documents indicating the portrait was in Switzerland. The finance police teamed up with the Carabinieri and tracked down the painting in the private vault of a Lugano trust. There’s some raw footage of the bust here. All that teal makes for a pretty sad looking Swiss bank vault.

This isn’t the paintings first sojourn in a Swiss vault. When the news of it first emerged in October of 2013, the portrait was one of 400 artworks kept in a Swiss bank by an anonymous Italian family who claimed the collection had been in Switzerland since the early 20th century. Completely unpublished and undocumented, of course, because that’s how Swiss private collections like it. Family lore whispered of it being Leonardo’s portrait of Isabelle d’Este so finally around 2009 or so, likely in advance of sale, they began intensive research on the piece. Radiocarbon dating found that the work was painted between 1460 and 1650; X-ray fluorescence found that the primer and pigments are consistent with those used by the Renaissance master. UCLA emeritus art history professor and Leonardo expert Carlo Pedretti enthusiastically authenticated the portrait as Leonardo’s work.

The question of whether Leonardo ever painted a portrait of Isabella d’Este has been much debated by art historians over the centuries. In December of 1499, Leonardo da Vinci fled Milan after the city was conquered by the French and his patron Duke Ludovico Sforza was overthrown. On the way to Venice, he stopped in Mantua where he was welcomed by Isabella d’Este, wife of Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua, who had met the artist at the double wedding where she married Francesco and her sister Beatrice d’Este married Ludovico Sforza. (Leonardo had actually designed some costumes for a joust held as part of the wedding celebrations.) He wasn’t in town for long, but Leonardo did make the time to draw a portrait of Isabella in black, red, white and ochre chalk on paper. He made at least two sketches of her portrait profile. One he took with him to Venice; the other he gave to Isabella’s husband Francesco Gonzaga. Multiple letters from Isabella to Leonardo asking him to make a painting from the sketch have survived, but there is no evidence that he ever did so. Isabella also asked him to make her another drawing after her husband gave hers away in 1501, but there’s no evidence he did that either. The sketch Leonardo gave to Gonzaga is now lost. The sketch he brought with him is now in the permanent collection of the Louvre.

The discovery of an oil painting undeniably modeled after the drawing sparked much discussion as other experts disagreed with Pedretti’s attribution. One glaring issue is that the portrait is on canvas while Leonardo and his school used wood panels. This would be the only known work he ever did on canvas. It’s also a remarkably accurate match to the sketch considering that it was ostensibly painted years after the drawing was done (Pedretti posits that it was painted in 1514 when Leonardo met Isabella again in Rome). Then there are the quality concerns. Parts of it — the crown and that atrocious palm frond she’s holding — are clearly not the work of the master.

Just to add another layer of labyrinthine complexity to this case, recall that the news of the Isabella portrait broke in the Corriere della Sera’s Sette magazine the first week of October, 2013. Less than two months earlier on August 27th, 2013, Pesaro police received a tip that a local lawyer, Sergio Shawo, was found in possession of a letter from one Emidia Cecchini, the 70-year-old putative owner of the portrait, in which she exhorts him to sell the painting for no less than 95 million euros ($107 million). By Italian law, all art works more than 50 years old cannot leave Italy without a special export license and there was no license pertaining to the portrait. Pesaro authorities asked their Swiss colleagues to execute a search warrant on the Swiss bank vault where the painting was believed to be kept, but they were unable to find it there.

So when all the big publicity about this incredible find in the Swiss vault was going down with the dueling experts and the lab testing and all that, as far as authorities were concerned at least, the painting was actively on the lam. Police suspected it had been smuggled back into Italy in a dastardly game of keep-away, and indeed it may have been before returning to Switzerland the next year where it cropped up in that insurance fraud case.

The painting is still in Switzerland for now where it will stay until legal ownership can be determined. Cecchini, the nice old lady in reduced circumstances whose grandparents put together so fine an art collection, may be the legitimate owner trying to win the lottery by the illegal export and sale of her property, or that whole 400 paintings in a Swiss vault since the early 1900s story may be a complete and total fabrication to cover an art smuggling conspiracy. Two art dealers are under investigation for involvement in this case, and they were looking to sell other Old Master works at the same time.

Once ownership is established, the Italian authorities want the painting back in Italy. Until then, additional authentication research is on hold.

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Wolsey’s Angels saved!

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

The Victoria & Albert Museum has successfully raised £5 million to purchase the four bronze angels made to decorate the tomb of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. In early December, the V&A campaign was still a million and a half short of the goal. I was hoping for a viral push thanks to the huge popularity of Wolf Hall on bookshelves, the stage and television, but in the end only £33,000 were raised from online donations. The total raised from the public appeal (online, phone, mail donations and sales of “Save the Wolsey Angels” buttons in the museum gift shop) was a rather meager £87,000. The Wedgwood campaign’s million pounds in public donations infected me with a dangerous and unwarranted optimism, I fear.

With such low figures from the general public, the V&A’s fundraising team must have worked overtime to coax donations out of donors.

The campaign was very much aided by a grant of £2 million from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Art Fund most generously contributed £500,000, and the Friends of the V&A gave £200,000; a further substantial gift was made in memory of Melvin R. Seiden, and many other private individuals and trusts, most notably the Ruddock Foundation for the Arts, also donated.

The National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund donations were already counted in early December, so it seems like those individuals and trusts with the less conspicuous but still significant contributions pulled through in the home stretch. That’s a great thing, because the loss of these statues would have been a damn crime.

Cardinal Wolsey commissioned Florentine sculptor and architect Benedetto da Rovezzano, famous for his religious and funerary sculptures, to design and build his tomb in 1524. The meter-high bronze angels were created to hold candles atop four pillars on the corners of the black marble sarcophagus that would hold the cardinal’s remains. Wolsey’s political downfall in 1529 and death on the way to his treason trial in 1530 left his extensive properties in the hands of King Henry VIII. Henry decided to keep the parts of the tomb that had been finished for his own tomb and commissioned Rovezzano to make him an even fancier one than Wolsey had planned.

It was unfinished at the time of the king’s death in 1547. The remaining Tudor monarchs all made noises about completing their father’s tomb, but it never did happen. Then the Civil War came and the Parliamentarian penchant for converting the trappings of monarchy into cash saw the angels sold off. They disappeared for more than three centuries. We now know that some time during those 330 or so years, all four angels made their way to Harrowden Hall in Northamptonshire. When stately home was acquired by the Wellingborough Golf Club in 1975, the angels were on posts flanking the entrance gates.

Two of the angels were stolen from their perches in 1988, after which the survivors were brought indoors. The stolen ones wound up at a Sotheby’s auction in 1994. Their true history was lost — the catalog described them as bronze angels “in the Renaissance style” — and they sold for £12,000. They were finally returned to their illustriousness by Italian art historian Francesco Caglioti. He found them with a Paris antiques dealer and identified them from a detailed description of them in a 1530 inventory of Wolsey’s property. In 2008, he found their sisters at the Wellingborough Golf Club.

So even though the two Paris angels were stolen property, there was no way for the UK to claim them legally on account of the statute of limitations and conflicting laws in different countries. The Paris dealer offered his pair to the V&A for £2.5 million and the golf club offered its pair for the same price.

Now that justice has been purchased at so small cost, the Wolsey Angels will be taken off public display temporarily. They will be studied, analyzed and conserved and then will find their permanent new home on view with all apposite honors at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

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Have only surviving Michelangelo bronzes been found?

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015


A pair of bronze statuettes known as the Rothschild Bronzes have been attributed to Michelangelo by an international team of multi-disciplinary experts at the University of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum. The bronzes are 16 inches wide by 2 feet 7.5 inches high and depict heroic male nudes riding panthers, likely a Bacchic procession theme. They are not a matched pair — one of the men is a bearded mature figure, the other a clean-faced youth — but they are part of a set. If the attribution is accurate, these statues will be the only known surviving bronzes by a sculptor whose works in marble have become icons of Western art.

As always in cases of disputed authorship, conclusive evidence is hard to come by and these bronzes have already been attributed to a variety of artists known and unknown. The Rothschild Bronzes are so named because they were first recorded in the art collection of Swiss banker Baron Adolphe de Rothschild published in 1878. The works were attributed to Michelangelo at that time, but it was immediately disputed. The undeniably high quality of the bronzes and their style pointed to a 16th century Italian Renaissance origin. With no signature or mark that could resolve the issue, other possible authors like sculptor and architect Jacopo Sansovino and Tiziano Aspetti, known particularly for his bronze sculptures, were mooted.

After the flurry of interest after the 1878 publication, the pair sank into relative obscurity, remaining in the Rothschild collection until in 1957 they were sold to French collector. They returned with a huge splash at Sotheby’s European Sculpture and Works of Art 900-1900 auction on July 9th, 2002. Attributed non-committally to the “Florentine School, mid-16th century,” the pre-sale estimate of £1 million – £1.5 million ($1.5 million – $2.25 million) suggested strongly that Sotheby’s had an inkling that Florentine school might turn out to be a very prestigious one indeed, although the buzz was more Cellini than Michelangelo. The pair sold to a British collector for £1.65 million ($2,478,000).

They weren’t the only softly attributed sculptures to sell big at that auction. A terracotta model for the Fountain of the Moor by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in Piazza Navona stole the show. Even though Bernini’s direct authorship was uncertain (one of his students is known to have carved the final marble piece), it was purchased by New York art dealers Salander-O’Reilly Galleries for £1.9 million ($2.85 million), more ten times the pre-sale estimate of £120,000-180,000 ($180,000 – $270,000), because they believed it was so finely figured that it bore the hand of the master himself. The next year Salander-O’Reilly sold the statue to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth where it is currently on display as the work of Bernini.

In 2003, the pair of bronzes were loaned to the Frick Collection in New York City where they were attributed not just to another artist, but a Dutch one at that. The Frick exhibited them as the work of Willem van Tetrode, a 16th century sculptor who studied in Italy and took the Italian Renaissance sculptural approach back home with him. They appeared at the Royal Academy of Arts in London’s Bronze exhibition in 2012 with a new attribution. This time they were 16th-century Italian again, but the work an unknown Roman sculptor in the “Circle of Michelangelo.”

Cambridge stepped into the fray in the autumn of 2013 when art history professor emeritus Paul Joannides noticed that a page of drawings (“Sheet of studies with the Virgin embracing the Infant Jesus” now in the Musée Fabre in Montpellier) done in 1508 by an apprentice of Michelangelo’s copying his master’s works featured a drawing of a male nude astride a panther. To investigate further, Joannides collaborated with Fitzwilliam curator Victoria Avery, conservation experts Robert van Langh and Arie Pappot from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Warwick University Medical School anatomy professor Peter Abrahams, art historian Charles Avery, Verrocchio specialist Andrew Butterfield and art critic Martin Gayford.

The team looked into every aspect of the bronzes. Oxford University scientists confirmed using thermoluminescence dating that the statues were cast between 300 and 500 years ago. The Rijksmuseum conservators sent samples from the bronzes’ cores to a neutron imaging lab in Switzerland which found that the thick walls of bronze were typical of 16th century Florentine casting. Dr. Abrahams’ examination of the nudes’ bodies found them anatomically correct down to the peroneal tendon and the transverse arch of the foot. He also found the anatomical detail of the nudes — navels, back grooves, abs — corresponded exactly with features from other Michelangelo sculptures and preparatory drawings from 1500-1510.

The investigation is ongoing, but the findings thus far are strong enough to undergird an attribution to the young Michelangelo, made after he completed the David in 1504 and as he began work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The final report of the research team will be presented at a conference on July 6th of this year. The bronzes will be on display in the Italian galleries at the Fitzwilliam Museum from February 3rd through August 9th. There’s a book detailing the research on the figures available at the museum gift shop.

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224th anniversary of Aztec Sun Stone’s rediscovery

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

On Wednesday, December 17th, Mexico City celebrated the 224th anniversary of the rediscovery of the Aztec Sun Stone, the basalt monolith carved under the reign of Moctezuma II just a few years before the Spanish conquest. The circular stone, 12 feet in diameter and weighing more than 24 tons, was originally painted in brilliant red, blue, yellow and white. Archaeologists believe it was placed on top of the main platform of the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan (modern-day Mexico City), perhaps initially intended to be a sacrificial altar but then erected vertically when the massive stone cracked so it was no longer the thick drum-shape of traditional altars.

It is a world-famous icon of Aztec sculpture, but there are competing theories on what the imagery carved onto the stone represents. According to the National Museum of Anthropology, at the center of the monolith is the face of the solar deity Tonatiuh inside the glyph “ollin” meaning “movement.” He holds a human heart in each hand and his tongue is the stone knife used for sacrifices. Four squares around his face contain the glyphs for the four previous cycles of creation and destruction. Concentric rings surrounding the central figure contain multiple calendar glyphs: the first ring has the glyphs for 20 of the 260 days in the Aztec calendar, the second features small boxes that may represent the 52 years of an Aztec century. You can examine the carving in glorious high resolution on Google Art Project.

After the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521, Hernán Cortés ordered all Aztec religious icons removed and replaced them with Christian ones. The Sun Stone was toppled and dumped carved side up on the Zócalo, the main square of Mexico City. A few decades later, Archbishop Alonso de Montúfar, the second Archbishop of Mexico, ordered the stone, which he considered an evil, satanic influence on the city’s residents, flipped carved side down and buried. There it remained entirely forgotten until December 17th, 1790, when it was unearthed less than two feet under the surface by workers repaving the square. They propped it upright next to the find spot.

Mexican astronomer, anthropologist, historian and writer Antonio de León y Gama documented the find. He commissioned Francisco de Agüera to make a highly accurate and detailed drawing of the Sun Stone, the first known image of it ever made. In 1792, León y Gama published Descripción histórica y cronológica de las dos piedras que con ocasión del nuevo empedrado que se esta formando en la plaza principal de México, se hallaron en ella el año de 1790 [Historical and Chronological Description of the Two Stones that were Discovered in 1790 in the Main Square of Mexico City] about the discovery of the stone and the statue of the Aztec earth goddess Coatlicue. It was León y Gama who, recognizing the calendar glyphs, interpreted the monolith as a timekeeping device, a giant sundial to mark astronomical events like solstices. His view dominated the scholarship for close to a hundred years. Even today the piece is commonly called the Aztec Calendar Stone.

It was Antonio de León y Gama who rescued the stone from further disrespect. The Viceroy of New Spain and the Church wanted to use the stone as a step leading up to the entrance of the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary, the church built in the shadow of the Templo Mayor ruins 20 years or so after Archbishop Alonso de Montúfar had ordered the Sun Stone buried for its satanism. Letting parishioners stomp their dirty shoes all over a sacred Aztec artifact would have been a satisfying symbol of the triumph of Christianity over paganism. It also would have been a conservation disaster. León y Gama persuaded Viceroy Juan Vicente de Güemes, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo, that since the stone wasn’t really a pagan idol like the statue of Coatlicue, but rather a calendar, it should be properly displayed, not trampled. The stone placed on the exterior wall of the Cathedral’s southwest tower where it became a popular attraction known as “Montezuma’s Clock.”

The Aztec Sun Stone stayed on the Cathedral until 1882 when it was moved along custom-built tracks two blocks to the new National Museum. Three years after that it moved the museum’s Gallery of Monoliths. In 1964, the Sun Stone was moved one last time, to the newly built National Museum of Anthropology. Now the museum can celebrate its own 50 year anniversary, the 50th anniversary of the Sun Stone’s final move and the 224th anniversary of the stone’s rediscovery all at the same time.

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16th c. Faith stolen by priest found after 70 years

Thursday, December 25th, 2014

The Tutela Patrimonio Culturale unit of the Carabinieri, a division of Italy’s national police squad dedicated to investigating stolen art and antiquities, has found a 16th century painting by Alessandro Bonvicino, better known as Moretto da Brescia, that disappeared from a church 60 years ago. It was discovered in Brescia, in the home of a businessman who had owned it for years without knowing its shady history.

Faith, one of six known paintings Moretto made depicting the allegorical figure of Faith holding the Holy Chalice, was removed from the small parish church of Santa Maria in Valverde in the community of Padernello near Brescia in 1944. It was an inside job: the thief was the parish priest, don Staurenghi. He had noble (by his standards) motives for running what proved to be a very effective, long-lasting scam. The church needed money to build an oratory, so he took it upon himself to secure funding by selling the church’s Renaissance gem to an old friend from his hometown of Verolanuova who happened to be the town magistrate.

To ensure their backdoor shenanigans weren’t found out, the magistrate hired painter and restorer Giambattista Bertelli (who not coincidentally was also from Verolanuova) to make a copy of the painting to hang in the church. He made no bones about the nature of the gig. Bertelli was explicitly told that he had to do a really good job because his work was going to be passed off as Moretto’s in the parish church and it was imperative that nobody notice the switcheroo. From October 19th until October 28th of 1944, Bertelli had the original in his studio (he would decades later note that it’s much easier to forge a painting when you have the original in your workspace) while he painted the copy on a 500-year-old canvas he’d sourced specifically for the job in Milan.

His copy of course included a later modification of Moretto’s design overpainting the Host with the three nails of the crucifixion. That iconographic alteration was the distinguishing feature of the Padernello version. While the apocryphal Faith deceived the faithful in church, in 1969 the original was restored to Moretto’s original image of the Eucharist. I’ll give you one guess who the restorer was. If you guessed Giambattista Bertelli, congratulations. Truly you have a dizzying intellect. Or you just figured out that to run a con without a false step for decades, you’ve got to dance with them that brung you. Over time the copy disappeared too and the fact that the church had ever had one of Moretto’s Faith paintings faded from memory.

The first clue to unlock the mystery was found in 1998, 54 years after the theft, in the Castle of Padernello. A group of volunteers dedicated to the conservation of the castle were cleaning up a pile of trash in an area that had been inhabited by the family of the Counts Salvadego until the 60s when they came across a “santino” (a card with holy imagery, often of a saint, that was traditionally printed to hand out on the more important days of the liturgical calendar) bearing a picture of Faith. It was labelled “Faith, parish of Padernello.” This was evidence that one of the six Moretto Faith paintings had once hung in the parish church.

Historian Gian Mario Andrico set to researching the whereabouts of the original. He found that the santino card had been printed by don Staurenghi for Easter of 1945, months after the copy was in place with no one the wiser (I’m rather in awe of his shamelessness). A few of the old timers remembered that the painting had once hung in the chapel with the baptismal font. Then Andrico tracked down Giambattista Bertelli. Proud of his meticulously maintained records documenting his involvement in this fraud (and since I’d wager his co-conspirators were dead and buried by then), Bertelli cheerfully spilled the beans.

In 2008, the Castle hosted an exhibition entitled Moretto, Faith, The Return that told the story of the purloined painting and displayed another version of it from a private collection. The Carabinieri used the catalogue from this exhibition as the starting point for an official investigation this year. It only took them a few months to locate the long-lost work along with a black-and-white photograph of it from the late 1960s. The magistrate had sold it to an antiques dealer who in turn sold it to the businessman in Brescia.

The art squad searched the church and found an altarpiece painting on the theme of the Sacred Heart that when viewed against the light showed anomalous elements. To ensure they had located the Padernello Faith instead of another version by the master or a copy, the police took the sequestered Faith, the black-and-white photograph and the altarpiece an to the laboratory of the Physics department of the State University of Milan for analysis. Infrared reflectography confirmed that the photograph was of the painting found in the apartment with it and that it was Moretto’s original. X-ray imaging found that the altarpiece had painted over a large cross that matched the one held by the allegorical Faith. Thus the fate of Bertelli’s copy was revealed.

The Carabinieri transferred legal custody of Faith to a representative of the parish but it’s not hanging in the church. Right now it’s in the Diocesan Museum of Brescia. I suspect this will be the long-term home for it, even though the church officially owns it again at long last.

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Tremors in Tuscany spark fears for David‘s safety

Sunday, December 21st, 2014

The Chianti region of Tuscany has experienced more than 250 tremors in three days, the two strongest of which measured 3.8. and 4.1 on the Richter scale. They only visible harm they caused was some minor structural damage in a town 20 miles south of Florence, but authorities are concerned that this could presage a larger seismic event that would wreak havoc on the city’s greatest artistic icon: Michelangelo’s statue of David.

A study published in the Journal of Cultural Heritage last March found that David‘s ankles and the tree stump support behind the right leg were severely weakened by microfractures. Centrifuge tests on small gypsum models of the statue revealed that under stress, the statue could collapse forward, snapping at both ankles. Vibrations from nearby construction, maintenance in the building and certainly an earthquake would be sufficient to cause catastrophic damage to the monumental sculpture. Its own six-ton weight could be sufficient to bring David down.

Small cracks in the left ankle and stump were first noticed in 1851. They may have developed during the flood of 1844 or three years later when sculptor Clemente Papi made a full-size plaster cast of David, but the recent study suggests the original source of the problem was that the statue spent almost four centuries outside the Palazzo della Signoria leaning forward at an approximately five degree angle which put undue stress on the weakest parts of the structure. (The angled placement wasn’t deliberate; researchers believe it was likely the result of the ground settling unevenly underneath the plinth.) The tilt was only corrected when David was moved indoors to the Galleria dell’Accademia in 1873.

The microfractures have been monitored assiduously since 2001 and there doesn’t appear to have been any change in them, but even if the cracks aren’t getting gradually worse, they’re dangerous enough as it is. Add to that the inherent weakness of the marble — this particular block is riddled with microscopic holes that make it particularly susceptible to deterioration — and the giant-slayer is at constant risk. A few years ago there was discussion of insulating the statue from vibrations caused by footsteps of the thousands of tourists who walk by him every day.

The museum authorities declared that David would be safe even if the city was struck by an earthquake as strong as 5.5 magnitude, and there’s never been more than a 5.4 magnitude earthquake in Florence. That’s not much reassurance, however, because a) they can’t say for sure how strong the earthquake has to be to topple the statue, and b) just because a bigger one hasn’t hit yet doesn’t mean it won’t in the future.

Thankfully this weekend’s tremors have lit a fire under key asses. Culture Minister Dario Franceschini announced that the state would fund the construction of an anti-seismic plinth to the tune of 200,000 euros ($245,000). An anti-seismic platform has already been designed to fit David‘s needs and it was discussed as a possible solution to the microfracture danger when the study made the news earlier this year, but it was all just talk at that point. The past three days of seismic activity have finally spurred action.

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Wolsey’s Angels need rescuing and fast

Friday, December 5th, 2014

Four bronze angels created for the never-completed tomb of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, lost for centuries, could be scattered again if we can’t raise £1,540,247 by December 31st. As of right now, £3,459,753 has been raised, thanks to a £2 million grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, £500,000 from the Art Fund and donations from individuals through the Victoria & Albert museum’s Wolsey Angels Appeal. I really cannot emphasize enough how much of a monstrous travesty losing the Wolsey Angels would be.

It was Cardinal Wolsey himself, at the peak of his power in 1524, 10 years after he was appointed Cardinal Archbishop of York, on his ninth year as Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII, who commissioned the angels from Florentine sculptor and architect Benedetto da Rovezzano. Benedetto was famous by then as a builder of tombs for the notables of the short-lived Florentine Republic, church reliefs, statues for sepulchral monuments to saints. His Republican sympathies and wholesale loss of patrons after the re-establishment of the Medici rule ultimately drove him out of Florence. In 1519 he moved to London and remained there for 24 years, making sculptures and tombs for the royal court.

Wolsey’s commission was for a monumental tomb in Renaissance style with an angel standing on pillars nine feet tall in each of the four corners, but his end would come before the tomb was completed and in any case his circumstances had changed, to put it mildly. When Wolsey was unable to secure an annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, he wasn’t just fired; he was arrested. In 1529, Henry confiscated Wolsey’s property, including the residence of Hampton Court thenceforth known as Hampton Court Palace and Benedetto da Rovezzano’s four bronze angels and other finished parts of the tomb including the striking black marble sarcophagus. Wolsey died on his way to London to answer to charges of treason in November of 1530.

Henry VIII decided he would use the elements of Wolsey’s tomb to make an even grander tomb for himself, and who better to commission than Benedetto da Rovezzano? Benedetto set up a workshop and foundry at Westminster and set to work on the king’s tomb. By 1543, the tomb still wasn’t finished and Benedetto’s health was suffering so he returned to Italy. According to Vasari, Benedetto experienced vertigo and sight impairment as a result of “standing too long over the fire in the founding of metals, or by some other reasons,” and eventually went completely blind. He died around 1554.

Henry VIII died in 1547 with the tomb incomplete. He was buried with his third wife and mother of his son, Jane Seymour, in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. His three children — Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I — each said they’d have the tomb completed and Henry interred in it, but it never happened. In 1565, Elizabeth moved the tomb parts to Windsor where they were still being kept 80 years later when the dislocation of Civil War struck them. With the Parliamentarian victories in 1645, most of the tomb was sold off. Only the black sarcophagus remained at Windsor. Charles I wanted to be buried in it at Westminster Abbey, but the 59 Commissioners who found him guilty of high treason against himself refused permission. Instead he was buried in Henry VIII’s vault in St. George’s Chapel on February 9th, 1649. A suitable use was eventually found for the black coffin: in 1805, King George III gifted the Wolsey-Henry-Charles sarcophagus to serve as a final resting place for Admiral Lord Nelson’s body in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

As for the angels, they disappeared after the Civil War fire sale. It took 350 years for them to turn up again. Unmoored from their illustrious history and unrecognized by appraisal exports, two of the angels came up for auction at Sotheby’s in 1994. The catalogue described them as bronze angels “in the Renaissance style,” not realizing they were originals of major historical significance by a name artist. They didn’t even include a photograph accompanying the entry in the catalogue. The pair sold for £12,000. A few years ago, the auction pair were finally recognized. Italian art historian Francesco Caglioti came across them in the possession of a Paris antiques dealer. He researched the angels and found an exact description of them in a 1530 inventory of Wolsey’s property.

Caglioti didn’t stop there. He went on a quest to find the other two angels, and against every conceivable odds, he found them in 2008 at Harrowden Hall, a Northamptonshire estate that was acquired by the Wellingborough Golf Club in the 1970s. Nobody knows when the angels got there; they were already in place when the stately home became a clubhouse. All four of them were there, as a matter of fact, because the two that were sold at Sotheby’s in 1994 had actually been stolen from the Wellingborough Golf Club in 1988. The angels were standing on posts flanking the entrance gates back then. The golf club people just figured one pair had been stolen for their lead value (they had no idea the angels were even bronze) so they moved the surviving pair indoors and wrote off the loss. As soon as they found out they had Wolsey’s Angels, the club lent them to the V&A for safekeeping.

Now here is the crux of the travesty. Because of the statute of limitations and the many hands and countries with varying applicable laws the stolen angels have passed through, the Wellingborough Gold Club cannot get the angels back from the Paris dealer. Instead, he’s going to sell his pair to the Victoria & Albert for £2.5 million. He may donate some portion of his filthy lucre to the Golf Club, but then again he may not. The Wellingborough has made the same offer for its pair of angels (they can’t be sold to the highest bidder because they are part of the heritage listing of Harrowden Hall) which is why it will cost £5 million to save the four Wolsey Angels for the nation.

Hilary Mantel, author of the Tudor-era historical novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, had this to say about the rediscovery of the Wolsey Angels:

“Thanks to the discovery of Wolsey’s angels, a great Englishman we have forgotten may have his monument at last. The recovery of Wolsey’s angels is one of those miracles that historians pray for; something that seems irrevocably lost has been there all the time. To claim the angels for the nation would connect us to one of the liveliest eras of our history and one of its most remarkable men.”

I asked Brodie Lyon, the V&A’s Annual Fund and Appeals Manager, if there was another large grant in the works to make up for the alarming shortfall and there was none that he could announce publicly, which I hope means there are arrangements going on in the background but could just as well mean that there is no plan B. We need a last minute fundraising push because if this sale doesn’t go through, it looks like those two Paris angels could wind up anywhere in the world and there isn’t a damn thing the law can do about it even though there is no dispute about the fact that they’re stolen goods of immense cultural significance to Britain.

Save the Wolsey Angels!

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View restoration of della Francesca’s Resurrection by app

Monday, December 1st, 2014

The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca, a fresco judged by Aldous Huxley to be “the best picture in the world,” is receiving a much-needed restoration. A team from Florence’s conservation institute the Opificio delle Pietre Dure will spend a projected 18 months in the Upper Tiber Valley town of Sansepolcro, Tuscany, restoring the 15th century masterpiece and they will do it in plain view of the public thanks to a custom scaffolding bridge that will leave the painting visible while experts work on it. Public restorations are increasingly common these days, but this project will vastly expand the range of public view with an app that will allow people to follow the restoration from the comfort of their own smartphones. The app debuts in January.

Restoring The Resurrection is a complex problem. Piero della Francesca used different types of paint — fresco, tempera — and design techniques. Pigments like cinnabar red lacquer, malachite and white lead are typical of tempera. Because of the diverse materials, restorers will have to work on the painting inch by inch. The Opificio experts have studied the work using 20 non-invasive techniques — among them UV imaging, infrared imaging, careful visual examination of the surface — and found areas where the paint is discolored, flaking and cracking, and which of those are original, which past restorations. There are places where the fresco’s plaster is peeling off the wall. A 3D reconstruction of the work derived from the imaging data indicates that damage and dirt have obscured many of the painting’s unique perspectival elements.

The wall itself is in need of repair because multiple earthquakes over the centuries have caused structural problems. Although it adds another layer of difficulty to the project, treating the wall has an upside. Restorers are hoping it will answer questions about when the painting was moved to its current location. Della Francesca painted it for the Town Hall in the 1460s to celebrate Florence returning control of the building and some measure of political autonomy to Sansepolcro, but it was originally on the wall of another room in the building. The bottom-to-top perspective suggests it was once placed higher than it is now. It was thought to have been moved to its current room in the 16th century, but there are a lot of open questions about the history of the work.

In Huxley’s 1925 essay The Best Picture (pdf), he provides a whole other backstory:

The best picture in the world is painted in fresco on the wall of a room in the town hall. Some unwittingly beneficent vandal had it covered, some time after it was painted, with a thick layer of plaster, under which it lay hidden for a century or two, to be revealed at last in a state of preservation remarkably perfect for a fresco of its date. Thanks to the vandals, the visitor who now enters the Palazzo
dei Conservatori at Borgo San Sepolcro finds the stupendous Resurrection almost as Piero della Francesca left it. Its clear, yet subtly sober colours shine out from the wall with scarcely impaired freshness. Damp has blotted out nothing of the design, nor dirt obscured it. We need no imagination to help us figure forth its beauty; it stands there before us in entire and actual splendour, the greatest picture in the world.

If Huxley’s description is accurate, the condition of the work has degenerated precipitously in just 90 years.

The Resurrection has a profound connection to Sansepolcro. Piero della Francesca was a native son (the sleeping soldier in the brown armour underneath the staff of Jesus’ banner is thought to be a self-portrait). He incorporated the city’s symbolism into the painting. The rock in the bottom right depicts the stone from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that according to legend pilgrims Arcanus and Aegidius brought back from Jerusalem with them when they founded the town they then named after the church. The Christ figure from the painting is the central element of the city’s coat of arms.

Then there’s the more recent history when The Resurrection saved Sansepolcro from destruction in World War II. In 1944, Royal Horse Artillery captain Anthony Clarke was ordered shell the city in advance of Allied infantry troops. Clarke had seen the obliteration of the monastery at Monte Cassino as a result of Allied bombing, a destruction that turned out to be not just futile (the Germans weren’t occupying the monastery as the Allies believed) but counterproductive since German paratroopers moved into the ruins which gave them outstanding cover and made them very hard to dislodge. He had also read Huxley’s essay and remembered, even though he had never seen the painting, that The Resurrection was in Sansepolcro. Taking an enormous personal risk, Clarke did not relay the order to fire.

He later said his commanding officer had come on the radio urging him to get on with it so he had to stall for time, peering at the town through binoculars and assuring his commander that he could see no German targets to go after.

It was a brave action. Had Allied infantry been ambushed as they advanced on Sansepolcro, his court martial would have been brutal.

But, for the love of art, he kept the guns silent. The Germans fled and the town was liberated the following day without any damage to the 500-year-old work of art.

There’s a street named after Tony Clarke in Sansepolcro now.

The restoration is estimated to cost 200,000 euros ($250,000). The town council has scared up 40,000 euros from its threadbare budget. Former Buitoni pasta and sauce executive Also Osti has pleged 100,000 euros. A friend convinced him to donate, and he was easily persuaded because he although he now lives in Switzerland, he lived in Sansepolcro, headquarters of the Buitoni company, for many years. His son was born there. The city is working on raising the remaining 60,000 euros from other private donors. Meanwhile they have enough to get started and keep going for a while.

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Rare Shakespeare first folio found in French library

Wednesday, November 26th, 2014

One of only 233 known copies of the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays has been discovered in the library of Saint-Omer, a small town in northern France 30 miles south of Calais. Rémy Cordonnier, director of the medieval and early modern collection, found it this September when looking through the library’s stack for materials that would suit an upcoming English literature exhibition. Missing its telltale title page, the volume was wrongly classified as an 18th century edition, but Cordonnier suspected the missing pages might be making a secret identity as one of the rarest and most sought-after books in the world.

He contacted Eric Rasmussen from the University of Nevada, an expert on Shakespeare’s First Folio who spent 20 years cataloguing all known copies and who happened to be visiting the British Library. Last Saturday he took the Eurostar train to France too see the work in person. He authenticated it almost at first glance. The paper, its watermarks and certain errors that were corrected in later editions immediately identified it as the 233rd First Folio, the first new one discovered in a decade. Printed in 1623, just seven years after Shakespeare’s death, by his friends and fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell, the First Folio contains 36 of Shakespeare’s 38 plays, and is the earliest, most reliable extant source for half of them.

There are differences between this copy and the 232 other ones known to survive. The printers made corrections and alterations throughout the original print run of around 800, so each First Folio is a unique work. In addition to the printing differences, the Saint-Omer copy is also missing the entire text of Two Gentlemen of Verona; the pages were deliberately torn out. There are also annotations that suggest the volume was used for performances. Some of the words are replaced with more modern language, and a character in Henry IV is changed from “hostess” to “host” and from “wench” to “fellow” with utter disregard for iambic pentameter.

The library has had the book in its stacks for 400 years, thanks to its arrangement with the now-defunct college of Jesuits in Saint-Omer which used the city library’s Heritage Room as its own library. Saint-Omer is a small town now, but in the Middle Ages it was an important city with the fourth greatest library in Western Europe. The Jesuit college was founded in the late 16th century when Catholics were forbidden by law to attend college in English. They could just cross the Channel and get an education in France instead, and Saint-Omer was well attended by English Catholics.

One particularly intriguing note is the name “Nevill” written on the first page of The Tempest (also the first page of the book entire since the title pages are gone). It could be the explanation of how the folio got to Saint-Omer since there is only one other known copy in the whole country. Neville was a name adopted by several members of the Scarisbrick family, a prominent Catholic family of landed gentry with a pedigree stretching back to the 1200s. Edward Scarisbrick (Neville), born in 1639, was educated at the Jesuit college of St. Omer, and, following in the footsteps of others in his family, became a Jesuit in 1660.

There’s some speculation that the find may be relevant to the question of whether William Shakespeare was a secret Catholic, but I don’t see how. Shakespeare was dead and gone when this book got to Saint-Omer. It could be relevant to how Catholics read and performed his plays in the 17th century; I doubt it goes beyond that.

First Folios are of course very valuable. One sold at Sotheby’s in 2006 for $5.2 million, but this copy would not be so expensive because of its missing pages. It doesn’t matter anyway, because there is no way the library is selling it. As Rémy Cordonnier notes succinctly: “It is an inalienable property that cannot be sold, like all the works of the library.”

It will be conserved for a while and then put on display some time next year. There are also tentative plans to scan it and make it available on the library’s website.

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Recreating Tullio Lombardo’s Adam after the fall

Saturday, November 8th, 2014

On the evening of Sunday, October 6th, 2002, the medium density plywood pedestal supporting the 15th century marble statue of Adam by Tullio Lombardo in the Velez Blanco Patio at the Metropolitan Museum of Art buckled. All 770 pounds, six feet three inches of Adam fell, hitting the ground hard and breaking into 28 large pieces and hundreds of small fragments. The head came off at the neck, the torso skidded across the floor, the right leg broke into six pieces, the left arm into seven. Nobody even heard the crash.

The catastrophe was discovered at 9:00 PM by a security guard doing his routine rounds. The emergency call went out to curators and conservators and the patio was cordoned off to allow for a forensic crime scene-level recovery of every little chip. The museum opened as usual on Monday, but nobody was allowed to photograph the disaster. The Met didn’t want the horror of the scene to be the image of the statue in people’s heads even after it was put back together. It took two days for the precise mapping of each fragment to be completed and all the pieces carefully bagged and tagged.

Extensive damage to a sculpture is any museum’s worst nightmare — stone is much harder to repair than canvas — and this case was a particularly spine-chilling one because of Adam‘s singular importance. Commissioned for the tomb of the Doge Andrea Vendramin (d. 1478) in the church of Santa Maria dei Servi in Venice, Adam was the first monumental nude carved in the classical style since antiquity. The tomb, inspired by ancient triumphal arches, was recognized for the exceptional quality of its statuary before it was even completed. Venetian historian Marino Sanuto the Younger wrote in his diary in 1493 that the Vendramin funerary monument “will surely be the most beautiful in the world because of the excellent statues which are there.” Lombardo’s Adam was placed in a niche next to the sarcophagus of the Doge in the center of the monument. A matching statue of Eve (once attributed to Lombardo but now thought to have been the work of Francesco Segala) was on the other side.

The monastery and church of the Servi were demolished in 1812 in keeping with Napoleon’s edicts ordering the suppression of religious orders. The Vendramin tomb was rescued and installed in the choir of the church of Saints Giovanni e Paolo, but Adam and Eve never made it to the new location. Times had changed, and the classical nudes were now deemed to be not in keeping with the seriousness of the Christian religion. They were replaced by two warrior figures.

The first man and woman were moved to the Palazzo Vendramin Calergi where they both remained until 1865 (Eve is still there today). That year the palace’s owner, Marie-Caroline de Bourbon-Sicile, Duchesse de Berry, daughter of King Francis I of the Two Sicilies and daughter-in-law of King Charles X of France, sold much of the contents of the palace at auction in Paris. Adam was acquired by collector Henry Pereire. After his death in 1932, it passed through the hands of a couple of dealers before being bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1936.

The Met was thrilled to have it. Art historian Preston Remington, who was curator of the Met’s Renaissance Art department at that time, described Adam as “the most distinguished of Tullio’s sculptures” whose “importance to the collection of renaissance sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum is paramount.” Besides, he noted, “aside from its archaeological interest, the Adam is a work of great beauty and lasting charm.”

Key to that great beauty and lasting charm was the unblemished smoothness of the carving, perhaps Adam‘s most famous feature. If he couldn’t be put back together with that flawless surface, it would be an incalculable loss. Monumental Renaissance statuary doesn’t come up for sale very often, or ever, really; finding something of equivalent historical significance would be all but impossible.

Initial prognostications were fairly optimistic: the damage was bad, but there were enough large pieces that conservators thought it could be fixed and returned to display in two years or so. That estimate was left in the dust. They decided to take a far more meticulous approach, studying every aspect of the reconstruction in detail before drilling holes in it and piecing it together with adhesives and pins. They stress tested the reversible organic adhesives to see if they could handle such a large statue. They discovered that fiberglass pins were better than metal ones because when they do break, they don’t take chunks of the marble with them. They used new laser imaging technology to create a 3D model so they could puzzle it out virtually before putting the physical pieces together. They even got a crappy copy of Michelangelo’s David and deliberately broke it in the same places Adam for testing purposes.

Instead of two years it took 12, but they were 12 years well spent. After all the work, all the research, was done behind closed doors, a secrecy that caused some comment as a new decade dawned with no publically visible progress, on November 11th, Adam is going back on display at the Met.

The story of the restoration is part of the exhibition. The statue, originally intended for a niche and therefore less worked in the back than in the front, will now be viewed in the round so people can see it the same way the conservators did. The Met has made some videos explaining the epic 12-year conservation project, and there will be an article about the process in the next volume of the Metropolitan Museum Journal (bookmark this page and check back for volume 49).

3D animation illustrating the order of assembly:

Time-lapse of the reconstruction:

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