Archive for the ‘Renaissance’ Category

Gold shines anew on Ghiberti’s first Baptistery doors

Sunday, December 1st, 2013

Lorenzo Ghiberti, the sculptor and goldsmith who created the gilded bronze doors to Florence’s Baptistery of San Giovanni that Michelangelo considered “so beautiful that they would do well for the gates of Paradise”, started out with a more modest assignment. The Arte di Calimala, the cloth importers guild of Florence, held a contest in 1401 to design a new set of doors for the Baptistery that would complement the bronze ones made by Andrea Pisano in 1330. Pisano’s doors graced the east side of the Baptistery in place of pride facing the Duomo, and consisted of 28 barbed quatrefoil panels depicting the life of St. John the Baptist and the eight virtues. Each contestant was given a year to submit a test panel on the subject of The Sacrifice of Isaac.

Vasari describes each submission in his Lives of the Artists and it’s clear that in his opinion Ghiberti’s was superior to everyone’s, including Donatello’s and Jacopo della Quercia’s. The two finalists were the young Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi, future builder of the Duomo’s dome. Ghiberti claims in his autobiography that he was the unanimous winner; Vasari agrees. Brunelleschi’s biographer Antonio Manetti says Giberti and Brunelleschi were both given the assignment but Brunelleschi had no interest in collaborating so he went off to study architecture in Rome and left Ghiberti to do all the work himself.

Ghiberti spent 21 years from 1403 to 1424 crafting his 28 barbed quatrefoil panels depicting the life of Christ, the four evangelists and the Church Fathers. The high relief gilded bronze scenes demonstrated his impressive command of design and casting. The dimension and dynamism of the composition eclipsed the more static, flat designs of Pisano’s making the doors huge hits and the artist famous. Pisano’s doors were moved to the west portal (later moved again to the south portal) and Ghiberti’s new ones took pole position on the east side.

So thrilled was the Calimala organization with the doors, as soon as they were installed the guild commissioned Ghiberti to make a new set. This time they put no conditions on him whatsoever, no need to match the look of the Pisano doors and therefore no need to squeeze 28 small scenes into barbed quatrefoil borders. For this project Ghiberti chose to expand his canvas, dividing the door into 10 large squares that could accommodate his novel vision of several scenes from Old Testament episodes sharing space on the same panel. He used deep perspective and different depths of relief to capture figures in motion, taking full advantage of the architectural space. It took him 27 years to make these doors, his masterpiece, which would become known as the Gates of Paradise.

When complete, they were installed in the east portal. Ghiberti’s first doors were moved to the north portal where they still stand today. Centuries of pollution, vandalism, aggressive polishing and exposure to the elements coated the panels with thick blank gunk and damaged the gilding that remained underneath it. In 1980, experts with the Opificio delle Pietre Dure di Firenze, a public art restoration institute, initiated a long-term plan of study and conservation of the Gates of Paradise. The learning curve was steep; new laser technology even had to be developed to clean the gilding without overheating it. After 27 years of intensive work, the gleaming gold Gates of Paradise were returned to their former splendor and put on display in the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore. (A replica is in place in the Baptistery.)

Now it’s the north doors’ turn. All the hard-learned lessons from the restoration of the Gates of Paradise has drastically decreased the time projected to clean the north doors. In just a few months, already two of the panels, The Baptism of Christ and The Temptation of Christ have gone from black to shiny gold. The remaining 26 panels, the decorative borders, the 47 heads of prophets, sibyls and Ghiberti himself wearing a dashing turban are scheduled to be completed in autumn of 2015, after which they will go on permanent display in a compressed air case next to the Gates of Paradise in the new Museo dell’Opera.


16th c. coins fall out of jug found on Lindisfarne

Friday, November 29th, 2013

In June of 2003, builder Richard Mason was renovating a home on Lindisfarne, the tidal island also known as the Holy Island because of the 7th century monastery founded by Saint Aidan that brought Christianity to the north of England, when he found a funny old jug while hand digging under a drain pipe. He looked inside, didn’t see anything and tossed it in the back of his van. He stored the jug in his father’s basement and thought nothing of it until Christmas of 2011 when he decided to clean all the mud and muck off of it and give it another look. During the cleaning process, Mason tipped the jar upside down and a little shower of gold and silver coins fell out.

When the holidays were over, Richard brought the jug and its contents to a local historian in his hometown of Rothbury, Northumberland, who referred the find as potential treasure to experts at the British Museum. They determined that the vessel is a Frechen stoneware Bartmann jug from the Rhineland area. It has a brown glaze characteristic of Frechen vessels and its design is of type fabricated between 1551 and 1700. Its contents were deemed treasure trove at a recent coroner’s inquest in Northumberland.

The jug holds 10 gold and seven silver coins ranging in date from the 1430s to the 1560s. They were minted in England, France, Italy, Saxony and the Burgundian Netherlands (Belgium today). Most of the coins are English, four of them from the time of the Great Debasement (1542–1551), when Henry VIII and Edward VI replaced a portion of the precious metals in minted coins with base metals like copper. Even so, the three debased gold coins are still more than 80% fine metal, which is an excellent figure for debased coinage. The rest of the silver and gold coins are over 90% fine.

One the coins stands out as a particular rarity. It’s a scudo from the central Italian city of Ancona and it’s so rare that the Italian coin experts Mason sought out only know of one other similar but not identical example. It bears the Medici crest and the name of Pope Clement VII, aka Giulio de’ Medici. Ancona was an oligarchic republic until 1532 when it became part of the Papal States and Clement died in 1534, so the coin must have been minted inside that two-year window.

The scudo is the most valuable coin in the group and because of its rarity, the most difficult to assess. A silver thaler minted in Annaberg, Saxony, in 1548, is another unusual find in England. The total value of the 17 coins in the 16th century would have been around £6, just over half the yearly pay of the average worker at the time (£10) and just under a seventh of what a gentleman would need to live on (£40).

The Treasure Valuation Committee is currently studying the coins to assess their fair market value. Once they’ve made their determination (the announcement is planned for December 5th), the Great North Museum at Hancock in Newcastle hopes to raise the money and acquire the hoard for permanent display. The finder and the landowner will split the proceeds and the finder will receive something even more precious albeit intangible: the hoard will be named after his family.

When it goes on show, The British Museum will refer to the collection as “The Mason Hoard”. “It’s something to tell the grandbairns about,” said Mr Mason.

“I’m honoured to have the family name attributed to such a find. My dad is in his 70s and he still works with me on the building sites six days a week.

“He volunteers with the local history society and having his name in The British Museum will mean a lot.

The house the Masons were renovating when Richard found the hoard was built in 1962, but underneath it lie the remains of a building from the 14th century. Based on the date of the more recent coin and their overall condition, experts believe the hoard was probably buried around 1562. In a freakish coincidence, another coin hoard from around the same time was buried in the exact same spot. It was 50 silver coins, the latest from 1562, found in a Bartmann jug, no less. It was unearthed by builder Alan Short in 1962 when they installed the drainpipe that Richard Mason dug under to find this hoard. The Great North Museum has the hoard Short found as well.

Not freakish enough a coincidence for you? Here’s another:

Although it was an exciting discovery at the time, it was even more interesting when Mr Mason found himself in the company of Mr Short by sheer coincidence 40 years later.

“We were both working on the same building job,” he said. “We were both sat eating our sandwiches, when we started to talk about the sorts of things we’d found while working on jobs.

“I said I’d dug up a pot filled with coins on a site at Holy Island that was now in a museum and he said he’d dug up a similar pot in almost the same place 40 years earlier. It’s unbelieveable how small a world it is.”


Da Vinci, a cello and a harpsichord walk into a bar

Friday, November 15th, 2013

One of Leonardo da Vinci’s many brilliant ideas was to create a musical instrument that combined the fingerwork of a keyboard with the sustained sound of a stringed instrument. He called it a viola organista and explored various mechanisms of foot-treadle operated rotating wheels that pull a bow across strings, sketching different designs for it in his notebooks including the Codex Atlanticus, (page 93r), now in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, and Manuscript H (page 28r) in Paris’ Bibliothèque de l’Institut de France. As far as we know none of these designs ever made it to the prototype stage.

Almost a hundred years later in 1575, church organist Hans Hyden of Nuremberg created the first functional bowed keyboard instrument operated by a foot-treadle. He used gut strings (later switched to metal when the gut strings failed to say in tune) and five or six parchment-wrapped wheels which, when turned by the treadle and a hand-crank at the far end operated by a helper, would be drawn against individual strings determined by which keys were played. Hyden claimed his instrument could produce crescendos, diminuendos, vibrato and sustain notes indefinitely solely through finger pressure on the keys. He even said it could duplicate the voice of a drunk man.

He called it a Geigenwerk (meaning “fiddle organ”) which is the German translation of da Vinci’s name for it, but although some sources imply or claim he based his design on da Vinci’s, I have serious doubts about that. Leonardo was hugely famous in his lifetime and after, but it was for his art, not his notebooks. Bequeathed to his friend and apprentice Francesco Melzi, the notebooks were sold off piecemeal by the Melzi family after Francesco’s death in 1579. Pages were scattered to courts and collectors all over Europe. Some of Leonardo’s notes on painting were published in 1651, but the bulk of the notebooks only made it into print in the 19th century. I don’t see how Hyden could have had had access to them.

None of Hyden’s Geigenwerks — he’s reputed to have built as many as 32 of them although only two are thoroughly documented — have survived. The details of its operation and the sole surviving illustration of the instrument have come down to us from German composer and music theorist Michael Praetorius who included one of Hyden’s original pamphlets describing the machine and a woodcut of it in the appendix to the second volume of his Syntagma Musicum, published as the Theatrum Instrumentorum seu Sciagraphia in 1620.

Imitations have survived, the earliest of which made by Spanish monk Raymundo Truchado in 1625. It is now in Brussels’ Musical Instruments Museum. Truchado’s Geigenwerk is an oddly truncated little thing which could only have been played sitting on the ground or perched on a low table. It had no foot-treadle, just the hand-crank in the back. The instrument is no longer playable today. Given its design it doesn’t look like it was ever comfortably playable at all, but it must have been worth it because it was used on occasion in the Cathedral of Toledo until the late 18th century.

Since then, many people have made versions of the bowed keyboard instrument, some of them using Leonardo’s designs as the starting point. They haven’t all been successful. This 2009 version of a portable viola organista made from one of Leonardo’s sketches is serving hilariously awkward one-man-band realness. Pianist and keyboard instrument builder Akio Obuchi has made several Geigenwerks which can indeed produce the kind of sounds Hyden described.

Now Polish concert pianist Slawomir Zubrzycki has joined the fray with a viola organista that is as beautiful to look at as it is to listen to.

The instrument’s exterior is painted in a rich hue of midnight blue adorned with golden swirls painted on the side. The inside of its lid is a deep raspberry inscribed with a Latin quote in gold leaf by 12th-century German nun, mystic and philosopher, Saint Hildegard.

“Holy prophets and scholars immersed in the sea of arts both human and divine, dreamt up a multitude of instruments to delight the soul,” it says.

The flat bed of its interior is lined with golden spruce. Sixty-one gleaming steel strings run across it, similar to the inside of a baby grand. Each one is connected to the keyboard complete with smaller black keys for sharp and flat notes. But unlike a piano, it has no hammered dulcimers. Instead, there are four spinning wheels wrapped in horse tail hair, like violin bows. To turn them, Zubrzycki pumps a peddle below the keyboard connected to a crankshaft.

As he tinkles the keys, they press the strings down onto the wheels emitting rich, sonorous tones reminiscent of a cello, an organ and even an accordion.

It took him three years and $9,700 to build the instrument. Zubrzycki’s viola organista had its debut last month at the International Royal Krakow Piano Festival where it was given a standing ovation by an audience of virtuoso musicians and music lovers. It truly is magnificent, so rich and full you keep looking for the rest of the orchestra.

If you only have the time to watch one video, start with this one in which Zubrzycki tells the story of how he made the piece and plays it in his home. There are great closeups of the instrument and its moving parts. Click the CC icon for English subtitles.

Here he is performing a piece by Carl Friederich Abel for the viola da gamba (the predecessor of the cello) at Krakow’s Church of St. Peter and Paul on October 21st:

This are snippets of several pieces he played at the International Royal Krakow Piano Festival:


Villanova to restore Cortona painting in reading room

Sunday, November 10th, 2013

Villanova University will undertake the challenging and important restoration of a rare monumental oil on canvas painting by 17th century Baroque master Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669) in the reading room of its old library. The 12×19-foot painting depicts David’s victory over Goliath and is one of very few pieces by Cortona in the United States. It’s one of very few Cortona canvases anywhere outside of Italy; most of his extant work is in frescoed ceilings and walls.

The Presentation of David to King Saul after Slaying Goliath, as the works is formally known, has been hanging on the wall of the old reading room (the Falvey Memorial Library was built in 1968, leaving the former library’s reading room to be used by the Library Science department to store microfilm, microfiche, 16mm film, slides, VHS etc.) since 1956. It was donated to the University six years before that by Princess Eugenia Ruspoli, née Jennie Berry, the daughter of a nouveau riche planter from Rome, Georgia, and widow of Nashville tobacco producer Henry Bruton, who in 1901 married Prince Enrico Ruspoli of Rome, Ialy.

With her fortune and her new husband’s title, Eugenia set about acquiring a vast collection of art and furniture and a castle to put it all in. The Palazzo Ruspoli in Nemi, 20 miles south of Rome in the Alban Hills, had been owned by a laundry list of noble Italian families since it stopped being a monastery in the 13th century. The Ruspolis bought it from the Orsini family and according to Eugenia, they bought it with her money. After Enrico’s premature death in 1909, he left everything, including the castle and its contents, to his brother Umberto. Eugenia ensconced herself in the castle and refused to leave, insisting that she had a handshake agreement with her husband that she would get to keep the property in case of his death. After much legal wrangling (pdf), in 1916 she won clear title to the castle and all its contents.

Much of said contents wound up in the United States when she shipped the most significant pieces to the US before World War II. She furnished an apartment in New York City, a mansion in Connecticut and her sister Martha Berry’s home in Rome, Georgia, with the Palazzo Ruspoli decor. Cortona’s giant David and Goliath does not appear to have been among them. According to Villanova’s information, that stayed in the castle in Nemi and suffered some damage during the war.

I’m a little dubious of this because the castle was taken over by squatters at the end of the war, see this article from 1949 which talks about how 16 families whose homes were destroyed by Allied bombs had been living in the palazzo for five years by then and refused to budge until the Italian government secured them housing. She donated the Cortona painting in 1950 and died in 1951. Eugenia could have yoinked the massive canvas while the squatters were there and shipped it to the States, but it seems odd to me that she would have left behind such an important, impressive work to begin with, and that anything she donated to Villanova would be a recent arrival rather than one of the many pieces she brought to the US before the war.

Perhaps the restoration will be able to answer the question, thanks to the multi-disciplinary approach that seeks to delve deeply into the history of the painting.

The process of examining and restoring the painting will provide Villanova’s Chemistry Department, and its students, with the opportunity to learn more about historic painting materials, such as the pigments and binding media used by this artist, as well as the analytical techniques used in conservation (i.e. Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, scanning electron microscopy, various imaging techniques, etc.).

“What is amazing is that we can take a sample of paint the size of the period at the end of this sentence and analyze it with modern instrumentation to uncover information about how this artist painted almost 400 years ago,” said Dr. [Amanda] Norbutus [from Villanova's Department of Chemistry]. “We collaborate with professors and students in the chemistry, biology, and engineering disciplines for access to the shared instrumentation necessary to study this painting.”

In addition to Villanova’s Chemistry Department, History and Art History faculty at the University will also work in collaboration with the team during the course of the two-year project. Mark Sullivan, PhD, director of the art history program, along with Timothy McCall, PhD, associate professor of Art History, who possesses a deep knowledge of Italian art and Old Master paintings, will provide expertise to the team as they examine the painting and the history of Pietro’s work, methods and materials.

They expect the project to take two years, a modest estimate considering the extent of the work needed [see edit below]. The painting is darkened and discolored by layers of varnish and overpainting done during earlier restorations. Cortona is known for his glorious bright colors; you wouldn’t have any idea of that looking at David and Goliath now. There are places where the paint has lifted which will have to be moistened by targeted humidification and areas where the original paint was lost and later filled that will have to be redone with inert fill materials. The whole work must be coated with a protective varnish which will hopefully not turn out to be a disaster 100 years from now.

The best part is that a lot of this work will be done in public view. The canvas will not be moved from the reading room.

The University is committed to this important project benefitting the academic community, as well as the art history and conservation community. To that end, lectures, classes and seminar courses focusing on the technical art history and conservation of the work will be scheduled on site in the “Old Falvey” wing of the library during the course of the project. The University also plans to have public tours and viewing times for the campus and area communities to visit the site.

“I am delighted that this artistic treasure will be restored to its original grandeur,” said the Rev. Kail C. Ellis, OSA, PhD, Vice President for Academic Affairs at Villanova University. “Not only will the restoration be a workshop on the techniques of conservation for the artistic community, it will also be a classroom for students and faculty alike to discover the riches of this artist and the methods of bringing back to life a great masterpiece.”

EDIT: Head conservator Kristin deGhetaldi clarifies that although the team hopes to complete restoration in two years, they will be bound by the requirements of the painting, not by a schedule. As the work progresses and they discover more about the painting’s history and condition, their consultations with art historians and researchers may delay the hands-on portion for a time. They don’t know what they might find that would necessitate further exploration before continuing on with the restoration.

Meanwhile, they’ve already cleaned half the canvas and you can begin to see the classic Cortona colors peeking out through the dirt and damage. Here’s a great slideshow of the work in progress. So much better already.


Previously uknown Mantegna drawings found

Friday, November 8th, 2013

Going under the hammer today is an exceptional two-sided drawing by Renaissance master Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506). The pen and brown ink studies were discovered by appraisers from the Farsetti auction house in a folder of assorted prints and drawings belonging to a private collector in Tuscany. The owners had no idea they were by Mantegna and the drawings have never been published before so nobody else in the world even knew they existed.

Drawn on a small page of notebook paper just 151 millimeters (6 inches) high and 100 millimeters (4 inches) wide, the studies depict different scenes with the dead Christ. On the front side (aka the recto) is a Lamentation of the Christ. The body of Jesus lies on a marble bier while his mother Mary, Mary Magdalene and St. John the Apostle mourn over him. On the ground in front of the slab is another view of the dead Christ, this one lying in the opposite direction with his head closest to the viewer. On the back (verso) of the page is a Pietà, Mary cradling the body of her crucified son, holding his wrist almost as if she were checking for a pulse.

These drawings are very reminiscent of my favorite painting by Mantegna, the unique Lamentation over the Dead Christ, now in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, which uses extreme perspective to emphasize Christ’s suffering and humanity. The figure of Christ is shockingly foreshortened, with his pierced feet in foreground, his pierced hands posed vertically so the ragged nail holes are in the viewer’s direct line of sight. His mother Mary, her face deeply lined with age, weeps beside him, but you can only see her face and hand. In front of her is St. John and he’s even more cropped with just a sliver of his face and a bit of his clasped hands visible. Behind Mary you can barely glimpse the mouth of another woman opened as if wailing in grief. This is Mary Magdalene, specifically identified by the presence of the unguent jar on the right back of Christ’s funerary slab.

The body of Christ in newly discovered drawings, while not as extremely positioned, is angled backwards. Mantegna is playing with perspective in the recto, flipping the body around to see how it looks with the head in front. Notice also the hands, that quasi-verticle awkward angle which props the palms up on the fingers so the stigmata can be clearly seen. We don’t know when exactly Mantegna painted Lamentation over the Dead Christ but it was probably in the 1480s. The pen and ink studies date to around 1460, so they are considerably older and thus were probably not preparatory for the later masterpiece. They do illustrate the artist’s longstanding exploration of the subject, however.

The attribution to Mantegna is unusually solid for an unpublished drawing, thanks to two features that connect it to another two-sided Mantegna pen and brown ink study now in the Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo in Brescia, Lombardy. Written across the top of the Pietà side is the annotation “31 Vol 1 Mantegna.” The verso of the Brescia piece is inscribed “37 Vol 1 Mantegna” in the same handwriting and in the same position at the top of the page. Both versos also have the same marks along the edges: red dots left by wax blobs used to affix the page into a notebook. There’s a thematic link as well. The recto of the Brescia drawing is a Burial of Christ wherein Mary Magdalene and St. John lower Jesus’ body into the grave while Mother Mary hunches over it praying. (The verso is unrelated, a study of an elaborate candlestick.) The writing and wax blobs strongly suggests these are two pages from the name notebook.

The British Museum has a third double-sided drawing by Mantegna which, while missing a handy annotation or wax remnants, serves as a useful comparison. Again the medium is pen and brown ink on paper, and again the subject is the dead Christ and his loved ones. The recto is three studies of Christ’s dead body lying on the ground (notice that hand position in the foreground Christ). The verso is two female saints praying on the ground.

University of Leicester professor of Art History David Ekserdjian, who wrote the catalog for a 1992 Mantegna retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, examined the auction drawings in person. Because the Brescia and London works had been attributed to Giovanni Bellini, Mantegna’s brother-in-law and a highly influential artist of the Venetian school, by art historian Detlev Freiherr von Halden in 1925, Ekserdjian compared the Brescia drawings to the British Museum’s double-sided study and to another Mantegna drawing of a Pietà in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Venice to confirm the Mantegna attribution for the 1992 exhibition. He believes all of these drawings, including the auction lot, are by the same hand and that that hand belonged to Andrea Mantegna. He has submitted a paper about his assessment, A New Drawing by Andrea Mantegna, to a journal and publication is pending.

The pre-sale estimate was €140,000 ($187,558) to €220,000 ($294,734), very low for a museum-quality Old Master drawing. The auction house may have set it so low because there’s no way this work will get an export license — it’s pretty much the definition of irreplaceable cultural patrimony — which means deep pocketed overseas buyers aren’t as likely to bid.

UPDATE: The drawings sold for €420,000 ($562,674) hammer price, €509,650 ($682,778) including buyer’s premium. The buyer is an Italian private collector who chooses to remain anonymous.


Hidden sea of love found in Raleigh portrait

Friday, October 11th, 2013

A portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh, explorer, soldier, poet and favored courtier of Queen Elizabeth I, in the National Portrait Gallery has an allegorical love note to the Queen hidden in the upper left corner. It’s just a few wavy lines of dark blue underneath the crescent moon, but they symbolize Raleigh’s devotion to Queen Elizabeth who is represented by the moon. Just as the moon controls the tides, the Queen controls her humble servant who is naturally content to be swayed by her irresistible influence.

The painting has been in the museum’s permanent collection since 1857, but the ocean waves had been overpainted so only the moon was visible. Conservators have worked to remove the overpainting and clean the portrait this year to make it ready for the Elizabeth I and Her People exhibition on display now through January 5th, 2014.

As obscure as it may seem to us, the image would have held immediate significance to Elizabeth, her court and the literati of the age. The association of Queen Elizabeth I with the moon was widespread at the time and Raleigh was a famous sailor whose first name is one letter away from water. Raleigh wrote a series of devotional poems to Cynthia, the goddess of the moon, from her devotee, the Ocean. Cynthia was a byname of Artemis, Greek goddess of the moon, hunt and virginity (among other things) who was born on Mount Cynthus. It also became a byname of Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen and an accomplished hunter in her own right.

Playwright Ben Jonson portrayed the Queen as the wise and virtuous Cynthia in Cynthia’s Revels (1600) and poet Edmund Spenser wrote Raleigh that he used his idea of Elizabeth as Cynthia to craft the character of Belphoebe in his masterpiece The Faerie Queen (1590).

In that Faery Queene I meane glory in my generall intention, but in my particular I conceive the most excellent and glorious person of our souveraine the Queene, and her kingdome in Faery land. And yet in some places els, I doe otherwise shadow her. For considering she beareth two persons, the one of a most royall Queene or Empresse, the other of a most vertuous and beautifull Lady, this latter part in some places I doe express in Belphoebe, fashioning her name according to your owne excellent conceipt of Cynthia, (Phoebe and Cynthia being both names of Diana.)

This portrait of Raleigh was painted in 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada, when Sir Walter was still in favor with the Queen before she threw him in the Tower of London for marrying her lady-in-waiting Beth Throckmorton in secret without seeking the monarch’s permission first. Even though he still had her favor, it was precarious enough that copious flattery and public mooning (get it?) over the Queen was very much de rigeur. It’s not just the moon and sea in the corner than marks the portrait as a devotional exercise. Raleigh’s pearl-festooned sunburst outfit clothes him in adoration for Queen Elizabeth.

Widely understood as a visual statement of Ralegh’s devotion to the Queen, he wears the Queen’s colours of black and white and his costume is covered with pearls, which were associated with Elizabeth as symbols of virginity. The pearls on his sable-trimmed cloak form the rays of a ‘sun in splendour’, a heraldic device also found in portraits of the Queen, possibly reinterpreted here as a ‘moon in splendour’.

Pearls are also associated with the moon because they look like her, and represent nobility, wealth and unblemished beauty. Queen Elizabeth wore huge quantities of pearls in her portraits, and here Sir Walter does the same. He didn’t just pick out his clothing for the portrait; patrons determined content during this period, which is how we know the moon over water imagery wasn’t some random doodling by the portrait painter.

Technical analysis of the portrait has also shown that the artist originally intended to show Ralegh with his right hand on his hip, instead of on the table. This evidence indicates that the picture was certainly devised as an original composition rather than from an existing portrait.

Dr Tarnya Cooper, Curator of Elizabeth I & Her People and Chief Curator, National Portrait Gallery, London, says: “We know it was the patron rather than the painter who would have helped to devise the content of portrait compositions at this time. Therefore this discovery provides exciting new evidence about Ralegh’s creative ingenuity. It shows how portraiture, like poetry was used as a tool to present personal messages of devotion to the queen.”


The NPG acquires lost portrait of Lady Anne Clifford

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

A portrait of the redoubtable Lady Anne Clifford long thought lost has been purchased by the National Portrait Gallery for £275,000 ($444,428). The portrait was known to have existed because Lady Anne, a dedicated diarist her entire life, wrote about having sat for artist William Larkin in the summer of 1618. She was 28 years old at the time and married to Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset. Larkin made two versions of the portrait, one of which was kept at the Sackville estate in Knole, Kent, where it remains to this day. The other Anne gave to her mother’s first cousin, Margaret Hall of Gretford, Lincolnshire. It stayed in the Margaret’s family until the 19th century when it was auctioned as Portrait of Lady Goodrick Parke by Federico Zuccaro. It was sold again in 1956 to a German art dealer. From there it went into a German private collection which is where Mark Weiss, director of the Weiss Gallery in London, found it last year and identified it as the long-lost Larkin portrait of Lady Anne Clifford.

The National Portrait Gallery bought the portrait with a £70,000 grant from the Art Fund, £45,000 in private donations and £160,000 from its own acquisitions budget. This painting of Lady Anne as a young woman joins just one other portrait of her in the NPG collection. It’s a copy after an original by Sir Peter Lely painted around 1646 when Lady Anne was 56.

Larkin’s portrait captures Anne in a dark period in her life. Early in 1618 she gave birth to a baby who died. In deep mourning, she refrained from writing in her diary for the entire year. She sat for William Larkin that summer. You can see the signs of mourning in the portrait. Those black strings hanging from her neck and left ear are mourning strings. She began writing in her diary again on January 1619. That’s when she refers to the portrait:

The first of this month I began to have the curtain drawn in my chamber and to see the light… The 16th… I sent my cousin Hall of Gilford [sic.] a letter and my picture with it which Larkin drew at Knole this summer.

That first line is a reference to her coming out of mourning, having the curtains drawn to let the light into her room for the first time since the death of her baby. Her description of Larkin coming to paint her at Knole is noteworthy because it means he was welcomed into high aristocratic circles. The other portraits by Larkin in the National Portrait Gallery (Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset, and George Villiers, First Duke of Buckingham) were both painted in his London studio. They both predate the Clifford portrait and are markedly inferior in quality. That Anne Clifford, a noble and influential patron of the arts, invited Larkin to paint her in situ means he had well and truly arrived.

Larkin certainly captured her beauty and verve, at least according to her description. Here is Lady Anne’s self-assessment from her diary:

The colour of mine eyes were black, like my father, and the form and aspect of them was quick and lively, like my mother’s; the hair of my head was brown and very thick, and so long that it reached to the calf of my legs when I stood upright, with a peak of hair on my forehead and a dimple in my chin like my father, full cheeks and round face like my mother, and an exquisite shape of body resembling my father.

Low self-esteem was not her problem, and bless her for it because she was a genuine unstoppable badass. She spent 38 years fighting for the birthright her father had denied her after he bequeathed the title and estates to his brother instead of his 15-year-old daughter. She finally succeeded when she was 53 years old and her cousin Henry, son of the brother who had inherited, died. In the interim, she used her extensive education, meticulous record-keeping and impressive multi-tasking ability to run estates while her husbands gambled, drank and whored their lives away.

The metaphysical poet John Donne said of Lady Anne that “she knew well how to discourse of all things, from predestination to slea-silk.” (Slea-silk is a kind of floss silk that can be separated into filaments for use as embroidery thread.) She also knew how to get her way even if it meant spending decades in litigation or going head-to-head with Oliver Cromwell to rebuild Clifford properties damaged during the Civil War.

Read this entry to get the full scoop on Lady Anne’s colorful life and why she’s become a proto-feminist icon.


Da Vinci’s Codex on Flight of Birds at Smithsonian

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds will be on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., from September 13th through October 22nd as part of its The Wright Brothers & The Invention of the Aerial Age exhibition celebrating the 100th anniversary of Wilbur and Orville Wright’s historic first flight. The codex usually resides in the Bibliotecha Reale in Turin, Italy, and rarely travels, so this a special opportunity to see one of Leonardo’s most important notebooks in the context of the history of human flight.

The Codex on the Flight of Birds is a bound notebook of 18 two-sided pages that Leonardo covered with sketches and notes in his characteristic mirror script. In it he examines how birds fly, principles of aerodynamics and what kind of machine might be able to duplicate natural flight. Leonardo wrote it in 1505-6, almost 400 years before the Wright brothers’ flight, and he made prototypes of several of the machines drawn in the notebook, none of which worked, alas. Still, the concepts he explored — like how air acts like a fluid when it moves over a bird’s wing or how a bird’s center of gravity and center of pressure are different — are some of the building blocks of aeronautics.

The notebook is a modest eight by six inches in size and will be displayed in a custom case for conservation and security purposes. Since visitors obviously won’t have the chance to put their grubby hands on the codex itself, the museum has set up interactive stations with digitized versions of the notebook. People can leaf through every page using a touch screen and see the details in high resolution. A full English translation of every page will illuminate the backwards Renaissance Italian script.

“For Leonardo, art was the foundation of engineering, and engineering was an expression of art,” said Peter Jakab, chief curator of the museum. “The artist who painted the ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘The Last Supper’ was a Renaissance visionary who saw the modern world before it was realized.” Jakab, an expert in early flight, is also serving as the curator of the special exhibition.

“The exhibition of Leonardo’s Codex at the Smithsonian, including in an electronically readable and scrollable format, is truly a unique event,” said the director of the Biblioteca Reale, Giovanni Saccani. “In fact, the Codex has rarely been exhibited outside the library, although in 2012, a reproduction of the document together with Leonardo’s self-portrait were fastened on a microchip and carried to Mars aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover—leading Leonardo’s genius on a mission to conquer space.”

One of Leonardo’s drawings in another manuscript is of an ornithopter, a plane with wings that flap like a bird’s. A full-size model built from da Vinci’s sketch by an Italian manufacturer is also on display in this exhibition, along with the original Wright Flyer of 1903 in the Smithsonian’s permanent collection and reproductions of several other earlier and later Wright kites and aircraft.

Here’s a quick intro to the codex narrated by curator Peter Jakab:

Important note: Not specifically flight-related but nonetheless extremely cool is the Leonardo self-portrait that is second only to Vitruvian Man in its frequency of use in history-of-man-and-science collages and documentaries. It too is part of the Bibliotecha Reale’s extensive da Vinci collection, and they loaned it to the Smithsonian for this exhibit along with the Codex on the Flight of Birds.


Pre-Refomation Tudor tombs digitally recreated

Saturday, September 7th, 2013

University of Leicester researchers have recreated the original tombs of Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk and Henry VIII’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, later versions of which are now in St. Michael’s Church, in Framlingham, Suffolk. Using drawings in 16th century manuscripts, 3D laser scanning and 3D modeling, the team have recreated monuments that haven’t been seen in their original form since the Reformation of Henry VIII resulted in the destruction of the tombs’ original home: Thetford Priory.

Henry Fitzroy, son of Henry VIII and his mistress Lady Elizabeth Blount, was married to the 3rd Duke of Norfolk’s daughter Mary when he died of consumption on July 23rd, 1536, at the age of 17. By his father’s command, he was discretely buried in a lead coffin in a secret ceremony at Thetford Priory. His father-in-law arranged for the construction of an elaborate monument to mark the burial and later commissioned the same for himself.

The two monuments were still being built in Thetford Priory, the Cluniac monastic house where several dukes of Norfolk and related people were buried, in 1540 when it was dissolved. One of the last monasteries to be hit by the Dissolution, after its demise Thetford Priory was given to Thomas Howard by King Henry. Howard planned to keep the building intact and use it as an extremely fancy family mausoleum.

His plans were thwarted by his arrest for treason on December 12th, 1546. Thomas Howard was sent to the Tower. He was saved from execution by Henry VIII’s very conveniently timed death, but remained imprisoned in the Tower throughout the entire short reign of King Edward VI until finally being released and having his title and lands returned by Queen Mary in 1553. By then, Thetford Priory, which along with his other properties had been confiscated during Howard’s long imprisonment, was dilapidated and the Howard and Fitzroy tombs had been moved to St. Michael’s in Framlingham.

Thomas Howard and Henry FitzRoy’s original monuments were never finished. Parts of the structures were moved to Framlingham and integrated into new tombs built with different materials in a new style. Some pieces were left behind at Thetford where they would be rediscovered in archaeological excavations in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Dr Phillip Lindley, of the University of Leicester’s Department of the History of Art and Film, said: “Our exhibition studies the catastrophic effects of the Dissolution of Thetford Priory and of Henry VIII’s attempted destruction of Thomas Howard, third duke of Norfolk, on the ducal tomb-monuments at Thetford. [...]

“With English Heritage’s help, we have managed to reunite the excavated pieces, which are scattered across various different museums and stores. It is wonderful that the British Museum have also loaned their two sculptures from the group.

“Using 3D laser scanning and 3D prints, we have — virtually — dismantled the monuments at Framlingham and recombined them with the parts left at Thetford in 1540, to try to reconstruct the monuments as they were first intended, in a mixture of the virtual and the real.”

Here’s the 3D rendering of Thomas Howard’s original tomb monument next to the final version now at Framlingham:

Both feature the twelve Apostles in shell niches along all four sides of the monument, a final flowering of Catholic motifs and aesthetics in an England that was saying goodbye to all that in a most wrenching, brutal manner. The saints are different, or at least in different places, but I don’t really see any other major changes.

Unfortunately there are no pictures available of the 3D rendering of FitzRoy’s original monument. The final version in St. Michael’s today is the polar opposite of Howard’s in terms of its devotional motifs. It’s very secular, festooned with family heraldry which was particularly important to Henry as an illegitimate son.


Ostrich egg globe may be oldest with New World

Sunday, August 25th, 2013

Figure 1. The early sixteenth-century engraved ostrich egg globe among other ostrich eggs. Photo: Washington Map Society.

Recent research has found that an elaborately carved globe made out of the sealed-together lower halves of two ostrich eggs is the oldest known globe to include the New World. It’s also the earliest engraved globe and the oldest post-Columbian globe known to survive. Last but certainly not least, it’s one of only two globes in the world to feature an epic sentence that people think was common in ancient and medieval maps but in fact is only known exist on these two globes: “HIC SVNT DRACONES,” the famous “here be dragons.”

The ostrich egg globe was purchased by a private institution that has chosen to remain anonymous at last year’s London Map Fair. The dealer who sold it claimed it had been part of “an important European collection” since it was acquired after World War II. Dr. Stefaan Missinne, a Belgian real estate developer, map collector and published scholar of articles on ivory and silver globes, spent the past year researching the globe, consulting with more than 100 experts in his investigation of the artifact’s date, origin, sources, materials and construction. In addition to extensive documentary research, Missinne submitted the globe to scientific analyses including computer tomography, radiocarbon dating, regression analysis and x-ray fluorescence analysis. Missinne published the announcement of the globe’s discovery and the results of his research in the latest issue of The Portolan, a cartography journal published by the Washington Map Society.

The globe is around 11 centimeters (4.33 inches) in diameter, about the size of a grapefruit. Its maker cut the bottom halves of two ostrich eggs to make a proper sphere out of them. The map was carved into the individual eggshells and the lines traced with a blue-black color. X-ray fluorescence analysis found high levels of iron and traces of barium in the colored parts which indicates the engraver did not use paint but rather iron gall ink, perhaps mixed with an indigo blue derived from irises. Once engraved and inked, the two and then the two pieces were joined using the natural polymer gommalacca (shellac).

Figure 4. Asia on the ostrich egg globe, showing the large peninsula jutting southward at the right which is evidence of the influence of Henricus Martellus. Photo: Washington Map Society.

The shells themselves are primarily composed of calcium carbonate (CaCO3), as are all bird eggshells, but CT scans found that they’ve lost 50% of their calcium bone density compared to a new ostrich egg. Loss of moisture over time causes this in eggshells just like it does in human bones. By examining a random selection of ostrich eggs at the Museum of Natural History in Vienna, Missinne found that unmounted ostrich eggs lose about 10% of their density every 100 years until they have no moisture left to lose. Regression analysis on the ostrich egg globe found therefore that the egg was new about 500 years ago, giving it a creation date of ca. 1500.

This could not be confirmed with radiocarbon dating. The counterweight material in the bottom of the globe was tested and found to be of fossil origin and 49,310 years (+/– 620 years) old. This is probably because the bottom shell was filled with an organic fossil resin, commonly used as varnish in the Renaissance. Missinne decided not sample the eggshell itself because, according to University of Heidelberg professor Dr. Bernd Kromer, “without knowing the geographical origin of the ostrich egg material and the specific living area of the mother bird, it is very difficult or even impossible to estimate a C-14 date for the egg because of possible interference resulting from the bird’s eating other sources of carbon.”

Missinne turned to historical research to confirm the date. After all, the egg halves could be 500 years old but the engraving relatively new. A globe expert noted that the ostrich shell globe shares many significant similarities with the New York Public Library’s Hunt-Lenox Globe, a small engraved copper sphere from 1504-1506, that until now has held the title of the oldest globe to include the New World. Not only does the Lenox Globe share the overall design of the countries and continents with the ostrich egg globe, but it is identical in minute details like the waves of the ocean, the outline of islands and the Latin nomenclature and script and, most awesomely, in the presence over southeast Asia of the sentence “HIC SVNT DRACONES.”

This degree of similarity could not have been created by human hands working on two different pieces. Missinne concludes that the Lenox Globe was not directly engraved but rather was cast from the ostrich egg globe. That means the latter has to predate the former. The major differences between the two globes are the size, shape and the details at the equator. The Lenox Globe is an accurate sphere, whereas the egg has some irregularities. The Lenox is 11.2 centimeters in diameter, so slightly larger than the ostrich egg globe. Lastly, the details along the equator are crisp on the Lenox Globe while they’re obscured by the gommalacca joinery on the ostrich egg.

We know the egg has shrunk a little over time which explains the discrepancy in size and the unevenness in the sphere. The Lenox Globe is crisp along the equator because it was made from two half-spheres of copper alloy cast from the two half shells after they were carved but before they were joined. The other small imperfections in the eggshell were corrected on the bronze during the finishing process. Missinne believes the Lenox Globe was cast directly from a plaster of Paris mold made from each of the two pieces of the ostrich eggshell. The size discrepancy supports this hypothesis. Calculating back from the 50% density loss, the ostrich egg globe was about 11.4 centimeters in diameter when it was new. Direct casting typically results in 1.5% of shrinkage from model to cast, which is consistent with the Lenox Globe’s diameter of 11.2 centimeters.

As for the map itself, Missinne identified several sources for its geographical information. Ptolemy’s Geographia was used for the maps and nomenclature of Europe, Africa and Asia. The shape of the southern peninsula of Asia is very similar to those in maps of world by Henricus Martellus, a German cartographer who lived and worked in Florence in the late 15th century. The bestselling memoirs of Marco Polo were the probably source for Japan, called “ZIPANCRI” on the ostrich shell map. Information about the New World shows the influence of travel logs by Christopher Columbus, Portuguese explorers Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real, Portuguese navigator Pedro Álvares Cabral and the Italian after whom the continent would be named, Amerigo Vespucci.

Figure 6. The New World on the ostrich egg globe, which bears three names: “TERRA DE BRAZIL,” “MVNDVS NOVVS,” and “TERRA SANCTAE CRVCIS.” Photo: Washington Map Society.

The New World is rudimentary indeed. There is no North America, just a few islands. ISABEL (Cuba) and SPAGNOLLA (Hispaniola) are named; others are not. South America is labelled TERRA DE BRAZIL (Brazil), MVNDVS NOVVS (New World) and TERRA SANCTAE CRVSIS (the Land of the Holy Cross).

There is no mark or any identifying information about the maker. Missinne thinks it was made in Florence and speculates about a highly tenuous possible connection to Leonardo da Vinci’s workshop based on some globe sketches and sphere surface area calculations in the Codex Atlanticus, but there’s no solid evidence of who made the ostrich egg globe and where. Florence is a likely candidate as it was a center of cartography in the Renaissance and was awash in all that Medici banking money for art patronage, but scholars think the Lenox Globe may have had a Parisian origin and the two globes must have been together in order for the Hunt-Lenox to have been cast from the ostrich egg.