Archive for the ‘Renaissance’ Category

Louvre and Prado Mona Lisas as stereoscopic image

Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

Two years ago, the Prado Museum in Madrid announced that a painting long thought to be a relatively unremarkable copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was actually painted contemporaneously with the original, likely by a student following the master as he drew and painted the portrait. Infrared reflectography found that the 18th century black overpaint obscured a hilly background almost the same as the original. When the black overpaint and varnish were removed from the Prado’s copy, further infrared and X-ray analysis found underdrawings and alterations from the tracing and all the way through the upper paint levels that matched those in 2004 scans of the Louvre Mona Lisa. That means from the initial sketches to the changes and corrections as painting progressed, the Prado copy followed along at each stage.

That’s not to say they’re identical, even underneath the cracked and yellowed varnish that darkens and discolors the original. Two German researchers studied both paintings, selecting landmark points (like the tip of her nose, say, or a particular feature in the mountains) and mapping the path from the landmarks to the observer’s sight line. These trajectories tracked perspective changes between the two versions.

They found that the background of the Prado painting, while virtually identical in shape, is 10% more zoomed in than the Louvre version’s. The expansion doesn’t follow a perspectival pattern you’d expect if the landscape were painted from life, which suggests the mountains in the background and the loggia right behind her were painted from a flat studio backdrop. The trajectories illustrated a number of perspective changes in the painting of the figure, particularly dense in Mona Lisa’s hands and head.

With the comparative perspective data, the researchers were able to calculate the positions of the canvases relative to the sitter and then they made a model of Leonardo’s studio during the painting of the Mona Lisa with Playmobil minifigs.

The original (labeled 1st) is further back and to the right of the Prado copy, and the horizontal distance between the versions is about 69.3 millimeters. The average distance between the eyes of Italian males is 64.1mm, a statistically insignificant difference which suggested to the researchers the possibility that the two paintings might have been deliberately positioned to be a stereoscopic pair which when viewed together give the impression of three dimensions

Carbon points out that Da Vinci “intensively worked on the 3D issue.” In addition, in inventory lists there were hints of the existence of two “Mona Lisa” paintings on his property at the same time, and that he owned colored spectacles, Carbon said.

This evidence “might indicate that he did not only [think] about the 3D issue theoretically but in a very practical sense in terms of experiments,” Carbon added. Also, when looking at the original colors of the two paintings the only real difference was in the sleeves, in which they are reddish in one version and greenish in the other. “This could be a hint to Leonardo’s approach to look at the two La Giocondas through red-green (red-cyan) spectacles,” he said, similar to those one might don to watch a 3D movie.

That’s a lot of speculation and there are significant counterpoints refuting this hypothesis. The hands work as a stereoscopic pair because the trajectory differences are horizontal. Most of the trajectories on the upper portion of Mona Lisa’s body like her face and hair have a vertical orientation. Still, Leonardo did write about binocular vision and depth perception, so it’s possible he had some idea there could be a dimensional payoff in the positioning of the two canvases.

You can read the whole paper here (pdf) to get the fully fleshed out argument with math and everything. It could all be pure imagination and it would be worth it for the minifig studio alone, as far as I’m concerned.

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Wadsworth Atheneum acquires Artemisia Gentileschi self-portrait

Sunday, March 30th, 2014

The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, the oldest public art museum in the United States, has acquired a rare self-portrait of Baroque master Artemisia Gentileschi. Self-Portrait as a Lute Player was the leading lot in Christie’s Old Master Paintings auction on January 29th. With a pre-sale estimate of $3-5 million, the painting failed to meet the reserve and did not sell at the auction. Christie’s then offered it to the Wadsworth Atheneum which last December received a $9.6 million donation from the Charles H. Schwartz Fund for European Art earmarked for the acquisition of pre-19th century art. The final price the museum paid has not been released, but curator Oliver Tostmann says it was significantly less than the low estimate of $3 million.

Self-Portrait as a Lute Player is the first work by Artemisia Gentileschi in a New England museum. It’s also the first painting in the museum’s Baroque Italian art collection that was done by a woman. It will join works by her father, Orazio Gentileschi, and by Caravaggio, the great innovator of the age who was a strong influence on Artemisia’s mature work. Orazio is represented by a painting of Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (1621-24), a subject that Artemisia returned to repeatedly in what may be her most famous and dramatic works. The Wadsworth Atheneum’s Caravaggio is Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy painted in 1594.

The Morgan Memorial Building, home of the Wadsworth’s European collection, is currently in the last two years of a five-year refurbishment project so Artemisia’s Lute Player won’t be on display right away. When the building reopens in Fall of 2015, she will be the centerpiece of the inaugural exhibition. The premier members of the museum’s Society of Daniel Wadsworth will be given a special preview of the work this spring (you can join, but it’ll cost ya $2,500.)

One of no more than three known self-portraits that are thought to have been painted by Artemisia Gentileschi (the others are Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting in the Royal Collection in London and the Allegory of Inclination, a fresco on the ceiling of the art gallery in Casa Buonarroti in Florence) is probably the most recognizable), Self-Portrait as a Lute Player was painted around 1616-1617 when Artemisia was 25 years old and had just been inducted into the prestigious Accademia del Disegno in Florence, the first woman ever to be accepted into that august assemblage of artists.

Her patrons included Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, a great-nephew of the great Michelangelo, and Cosimo II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. It’s likely that the latter commissioned Lute Player since it appears in the inventory of the Villa Medici at Artimino in 1638, only 20 or so years after it was painted. The inventory describes it as “A picture on canvas 1 1/2 braccia high and 1 1/4 braccia wide in a black frame bordered in gold, the portrait of Artemisia playing a lute painted by her own hand.” (A Florentine braccio is 58.4 centimeters, which would make the portrait 87.6 cm x 73 cm when in fact it’s 77.5 x 71.8 cm, but it was probably trimmed by idiots over the centuries. You can see the bottom edge crops the arm and lute awkwardly.)

Her success at the Florentine court was unprecedented for a woman and was all more astonishing considering the personal horror that brought her to the city. In 1611, when she was 17 years old, Artemisia Gentileschi was raped by Agostino Tassi, a colleague of her father’s and full-on psycho stalker who had already raped at least two women (his sister-in-law and one of his wives, the latter of whom disappeared and was probably murdered by bandits Tassi hired). The rape trial lasted seven months and all except a few final pages of the transcripts have survived. Artemisia, per standard legal practice in the Papal States at that time for all woman who accused someone of rape, was tortured with thumbscrews to prove she wasn’t lying. Tassi was convicted but only served eight months in prison after the judge pardoned him.

Even though Tassi’s testimony — denials coupled with completely fictitious claims about Artemisia’s purported promiscuity which fit handily into the blame-the-victim template that still haunts the halls of justice today — was blatantly false and widely seen as such, the scandal of the trial generated so much malicious gossip against her that a few months after Tassi’s conviction, she was hastily married to Pierantonio Stiattesi, a mediocre Florentine artist, and left Rome with him to start afresh in Florence where she supported them with her commissions. Her husband proved to be a deadbeat who ran up huge debts and forced her to leave Florence with creditors baying for blood. She dumped the bum and moved back to Rome in 1621 without him.

Her immense gifts have been recognized by art critics from the beginning, but for many centuries the rape trial overshadowed her talent. It was 20th century feminist analysis that brought Artemisia Gentileschi back into the spotlight to take her rightful place among the greatest artists of her era.

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Anne of Brittany’s heart reliquary returns to Blois

Monday, March 24th, 2014

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Anne of Brittany, twice queen of France and the last ruler of an independent Brittany. Over the course of the year there will be a number of cultural events dedicated to the memory of this erudite and strong-willed duchess who fought her entire life for Breton independence with her body as the final battlefield.

That’s not entirely metaphoric either. Anne was her father Duke Francis II of Brittany’s only surviving heir. He tried desperately to marry her to someone anti-French to ensure the duchy would not end up annexed by France, but after he lost the Battle of Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier in 1488, he was forced to agree to a peace treaty that required the French king’s approval of Anne’s marriage. Francis died a month later, making Anne Duchess of Brittany at 11 years old.

Now obviously she had advisors — her father’s will left guardianship of her to John of Rieux, Marshal of Brittany, historian and diplomat Philippe, Count of Commines, and Anne’s governess Madame Laval — but even at so young an age she took the reins of power firmly in her own hands. When Anne of Beaujeau, regent for her brother King Charles VIII of France, took advantage of the child duchess’ perceived weakness and attacked Brittany, Anne reacted decisively. She appointed her most trusted councilors to government positions, convened the States General of Brittany, pawned her own jewelry to raise much-needed funds for the depleted treasury, minted viable coinage out of silver-tipped leather and called on the King of England, Henry VII, to help her fend off the French.

The English turned out to be slow in sending help, but Austria and Spain sent troops to her aid. Meanwhile, the question of who she would marry became ever more pressing. Like her father, Anne cared first and foremost about which suitor could guarantee Breton independence. She did have her limits, though, and refused to marry Alain I, Lord of Albret, who had fought for Francis II against the French, because she considered him a scary brute (which by all accounts he was). Albret went into a rage at her refusal and sent troops to claim her by force. Anne, still a pre-teen at this point, met Albret’s forces head-on, mounting a horse and leading her archers against them.

That wouldn’t be the last time she took to the saddle to confront a bully. When she decided to accept the suit of Maximilian I of Austria, future Holy Roman Emperor, the man her father had wanted her to marry who she considered to be the strongest ally against France, Albret occupied Nantes and handed the castle over to the French. She and a small cadre of loyal barons (John of Rieux and Phillipe de Commines had sided with Albret because they believed he was the only hope for an independent Brittany) and some Spanish and German mercenaries rode up to the walls of Nantes and demanded they allow her entry as their sovereign. After two weeks of negotiations went nowhere, Anne’s party left only to be followed by Rieux and his soldiers. She started him down too, turning around to face him and excoriate him for his disloyalty. Her bravery was so admired that Rieux let her go.

The marriage to Maximilian did not solve her problems. France considered it a violation of the treaty since it was done without the approval of the king. Charles VIII besieged the city of Rennes and took it. Austria was of no help because Maximilian was busy fighting in Hungary. With France occupying four of Brittany’s main cities, Brittany’s nobles divided into two factions and money tight, Anne agreed to marry Charles. Since her marriage to Maximilian had been done by proxy (Maximilian sent an envoy to act in his lieu and they did this weird ceremonial thing where he put one bare knee on the bed to symbolize a consummation that never actually happened), it was easily annulled.

Marriage to Anne was the means by which Charles planned to finally take Brittany for France, if not in his lifetime then shortly thereafter. He put a clause in the marriage contract ensuring that whichever spouse outlived the other would rule Brittany. Just to cover all his bases, another clause stipulated that if he pre-deceased Anne, she would marry the next king of France, thereby giving France a second bite at the Brittany apple.

Married at 14, Anne would bear Charles seven children, none of whom survived, before he himself died when she was 21. As per the contract, she was to marry his heir, Louis XII, but he was already married. She told him she’d go through with it if he managed to get his marriage annulled within a year, then returned to Brittany and set about the business of ruling, something Charles had not allowed her to do when they were married. Much to Anne’s chagrin, Louis XII was able to get that annulment from Pope Alexander VI (aka Rodrigo Borgia) in exchange for some French estates for his son Cesare. Thus the Dowager Queen of France became Queen of France for a second time, the only woman ever to bear that distinction.

Anne of Brittany’s courts were centers of learning and art. She sponsored poets and scholars who introduced Renaissance humanism to France. She commissioned the first Renaissance style sculpture in France: the exceptionally beautiful tomb of her father, Francis II, and mother, Margaret of Foix, now in the Nantes Cathedral. The four cardinal virtues grace each corner of the tomb and the figure of Prudence bears Anne’s face. Four books of hours commissioned by her have survived, all of them masterpieces of illumination done after print was already established in France. You can leaf through the Grandes Heures of Anne of Brittany on the Bibliothèque Nationale de France website, and it’s worth it for the incredibly accurate illuminations of 337 different plants in the page borders alone.

Anne died desperately young of kidney stones just a few weeks short of her 37th birthday. She had at least seven more children with Louis, although only four survived their births and only two of them, daughters Claude and Renée, survived their mother. To her last breath she struggled against the seismic forces driving Brittany into French hands. With none of their male children surviving, Louis had betrothed Claude, Anne’s eldest daughter and heir, to his cousin and the heir to the French throne Francis of Angoulême. Anne knew that Claude’s inheritance and marriage would sound the death knell of Breton independence, so she left the duchy to her younger daughter Renée in her will, but Louis just ignored it.

A few months after Anne’s death, Claude and Francis married and a few months after that Louis died. Francis I was crowned on what would have been Anne’s 38th birthday. He made his and Claude’s son heir to the Duchy of Brittany and from then on, it was a province of France.

After her death, Anne was buried in the Basilica of Saint Denis, as was traditional for French sovereigns, but she left instructions in her will that her heart be removed and sent to Brittany. A beautiful gold reliquary was made to hold her heart, inscribed in old French with the following dedication: “In this little vessel of fine gold, pure and clean, rests a heart greater than any lady in the world ever had. Anne was her name, twice queen in France, Duchess of the Bretons, royal and sovereign.” It was first placed in her father’s tomb as she had willed and later moved to Saint Pierre Cathedral in Nantes.

The reliquary had a close brush with oblivion during the Revolution as part of the orgy of anti-monarchical destruction. In 1792 Anne’s heart was thrown away like so much trash and the reliquary ordered to be melted down. Thankfully it never happened. The artifact was kept in the Bibliothèque Nationale until in 1819 it was returned to Nantes. Its permanent home has been the Dobrée Museum since the late 19th century.

Now the reliquary is ushering in Anne of Brittany season with an exhibition at the Royal Château of Blois where she died. The exhibition brings together the reliquary with contemporary descriptions and illuminations of her hugely elaborate 40-day funeral.

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Stolen Rembrandt found after 15 years

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

Rembrandt has the dubious distinction of being the most stolen old master, with 337 works of his listed on the Art Loss Register‘s database of stolen or lost art. One of those works, L’enfant à la Bulle de Savon (Child with a Soap Bubble), has been recovered after 15 years.

The painting was stolen from the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Draguignan, a town about 50 miles from Nice in France’s southeastern Provence region, on Bastille Day (July 14th) of 1999. Burglars broke in through the municipal library adjoining the museum while a military parade of tanks and armoured vehicles rumbled by. The alarm went off, but by the time the police arrived, the thieves and Child with a Soap Bubble were gone.

The date of the theft is almost poetic when you consider that the museum’s extensive collection of art and antiquities was seeded primarily by confiscations from aristocrats during the French Revolution. It’s a small town, but in 1790 Draguignan was made the prefecture (administrative capital) of the department of Var, so many of the goodies confiscated in the area were collected there, ultimately giving the modest town a very impressive museum. The Rembrandt painting was confiscated in 1794 from the Château de Valbelle, a medieval castle near the town of Tourves (40 miles west of Draguignan) that was used by the Revolutionary government as a hospital in 1792 and was sacked for its treasures a year later leaving it in ruins today.

After nearly 15 years with no leads, the Central Office for the Fight against Traffic in Cultural Goods (OCBC) in conjunction with the Nice police found the painting and made two arrests in just one day. On Monday, March 17th, they received a tip that a shady deal was scheduled to go down in a hotel the next day. On Tuesday, March 18th, they arrested two men, one in a building (presumably the hotel), the other in a car. One of them had the painting in his possession.

The men are 46 and 53 years old. One was formerly an insurance salesman and both of them were already known to the authorities as petty criminals. They have both reportedly confessed to their roles in the crime and have been charged with concealing a theft and conspiracy.

They weren’t charged with the theft itself, however. In a shocking turn of events, the actual thief has now stepped forward. Perhaps fearing that he was about to be snitched upon, the man turned himself into the police Wednesday on the advice of his attorney.

“He wants to draw a line under the matter. He is ready to take responsibility for his actions,” said his lawyer Franck Dupouy. “He now has a settled family life, he has children and a job, and therefore wishes to conclude this matter.”

The man kept the painting at his home up until 15 days ago, Dupouy said, and had “wrapped it with great care”.

His client “never earned a single centime” from the sale of the painting. “He was cheated,” he said, without explaining further.

Cheated by Fric and Frac there 15 days ago? Because they didn’t earn a single centime either since they were busted trying to make the sale. Anyway, whatever he’s babbling about, he did take reasonable good care of the painting. The museum’s current curator Jeanine Bussièresa and her predecessor Régis Fabre who was curator at the time of the theft examined the painting to confirm it was the one stolen and they found it in good condition. It’s missing its frame, but other than that, it hasn’t suffered from spending a decade and a half wrapped up in this guy’s house.

The museum is delighted to have one of its most important paintings back, although there are questions about its attribution to Rembrandt. Since the painting’s disappearance in 1999, new technologies have developed to authenticate works. Now that he’s home safe and sound, Child with a Soap Bubble will be analyzed for conservation and to determine whether it was painted by the Dutch master himself or one of his students.

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Voyage to the center of Piranesi’s imaginary prison

Sunday, March 16th, 2014

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the son of stonemason and nephew of an engineer, first trained under that uncle as an architect maintaining the intricate waterworks of his native Venice. Even though he only ever got one job as an architect in his all too short life, he never lost the passion for buildings. It was as an artist that he made his name. He learned etching in Rome and combined his artistic talent with his favorite subject matter to create views of the city that became popular among Grand Tourists. Piranesi’s etchings of ancient Roman architecture were not only captured with the meticulous understanding of the builder, but were drawn with such powerful chiaroscuro dynamism that Goethe, for one, who first came to know the city through Piranesi’s books, was actually disappointed when he saw the real thing.

Piranesi didn’t limit himself to depictions of Rome and its ruins for the pilgrims and tourists. In 1745, he began work on an entirely new vision, combining his artistic style and understanding of ancient monumental construction to create a unique group of etchings called Carceri d’Invenzione (Imaginary Prisons). The imaginary part is that they bear no relation to any actual prisons of the era which were mostly cramped dungeon cells in the towers and palaces of the Church and aristocracy. Piranesi’s invented prisons were cavernous labyrinths peppered with intimidatingly suggestive mechanisms where human figures are barely present and dwarfed by their surroundings.

The first edition of Carceri d’Invenzione was published in 1750. It was a collection of 14 untitled etchings drawn in a rough sketch-like style. You can see all 14 of the original Carceri in order here. Ten years later, he would return to his imaginary prisons and do a major revamp of the etchings. He added two new ones and fleshed out the others with even more complex architectural features, increased contrasts of shadow and light, arches, staircases and vaults that lead nowhere.

The prison etchings were part of an artistic tradition called the capriccio, a fantasy aggregation of structures and art works that doesn’t exist in real life. These sorts of imaginary viewpoints were popular with tourists because they compressed the “must see” ruins and artworks into one painting. What Piranesi did with the form, however, was entirely new. The prisons were expressions of visions in his mind, not of tourist bullet points. They wouldn’t be purchased as pre-photography postcards, but the prisons’ tenebrous atmosphere and emotional impact were highly influential for the Romantics of the late 18th/early 19th centuries. The irrational elements like infinitely regressing passageways would later inspire the Surrealists and if Escher’s Relativity doesn’t owe Piranesi a huge debt, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.

In 2010, the Sale del Convitto in Venice held an exhibition Le Arti di Piranesi: architetto, incisore, antiquario, vedutista, designer (The Arts of Piranesi: architect, engraver, antiquarian, vedutista, designer) to coincide with the Venice Biennale of Architecture. The Carceri etchings played a central part in the show, and graphic artist Gregoire Dupond of Factum Arte brought them to virtual life with an absolutely riveting animation. He took the 16 prints of the second edition and transformed them into a three-dimensional space so viewers can travel deep into Piranesi’s imagination.

It’s 12 minutes long and it’s nothing short of riveting.

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British Library acquires Revenge of Jesus play

Monday, March 10th, 2014

The British Library has acquired an exquisite illuminated manuscript of Mystère de la Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur Ihesu Crist (Mystery of the Vengeance of Our Lord Jesus Christ), a mystery play written by Benedictine monk Eustache Marcadé (d. 1440) some time before 1414 that was enormously popular in the 15th and 16th centuries. It tells a highly fictionalized story of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the 1st century A.D. as Jesus’ revenge for his crucifixion. It is 14,972 verses long and was performed over the course of four days in elaborate productions that included special effects like flying angels and a leprous Vespasian miraculously healed on stage.

Only two copies of the play are known to have survived and this one is the only complete one. The other copy, now in the Municipal Library of Arras, is 1020 verses shorter, an abridged version that took only three days to stage. The Arras copy is also illustrated with pen and ink drawings, while the British Library’s edition is illustrated with 20 miniatures painted in rich color and vibrant detail by Flanders master Loyse Liédet.

Commissioned by Philip the Good (1396-1467), Duke of Burgundy, Count of Flanders, Artois and Franche-Comté, around 1465, the book is thought to be a record of an actual performance of the Mystère de la Vengeance that was staged in Abbeville in 1483. Abbeville had recently become part of Philip the Good’s territory and it’s very likely that he was in the audience. Wanting a top quality copy of the play, the duke commissioned Liédet to do the art and scribe Yvonnet le Jeune to write out the text in beautiful calligraphy (get a load of the A in Amen). Liédet’s illuminations are thought to be accurate depictions of the play as performed, an important document of medieval theatrical productions from the 15th century.

Thanks to the ducal library’s extensive record-keeping, we know exactly who was paid how much for which work and how much the materials cost (see this excellent British Library blog entry for details). The total expenditure was an exorbitant 51 pounds and 19 shillings. For comparison, a panel triptych of the Last Supper commissioned in 1464 cost £33 6s. 8d. and Philip’s Master of the Cannon made six pounds a year. This was a luxury edition and then some.

After the death of Philip the Good, it remained in the Burgundian ducal collection until the 17th century when it was acquired by the Marquis de La Vieuville. In the 18th century it was split into two volumes and rebound, but despite the alteration the condition was and is pristine. The book made its way to England in the late 18th century, becoming part of the collection of John Ker, Duke of Roxburghe, whose library was considered the greatest of his age. In the famous 1812 sale of the Roxburghe estate, it was third most expensive lot, purchased by William George Spencer Cavendish (1790-1858), the sixth Duke of Devonshire.

It remained in the library at Chatsworth, seat of the Dukes of Devonshire, for two hundred years. On December 5th, 2012, the Mystère de la Vengeance was put up for auction at Sotheby’s, but the high bid of £3.9 million just failed to meet the reserve of £4 million ($6,442,400) so it didn’t sell.

Thankfully, they decided not to sell it at auction again. Instead it was acquired by the government under the Acceptance in Lieu (AIL) Scheme, a program that allows important works of cultural patrimony to be transferred to the state in lieu of inheritance tax. When the market value of the object surpasses the amount of the tax, the owner is paid the difference which is what happened here. The British Library raised the undisclosed amount with grants and donations.

Both volumes of the play have already been digitized and uploaded to the British Library’s outstanding digital manuscripts site: volume one, volume two. To leaf through the book, click on the bindings image and arrow through. It’s very much worth it to zoom in on the illuminations. They are gorgeous and in a very unique style.

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Mummy in Germany is murdered Inca woman

Friday, February 28th, 2014

A mummy that has been in the collection of the Bavarian State Archaeological Collection in Munich has been identified as a young Inca woman whose skull was smashed shortly before death. When the mummy came to the museum from the Anatomical Institute of Ludwig-Maximilians University in 1970, all documentation of its origin was lost. It was first recorded at the university in 1904, but its movements before then were unknown. Because of the mummy’s dark brown skin, it was thought to be a bog body, possibly recovered from the Dachauer moor outside of Munich. The plaited hair, the fetal position (minus the lower legs which were damaged by bombing in World War II), the well-preserved bone tissue all argued against a central European bog origin, however.

The mummy has been on display at the State Archaeological Collection since the donation. To finally identify the mummy’s origin, physical condition and cause of death, the museum decided to do a full forensic anthropological examination. They took CT scans of the entire body, did stable and unstable isotope analysis of the teeth, examined tissue samples microscopically, tested ancient DNA and reconstructed any injuries found.

Radiocarbon dating found the mummy dates to 1451–1642 A.D. and was between 20 and 25 years old at the time of death. Stable isotope analysis revealed that she ate maize and seafood and was from the Peruvian/Northern Chilean border along the coast. Her hair was dark in life (it has faded over the centuries) and her braids are tied with fiber bundles made from wavy camelid hair, a pattern characteristic of New World camelids (alpacas or llamas). Her skull also testifies to her origin: she has a Wormian or “Inca” bone at her occiput, an extra wedge of bone between sutures that is found in native South American populations but not European ones, and the flattened back of her skull is typical of Inca intentional cranial deformation.

It was the skull that held the biggest surprise. She lost her front teeth after death and there’s a small wound on her forehead, but other than that, from the outside, the head looks intact. The CT scans revealed impressions are vastly deceiving. She was a victim of massive blunt force trauma to the skull. her forehead, upper skull and face were completely staved in. The upper jaw was broken. Large chunks of bone are lying against the back of the skull, along with the remains of brain tissue and possible sites of blood accumulation.

This was a perimortem injury, inflicted around the time of death, not damage done to the body after death. Terrace-like shapes on the inside back of the skull suggest a rounded weapon was used to beat her face in by someone standing in front of her. How she might have encountered this brutal skull-collapsing fate is unclear. Ritual murder is one possible explanation, but without a burial context, it’s probably unprovable. Osteological evidence suggests she lived fairly well — her dental wear was low and her joints and vertebra show no sign of stressful labor — but she was ill. Thickening of some of her heart and large intestine tissue and DNA found in rectal tissue indicate she suffered from a chronic parasitic infection by the protozoan Trypanosoma cruzi, known as Chagas disease, since infancy. Perhaps her lifetime debilitating illness made her a candidate for sacrifice. If she’s going to die anyway, goes the logic, might as well give her demise religious significance.

As far as how she got from Peru to Germany, researchers believe the mummy was one of two brought to Germany by Princess Theresa von Bayern of Bavaria at the turn of the century. Princess Theresa was the daughter of Prince Regent Luitpold who ruled Bavaria while King Ludwig II, the great palace builder sometimes known as Ludwig the Mad, was sidelined by purported mental illness. In her youth she and her cousin Otto, Ludwig’s brother and successor, were in love but could not marry because of Otto’s own struggles with mental illness and the political complications of her father being regent. She never married, dedicating her life to educating herself (women were not allowed to attend university) in the natural sciences.

In 1898, Princess Theresa went on an expedition to Peru. According to her records, she carried two mummies with her back to Bavaria. There are no records of where she installed the mummies. She died in 1925, leaving her extensive collection of South American anthropological remains to the State Museum of Ethnology in Munich. Since this mummy appears in the Anatomical Institute records in 1904, just six years after her Peruvian expedition, if it was one of the Princess Theresa mummies, she probably donated it to them directly.

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Rare Edward VI shilling found in Canada

Monday, January 27th, 2014

Retired security system specialist Bruce Campbell (no relation to Ash from Evil Dead) was looking for Victorian-era coins and artifacts along the Gorge Waterway in Victoria, British Columbia, on December 13th, 2013, when he found a coin buried three or four inches deep in the mud flats at low tide. It was so caked in the area’s characteristic blue clay that he couldn’t identify it. He posted pictures of his finds — an 1891 Canadian nickel, a 1960s a silver dime, an early Canadian penny and the mystery coin — on the Official Canadian Metal Detecting forum where he is a moderator. It was the clay-caked coin that aroused the most interest of the forum denizens, some of whom recognized it as a rare silver shilling from the brief reign of King Edward VI, son of Henry VIII and half-brother of Elizabeth I.

The coin is one millimeter thick and 33 millimeters in diameter and was minted at the Tower of London between 1551 and 1553. On the obverse is a bust of the young king crowned facing left. It is inscribed EDWARD VI D G AGL FRA Z HIB REX (Edward VI by the Grace of God King of England, France and Ireland). On the reverse is a shield bearing the royal coat of arms over a long cross fourchee, a heraldic term for a cross where the end of each arm is forked. The inscription reads POSUI DEU ADIUTORE MEUM (I have made God my helper).

This is a significant coin for many reasons. It was one of the earliest shillings — the 12 pence coin was called the Testoon when it was first minted — and it’s the first one that was made of sterling silver instead of base. Edward VI restored the silver standard in 1551, increasing the silver content from a paltry 0.250 (meaning 25% silver by mass) to 0.925. The sterling silver shilling was popular and widely circulated, but that popularity means surviving coins tend to be heavily worn, trimmed or damaged.

The one Bruce Campbell found is in quite good condition. The dense blue clay of the Gorge is a low oxygen environment which makes it an excellent preserver of 500-year-old coins. Campbell attempted to remove the mud crust by cleaning the coin first in olive oil. When that didn’t work, he soaked it in lemon juice for two days and then wrapped it in aluminium foil for a half hour. The crust came off, revealing the details of the design. Obligatory disclaimer: although the results in this case appear to be okay, don’t clean things! Let the experts handle it. You could so easily damage the artifact, ruin its market value and historic patina. Also, you never know what’s in the stuff that looks like dirt.

The coin’s condition and discovery spot has led some to speculate that it might have made its way to Victoria via Sir Francis Drake who may or may not have visited Victoria on a secret mission in 1579. The main evidence of this mission appears to be two other English coins from the 16th century found elsewhere in British Columbia, which is not exactly solid ground considering that coins can travel at any time after they’re minted.

It doesn’t need a Drake association to be awesome. It’s the oldest coin found on the west coast of Canada and it’s an important coin in English history. Now it has drawn the attention of the Royal B.C. Museum. Curator Grant Keddie has made contact with Mr. Campbell and plans to examine the shilling. He’s interested in the Drake theory and will test the material to attempt to discover how long the coin has been in Victoria. Keddie would like other metal detector enthusiasts and mudlarks “to take another look at things they may have found here that are not identified — such as ceramics or glassware — that might date to the same time period as the coin.”

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Goldfinch eclipses Girl with a Pearl Earring at Frick

Monday, January 13th, 2014

A little goldfinch is giving a pretty girl with a pearl earring a serious run for her money at New York’s Frick Collection, and literature is the catalyst. The Goldfinch, a small, unassuming 1654 panel painting by Dutch master Carel Fabritius, has become the surprise breakout star of the Frick’s Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis exhibition. Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece Girl with a Pearl Earring was expected to be the number one box office draw. That’s how it was at every other stop in the year-long American tour. At the Frick, the last leg of the tour, her beautiful face got its own room, the cover of the catalogue and 99% of the products in the museum shop.

But a random coincidence would defy expectations. The October 22nd opening of the Frick’s show just happened to coincide exactly with the publication date of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt , a novel in which Fabritius’ Goldfinch plays a hugely significant central role. Neither the author, the publisher nor the museum had any idea of this synchronicity. It took Tartt 11 years to write the book; she got the idea 20 years ago when she saw a copy of the painting on a trip to Amsterdam. The Goldfinch was unmoving in the Mauritshuis throughout most of those decades. Nobody at the Frick was aware that Fabritius’ bird was the main character of an upcoming novel that would become an immediate best-seller.

Now the museum is reaping major benefits in visitor numbers, gift shop sales and new memberships.

The Frick is now selling 800 Goldfinch postcards for every 1,000 postcards of Girl With a Pearl Earring. “There is a feeling among us that people are nearly equally interested in both,” says a Frick spokeswoman.

With The Goldfinch’s help, the exhibition has become the best attended in Frick history. The museum expects the show to exceed 200,000 visitors, more than a third of its typical annual attendance of 275,000 to 300,000. Membership to the museum (which costs between $25 and $600) has also more than doubled during the exhibition’s three-month run, growing from 5,000 to 12,000. Around 100 people are joining daily, according to the spokeswoman, compared to an average of three new members per day during a typical fall season.

Fans of the book are traveling to New York from all over the country to catch The Goldfinch before it flies back to Europe. This story quotes a woman from Atlanta who made the trip just because of the book, and the exhibition was actually in Atlanta’s High Museum of Art right before it went to the Frick. The Girl with the Pearl Earring, which was itself boosted into international superstardom by the success of Tracy Chevalier’s eponymous novel published in 2000, wasn’t enough to draw Ms. Anderson to the museum in her hometown, but The Goldfinch lured her 1,000 miles to see it. This article about the exhibition focuses entirely on The Golfinch, painting and the novel.

The Goldfinch‘s charm has been more than evident to curators and fans of the Dutch Golden Age for centuries, of course. That’s why it’s included in what is basically a greatest hits exhibition. The petite piece, about the size of a piece of A4 paper, is a trompe l’oeil, a painting that creates the deliberate illusion of reality. A goldfinch stands on a feedbox, a delicate chain tethering him to the spot, against a whitewashed wall with crumbling bits of plaster. The shadows cast by the box are at a fairly steep upward angle and we see the box’s semicircular perches from below, suggesting Fabritius planned the piece for display relatively high on a wall.

Fabritius’ confident, smooth brushstrokes create an incredibly lifelike bird despite the lack of precision photorealistic detail. He learned from the best, studying under no less of a master than Rembrandt in the early 1640s in Amsterdam. You can see Rembrandt’s influence in the splash of yellow in the bird’s wing. Fabritius laid the yellow on thick and then scratched it while it was still wet using the butt of his brush. The scratch exposed the underlying layer of black. This is a technique Rembrandt taught him.

The overall look of the painting, however, is a departure from Fabritius’ early work in Amsterdam. Fabritius was 28 years old when he moved to Delft in 1650 and over time, he moved on from Rembrandt’s dark palette and atmospheric lighting to the brighter scenes and homier subjects of the Delft school of artists. Johannes Vermeer was influenced by this approach (he may have even been an actual student of Carel Fabritius, but the evidence for this is very thin).

Unfortunately Fabritius’ great artistry was severed shortly after he painted The Goldfinch. On October 12, 1654, a gunpowder magazine in Delft exploded, destroying a quarter of the city. Fabritius was killed at the age of 32. His studio was reduced to rumble and most of his paintings were lost. Only a dozen or so of his paintings are known to survive today. It’s possible that The Goldfinch was a witness to this tragedy. When the Mauritshuis restored it in 2003, they found microscopic damage to the surface. It may have been rescued from the rubble.

The Goldfinch, Girl with a Pearl Earring and the rest of the treasures will be on display at the Frick through January 19th, so you have no time to lose if you want to see the exhibition before it leaves the country. There is one more international stop of the tour in the Palazzo Fava in Bologna from February 8th until May 25th, and then the group returns to The Hague in time where they will be installed in the newly renovated Mauritshuis in time for its grand re-opening on June 27th.

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Vasari’s Last Supper back together after 50 years

Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

In 1546, the Florentine Murate Convent commissioned painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari to make a monumental painting of The Last Supper. The final panorama was more than 21 feet long and 8 feet tall, made out of five poplar wood panels. Despite its unwieldiness, the painting has lived a peripatetic existence, moving around to various locations until in the early 19th century it settled in Florence’s Basilica of Santa Croce. It was there that it met its greatest foe: the great flood of 1966.

Just a few blocks from the banks of the Arno and at a lower elevation than much of the rest of the city, Santa Croce was hit first and hit hardest by the flood. The high point of the flood, more than 22 feet, was in the Santa Croce area. Water flooded the church’s cloister, the crypt and the Museo dell’ Opera in the refectory. In addition to the Vasari Last Supper, the museum held one of the great masterpieces of 13th century art, the Crucifix by Cimabue, one of only three surviving crucifixes by the artist whose break from the stylized conventions of Italo-Byzantine design was a major influence on the Renaissance humanists that would follow him. It was flooded to Christ’s halo.

Santa Croce remained under water for more than 12 hours, longer than anywhere else, saturating wood panel paintings like the Cimabue and Vasari’s Last Supper. Things only got worse when the waters receded. The muddy water, thick with debris, diesel oil, naphtha and sewage, dragged paint off the surface of art works (the Crucifix lost 60% of its paint; staff literally sifted through the water and mud to recover any fragment of the original paint they could) and coated it with scum. The wood under Vasari’s painting was the consistency of a sponge after its 12 hours underwater. The primer layer of gesso underlying the painted surface absorbed so much water that the paint lost adherence and began to peel and flake.

In order to dry The Last Supper as quickly as possible, museum staff had to separate the five panels making up the piece and coat the surface with rice paper to keep the paint attached. Even so, the wood contracted as it dried and the surface cracked in multiple places. It took restorers 10 years to put the Cimabue back together again. The Vasari was so devastated they didn’t even try. They stored it in a cool place with controlled humidity and just waited until the technology and funding made conservation possible.

It was a long wait. A 44 year wait, to be precise. In 2010, the Getty Foundation awarded a $400,000 grant to Florence’s prestigious restoration institute, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, to conserve The Last Supper and train a new generation of panel-painting conservators to replace the current generation who are due to retire within a decade. Unlike canvas painting restorers, panel work requires a detailed understanding of carpentry and the function of wooden supports. Two experts, Ciro Castelli and Mauro Parri, came out of retirement to work on this project. The former began working as a conservator a few months after the flood and he personally participated in the efforts to stabilize and conserve some of the most damaged paintings.

Seven conservators of varying experience have been learning from and collaborating with the old pros. Together they worked out a structural solution based on Vasari’s original innovative support structure. Because the cloistered sisters of the Murate Convent did not want Vasari and his assistants working among them for however long it would take them to finish the piece, Vasari was compelled to make the panels portable and joinable. One of his unusual cross-supports is still in place. This served as a model for the conservation team who were able to stabilize the panels and rejoin them for the first time in almost 50 years.

The team also focused on removing the rice paper covering the surface and cleaning the disgusting flood detritus from the paint. They found much to their delight that most of the original paint had survived. The estimated paint loss is 20-30%, which while horrendous is nowhere near as bad as they feared it would be. Conservators even found a previously unknown inscription noting an earlier restoration, like much earlier, like 1594, less than 50 years after The Last Supper was painted.

Superintendent of the OPD Marco Ciatti:

“The Vasari painting was the last major work damaged in the Florence flood to undergo treatment, and the conservation challenges were so complex that we only recently had the technology to begin treatment. When you consider the condition of the panels when treatment started, the current state of the Last Supper—visible again as a single, monumental artwork—is truly miraculous.”

Now that the surface has been stabilized, the flaking paint re-adhered, next on the agenda is restoration of the paint. That’s expected to take at least another two years, at the end of which Vasari’s The Last Supper will go back on display, hopefully in time for the 50th anniversary of the flood that almost destroyed it.

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