Archive for the ‘Renaissance’ Category

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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New clues to fate of lost Roanoke colony?

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

Last year, an intriguing new clue to the fate of the lost colony of Roanoke was found hidden under a patch on a 16th century map of Chesapeake Bay. The map in question was drawn by artist, cartographer and governor John White who founded the settlement on Roanoke Island that so famously disappeared when he was overseas attempting to secure supplies for them. It’s called La Virginea Pars (a partial map of the Virginia territory) and it is an impressively accurate survey of the east coast of North America from present-day Cape Henry, Virginia, to Cape Lookout, North Carolina. Originally made for Sir Walter Raleigh around 1585, the map has been owned by the British Museum since the mid-18th century.

There are two patches on the map, one at the southern end over the coast of what is today Pamlico Sound, the other on the northern part of the map where the Roanoke and the Chowan Rivers meet on Albemarle Sound. Adding paper patches to the maps to correct errors was common practice at the time so nobody thought much of it until last year when Dr. Brent Lane of the First Colony Foundation asked the museum to investigate them. He was researching the location of the Algonkian village of Secotan noted on White’s map and it occurred to him there might be some relevant information hidden under the patches.

Because the patches are original and were thoroughly glued in place by White, they cannot be removed without damaging the map. The British Museum therefore used a variety of imaging techniques including transmitted visible light (shine a light through the map in a light box), infrared and ultraviolet. They found that the southern patch was indeed covering an earlier, less accurate drawing of the coastline, as expected. The northern patch, on the other hand, was obscuring a large four-pointed star outlined in blue and filled in red. There was also a small red circle on the coast to the right of lozenge.

The First Colony Foundation historians believe the four-pointed star marked the location of a fort whose presence was a military secret, hence the cover-up in case the map fell into unfriendly hands. This is highly significant to the question of the Lost Colony because there are contemporary reports from the Jamestown colonists that the fleeing colonists were sighted in the Albemarle Sound area.

A quick recap of how the colony got lost: In 1587, Raleigh, holder of the Virginia land patent, assigned White the task of assembling settlers for a permanent colony in the Chesapeake Bay area. Unlike the previous expedition by Sir Ralph Lane in 1585, this colony was meant to be self-sustaining and thus included women and children. Among them was John White’s daughter Eleanor and her husband Ananias Dare. The new colony of 118 souls was established on Roanoke Island in late July 1587. They used the buildings left behind by the Lane expedition and built new ones. Just a couple of weeks later, on August 18th, 1587, Virgina Dare was born to Eleanor and Ananias. She was the first English child born in North America.

Her grandfather tried to make friends with the local Native Americans, but they weren’t having it. There was still tension leftover from their encounters with the Lane group and they were in no mood to sustain more hapless English who had arrived too late to plant any crops. Realizing they would have a hideous time of it once the ship supplies ran out, White left Roanoke in late August to return to England for fresh supplies. He arrived in November but was unable to turn right back around. Then there was the small matter of the Spanish Armada and subsequent brouhahas that made his return trip impossible for two more years.

When he finally landed on Roanoke in August of 1590, he found the island deserted. The colonists had built a fort and on an entrance post they left behind White’s only clue to where they might have gone: the word “CROATOAN.” This was the name of a friendly Indian tribe and the name of an island 50 miles south of Roanoke (today known as Hatteras Island) that they inhabited. John White searched for them for a short while, but weather prevented him from reaching Hatteras and when he started to run out of food and water, White was compelled to return to England. White never saw his daughter and granddaughter again. Nobody that we know of ever saw any of them again.

Later colonists, like those at Jamestown in 1607, looked for the Roanoke settlers. For centuries there have been rumors of east coast Indians with blue eyes and English-sounding words, but hard evidence of where they went has been nonexistent. They weren’t all slaughtered on the spot as the colony buildings appear to have been broken down in an orderly fashion. The likeliest scenario is that they broke up into small groups and sought shelter with local tribes none of which could have supported 119 people on their own.

The discovery that there may have been a fort on Albemarle Sound increases the possibility that the Roanoke colonists moved west inland rather than south to Croatoan Island. It was a much shorter and less treacherous trip and the location at the mouth of two well-trafficked rivers with establish trade routes to other Native American tribes, some of them friendly, would have given the displaced settlers a variety of options.

Archaeologists couldn’t just pack up their gear and start digging, though, because the spot marked by the X is privately owned. This year researchers got permission to scan the area using magnetometers and ground-penetrating radar.

[Elizabeth City State University research associate Malcolm] LeCompte and his team found a previously undiscovered pattern that indicated the possibility of multiple wooden structures approximately 3 feet underground.

“I don’t know if it’s one or a group [of structures],” he said, adding that they “could be joined or they could be close together.”

The mere presence of the buried structure indicates that there was a colonial presence in the area.

That’s not evidence of Roanoke colonists’ presence in the area, of course. The structure could be the remnants of the fort White documented or of something else entirely. We won’t know what it means until the landowners agree to allow digging and the funds are raised for an archaeological excavation.

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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.

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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.”

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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:

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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.

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