Archive for the ‘Renaissance’ Category

Oldest sea-going Dutch ship found in North Sea salvage

Thursday, April 4th, 2019

On the night of January 1st-2nd of this year, MSC Zoe, one of the largest container ships in the world, lost at least 345 containers during a spate of rough weather in the North Sea. About 150 of them were lost north of the German island of Borkum, another 200 or so southwest of that near the Dutch island of Terschelling. Whole containers and some of their contents — including electronics, toys, clothing, furniture and potentially explosive organic peroxides — were found on the shores of Borkum, Terschelling and the Dutch islands Vlieland, Ameland and Schiermonnikoog.

With so many containers and their contents, some hazardous, adrift in the ecologically sensitive coastal waters of the Frisian islands, Dutch salvage teams have been scouring the North Sea bed to clean up the debris. A salvage crew working a busy shipping lane found wood beams and copper sheets from a shipwreck and alerted authorities.

The Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands dispatched maritime archaeologists to investigate the shipwreck. It wreck was approximately 23 feet wide and 98 feet long when intact with a carvel-built hull. It carried a large cargo of copper plates. Analysis of the wooden beams found the timbers were felled in 1536 and the ship built no later than 1540 in the Netherlands. The copper plates bear the marks of the Fugger family, a wealthy banking dynasty from present-day southwest Germany who in the 16th century owned numerous copper mines and had the monopoly on copper production.

The ship was carrying both round and square copper plates. The round ones were up to four feet in diameter and .2 inches thick. Researchers believe they were probably used to make pots and pans. The square plates, on the other hand, were probably going to be used to make the copper coins. Chemical analysis indicates they have the same composition as the Netherlands’ first copper coins. Copper coins first came into circulation in the Netherlands in 1543. Before then only gold and silver were minted, and they were the province of the wealthy. The introduction of copper coins allowed the working and middle classes in the rising urban centers of the country to engage in the burgeoning cash economy.

The 1540 date makes this ship the oldest sea-going vessel ever discovered in Dutch waters. It is also the oldest known caravel-built ship, which makes it a uniquely significant artifact of the shift from the small clinker-built ships of the Middle Ages to the large oceanic vessels that made the Netherlands a great maritime power.

“A lot of people think of the Dutch as a maritime nation, and this ship tells us something about how we became that nation,” said maritime and underwater archaeologist Martijn Manders.

Mr Manders said this shipwreck is of great importance because it dates back to a period where ship-building technology was in a transition from the medieval period to the Dutch Golden Age.

Archaeologists will return to the site, whose exact location is being kept under wraps for now, next summer when wind conditions and temperatures are more conducive to exploration. They hope to reveal more of the ship’s hull, much of which remains covered in sediment. The Coast Guard and Heritage Inspectorate will patrol the shipping lane in the interim to protect the wreck.


14th c. gold coin found in secret drawer

Tuesday, March 19th, 2019

Today in every-history-nerd’s-childhood-fantasy-come-true news, a rare 14th century gold coin was found in the secret compartment of a modest George II-style modern bureau. Amy Clapp inherited a bureau from her great cousin last Christmas. She doesn’t remember ever having met him and she certainly knew nothing about his furnishings. It’s a 20th century piece, solidly made, attractive but nothing of great value. It has two wide drawers and two half-width ones in the front, and a bunch of small ones when the desk is open. She looked through all the drawers and cubbies before calling Hansons Auctioneers to have it appraised for sale.

Furniture expert Edward Rycroft examined the piece to assess its value. He estimated it was worth about £80 ($106). Then he looked a little deeper and found three secret drawers. One of them held secret treasure.

He said: “I know bureaus like this often have tiny, secret drawers – sometimes called coin drawers – so I always check them just in case.But in 10 years of valuing furniture I have never found anything in them – until now.”

Much to his amazement, he discovered a 22ct gold coin hidden in a secret drawer. It turned out to be rare, more than 650 years old and highly valuable.

The Raymond IV Prince of Orange Franc A Pied coin dates back to 1365. Its guide price is £1,200-£1,800 but the experts at Hansons think it could sell for as much as £3,000. According to their coin valuer Don Collins, it’s very unusual. In more than half a century of coin valuing he has never seen one exactly like it.

Amy Clapp was thrilled by the unexpected windfall as her family has been through some hard times lately. Her daughter has a genetic condition, Bardet-Biedl syndrome, which has severely affected her sight. Mrs. Clapp works for the charitable organization Bardet-Biedl Syndrome UK and plans to donate some of the proceeds to the charity. Here’s hoping it sells way above estimate when it goes up for auction next month.

The bureau goes under the hammer tomorrow. I’d buy it in a heartbeat for twice the price. God I love secret compartments.

This video shows where the secret drawer was found in the desk.

Did I run to my modern Georgian repro secretary with a similar drawer layout as soon as I saw this video to pull the drawers all the way out in breathless hope of revealing a hidden compartment? Yes. Yes I did. Was there one? No. No there was not. Someday…


Da Gama astrolable certified as world’s oldest

Monday, March 18th, 2019

The copper alloy disc discovered in a shipwreck off the coast of Oman in 2014 has been independently verified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s earliest known marine astrolabe. The disc was found in the debris field of the Esmeralda, one of the ships in the fleet Vasco da Gama took on his second voyage to India that sank in 1503. It had a hole in the middle and two raised decorations (a Portuguese royal coat of arms and the esfera armilar, King Manuel I’s personal emblem), but no unambiguous evidence of its function could be seen with the naked eye. In 2016, laser scans by Professor Mark Williams at WMG, University of Warwick, found lines etched along the edge of the upper right quadrant exactly five degrees apart, markers used by sailors to calculate their latitude. Those findings have now been confirmed by the Guinness Book researchers.

The exact date of the astrolabe’s manufacture could not be determined, but it had to have been made after 1495 when Manuel became King of Portugal and before 1502 when the ship departed Lisbon. Before this discovery, the oldest known astrolabe was found on a Portuguese shipwreck that sank off the coast of Namibia in 1533. The Esmeralda‘s bell dating to 1498 has also been confirmed as the oldest known ship’s bell, beating the previous record-holder the venerable Mary Rose, the Tudor flagship that sank in the Solent in 1545.

Oceanographer David Mearns of Blue Water Recoveries who led the diving team that discovered the wreck, University of Warwick researchers Mark Williams and Jason Warnett have published their findings on the astrolabe in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. It’s a great paper for layperson and scholar alike. It lays out the archaeological record of marine astrolabes, how rare they are overall and how almost none of them were excavated archaeologically which makes determining their provenance and background extremely challenging. Only ten were known in 1957 when the first astrolabe register was created by David Waters, curator of navigation and astronomy at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. As of publication, there are 105 astrolabes and four alidades (sights used on astrolabes) on the current list, which you can see a cool (but alas too small) picture of on page two of the paper. The Sodré astrolabe (named after Vicente Sodré who commanded the Esmeralda) is number 108.

It also explains the whole story of how and why the Sodré brothers and their ships wound up in pieces off the coast of an Oman island and covers the excavation in which more than 2,800 objects were recovered, an incredible wealth of archaeological material that lends invaluable insight into Portuguese navigation in the Age of Discovery.

The paper goes into the astrolabe’s discovery and the results of years of study, but it also explains its significance in the larger context of the invention and earliest use of astrolabes.

What can be made of the observation that the Sodré astrolabe was only marked at 5-degree intervals and not with the 1-degree gradations seen in all other mariner’s astrolabes? Is it possible that at the time it was created the Portuguese, or at least the maker of this particular specimen, had not refined or standardized the design of their instruments to allow measuring altitude to the precision of 1-degree? Cline (1990: 130) claims that prior to the development of the heavy, open-wheel types, the early navigators were unable to take measurements within four to five degrees even on a ship that was not rolling. This might explain the absence of individual degree marks in the Sodré astrolabe if 5-degree divisions were deemed to be adequate by the navigators, presuming they could always estimate the position of the alidade between scale marks. Considering the general corroded state of the undecorated side and perimeter of the Sodré astrolabe, it is equally possible, however, that the individual gradations have been eroded away and that the faint traces of the 5-degree gradations were preserved because of their position further from the perimeter or possibly because the maker had scored them to a greater depth. […]

The astrolabe is unique in the archaeological record in a number of ways. It is the only known solid disc (type 0) mariner’s astrolabe with a verifiable provenance and age. This suggests it might be a transitional instrument in the development of mariner’s astrolabes.[…]

The Sodré astrolabe is also unique in that, of the 104-known instruments, it is the sole specimen decorated with a national symbol: the royal coat of arms of Portugal. Together with Manuel’s esfera armilar, these decorations dominate one side of the Sodré astrolabe. Their conspicuous placement, in relief, ensures that they stand out and would appear to mark the astrolabe as an object of the state. This is significant in light of Manuel’s use of royal symbolism to project his power at the precise time Portuguese ships were discovering new lands and his country was on the cusp of building the world’s first global empire.

Seriously, this is a page-turner, one of the most interesting, content-rich and comprehensible research papers I’ve read in a long time.


Raphael’s School of Athens cartoon restored

Thursday, March 7th, 2019

The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio is widely considered the visual embodiment of the rebirth of classical philosophy and art that gave the Renaissance its name. Raphael painted the fresco for the Stanza della Segnatura, the room in the Vatican housing Pope Julius II’s library, between 1509 and 1511. The artist started with a full-scale preparatory cartoon in charcoal, red and white chalk on paper in 1508-9. It was massive, over nine feet high and 26 feet wide, and was made by gluing together 210 pieces of “royal paper” (large format sheets about 12×16 inches in dimension). More than 50 individuals, the great philosophers of antiquity centered around Plato and Aristotle, populate the cartoon, with only a couple of figures from the final fresco missing, including Heraclitus, whose face is said to be a portrait of Michelangelo, then working just down the hall on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It is the largest surviving Renaissance cartoon.

Raphael was employed by Pope Julius on the recommendation of Bramante to fresco the room. The commission served a political role as much an aesthetic one. There were already frescoes on the walls by Piero della Francesca, but he had been hired Alexander VI whose papacy was already infamous. Julius was keen to cover the walls with new frescoes that would erase the imprint of his Borgia predecessor, a sort of damnatio memoriae by artistic proxy.

Only 27 years old when he began The School of Athens, Raphael created a vision that transposed the ideas of Renaissance humanist thought into figural and architectural forms. The fluid lines of his initial drawing illuminate his creative process, the apparent ease with which he conceived an intricate mural that would take two years to complete. It’s also the only version of The School of Athens done entirely by Raphael’s own hand. He had staff to help him paint the fresco itself.

He used the cartoon as a literal outline, poking holes (still clearly visible today) through the lines of the faces, garments, folds and bodies. Because the completed cartoon was so massive, it could not be applied smoothly all at once to the plaster surface of the wall and have the trace-over last for two years of painting. Raphael instead used it to show Julius II a clear view of the full complex composition of the fresco and as a master template, drawing through the perforations onto individual papers just large enough to cover one day’s work.

Even so, the cartoon matches the finished fresco almost exactly, with only a few centimeter’s difference on the right side. The architectural design on the top part of the fresco is not on the cartoon, or rather just the foundations of it are, barely visible and only spotted by researchers in 1972. Most of the remarkable vaulted gallery in deep one-point perspective that rises above and behind Plato and Aristotle was painted directly onto the plaster.

Even in Raphael’s all-too-short lifetime (he died at age 37) the cartoon was recognized as a masterpiece in its own right. It was described as the “well-finished cartoon” because the lion’s share of the information necessary for the fresco was included: the figures, the setting, the poses, the facial expressions, the direction of the light, the highlights and lowlights of his chiaroscuro.

That a cartoon as delicate as it is massive survives intact after five centuries of wars, pillage and dispersed cultural patrimony is largely due to Cardinal Federico Borromeo (1564-1631), Archbishop of Milan and founder of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, the second public library in Europe after the Bodleian. He was an erudite man, a prolific writer and connoisseur of the arts who amassed an immense collection of 45,000 manuscripts and books with the deliberate intent of creating a library that would be an invaluable resource for scholars.

For a hundred years after its creation, the cartoon disappears from the historical record. It reappears in 1610 in a legal document stating that Fabio II Visconti Borromeo, Count of Brebbia (and holder of two far more excellent titles: Decurion of Milan and Judge of the Streets), loans the cartoon to Cardinal Borromeo until such time as Visconti requests its return. That time never came.

In 1618 the cardinal founded Pinacoteca Ambrosiana to house his great collection of paintings and drawings, including works by Caravaggio (Basket of Fruit) and Leonardo da Vinci (Portrait of a Musician) alongside Raphael’s cartoon, still technically on loan. It became officially part of the Ambrosiana collection in 1626 when the cardinal bought it from the count’s widow Bianca Spinola Borromeo for the then-astronomical sum of 600 imperial lire.

It remained at the Pinacoteca, one of its greatest treasures and biggest draws, until 1796 when the greatest scourge of Italy’s patrimony, Napoleon Bonaparte, entered Milan. Five days after his forces took the city, Napoleon proclaimed that Milan now owed France 15 million lire and any and all artworks of value. Dominique-Vivant Denon, director of the Louvre, was tasked with drawing up a list of Milan’s most important pieces that would be summarily pillaged and sent to the museum in Paris.

On June 25, 1796, box upon box of treasures from the Ambrosiana left Milan destined for the Louvre. Leonardo’s Musician was in them, his notebooks from the library’s collection and Raphael’s The School of Athens cartoon. It was subject to extensive restoration — relined with canvas, mounted on a new frame, missing parts filled in — before being put on display. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, the sculptor Antonio Canova was dispatched to the Louvre to reclaim the works taken from the Papal States. While he was at it, he arranged the return of the Ambrosiana’s stuff too. The cartoon was back in Milan by 1816.

It was restored again in 1887. This time the work done was even more extensive. The cartoon was reframed, and most significantly, was attached to a new canvas backing for support. The wars of the 20th century jerked it around some more. In 1915, with northern Italy the target of Austro-Hungarian aerial bombing, the cartoon went back to Rome for first time since it was drawn by Raphael 400 earlier. It was kept safe in the Vatican until the war was over. In 1942 it went underground, secured in the bank vault of the Cassa di Risparmio delle Provincie Lombarde, and good thing too because the Abrosiana was bombed and had to be rebuilt after the war.

The vicissitudes of the past two centuries left the cartoon worse for wear. The paper had yellowed (browned, even) making the chalk, charcoal and lead drawing hard to read and water damage was pervasive. It had also been mounted in a new frame and showcase in 1966, then state-of-the-art but inadequate for modern conservation techniques which require constant inspection and monitoring.

In 2014, the Ambrosiana launched an ambitious program of conservation and study. A team of experts from the College of Fellows of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, the Higher Institute for Conservation and Restoration of the Vatican Museums, the Milan Superintendency and the Conservation and Restoration Centre “La Venaria Reale” worked with professors from several Italian universities to preserve the work, reverse old restoration errors and create a new showcase to protect the cartoon while make it entirely visible to visitors.

Both front and back were treated. On a custom table with a moveable bridge that allowed conservators to hover over the surface, the cartoon was cleaned with low pressure micro-suction devices like those used in surgery. Old polymer glue used with strips of canvas in the 1966 restoration to expand the perimeter which had shrunk over time was removed. Conservators also repaired tears and lined the back with layers of Japanese tissue paper in different sizes and shapes to relieve stress on the supports and recover the original flatness of the cartoon. The last step was to apply a new canvas lining and mount the cartoon in a new frame.

Here’s a video of conservators in 2017 removing the first layer of Japanese tissue paper from the back of the cartoon a year after it was applied to stabilize it:

Here’s the conservation team applying canvas lining to the back of the cartoon:

After a year of study and three years of painstaking labour, the cartoon will return to its dedicated exhibition gallery at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana on March 27th.


Rare portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, on display

Wednesday, February 20th, 2019

An extremely rare portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, painted during her lifetime has gone on display at Hever Castle. The oil-on-oak panel painting depicts Mary “en deuil blanc” (in white mourning), wearing gossamer white veils instead of the heavy blacks of full mourning she wore in a later portrait.

It is believed to have been the work of the studio of François Clouet, a miniaturist and portraitist to the French royal family, made in late 1560/early 1561 when Mary was mourning the successive deaths of her father-in-law King Henry II of France (d. July 1559), her mother Mary of Guise (June 1560) and her husband Francis II (December 1560) of France. White had been a popular mourning color in France for centuries by the time Mary donned it. She had unusually bucked that association and worn white for her 1558 wedding to the then-Dauphin of France, only to find herself having to wear white again in its traditional symbolism after his death just two and a half years later.

Another Clouet portrait of her “en deuil blanc” shows her covered from chin to chest in a white pleated gauze “barbe” (beard). The original painting is lost but the image was widely copied. The Hever painting has the same head type as the other Clouet but depicts a less severe white veil with an open collar and tiny buttons down the bust. This may have been a less strict form of mourning worn after a certain amount of time had elapsed from the bereavement.

During her active reign in Scotland from 1561 to 1568, there were few artists of note and even fewer portrait painters of royal quality. If any solo portraits of her were painted during her time in Scotland, none have survived. A double-portrait of her and her second husband Lord Darnley now at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, is the only known extant portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, painted when she was in Scotland ruling as Queen of Scots, ca. 1565.

After her forced abdication and imprisonment in England, she did get some access to court painters. Her caretaker/keeper/jailer George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, allowed her to sit for Nicholas Hilliard, the premiere miniature portraitist of the Tudor court. Copies of Hilliard’s work were distributed at Mary’s behest to her supporters during her lifetime, and after the ascension of her son James VI of Scotland to the throne of England and Ireland in 1603. He commissioned idealized versions of them to enhance his own position as king and the strength of the Stuart claim by depicting her as a martyr and victim of Tudor injustice. It’s those posthumous images of Mary that make up the bulk of her portraiture.

The Hever portrait was in a private collection in France (not Switzerland) for many years. It was thought to be a modified 17th century copy of the more famous Clouet. Dendrochronological analysis of the oak panels found that the wood dated to 1547. Coupled with stylistic examination, the age of the wood confirms that the portrait dated to the mid-16th century and was done in Mary’s lifetime.


Verrocchio’s Putto with Dolphin restored

Wednesday, February 13th, 2019

Putto with Dolphin, a bronze sculpture by 15th century master Andrea del Verrocchio, is undergoing much-needed restoration in time for a landmark exhibition of Verocchio’s work. This is the first scientific conservation the Putto will have ever undergone, which is remarkable considering it spent the first 500 years of its life outdoors.

The polished bronze depicts a chubby winged boy standing on one leg on a half-sphere. In his arms he holds a squirming dolphin. It was commissioned in 1470 by Lorenzo de’ Medici for Villa Medici at Careggi, one of the family’s country homes in the Tuscan hills. Cosimo died there in 1464, and when his grandson Lorenzo, the future Magnificent, took over as head of the family and de facto ruler of Florence in December 1469, he wasted no time in making improvements the Careggi villa and grounds, especially the gardens. The putto was made to top a fountain in the garden, with a spray of water emerging from the dolphin’s rostrum. In 1557, the bronze was moved to the Palazzo Vecchio where it was placed atop the porphyry fountain in the first courtyard. The priceless masterwork remained there until the 1950s, when it was removed from the fountain and put on display as a museum exhibit on the second floor of the Palazzo Vecchio. A replica was installed in its former position on the fountain.

The restoration project began in 2018 in view of the public in a dedicated workspace in the Palazzo Vecchio. A technical analysis of its condition underneath the surface found evidence of deterioration of the bronze. The surface needed extensive cleaning as calcium and water stains had built up over the centuries. There were also residues left by previous attempts at restoration, some of them using harmful substances. Conservators carefully removed those residues and revealed previously unknown details. They were then able to address the biggest threat: corrosion of the bronze. The last step is to cover the surface with gentle, non-invasive treatments to even out the color and protect the bronze from further corrosion. The process has been thoroughly documented through photographs and videos to learn more about Verrocchio’s sculpture and for the benefit of future conservation efforts.

The restored Putto will go on display next month in Verrocchio, Master of Leonardo at the Palazzo Strozzi, the first ever monographic Verocchio exhibition. It will illuminate his working process thanks to a new technical study of his work, and bring together for the first time more than 120 artworks, paintings, drawings and sculptures by Verrocchio and the masters who learned their art in his workshop. The most important artists of the Renaissance — Leonardo da Vinci, Domenico del Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli and Pietro Perugino — all studied under Verrocchio. Together they defined the artistic output of Lorenzo the Magnificent’s Florence between 1460 and 1490. With loans from major museums worldwide, the show will trace the artistic connections linking Leonardo to Verocchio, reconstructing the formation of his style in the interchange between student and master.

The exhibition begins in Florence, running from March 9th through July 14th at the Palazzo Strozzi, with a special section at the National Museum of the Bargello (home of Verrocchio’s David, iconic symbol of Republicanism). It will then travel to the second and last location, Washington D.C., where the National Gallery of Art will host Verrocchio: Master and Mentor, from September 29th to February 2nd, 2020.


Mummy remains studied for rheumatoid arthritis

Friday, February 1st, 2019

The naturally mummified remains of an adult male found in the town Guano, in Ecuador’s Chimborazo Province, is being studied to learn about the spread of rheumatoid arthritis.

The Guano Mummy was discovered after an earthquake struck the town on August 5th, 1949. In the rubble of the Asunción Church, rescuers found the well-preserved remains of a man wedged between two of only three sections of walls that remained of the 400-year-old church. The man was positioned vertically, as if standing, between the walls. He had not deliberately mummified, and neither was the mummified mouse found next to him. It seems the body was sprinkled with lime to speed decomposition but instead the dry, cold conditions preserved his tissues (and those of the unfortunate rodent) in excellent condition. His clothing also survived in remarkably fine fettle. There was a purple scarf wrapped around his jaw (perhaps to keep his mouth from gaping open) and a long white robe covering his body.

After its discovery, the mummy was moved to the town library where it was displayed in less than adequate conditions which caused some deterioration of the organic remains. In 2003, a team of researchers from the US did a thorough study of the mummy, X-raying and carbon-dating it to the 16th century. The date coupled with archival research pointed to a possible candidate for the identity of the mummy: Fray Lázaro de la Cruz de Santofimia, a Franciscan monk who traveled to Guano from Spain to take charge of the religious community there.

Asunción Church was built between approximately 1560 and 1572, commissioned by the Franciscan missionaries who were evangelizing the indigenous Puruhá culture. Later a monastery and cemetery would be built next to the church. Fray Lázaro’s position as the first guardian of the church and monastery could have been the reason he was buried in such an unusual position and location, standing guard over his charges for eternity, as it were.

French pathologist Dr. Philippe Charlier and his team spent two days studying the mummy and taking samples at the laboratory of the National Institute of Cultural Heritage in Quito. One major draw is the evidence of rheumatoid arthritis found in the surviving tissue.

Rheumatoid arthritis was first found in America before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.

Dr Charlier explained: “The mummy of Guano may be the link missing that will allow us to understand how this disease, which was originally American, then became a global disease by hybridisation, by the confrontation between two worlds.”

The examination has found a likely cause of death: a chin fistula that became infected and caused fatal sepsis.

Charlier’s study will also perform a new radiocarbon analysis and DNA analysis (RA is associated with several genetic markers). The dating and genetic testing may help confirm or deny the mummy’s identity. He questions the Fray Lázaro identification because the man was not dressed in the usual Franciscan garb — the textiles are more expensive than the brown homespun of the monk’s habit — nor was he interred with expected Christian accouterments like a rosary and coffin.


Leonardo’s thumbprint found on Royal Collections drawing

Wednesday, January 30th, 2019

A fingerprint believed to have been left by Leonardo da Vinci has been found on one of his drawings in the UK’s Royal Collections. It was discovered by Alan Donnithorne, formerly the head paper conservator of the Royal Collections, who found the thumbprint on a red ink anatomical drawing. Fingerprints have been found on other works by Leonardo da Vinci, but this is the most likely one to have been left by the artist himself on one of the drawings in the Royal Collections.

The drawing, The Cardiovascular System and Principal Organs of a Woman, was made around 1509-1510. Donnithorne found the thumbprint on the left side of the sheet near the subject’s arm. The mark was left in the same dark red ink as Leonardo used to make the drawing. There is also a smudged print left by his left index finger on the back of the sheet.

The UK is going all-out to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death on May 2nd of this year. It is taking the utmost advantage of the Queen Elizabeth II’s 550 works by the master, the largest single collection of Leonardos in the world. Remarkably, they’ve been together as a group since Leonardo died half a millennium ago and have been in the Royal Collection since the 17th century. To mark the anniversary, there will be 12 simultaneous exhibitions of Leonardo drawings across the UK from February 1st through May 6th. Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing features 12 different drawings on display at each of the 12 museums in Southampton, Bristol, Cardiff, Birmingham, Derby, Liverpool, Sheffield, Manchester, Leeds, Sunderland, Belfast and Glasgow. The 144 drawings cover a wide range of interests pursued by the polymath: painting, sculpture, architecture, music, anatomy, engineering, cartography, geology and botany.

The anatomical drawing and its thumbprint will go on display Friday at the National Museum Cardiff. After that, all 144 drawings will join up with a few dozen more of Leonardo’s works from the Royal Collections to go on display at The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace from May 24th until October 13th. This will be the largest exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci works in 65 years. The exhibition will travel to Scotland next where it will be exhibited at the Queen’s Gallery in the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh, from November 22nd through March 15th, 2020. That will be the largest collection of Leonardo’s works ever shown in Scotland.

In conjunction with the exhibitions, Alan Donnithorne has published a new scientific study of 80 of the Leonardo works in the Royal Collections. Leonardo da Vinci: A Closer Look reexamines those works in the light of the latest analytical technologies, including microscopy, ultraviolet imaging, infrared reflectography and X-ray fluorescence (XRF).

One by one, Leonardo’s processes of creation are revealed, from his choice of paper and the composition of the specialist grounds used for his drawings, to his first touches in chalk, ink or metalpoint, and on to the finished compositions.

Many of these features are of course invisible to the naked eye, and have been so for centuries, ever since Leonardo took his pen from the paper. Infrared images reveal underdrawings unseen for 500 years, published here for the first time. Ultraviolet photography brings back to life now-vanished metalpoint sketches; while spectrographic analysis allows us to explore the origin and precise chemistry of Leonardo’s papers and grounds.


16th c. Greenland mummies had heart disease

Tuesday, January 29th, 2019

Researchers have discovered evidence of heart disease in five mummies from 16th-century Greenland. An international team of anthropologists, medical doctors and technicians examined the mummies with a Computed Tomography scanner in the Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) Shapiro Cardiovascular Center last year. They were looking for arterial plaque, the material that lines the arteries, hardening and narrowing them and creating blockages that can result in fatal heart attacks and strokes.

Atherosclerosis and the cardiovascular disease that result from it is the leading cause of death in the U.S. today. The research team wanted to find out if it was common 500 years ago in Greenland, part of a larger project investigating the heart health of mummified human remains from pre-industrial hunter-gatherer communities.

The mummies of four young adults and one child from the Inuit community in 16th century Greenland were subjected to high-resolution CT scans. The organs were not intact inside the bodies, but even without hearts to explore, researchers were able to detect hardened calcium, ie plaque, in the remains of blood vessels in the chest and neck.

From Egypt to Mongolia and now Greenland, mummies throughout the ages have shown evidence of atherosclerosis. The Greenland mummies were of particular interest due to their diet, which would have primarily consisted of fish and sea mammals.

While increased fish consumption is commonly touted as heart-healthy — which may make the findings of atherosclerosis seem surprising — [associate director of the Brigham’s Cardiovascular Imaging Program Dr. Ron] Blankstein emphasized that scientists still have much to learn about its relationship to cardiovascular health. For example, although it is known that consuming fish rich in omega-3 fats has benefits, some types of fish can also be high in cholesterol and, in the current era, contain toxins like mercury or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that may pose risk, he said.

Lifestyle factors, such as exposure to cooking smoke in their dwellings, may have also contributed to the mummified individuals developing cardiovascular disease during their lifetimes, Blankstein said. Given that and the small sample sizes of these mummy scans, he noted that the team’s findings shouldn’t be taken too much to heart, so to speak.


New LED lighting illuminates St. Peter’s Basilica

Saturday, January 26th, 2019

The faithful assembled for Christmas mass were the first to be bathed in the glow of the new LED lighting system which was officially inaugurated yesterday in St. Peter’s Basilica. The product of two years of planning and work, the illumination project hits every possible mark: energy efficiency, unobtrusiveness, brightness, focal points, enabling the latest in video technology.

There are 780 new fixtures installed in the basilica at heights ranging from 40 and 360 feet, all artfully camouflaged. They add up to around 100,000 LEDs generating more than 10 times the light with 80% fewer fixtures. The energy savings are enormous, up to 90% over the previous system. The lighting can be controlled in minute detail by a digital system which will allow different elements to be emphasized on different occasions. It will allow video capture in 4K and 8K for ultra high definition television broadcasts and recordings.

More than 27,000 people visit St. Peter’s every day. These improvements will enhance the experience for the thousands of pilgrims who flock to the basilica to celebrate religious events, making it much easier to get a decent view of the Pope and other concelebrants. An even greater advantage will go to the lovers of art and architecture who also flock to St. Peter’s and wait in its insane lines without the consolation of religious fervor. The architectural and decorative features of one of the masterpieces of Renaissance construction are now visible in a whole new depth. The areas that were lit by the old system, like the main dome, originally designed by Bramante and redesigned and strengthened by Michelangelo, are now so clearly lit that details can be seen which were previously invisible. Places that could not be lit under the old regime are now dazzling, including the octagons and mini-cupolas of the side aisles. You simply could not see the rich mosaics that adorn these features from the ground unaided. Five hundred years ago they were lit by candles, so effectively not lit at all. Now they’re plain as day for the first time in half a millennium.

The photographs look so good I might even brave those insane lines myself next time I’m in Rome, which is saying something because I took one look at them and ran the hell out of there in 2017. I didn’t even attempt it in 2018.





September 2020


Add to Technorati Favorites