Okay, who wants to get me a $30 million early birthday present? Because I found just the thing: J.M.W. Turner’s last painting of Rome.

J. M. W. Turner’s final painting of Rome, a landscape considered one of the artist’s most breathtaking images, is to be sold at Sotheby’s in London on July 7. […]

Sotheby’s expects the canvas to fetch $18 million to $27 million. “It’s the spectacular fruit of Turner’s two visits to Rome,” said David Moore-Gwyn, senior specialist in early British paintings at Sotheby’s, “showing the strength of color and light that you can only get in Italy.”

Look at the gorgeousness:

'Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino', J.M.W. Turner, 1839

It’s a painting of the Roman Forum between the Capitoline and the Colosseum. At that time, it was still being used as common grazing land for cattle, sheep and goats, which had been its fate since the city population plummeted after the Gothic Wars in the 6th century. That’s why it was known as “Campo Vaccino” (cow field).

The first tentative excavation of the Roman Forum had started just 40 years earlier. Under Napoleon in the early 1800s, there was a push to clear the centuries of debris to reveal the ancient city, but it didn’t go much further than a cleanup operation, so when Turner painted the above masterpiece in 1839, the Forum was still a good 70 years from being fully excavated.

Turner loved Italy. He traveled there 7 times over the decades. His paintings of Rome were widely beloved and highly influential during his lifetime, famed for their characteristic interplay of light and color.

He saw light as the presence of the divine in the world, and he liked to put happy, rustic, cheery type people in the foreground for that earth-heaven contrast. You can see that favored juxtaposition in the above painting where the cattle drovers do their rustic thing up front while the glories of antiquity shimmer all around them in an otherworldly light

So yeah, want.

Should the British Museum Return the Rosetta Stone to Egypt?

When last we saw our intrepid blogger participate in a Heritage Key challenge, the topic was the most important ancient site in London. Now challenge 3 looms, and this time the topic is a controversial one: should the British Museum give the Rosetta Stone back to Egypt?

The Rosetta Stone is a carved granodiorite stele made during the reign of Ptolemy V in 196 B.C. The text carved upon it is a single proclamation written in three languages: ancient hieroglyphic, Demotic and classical Greek.

Rosetta Stone in the British Museum, picture by Hans Hillewaert It was discovered in 1799 by French troops in Fort St. Julien, Rosetta (today known as Rashid), Egypt. When I say it was discovered in Fort St. Julien, I mean it was actually a part of the fort. It was found during construction work. At some point in its lifetime, the stone had been re-purposed as building material.

French officer Pierre Francois Xavier Bouchard immediately recognized its archaeological value and packed it off to the French Institute of Egypt in Cairo. When Napoleon’s troops got spanked by the British in 1801, the stone was one of the spoils the victor claimed. It has been on display at the British Museum since 1802, interrupted only twice: once by World War I (1917) and once by loan (October 1972, to the Louvre).

What makes this hunk of volcanic rock worth launching international incidents over is not so much the object itself, but the fact that the juxtaposition of the three languages allowed British polymath Thomas Young and French scholar Jean-François Champollion to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics in the early 1800s for the first time since the language died out in the 5th century A.D.

So should the Rosetta Stone be returned to Egypt? Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Egyptian Council of Antiquities, certainly thinks so. He considers it an icon of Egyptian identity that was “raped” by French invaders and as such it belongs in Egypt, its homeland.

His position isn’t quite as firm as it seems, however. He originally asked the British Museum to loan the Rosetta Stone (and several other iconic pieces) to Egypt for the opening of the new Grand Museum at Giza in 2013. The BM’s response was a less-than-felicitous questionnaire about security conditions in the new museum. It was only after that that Hawass shifted approach to demanding repatriation.

The British Museum, for its part, considers the Rosetta Stone to be one of the jewels in its crown. It is the second most visited item (the first is a bog mummy) and most profoundly, it is a nucleus around which the great universal museum grew from modest beginnings as a glorified curiosity cabinet in 1753.

The museum makes some questionable claims, in my opinion, to justify its retention of the Rosetta Stone: that more people can see it in London than would in Egypt, that it has added value in the context of the encyclopedic museums because their vast displays tie together history and culture from many places, that it’s too old and fragile to be moved, that one repatriation would open floodgates that would in short order sweep every last scrap of colonial spoils out the museum doors, that Egypt won’t secure it properly, that Egypt might even be so bold as to keep it once they have it on loan.

The utilitarian argument of the number of people who get to see it doesn’t address the underlying ethical questions at all. The value of its context within the British Museum pales in comparison to its cultural value to the Egyptian people. In this day and age, secure transportation even of extremely fragile antiquities is not a barrier to movement. If the Terracotta Warriors can travel the globe for years, a big slab of rock should be just fine. The floodgates argument is hyperbolic at best given that even Hawass himself only has 5 items on his ideal repatriation wish list, only this one in the BM. The latter two points are just offensive, frankly, hence Hawass’ reaction of going from asking for a loan to demanding repatriation.

But — and my regular readers here might be surprised to see me say this — I don’t actually think the Rosetta Stone should be returned forthwith to the bosom of mother Egypt. Many’s the time I’ve inveighed against looters and the museums, dealers, auction houses and collectors that have enabled the vicious, almost unbearable despoliation of archaeological sites, but once you go back a few hundred years, things are not so cut and dried.

Do the victors get to keep the spoils forever, even when centuries later they have a whole new relationship with the source country which wasn’t even the country they were fighting at the time? Legally, there is no issue here. The question is an ethical one, and although as a point of general principle I tend to side with source countries on these issues, the sticking point for me with the Rosetta Stone is the fact that it has become the premier icon of Egyptology due to the French and British scholarship that followed its discovery.

That is why it is a household name, not because it’s a piece of exceptional beauty and rarity like the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin (also on Hawass’ short list), not because it played a key role in the history of Egypt itself, not because of what it proclaims in those three languages. The Rosetta Stone was the key to unlocking the words of the pharaohs, so of course Hawass is entirely correct that it is an essential piece of Egyptian identity. However, it’s also an emblem of decipherment, a cultural byword recognized around the world as the ultimate key to a past so long obscured.

So my solution to the brouhaha is as follows: the British Museum needs to knock it off with that offensive pukka attitude it takes towards loan requests for culturally sensitive objects, work out the mechanics of the loan like a grownup and act as part of a global community of museums instead of insisting that the world come to them.

Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo together in non-turtle form

Leonardo self-portrait in red chalkOriginal works of the three Italian Renaissance masters Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael, will go on display at the Eriksbergshallen in Gothenburg, Sweden, from March 20 until August 15. Don’t worry if you aren’t likely to wind up in Sweden between those dates. After the debut show, it’s going on the road. The dates aren’t established yet, but the exhibit, called “And There Was Light“, is expected to tour the world for 8 years.

This is the first time works from all three men, considered the traditional trinity of the Old Masters, will be on tour together. Usually they each get their own exhibitions because they’re virtually guaranteed to generate huge crowds, so this show is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of deal. Most of the 50 original Renaissance masterpieces are in private collections. They’ve never or rarely been exhibited in public before.

Raphael self-portrait as a teenThe sections of the exhibition cover different periods of time. The three masters are presented on the basis of what they did in each period, where they worked and how they competed as rivals for commissions and attention. Other important Renaissance individuals and their works or actions also figure in the exhibition.

Everything is illustrated in an educational yet exciting manner using modern technology, multimedia, models of well-known sculptures, reproductions of works of art and three-dimensional models of inventions and buildings etc.

One section contains famous original works of art (paintings, sculptures and drawings) from the late 15th and early 16th centuries. A few original works of art by later artists who were inspired by the three masters are also shown here.

Michelangelo, by Jacopino del ConteDuring their lifetimes the three men had a fierce rivalry, fighting for commissions. Michelangelo hated Leonardo and when Raphael moved to Rome and Pope Julius II gave him a commission right away while he kept Michelangelo waiting, Michelangelo started hating Raphael too.

Raphael’s penchant for, let’s just say, “finding inspiration” from his rivals pissed Michelangelo off even more. Years after Raphael died, Michelangelo was still calling him a plagiarist in his letters.

There will also be workshops held at the exhibition hall, where visitors will be able to sculpt and paint while rubbing shoulders with the Renaissance greats.

A team of international luminaries put the exhibit together, led by Francesco Buranelli, director of the Vatican museums, and renown da Vinci expert Alessandro Vezzosi. The latter is the man who first attributed the recently-surfaced “La Bella Principessa” painting to Leonardo da Vinci. La Bella Principessa is part of the exhibit, in fact, in its debut showing as a Leonardo.

Staffordshire Hoard saved!

Thanks to the Art Fund’s amazing work raising funds from individual donations, trusts and grants, and a huge £1,285,000 (almost $2 million) final donation from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Staffordshire Hoard is staying put in the region where it was found.

Unusually for the fund, when the trustees met today there was no argument about the extraordinary quality of the hoard, or the merits of making the grant. Dame Jenny Abramsky, chair of the NHMF, said: “The Staffordshire hoard is an extraordinary heritage treasure. It is exactly the sort of thing the National Heritage Memorial Fund was set up to save, stepping in as the ‘fund of last resort’ when our national heritage is at risk, as a fitting memorial to those who have given their lives in the service of our nation. We’re delighted, in our 30th anniversary year, to be able to make sure it stays just where it belongs, providing rare insights into one of the more mysterious periods of our history.”

“Frankly they’d have been demented not to give the money,” David Starkey, the historian who led the £3.3m appeal, said, welcoming the announcement.[…]

“This is by far the most important archaeological discovery in Britain since the second world war, and beyond that this is a find – of the most extraordinary beauty, brilliance and technical sophistication – which has really caught the imagination of the public.”

The culture minister, Margaret Hodge, said: “Thanks to this grant, these superb items will be able to stay – and be enjoyed – where they belong: in the Midlands where they were discovered.”

The NHMF donation brings the total funds raised to the £3.3 million target a full 3 weeks before the deadline. Now two local museums — the Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery and the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery — will receive the donated sum and they’ll both purchase the hoard from its discoverer Terry Herbert and Fred Johnson, the owner of the property where it was found.

The museums will share the hoard for display, conservation and research purposes, which is a great solution both for the public, so they have the opportunity to see the treasure in a couple of different places, but also for regional museums in general. A collaborative model allows local museums to support their own heritage instead of the British Museum getting it all.

Next hurdle: raising £1.7 million to properly conserve and study the hoard going forward. The Art Fund is keeping the donation lines open to help raise the conservation cash.

Staffordshire hoard

Schindler’s List for sale

A page from Schindler's listOskar Schindler, the Czech businessman made famous by Stephen Spielberg for saving 1,200 Jews from the concentration camps, made 7 copies of his life-saving list.

The whereabouts of two of them are unknown, the Israeli Holocaust Museum has two, another is in a public archive in Koblenz, Germany, another is in the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., and the final extant list belongs to the Stern family, descendants of Schindler’s accountant and right hand man, Itzhak Stern.

After two years of negotiations with historic document dealer Gary Zimet of MomentsInTime.com, the Stern family has put that last known privately-held copy on the market. The price is a cool $2.2 million.

“It’s printed on onion-skin paper,” Zimet said. “It’s remarkable given the age and the paper. It’s in excellent shape.”

[…]”This is the only remaining copy left in private hands,” Zimet said. “The rest are in museums.”

While Zimet expects that many museums will be interested in obtaining the list, he notes that the high price will require a patron to step forward. “These days, museums are all broke,” Zimet said.

Yes charming.

Several copies of the list were made between 1944 and 1945. Every time Schindler submitted a new (and longer) list of employees to be spared the camps, he kept a carbon copy. According to the Stern family, this particular list of 801 names dated 18/04/1945 was the second to last one Schindler made.

Here’s hoping someone with cash could use the tax write-off and donates it to a public institution.