Archive for May, 2010

Private collection of Italian masters displayed for first time

Monday, May 31st, 2010

Richard L. Feigen is a renown art collector and dealer based in New York who has spent 50 years building an impressive collection of 14th through 17th century Italian paintings by great artists like Fra Angelico, Annibale and Ludovico Carracci, Guercino, and Orazio Gentileschi (father of one my favorites, Artemisia Gentileschi). Until now this collection has never been publicly exhibited or even cataloged.

From May 28th to September 12, 60 masterpieces from the Feigen collection will be on display at the Yale University Art Gallery.

The Italian paintings owned by Richard Feigen constitute what is among the most important private collections in the world today, one that is widely admired for both its depth and quality. The collection is particularly noteworthy for its early Tuscan paintings, late Renaissance and Mannerist works, and early Baroque masterpieces. Included in the exhibition are three paintings by Fra Angelico, ranging in date from one of his earliest works from before 1420 to what may be among the last images he created before his death in 1455. Among other highlights are Jacopo Zucchi’s “The Crucifixion” (ca. 1583) and Alessandro Allori’s “Christ Carrying the Cross” (ca. 1591–95)—examples of small, refined works painted on copper, a technique that came into vogue in the later 16th century and found an even greater popularity in the 17th century. The collection also features two of the most important masterpieces of Baroque painting anywhere in the country—”The Virgin and Child with Saint Lucy and the Young Saint John the Baptist” (ca. 1587–88) by Annibale Carracci and “Danaë and the Shower of Gold” (1621–22) by Orazio Gentileschi.

While you’re there, you can swing by the third floor to see Yale’s permanent collection of early Renaissance paintings. Yale is the only public institution besides the New York Historical Society to have on display a significant collection of pieces from the early Italian Renaissance.

Featuring one of the largest and finest groups of 13th- and 14th-century Tuscan paintings in the world, the Jarves Collection also contains a significant number of Sienese 15th-century paintings, as well as such acknowledged masterworks as Gentile da Fabriano’s “Virgin and Child” (ca. 1420) and Antonio del Pollaiuolo’s “Hercules and Deianira” (ca. 1475–80). The Gallery’s collection of Italian paintings has grown over the years with important acquisitions such as Jacopo Pontormo’’s “Madonna del Libro” (ca. 1545–46).

One visit to Yale over the next few months and you’ll get a rich education in Italian art of the early Renaissance.

'Danaë and the Shower of Gold' by Orazio Gentileschi, ca. 1621–22

Zahi Hawass: Egypt’s Avenger of the Pharaohs

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

Well, it’s another dead news Sunday before Memorial Day, so I don’t have much to share. At least Der Spiegel has a fascinating glimpse into the world of Zahi Hawass that you might get a kick out of. He harasses his driver through the streets of dawn Cairo, calling people assholes and running down chickens along the way. Poor chickens. 🙁

Here’s my favorite part:

The man has already brought home 31,000 smuggled objects in past years. They are primarily pieces taken in illicit excavations, which have been sold over the last 50 years, through auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s, to museums in the United States.

He is celebrated at home for his achievements, and justifiably so. He even tracked down the embalmed body of Ramses I — in faraway Atlanta. Hawass bent over the papery face and sniffed it. Then he said: “I can smell it — this is Ramses.” The analysis proved him right.

That’s just cool, I don’t care what your perspective on repatriation.

It’s also interesting to see what a stranglehold he has on all things related to Egyptian archaeology. Not only does he publicly bitchslap Western museums on a regular basis, but he’s in complete control of all the digs in the country. That means not a single excavation team can say a word about anything without going through him first, and there are hundreds of teams excavating in Egypt at any given time.

His craving for the limelight means he’s talked up finds that turned out to be minor and even indulged in some straight-up fiction.

He boasted that there were “10,000 golden mummies” at the cemetery in Bahariya, but only 200 were found. And he mistakenly declared a shabby find in the Valley of Kings to be the gravesite of a female pharaoh.

His own excavation efforts also appear to be somewhat bizarre. For some time, the master has been searching for the body of Cleopatra in a temple near Alexandria — based on an idea suggested to him by a lawyer from the Dominican Republic.

“Are you sure about this?” a journalist wanted to know. Hawass replied: “Completely, otherwise I wouldn’t have even mentioned it. After all, I don’t want to embarrass myself.”

When nothing was found, despite feverish excavation efforts, Hawass took a granite bust of Cleopatra’s lover, Mark Antony, from a museum last year and pretended that he had just pulled it out of the ground.

Nice. That’s the Taposiris Magna site where the headless granite colossus was recently uncovered. Here’s hoping he didn’t just snag that one out of storage too.

Tiffany in Virginia

Saturday, May 29th, 2010

Tiffany Studios Cobweb lamp, designed by Clara DriscollTiffany: Color and Light,” a traveling exhibit of over 170 of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s most beautiful glass creations, will be making only one stop in the United States and that’s at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The exhibit is a joint production of The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, so only Montreal, Paris and Richmond, Virginia, have the good fortune of hosting this greatest collection of Tiffany glass in decades.

Magnolia windowWindows, lamps, vases, mosaics, paperweights, inkwells, all kinds of decorative objects made by Louis Comfort Tiffany and his studio will be on display, including items that have never been exhibited in the United States before.

VMFA objects featured in the exhibition include the “Cobweb Lamp” designed by Clara Driscoll in 1902. The lamp features leaded glass, bronze, and glass mosaics. Intricate patterns define the cobwebs on the lamp’s multicolored leaded-glass shade.

Among works in the exhibition are more than 20 leaded-glass windows drawn from major museums and private collections throughout the world. The “Magnolia” window was designed in 1900 by Agnes Northrop for the Paris World’’s Fair that year. This window is now in the permanent collection of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Angel of the Resurrection“The Angel of the Resurrection” window, designed by Frederick Wilson in 1904-5, was installed at the American Presbyterian Church in Montreal. It joined the collection of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2008 and is one of nine windows from Montreal on display for the first time in the United States.

Mounted Vase with Peacock-Feather DecorationA “Mounted Vase with Peacock-Feather Decoration,” owned by the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, N.Y., is one of more than 60 vases made by Tiffany Studios in the exhibition. The 1898-99 work is comprised of handblown glass, rubies, as well as enamel by Eugene Feuillâtre and a silver mount designed by Edward Colonna.

The exhibit opens today, May 29th, and closes August 15th. If you’re not in Virginia but within driving distance, you might want to consider making a road trip of it, because the VMFA website offers a neat map for a Tiffany Driving Tour of Virginia, complete with podcast audio tours at each location.

Raphael cartoons and tapestries displayed together for the first time

Friday, May 28th, 2010

Yes, Raphael drew cartoons, but they weren’t what we usually think of as cartoons these days, of course. In 1515, Pope Leo X commissioned a set of 10 tapestries from Raphael to decorate the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel. He wanted to make a glorious contribution of his own to the chapel which his predecessors had decked out in stupendous works. Raphael was by this time an acknowledged master of Renaissance Italian art, but obviously he was no weaver, so the drawings would be sent to Brussels to be used as templates by the great weavers of Brabant.

At that time tapestries were considered far more of a high prestige item than a fresco or painting. In fact, Raphael was paid 1000 ducats for his work, while the weaver got 15,000, more than 5 times what Michelangelo had been paid for lying on his back for 4 years getting paint in his eyes. By commissioning the great Raphael to design the tapestries and then have the pros actually make them instead of commissioning the tapestry experts to do both the design and weave as was customary, Pope Leo was creating something as memorable and unique in its own way as what Julius II had done by commissioning Michelangelo to paint the ceiling.

Over the next year and a half, Raphael drew 10 tapestry-sized cartoons on the lives of St. Peter and St. Paul. They were complex, thoroughly colored and really big, almost 10 feet high and from 10 to 16 feet wide. They were then shipped to the Brussels workshop of famed Flemish weaver Pieter van Aelst, where he and his weaving elves divided the cartoons into strips 91 centimeters (ca. 3 feet) wide, slid them under the vertical warp threads of the loom and wove that section of the tapestry.

Since they made the carpet back to front, the tapestries turned out mirror images of Raphael’s cartoons. The colors also differ because they were limited by thread color so couldn’t reproduce Raphael’s pigments. Finally, all the pieces were woven together and the finished tapestries sent to the Vatican.

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, cartoon by Raphael (1515) The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, tapestry from Raphael's cartoon

Leo X put seven of them on display for Christmas in 1519, but he didn’t keep them up. Neither did his papal descendants. To this day the tapestries only come out on special occasions to keep them in as good a condition as possible.

The cartoons stayed in Brussels for a while. Weavers were commissioned for years later to make copies from them. Henry VIII got a set. Some of the drawings were lost, but eventually Charles I of England bought the 7 remaining cartoons for a measly £300. When Charles lost his head, Cromwell didn’t sell off the Raphael drawings like he had with so much of the royal art collection, maybe because he wanted a set of his own tapestries made from them, maybe because they looked kind of crappy still in strips kept in a box.

After the Restoration, the drawings started getting some attention as masterpieces in their own right. They were reassembled put on public display in Hampton Court where artists showered them with love. Prints were made from them, students copied them, and they came to be considered the epitome of historical painting. In 1865 Queen Victoria loaned them to what was then the South Kensington Museum and is now the Victoria and Albert Museum where they’ve been ever since in their own specially designed hall, the Raphael Cartoon Court.

They’re too fragile to move so there’s no chance of them ever going on a tour to Rome, and the tapestries are extremely delicate as well. However, the Vatican and the V&A have put their heads together so that starting in September, 4 of the Sistine tapestries will go on display next to their mirror image cartoons in the Raphael Cartoon Court of the Victoria and Albert Museum. This is the first time ever. Raphael never saw them together. Pope Leo X never saw them together.

This once in 20 lifetimes opportunity will only last just over a month, from September 8th to October 17th, 2010, coinciding with the visit of Pope Benedict XVI. Tickets are free but they’re timed so you have to book well in advance and show up when the ticket tells you to. You can book online for a £1 handling fee. Bookings open July 1st. I wouldn’t be surprised if it sold out pretty much immediately so get on it! And then tell me all about it because I’m hugely jealous.

For more information about the cartoons and some nice pictures of them, see the V&A page here, using the menu on the left to navigate.

Mesoamericans invented rubber, not Goodyear

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

MIT scientists have determined that pre-Hispanic Mesoamericans not only figured out how to produce rubber from the sap of the native Castilla elastica tree 3500 years before Charles Goodyear developed the vulcanization process, but they even engineered a variety of different polymers for different applications.

By combining different proportions of Castilla elastica sap and juice from the morning glory, ancient Mesoamericans could produce different rubbers for bouncing balls, sandal soles, drumstick tips, even large rubber bands to attach axe blades to handles.

A sticky liquid that dries to a brittle solid, natural latex, which contains an oily chemical called isoprene, was mixed with juice from the morning glory species Ipomoea alba.

As the first polymer scientists, the Mesoamerican people stirred the liquid until it solidified into a white mass which they shaped by hand into rubber balls, hollow rubber figurines, and other rubber artifacts.

The process relies on chemistry similar to that of modern vulcanization: The juice of the morning glory vine causes cross-linking of polymer molecules, making the rubber elastic and removing compounds that turn latex brittle. […]

A 50-50 blend of the latex and morning glory produced maximum bounciness, perfect for the rubber balls. Pure latex worked best for rubber bands and adhesives, while a three-to-one mix of latex to morning glory provided the most durable material, perfect for sandals.

By the time the Spanish arrived, Mexico had a huge rubber industry, producing 16,000 rubber balls a year as well as a wide variety of other products. The balls were used in ceremonial games played on stone courts like handball.

A few ancient Mesoamerican rubber balls have been found, the oldest dating back to 1600 B.C. The one below is more recent, from between 300 B.C. to 250 A.D. Behind it is a stone mitt called the manopola. Players strapped it to their hands and used it to hit the rubber ball. You can see where his thumb would have gone on the side and his fingers up top.

Mesoamericas manopla and rubber ball

Roman shipwreck to aid in search for neutrinos

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

Twenty years ago, divers found a Roman shipwreck off the coast of Sardinia. The ship had gone down some time between 80 and 50 B.C., and it was an unusual find in many ways. For instance, the ship sank straight down vertically and there was no evidence of mooring attempts despite its proximity to shore or any evidence of what caused it to sink, no sign of fire or of it being crushed by waves or shoals. Archaeologists speculate that the captain might have intentionally scuttled the ship to keep it out of enemy hands.

Lead ingot stamped with Pontilieni nameThe star of the show, however, was its cargo. The ship was full of lead. Usually lead lined the hull of Roman ships, but this was a full-on shipment of lead ingots from mines in Cartegena, Spain, with Rome as its ultimate destination. The hull was found to contain approximately 2000 carefully stacked ingots of lead, each weighing 33 kg (73 lb) or 100 Roman pounds, the maximum amount by law that a slave was allowed to carry. All the ingots were stamped with the names of the merchants who extracted and shipped the lead, Caius and Marcus Pontilieni and their servant Pilip claiming the majority.

Lead ingots still stacked on sea floorThe ship was 36 meters and 12 meters wide of a type called navis oneraria magna, a cargo vessel specially designed to carry heavy loads. It would have to be, because that cargo of lead weighed 39 tons. This is the largest lead cargo to have ever been found. It exponentially increases the total amount of ancient lead we have access to.

That’s where the neutrinos come in. Neutrinos are extremely difficult to detect because although billions of them pass through us every day, their signature can easily be obscured by every day elements, like cosmic rays or naturally occurring radiation in rocks. Scientists struggle to find material to shield their neutrino experiments from these kinds of interference. Even lead, which as we all know blocks Superman’s X-ray vision, contains trace amounts of decaying lead-210 isotopes.

But ancient lead, on the other hand, has long since outlasted the half-life of all its radioactive isotopes.

When nuclear physicist Ettore Fiorini at the University of Milan-Bicocca read about the find in a newspaper he went to Cagliari to offer the financial support of the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN) in excavating the vessel and its precious cargo. Accepting the offer, archaeologists in Cagliari at the time gave the INFN 150 ingots in return, and they recently sent off a second batch of 120 ingots, which reached the Gran Sasso laboratory last week. These will now be stripped of their historically interesting manufacturers’ names, cleaned of any incrustations and then melted to provide a shield for the CUORE experiment.

CUORE, which should be ready in about two or three years time, will use 750 kg of tellurium dioxide to try and discover an extremely rare nuclear process predicted by theory and known as neutrinoless double beta decay. Involving the transformation of two neutrons into protons and electrons but no neutrinos, this decay would imply that neutrinos are, uniquely, their own antiparticle. Observing the decay would also provide physicists with a way of directly calculating the mass of the neutrino, something that to date can only be done indirectly.

Scientists have used old lead from shipwrecks before — US researchers used lead from a 450-year-old Spanish galleon for the IGEX experiment — but the sheer quantity of this find, its age and the purity of ingots make this collaboration of ancient and cutting edge particularly exciting.

Intact Etruscan home found in Tuscany

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

Etruscan domus with grain pitcher and olive pressArchaeologists excavating the archeological site of Vetulonia outside of Grosseto, Tuscany, have found a remarkably intact Etruscan house dating to between the 3rd and 1st centuries B.C. Most of the standing structure appears to have been a basement used for food storage. You can still see the family’s earthenware grain storage pot and olive press in the corner. The team also found all kinds of pottery, vessels, plates which although broken are complete enough to be put back together for display.

The original beaten clay floor are intact, and the sun-baked clay bricks used to build the walls are the first Etruscan bricks ever found. The house contained a large number of nails which suggests there was a second floor made from wood and clay, with wooden beams supporting it. The team even found a door knob and the remains of bronze furniture.

“These are the best [Etruscan] ruins that have ever been found in Italy,” said Simona Rafanelli, director of the Isidoro Falchi archeological museum in Vetulonia, told journalists.

“They represent something incredibly important from an archeological and historical point of view, because they finally give us an understanding of new techniques linked to Etruscan construction that we did not know until today.

“Here today we are rewriting history. It is a unique case in Italy because with what we have found we will be able to completely reconstruct the entire house.”

Etruscan and Roman coins found in the house date the collapse of the building to 79 B.C., the year after dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla’s retired as leader of Rome after years of war and bloody proscriptions. Vetulonia is known to have been in the thick of Sulla’s wars during those years.

It was an important Etruscan center in its heyday. According to 1st century epic poet Silius Italicus, the fasces, Roman Republican symbol of authority, were introduced to Rome from Vetulonia. By the time this domus was built, however, the town had begun to fade into obscurity.

For more pictures of the find, see this slideshow from Italian newspaper, La Repubblica.

Huge number of tombs and mummies found in Egypt

Monday, May 24th, 2010

Archaeologists excavating in the city of Lahoun in the Fayoum oasis (the same area where the hoard of Ptolemaic coins was found Painted wooden sarcophaguslast month) have uncovered an underground labyrinth containing 57 tombs from different periods, 45 of them complete with coffins, sarcophagus and mummies inside. (NB: The ABC News story erroneously reports the total number of tombs as 45, but it gives the best overview so I decided to link to it anyway.)

The breadth of this find is astonishing. There were 12 wooden sarcophagi stacked inside an 18th dynasty (1550 to 1292 B.C.) tomb, each of them still containing mummies. The sarcophagi are made out of cartonnage, layered plaster and papyrus that forms a hard covering for a body or face mask, and richly decorated with incantations from the Book of the Dead and scenes of the deities.

But the most surprising finds upend what archaeologists knew previously about the site:

2nd dynasty tomb with house coffin and funereal furnitureBut the most significant findings were 14 tombs, all from the second dynasty. [Lead archaeologist Abdel Rahman] El-Aydi explained to ABC News that one of the tombs was found intact inside. “We found a coffin of the deceased, a wooden coffin of the type known as a house coffin, because it has the shape of the palace or house facade of this period.”

Inside this coffin the deceased was placed in a twisted position and covered in huge amounts of linen, not rags, because in that dynasty ancient Egyptians had no knowledge of the mummification process, El-Aydi said.

Other coffins were found placed in the southwest corner of this one tomb, and on the floor toward the east side was funeral furniture, consisting of huge cylindrical alabaster jars, a wooden headrest and a polished wooden offering table.

Before this find, archaeologists believed the site dated to the reign of 12th dynasty King Senwosret, but the 2nd dynasty tombs are a full thousand years older than that, from around 2750 B.C.

The team will continue excavating, cataloging and recording the site until June, then will move the finds to museums and storage facilities.

Copernicus gets hero’s reburial in Poland

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

In 2005 archaeologists excavated Copernicus’ remains from an unmarked grave underneath a side chapel in Frombork Cathedral, the church where he had been a canon when he died in 1543. Forensic researchers examined the remains over the next few years, creating a facial reconstruction (eerily reminiscent of James Cromwell) from the skull and running DNA tests against hairs found in a book Copernicus owned. The latter proved quite conclusively that the bones were indeed the earthly remains of Copernicus.

Now his remains have been re-interred with all the Catholic pomp and attention due a star of his magnitude.

Mind you, he wasn’t intentionally shoved into an unmarked grave. When Copernicus died his heliocentric theory was just beginning to be discussed in scientific circles, so there was no question of him being considered a heretic. He didn’t even get a published copy of “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres” until the day he died. He was just an obscure canon and he got a correspondingly obscure burial.

He did have some run-ins with his superiors, but they weren’t about whether the earth revolved around the sun or vice versa. One was about his refusal to give up his mistress. He was also suspected of harboring secret Lutheran sympathies.

Anyway, those days are over now.

On Saturday, his remains were blessed with holy water by some of Poland’s highest-ranking clerics before an honor guard ceremoniously carried his coffin through the imposing red brick cathedral and lowered it back into the same spot where part of his skull and other bones were found in 2005.

A black granite tombstone now identifies him as the founder of the heliocentric theory, but also a church canon, a cleric ranking below a priest. The tombstone is decorated with a model of the solar system, a golden sun encircled by six of the planets.

He was also lain in state in a city nearby, and on Friday the coffin with his remains were taken on a tour of local spots to which he had connections in life before being brought to the cathedral for the funeral.

Copernicus reburied under altar of Frombork Cathedral

17th c. collector’s cabinet in Augmented Reality

Saturday, May 22nd, 2010

Augsburg collector's cabinet, ca 1630The J. Paul Getty Museum has utilized a technology called Augmented Reality to display the details of a collector’s cabinet from Augsburg, Germany, (made ca. 1630). The cabinet is an incredibly complex piece of furniture that was designed to showcase its owners’ most precious collectibles. It opens on four sides to expose a bewildering array of drawers, cubbies and richly decorated surfaces.

Visitors aren’t allowed to touch it, of course — it’s a delicate piece — so the Getty decided to provide a virtual experience of the cabinet’s wonders both for the museum visitors and for visitors to its website.

“We are always looking for ways in which we can enhance the viewer’s experience,” says Erin Coburn, head of the museum’s Collection Information & Access department. During a discussion about the pavilion’s reopening, she says, “A curator suggested we do something to help people understand the Augsberg cabinet in a way other than just staring at it.”

Coburn and her colleagues created an “interactive” — a virtual model that computer users can spin, open and reassemble. This model is accessible via two touch screens in the gallery and on the Getty’s website at

The Getty also has enabled online computer users to view and interact with a floating 3-D simulation of the cabinet, thanks to Augmented Reality technology, which combines the real and the virtual in real time.

There’s a wee delay while it loads, but nothing dramatic. Not only can you move all the way around it and zoom in to every section, but there are explanatory details on the most salient features of each side. Click on the “Overview” button for an awesome animation of the whole cabinet spinning around with its drawers pulled out. When you click “Show Structure” the outer walls go transparent and you can see the guts of the piece, exploring all kinds of drawers and pull-out trays in annotated detail.

I love it when technology makes history accessible. No more roped off velvet chairs and plexiglass walls keeping our collective grubby hands off of beautiful, fascinating objects.

Protip: It plays a little better in Firefox than it does in Internet Explorer. Mainly the browsers both handle it fine, but IE gave me trouble when I tried to click on the drawers and pull-outs in the “Show Structure” mode.





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