Restorer finds 18th c. decorations in Damascus home

French engineer and avid restorer Jacques Montlucon bought a small but lovely classic courtyard home in Old Damascus six years ago. These old aristocratic homes are fading fast in the Syrian capital, and Montlucon has a yen to save as many as he can. This particular property caught his eye because of its beautiful fountain and its dazzling rooftop view of the Umayyad mosque.

A wood-panelled section of the painted walls in the iwanHe didn’t expect to find entirely unique wall paintings and stone carvings behind layers of varnish and 20th century tiles, however.

“I was removing the heavy varnish covering the wood-paneled walls in the iwan (reception room) when figures of painted strange birds, monsters and castles started to emerge,” he said, pointing to the fine drawing between the carved wood.

“The paintings are dated 1789, the year of the French Revolution. But who knows how long it had taken for the news to travel from Paris to Syria,” he said.

Section of the ceiling painting An imaginary black bird pulls a boat. A man points a rifle from the top of a castle on a sea and monsters fly over the water. The wood ceiling resembles an intricate Persian carpet.[…]

Behind plain 20th century tiles in the same room, Montlucon also uncovered carved stone walls with mosaic-like Arab patterns, a technique pioneered by the Mamluks, one of the many rulers of Damascus.

Syrian craftsmen had a reputation for carving stone as if they were cutting paper. They flourished during Ottoman rule from the 16th to early 20th century, and incorporated Persian and Western influences, such as baroque into their work.

The thing that makes these extraordinary decorative elements unique is their theme. Other historical homes in Old Damascus have similar paintings, but they’re of buildings and landscapes. The fantastical, mythological paintings Montlucon found are unheard of in other courtyard homes.

Montlucon thinks the owners who covered up all this magnificence might have been hiding opulence from the piercing gaze of tax collectors, or they could have just wanted to modernize. I find it hard to imagine someone thinking layers of varnish were more stylish than exquisite 18th c. paintings, or that some spackle and tile cut a more handsome figure than hand-carved stone mosaic patterns, but crazy is as crazy does, I suppose.

At least Montlucon has a properly reverent attitude towards preserving the beauty he uncovered. He made sure to use the mildest of restoration techniques: nothing more than cotton balls, water colors and basic solvents. It took him and a friend 6 months to reveal the full majesty of his walls.

 Jacques Montlucon on his rooftop with the Umayyad Mosque in the background

Polaroid Collection bankruptcy sale

When the rise of digital photography and a Ponzi scheme at its parent company killed the Polaroid star, a north Minnesota bankruptcy court hearing the case ordered the Polaroid Corporation’s extensive and venerable photography collection to go under the hammer, with all proceeds used to pay creditors. Sotheby’s is thrilled to the tips of its toesies to put some of the collection on sale on Monday and Tuesday. Meanwhile, they’ve selected 1,200 of the most notable photographs to go on display in their Manhattan offices. Admission is free.

"Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" mural-sized print by Ansel Adams The collection stars some of the greatest luminaries of American photography: Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, William Wegman and his Weimaraners, even Robert Mapplethorpe and Andy Warhol. Ansel Adams was a close friend and collaborator of Edwin Land, eccentric genius and inventor of the Polaroid instant developing technology. They worked together for decades experimenting with film and cameras, and to build the collection.

It’s the finest group of Ansel Adams prints in private hands, according to the Sotheby’s expert.There 400 of his pictures are in the auction, many of them taken with Polaroid cameras or film. Some are mural-sized and expected to fetch in the neighborhood of half a million dollars. Others are palm-sized snapshots like the ones all we old folks who were alive before the millennium know and love.

In fact, most of the pictures in the collection were taken with Polaroids. The ones that aren’t were personally collected by Ansel Adams at Land’s behest. They wanted to ensure the collection didn’t become overly narrow and that it would display a range of photographic techniques, so Land gave Adams a stipend to purchase pictures from his friends and colleagues to create what would become known as the Library Collection, a group of non-Polaroid pictures by masters like William Garnett and Minor White.

Polaroid Land CameraIt’s the Polaroid pieces that really stun and amaze me, however. The technology has so much more breadth than I realized. Inspired by his daughter’s disappointment that she could not see the picture he had taken of her on vacation in New Mexico in 1943 right away, Land invented a way to develop a negative into a positive before our very eyes. The first Polaroid instant camera, the Land Camera, went on sale in 1948 and it was a huge hit.

The SX-70, Land’s most popular camera [first sold in 1972], was as convenient as a mobile phone, folding flat so it could be stuffed in a pocket. Its styling – a skin of brushed aluminium with a panel of inlaid leather – flattered the user, advertising modernity while hinting at gentility. Like all good, exploitable ideas, this one had to be constantly reinvented so that consumers did not become bored. Although Land began by selling the Polaroid as something anyone could and should own, he also shrewdly fetishised his product, dreaming up ever more complicated cameras and engaging celebrated photographers to test them.

Ultra-Large self-portrait of Lucas SamarasAt first, Polaroid’s appeal lay in its portability and simplicity. But American entrepreneurs think big. Land went on to design a 20in by 24in camera, which had to be cumbersomely transported to the artists who were chosen to use it: manoeuvred into the New York apartment of Lucas Samaras; freighted to Robert Rauschenberg in Florida. By the 1980s Land had come up with a 40in by 80in camera, an immovable piece of furniture that was permanently domiciled at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where it made life-sized reproductions of paintings on single sheets of Polacolor film. The photographers who experimented with it, including Samaras, needed to engage assistants who actually sat inside it. Camera comes from the Latin for “chamber”, and this one – belying the pocket-sized handiness of the early models – was a virtual room.

Land made offers artists couldn’t refuse: he’d let them use his wild and appealing equipment if they’d give him the pictures they took. Polaroid got licensing and published rights, but the artists still retained their copyrights and exclusive access to their work. In this way Land built a corporate collection that was and remains a marvel of creative, unique artistry.

Some of the artists are furious at the sale, not surprisingly. The deals they struck with Land are not enforceable once the pieces are purchased by third parties.

Now that the collection is to be sold off, the terms of this deal have been questioned, and there may yet be a legal challenge to the sale. A federal judge in Oklahoma is rallying protest, pointing out that the bankruptcy court didn’t appreciate that Polaroids are unique, which means that the photographers will forfeit their right of access when their images are in private hands. The painter Chuck Close, who made a series of collaged self-portraits with the 20 by 24 camera, has denounced the sale as “criminal”. But so far, as Sotheby’s rather smugly announced a while ago, no photographer has made a legitimate case for the return of items destined for the block.

So the hammer will fall and the Polaroid Collection, lovingly curated by geniuses Edwin Land and Ansel Adams, will be dispersed all over the world. You can browse the e-catalogue on the Sotheby’s site to get a glimpse at the magnitude of this special collection.

For a riveting overview of the art and technology of the Polaroid Collection, please watch this video produced by Sotheby’s:

[flashvideo file= width=427 height=242 /]

Gigantic looted sarcophagus returned to China

The enormous Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 A.D.) stone sarcophagus of Empress Wu Huifei (699-737 A.D.), looted from her tomb four years ago and smuggled to a buyer in the United States, has been returned to China.

The handsomely decorated sarcophagus was stolen from Wu’s tomb in southern Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province, in 2006. Police didn’t even realize it was gone until they found photographs of it on a computer confiscated from a suspect in another tomb robbery. Archaeologists identified the artifact in the pictures as Empress Wu’s sarcophagus, setting the police off on an international hunt.

After two years of investigations, police discovered the sarcophagus had been smuggled out of China and sold to a businessman in the US for $1 million, police sources said.

“We contacted the businessman through mediators and told him we had to get the relic back. If necessary, we would seek help from Interpol,” said Han Yulin, head officer of the heritage investigation team of Xi’an’s public security bureau.

“After three rounds of negotiations, he agreed to return the relic to China unconditionally.”

Oh just three rounds? What a humanitarian. The sarcophagus was shipped from Virginia in March and arrived in Guangzhou a month later. It was put on display at the Shaanxi History Museum yesterday.

The part that really blows my mind is the sheer size of this beast. It’s not like Roman sarcophagi or even those big outer sarcophagi that contain pharaonic mummies. It weighs 27 tons and is 4 meters (13 feet) long, 2 meters wide and 2 meters tall. How in the name of all that’s unholy did the looters get something so gigantic out of the tomb? To say nothing of the logistics of schlepping such a massive piece across at least one continent and an ocean. What about customs? How is it possible to sneak around with a 27-ton stone coffin taller and wider than an NBA player and longer than two of them?

It just goes to show how deep a problem looting is, how adept and resourceful the criminals are.

Sarcophagus of Tang empress Wu Huifei

Queen Eadgyth confirmed

Eadgyth's tomb in Magdesburg CathedralThe bones found in Magdeburg Cathedral in a coffin marked with the name of Queen Eadgyth, granddaughter of Alfred the Great and wife of Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, have been confirmed as those of Queen Eadgyth herself. The bones had been moved several times over the centuries since her death in 946, so archaeologists couldn’t take the label on the 1510 coffin at face value.

Anthropological analysis of the bones confirmed that they belonged to a woman between 30 and 40 years old (Eadgyth died at 36) who was a frequent horse rider. Isotope analysis indicated a diet high in protein, including lots of fish, so clearly the lifestyle markers all pointed to a person of high status.

DNA testing wasn’t possible because the bones weren’t well-enough preserved, so the next step was to analyze the strontium and oxygen isotopes in the teeth to try to narrow down where she lived as a child.

Scientists examine bones of Queen EadgythIt was possible to ‘triangulate’ the location of the first 14 years of Eadgyth’s life, which pin point the chalk regions of southern Britain.

Mark Horton, Professor in Archaeology at the University of Bristol, said: ”Eadgyth seems to have spent the first eight years of her life in southern England, but changed her domicile frequently, matching quite variable strontium ratios in her teeth.

”Only from the age of nine, the isotope values remain constant.

”Eadgyth must have moved around the kingdom following her father, king Edward the Elder during his reign.

”When her mother was divorced in 919 – Eadgyth was between nine and ten at that point – both were banished to a monastery, maybe Winchester or Wilton in Salisbury.”

The confirmation of Eadgyth’s identity is exciting not only because the latest and greatest science was able to answer questions that would have been unanswerable just a few years ago, but also because these are the oldest remains of a British royal ever found. Her brother Athelstan has a tomb in Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, but the remains were lost during the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII.

Caravaggio’s bones may have been found

Caravaggio's bonesA team of forensic anthropologists who have been examining bones from a Porto Ercole crypt for 6 months think they’ve located Caravaggio’s. They can’t be absolutely sure, but all tests consistently point to Caravaggio’s vital statistics so they’re comfortable enough to say there’s an 85% probability that the bones in question belonged to one Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio.

They started with documents uncovered by art historian and Caravaggio expert Maurizio Marini. Marini searched church and hospital records in Port Ercole, the last place Caravaggio is thought to have fled to in 1610 after escaping his umpteenth bloody scrap this time in Naples, where 4 knights in armor wounded him. In the records of the Church Of St Erasmus, Caravaggio was listed as having died in the parish in 1609 and been buried in the small cemetery of nearby San Sebastiano. (The Porto Ercole area of Tuscany was still using the Julian calendar at that time, hence the date discrepancy.)

The San Sebastiano cemetery had been converted into a city park in 1956 and all the bones transferred to 3 crypts in St. Erasmus cemetery, so when the anthropologists decided to look for Caravaggio’s remains, that’s where they started. They sorted through the remains of 30-40 people interred in the first of the crypts, separating out the bones that belonged to men who probably died in the 17th century.

These were then taken to a special laboratory set up for the occasion in a building that used to house the town’s elementary school.

Here they narrowed down the search further, before taking candidate remains to the anthropology department in Ravenna for a series of tests.

The first analysis used carbon-dating, to try establish exactly how old the bones were. Compatible fragments were then tested for high concentrations of lead and mercury, metals that were commonly used in paints during Caravaggio’s day. The final step was DNA testing. Samples were extracted from the bones and compared with male volunteers surnamed Merisi, believed to be descendents of Caravaggio’s brother.

Out of the 9 potential sets, set number 5 hit all the markers: they belonged to a tall man for the time (5’7″), between 38 and 40 years old, who died around 1610, with toxic levels of lead in his bones. The modern DNA samples were found to be 50-60% compatible with the bones, which is about as solid a match as could be expected seeing that the DNA in the remains has degraded over time and none of the current Merisis are direct descendants of Caravaggio who died childless.

The cause of death remains unconfirmed. National Committee for the Promotion of Historic and Cultural Heritage President and famed historical cold case investigator Silvano Vinceti thinks the wounds inflicted by the assassin knights in Naples became infected. They think he may have been weakened by lead poisoning and maybe even suffering from sunstroke, but that last of course can’t be detected via bone analysis.