Kickstart the search for lost da Vinci mural

In 1504, the Gonfalionere of Justice, leader of the Florentine Republic, Piero Soderini commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to decorate a wall in the newly built Hall of Five Hundred, the room where Florence’s Great Council met in the Palazzo Vecchio.

According to Giorgio Vasari’s biography of Leonardo in the Lives of the Artists, the people of Florence clamored for a memento of the great artist’s presence among them. They decided on a large-scale mural depicting the 1440 Battle of Anghiari in which greatly outnumbered Florentine armies held a bridge against the Duke of Milan’s mercenaries, thereby keeping central Italy’s free from Milanese control.

Vasari glowingly describes Leonardo’s design:

Whereupon Leonardo, determining to execute this work, began a cartoon in the Sala del Papa, an apartment in S. Maria Novella, representing the story of Niccolò Piccinino, Captain of Duke Filippo of Milan; wherein he designed a group of horsemen who were fighting for a standard, a work that was held to be very excellent and of great mastery, by reason of the marvellous ideas that he had in composing that battle; seeing that in it rage, fury, and revenge are perceived as much in the men as in the horses, among which two with the forelegs interlocked are fighting no less fiercely with their teeth than those who are riding them do in fighting for that standard, which has been grasped by a soldier, who seeks by the strength of his shoulders, as he spurs his horse to flight, having turned his body backwards and seized the staff of the standard, to wrest it by force from the hands of four others, of whom two are defending it, each with one hand, and, raising their swords in the other, are trying to sever the staff; while an old soldier in a red cap, crying out, grips the staff with one hand, and, raising a scimitar with the other, furiously aims a blow in order to cut off both the hands of those who, gnashing their teeth in the struggle, are striving in attitudes of the utmost fierceness to defend their banner; besides which, on the ground, between the legs of the horses, there are two figures in foreshortening that are fighting together, and the one on the ground has over him a soldier who has raised his arm as high as possible, that thus with greater force he may plunge a dagger into his throat, in order to end his life; while the other, struggling with his legs and arms, is doing what he can to escape death.

It is not possible to describe the invention that Leonardo showed in the garments of the soldiers, all varied by him in different ways, and likewise in the helmet crests and other ornaments; not to mention the incredible mastery that he displayed in the forms and lineaments of the horses, which Leonardo, with their fiery spirit, muscles, and shapely beauty, drew better than any other master.

In classic Leonardo style, he invented an accordion-folding scaffold to reach the top of his immense canvas. Also in a classic but less fortunate Leonardo style, he invented a new undercoat to apply to the wall under his oil painting. He didn’t want to use fresco because it had failed rather spectacularly in The Last Supper, so he scared up some weird mixture that in tests worked quite well. On the huge scale of the wall, though, where it was virtually impossibly to keep the environment evenly warm, the primer didn’t dry quickly enough and before his very eyes the paint started dripping. Leonardo brought in braziers to heat the wall and try to preserve what he could, but only the bottom of the painting managed to dry on time. The paints on the top were hopelessly intermingled. Bummed, Leonardo abandoned the project.

Even incomplete, the mural was widely revered. Many copies were made of it over the years, most notably by Peter Paul Rubens in 1603, based on a 1553 engraving by Lorenzo Zacchia. By the time Rubens made his version, Leonardo’s original was long gone. The Hall of the Five Hundred was enlarged between 1555 and 1572, and in the process The Battle of Anghieri and the incomplete work by Michelangelo that was across from it were both lost.

It was none other than Giorgio Vasari who was in charge of the restructuring of the hall. He and his associates painted vast battle murals on the walls, including over the wall that had once held Leonardo’s lost masterpiece. On one of those murals, way up high, Vasari left a curious note. There’s no lettering anywhere else on this intricate scene of army against army, but in one green standard Vasari painted two words: “Cerca Trova,” seek and find.

Florentine art historian and University of California, San Diego, professor Maurizio Seracini found Vasari’s note in the 1970s. Ever since then, he’s tried to find out more about the wall and might be behind it. Ultrasounds taken in 1976 detected no painting behind the current one. In 2000, Seracini used radar scanning to discover that Vasari had painted his work on a new brick wall, not directly on Leonardo’s surface. Could Vasari, who we know held Anghiari in the highest of esteem, had built a brick surface to keep Leonardo’s work, whatever was left of it, intact? Is that what seekers would find if they looked?

The problem is how do we find out what, if anything, is behind the bricks without dismantling the 16th century works. Enter freelance photographer Dave Yoder. In 2007, Yoder was assigned by National Geographic to do a story about Seracini’s decades-long investigation, and in 2010, National Geographic inked a deal with Florence to pay the city $250,000 for exclusive rights to publish the results of Mr. Seracini’s research.

It was Yoder who found a possible solution to the conundrum. Googling, he found nuclear physicist Robert Smither who was creating a gamma ray camera that would be able to take high-resolution pictures of cancer inside of a patient without invasive exploration.

Mr. Smither figured that his camera, which essentially uses copper crystals in place of lens glass to focus the gamma rays that bounce back when an object is sprayed with neutrons, could provide a definitive answer. It could not only determine whether the Leonardo painting was there by identifying the chemicals in the paint but could also capture an image of the hidden work — without damaging the Vasari fresco on top.

Thus ensued an unlikely and somewhat surreal turn of events in which Mr. Yoder, between glossy-magazine assignments, found himself borrowing time at a facility of Italy’s energy research agency in Frascati, outside Rome. The testing, in June 2010, went well. The team took pigments similar to those used by Leonardo and original bricks from Leonardo’s era that Mr. Seracini found at the Palazzo Vecchio and sprayed them with neutrons. The gamma rays that bounced back were strong enough for Mr. Smither to collect and read.

That convinced Mr. Smither that if they exposed the wall in the Hall of Five Hundred to neutrons, they could tell from the gamma rays that bounced back whether Leonardo’s painting was still there. And, at that point, they could build a special camera that would create an image from those particular gamma rays.

It’s the best of both worlds: we get to see what’s left of Leonardo’s painting without damaging the wall on top of it. The only problem is money. In order to develop and test the gamma camera, the researchers need $265,000. Since everyone is broke, they’ve taken it to Kickstarter where people can donate a dollar or a hundred thousand of them to see this plan come to fruition.

I think Leonardo, compulsive inventor that he was, would be absolutely thrilled to have a new gamma ray camera built so that we can see his art.

State, collectors vie for Gypsy fortune teller machine

A 1906 verbal gypsy fortune teller machine in the gold rush ghost town of Virginia City, Montana, is being tussled over by private collectors, the state, historians and citizens. The fortune teller machine is one of no more than three remaining that used a recording to “speak” fortunes to whosoever fed it a nickel. Magician and collector of historic penny arcade games David Copperfield thinks it may be the only one of its kind remaining, and of course he wants to buy it. He’s not the only one.

Until recently the fortune teller machine lived in relative obscurity, one dusty game artifact among the multitude collected by General Mills heir Charles Bovey. It was Bovey who began to buy up properties in Virginia City in the 1940s so they could be restored and the town kept intact as living Montana history. He did the same for neighboring gold rush ghost town Nevada City. He dedicated thirty years of his life to preserving the state’s 19th century history, and while he was it, he used the buildings to store his ever-burgeoning collection of antique games and musical machines.

Founded in 1863 as a gold rush boomtown, just two years later Virginia City had a population of 10,000 and was made capital of the newly created Montana Territory. Population followed the gold, though, and that was already moving west towards Helena. In 1875 the capital was moved to Helena where it remained when Montana joined the Union as a state in 1889. In 1942, the last mine in the area closed. Bovey jumped on the opportunity and start buying.

That boom and bust cycle not only makes Virginia City a classic example of a gold rush town, but it also ensured there was little interest in knocking down old buildings to make new ones. Bovey was able to restore a great many structures from the first decade or so of Virginia City’s life. Of almost 300 structures in town, almost half were built before 1900. The largest proportion of the 200 historic buildings in town date to the 1870s, and even the later construction is of great historical value in that it illustrates the growth and decline of frontier mining-dependent communities.

Virginia City was designated National Historic Landmark on July 4, 1961. Charles Bovey continued buying and restoring until his death in 1978. After that, his wife Sue and son Ford continued to preservation and restoration efforts until Ford sold Virginia City and Nevada City, properties, land and contents, to the State of Montana for $6.5 million in 1998. Since then, Virginia City has been under the aegis of the Montana Heritage Preservation Commission.

Bovey’s historical games and machines stayed in town, adding to its tourist appeal. There are hundreds of thousands of these games, most of them in curatorial storage. The fortune telling machine was used by visitors through the early 1970s when its deteriorating condition necessitated its removal to storage. It was put back on display in 1999, but it was for looking only, no touching. Conservators finally began to restore it to function in September of 2004, finishing in June, 2006. In 2008, the gypsy returned to public display (again, no touching allowed) in the Gypsy Arcade, a turn-of-the-century gadgetry museum on Virginia City’s main street.

It was that successful restoration that brought the fortune teller to the attention of collectors. Around that time, Copperfield approached the Montana Heritage Commission offering a reported $2 million for the machine, including enough money to replace the gypsy with another non-verbal historical fortune telling machine for display purposes. They turned him down.

The pressure is back on now, though, because like most every other state-supported institution, the Heritage Commission has been kneecapped by budget cuts. You know it’s a bad sign when your curator of collections, Janna Norby, gets laid off due to budget cuts just two weeks after giving the AP a great quote for their article about the gypsy: “If we start selling our collection for money, what do we have?”

Thankfully she’s not alone in her sentiments. The current staff, skeleton though it may be, of the Heritage Commission insist that they would never sell of any of the antiques under their stewardship. This makes the private collectors grumpy because they think they can do a much better job of maintaining it and conserving it using the latest technology money can buy. Collector and restorer Theo Holstein is putting together a consortium of private collectors to bid $3 million for the gypsy. David Copperfield is revving back up to bid too, and those figures being bandied about could go even higher into the stratosphere.

Since the Montana Heritage Commission is overseen by the state Department of Commerce, which, needless to say, has slightly different priorities involving commerce rather than preservation, those millions of dollars just might be enough to pry the gypsy away from Virginia City after all. Don’t worry, though. If it disappears into a private collection never to be seen by the public again, Theo Holstein assures us that sale would be the equivalent of rescuing a precious gemstone from the dark bowels of a mine.

“They don’t have any idea what they have. It’s like they have the world’s best diamond and they just pulled it out of their mineshaft. It’s good that it’s there and it survived, but now it really needs to be part of the world.”

Part of the world = hidden forever in some rich guy’s creepy basement gameland.

Mystery stained glass mentioned by Van Gogh found

In 1876, a 23-year-old Vincent van Gogh was teaching at a small boarding school in Ramsgate, England, and living in Isleworth with the family of the Rev. Thomas Slade-Jones, Congregationalist minister and the school’s owner. It was an unpaid position with a hellish commute. He wrote to his brother Theo of his daily life teaching students Bible history and weeding the garden, of his dreams of becoming a clergyman. This was a period of increasing religious devotion for Vincent. His letters are packed full of his thoughts on Biblical passages, of his desire to spend less time teaching and more time helping Mr. Jones minister to his flock.

In a letter to Theo from October 7, 1876, Vincent reported walking almost six hours (!) to London to collect some school fees for Rev. Jones. While roaming the Strand neighborhood, recently rebuilt and now a home to many of the literary and artistic avant-garde, he encountered some old friends and had dinner.

After that I went to [art dealer] van Wisselingh, where I saw sketches for two church windows. In the middle of one window stands the portrait of a middle-aged lady, oh, such a noble face, with the words “Thy will be done,” over it, and in the other window the portrait of her daughter, with the words, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” There, and in the gallery of Messrs. Goupil & Co., I saw beautiful pictures and drawings. It is such an intense delight to be so often reminded of Holland by art.

Van Gogh scholars have long searched for these church windows, and it seems they’ve finally found them in a small church, St. Andrew’s, in Owslebury, near Winchester. The two windows are almost exactly as Vincent describes them, only one inscription — “Faith is the substance of things hoped for” — was changed to “Fear not, only believe” between design and execution.

William Carnegie, 8th Earl of Northesk, commissioned the windows as memorials to his wife Georgiana and his daughter Lady Margaret as older and younger versions of the Virgin Mary. Georgiana died in 1874 at age 63, after 31 years of marriage. Margaret died in 1871 at just 23 years of age. The windows were installed in the church after his death in 1878.

Art historian Max Donnelly found the windows while researching the glazier, Daniel Cottier, and put two and two together in a serendipitous leap.

Donnelly said: “I saw a reference to them at the church in Owslebury and managed to get some photographs. It was then that bells started ringing, and it happened to be about the same time as the exhibition of Van Gogh’s letters at the Royal Academy.

“Although the letter mentioning the sketches was not among them, it reminded me that he had written to his brother.”

Donnelly contacted the earl’s descendants and was pointed in the direction of the family scrapbook. “Inside I found photographs of the people involved and photographs of the designs that Van Gogh had described,” said Donnelly. “I assume that the 8th earl sent copies to family members showing them what he was intending for the church to the memory of his wife and daughter.

“This proved that the windows were the ones Van Gogh had seen.”

Did restorers castrate the penis tree?

In 1999, workers restoring a medieval communal fount called the Fountain of Abundance in the Tuscan town of Massa Marittima discovered a curious mural hidden behind a whitewash layer. It depicts a tree heavily laden with heavily laden phalluses under which eight or nine women stand in various poses and large black birds fly. Expert thinks the fresco dates to 1265, the same year inscribed on the fountain itself.

According to George Ferzoco, the director of the Centre for Tuscan Studies at the University of Leicester whose summer program was in Massa that year, the townspeople’s initial reaction to the find was mixed.

“They considered it to be somehow dirty or erotic, one or the other. Those who saw it as erotic looked at it as being a symbol that mirrored the reality of the water and the place. Water gives life; Phalluses give life: Isn’t this a unique and interesting way to portray the life-giving properties of water? The porn camp, if we can call it that, saw it as being somehow deliberately obscene and thus believed that as little attention as possible needed to be drawn to it.”

Over a decade later, that ambivalence has long gone and locals are furiously protective of their Tree of Fertility. In 2008 a program of restoration was undertaken to fully clean the mural which had suffered not just from its whitewashing but also from water damage and concretions. The restoration finally ended in early August and the public were allowed back in to view the mural, only to find to their dismaythat there were parts missing. Male parts.

The experts who carried out the restoration have been accused of sanitising the mural by scrubbing out or altering some of the testicles, which hang from the tree’s branches along with around 25 phalluses.

“Many parts of the work seem to have been arbitrarily repainted,” said Gabriele Galeotti, a town councillor who has called for an investigation after seeing the finished work. “The authenticity of the fresco seems to have been compromised by a restoration effort that did not respect the original character of the work.”

The restorers deny categorically having painted over any phalluses. They claim any paint loss was the result of salt and calcium concretions lifting paint as they were removed during the cleaning. If any repainting gets done, restorers say, it’ll be done to put the lost phalluses back in, not to remove them.

Councilman Galeotti is not at all satisfied with that explanation.

“What the restorers say is absolute nonsense. As far as we are concerned they have compromised the authenticity of the fresco. The work was intended as a symbol of fertility with the penises being crucial to the intention of the art but now these have been removed and the message is therefore no longer there.

“We intend to make a formal complaint to the local prosecutor so that he can open an investigation into this disrespectful slaughter of an artistic work. There was obviously no intention to respect the original artist.”

Unfortunately, I can’t find any before and after images of the tree so we can assess the phallic loss with our own eyes, but judging from some of the old pictures I found (see this one from 2003), the fresco was in truly awful condition when uncovered. Recent pictures show it in far superior condition, figures, phalluses and tree.

It’s probably not actually a fertility symbol, btw. George Ferzoco’s studies suggest that the fresco is a political allegory, negative advertising, if you will, writ large in a highly trafficked location: the public fountain where people drew their water for daily use. Ferzoco notes:

“The fact of the matter is that there is, with regard to the phalluses on display in this painting, nothing whatsoever to do with fertility. It’s one thing to have a symbol of a phallus on its own. That can stand for good luck, fertility, what have you. It’s another to put it in a different context, one in which it’s seen to be quite literally growing on a tree. The Medieval culture, more than ours, was one that was extremely sensitive to what was perceived as the goodness of nature, the goodness of what is natural, and they would have put two and two together in a way which involved seeing this particular tree bearing fruit that is not natural fruit. Those two elements of the equation would have added up to be something which is not natural and hence not good.”

While the phalluses in the tree are, by the context, strange and shocking, there are other phalluses in the painting which add currency to Ferzoco’s hypothesis that this is anything but a mural celebrating fecundity. “We have an image of two women who appear to be locked in serious combat over one of these phalluses, so this supposed fertility symbol that ought to bring life and goodness is in fact bringing strife to the people fighting over it. More importantly, there is a woman on the left side of the mural, standing in what I call her ‘Lady Di’ pose, standing quite demurely, until you realise that she’s being sodomised by one of these phalluses. You can’t get pregnant by sodomy – it’s the ultimate in non-fertility. There’s something going on in the mural that subverts notions of fertility.”

But why would one display such an extravagant, and no doubt expensive, symbol of non-fertility in such a central place? What message is it conveying? “The key to that subversion – according to Ferzoco – is shown with the symbol of one of the two competing political factions of the time, which is displayed prominently in the mural. This is the Eagle, a symbol of the Ghibelline party. The juxtaposition of this party symbol along with another symbol being used unnaturally, in a non-fertile way is meant to create in the viewer a kind of relationship between what is unnatural or not good on the one hand and the Ghibelline party on the other. It makes even more sense when you consider that during almost all of its history as an independent city republic, Massa Marittima was controlled by the anti-Ghibelline Guelph party.”

Stick with us, is the message, or prepare for a society in which perverted trees grow phallus fruit and women tear each other’s hair out trying to have non-reproductive sexual congress with them.

Gosport church’s Handel Organ to be restored

For the past five years, Holy Trinity Church in Gosport, Hampshire, has been trying to raise the £150,000 ($245,000) necessary to restore their 18th century organ, once caressed by the nimble fingers of George Frederick Handel. They’ve been able to raise £42,000 from their Adopt-a-Pipe program and small individual donations. Last November they applied for a £150,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to jumpstart the process and ensure they have all the funds they need for the projected £200,000 ($327,000) restoration costs.

Now the Heritage Lottery Fund has come through with a grant of £167,000 ($273,000), bringing the kitty up to a £209,000 ($342,000).

“We are so pleased that the HLF has generously supported this project,” said Church Reverend Andy Davis.

“It is further evidence of the quality and heritage significance of this organ, the actions of which are now 110 years old and need urgent work. It is a credit to the church that so much has been raised during five years. An impressive regular concert programme has attracted musicians and listeners to the church from near and far in large numbers.” […]

Local organ builder Andrew Cooper, who has kept the hallowed centrepiece in working order for several years, will be entrusted with the craftwork.

I’m sure he’ll be relieved to have more supplies than duct tape at his disposal. Seriously look at some of these “temporary repairs”:

Cooper will have to repair soft metal pipes that have bulged over time, wooden pipes that have split and been poorly patched, yards of lead tubing that has been leaking for years, dried and cracked leather parts.

Originally built for James Brydges, the 1st Duke of Chandos, in 1720 when George Frederick Handel was his musician in residence. Handel not only played it once it was installed in the Duke’s Cannons estate, but probably consulted with the builders, Abraham Jordan and son, on the organ’s design.

After the Duke died in 1744, his son found the estate so riddled with debt that in 1747 he held a twelve-day demolition sale during which the entire contents of the estate, from furnishing to the very structure of the building, was sold at auction. Holy Trinity Church purchased the organ at that auction for £117 ($191) and hired Abraham Jordan’s son to install it in the west gallery.

Later it would be moved to the east gallery and enlarged. A restoration in 1897 replaced the 18th century workings, leaving only eight of the original Jordan stops from 1720. Raise the volume as high as you can to listen to this not-so-greatly recorded example of the same sounds Handel once produced.