Olympia and Venus of Urbino together at last

Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) is leaving France for the first time since 1890 to go on display alongside her mentor, Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538), in an exhibition at the Doge’s Palace in Venice. Manet: Return to Venice will run from April 24th to August 11th. It celebrates the influence of Italian Renaissance art on Manet and will feature more than 80 paintings and drawings that showcase how Manet’s visits to Italy inspired his work throughout his life.

Manet’s pieces will be placed next to the Italian works associated with them, most notably Olympia and Venus of Urbino. Art historians often speak of the two works in the same breath since Manet deliberately and recognizably used the Renaissance masterpiece as the model for his own boundary-busting exploration of the female nude. They have never met in the proverbial and copious flesh, though, because Olympia belongs to the France since Claude Monet, who the raised funds to buy it after Manet’s death, donated it to the state in 1890. It’s such an important watershed in modern painting that none of the museums that have hosted it (the Musée du Luxembourg from 1890 to 1907, the Louvre from 1907 to 1986, and the Musée d’Orsay from 1986 until the present) have ever allowed it to travel. Venus of Urbino is in the permanent collection of the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence and Italian regulations prohibit it from leaving the country.

This one-of-a-kind pairing was only made possible through the D’Orsay’s special collaboration with the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia. The French museum is loaning 42 of Manet’s works to the exhibit, an unprecedented number that will make up more than half the total pieces on display. Part of the motivation is fundraising as the D’Orsay will be making millions in loan fees, but museum president Guy Cogeval said, “It’s every art historian’s obsession to bring together these two great works of art, of which one served as a model for the other.”

Indeed they have more than a reclining nude subject in common. They both scandalized viewers, Manet’s from its first exhibition at the Paris Salon in 1865, Titian’s for several hundred years. Venus of Urbino was the first female nude of the era to be depicted reclining and with her eyes on the viewer. It was commissioned by Guidobaldo della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, in 1534, possibly as an instructional for his 16-year-old wife. Its eroticism was intended for private display and remained in the family until 1637 when Vittoria della Rovere brought it to Florence after her marriage to Ferdinand II of Tuscany, father of Cosimo III and grandfather of Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici. The Venus was first placed in a public gallery in 1736, when Anna Maria had it placed in the Uffizi, but it was covered by an image of Sacred Love to keep it out of prurient view.

By the time Mark Twain visited the Uffizi in 1880, the Venus was no longer hidden, but it was still scandalous. Here’s how Twain described the painting in Chapter 50 of A Tramp Abroad:

You enter, and proceed to that most-visited little gallery that exists in the world — the Tribune — and there, against the wall, without obstructing rag or leaf, you may look your fill upon the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses — Titian’s Venus. It isn’t that she is naked and stretched out on a bed — no, it is the attitude of one of her arms and hand.

He wasn’t being a prude so much as making a point about how explicit visual art was allowed to be even considering Victorian views towards public sexuality while anyone who described the Venus in words would be pilloried for obscenity, but he’s still shocked by the naked lady touching herself.

If I ventured to describe that attitude, there would be a fine howl — but there the Venus lies, for anybody to gloat over that wants to — and there she has a right to lie, for she is a work of art, and Art has its privileges. I saw young girls stealing furtive glances at her; I saw young men gaze long and absorbedly at her; I saw aged, infirm men hang upon her charms with a pathetic interest. How I should like to describe her — just to see what a holy indignation I could stir up in the world—just to hear the unreflecting average man deliver himself about my grossness and coarseness, and all that. The world says that no worded description of a moving spectacle is a hundredth part as moving as the same spectacle seen with one’s own eyes — yet the world is willing to let its son and its daughter and itself look at Titian’s beast, but won’t stand a description of it in words. Which shows that the world is not as consistent as it might be.

If Twain spluttered at Titian’s Venus of Urbino, by then 350 years old and a widely acknowledged masterpiece, critics went into full-on paroxysms over Manet’s Olympia when it debuted 15 years before Twain’s trip to Florence (a sound refutation of his contention that the visual arts got a pass when it comes to erotic content). Olympia was called every name in the book. Jules Claretie fulminated in Le Figaro: “What’s this yellow-bellied Odalisque, this vile model picked up who knows where, and who represents Olympia? Olympia? What Olympia? A courtesan, no doubt.” Viewers in the gallery flocked to express their hatred for it. Antonin Proust (no relation to Marcel), a journalist, politician and friend of Manet’s, wrote in his memoirs: “If the canvas of the Olympia was not destroyed, it is only because of the precautions that were taken by the administration,” namely hanging it far out of reach of canes. As Claretie put it, it was hung “at a height where even lousy paintings are never hung, above a gigantic door of the last room where it was hard to tell whether one was looking at a pile of naked flesh or a pile of linen.”

As it happens, Manet’s model was no courtesan but Victorine Meurent, who in addition to modeling for artists was a musician and painter in her own right. Titian’s, on the other hand, was. The model for Venus was Angela del Moro, a frequent dinner companion of Titian’s and the second-highest paid courtesan in Venice who was known for her refusal to fake orgasms. In the sensual environment of 16th century Venice, this was hardly a deficit.

Manet was depicting Victorine as a courtesan, however, while Titian, despite the sexual suggestiveness of the recumbent nude with her hand between her legs, was not. Venus is an idealized nude, her gaze direct but dreamy and her head turned down, resting demurely against her shoulder. She holds a nosegay of red roses, symbol of love, in one hand and the other hand is delicately poised against her inner thigh, covering her vulva even as it draws attention to it. Her little sleeping dog is a symbol of marital fidelity, and the maid hovering protectively over the young girl who digs through through the bridal hope chest in the background is a symbol of motherhood.

Olympia shares none of Venus idealized features and she is depicted as a demimondaine or courtesan. She reclines on a disheveled bed on top of a silk shawl, an orientalist image of luxurious decadence, wearing an orchid, a symbol of sexuality, in her hair while at her feet the loyal dog is replaced by a black cat with her tail in the air, a symbol of prostitution. Her gaze is direct and unflinching. Her hand doesn’t brush against her vulva like Venus‘ but rather blocks our view of it. She shows no interest in the massive flower arrangement, probably from a wealthy client, her servant brings her.

Manet’s style, the flat perspective, the broad, quick brushstrokes, the strong color contrasts and lack of smooth shading, was probably a large part of the fury directed at this painting. He was doing something new, something the classicists of the age weren’t ready to cope with, but that today has garnered Manet the title of the first modern painter, precursor to the Impressionists who would follow him.

Lead shot that missed Tsar Nicholas II for sale

St. Petersburg, Epiphany Day, January 6th (January 19th on the Gregorian calendar), 1905: Tsar Nicholas II, members of the royal family and diplomatic corps attend the ceremonial blessing of the waters of the Neva River in front of the Winter Palace. This is a longstanding tradition celebrating the baptism of Christ in River Jordan transposed to a frigid Russian winter setting. A hole called the Jordan is cut in the ice of the river and the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan of Saint Petersburg immerses his cross in it, blessing and purifying the water. People flock to collect the holy water which is believed to have protective and curative powers.

The Tsar and some of the dignitaries observe the blessing from an elegant pavilion built overlooking the river, while the Tsarina, Grand Duchesses and members of the diplomatic corps watch from the windows of the Winter Palace. The blessing is marked with a military gun salute.

This year, however, the ceremonial gun salute has an unexpected bite. The 17th Battery of the First Horse Artillery of the Guard, one of the most aristocratic of corps in the Russian army, firing from Vasilyevsky Island in response to shots from the Peter and Paul Fortress, has among all the blank saluting cartridges at least one weapon loaded with live ammunition. That gun happens to be aimed right at the Imperial pavilion. A charge of grapeshot peppers the Jordan, injuring one police officer and snapping the flagpole of the Marine standard. The shot also breaks four windows in the Window Palace, where the Tsarina and company stand. Nobody is harmed, but the Tsar’s mother is sprinkled in broken glass.

The official story is that this was negligence, an accident caused when the artillery was not properly cleaned after target practice two days earlier. It’s not a satisfying explanation. The guns can only take a single charge at a time, so how come nobody noticed there was already something in there when they attempted to charge the saluting cartridges on the day of the ceremony? Also, ceremonial salutes aren’t generally aimed right at the Emperor.

On the other hand, any artillery expert would know that grapeshot is not an effective tool of assassination when it has to cross a river to reach its intended target. If one of the soldiers of the battery had been attempting the life of the Tsar, surely he would have loaded the gun with something that had a chance of working. One the lead pellets lands not three feet away from the Tsar, but it’s unlikely it would have harmed him beyond a contusion had it made contact.

Nicholas seems sanguine about the event in his diary, but an investigation is launched into the disturbing event. Several officers are court martialed two months later and convicted of negligence, but no evidence of conspiracy or intent to harm is presented at trial.

Grand Duke Nicholas Nicholaievitch, grandson of Nicholas I and first cousin once removed to Nicholas II, is standing next to the Tsar when the shot reaches the pavilion. He picks up one of the lead pellets and gives it to Carl Fabergé, the imperial family’s favorite goldsmith, to have a memento made of the near miss. Fabergé mounts the lead shot, a pristine lead ball 1.5 inches in diameter, on a gold seal 2.5 inches high. In the base he sets a white chalcedony sealing stone engraved with the personal crest of the Tsar. The Grand Duke gives it to Nicholas as a present.

When revolution breaks out, a courtier takes the seal with him as he flees the country. It remains privately held for close to a century. Now, for the first time, the shot that missed the Tsar is being offered for sale by jewelers and Fabergé specialists Wartski of London. The suggested retail price is £500,000 ($760,000). It will go on display at the TEFAF art fair in Maastricht from March 15th to 24th.

Bronze Age sewn-plank boat replica ready to launch

A project that began in April 2012 to recreate a Bronze Age sewn-plank boat using Bronze Age tools is about to face its final trial: when the boat is launched from Falmouth Harbour in Cornwall at noon on Wednesday, March 6th, will it actually float? It’s almost 50 feet long and weighs approximately five tons, and it is literally stitched together with yew twigs. Nails hadn’t been invented yet in Britain 4,000 years ago, so there are none to be found on this boat.

The construction process alone has been a voyage of discovery. A team of 30 volunteers — historians, hobbyists, students — from the University of Exeter, Cornwall and further afield (Norway, Turkey, France) came together under the supervision of professional shipwright Brian Cumby to build the prehistoric boat in a workshop open to public view at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall. Starting with the tools used to make the boat, wooden adzes and hammers made by hand by an expert in Bronze Age woodworking, the aim of this project has been to build a boat the way Bronze Age inhabitants of the British Isles built them. The only concession to modernity and speed were some clamps and the occasional lifting device.

The boat is modeled after the third of the three Bronze Age Boats unearthed at North Ferriby in East Yorkshire. It was discovered in 1963 on the shore of the Humber and was the most complete and oldest of the three. About 50 feet long and shaped like a slice of melon, it was made out of oak planks sewn together with yew withies caulked with moss. There was space for 18 paddlers to sit in pairs on nine thwarts with plenty room left for passengers and as much as 4.5 tons of cargo. Ferriby 3 dates to between 2030 and 1780 B.C. making it one of Europe’s first known sea-going vessels.

These sewn-plank boats are particular to the British isles. They traveled the rivers of and perilous seas between Britain, Ireland and mainland Europe, trading, probably in precious metals to make the risk worthwhile.

The National Maritime Museum Cornwall used two massive green oak logs to create their version of this ancient craft. They adzed it into planks and formed the keel by placing the widest bases of the logs end to end. Once the keel was laid and stitched together using the yew sticks stitches caulked with moss and tallow, they attached ribs to the keel using incredibly complex joints. Side strakes were then installed between the ribs. All seams and holes were caulked with the moss-tallow mixture and then sealed with beeswax.

There is no archaeological evidence that tallow and beeswax were used in the making of these boats, but they were in general use in Bronze Age Britain. Since entire boats with every element surviving intact for 4,000 years have yet to be discovered, the team has had to work with known materials to solve problems as they arise. They didn’t know how the yew twigs were processed, for instanced. They had to experiment with soaking, stripping the bark, split branches to figure out how best to sew the planks together.

The completed boat will be launched next Wednesday from the slipway at the watersports centre in Falmouth. There are tons of gorgeous pictures on the project’s Facebook page and there’s a poll where you can vote for the boat’s name. They will also be announcing on Facebook how the rest of us poor shlubs not lucky enough to be in Cornwall next week can watch the launch over webcam, so keep your eye on the page.

Here’s a stunning time-lapse video of the construction that you must watch because when was the last time you saw people hewing 25-foot oak logs with a wooden adzes? If you answered never, you are correct.


Medieval coins found buried in a shoe in Rotterdam

Archaeologists surveying the construction site of the former City Hall in Rotterdam have unearthed a collection of 477 coins stuffed inside a 16th century shoe. The oldest coin in the hoard dates to 1472 and the most recent to 1592. The shoe, its leather still in quite good condition, is a 16th century style. Experts believe it was buried in 1592 or shortly thereafter, under the floorboards of a house by the owner, either as a standard savings practice (like the proverbial keeping your money in your mattress) or out of fear that they might be lost or stolen during turbulent times.

Most of the coins are Netherlands nickels, half pennies and double nickels. There are also English and Spanish pieces. At that time, foreign currency was just as usable as local coin. It was the quality and weight of the silver that counted. Some of the coins show signs of having been tested for value; they’ve been pierced to see if they’re real silver through and through. The total worth of the hoard in 1592 would have been around 50 guilders. To give you an idea of the buying power, a skilled craftsman earned a little less than one guilder a day, so this collection amounted to about two month’s pay.

The place where they were discovered was the location of a City Hall built after the destruction of the old one during World War II. It hasn’t been a private home in centuries, which makes the survival of the coin-filled shoe even more remarkable.

The late 16th century was a particularly rocky time for Rotterdam and the rest of the Netherlands. In 1568, the Seventeen Provinces (comprising all of today’s Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, plus bits of France and Germany) rebelled against the rule of the Spanish King Philip II. Religious conflict was the immediate catalyst. Philip was keen to enforce anti-heresy edicts in his heavily Protestant territories. Those territories were used to Charles V’s lax attitude; they didn’t appreciate having the Inquisition breathing down their necks. A burst of Iconoclastic fury by Dutch Calvinists in 1566 resulted in a brutal crackdown by the Duke of Alba, the Spanish military commander. A thousand people, among them nobles of the highest rank, were executed for treason.

William of Orange was supposed to be one of them, but he escaped and launched a revolt from Germany. Rotterdam sided with the rebellion in 1572 and became part of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands when the Dutch Low Countries seceded from the Spanish crown in 1581. Philip wasn’t going to let them go without a fight and a fight they got. Philip’s nephew, Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma, successfully led the Spanish army to reclaim Belgium and the southern Netherlands in 1585 and put constant military pressure on Holland, at this point garrisoned by ineffectual British troops under Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester and Queen Elizabeth’s favorite.

The Dutch Republic’s fortunes improved with the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and with Philip’s involvement in the French Civil War in 1589. Parma’s troops were spread too thin while the Dutch Army instituted revolutionary reforms which transformed it into an effective fighting force. In the early 1590s, the Dutch took the offensive, besieging Spanish-held cities with much success.

There was no official truce between the Republic and Spain until 1609. Fortunes shifted and anybody living in Holland during this period would have had good reason to hoard coin. Yet, such hoards are rare finds, and this is the first one that has ever been found in a shoe. Next up, Rotterdam’s Archaeological Research Center will clean the coins and study the find in more detail.

Here’s a nifty YouTube of the excavation. It’s all in Dutch and there are no subtitles, so if there’s any information in there I should add to this entry, please do let me know in the comments.

And now, a composition of my own, inspired by the nursery rhyme that immediately leaped to mind when I read this story. Throat clearing. One arm up in declamation position.


There was an old coin hoard that lived in a shoe.
Nearly 500 pieces made a shimmering debut
Under the late City Hall, now a great gaping hole,
After five troubled centuries spent safe in their sole.


Thank you. Thank you very much.

Lod Mosaic at Penn Museum in last US stop

Three panels of the huge and breathtakingly beautiful 4th century A.D. Roman mosaic unearthed in Lod, Israel, in 1996, is now on display at Penn Museum in Philadelphia, the last chance for US audiences to see the masterpiece before it leaves the country. The mosaic began its tour of the US in New York City in 2010. Since then it’s been to San Francisco, Chicago, and Columbus, Ohio. After the Penn exhibit closes on May 12th, the mosaic panels will travel to the Louvre in Paris until August 19th, and then they go home to be reunited with the rest of the work.

The panels on display fit together to form the largest, best-preserved and most intricate part of the 600-square-foot floor. The top panel features prey or food animals like birds, fish and game, some of them on their own, others shown in a deadly embrace with the lion, tiger, leopard and snake about to claim their lives. The middle panel has more of those animals in polyhedral frames with one large central tableau of exotic species in confrontational postures. An elephant takes on a giraffe and a rhinoceros while a tiger pulls on the tail of a … wildebeest? An aurochs? Some kind of horned animal. Behind them a lion and lioness stand proudly on mountains overlooking water and a sea monster. The bottom panel is a single scene populated with dolphins, shells, fish of many species and two merchant ships, one with spread sails full of wind, the other with lowered mast and sails. Elaborately braided geometric borders wind their way through and around each panel.

It’s one of the most complete and largest Roman mosaics ever discovered. Archaeologists estimate that it took three years to make the entire floor, a painstaking process requiring exact planning of the positions of every one of the two million tesserae. The north panels, the ones that are on display, were made by one great master, the south panel by another. A third panel between the two was made by a third master, not quite as skilled as the first two, and was probably installed last.

In all its vast complexity, there are no human figures or deities depicted, which is highly unusual for a work of this scope. Also unusual is the juxtaposition of hunting scenes and maritime activity. All we know about the context from the archaeological investigation is that the mosaics decorated several large rooms, probably a series of receptions or audience halls, in a private house. Pottery fragments and coins found above the floor date to the late 3rd and 4th centuries A.D., which places the likely date the mosaic was laid to around 300 A.D.

Nothing but the floor of the structure has survived, as far as we know. The collapse of the mud brick walls, which had once sported glorious frescoes in their own right, had the fortunate side-effect of preserving the floors. When the mosaic was first revealed during highway construction in 1996, emergency excavation unearthed a series of mosaic floors that measured a total of 50 by 27 feet. Funding was not available at that time to keep digging, so after a weekend of public display during which 30,000 people came to see the mosaic, the work was reburied until 2009 when a donation from the Shelby White and the Leon Levy Foundation allowed the Israel Antiquities Authority to re-excavate and conserve the mosaic. The mosaic was peeled off the floor, revealing a fascinating collection of ancient footprints left in the mortar underneath the tesserae, but excavations continue and the complete floorplan of the villa has yet to be determined.

Originally known as Lydda, Lod was destroyed during the First Jewish War by Cestius Gallus, the Roman proconsul of Syria, on his way to Jerusalem in 66 A.D. Lydda was hit again during the Second Jewish War (115-117 A.D.) by Lusius Quietus. He besieged the town and when it fell, he executed much of its Jewish population. Shortly thereafter Hadrian renamed it Diospolis, city of gods, and the town’s population became increasingly Christianized. The town was elevated to official city status by Septimius Severus in 200 A.D., garnering it the unwieldy title of Colonia Lucia Septimia Severa Diospolis. Saint George of dragon fame was born there of Greek parents (there had been a strong Greek presence in Lydda since Alexander’s conquest in 333 B.C.) in the second half of the 3rd century. Whoever owned the home graced by the Lod mosaic in 300 A.D., he doubtless held high rank in the city, perhaps a Roman official, perhaps a prosperous merchant.

The entire floor mosaic, including the less elaborate, less pristine parts that remain in Israel, will go on display at the brand spanking new Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Archaeological Center which is scheduled to open in late 2014. The museum is being built around the archaeological site and the mosaic will be reinstalled exactly where it used to be for an in situ display with ongoing archaeological excavations visible to the public.

These videos are from a Metropolitan Museum of Art lecture series about the Lod Mosaic, exploring its archaeological context, the excavation, lifting (they cut it into 30 pieces and peeled them off the floor; it’s crazy), conservation and iconography. They’re 30 and 37 minutes long, but totally worth it. Watch them full screen because there are some excellent pictures of the excavation, the lifting, the fish painted on the floor to guide the placement of the tiles. It’s amazing, really.