Archive for November, 2013

Villanova to restore Cortona painting in reading room

Sunday, November 10th, 2013

Villanova University will undertake the challenging and important restoration of a rare monumental oil on canvas painting by 17th century Baroque master Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669) in the reading room of its old library. The 12×19-foot painting depicts David’s victory over Goliath and is one of very few pieces by Cortona in the United States. It’s one of very few Cortona canvases anywhere outside of Italy; most of his extant work is in frescoed ceilings and walls.

The Presentation of David to King Saul after Slaying Goliath, as the works is formally known, has been hanging on the wall of the old reading room (the Falvey Memorial Library was built in 1968, leaving the former library’s reading room to be used by the Library Science department to store microfilm, microfiche, 16mm film, slides, VHS etc.) since 1956. It was donated to the University six years before that by Princess Eugenia Ruspoli, née Jennie Berry, the daughter of a nouveau riche planter from Rome, Georgia, and widow of Nashville tobacco producer Henry Bruton, who in 1901 married Prince Enrico Ruspoli of Rome, Ialy.

With her fortune and her new husband’s title, Eugenia set about acquiring a vast collection of art and furniture and a castle to put it all in. The Palazzo Ruspoli in Nemi, 20 miles south of Rome in the Alban Hills, had been owned by a laundry list of noble Italian families since it stopped being a monastery in the 13th century. The Ruspolis bought it from the Orsini family and according to Eugenia, they bought it with her money. After Enrico’s premature death in 1909, he left everything, including the castle and its contents, to his brother Umberto. Eugenia ensconced herself in the castle and refused to leave, insisting that she had a handshake agreement with her husband that she would get to keep the property in case of his death. After much legal wrangling (pdf), in 1916 she won clear title to the castle and all its contents.

Much of said contents wound up in the United States when she shipped the most significant pieces to the US before World War II. She furnished an apartment in New York City, a mansion in Connecticut and her sister Martha Berry’s home in Rome, Georgia, with the Palazzo Ruspoli decor. Cortona’s giant David and Goliath does not appear to have been among them. According to Villanova’s information, that stayed in the castle in Nemi and suffered some damage during the war.

I’m a little dubious of this because the castle was taken over by squatters at the end of the war, see this article from 1949 which talks about how 16 families whose homes were destroyed by Allied bombs had been living in the palazzo for five years by then and refused to budge until the Italian government secured them housing. She donated the Cortona painting in 1950 and died in 1951. Eugenia could have yoinked the massive canvas while the squatters were there and shipped it to the States, but it seems odd to me that she would have left behind such an important, impressive work to begin with, and that anything she donated to Villanova would be a recent arrival rather than one of the many pieces she brought to the US before the war.

Perhaps the restoration will be able to answer the question, thanks to the multi-disciplinary approach that seeks to delve deeply into the history of the painting.

The process of examining and restoring the painting will provide Villanova’s Chemistry Department, and its students, with the opportunity to learn more about historic painting materials, such as the pigments and binding media used by this artist, as well as the analytical techniques used in conservation (i.e. Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, scanning electron microscopy, various imaging techniques, etc.).

“What is amazing is that we can take a sample of paint the size of the period at the end of this sentence and analyze it with modern instrumentation to uncover information about how this artist painted almost 400 years ago,” said Dr. [Amanda] Norbutus [from Villanova’s Department of Chemistry]. “We collaborate with professors and students in the chemistry, biology, and engineering disciplines for access to the shared instrumentation necessary to study this painting.”

In addition to Villanova’s Chemistry Department, History and Art History faculty at the University will also work in collaboration with the team during the course of the two-year project. Mark Sullivan, PhD, director of the art history program, along with Timothy McCall, PhD, associate professor of Art History, who possesses a deep knowledge of Italian art and Old Master paintings, will provide expertise to the team as they examine the painting and the history of Pietro’s work, methods and materials.

They expect the project to take two years, a modest estimate considering the extent of the work needed [see edit below]. The painting is darkened and discolored by layers of varnish and overpainting done during earlier restorations. Cortona is known for his glorious bright colors; you wouldn’t have any idea of that looking at David and Goliath now. There are places where the paint has lifted which will have to be moistened by targeted humidification and areas where the original paint was lost and later filled that will have to be redone with inert fill materials. The whole work must be coated with a protective varnish which will hopefully not turn out to be a disaster 100 years from now.

The best part is that a lot of this work will be done in public view. The canvas will not be moved from the reading room.

The University is committed to this important project benefitting the academic community, as well as the art history and conservation community. To that end, lectures, classes and seminar courses focusing on the technical art history and conservation of the work will be scheduled on site in the “Old Falvey” wing of the library during the course of the project. The University also plans to have public tours and viewing times for the campus and area communities to visit the site.

“I am delighted that this artistic treasure will be restored to its original grandeur,” said the Rev. Kail C. Ellis, OSA, PhD, Vice President for Academic Affairs at Villanova University. “Not only will the restoration be a workshop on the techniques of conservation for the artistic community, it will also be a classroom for students and faculty alike to discover the riches of this artist and the methods of bringing back to life a great masterpiece.”

EDIT: Head conservator Kristin deGhetaldi clarifies that although the team hopes to complete restoration in two years, they will be bound by the requirements of the painting, not by a schedule. As the work progresses and they discover more about the painting’s history and condition, their consultations with art historians and researchers may delay the hands-on portion for a time. They don’t know what they might find that would necessitate further exploration before continuing on with the restoration.

Meanwhile, they’ve already cleaned half the canvas and you can begin to see the classic Cortona colors peeking out through the dirt and damage. Here’s a great slideshow of the work in progress. So much better already.


Broighter Gold returns to Limavady for brief visit

Saturday, November 9th, 2013

A hoard of Iron Age gold discovered in 1896 by farmers plowing a field in Broighter, near Limavady, County Londonderry, Northern Ireland, is coming home for a quick 11-day visit. The famed gold pieces, minus what is arguably the most famous piece of them all, will be on display at the Roe Valley Arts and Cultural Centre from November 12th through 23rd. This is the first homecoming for the artifacts which were sold away almost as quickly as they were found.

The Broighter Hoard dates to the 1st century B.C. and consists of a miniature boat made out of sheet gold, a sheet gold bowl, two torcs made of twisted gold bars, two loop-in-loop gold chains with terminal boxes of sheet gold, and a large hollow torc made of hammered sheet gold highly decorated with incised and high relief swirls and arcs. The boat is obsessively detailed, complete with oars, benches, a rudder, yardarm and various tools. It’s 7.25 inches long and three inches wide and extremely delicate. Its fragile condition is what prevented it from traveling to Limavady.

The workmanship suggests different places of origin for the pieces — southern England for the bar torcs, Roman Europe for the chains, Irish remodeling of a possibly English or German design for the tubular torc — but analysis of the metal content revealed traces of platinum characteristic of all Irish gold from the La Tène culture (a late Iron Age culture widespread in Europe north, east and west of the Alps). No native British or Irish gold has those traces of platinum; the raw material and/or artifacts made their way to Ireland via trade routes, possibly originating from the Rhine or perhaps from Lydia, today western Turkey.

The boat and the tubular torc are the stars of the set, with the former having appeared on the Irish Millennium Pound minted in 2000 and both of them having appeared on their own stamps. These iconic emblems of Eire almost wound up in the British Museum. It took a lot of controversy and a court case to get them back on Irish soil, and even then they stayed down south in Dublin.

The saga begins in February of 1896 when two plowmen, Thomas Nicholl and James Morrow, working a double-plow arrangement where both men plow, one following the other to deepen the furrow which is relatively shallow on the first pass, turned up a muddy metal dish. Next to it in furrowed soil they found more metal pieces nested inside each other. They took the finds to the landowner, farmer Joseph L. Gibson, who had his maid wash them in the sink. She said in a later statement that “it is quite possible that some small objects may have been washed down the open drain, for it was not then known the finds were gold and no great care was taken in their cleaning.” :facepalm:

They didn’t look like much — the boat in particular had been damaged by the plow — but Gibson brought the hoard to a jeweler in Derry to see if they might be worth anything. The jeweler paid him £2 and then turned around sold them, doubtless for much more, to Cork antiquarian Robert Day. Robert Day had a Dublin goldsmith repair the pieces thus revealing the twisted lump to be a one of a kind boat model and sold the whole hoard to the British Museum for £600. These transactions were exposed to the public scrutiny in 1897 when British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, famous for his discovery of the Palace of Knossos on Crete, wrote a paper about the artifacts.

The Royal Irish Academy (RIA) responded with fury, insisting that these artifacts, bound by the ancient laws of treasure trove, belonged to the Crown, not to the British Museum and should be in Ireland. Treasure trove distinguishes between objects buried with the intent of later recovery and objects lost or discarded. It’s treasure and Crown property if whoever buried it meant to get it back; it’s not treasure and finders keepers if it was discarded. The British Museum claimed the hoard was deposited in Lough Foyle as a votive offering to the sea god Manannán Mac Lir and thus their purchase was legitimate.

The case went to court where it dragged on for years until in 1903 it reached the Royal Courts of Justice in London. Experts on both sides testified to whether the Broighter field was underwater when the hoard was deposited there. Thomas Nicholl hauled his cookies all the way to London to testify to his discovery of the objects. The judge couldn’t understand a word of his thick Derry accent, so they brought in an Oxford professor to translate for him. The fact they were found close together, some nested inside each other, was highly significant to the judge because it seemed impossible to him that someone could cast objects into the water and they could remain huddled together. Apparently it didn’t occur to anyone that they might have been wrapped up together in a bag or a box which had decayed into nothingness over the millennia.

Finally Justice Farwell ruled, a little peevishly, truth be told, in favor of the Crown/Royal Irish Academy. He didn’t buy the votive story at all. From his ruling:

“The court has been occupied for some considerable time in listening to fanciful suggestions more suited to the poem of a Celtic bard tan to the prose of a legal reporter. The defense has asked the court to infer the existence of an anthropomorphic deity; the existence of an unknown sea; and the existence of mythical Irish chiefs or kings who would be likely to make a surmised votive offering to this mythical Irish Neptune.”

I doubt the court was being asked to infer the existence of Manannán Mac Lir; just the belief in his existence leading to votives of precious objects. Still, the Judge was clearly over it and the British Museum was forced to turn over the Broighter Gold to the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin where it has remained ever since. Ironically, it is labeled now as a likely votive offering to the sea god. It seems that the RIA experts were wrong, and that the field actually was if not underwater at all times, a very soggy flood-prone marsh, in the first century B.C.

Anyway, after all this water under the bridge (so to speak) and all the drama of thrones and dominions, it’s nice to see the hoard get to visit home for a bit. It’s a pity it couldn’t have happened earlier. Thomas Nicholl died in 1964 at the age of 91 never having had the chance to see the treasure he co-discovered cleaned, restored and on display. His granddaughter Maureen says “it was one of Tom Nicholl’s great regrets in life that he never saw the Broighter Hoard displayed in the National Museum. Right up to his death in 1964 he was still keen to talk about that evening in February 1896, when he unearthed Ireland’s greatest collection of gold ornaments.”


Previously uknown Mantegna drawings found

Friday, November 8th, 2013

Going under the hammer today is an exceptional two-sided drawing by Renaissance master Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506). The pen and brown ink studies were discovered by appraisers from the Farsetti auction house in a folder of assorted prints and drawings belonging to a private collector in Tuscany. The owners had no idea they were by Mantegna and the drawings have never been published before so nobody else in the world even knew they existed.

Drawn on a small page of notebook paper just 151 millimeters (6 inches) high and 100 millimeters (4 inches) wide, the studies depict different scenes with the dead Christ. On the front side (aka the recto) is a Lamentation of the Christ. The body of Jesus lies on a marble bier while his mother Mary, Mary Magdalene and St. John the Apostle mourn over him. On the ground in front of the slab is another view of the dead Christ, this one lying in the opposite direction with his head closest to the viewer. On the back (verso) of the page is a Pietà, Mary cradling the body of her crucified son, holding his wrist almost as if she were checking for a pulse.

These drawings are very reminiscent of my favorite painting by Mantegna, the unique Lamentation over the Dead Christ, now in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, which uses extreme perspective to emphasize Christ’s suffering and humanity. The figure of Christ is shockingly foreshortened, with his pierced feet in foreground, his pierced hands posed vertically so the ragged nail holes are in the viewer’s direct line of sight. His mother Mary, her face deeply lined with age, weeps beside him, but you can only see her face and hand. In front of her is St. John and he’s even more cropped with just a sliver of his face and a bit of his clasped hands visible. Behind Mary you can barely glimpse the mouth of another woman opened as if wailing in grief. This is Mary Magdalene, specifically identified by the presence of the unguent jar on the right back of Christ’s funerary slab.

The body of Christ in newly discovered drawings, while not as extremely positioned, is angled backwards. Mantegna is playing with perspective in the recto, flipping the body around to see how it looks with the head in front. Notice also the hands, that quasi-verticle awkward angle which props the palms up on the fingers so the stigmata can be clearly seen. We don’t know when exactly Mantegna painted Lamentation over the Dead Christ but it was probably in the 1480s. The pen and ink studies date to around 1460, so they are considerably older and thus were probably not preparatory for the later masterpiece. They do illustrate the artist’s longstanding exploration of the subject, however.

The attribution to Mantegna is unusually solid for an unpublished drawing, thanks to two features that connect it to another two-sided Mantegna pen and brown ink study now in the Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo in Brescia, Lombardy. Written across the top of the Pietà side is the annotation “31 Vol 1 Mantegna.” The verso of the Brescia piece is inscribed “37 Vol 1 Mantegna” in the same handwriting and in the same position at the top of the page. Both versos also have the same marks along the edges: red dots left by wax blobs used to affix the page into a notebook. There’s a thematic link as well. The recto of the Brescia drawing is a Burial of Christ wherein Mary Magdalene and St. John lower Jesus’ body into the grave while Mother Mary hunches over it praying. (The verso is unrelated, a study of an elaborate candlestick.) The writing and wax blobs strongly suggests these are two pages from the name notebook.

The British Museum has a third double-sided drawing by Mantegna which, while missing a handy annotation or wax remnants, serves as a useful comparison. Again the medium is pen and brown ink on paper, and again the subject is the dead Christ and his loved ones. The recto is three studies of Christ’s dead body lying on the ground (notice that hand position in the foreground Christ). The verso is two female saints praying on the ground.

University of Leicester professor of Art History David Ekserdjian, who wrote the catalog for a 1992 Mantegna retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, examined the auction drawings in person. Because the Brescia and London works had been attributed to Giovanni Bellini, Mantegna’s brother-in-law and a highly influential artist of the Venetian school, by art historian Detlev Freiherr von Halden in 1925, Ekserdjian compared the Brescia drawings to the British Museum’s double-sided study and to another Mantegna drawing of a Pietà in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Venice to confirm the Mantegna attribution for the 1992 exhibition. He believes all of these drawings, including the auction lot, are by the same hand and that that hand belonged to Andrea Mantegna. He has submitted a paper about his assessment, A New Drawing by Andrea Mantegna, to a journal and publication is pending.

The pre-sale estimate was €140,000 ($187,558) to €220,000 ($294,734), very low for a museum-quality Old Master drawing. The auction house may have set it so low because there’s no way this work will get an export license — it’s pretty much the definition of irreplaceable cultural patrimony — which means deep pocketed overseas buyers aren’t as likely to bid.

UPDATE: The drawings sold for €420,000 ($562,674) hammer price, €509,650 ($682,778) including buyer’s premium. The buyer is an Italian private collector who chooses to remain anonymous.


Hear John Donne’s sermon of November 5th, 1622

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

John Donne, lawyer, metaphysical poet and Anglican priest, died on March 31st, 1631. He had been Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London for a decade at the time of his death, a prestigious leadership position in the Church of England to which he was appointed by King James I despite only having taking orders six years earlier. Donne was born and raised Catholic but had converted to the Church of England in the late 1590s. Indeed, he caught the eye of the king in 1610 by publishing the tract Pseudo-Martyr which argued that Catholics could in good conscience swear the Oath of Allegiance to King James, a law promulgated in 1606 in reaction to the Gunpowder Plot the year before requiring all Catholics in public service to affirm their loyalty to the King even if the Pope excommunicated him. (This was a significant stance on a personal level because Donne had refused to take the previous iteration, the Oath of Supremacy, a requirement for graduation from English universities, and thus never receive his degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge. Also, his mother was the great-niece of Sir Thomas More who was executed for treason after his refusal to take the first version of this oath under Henry VIII.)

Donne had been exiled from court in 1601 after his secret marriage to Anne More (no relation to Sir Thomas), daughter of Sir George More, Lieutenant of the Tower, and niece of Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal and Donne’s employer and patron. His struggles to support his ever-growing family (Anne had 12 children in 16 years; she died birthing the last one) were significant. Even with a kindly relative putting a roof over their heads and legal skills earning them a few ducats, John was always on the hunt for a stable position and income.

He wanted a job at court, the kind of posting he would surely had received had he not pissed off Egerton and derailed his youthful promise, but that wasn’t going to happen. His friends told him to take orders, but he was reluctant to become an ordained minister. When Thomas Morton, then Dean of Gloucester and future Bishop of Durham, asked him to consider a career in the church in 1606, Donne explained his reluctance:

[M]y refusal is not for that I think myself too good for that calling, for which kings, if they think so, are not good enough; nor for that my education and learning, though not eminent, may not, being assisted with God’s grace and humility, render me in some measure fit for it; but I dare make so dear a friend as you are my confessor. Some irregularities of my life have been so visible to some men, that though I have, I thank God, made my peace with him by penitential resolutions against them, and by the assistance of his grace banished them my affections, yet this, which God knows to be so, is not so visible to man as to free me from their censures, and it may be that sacred calling from a dishonour.

Translation: John was way too into the wine, women and song in his youth, so much so that his reputation could bring the holy office into disrepute. And this before his erotic poetry was published, although the elegies had circulated among friends in manuscript form when he first wrote them, probably in the 1590s. He wasn’t wrong, incidentally. Long after his ordination some people would still throw his youthful indiscretions in his face when they had a dispute with him.

Finally Donne gave in to the pressure of his friends, King and wallet and took orders in 1615. His first appointment was as Royal Chaplain. The next year he was appointed Reader of Divinity at Lincoln’s Inn. This is where he began to deliver regular sermons and to be recognized as a skilled orator. He gave 50 sermons the first year, at a time when any self-respecting sermon would be at least one hour long and more often double that. Donne became very much in demand as a preacher, getting invitations to preach everyone from Queen Anne’s private residence to Whitehall to St. Paul’s Cross, the courtyard adjacent to the Cathedral where large audiences gathered to listen to sermons on the great controversies of the day.

When he was appointed Dean of St Paul’s in 1621, St. Paul’s Cross became the home base for his sermons. Although in theory sermons were not subject to censorship, in fact the King was deeply involved in who preached about what, and a sermon that didn’t sit right with His Majesty could easily result in its preacher spending a night or two in the Tower. Sermons increasingly failed to sit right with the King as the question of the proposed marriage between Prince Charles and the Catholic Princes Maria Anna of Spain raged across pulpits.

In 1622, King James I made it explicit by issuing Directions for Preachers which instructed all clergy to stick to the liturgy and refrain from comment on affairs of state. James directed Donne to make a sermon in favor of the new rules, which he did on the grounds that subjects should obey the monarch and trust in his wisdom.

Two months later, the King told Donne to go for another round in a sermon on November 5th, 1622, the 17th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. Again the focus of this sermon was obedience to the monarch, comparing James to the “good king” Josiah and emphasizing his Anglican orthodoxy to deflect suspicions that his desire for a Spanish match for his son was the result of a secret tendency towards Papism.

We know what he said in this sermon because Donne wrote it down at the King’s request a couple of days after having delivered it. Now we can know what it sounded like, thanks to the brilliant multi-disciplinary efforts of the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project.

This Project uses architectural modeling software and acoustic simulation software to give us access experientially to a particular event from the past – the Paul’s Cross sermon John Donne delivered on Tuesday, November 5th, 1622.

These digital tools, customarily used by architects and designers to anticipate the visual and acoustic properties of spaces that are not yet constructed, are here used to recreate the visual and acoustic properties of spaces that have not existed for hundreds of years.

The St. Paul’s Cathedral of Donne’s time burned down in the Great Fire of London in 1666. In order to create an accurate architectural model of the St. Paul’s Cross courtyard, the VPCP used contemporary artistic depictions of the site and measurements taken by archaeologists of all that survived the fire: the foundations of the buildings surrounding it. They calculated the acoustics of the space from the architectural data and from likely ambient noise like crowd buzz, church bells, seagulls and horse carts passing by. They also adjusted the acoustic model depending on where the listener is standing and how many people were in the courtyard.

To resurrect the preaching style of a man who died almost 400 years ago, researchers sought out descriptions of Donne’s sermons from contemporary witnesses and enlisted the expertise of historical linguists to pin down a proper period accent and pronunciation. The project took three years to complete and more than 50 experts in many fields from history to architecture to acoustical engineers.

The website is replete with information about every aspect of the project including of course the star of the show, John Donne’s November 5th, 1622, sermon, available from two listening spots.

Here’s a quick flyover of the visual model of St. Paul’s Cross:

Here’s John Donne’s full sermon as heard from the Sermon House box where the dignitaries sat (because you guys are totally my dignitaries):

How about that echo, huh? No wonder he had to speak so slowly. 


Nine days left to save The Raven illustrations

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

There are just nine days left to save pioneering Victorian street artist James Carling’s illustrations of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven. The Edgar Allan Poe Museum’s Kickstarter campaign set a goal of $60,000, and as of this moment, they’re $18,027 short. This is a modest little museum with no budget to speak of and that’s a lot of money to raise by November 15th. I’d hate to see these dramatic watercolor and ink artworks continue their slow decline caused by the acidic cardboard backing and the ravages of moisture, light and time.

When I first posted about this project a month ago, the rewards for backers were different. Now if you pledge $45 dollars or more, you get a copy of the book of Carling’s illustrations that will be published next year, assuming the fundraising goal is reached. You can get a print of the Raven perched upon a bust of Pallas just above the chamber door with a pledge of just $20 dollars. If you backed the project at a lower level before and want to bump up your pledge, just click on the “Manage your pledge” button on the right underneath the countdown and change the sum and the reward.

Please do spread the word if you can. Social media aren’t my bag, but if they’re yours, this is a cause that truly deserves to go viral enough to reach the goal.


Transcribe Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein notebooks

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

The notebooks in which Mary Shelley wrote the first draft of Frankenstein, complete with her husband Percy Shelley’s notes and edits, have been digitized and uploaded to The Shelley-Godwin Archive. This is the first step in a very exciting project for lit nerds that seeks to digitize the manuscripts of every luminary in this luminous family: novelist Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, her husband and Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, her philosopher father William Godwin, and her pioneering early feminist mother Mary Wollstonecraft.

The archive went live on Halloween, appropriately enough, starting off with a bang by uploading the Frankenstein notebooks which have been in the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library since 2004. The Bodleian has a vast archive of papers from the Godwin-Shelley family, a collection that began in 1893 when Lady Shelley, widow of Mary and Percy’s son Sir Percy Shelley, donated a full third of the family archive to the library and opened the Shelley Memorial at University College, Oxford, with its remarkable marble sculpture of a nude, dead Shelley washed up on the shore of Viareggio.

Lady Shelley died in 1899, leaving two-thirds of the remaining family archive to her husband’s cousin and the last third, including the Frankenstein notebooks, to her two eldest grandsons, Shelley Scarlett and Robert Scarlett. They both died childless, so their chunk of the family papers went to their brother Hugh, the 7th Baron Abinger. Hugh’s son James loaned the papers to the Bodleian starting in 1974. After his death in 2002, his son James decided to sell the papers and gave the library the right of refusal. The Bodleian launched a fundraising campaign that culminated in 2004 with the purchase of the Abinger archive and the final reunion of the great Shelley-Godwin archive.

The Bodleian has a wonderful online exhibit about the Shelley-Wollstonecraft-Godwin papers and memorabilia that includes high resolution scans of the Frankenstein notebooks. You can flip through both volumes page by page, zoom in on details and do your best to decipher Mary and Percy’s handwritings. If you’re going to expend that kind of effort, however, wouldn’t it be cool if you could add your decipherings to a transcript? What if you could categorize Mary’s text and Percy’s to make them separately searchable?

That’s where the Shelley-Godwin Archive comes in to the picture. A collaborative effort between the New York Public Library, the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, the Bodleian, Harvard University Library, the Huntington Library and the British Library, the Archive wants to enlist crowd power to create clean, searchable transcripts of the Frankenstein notebooks. Here’s how it works: click on Frankenstein on the header menu and select a manuscript. You can choose from Mary’s original two notebooks, the fair copy (a clean copy in her hand which she sent to publishers) or her notebook pages arranged according to the original three volumes of the first edition of Frankenstein. Click on the manuscript of your choice and you’ll get a thumbnail view of pages from the notebook. When you hover over the thumbs, you’ll see either a red dot indicating no transcript has been made yet, a yellow dot meaning that there’s an unvetted transcript or a green dot meaning the transcript is complete.

Clicking on one of the thumbnails will take you to a split screen editor where you can read the manuscript page on the left and read or work on the transcript on the right. If the transcript has already been done, you can click a button to view only Mary’s writing with Percy’s edits greyed out and vice-versa. That is such a great feature for scholars and readers in general interested in the question of how much influence Shelley had over Mary’s writing. It’s been almost two centuries since Mary dreamed of a reanimated corpse haunting its creator on a fitful night in Switzerland, and there are still books being written today about how much of Frankenstein was Mary’s work. Some even argue that he wrote the whole thing and that Mary only copied it for him, as she did with many of his poems.

You don’t have to be interested in the authorship issue to enjoy the Shelleys interaction in the Frankenstein notebooks. You can catch rare glimpses into their relationship by reading his notes, like when he addresses her directly in the margins as “Pecksie”, his nickname for her. I also find it fascinating just to see how the draft and editing process raised the novel from infant to adult. If you need an editor, you could do a lot worse than Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The archive’s next step will be to digitize Shelley’s manuscript of Prometheus Unbound, the four-act lyrical play inspired by Aeschylus’ Prometheus trilogy. After that, more of his assorted manuscripts, and he wrote a huge amount. Mary Shelley collected his manuscripts after his death and, once Percy’s father Sir Timothy allowed her to, she edited the first four-volume edition of his poems and a two-volume edition of his prose. It was a long, exhausting job going through piles of unfinished scraps and notes, many of them close to illegible. Her edits have been criticized — she cut out parts she worried would make him look bad, like his atheism — but it was a Herculean effort that probably nobody else could have done.

It very important to her that Percy be recognized for his immense talents, as he really hadn’t gotten much love by the time of his death. Collecting the papers of her remarkable parents was also very important to her. Mary Shelley started the Shelley-Godwin Archive back when it was all paper, and now that it’s pixels, we can all help curate it.


King Tut’s mummy slow-cooked by its own wrapping

Monday, November 4th, 2013

That’s not even the vampire cat people sensationalized title, believe it or not. Egyptologist Dr. Chris Naunton, director of the Egypt Exploration Society, has taken a new look at old data and enlisted nifty modern technology in a quest for answers to some of the many questions surrounding the death and burial of iconic boy king Tutankhamun, among them why there is evidence of charring on the mummy and in the tomb. A documentary following Naunton’s voyage, Tutankhamun: The Mystery of the Burnt Mummy, airs on the UK’s Channel 4 Sunday, November 20th, at 8:00 PM, which is why there are tons of stories in the press today with titles screaming about Tut’s mummy spontaneously combusting.

I’m not sure if it’s a shortened version of a documentary that aired on PBS’ Secrets of the Dead series in July or just the first episode, but I’ve already watched Naunton explore the question of Tut’s charred mummy and the chariot accident for two riveting hours and you can too because the whole episode is available on the PBS website. Or you can just skip to the end of my prolix prose and click play below.

Out of respect for the late Mr. Krook from Bleak House, I’ll state for the record that there is no spontaneous human combustion at work here. SHC refers to people who die in fires generated by some unknown internal mechanism rather from an external ignition source. The fire that appears to have struck King Tut had an external cause: rushed mummification.

The investigation starts at the beginning of the modern Tut era: the 1922 discovery by Howard Carter of the sealed tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun in the bottom of the Valley of the Kings. Carter took insanely detailed notes and spent the remaining years of his life documenting every artifact in the tomb intending to publish the definitive account. He died before publication and his notes, the excavation diaries and the photographs Harry Burton took in 1922 went to Oxford University’s Griffith Institute for archiving. They have digitized the collection and made it freely available online, albeit with unfortunately small pictures.

In the notes, Carter describes King Tut’s mummy, which the excavation team unwrapped in the tomb, as a “charred wreck” and indeed you can see in Burton’s photographs that it’s and nowhere near as well-preserved as 18th Dynasty mummies usually are. At various places in the tomb, Carter found lightly wrapped packets of linen which he described as being “like soot” and “charred powder.” To discover whether the mummy and linens really were burned and when, Naunton turned to Dr. Robert Connolly of Liverpool University who was part of the team that X-rayed Tut’s mummy in 1968.

At the time, small samples of the pharaoh’s flesh were taken from his shoulder and tested for blood type using a technique Connolly developed that mixed mummy tissue with modern human blood. (King Tut was type A, just for the record.) Connolly still has those samples, the only part of the pharaoh outside of Egypt. He also has a few samples from other mummies. Using a fragment of flesh from another 18th Dynasty mummy as a control, Connolly examined King Tut’s tissue with a scanning electron microscope to identify its chemical composition. The control mummy showed high levels of carbon and oxygen with traces of salts and other elements. Tut’s mummy had a much higher carbon peak consistent with charring of body during or immediately after mummification process. This is the only royal mummy that has ever been found to be charred.

But couldn’t that additional carbon have gotten into the mummified tissue upon discovery? Carter’s team did something to the mummy that by modern archaeological standards seems, well, horrific. King Tutankhamun was laid to rest in a coffin of solid gold and then various unguents were poured over him during the funerary rituals. Over the millennia, the unguents hardened and were now acting like glue, sticking the mummy unbudgeably to the coffin. Carter tried to soften the material in the sun, roasting the coffin on a row of primer stones, but it didn’t work, so he and his anatomy specialist Douglas Derry snapped off Tut’s arms and legs, decapitated him and sawed the body in two. Once they had the large pieces of his dismembered body out of the coffin, they scraped the rest of him off with hot knives.

So, could that harsh treatment have charred the mummy? Connolly and his colleagues don’t think so. In order for the tissue to burn as it did, you need temperatures approaching 500° Centigrade (932° Fahrenheit). Carter’s hot stones probably didn’t get past 200°C (392°F). What could have happened in antiquity, however, to char the mummy and some linen bundles but not burn the rest of the tomb’s contents?

Naunton looked for answers at the Building Research Establishment, a non-profit that does research and testing for construction standards. There they ran an experiment using linen bandages and linseed oil, one of the oils applied to the body and wrappings during the mummification process. Linseed oil is known to generate heat when mixed with oxygen, a reaction that accelerates when the oil is used over a large surface, like, say, a body. For the experiment, linseed oil was poured over four sets of linen bandages and distributed evenly throughout. The linseed-imbued linens were then each wrapped in layers of clean linen, as would have been done to the mummy, and a thermocouple (a wired thermometer that sends readings back to the control room) inserted in the bundles. Left in the open air, the bundles got hot fast. Within an hour the temperatures had reached 360°C (680°F) and the linen was beginning to blacken and smoke. You see in the documentary that smoke pours out of the testing chamber when the door is open. Inside, the linens are black and the edges are actually on fire. (Not an open flame; more of a slow ember that sort of eats away at the linen.)

Now Tut’s mummy was not in an open space with lots of oxygen to feed a spontaneous linseed oil fire, so the combustion reaction in his coffin would have been much slower, with little smoke and no fire. He was slow-cooked by his own bandages over a period of days, maybe even weeks. This afterlife-sabotaging disaster was the result of haste. Proper mummification applied oils slowly, deliberately, given them a chance to dry fully. Tut’s embalming was so rushed the oils were still wet when he was entombed, and wet oils = cooking.

There is other evidence of how rushed this burial was. The main mummification incision is usually small and discreet. Tut’s is a large, rough gash. His arms weren’t even properly crossed. Instead of being crossed tightly high on his chest in the Osiris pose, they’re low, almost at his waist, and very relaxed. They look thrown together. This kind of brutish handling is unheard of for a royal mummy.

King Tut is also missing something that every royal mummy ever found has: his heart. For the ancient Egyptians, the heart was the locus of the soul, intellect and emotional life of the deceased. It was always kept in the chest cavity with a heart scarab added. Even with this sloppy embalming, leaving out the heart is so massive an oversight that there must have been a reason for it. A virtual autopsy table (like the one that solved the 5,500-year-old Gebelein Man cold case) created by forensic scientists at the Cranfield Forensic Institute compiled all the data from the 1968 Liverpool University X-rays, a 2005 CT scan by Cairo University radiologists, facial reconstructions and every other study of the mummy done over the past 90 years.

The virtual autopsy table shows that while the skull and left clavicle are still intact, underneath the collar bone on his left side there is a straight-line injury going all the way down his torso to his pelvis. Ribs on the left side are broken, cut, missing and his sternum and the left side of his pelvis are gone. If that’s how the bones on his left side responded to whatever happened to him, his soft organs would surely have fared even worse. That could explain the missing heart: it was just too destroyed to embalm.

Naunton enlisted Advanced Simtec, specialists in computer modeling of traffic accidents for court cases and auto safety investigations, to see if they could explain the injuries as the result of a chariot accident. They laser scanned stunt riders on a replica of an ancient Egyptian chariot and then input the data into their modeling software. They then ran simulations of various kinds of chariot accidents and found only one that could result in the trauma seen on the scans. He had to be sitting up on his knees on the ground when he was struck on the left side and run over by a heavy, narrow chariot wheel. That would have snapped his ribs, crushed his pelvis and made unembalmable hamburger of his heart.

Dr. Naunton thinks this is the smoking gun:

“We believe there is now a very distinct possibility that he was struck by a chariot wheel in the torso at high speed, enough to do him very serious damage. In fact, that’s what killed him. His body would have been a real mess – he would not have been left a little bloodied – and that would have given the embalmers a real problem. They were used to dealing with dead bodies, not mangled ones.”

Many possible causes of death have been proposed over the years, most recently that weakened from malaria and a congenital bone disorder, he died from a leg fracture that became infected. After the X-rays were taken in 1968, the popular theory was murder, classic blunt force trauma to the head. There were fragments of bone inside the skull and a thin area at the base of the skull that looked like it may have been the site of a hemorrhage. The 2005 CT scans found there was no depressed fracture of skull and thus no blow to head. The fragments inside the skull were broken piece of neck vertebrae from when Carter decapitated the mummy. They somehow got into the skull when the head was reattached to body after removal of the golden mask.

The chariot accident theory seems solid, until the next one comes along, of course. But hey, enough of my yakking. What do you say? Let’s boogie.*

*2,000 Internets to the person who recognizes that quote.


Dig in Alsace yields intentionally deformed skull

Sunday, November 3rd, 2013

An archaeological survey in advance of construction in Obernai, in the northeastern French province of Alsace, has unearthed nearly 7,000 years of history, from the Neolithic through the Merovingian periods. The oldest section of the 7.5-hectare site is the south-eastern zone where a Neolithic burial complex dating to 4900 – 4750 B.C. was discovered. There are 20 people buried there. Another Neolithic burial ground, this one dating to 4750 B.C. at the earliest, revealed 15 corpses buried with jewelry — necklaces of limestone beads, weirdly large stone armbands — flint tools and pottery. It’s the latter that marks these graves to the waning days of the Grossgartach culture, a period of transition in Stone Age Europe that up until now has been poorly represented in the archaeological record of Alsace.

There are some Bronze Age artifacts, but the next major evidence of occupation on the site dates to the Gallic period, starting around 450 – 350 B.C. Again it’s burials, but very curious ones. Round storage pits contain human and animal remains in various combinations. One grave contains the bones of two children and several dogs. Another features the skeletons of a dog and a sheep or goat. A third contains the partial remains of a buck, including his head and handsome rack. A fourth holds a shield. There’s evidence of habitation there too, the remains of dwellings. Archaeologists believe the burials indicate this was a site of religious significance, perhaps a shrine.

Adjacent to these burials is a more recent Gallic enterprise, a prosperous farm from 150 – 30 B.C. which covers nearly two acres of the site. It is bounded by a dug enclosure which in its time was strengthened by earthenware embankments, now long gone.

[The Gallic farm] has two doors built into its corners, one of which is covered with a monumental porch. Inside the enclosure, there are building remains, storage pits and many artefacts from the Final La Tene period (150 to 130 BC). These artefacts (fibulae, glass ornaments, pottery, amphorae, coins, etc.) show the importance of this farm and the wealth of its owner.

The Gallo-Roman period is attested to by the remains of a bathing complex and by sandstone columns that appear to have been deliberately discarded, thrown broken into a pit.

It’s the Merovingian (5th-8th century A.D.) finds that take my cake, however. In a necropolis containing 18 west-east burials, one woman was found buried with the richest grave goods. Gold pins kept a garment together over her chest and she had two chatelains, chains suspended from a belt that held practical objects for household use. The objects she carried where a silver mirror, beads of glass and amber, a set of tweezers and an earscoop (a surprisingly popular device throughout the ages) for her emergency grooming needs. Also buried with her was a triangular comb made out deer antler decorated with geometric patterns that reminds me of that 3rd century Germanic one with the runes.

The silver mirror is of a design common among the Alano-Sarmatian peoples who left their North Caucasus homelands heading west under pressure from invading Huns in the late 4th century and 5th centuries. What really identifies her as an Alan is her ovoid skull, a result of intentional cranial deformation. The fashion for binding infants’ heads with straps or cradleboards to elongate and flatten their skulls wasn’t just a Mesoamerican phenomenon, although they may be its most well-known proponents today. Intentional cranial deformation was used extensively in Europe, Asia and Africa as well. The Alan version of the practice used circular bandages wrapped around babies’ heads to flatten front and back of the skull with equal pressure. Here’s a facial reconstruction of a Hunnish woman with this kind of cranial deformation.

This practice distinguished the elites and affirmed their social status. Similar graves, which are usually isolated, have been discovered in Northern Gaul, Germany and eastern Europe. They are accompanied by abundant grave goods. They thus appear to be the graves of high dignitaries and their families, of eastern origin, incorporated into the Roman army during the “great migrations”. The Obernai necropolis is one of the few large groups of discovered in France. It is the first evidence of the presence of an eastern community over a long period of time in Alsace at the end of the Roman Empire.

INRAP (the National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research) has a gallery of (sadly small) photos from the excavation that you can browse here.


Crosby Garret Helmet returns to Cumbria

Saturday, November 2nd, 2013

The exceptional bronze cavalry helmet and face mask discovered by a metal detectorist in the Cumbrian hamlet of Crosby Garrett is finally on display at its home museum, the Tullie House Museum in Carlisle, Cumbria.

You may recall the tragic tale of how a priceless, unique, internationally important ancient Roman helmet fell through a gaping loophole in the UK’s Treasure Act to be sold to an anonymous private collector. A summary for those of you who missed the story the first time around: the helmet was found in 67 pieces in May of 2010. The Treasure Act of 1996 requires finders of historical artifacts to report the discovery so that a coroner’s inquest can establish if the object is legally treasure. Treasure is defined here as all coins in a hoard that are 300 years old or older, two or more prehistoric objects made out of base metal, any non-coin object that is at least 300 years old and composed of at least 10% gold or silver, and gold and silver artifacts less than 300 years old with no known owners or heirs of owners. If the object qualifies as treasure, the finder must sell it to a local museum for fair market value as determined by the Treasure Valuation Committee, usually experts at the British Museum, and split the proceeds with the landowner. If not, it can be sold to whomever.

So, two silver coins from 1700 are treasure, even though there may be thousands of them in private and public hands, but a bronze Roman cavalry helmet, even though it’s one of a kind, painfully beautiful and invaluable to historians and archaeologists, is not. The Crosby Garret Helmet was declared non-treasure, and therefore the finder and landowner could do whatever they wanted. They wanted to make as much money as humanly possible, so the helmet went to Christie’s where its experts put the pieces back together, a highly controversial “restoration” since no archaeologists were allowed to examine the helmet in its original context and condition and the aim was to make it look great for sales purposes, not to conserve it according to rigorous archaeological standards. Very 18th century.

Christie’s set expectations low with its frankly absurd pre-sale estimate of £200,000 – £300,000 ($318,400 – $477,600). Everyone knew it was going to sell for far more than that. The Tullie House Museum raised an incredible £1.7 million from big ticket donors and thousands of Cumbrians anxious to keep this artifact where it was found, but after just four minutes of intense bidding, the helmet sold to an unknown party for £2,281,250 ($3,629,469). Despite multiple attempts to contact the helmet’s owner to arrange a private sale or even just a chance to take detailed measurements so a replica could be made for display, the Tullie House Museum had to take solace in the support of other museums which loaned them beautiful consolation prizes for the opening of the new Roman gallery in 2011.

The helmet’s still-anonymous owner seems to have loosened up since then. In fall of 2012, the Crosby Garret Roman Helmet went on public display for the first, and until now only, time at the Royal Academy of Art’s Bronze exhibition where it stood proudly amidst some of the greatest bronze pieces ever made, like the Etruscan Chimera of Arezzo. Now it’s finally Tullie House’s turn. It went on display yesterday, November 1st, and will remain at Tullie House until January 26th, 2014. After that, it moves to the British Museum where it will go on display starting February 3rd, 2014.

It will be in good company there. Only three cavalry helmets with face masks have been found in the UK: the Crosby Garret, the Newstead Helmet, found in Newstead, Roxburghshire, Scotland in 1905, and the Ribchester Helmet. The Ribchester Helmet was discovered in 1796 by the son of clogmaker Joseph Walton in Ribchester, Lancashire, along with a hoard of cavalry fittings and is now in the permanent collection of the British Museum. Also at the British Museum is the second century bronze cavalry parade mask of a woman’s face, perhaps representing an Amazon, found in tomb at Nola, near Naples. Her ring eyes are very reminiscent of Crosby Garret’s.

These unsettlingly beautiful visages were not deployed on the battlefield nor do they appear to have been military issue. They were owned by individual soldiers for use in cavalry sports events. The Greek historian Arrian of Nicomedia wrote about the hippika gymnasia in chapter 34 of Ars Tactica, a report on military tactics he prepared for his friend and emperor Hadrian. I wasn’t able to find a translation of the original Greek online, but this book quotes the relevant passage:

The horsemen enter [the exercise ground] fully armed, and those of high rank or superior in horsemanship wear gilded helmets of iron or bronze to draw the attention of the spectators. Unlike the helmets made for active service, these do not cover the head and cheeks only but are made to fit all round the faces of the riders with apertures for the eyes … From the helmets hang yellow plumes, a matter of decor as much as of utility. As the horses move forward, the slightest breeze adds to the beauty of these plumes. They carry oblong shields of a lighter type than those used in action, since both agility and smart turnout are the objects of the exercise and they improve the appearance of their shields by embellishment. Instead of breastplates the horsemen wear tight leather jerkins embroidered with scarlet, red or blue and other colours. On their legs they wear tight trousers, not loosely fitting like those of the Parthians and Armenians. The horses have frontlets carefully made to measure and have also side armour.

Someone needs to reenact a cavalry battle between masked Amazons and Phrygians because it sounds like an amazing spectacle.


San Gennaro treasure shown outside Naples for the first time

Friday, November 1st, 2013

Reliquary bust of San Gennaro commissioned by King Charles II of Anjou, 1304-5San Gennaro, the bishop of Naples who was martyred by Diocletian in 305 A.D. and is now the city’s most beloved patron saint, is richer than the Queen of England. People have been showering him with gifts since the 14th century, and thanks to the unstinting efforts of seven centuries of deeply devout custodians, his treasure remains intact despite Naples’ long, tortured history of foreign conquest and natural disasters. Now its 21,000 objects from gem-festooned necklaces to gold ostensories (containers that hold the consecrated Host) to silver and gold statues of exquisite artistry form a collection so valuable that it eclipses even the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom.

The Necklace of San Gennaro, 1679-1879It all started, as so many things do, with an eruption of Mount Vesuvius. It was 472 A.D. and the volcano that had destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum 400 years earlier had Naples in its sights this time. Thousands of terrified Neapolitans sought shelter in the catacombs under the hill of Capodimonte. These catacombs had held the remains of Saint Agrippinus, sixth bishop of Naples and its first patron saint, since his death at the end of the 3rd or beginning of the 4th century and had become the locus of veneration for his cult. Some time between 413 and 431, Bishop John I moved the bodily remains of San Gennaro, aka Saint Januarius, into the Capodimonte catacombs, making it the center for the cult of that saint too. When Vesuvius struck in 472, the refugees huddled in the catacombs directed their desperate pleas for intercession to the more recently popular saint. The eruption stopped. From then on San Gennaro was the A#1 King of the Hill patron saint of Naples. (There are 52 in total, including good ol’ Agrippinus who is still on the books).

Ostensory of gilded silver and precious stones, 1808In the 9th century, Naples was besieged by Sico I, the Lombard ruler of the principality of Benevento. He failed to take the city, but he was able to make off with most of the relics of San Gennaro which he installed in the cathedral in the city of Benevento about 35 miles northeast of Naples. By the 11th century, the principality had been chipped away by Norman and northern Lombard invaders, ultimately leaving the city in the hands of the Papacy. With Benevento no longer safe, Norman King William I of Sicily had San Gennaro’s remains moved to the Abbey of Montevergine.

The Archangel Michele made out of silver, bronze, gilded bronze, and gilded brass by Gian Domenico Vinaccia, 1691There they were pretty much forgotten. The Abbey was already well established as a pilgrimage site because it owned the relics of Saint William of Vercelli; San Gennaro couldn’t compete. He was still huge in Naples, though. His head and two ampoules of his blood had managed to stay in Naples when Sico took everything else, and it was those ampoules of blood that would launch the saint into the stratosphere. King Charles II of Anjou, son of the first Charles who conquered Naples in 1266 establishing a line of Angevin rulers that would last almost 200 years, commissioned three French goldsmiths to make a bust/reliquary of San Gennaro that would hold his head and blood. It was completed in 1305, and for the first time San Gennaro’s relics were put on display for public veneration. Charles’ son Robert the Wise had a silver container made specifically to hold the blood ampoules.

San Gennaro blood miracleIt was that blood that would come to define the saint’s cult. August 17th, 1389 is the first recorded instance of that desiccated 1,000-year-old blood miraculously liquefying when it was held aloft during a procession asking the saint to help end a famine that was devastating the city. The Miracle of San Gennaro, as the liquefaction became known, became a regular ritual. To this day, three times a year the archbishop of Naples celebrates a mass during which the ampoules are displayed with their dried, powdery contents and then displayed again once the contents have turned to liquid. Sometimes it takes a few minutes, sometimes hours, sometimes even days for the liquefaction to occur, but as far as I know, it has always happened, even, much to the city’s dismay, under the short-lived French Revolutionary republic of 1799, although that time the French commander had to threaten to kill the archbishop of Naples before the blood would turn.

Episcopal cross, 1878Charles II of Anjou’s gift of a sumptuous reliquary for San Gennaro’s relics started the trend. Popes, emperors, kings, aristocrats and common people all gave votive offerings to the saint. Offerings from emperors and popes are rarely modest, and San Gennaro started collecting an extraordinary amount of wealth. When the rest of his remains were rediscovered in the Abbey of Montevergine in the 15th century, Cardinal Oliviero Carafa and his brother Alessandro, archbishop of Naples, scions of one of Naples’ most powerful and oldest noble families, secured them for the city. The disparate body parts of San Gennaro were reunited in Naples in 1497. Cardinal Carafa had a crypt, the Cappella del Succorpo, built under the major altar of the Duomo of Naples to house the relics.

Saint Mary of Egypt, silver, gilded brass, 1699Disaster struck again in 1526, this time in the form of plague. Again San Gennaro’s relics were held aloft in a procession to beseech his intercession. The Neopolitans vowed to build the saint a new chapel for his relics and burgeoning hoard in gratitude for his help. Gennaro indicated his approval by liquefying his blood. It would take more than a century for Naples to make good on its promise. Construction on the Chapel of the Royal Treasure of San Gennaro began in 1608 and ended in 1646. The finished chapel was dedicated to the saint with a Latin inscription that says it all about the city’s relationship with its patron: “Divo Ianuario e fame bello peste ac Vesaevi igne miri ope sanguinis erepta Neapolis civi patr. vindici” or “To Saint (it’s actually “god” but usage goes with a slightly less pagan translation) Gennaro, to the citizen savior of the country, Naples saved from hunger, war, plague and the fires of Vesuvius, by virtue of his miraculous blood, consecrated.”

Necklace of gold, silver, pearls and gemstones, 1706In 1601, an organization was founded to conserve and protect the relics and treasure of San Gennaro. The Deputation of the Royal Chapel of the Treasure dedicated itself not just to maintaining the votive gifts received, but also to use the steady stream of donations to commission specific pieces in keeping with the religious significance of the collection. This is how the treasure developed into a collection to rival those of the crowned heads of Europe, because a select group of representatives from the five noble divisions and one commoner division of the city have been nurturing it non-stop for more than 400 years.

Mitre in gilded silver, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, garnets by Matteo Treglia, 1713Unlike the Crown Jewels, however, San Gennaro’s hoard is barely known outside of Naples. It was kept in locked safes in the chapel (some pieces are now kept in bank vaults), and only rarely were individual objects taken out for ceremonial use. The only time the treasure budged was during World War II, when, after the Duomo was hit by Allied bombs in 1943, the precious artifacts were sent to the Vatican for safekeeping. In the chaotic post-war years, the streets weren’t safe and the police were too short on men to arrange for the safe return of San Gennaro’s treasure.

Pyx with cross, gold, rubies, saphires, emeralds, diamonds, 1831Enter a classic Neopolitan character: diver, hustler and self-styled “King of Poggioreale” (after the neighborhood he lived in) Giuseppe Navarra. In 1947 Navarra, who was the proud owner of the first license to carry firearms issued in Naples after the Liberation, volunteered to go to Rome and bring the treasure back. Accompanied only by Prince Stefano Colonna di Paliano, vice president of the Deputation, and holding a permission slip signed by Cardinal Alessio Ascalesi, archbishop of Naples, Navarra picked up the saint’s valuables, packed them in his car and drove down to Naples. As with any epic flight of treasure, the voyage did not go smoothly. They were blocked by a sudden flooding of the Garigliano river and two thieves stopped them at the city gates. Navarra and Prince Stefano somehow managed to get past the swollen river and the thieves, finally delivering the treasure to Cardinal Ascalesi on January 26th, 1947.

Tobias and the Angel, silver, brass, gilded bronze, 1797So the treasure of San Gennaro was safe at home, hidden away as usual, which is where it remained for 56 years. After much debate on whether the treasure should be kept in seclusion because of its devotional nature, in 2003 the Museum of the Treasure of San Gennaro opened adjacent to the Duomo. The saint’s jewels could now be seen by the public, as long as the public was in Naples.

Ostensory, gilded silver and gems, by Gaspare De Angelis, 1837Now for the first time a selection of the San Gennaro beauties has gone on display in Rome. The Mostra San Gennaro showcases two of the greatest begemmed pieces: the Necklace of San Gennaro, a necklace first created by Michele Dato in 1679 to adorn the bust of San Gennaro and added to over the years with donations of jewelry from the likes of Charles II of Bourbon, Maria Amalia of Saxony, Maria Carolina of Austria, Victor Emmanuel II and Queen Marie Josè; and the Mitre, made by Matteo Treglia in 1714 out of gilded silver and festooned with 3326 diamonds, 164 rubies, 198 emeralds and 2 garnets. Some of Pyx, gold, coral, malachite by Giovanni Ascione, 1831those emeralds are Colombian, making San Gennaro’s mitre one of the greatest collections of ancient Latin American gemstones in the world.

Then there are the chalices, ostensories, crosses and silver and gold saints of jaw-dropping artistry. There’s a pyx made out of gold, red coral and malachite that was made in 1831, but the colors are so startlingly contemporary it could easily pass for a modern piece, or at least something from the Miami school of Art Deco.

The Treasure of San Gennaro will be on display at the Palazzo Sciarra in Rome until February 16th, 2014.

Saint Irene, silver, gilded brass, by Carlo Schisano, 1733 Second version of the mitre with ribbons by Matteo Treglia, 1713






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