Archive for March, 2014

Stolen Renoir on display at Baltimore Museum of Art

Monday, March 31st, 2014

Sixty-two years after it was stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art, Renoir’s Paysage Bords de Seine is once again on display in the museum’s galleries. The little 5 1/2″-by-9″ landscape, reputedly painted by the Impressionist master for his mistress on a linen napkin at a cafe on the shores of the Seine in 1879, first made the news in 2012 when it was put up for auction by a woman (later revealed to be one Marcia “Martha” Fuqua) who claimed she bought it at a flea market for $7 in a box lot along with a plastic cow and a Paul Bunyan doll. That story soon turned out to have more than a few gaping holes which were exposed when a Washington Post reporter discovered evidence in the archives of the Baltimore Museum of Art that the painting had been stolen from the museum on November 17th, 1951.

The sale was canceled while a federal court decided who owned legal title to the painting. Possible contenders were the museum, Fuqua and the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company which had paid the museum $2,500 after the theft. The insurance company declined to pursue their own claim because they believed that the Renoir should return to the Baltimore Museum of Art. In January, the court decided that even if Fuqua was an “innocent owner” who had no idea the painting was stolen when she acquired it, a thief cannot pass title to a new owner, innocent or otherwise. The landscape was going back to the museum.

Since then, BMA conservators have treated the work — it was in excellent condition and only needed a surface cleaning — to prepare it for its triumphant return. On March 30th, The Renoir Returns exhibition opened to the general public. Paysage Bords de Seine is on display with more than 20 other important pieces bequeathed to the museum by collector and benefactor Saidie Adler May. A dedicated collector of Impressionist and early 20th century art, Saidie Adler May left her entire collection to the Baltimore Museum of Art, but this is the first time, believe it or not, that the museum has dedicated an exhibition to Saidie May’s donations. Works from the May collection by Mondrian, Klee and Miró join the Renoir in the two-gallery show. May’s own artwork also gets display space next to the masterworks.

Earlier articles said that according the records of the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in Paris, the painting was purchased by Herbert L. May, Saidie’s estranged husband, in 1926. According to the BMA’s press release about the exhibition, however, Saidie and Herbert bought the painting together in November of 1925. Museum researchers discovered a diary in which she wrote about her acquisition of the Renoir. She bought it from Bernheim-Jeune along with an oil sketch by Georges Seurat, paying $2,000 for both. The diary entry and the original receipt of the purchase are part of the exhibition, as is the Seurat.

Researchers also found evidence supporting the linen napkin story.

New research conducted by the BMA’s conservation and textile departments confirms part of Saidie May’s story about Renoir painting the landscape on a linen napkin at a restaurant on the Seine for his mistress. Since Renoir was not married at the time, there is no conclusive information about the identity of his mistress, but the surface of the painting is in fact a linen damask with an elaborate geometric weave. It was unusual for painters to use this type of fabric as a background, but very common for table linens of that period. It turns out to have been a good choice, as linen increases in strength when wet and is smoother than wool and cotton.

As for what happened to the painting between 1951 and 2012, it doesn’t look like we’ll be getting answers any time soon. The FBI has closed its investigation because they don’t have enough evidence to arrest someone for the theft or even for knowingly possessing stolen goods. There are too many contradictory stories to pin anything on anyone.

One key witness, and possible suspect, was Martha Fuqua’s mother Marcia Fouquet. She was an art student in Baltimore in 1951 and had at least one friend who worked at the museum. Borders and family, including her son Matt, recall seeing the painting in her home in the 80s and 90s. The FBI did interview her before her death in September of 2013, but didn’t actually ask her if she was involved in the theft or even if she had the painting hanging in her home. Special agent in charge of the investigation Gregg Horner says: “I did not ask her about the Renoir. I did not feel that the timing was right. She’s a very interesting lady, very well-educated. We had a nice, pleasant conversation. I talked to her in general terms about her art.” He never followed up with her because of her precipitous decline in health (she was 85 years old and had cancer). “Given her illness,” Horner said, “I didn’t think it was appropriate.”

I am completely perplexed by this. It’s not idle curiosity, after all. He’s an agent investigating a crime. What is the point of interviewing a witness/suspect IF YOU DON’T ASK THEM ABOUT THE CRIME? I mean, a pleasant conversation about her art? Bizarre.

Anyway, there’s a silver lining to the theft, because now there’s this crazy adventure to add to the history of the painting and the museum is poised to take full advantage of the little landscape’s new notoriety (don’t forget to buy the magnet at the gift shop!). It’s also brought Saidie Adler May’s invaluable contributions some well-deserved and belated recognition. The Renoir Returns runs through July 20, 2014.

Share

Wadsworth Atheneum acquires Artemisia Gentileschi self-portrait

Sunday, March 30th, 2014

The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, the oldest public art museum in the United States, has acquired a rare self-portrait of Baroque master Artemisia Gentileschi. Self-Portrait as a Lute Player was the leading lot in Christie’s Old Master Paintings auction on January 29th. With a pre-sale estimate of $3-5 million, the painting failed to meet the reserve and did not sell at the auction. Christie’s then offered it to the Wadsworth Atheneum which last December received a $9.6 million donation from the Charles H. Schwartz Fund for European Art earmarked for the acquisition of pre-19th century art. The final price the museum paid has not been released, but curator Oliver Tostmann says it was significantly less than the low estimate of $3 million.

Self-Portrait as a Lute Player is the first work by Artemisia Gentileschi in a New England museum. It’s also the first painting in the museum’s Baroque Italian art collection that was done by a woman. It will join works by her father, Orazio Gentileschi, and by Caravaggio, the great innovator of the age who was a strong influence on Artemisia’s mature work. Orazio is represented by a painting of Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (1621-24), a subject that Artemisia returned to repeatedly in what may be her most famous and dramatic works. The Wadsworth Atheneum’s Caravaggio is Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy painted in 1594.

The Morgan Memorial Building, home of the Wadsworth’s European collection, is currently in the last two years of a five-year refurbishment project so Artemisia’s Lute Player won’t be on display right away. When the building reopens in Fall of 2015, she will be the centerpiece of the inaugural exhibition. The premier members of the museum’s Society of Daniel Wadsworth will be given a special preview of the work this spring (you can join, but it’ll cost ya $2,500.)

One of no more than three known self-portraits that are thought to have been painted by Artemisia Gentileschi (the others are Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting in the Royal Collection in London and the Allegory of Inclination, a fresco on the ceiling of the art gallery in Casa Buonarroti in Florence) is probably the most recognizable), Self-Portrait as a Lute Player was painted around 1616-1617 when Artemisia was 25 years old and had just been inducted into the prestigious Accademia del Disegno in Florence, the first woman ever to be accepted into that august assemblage of artists.

Her patrons included Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, a great-nephew of the great Michelangelo, and Cosimo II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. It’s likely that the latter commissioned Lute Player since it appears in the inventory of the Villa Medici at Artimino in 1638, only 20 or so years after it was painted. The inventory describes it as “A picture on canvas 1 1/2 braccia high and 1 1/4 braccia wide in a black frame bordered in gold, the portrait of Artemisia playing a lute painted by her own hand.” (A Florentine braccio is 58.4 centimeters, which would make the portrait 87.6 cm x 73 cm when in fact it’s 77.5 x 71.8 cm, but it was probably trimmed by idiots over the centuries. You can see the bottom edge crops the arm and lute awkwardly.)

Her success at the Florentine court was unprecedented for a woman and was all more astonishing considering the personal horror that brought her to the city. In 1611, when she was 17 years old, Artemisia Gentileschi was raped by Agostino Tassi, a colleague of her father’s and full-on psycho stalker who had already raped at least two women (his sister-in-law and one of his wives, the latter of whom disappeared and was probably murdered by bandits Tassi hired). The rape trial lasted seven months and all except a few final pages of the transcripts have survived. Artemisia, per standard legal practice in the Papal States at that time for all woman who accused someone of rape, was tortured with thumbscrews to prove she wasn’t lying. Tassi was convicted but only served eight months in prison after the judge pardoned him.

Even though Tassi’s testimony — denials coupled with completely fictitious claims about Artemisia’s purported promiscuity which fit handily into the blame-the-victim template that still haunts the halls of justice today — was blatantly false and widely seen as such, the scandal of the trial generated so much malicious gossip against her that a few months after Tassi’s conviction, she was hastily married to Pierantonio Stiattesi, a mediocre Florentine artist, and left Rome with him to start afresh in Florence where she supported them with her commissions. Her husband proved to be a deadbeat who ran up huge debts and forced her to leave Florence with creditors baying for blood. She dumped the bum and moved back to Rome in 1621 without him.

Her immense gifts have been recognized by art critics from the beginning, but for many centuries the rape trial overshadowed her talent. It was 20th century feminist analysis that brought Artemisia Gentileschi back into the spotlight to take her rightful place among the greatest artists of her era.

Share

What is this hinged imperial white jade piece?

Saturday, March 29th, 2014

An imperial white jade object from the 18th century that is as mysterious as it is beautiful will be going up for auction at Bonhams next month. Made for the Qianlong Emperor (reigned 1735-1796), sixth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, the piece is made out of two hollowed rectangles that are connected to a central triangle via two hinges. They hinges work, allowing the rectangles to move from laid out straight to fully vertical.

The hinge-fitting embodies much of the artistic and historical pre-occupations of the Qianlong period. Carved from exceptionally fine and lustrous white stone, with even the minor flaws most cleverly incorporated into the scrollwork, the thinly hollowed supremely challenging yet technically flawless piece is representative of the highest skill of the 18th century craftsman. Furthermore it falls into a group of jade pieces carved with the Qianlong fanggu mark, specifically carved with archaistic designs inspired by archaic bronzes to reflect the concerns of the Qianlong Emperor with drawing moral strength and righteousness from the examples of the ancients.

The ancient bronze that inspired this piece was described in the 1751 catalog of the imperial bronzes as a “Han Dynasty ornament,” which means they had little idea what it was for either.

The Qianlong Emperor was a passionate collector of art. His agents would buy up entire private collections from people who had fallen in hard times or whose descendants didn’t want to be associated with them because they had taken the wrong side during the wars of the Qing Conquest. There are thousands of jade pieces in the imperial collection and almost all of them were acquired or commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor.

Although he was an artistic polyglot who welcomed the fusion of Chinese and Western styles (the famous bronze animal heads of the Chinese zodiac were made during his reign), the Qianlong Emperor saw himself first and foremost as the keeper of China’s artistic heritage. His collection of ancient bronzes was unparalleled, as was his collection of antique paintings. An incredibly prolific poet in his own right, he adopted a practice of the Song dynasty emperors and inscribed his poems on paintings in the collection.

That desire to integrate the glorious past of China’s cultural heritage and its glorious present as incarnated by him may be key to identifying the purpose of the hinged jade object. There is another hinged white jade piece similar to this one which is engraved with an imperial poem.

The poem appears to refer to the jade piece as a ‘ruler’ to be used to ‘compare lengths’ with ‘precisely fitting workmanship’. This pre-occupation with the idea of measuring is also connected to the idea of the benevolent ruler who is guided well.

That’s not to say this was its original purpose. The Han bronze may have had a whole other significance to which the Qianlong Emperor ascribed his own meaning.

The piece is estimated to sell for £200,000 to £300,000 ($333,000 – $500,000), but the market for Chinese antiquities is insane right now so those numbers could go increase geometrically. The auction catalog is not available yet. They’re usually released four weeks before the auction, so if you’d like to leaf through it, check this page the last week in April.

Share

Piece of cake from 1924 Vanderbilt wedding found

Friday, March 28th, 2014

A 90-year-old piece of cake from the wedding of Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt to John Francis Amherst Cecil on April 29, 1924, has been rediscovered and donated to the Biltmore House collection. The small sliver of fruitcake, that most enduring of cake varietals, was found by Frederick Cochran when he was going through a trunk he inherited from his aunt Bonnie Revis, formerly a cook at Biltmore House. It was in a tiny beige box stamped “Biltmore House” on the lid.

Cochran looked inside and saw what he thought was a piece of cheese (fruitcake looks cheesy after a century, it seems). He called Biltmore House and reported his find. Biltmore Museum Services collections manager Laura Overbey went to Cochran’s home to examine the artifact and bring it back to the great estate in Asheville, North Carolina. She recognized the box from the two distinctive monograms on either side of the “Biltmore House” on the lid as those of Cornelia Vanderbilt and John F. A. Cecil, which marked the box and its contents as originating at their huge society wedding.

As far as she knew, however, there was no cheese gifting at the Vanderbilt-Cecil wedding. It wasn’t until she overheard a couple of conversations that she was able to put the pieces together.

Back at Biltmore, one of Overbey’s coworkers happened to be talking about “how a friend had found a piece of Grover Cleveland’s wedding cake” — and she realized what she likely had in the pretty little box. Even more coincidental, as she walked into the office of her director, Ellen Rickman, to tell her the news, she heard an oral history to which Rickman was listening, about Cornelia’s nuptials.

“Right as I was coming in the door, this gentleman (on the recording) is saying he remembers getting a small box of fruitcake for the wedding,” Overbey said. Thus it was that an interview done in 1989 helped a collections manager in 2014 to identify a piece of cake from 1924.

In the interview, an elderly Paul Towe, whose father worked at Biltmore in the 1920s and ’30s, recalled attending Cornelia’s wedding as a small boy. His sister, Sarah, was a flower girl, and he remembered that “everybody got a little white box with their name on it with a piece of fruitcake.”

That would explain why Bonnie Revis had a sliver of the cake, because it was widely distributed to all the staff and attendants, and she was cook from 1924 to 1935 (coincidentally almost exactly the duration of the Vanderbilt-Cecil marriage). Cornelia’s late father George Vanderbilt (grandson of railroad magnate Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt) and her mother Edith Stuyvesant Dresser were deeply involved in the Asheville community and employed hundreds of people at the estate. When Cornelia, only child of George and Edith, married the Honorable John Francis Amherst Cecil, third son of Lord Cecil and the Baroness Amherst of Hackney, direct descendant of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth I’s Lord High Treasurer, the entire town assembled outside All Souls’ Church to watch the couple and 1,000 guests arrive and depart.

Many workers at the Biltmore Estate were guests or actually part of the wedding. When the newlyweds left the church arm in arm after the ceremony, they and the wedding party walked through an arch of crossed flowering branches held by 44 children of Biltmore Estate staff. The youngest, Polly Ann Flower, greeted them at the end of the arch wearing a little white Cupid outfit.

There are no records surviving of what kind of wedding cake was served, but fruitcake was traditionally the groom’s cake, so it’s like this sliver was carved off John Cecil’s cake rather than whatever massive confection served as the primary wedding cake. It was made by Rauscher’s, identified by a stamp inside the bottom of the box, a bakery in Washington, D.C. George and Edith had a home on K Street in D.C., and Cornelia was staying there when she met Cecil. He was ten years older than her and an accomplished diplomat. When they met in 1923, he was the first secretary at the British Embassy and part of a group of highly eligible men known in D.C. society as the “British Bachelors.” Cornelia and John hit it off right away, announcing their engagement just a few months after they met.

John Cecil resigned his position before the wedding, choosing instead to focus on the management of the Biltmore Estate. It became his life-long vocation. He continued to live at and manage Biltmore until his death in 1954, twenty years after his divorce from Cornelia. She, on the other hand, got married to an English banker in 1949 and moved to England where she spent the rest of her life. John and Cornelia’s sons took over management of the estate after John’s death, George Henry Vanderbilt Cecil running Biltmore Farms (the successful dairy farm branch), his younger brother William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil taking on the Biltmore Estate, including the house and vinyards he planted. Their children manage the estate today.

As for the piece of cake, it is now in the freezer, for historical rather than culinary preservation purposes. It is still inside its original gift box, protected by several nested Ziploc bags.

Share

Christian tattoo found on 8th c. Sudanese mummy

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

Researchers have discovered a unique Christian tattoo on the inner thigh of a mummy unearthed in a cemetery along the banks of the Nile in Sudan nine years ago. The woman, who was 5’2″ tall and between 20 and 35 years old at the time of her death, was wrapped in a linen and wool shroud and buried around 700 A.D. The arid heat of the desert naturally mummified her, preserving some soft tissues like skin and internal organs. The skin of her inner thigh is so well preserved that the ink is still visible to the naked eye, but it’s quite faint. It wasn’t until last year when the mummy was given a CT scan at a London hospital and photographed with infra-red reflectography that British Museum archaeologists were able to identify the tattoo as a monogram of the letters Μιχαήλ, meaning Michael.

This is an exceptionally rare find. It’s the first tattoo of any kind found from this period in the Nile Valley. Michael was the patron saint of Christian medieval Sudan, so his name is invoked frequently in inscriptions. The monogram, which stacks the letters of Michael’s name so it looks almost like an upside angel, has been found engraved on stele and in graffiti on churches from that time, but this is the first tattoo of the symbol ever discovered.

The purpose of the tattoo is, of course, unknown, since the only person who could tell us has been dead for 1,300 years. I imagine it had much the same purpose as religious iconography has in tattoos today: expressing reverence, faith, or asking for the intercession of the saint. It could also have been a protective invocation, in the same way that words from the Christian gospels were used to ward off evil in the 12th century Makurian crypt found at the archaeological site of Old Dongola, Sudan.

I wasn’t able to found out where precisely she was discovered — the Nile runs through all of modern Sudan and there are many archaeological sites along its banks — but my best guess is that it was one of the Merowe Dam Archaeological Salvage Project excavations which focused on several medieval Christian cemeteries threatened by the construction of a dam at the Fourth Cataract (the most impassable of the Nile’s rapids). The opening scene in the Telegraph’s video looks like the Fourth Cataract where the rapids have carved out several small islands, some of which have Christian cemeteries. If that is the location, it’s south of Old Dongola, but still in the Kingdom of Makuria.

It is not clear who did the tattoo in ancient Sudan, and whether it was visible to other natives.

High up on her inner thigh, it may or may not have been out of view. And for all its scientific expertise, the British Museum admits to being unclear as to what exactly was the fashionable length of skirt worn by an ordinary Nile dwelling female in AD 700.

I don’t see her inner thigh tattoo being designed for public display. It seems like a deliberately private location no matter how short skirts may have been in Sudan 1,300 years ago. It’s going to be on public display now, though. This mummy is the youngest of eight from various periods in the Nile Valley that will be features in the British Museum’s Ancient Lives: New Discoveries. The show runs from May 22nd through November 30th and will use interactive technology to tell the stories of these eight people’s lives and deaths.

Share

Pharaoh Claudius erects pole for fertility god

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

Researchers from Swansea University in Wales and the KU Leuven University in Belgium have identified a carving of Roman emperor Claudius as a pharaoh participating in an ancient ritual for the fertility god Min on the western wall of the temple of Shanhur about 12 miles north of Luxor. The temple dates to the Roman era. It was first built as a temple to Isis under Augustus but the carvings on the western and eastern exterior walls, 36 on each, were all done during the reign of the emperor Claudius (41-54 A.D.).

The carvings were first exposed during an archaeological excavation in 2000-2001. Before that they had been covered by a mound of soil that obscured and protected the exterior temple walls, leaving the carvings in excellent condition. In the decade or so since they lost the protection of the mound, the carvings, made on lower grade limestone that is highly susceptible to erosion, have unfortunately been weathered so they’re much harder to make out now. The Swansea-KU Leuven team began recording and translating the exterior wall carvings in 2010.

It’s scene 123 on the western wall that is the stand-out piece, both in terms of preservation and historical significance. It depicts Claudius doing the ritual of the raising of the pole for Min, the Egyptian god of fertility and power. This ritual is ancient, going back 4,300 years to the Old Kingdom, which we know from the 32 extant scenes of the pole-raising that have been found. What makes this one so special is not just the involvement of Clau-Clau-Claudius (if you haven’t seen I, Claudius, please do so immediately; there will be a test), but the fact that the inscriptions include a precise date when this particular ritual took place. It’s the only one of the 32 that does.

The scene shows Claudius garbed in pharaonic regalia. He wears a complex crown known as the “Roaring One” made out of three rushes embellished by sun discs and solarized falcons. The rushes are flanked by ostrich feathers and perched on ram horns. He carries two ceremonial staffs in his left hand and a scepter in his right. The accompanying inscription identifies him and dates the ritual:

King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the Two Lands, Tiberios Klaudios
Son of Ra, Lord of the Crowns, Kaisaros Sebastos Germanikos Autokrator
Raising the pole of the tent/cult chapel for his father in month 2 of the smw-season (Payni), day 19.

Min stands across from Claudius, facing him. He holds a flail and wears a double feather crown with sun disc. As is customary for this fertility god, he also sports a magnificent erection. Behind him is his cult chapel and between him and Claudius eight men enact the ritual by climbing four poles propped against a central a pole topped by a crescent moon.

The inscriptions and iconography suggest that by performing this ritual, Claudius assumes the formidable characteristics of Min:

[Words spoken by Min (or Min-Ra)… Lord of?] Coptos, Lord of Panopolis (Akhmim), who is on top of his stairway,
[…] King of the gods, strong sovereign, who captures
[…] who roars when he rages, lord of fear,
[…] the one who brings into control the warhorses, whose fear is in the Two Lands,
[…] about whose beauty one boasts, who inflicts terror/scares away with his strength.

He’s not roaring with rage at Claudius, though, thanks to the pole-raising. By executing the ritual, Claudius keeps the cult of Min alive and asserts his power over “the (southern) foreign lands” which, according to the inscription, Min gives to him.

The inclusion of a date indicates that this ritual event actually happened, although Claudius himself was not present in person. He never went to Egypt. A priest probably acted as his proxy, something that was common even in the pharaonic era since the king couldn’t possibly be present for every ritual.

There’s another Claudius-Min ritual carved in the exterior eastern wall. In this one Claudius makes an offering of lettuce to Min and Horus the Child. The lettuce symbolizes Egypt’s crops which will be made abundant thanks to Min and his prodigious endowment.

[Take for] you the lettuce (|‘n) in order to unite it with your body (or phallus) and lettuce in order to make procreative [your] phallus

You can read the whole paper here if you register (registration is free).

Share

1940s Chicago in living color

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

A rare color film of Chicago made in the 1940s was discovered at an estate sale in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood on the south side of Chicago by a professional film colorist, fortuitously enough. The canister was labeled “Chicago Print 1″ which was intriguing enough to entice Jeff Altman to spend $40 to buy the film even though nobody at the sale knew what it was or what kind of condition it was in.

The film turned out to be a 32-minute tour of the city sponsored by the Chicago Board of Education with footage of everything from the glamour of the Wrigley Building to the manufacturing plants of the South Shore. Street scenes are interspersed with dramatic aerial footage shot from United Airlines planes. It was in good condition but needed some color adjustments which its new owner just happened to have the skills to make.

Chicago – A Film from the Chicago Board Of Education from Fading Dyes on Vimeo.

The city looks great — the aerial views of the lakefront are particularly breathtaking — and I’m a sucker for that fabulously stentorian narratorial tone that was so prevalent in publicity films and newsreels from the 1940s. The shots of the L moving through skyscrapers (around the 3:50 mark) look like something from Metropolis.

There are no references in the footage or narration to what the specific purpose of the film was, probably attracting tourism or maybe new businesses, which would explain the unusual coverage of the industrial areas of the city. The Board of Education has so far been unable to locate any records of the production in their archives, but the date can be extrapolated from what we see and hear. The sad fate of that wonderful narrator is a key piece of evidence.

It’s unclear exactly when the video was produced, but portions of it seem to have been filmed in 1940s, judging by the models of cars and what seems to be a marquee for the 1945 Humphrey Bogart film “Conflict.”

The video was likely released between January 1945 and September 1946, as John Howatt, credited as the board’s business manager, was elected to the post on Jan. 8, 1945, while narrator Johnnie Neblett died on Sept. 15, 1946, according to Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman Lauren Huffman.

The 1945/6 is confirmed by one of the comments on Vimeo points out that you can see the USS Sable aircraft carrier anchored on Lake Michigan. It was decommissioned at the end of 1945 and broken up for scrap in July 1946.

Share

Anne of Brittany’s heart reliquary returns to Blois

Monday, March 24th, 2014

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Anne of Brittany, twice queen of France and the last ruler of an independent Brittany. Over the course of the year there will be a number of cultural events dedicated to the memory of this erudite and strong-willed duchess who fought her entire life for Breton independence with her body as the final battlefield.

That’s not entirely metaphoric either. Anne was her father Duke Francis II of Brittany’s only surviving heir. He tried desperately to marry her to someone anti-French to ensure the duchy would not end up annexed by France, but after he lost the Battle of Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier in 1488, he was forced to agree to a peace treaty that required the French king’s approval of Anne’s marriage. Francis died a month later, making Anne Duchess of Brittany at 11 years old.

Now obviously she had advisors — her father’s will left guardianship of her to John of Rieux, Marshal of Brittany, historian and diplomat Philippe, Count of Commines, and Anne’s governess Madame Laval — but even at so young an age she took the reins of power firmly in her own hands. When Anne of Beaujeau, regent for her brother King Charles VIII of France, took advantage of the child duchess’ perceived weakness and attacked Brittany, Anne reacted decisively. She appointed her most trusted councilors to government positions, convened the States General of Brittany, pawned her own jewelry to raise much-needed funds for the depleted treasury, minted viable coinage out of silver-tipped leather and called on the King of England, Henry VII, to help her fend off the French.

The English turned out to be slow in sending help, but Austria and Spain sent troops to her aid. Meanwhile, the question of who she would marry became ever more pressing. Like her father, Anne cared first and foremost about which suitor could guarantee Breton independence. She did have her limits, though, and refused to marry Alain I, Lord of Albret, who had fought for Francis II against the French, because she considered him a scary brute (which by all accounts he was). Albret went into a rage at her refusal and sent troops to claim her by force. Anne, still a pre-teen at this point, met Albret’s forces head-on, mounting a horse and leading her archers against them.

That wouldn’t be the last time she took to the saddle to confront a bully. When she decided to accept the suit of Maximilian I of Austria, future Holy Roman Emperor, the man her father had wanted her to marry who she considered to be the strongest ally against France, Albret occupied Nantes and handed the castle over to the French. She and a small cadre of loyal barons (John of Rieux and Phillipe de Commines had sided with Albret because they believed he was the only hope for an independent Brittany) and some Spanish and German mercenaries rode up to the walls of Nantes and demanded they allow her entry as their sovereign. After two weeks of negotiations went nowhere, Anne’s party left only to be followed by Rieux and his soldiers. She started him down too, turning around to face him and excoriate him for his disloyalty. Her bravery was so admired that Rieux let her go.

The marriage to Maximilian did not solve her problems. France considered it a violation of the treaty since it was done without the approval of the king. Charles VIII besieged the city of Rennes and took it. Austria was of no help because Maximilian was busy fighting in Hungary. With France occupying four of Brittany’s main cities, Brittany’s nobles divided into two factions and money tight, Anne agreed to marry Charles. Since her marriage to Maximilian had been done by proxy (Maximilian sent an envoy to act in his lieu and they did this weird ceremonial thing where he put one bare knee on the bed to symbolize a consummation that never actually happened), it was easily annulled.

Marriage to Anne was the means by which Charles planned to finally take Brittany for France, if not in his lifetime then shortly thereafter. He put a clause in the marriage contract ensuring that whichever spouse outlived the other would rule Brittany. Just to cover all his bases, another clause stipulated that if he pre-deceased Anne, she would marry the next king of France, thereby giving France a second bite at the Brittany apple.

Married at 14, Anne would bear Charles seven children, none of whom survived, before he himself died when she was 21. As per the contract, she was to marry his heir, Louis XII, but he was already married. She told him she’d go through with it if he managed to get his marriage annulled within a year, then returned to Brittany and set about the business of ruling, something Charles had not allowed her to do when they were married. Much to Anne’s chagrin, Louis XII was able to get that annulment from Pope Alexander VI (aka Rodrigo Borgia) in exchange for some French estates for his son Cesare. Thus the Dowager Queen of France became Queen of France for a second time, the only woman ever to bear that distinction.

Anne of Brittany’s courts were centers of learning and art. She sponsored poets and scholars who introduced Renaissance humanism to France. She commissioned the first Renaissance style sculpture in France: the exceptionally beautiful tomb of her father, Francis II, and mother, Margaret of Foix, now in the Nantes Cathedral. The four cardinal virtues grace each corner of the tomb and the figure of Prudence bears Anne’s face. Four books of hours commissioned by her have survived, all of them masterpieces of illumination done after print was already established in France. You can leaf through the Grandes Heures of Anne of Brittany on the Bibliothèque Nationale de France website, and it’s worth it for the incredibly accurate illuminations of 337 different plants in the page borders alone.

Anne died desperately young of kidney stones just a few weeks short of her 37th birthday. She had at least seven more children with Louis, although only four survived their births and only two of them, daughters Claude and Renée, survived their mother. To her last breath she struggled against the seismic forces driving Brittany into French hands. With none of their male children surviving, Louis had betrothed Claude, Anne’s eldest daughter and heir, to his cousin and the heir to the French throne Francis of Angoulême. Anne knew that Claude’s inheritance and marriage would sound the death knell of Breton independence, so she left the duchy to her younger daughter Renée in her will, but Louis just ignored it.

A few months after Anne’s death, Claude and Francis married and a few months after that Louis died. Francis I was crowned on what would have been Anne’s 38th birthday. He made his and Claude’s son heir to the Duchy of Brittany and from then on, it was a province of France.

After her death, Anne was buried in the Basilica of Saint Denis, as was traditional for French sovereigns, but she left instructions in her will that her heart be removed and sent to Brittany. A beautiful gold reliquary was made to hold her heart, inscribed in old French with the following dedication: “In this little vessel of fine gold, pure and clean, rests a heart greater than any lady in the world ever had. Anne was her name, twice queen in France, Duchess of the Bretons, royal and sovereign.” It was first placed in her father’s tomb as she had willed and later moved to Saint Pierre Cathedral in Nantes.

The reliquary had a close brush with oblivion during the Revolution as part of the orgy of anti-monarchical destruction. In 1792 Anne’s heart was thrown away like so much trash and the reliquary ordered to be melted down. Thankfully it never happened. The artifact was kept in the Bibliothèque Nationale until in 1819 it was returned to Nantes. Its permanent home has been the Dobrée Museum since the late 19th century.

Now the reliquary is ushering in Anne of Brittany season with an exhibition at the Royal Château of Blois where she died. The exhibition brings together the reliquary with contemporary descriptions and illuminations of her hugely elaborate 40-day funeral.

Share

Shaman guarded shaft tomb in Mexico for 1500 years

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

Archaeologists broke a 1,500-year-old protection streak when they discovered an intact shaft tomb guarded by a shaman figurine in Villa de Alvarez in the western Mexican state of Colima. Although the shaman, characterized by his long face and holding a handled weapon of some kind that may have been an axe, couldn’t keep the archaeologists out, he did an exceptional job protecting whoever was buried there from being desecrated by looters. Intact shaft tombs are rarely found because the grave goods they contain are highly sought-after artifacts.

The shaft tomb was found during an archaeological exploration of 10 hectares of land which has unearthed multiple cist burials containing human and canine remains that date to late in the Comala phase of development, 400-600 A.D. Near the cists, archaeologist Marco Zavaleta found three flat stones that were lifted to reveal the vertical well that is the entrance to the shaft tomb. The tunnel is almost five feet deep and leads to a tomb lined with a solid layer of tepetate, a kind of volcanic rock. It’s the rock that dates the burial to earlier in Comala period, between 0 and 500 A.D.

Inside the tomb archaeologists found six ceramic pots of varying sizes and shapes and one gourd which were interred as offerings to the gods. The pots will be analyzed for any organic residue or remains, like food or seeds. Standing proudly upright in front of the tomb was the star of the group: a 19-inch shaman figurine. His elongated head is suggestive of intentional cranial deformation, a practice that has been confirmed in skeletal remains from this period. Archaeologist Marco Zavaleta believes the shaman was ritually “killed” by being deliberately broken before placement in the tomb. That’s why his weapon is incomplete and why his headdress is missing standard elements like a horn.

Whoever he was protecting must have been part of the city’s elite. Only the wealthy at the top of the social ladder had the power and money to commission these kinds of elaborate funerary structures, and they had the wherewithal to get people (and animals) to accompany them on their voyage to the afterlife. The skeletal remains of one or two adults were found on either side of the tomb vault, which is about six and a half feet in diameter. They’ve been disturbed, indicating that they were removed from their previous location to make room for another burial. The main burial was found in a lower level of the excavation and is an adult male lying on his back.

Outside the tomb the partial remains of dogs and children were found, and one infant appears to have been thrown down the well. Animal teeth found scattered inside the tomb may have been part of a necklace the infant was wearing when sacrificed.

“An important piece of information in this particular case is the immense presence of children. They were all placed around the tomb. There are practically no adult individuals. We would have to analyse the relationship between the children, the shaman and the dogs, who are protecting and preparing (for burial) but why were these children placed here?” [archaeologist Rosa Maria Flores] said.

The number of children buried in the tomb was not clear, archaeologists said.

The discovery of the intact tomb has provided University of Colima computer students and teachers with the opportunity to survey the site and create a 3D virtual model of it. Using a computer, a game controller and specialized software that converts video images into photogrammetric data, the team has been able to create a virtual copy of the well, vaulted tomb and artifacts.

This will be the first intact shaft tomb to have a virtual model, an invaluable educational resource that will allow people to follow the progress of the excavation and examine the tomb structure and distribution of archaeological finds. You can see a preview of the virtual tomb towards the end of this short Spanish-language video on the tomb discovery:

Share

Stolen Rembrandt found after 15 years

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

Rembrandt has the dubious distinction of being the most stolen old master, with 337 works of his listed on the Art Loss Register‘s database of stolen or lost art. One of those works, L’enfant à la Bulle de Savon (Child with a Soap Bubble), has been recovered after 15 years.

The painting was stolen from the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Draguignan, a town about 50 miles from Nice in France’s southeastern Provence region, on Bastille Day (July 14th) of 1999. Burglars broke in through the municipal library adjoining the museum while a military parade of tanks and armoured vehicles rumbled by. The alarm went off, but by the time the police arrived, the thieves and Child with a Soap Bubble were gone.

The date of the theft is almost poetic when you consider that the museum’s extensive collection of art and antiquities was seeded primarily by confiscations from aristocrats during the French Revolution. It’s a small town, but in 1790 Draguignan was made the prefecture (administrative capital) of the department of Var, so many of the goodies confiscated in the area were collected there, ultimately giving the modest town a very impressive museum. The Rembrandt painting was confiscated in 1794 from the Château de Valbelle, a medieval castle near the town of Tourves (40 miles west of Draguignan) that was used by the Revolutionary government as a hospital in 1792 and was sacked for its treasures a year later leaving it in ruins today.

After nearly 15 years with no leads, the Central Office for the Fight against Traffic in Cultural Goods (OCBC) in conjunction with the Nice police found the painting and made two arrests in just one day. On Monday, March 17th, they received a tip that a shady deal was scheduled to go down in a hotel the next day. On Tuesday, March 18th, they arrested two men, one in a building (presumably the hotel), the other in a car. One of them had the painting in his possession.

The men are 46 and 53 years old. One was formerly an insurance salesman and both of them were already known to the authorities as petty criminals. They have both reportedly confessed to their roles in the crime and have been charged with concealing a theft and conspiracy.

They weren’t charged with the theft itself, however. In a shocking turn of events, the actual thief has now stepped forward. Perhaps fearing that he was about to be snitched upon, the man turned himself into the police Wednesday on the advice of his attorney.

“He wants to draw a line under the matter. He is ready to take responsibility for his actions,” said his lawyer Franck Dupouy. “He now has a settled family life, he has children and a job, and therefore wishes to conclude this matter.”

The man kept the painting at his home up until 15 days ago, Dupouy said, and had “wrapped it with great care”.

His client “never earned a single centime” from the sale of the painting. “He was cheated,” he said, without explaining further.

Cheated by Fric and Frac there 15 days ago? Because they didn’t earn a single centime either since they were busted trying to make the sale. Anyway, whatever he’s babbling about, he did take reasonable good care of the painting. The museum’s current curator Jeanine Bussièresa and her predecessor Régis Fabre who was curator at the time of the theft examined the painting to confirm it was the one stolen and they found it in good condition. It’s missing its frame, but other than that, it hasn’t suffered from spending a decade and a half wrapped up in this guy’s house.

The museum is delighted to have one of its most important paintings back, although there are questions about its attribution to Rembrandt. Since the painting’s disappearance in 1999, new technologies have developed to authenticate works. Now that he’s home safe and sound, Child with a Soap Bubble will be analyzed for conservation and to determine whether it was painted by the Dutch master himself or one of his students.

Share