Archive for June, 2014

Medici princess freed from bad Victorian Photoshop

Monday, June 30th, 2014


A portrait of Isabella de’ Medici, daughter of Grand Duke Cosimo I of Tuscany and his wife Eleanor of Toledo, has been liberated from the atrocious Victorian overpaint that had replaced all her individuality and dignity with a cheeseball beauty standard better suited to a cookie tin lithograph than a Renaissance court painting. The portrait was acquired by the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh in 1978 when it was reported to be a portrait of Eleanor of Toledo by Bronzino. Bronzino did a portrait of Eleanor wearing a gorgeous brocade dress that is one of the most famous works of the period, but the Carnegie painting was so markedly inferior to that masterpiece that to call the attribution sloppy is a drastic understatement.

The museum’s curator of fine arts Lulu Lippincott suspected it was a modern fake and planned to deaccession the piece. Before lowering the boom, she asked chief conservator Ellen Baxter to determine whether it was a fake. Baxter found that the painting had cracks in it that were characteristic of a panel painting rather than an oil on canvas. The stamp of Francis Leedham, a 19th century British restorer who specialized in the terrifying practice of transferring paintings from wood or fresco to canvas (read a summary of the process here, if you dare), on the stretcher confirmed that this painting was already at least a century old in the Victorian era.

X-rays revealed that underneath the corny lady was the portrait of an older woman with puffy undereyes, a bit of a double chin, a handsome nose bump and significantly larger hands. This subject also sported a halo and held an alabaster urn in her meat hooks, attributes of Mary Magdalene that had been painted over after Leedham had transferred the portrait to canvas. The face and hands were extensively repainted, probably to make the distinctive subject more conventionally “pretty” and appealing to potential buyers.

It was Lulu Lippincott who identified the sitter. She compared the dress, the least tampered with element of the painting, to other portraits of Medici women and found a painting of Isabella de’ Medici wearing the same garment. Born in 1542, Isabella was a luminous figure in the Medici court during her short life. She was beautiful, vivacious, fashionable, intelligent, well-educated, a lover of the arts. Her father Cosimo doted on her. When she was 16, her father arranged a politically expedient marriage for her to Paolo Giordano Orsini, Duke of Bracciano. He was a violent man, an avid hunter, fighter and future leader of the Papal armies, but he lived in Rome and Cosimo saw to it that his daughter (and her dowry) stayed with him in Florence.

Cosimo gave her an exceptional amount of freedom for a noblewoman of her time. She ran her own household, and after Eleanor’s death in 1562 [corrected from 1559, thank you Edward!], Isabella ran her father’s too. She threw famously raucous parties and spent lavishly. Her father always covered her debts and protected her from scrutiny even as rumors of her lovers and excesses that would have doomed other society women spread far and wide. Her favorite lover was said to be Troilo Orsini, her husband Paolo’s cousin.

Things went downhill fast for Isabella after her father’s death in 1574. Her brother Francesco was now the Grand Duke, and he had no interest in indulging his sister’s peccadilloes. We don’t know what happened exactly, but in 1576 Isabella died at the Medici Villa of Cerreto Guidi near Empoli. The official story released by Francesco was that his 34-year-old sister dropped dead suddenly while washing her hair. The unofficial story is that she was strangled by her husband out of revenge for her adultery and/or to clear the way for him to marry his own mistress Vittoria Accoramboni.

Isabella was painted repeatedly during her lifetime, often by Alessandro Allori, a prominent Medici court painter and student of Bronzino’s. The Carnegie’s portrait is one of the last.

Lippincott believes that the picture was painted around 1574, and that the halo and urn were added shortly after the work was completed. The Mary Magdalene attributes transformed the portrait into a “symbol of repentance”; Isabella’s brother Francesco, who became head of the family in 1574, was less accepting of her scandalous lifestyle. “This may have been Isabella’s attempt to clean up her act,” Lippincott says.

Conservator Ellen Baxter cleaned up the portrait’s act, removing yellowed varnish and all that tragic overpaint. The age and stability of the paint layers made it a relatively straightforward process, although once the Victorian modifications were gone, there were areas of paint loss, particularly around the edges. Baxter filled in the blanks with a light, judicious hand.

Watch this video to see her in action:

Now that the Isabella has been liberated from a later era’s bad taste, attribution can be revisited. For now, the Carnegie is attributing the portrait to the circle of Alessandro Allori, although it could be the work of the master himself.

Meanwhile, Isabella is going on display in the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Faked, Forgotten, Found: Five Renaissance Paintings Investigated exhibition, a fascinating glimpse behind the conservator’s curtain as viewed through the analysis and conservation of five Renaissance paintings in the museum’s collection. The exhibition debuted Saturday and runs through September 15th.

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Runes confirm Thor’s hammer amulet is a hammer

Sunday, June 29th, 2014

This spring, metal detectorist Torben Christjansen found a small amulet in Købelev on the Danish island of Lolland. Just one inch long and wide, the piece is in a shape known as Thor’s hammer, a design thought to invoke the protective power of Thor and his dwarf-forged hammer Mjolnir. About 1,000 of these Viking-era amulets have been discovered in Scandinavia, the UK, Russia and the Baltic countries, often unearthed in women’s graves. There has been some debate, however, on whether they were representations of Thor’s hammer, even stylized versions. Skeptics point out that the shaft is disproportionately short to be a hammer, and the head too symmetrical.

Christjansen reported the find as treasure trove to the local Museum Lolland-Falster where curators dated it to the 10th century. The amulet was cast in bronze and has traces of the silver or tin plating and gold plating that once adorned it. One side of the hammer’s head is decorated with interlacing pattern, the other side with a runic inscription seven characters long. This is the first Thor’s hammer amulet ever found inscribed with runes.

Because the runes were so small — three to seven millimeters high — and the surface corroded from the centuries it spent in the ground, the Museum Lolland-Falster curators sent the amulet to the National Museum of Denmark for their experts to decipher. Examining it under a microscope, museum runologist Lisbeth Imer was able to translate the inscription and it resolves the hammer question in the bluntest terms possible: the runes read “Hmar is x,” or in modern Danish “Hammer is” (the x isn’t a letter but a delimiter between two words). Translated into English the inscription simply says “This is a hammer.”

There are two mistakes in the runes. The author left out the first a in “hammer” and flipped the S-rune backwards à la Toys-R-Us. These could have been errors of literacy or a function of the tiny space the writer had to inscribe. Even if his or her spelling was spotty, the rune carver would have derived status and prestige from being literate in a society that prized writing.

The hammer wasn’t the only artifact Christjansen found on the site. He discovered pieces of silver needles and a matrix used to make brooches. These finds could indicate there was a jewelry-making workshop in the area. If so, the hammer could have been made locally. There are no plans currently for an archaeological investigation of the site. Christjansen will keep surveying the area with his metal detector, however, and Museum Lolland-Falster curators will be working with him going forward.

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25 quipu found at Inca site south of Lima

Saturday, June 28th, 2014

Archaeologists excavating the 15th century Inca archaeological site of Incahuasi, about 90 miles southeast of Lima and 20 miles inland from the coast of central Peru, have found 25 quipu, groups of knotted and dyed strings tied together that were used by the Inca for keeping records. The quipu are in various shapes, sizes and configurations. The longest is two groups of strings tied together to form a row three feet wide, with an additional tail in the center where the two strands meet. The smallest is just a few inches wide, the size of a small notepad.

Quipu (also called “khipus” or “talking knots”) typically consisted of colored, spun, and plied thread or strings from llama or alpaca hair. They aided in data collection and record-keeping, including the monitoring of tax obligations, census records, calendrical information, and military organization. The cords contained numeric and other values encoded on knots in a base-10 positional system. Some quipu had as many as 2,000 cords.

In widespread use for 800 years or so in cultures that had no written language, the quipu were targeted for destruction by the Spanish conquistadors. They were collected and burned. Today only a few hundred have survived because they were used as grave goods. The Incahuasi quipu, on the other hand, were not found in a funerary context but rather unearthed in the city’s warehouses where they were used in the management of whatever was stored there, most likely agricultural products. Ceramic pots recovered from the warehouses are marked with symbols for maize and other crops.

Incahuasi was founded in 1450 by King Túpac Yupanqui who expanded the Inca empire south along the coast and established the city as an administrative and military center for the ongoing campaign against the local Huarcos people who resisted the Inca invaders. He called it New Cusco, after the Inca capital, and planned the city to be a smaller scale replica of the original. The architecture was therefore deliberately grand, meant to convey imperial power. Structures found so far include 64 circular columns, ushnu (terraced pyramids) temples, forts, soldier’s barracks, ceremonial courtyards, warehouses, grain stores on a plan of streets and squares similar to the northern capital. It’s the most important Inca archaeological site in coastal Peru.

The climate is dry, a sub-tropical desert, which required the construction of canals and irrigation systems to enable agriculture. It also preserves organic material like knotted cotton strings. Their condition is so good that conservators have actually been able to iron them, believe it or not. The strings of the longest one were crimped and tangled, so curator Patricia Landa Cragg placed a damn paper towel on top of them and passed an iron over it. The treatment works like a charm, as you can see in the photograph left where the strings on the left side have been ironed while the ones on the right have not. There’s video of Patricia explaining the process on this page (which is currently down but was working fine earlier). The video also shows some of the other quipu found at the site and the recovered ceramic pottery.

For more about this fascinating and complex system of 3D language (there’s some evidence quipu weren’t just used for accounting purposes, but also to record literature and mythology), see Harvard’s Khipu Database Project.

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Rediscovered Artemisia Gentileschi Magdalene breaks record

Friday, June 27th, 2014

A rediscovered painting by Baroque master Artemisia Gentileschi sold for a world record €865,500 ($1,175,211) at a Sotheby’s auction in Paris on Thursday. The final price including buyer’s premium was far in excess of the pre-sale estimate of €200,000-300,000 ($271,568-407,352), driven up by seven bidders competing against each other.

The previous auction record for a painting by Artemisia Gentileschi was £419,500 (about $715,000 at today’s exchange rate) set at 1998 Sotheby’s sale in London. It was the same Self-Portrait as a Lute Player that failed to sell at auction due to an overly-optimistic reserve in the millions of dollars last January. The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford acquired it in a private sale for an undisclosed sum in March.

Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy was thought lost, its existent only known from an early 20th century black and white photograph in the library of an Italian art dealer. Sotheby’s experts rediscovered it in a private collection in the south of France where it had been secreted away for 80 years. The old picture is thought to have been taken when the painting was acquired by the family of the current seller for their collection.

It’s no wonder that Mary Magdalene was subject to a bidding war. It is a particularly striking example of Artemisia’s Caravaggio-influenced play of light and dark. A large canvas at 32 by 41 1/3 inches, the piece depicts the Magdalene is the throes of religious ecstasy. The conventional wisdom is that it was painted between 1613 and 1620, the period during which Gentileschi became a highly sought after and respected artist in Florence. Some scholars believe it’s an even earlier work because they see her father’s influence in the color palette while her Florentine work saw her move away from that and develop her own signature style. Her Florentine period also featured more luxurious elements, while this painting is downright Spartan. Sotheby’s Old Masters experts think she painted it shortly after the devastating rape trial in 1611 when she was still in Rome. They believe she may even have used herself as a model, since she wouldn’t have had a great deal of access to paid models as a young woman artist still in her teens.

The abandoned, blissful pose and the way the figure fills the frame is unusual. Artemisia’s father Orazio set his subjects farther back. This composition is all Artemisia, an early glimpse into her burgeoning creative vision. The religious theme illustrated by a figure bathed in a single strong beam of divine light was popular at the time (Caravaggio was a master of the form) but Artemisia’s treatment — the tight framing, Mary pictured as a regular woman without overtly religious iconography, the sheer ecstasy — takes a highly personal approach to the subject. Compare it to two other ecstatic women from her oeuvre, Cleopatra at the moment of her death and Danaë at the moment of her impregnation by Zeus as a shower of gold. Magdalene seems so much more naturalistic and unbridled rather than posed and conventional.

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The Odyssey in LEGO

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

The LEGO construction geniuses of VirtuaLUG have outdone themselves this year, building a vast world that follows the journeys of Odysseus. The LEGO Odyssey was made for Brickworld Chicago 2014, a convention where LEGO artists come together to share knowledge and show their work. VirtuaLUG is known for its large, complex world-building, usually representations of famous literature like The Wizard of Oz and The Lord of the Rings.

They outdid themselves this year with The Odyssey. It’s the largest model yet at nearly 300 square feet. The gorgeous Aegean ocean required 400,000-500,000 dots to make. There are just shy of a million in the entire piece. There are moving parts, flashing lights, even a fully functional water feature. The level of detail, the textures of ocean, island, animal and giant, the diverse color palettes and architecture all combine to lend each section its own distinct character. Then there are the whimsical touches, references to the LEGO movie, the inclusion of the VirtuaLUG builders as a ship’s crew and best of all, the trireme crewed entirely by Wookies.

The LEGO version of the Homeric saga starts with Troy and the devious horse that broke the decade-long siege. The sides of the horse are open so you can see the treacherous Greeks waiting within to deliver destruction unto Ilium. From there the model follows Odysseus’ ships as they travel to the Island of the Lotus Eaters, Polyphemus’ Island where the sheep are large and adorable, Aeolus’ Island with the neatest mechanics, the Isle of the Laestrygonians, with amazingly dynamic articulated giant cannibals and Odysseus’ destroyed ships in the harbour, Circe’s Island complete with a finely laid out table and formerly human swine, the strikingly black, red and white Hades guarded by Cerebus, the Island of the Sirens, freaky Scylla and churning Charybdis, the Isle of Helios with the god’s adorably sacred cattle, the soaring white highrise temple of Olympus, the craggy white and blue Island of Calypso, and finally Ithaca, crammed with surly suitors and Odysseus’ son and wife fending them off.

There are great pictures on VirtuaLUG’s Flickr page, each with a brief description of the part of the story being represented. To get a real sense of the impressive size and scope of the piece, however, you must view the full tour of the installation guided by VirtualLUG’s Chris Phipson in the video below. It’s long at 22 minutes, but it’s essential viewing because you get to see extremely important details including the swirly multi-colored portal of Hades (8:50), the working fountain in Troy (11:35), the light-up lightning bolt Zeus sent to destroy Odysseus’ ship after his men ate Helios’ sacred cattle (14:08), the unbelievably complex underwater scene with swimming sharks or dolphins chasing a Nereid (15:02) and my personal favorite, the phenomenal moving wind features of the Isle of Aeolus (5:00).

Note: around 16:20 he refers to the Isle of Circe, when in fact it’s the Isle of Calypso. He just mispoke. Earlier in the tour at 5:50 he covers the real Circe bit where Odysseus’ men were turned into swine.

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Ghent Altarpiece extensively overpainted

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

The Ghent Altarpiece, the 18-panel polyptych masterpiece painted by Hubert and Jan van Eyck for the Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, has had a tough life since it was completed in 1432. It’s been taken apart, stolen, split, burned, vandalized, cropped, pawned, hidden and shipped cross-continent. Even its permanent home in Saint Bavo, a glass enclosure built to protect the altarpiece from vandalism and theft, has proven inimical to the painting because of its inability to control temperature and humidity.

In 2008, a committee was convened to address the urgent conservation needs of one of the greatest and most influential works of medieval art ever made. After an in-depth study of each panel in situ, a grant from the Getty Foundation’s Panel Painting Initiative and the creation of a fantastic website of high resolution scans and photographs, in October of 2012 the first eight panels — the outside wings — were removed from the polyptych and brought to a custom-built studio in the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts. There the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) began a campaign of conservation and restoration.

The first cleaning phase saw the removal of yellowed and cracked varnish, much of it a synthetic ketone variety added in the 1950s. Older varnish and overpainting underneath the top layer were targeted next. Conservators also used cleaning windows to investigate the original frames which the van Eyck brothers considered an integral part of the polyptych. The cleaning windows revealed that the polychrome paint layer — a faux stone effect — isn’t all overpaint as was originally thought. There is later overpaint, however, and the cleaning revealed that the quatrains painted on the frames underneath the retouching and overpainting are actually different from the historical transcripts of them, a highly significant discovery.

To those early finds we can now add new information uncovered as the conservation project continues. As the KIK-IRPA conservators worked to clean the outer panels, they discovered that a surprisingly large part of the visible paint layer is actually overpaint. Previous analysis had failed to recognize this because the overpaint follows the age cracks of the original layer. The clothing of almost all the figures, the architectural elements in the background, the sculptures of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, the highlights on the faces and hands are all overpainted.

This find is of major art historical import, because while the overpainting follows the original closely, those early restorations were workmanlike. They can’t compare to the van Eyck brothers’ gifts for conveying the texture of fabric and the light and shadow. The 3D effect of a fold of clothing that the van Eycks were able to produce was flattened by the subsequent interventions. The overpaint also cut corners, painting over details the restorers weren’t capable of duplicating. When conservators removed the black overpaint from sections of the panel depicting donor Elisabeth Borluut, for example, they found cast shadows and cobwebs hidden underneath.

Paint samples analyzed with a 3D Hirox microscope by Ghent University scientists and by Macro X-Ray Fluorescence at the University of Antwerp confirmed the conservators’ observations. Cleaning tests on the panels determined that the original paint layer is in good condition, with little paint loss or abrasion from the overpaint. The conservation committee thus decided to go ahead and remove the overpaint. The painstaking process involves lifting the top paint layer bit by bit with a scalpel viewed under a binocular microscope.

The next phase of the conservation program will bring the new discoveries and analytical techniques to the interior panels that are still on site at Saint Bavo’s. They too will be studied using 3D Hirox microscope and Macro X-Ray Fluorescence, cleaning windows will reveal the extent of the overpainting and if conditions allow, we may soon see a whole new Ghent Altarpiece that hasn’t been seen in 500 years or so.

Meanwhile, thanks to financing from the Flemish government, the micro climate of the altarpiece’s glass enclosure has been stabilized. New LED lights thermic isolation liners now keep the temperature and relative humidity steady, protecting the wood and paint of the polyptych from dangerous fluctuations in heat and moisture. It’s not a permanent solution, but it will keep the altarpiece safe for the medium long-term.

Once this conservation project is complete, the Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece website which currently hosts the beautiful high resolution images of the altarpiece, will be expanded to cover the new discoveries and analyses. It will also feature a documentary on the current conservation program.

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Hundred Years’ War playing cards on Kickstarter

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

I love playing cards and I love history. Put them together and my heart grows three sizes that day. Since I’m not likely to get my grubby hands on, say, a gilt silver deck from 1616 that sold at auction for more than a half million dollars four years ago, I have to make do with more modest targets to assuage my covetousness.

Limited edition gold and silver packs of Hundred Years’ War cards printed by the United States Playing Card Company, makers of the classic Bicycle® brand of playing cards, would step very nicely unto the breach, dear friends. SPAAAADE&Co. has launched a Kickstarter project to fund the production of these cards. Their fundraising goal is $20,000. With eight days to go, they’ve raised $14,862. It would be an intense bummer if they got so close but failed to meet the goal, so go pledge now and book your set. One deck of each color is the reward for the $24 level, which you could easily pay for a couple of decks of far less awesome playing cards. Then there are fancier collector’s box sets and bricks with multiple decks and posters and uncut sheets and all kinds of neat rewards at the higher levels.

The art work was designed in collaboration with award-winning illustrator Hanuku and it is as beautiful as it is nerdy. Each color is represented by one of the sides in the Hundred Years’ War. The black suits are the French and the red suits the English. The number card designs are fairly standard, but the face cards, aces and card backs and packs are rich with historical references.

Ace cards are delicately designed using symbols and medieval motifs that represent each dynasty involved in the war.

Court Cards feature the major historic figures of the war. We’ve put real efforts to create a modern interpretation of the medieval costume designs and combine them with traditional court card elements. Court cards depict exceptional details with modern classic features. [...]

The back of the deck symbolizes the confrontation of two dynasties.

The Valois fleurs de lys crest faces off against the quartered crest of Edward III where the Plantagenet lions split the shield with the French fleurs de lys. Between them lie two crossed swords.

The face cards are the best. The Queen of Spades is Isabeau of Bavaria, wife of King Charles VI; the Queen of Clubs is none other than Joan of Arc. Okay, so technically she wasn’t a queen, but as a peasant fighter who turned the war around for France and probably the single most recognizable figure of the conflict, she is the perfect icon for the card. On the English side, the Queen of Diamonds is Catherine of Valois, Henry V’s wife, and the Queen of Hearts is Philippa of Hainault, wife of Edward III.

The Kings aren’t identified yet on the Kickstarter page, but if I were to hazard a guess based solely on the design, I’d say the King of Hearts is Edward III and the King of Diamonds Henry V, which would make sense with the Queen pairings as well. If the pairings hold for the Valois side as well, that would make the King of Spades Charles VI and the King of Clubs Charles VII, but they don’t really look like any images of those kings I know of.

The Jacks are badass too. The Jack of Spades is, to my utter delight, Gilles de Rais, Joan of Arc’s comrade in arms, Marshal of France, and convicted serial killer of hundreds of boys. The Jack of Clubs is Étienne de Vignolles, another of Joan’s closest comrades and a fighter of great skill who is the traditional face of the Jack of Hearts in French playing cards. The Jack of Diamonds is Edward, the Black Prince, the hugely successful military leader son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. The Jack of Hearts is Henry of Grosmont, 1st Duke of Lancaster, one of Edward III’s most trusted lieutenants.

Irresistible, is it not? Spread the word and let’s get this thing funded.

 

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Sheffield University returns looted tapestry to château

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

The University of Sheffield is returning an 18th century tapestry to the French château whence it was looted by Nazis during World War II. The University bought the 12-foot-high tapestry from an art dealer in 1959 for around £1,300, not realizing its ugly history, and put it on display in a meeting room in Firth Court which subsequently became known as The Tapestry Room. In 2013, they decided to sell the work. That’s when they found out that it was Nazi loot and began working with the Art Loss Register to trace its legitimate owner.

The tapestry was made around 1720 by the Beauvais Tapestry Manufacture, a privately owned workshop contracted by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, finance minister of Louis XIV, for royal production in the second half of the 17th century. It depicts a scene from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, one of a number of Beauvais tapestries to cover Ovid’s classic mythological tales.

This tapestry, along with two others still missing, was looted from the Château de Versainville in the northwestern province of Basse-Normandie in 1943 or 1944, at that time owned by the Comte Bernard de la Rochefoucauld. Bernard was the third son of the Comte Pierre de La Rochefoucauld, Duke of La Roche-Guyon. He was raised at Versainville and inherited the villa from his maternal grandmother in 1936. Dedicated to the management of his estate and deeply involved in the community, Bernard was mayor of the city of Versainville before the war. During the German occupation, he joined the Resistance and was part of the Prosper Network, a resistance network created and supported by the British Special Operations Executive. The Count was arrested by the Gestapo in Paris in the summer of 1943 and interned at Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria. He died there on June 4th, 1944, when he was just 43 years old. His wife was also arrested and interned, but she survived until liberation and went on to live a very long life, dying in 1999 three weeks shy of her 97th birthday.

After the war, the château was acquired by the Ford Motor Company for use as a summer camp for the children of its employees. It continued to be used as such until the late 1990s when it was sold to another car company, Peugeot Citroën. In 2002, the Château de Versainville was bought back for the family by the Comte Jacques de la Rochefoucauld, Bernard’s grand-nephew, who has worked hard to restore the property to its former splendor. The University of Sheffield’s return of one of the looted tapestries is a meaningful step towards this goal.

In response to the donation of the tapestry, Comte Jacques de la Rochefoucauld commented that: “I am delighted by this news and touched by the generosity of the University of Sheffield in making so kind a gesture. The example that the University has set is one which I hope others will follow in due course, and demonstrates their respect for those who have suffered in the past from the ravages of war. In the year marking the 70th anniversary of the death of Comte Bernard de la Rochefoucauld this donation brings us great happiness.”

Comte Jacques plans to put the tapestry on display at Versainville with a plaque detailing its vicissitudes, including the 50 years it spent at Sheffield.

This isn’t the La Rochefoucauld family’s only encounter with tapestry looting. They once owned some of the most famous tapestries in the world: the seven Unicorn Tapestries that are now the greatest stars of the Metropolitan Museum’s medieval art branch, The Cloisters. The series was made between 1495 and 1505 and first appeared in the 1728 inventory of the La Rouchefoucauld family seat the Chateau La Roche-Guyon in northern France, although they may not have been originally made for the family (another candidate for the original commissioner of the tapestries is the inimitable Anne of Brittany). They were looted during the French Revolution and used to cover potatoes. The La Rochefoucauld family eventually got the Unicorn Tapestries back in the 1880s only to sell them 40 years later to John D. Rockefeller. He donated them to the Met in 1938.

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ID bracelet of World War I officer returned to son

Sunday, June 22nd, 2014

The silver ID bracelet of World War I Lieutenant Oscar L. Erickson was returned to his son Don almost a hundred years after it was lost on the Western Front. The bracelet, inscribed “Lt. O. L. Erickson, C of E, 78th Batt. Canadians,” was discovered by military historian Peter Czink who found it in a box of junk silver slated to be melted down. Czink put the bracelet aside and a few months later decided to research the bracelet’s owner. He discovered that Oscar Erickson was the father of famous Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson.

Arthur Erickson had died in 2009, but with such a prominent figure in the family, Czink realized that finding surviving relatives would be a relatively simple matter. Indeed, Arthur’s younger brother Don is still alive. He’s 85 years old now and was genuinely moved to have this precious memento of his father.

After the Battle of the Somme (July 1st – November 18th, 1916) claimed more than 24,000 Canadian casualties, Canada ramped up its recruiting program. It wasn’t terribly effective. The Military Service Act was passed at the end of August, 1917, to allow conscription. Oscar Erickson didn’t wait to be drafted. He enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force on January 8th, 1917, when he was two months shy of his 27th birthday.

Erickson was sent to the Western Front as a Lieutenant in the 78th Canadian Infantry Battalion (also known as the Winnipeg Grenadiers). As part of the 4th Canadian Division, the 78th Battalion fought in a crucial turning point of the war: the Battle of Amiens. Launched on August 8th, 1918, the offensive would finally see Allied forces actually advancing into enemy territory and end the stalemate of trench warfare. The CEF had a great first day of the battle, claiming 12 kilometers (7.5 miles), more than 5,000 prisoners of war and all but destroying two German divisions.

The next day, August 9th, the Germans reinforced their position with eight divisions. The CEF still advanced another five kilometers, but Lieutenant Oscar Erickson would pay a heavy price. He was wounded in both legs so severely that they had to be amputated. His actions on that day earned him the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry.

I doubt that was much consolation to him. He wrote to his fiancée Myrtle Chatterson that they could no longer get married upon his return. Don Erickson tells the story:

“He said, ‘We are engaged to be married but it’s impossible for us to go through with this, I’m only half a man’,” said Erickson.

“She wrote back and said, ‘You promised me you would marry me and you’re going to live up to it.’”

And he did. If he hadn’t, Don and his brother Arthur would never have been born. Oscar wore prosthetic metal legs the rest of his life. He remained involved in veterans’ affairs, writing a monograph in 1944 that doubtless drew from his own war experience: Rehabilitation of the Personnel of Canada’s Fighting Forces. I think he may have been awarded an OBE, an Officer of the Order of the British Empire medal, for his efforts in World War II, but I couldn’t confirm this is the same Oscar L. Erickson.

The sweet moment Czink gave the bracelet to Don is captured in this news story:

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Early medieval gold coin hoard found in Netherlands

Saturday, June 21st, 2014

47 gold solidi unearthed in Drenthe province, the NetherlandsTwo metal detector enthusiasts searching in the Netherlands’ northeastern Drenthe province have discovered 47 gold coins from late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. The treasure consists of gold solidi minted in Constantinople, Rome, Ravenna and Laon, in northern France. Most of the coins, 38 of them, are Byzantine and depict the emperor Justinian. The most recent coin dates to 541 A.D. It’s rare to find loose gold coins from this period in the northern Netherlands; a coin hoard is unique. The last time gold treasure was unearthed in Drenthe was 1955.

The gold solidi each weigh more than four grams for a total of more than 200 grams, making the find the greatest amount of 6th century currency by weight ever found in the Netherlands. One coin is the only example of its kind discovered on Dutch soil. It’s a Frankish coin minted by the Merovingian King Theudebert (534-548), the first king to issue characteristic Merovingian coinage bearing his own image rather than the Byzantine emperor’s.

To prevent treasure hunters flocking to the site, no information is being divulged about the exact find area. We thus don’t know much about the context, but whoever buried the coins is likely to have been a high ranking personage in the local ruling elite.

That there was such a huge amount of money in circulation, according to an archaeologist involved means that Drenthe was an important political factor. [...]

The money may have been a diplomatic payment, probably a pay-off to keep the Drenthe people away from the boundaries of the Merovingian kingdom. That kingdom then was from the South of France to the major rivers in the [central] Netherlands.

Gold coin of King Theudebert I from Drenthe hoardVery little is known about the Netherlands of the 6th century and few archaeological remains from the period have been unearthed, so this find would be nationally significant even if it weren’t a flashy stash of gold solidi.

The discovery was made this spring, and the finders reported it promptly to the province’s government archaeologists. The find was announced to the public on Friday. The treasure was acquired by the Drenthe Museum which put the coins on public display starting Saturday. The hoard now takes its place as one of the most important exhibitions in the museum. Museum director Annabelle Birnie, as quoted in the Drenthe province’s press release:

“We are very pleased with our newest addition. It’s a great addition, and of great importance to our archaeological collection. In addition to the gold treasure of Tomahawk from the 5th century and the coin treasure Nietap from the 7th century, we now have a masterpiece in the 6th century, a period about which relatively little is known. This acquisition, combined with further research can give us new insights into this period of the Early Middle Ages.”

 

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