Archive for November, 2017

Hilarious exhibition at Frans Hals Museum

Friday, November 10th, 2017

The Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, northwest Netherlands, will tickle visitors’ funny bones with an exhibition dedicated to depictions of laughter in the paintings of Dutch Golden Age masters. The Art of Laughter: Humour in in the Golden Age is the first museum exhibition to treat the subject of hilarity in 17th century artworks with the seriousness it deserves. It’s the first show to focus on the topic at all, which is curious when you consider how rich a vein of it runs through the artworks of the period.

Frans Hals is often called ‘the master of the laugh’. More than any other painter in the Golden Age, he was able to bring a vitality to his portraits that made it appear as if his models could just step out of the past into the present. Hals was one of the few painters in the seventeenth century who dared portray his figures – often common folk – with a hearty laugh and bared teeth. Merriment and jokes are prominent features in his genre paintings; artists in the Golden Age frequently used it in their work. Now – centuries later – the visual jokes are harder to fathom. A great deal of new research into the field has been carried out, particularly in the last twenty years, and we are beginning to get an idea of the full extent of seventeenth-century humour. […]

The exhibition showcases some sixty masterpieces from the Low Countries and beyond by Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Jan Steen, Judith Leyster, Adriaen Brouwer, Gerard van Honthorst, Jan Miense Molenaer and Nicolaes Maes. Works by these and other artists will be shown in the context of an introduction and seven specific themes, including mischief, farce and love and lust, and one room is devoted to each of them. The exhibition ends with the comical self-portrait, in which painters feature in their own jokes. Thus humour eventually arrives at the artists themselves, creating an intriguing finale. There will also be a small selection of joke books, incredibly popular in the seventeenth century, which confirm the reputation of the Dutch as an unusually cheerful and humorous people. According to an Italian contemporary, the writer Lodovico Guicciardini, who was living in the Low Countries at that time, the Dutch were ‘very convivial, and above all jocular, amusing and comical with words, but sometimes too much.’

I wonder if the Frans Hals Museum has detected any hidden poopers in the artworks on display. The Edwardian curators of the Royal Collection were not amused by the Dutch penchant for ribald humor as expressed in their Golden Age paintings. It’s funny to think of the vast chasm in curatorial outlook between the priggish post-Victorians and the modern Dutch who take such pride and pleasure in the joie de vivre evinced by their Old Masters, even to the point that they’ve thorougly researched the paintings so we too can get the jokes that viewers in the 17th century would have gotten at a glance.

The paintings on display are a deep bench, loaned from institutions all over the world. In order to defray the cost of shipment, insurance, installation and security, entrance to the exhibition will cost an additional €5 on top of the general museum entrance fee. It’s still a bargain, though, because one ticket to The Art of Laughter will also get you into the companion exhibition, A Global Table, which looks at Golden Age still lifes with their tables and sideboards groaning with food, as primary sources of information on the effect of the Netherlands’ colonial holdings and global trade network on how people ate back home.

One of the 53 paintings in the Laughter exhibition, Gerard van Honthors’ absolutely charming Smiling Girl, a Courtesan, Holding an Obscene Picture, which is totally a meme waiting to happen (suggested caption: “Guess what? THIS GUY’S BUTT!”), is still in the process of being moved from the Saint Louis Art Museum. It won’t get to Haarlem until the end of the month. For now, her mischievous grin is represented by a reproduction created by artist Rinus van Hall in 24 hours. Here’s a nifty time-lapse video of him at work:

The The Art of Laughter runs from November 12th, 2017 through March 18th, 2018. A Global Table opened late last month and runs through January 7th, 2018.

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London Mithraeum is finally home again

Thursday, November 9th, 2017

The remains of the Temple of Mithras discovered under central London’s Walbrook Square in 1954 has returned to its original location and it looks great, better than it has in 50+ years. The temple, first built around 240 A.D., was unearthed by archaeologists William Francis Grimes and Audrey Williams in the very last days of a two-year archaeological survey of the site before the construction of new office buildings. The temple was identified as a Mithraeum when the beautifully sculpted head of Mithras, complete with Phrygian cap, was found. A reporter happened to be there and took a picture. Mithras’ beauty caused a sensation and almost half a million people came to visit the excavation.

The ensuing public outcry forced the city to abandon its original plan — the demolition of the temple to make way for ugly concrete squares of cheap mid-century offices — and come up with a compromise solution. The excavation would be extended and once the archaeologists were done, the temple remains would be removed and reinstalled a few hundred feet away at ground level so the public could enjoy it. In 1962, plan B was completed and London’s Mithraeum was reconstructed on an empty patch of land on Victoria Street. The objects discovered would go the Museum of London, except for the incredibly rare surviving wood benches and joists from the temple’s original floor, preserved in the waterlogged soil where the lost Walbrook River had once coursed. They were thrown out like so much trash.

Unfortunately plan B was poorly executed. Modern concrete was used to patch up holes and build up some of the lost masonry. The temple was not installed in its original configuration and was basically unrecognizable compared to how it had looked in situ. Things did not improve as the city grew up around it, leaving it looking like a random, weird, squat rectangle of brick and mortar benches.

In 2010, the Walbrook Square site was bought by Bloomberg LP who planned to build a grand new European HQ there. Of course they knew about the potential for archaeological remains under the site, so an in depth survey was commissoned and this time the soggy muck of the lost Walbrook River turned in an even more spectacular feat of preservation. The excavation unearthed entire city streets, large slices of Roman London from its earliest days in 40 A.D. to the final withdrawal of Roman troops in the 5th century. Wood streets, wood walls, wood wells, a wood door, thousands and thousands of assorted objects made of leather, wood, textiles as well as metal and stone. The oldest dated writing ever found in Britain was discovered on one of hundreds of Roman wood tablets from the Bloomberg dig.

The Bloomberg coporation has far deeper pockets than the small potatoes real estate developers in 1954, so it made ambitious plans to include all of these archaeological marvels in an underground display space in the Bloomberg. Not only would Roman London’s many layers be viewable to the public, but it would foot the bill to rescue the poor, benighted reconstructed temple remains from their incongruous street-level location and overmortared neglect. The temple would return to its original location, dismantled, cleaned of modern interpolations and reinstalled in situ as it had once been. There it would have the chance to be seen in its proper context, safe from the elements, and would even be reunited with another piece of the temple that was discovered during the recent excavation.

Tha planned opening date for the new Bloomberg building and its greatest of all basements was 2017, and right on schedule, the London Mithraeum at Bloomberg SPACE opens November 14th.

Michael Bloomberg, the founder of the company, said they were stewards of the ancient site and its artefacts. “London has a long history as a crossroads for culture and business, and we are building on that tradition.”

The Mithraeum incorporates a new daylit art gallery at ground level with an opening installation, Another View from Nowhen, by the Dublin artist Isabel Nolan. A huge glass case displays more than 600 of the 14,000 objects found on the site, including a wooden door, a hobnailed sandal, a tiny gladiator’s helmet carved in amber, and a wooden tablet with the oldest record of a financial transaction from Britain.

You can’t just walk in to see this archaeological treasure. Entrance is free of charge, but you must book first to guarantee entry. Click this link to book tickets, and have a poke around the website while you’re at it because it’s really very good. They worked hard to collect images and footage of the 1950s excavation and have incorporated them effectively on the site.



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Bologna’s medieval Jewish cemetery rediscovered

Wednesday, November 8th, 2017

Bologna’s medieval Jewish cemetery has been rediscovered almost half a millennium after it was obliterated by order of Pope Pius IV. Unearthed between 2012 and 2014 during archaeological explorations of a site slated for housing development, the cemetery contains 408 graves, all aligned in parallel rows heads pointing to the west, and zero gravestones. It’s a miracle the former remained in any way intact considering what happened to the latter.

The discovery announced by the Bologna and was presented Tuesday at a news conference by Bologna Mayor Virginio Merola and other officials, including Bologna’s chief rabbi and Jewish community president.

The graves discovered included those of women, men and children, the regional superintendence for archaeology stated at a press conference Tuesday. Some had been buried with ornaments made of gold, silver, bronze, hard stones and amber, the superintendance [sic] said.

Pope Pius IV, canonized a saint by Pope Clement XI in 1712, would be appalled to hear any burials had been found unmolested and complete with grave goods. He certainly tried his utmost to ensure the opposite outcome. A zealot and ascetic who as a youth had eagerly worked as an inquisitor before being elected to the Holy Office permanently in 1550, Antonio Ghislieri rose in the ranks to become inquisitor general for all of Christendom in less than seven years. He was appointed by Pope Paul IV who, not coincidentally, was also a major proponent of the Inquisition and of an anti-Semitism so hateful and brutal that Hitler used his ghettoization system as a blueprint for his own.

When Ghislieri was elected pope in 1566, he picked up where his mentor had left off, rejecting the slight softening of the draconian anti-Jewish laws Pope Pius IV had attempted when he succeeded Paul IV. Pius V promulgated the Bull Hebraeorum gens sola on February 26, 1569, which opens with much the same gross nonsense Paul IV’s Bull had opened with:

“The Jewish people fell from the heights because of their faithlessness and condemned their Redeemer to a shameful death. Their godlessness has assumed such forms that, for the salvation of our own people, it becomes necessary to prevent their disease.”

The forms in question were usury, helping thieves and robbers profit from their illegal activities (pawning, maybe?), and the worst crime of them all “lure the unsuspecting through magical incantations, superstition, and witchcraft to the Synagogue of Satan and boast of being able to predict the future.” They probably turned people into newts too, but their victims got better before trial.

The Bull concludes with the decree banishing all Jews from the Papal States, excepting those in Rome and Ancona, within 90 days. A convent in Bologna was explicitly instructed by to destroy the cemetery, the largest Jewish cemetery in the Europe which had been in continuous use since the 14th century, by the Pope later that year.

In November 1569, Pius handed over the cemetery to the nuns of the nearby cloister of St. Peter the Martyr and directed the sisters “to dig up and send, wherever they want, the bodies, bones and remains of the dead: to demolish, or convert to other forms, the graves built by the Jews, including those made for living people: to remove completely, or scrape off the inscriptions or epitaphs carved in the marble.”

Four ornate Jewish gravestones now displayed in Bologna’s Civic Medieval Museum are believed to have come from this cemetery.

Archaeologists found evidence of the sisters’ (or somebody’s, at any rate) handiwork in more than a third of the graves, 150 of which bear clear the tell-tale marks of deliberate, malicious desecration. The tombstones are simply gone. Destroyed so thoroughly as to not leave a trace, or employed in some other context where they are unrecognizable as anything but a piece of stone.

The human remains found in the graves will be given a respectful burial at a time and place yet to be determined.

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Pylos warrior tomb’s tiniest treasure is its greatest

Tuesday, November 7th, 2017

When the intact grave of a Bronze Age man was discovered in Pylos, southwestern Greece, two years ago, it was so dense with luxurious grave goods that it set a new record for the wealthiest single grave ever found in Greece. Its location, next to the so-called Palace of Nestor of Trojan War fame, and the richness of the contents even generated breathless speculation that this might be the tomb of a Homeric hero. Entirely groundless speculation — the shaft tomb is around 300 years older than the palace which was destroyed in 1,180 B.C. — but it’s an inescapable side-effect when archaeologists discover ivory-handled, gold-covered weapons, four gold signet rings, more than 1,000 semi-precious stone beads, silver and bronze cups, a massive gold chain, 50 seal stones decorated with Minoan motifs, carved ivory and ever so much more, enough to reignite a million childhood fantasies of pirate booty treasure maps where X always marks the spot.

Little encrusted piece before conservation. Photo courtesy the University of Cincinnati.After the dust from the dig had settled, the team, led by University of Cincinnati archaeologists Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker, had unearthed more than 3,000 burial objects, all of which were sent to the Archaeological Museum of Chora for triage, study and conservation. One of the objects was a small sort of kite-shaped piece caked in thick lime accretions entirely obscuring its surface. It was put in the To Do pile while conservators focused on the larger ticket items, like the heaps of gold, weapons and jewels.

They were finally able to beging cleaning the wee thing — it’s less than an inch and a half long — a year later and discovered that under all lime scale was one of the greatest pieces of art in Greek history. It’s a sealstone, not made of precious metals like the signet rings found in the tomb, but of agate. This one’s value is in the astonishing detail and precision in the miniature carving.

The “Pylos Combat Agate,” as the seal has come to be known for the fierce hand-to-hand battle it portrays, promises not only to rewrite the history of ancient Greek art, but to help shed light on myth and legend in an era of Western civilization still steeped in mystery. […]

Davis and Stocker say the Pylos Combat Agate’s craftsmanship and exquisite detail make it the finest discovered work of glyptic art produced in the Aegean Bronze Age.

“What is fascinating is that the representation of the human body is at a level of detail and musculature that one doesn’t find again until the classical period of Greek art 1,000 years later,” explained Davis. “It’s a spectacular find.”

Even more extraordinary, the husband-and-wife team point out, is that the meticulously carved combat scene was painstakingly etched on a piece of hard stone measuring just 3.6 centimeters, or just over 1.4 inches, in length. Indeed, many of the seal’s details, such as the intricate weaponry ornamentation and jewelry decoration, become clear only when viewed with a powerful camera lens and photomicroscopy.

“Some of the details on this are only a half-millimeter big,” said Davis. “They’re incomprehensibly small.”

The miniature masterpiece portrays a victorious warrior who, having already vanquished one unfortunate opponent sprawled at his feet, now turns his attention to another much more formidable foe, plunging his sword into the shielded man’s exposed neck in what is sure to be a final and fatal blow.

This thing is unbelievable. I think I’ve stared at the fallen fighter on the left for a solid hour.

Here is an enlarged drawing of the artwork so you can see the astonishing detail the carver was able to achieve with whatever meagre magnification options were available in 1,500 B.C. (or maybe none at all):

Beyond all the superlatives that can and should be showered upon this marvel of artistry, researchers believe the sealstone reveals new information of major significance about Minoan culture and their interactions with the Mycenaeans who so thirstily drank of Minoan culture and spread it throughout the Greek mainland.

In a series of presentations and a paper published last year, Davis and Stocker revealed that the discovery of four gold signet rings bearing highly detailed Minoan iconography, along with other Minoan-made riches found within the tomb, indicates a far greater and complex cultural interchange took place between the Mycenaeans and Minoans.

But the skill and sophistication of the Pylos Combat Agate is unparalleled by anything uncovered before from the Minoan-Mycenaean world, say the researchers. And that raises a bigger question: How does this change our understanding of Greek art in the Bronze Age?

“It seems that the Minoans were producing art of the sort that no one ever imagined they were capable of producing,” explained Davis. “It shows that their ability and interest in representational art, particularly movement and human anatomy, is beyond what it was imagined to be. Combined with the stylized features, that itself is just extraordinary.”

The revelation, he and Stocker say, prompts a reconsideration of the evolution and development of Greek art.

“This seal should be included in all forthcoming art history texts, and will change the way that prehistoric art is viewed,” said Stocker.

For more about the Griffin Warrior tomb, check out this thoroughly documented, content-rich website created by Davis and Stocker and the Pylos team. Pictures are a bit small, alas, but they need to pinch bandwidth pennies because conserving an enormous quantity of priceless archaeological artifacts is an expensive proposition, especially trying to keep the fragmentary bronze armour from falling apart. You can contribute to the project here. All donations go directly to conservation.

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Sasanian loom discovered in Northern Iraq

Monday, November 6th, 2017

Archaeologists excavating the site of Gird-î Qalrakh in the Iraqi-Kurdish province of Sulaymaniyah have discovered a loom from the Sasanian period, around the 5th or 6th century A.D. The loom weights, made from clay, survive in a mudbrick structure with mudbrick shelving and/or benches in the interior. (Make sure to click on the image to see it full size because everything is baked mud color and looks the same in the small pic. You can see the round loom weights with holes in them clearly on the center left of the shot in the large version.)

Sasanian and even more ancient Neo-Assyrian remains have been found at Gird-î Qalrakh since it was opened to archaeological exploration after the ouster of Sadam Hussein, but the site is still largely unexplored, an alluring terra incognita that attracted the attentions of Prof. Dirk Wicke, expert in Near Eastern Archaeology from the Institute of Archaeology at Goethe University in Frankfurt. In 2015, he secured funding to lead a team of Goethe University archaeologists and students to the Shahrizor plain in Northern Iraq. This year’s six-week dig is the program’s second campaign.

The objective of the excavations on the top and slope sections of the settlement hill, some 26 meters high, was to provide as complete a sequence as possible for the region’s ceramic history. Understanding the progression in ceramics has long been a goal of research undertaken on the Shahrizor plain, a border plain of Mesopotamia with links to the ancient cultural regions of both Southern Iraq and Western Iran. These new insights will make it easier to categorise other archaeological finds chronologically. The excavation site is ideal for establishing the progression of ceramics, according to archaeology professor Dirk Wicke: “It is a small site but it features a relatively tall hill in which we have found a complete sequence of ceramic shards. It seems likely that the hill was continuously inhabited from the early 3rd millennium BC through to the Islamic period.”

However, the archaeologists had not expected to find a Sasanian loom (ca. 4th-6th century AD), whose burnt remnants, and clay loom weights in particular, were found and documented in-situ. In addition to the charred remains, there were numerous seals, probably from rolls of fabric, which indicate that large-scale textile production took place at the site. From the neo-Assyrian period (ca. 9th-7th century BC), by contrast, a solid, stone-built, terraced wall was discovered, which points to major construction work having taken place at the site. It is possible that the ancient settlement was refortified and continued to be used in the early 1st millennium BC.

That’s an extraordinary leap forward in understanding of a little known site accomplished in only six weeks, and it’s only scratching the surface. Dr. Wicke plans to return with his team next year to pick up where they left off, but first he has to ensure they have the financial support for a proper excavation and that the volatile political climate will be stable enough to keep everyone as safe as possible.

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Unique Punic War lion helmet found off Sicilian coast

Sunday, November 5th, 2017

A team of divers have made a unique discovery on the seabed off the coast of Sicily: a Punic War-era helmet with a lion decoration. It is a Montefortino helmet, a Celtic style that was spread from central Europe down the boot of Italy to Western Europe. They typically are a half ovoid shape with a small knob at the crest and cheek flaps tied under the chin by leather straps. Rome adopted the helmet style and then forcibly adopted much of the world while wearing them, so they also became known as “Roman helmets.” The lion, or possibly a lion skin posed in an aggressive stance, decorates the crest knob. This is the first lion decoration ever found on this type of helmet. The only example even vaguely in the same category had some kind of bird decoration, but it was very stylized and can’t be pinned down. The lion, on the other hand, is clearly a lion.

Marine archaeologists have dated the helmet to 241 B.C., based on some of the pottery remains at the find site, the style of the armour and the date of a battle which has proven an incalculably rich source of archaeological material from the First Punic War. Egadi, an island in the Aegadian archipelago about 4 miles off the west coast of Sicily. It was the site of one of the last naval clashes of the First Punic War. In 241 B.C., 200 Roman ships went up against 100 Carthaginian ships in the Battle of the Egadi Islands. Well, actually, the Roman ships appear to have gone up against other Roman ships, mainly, captured by Carthage in previous naval battles such as the Battle of Drepanum (249 B.C.) in which Polybius claimed 97 ships had been taken and absorbed into the Punic navy. Rome’s superior numbers took the day this time, and Carthage was soundly spanked. So soundly, in fact, that they surrendered shortly thereafter ending the First Punic War.

The net effect of Carthage’s deployment of Roman vessels is that even though Rome won the Battle of the Egadi Islands most emphatically, the ship parts, cargo and weapons strewn on the seafloor are predominantly Roman. The lion helmet could be as well, but that can’t be confirmed because of how widespread the Montefortino helmet was at the time of the First Punic War.

Possibly the lion-theme decoration can be traced back to a city allied with Rome where the influence of the myth of Hercules – who was often represented wearing lion skin on his head – was strong.

It is also possible that the lion insignia indicated a rank of authority within the Roman army at this time. “The helmets could have been worn by any number of mercenaries of South Italian or Sicilian origin. The problem is, both sides were hiring in the same areas,” Royal told Haaretz. “The Romans also wore a version of this style. Hence, some helmets were likely worn by mercenaries in service of the Carthaginians, but some may also represent Roman soldiers lost in the battle.”

Also representing shipfuls of dead Roman soldiers is the large number of bronze battering rams (rostra) which are still rare finds, but have increased geometrically thanks to Egadi’s extraordinary pile of Roman battle detritus. Out of the 13 battering rams found so far at Egadi over the past decade, only two of them have inscriptions identifying them as Carthaginian. The others have inscriptions too, but all of them in Latin.

The vicious, spiky-looking bronze battering rams are of great historical significance because of their badassness and rarity, yes, but finding so many in one place connected to a single battle has provided scholars with a unique opportunity to study the ships they used to be attached to, now long since rotted away in the balmy Mediterranean waters. The rams were fixed to the prow of ships, custom cast to ensure a perfect fit along the bows. Researchers can calculate the dimensions of the keels based on the size and shape of the rostra.

Based on those measurements, the researchers believe the ships were triremes, the principal type of warship in the Roman-era Mediterranean, which boasted three decks of oarsmen.

The archaeologists calculate that the ships could not have been more than 30 meters long and just 4.5 meter in beam, far less than the 36 meters previously estimated for the Athenian trireme. […]

In battle, the trireme was propelled solely by its 170 rowers. These wooden ships are believed to have been able to achieve a speed of 10 knots at the critical moment of impact.

Rams mounted below the waterline had three horizontal planes that would slice into their targets’ timbers, cracking the enemy ship. The dispersal of amphorae and other goods on the seabed indicates that ships were indeed sunk, but did not break up.

The lion helmet, the other helmets and battering rams recovered this season are currently being cleaned and conserved. Archaeologists to learn more about the one-of-a-kind lion helmet and to expand our understanding of Rome’s naval capabilities by studying the finds.

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Ghent Altarpiece restoration website is a stunner

Saturday, November 4th, 2017

As part of their 2010 agreement to fund the restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece, the Getty Foundation’s Panel Painting Initiative stipulated that the entire process be documented and photographed in dizzyingly high resolution and every detail from dendrochronology reports to pictures of a few inches worth of newly cleaned paint be uploaded to a dedicated website. Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece is a masterpiece of online information sharing, a worthy helpmeet, technologically speaking, to the massive oak panel polyptych painted in the first half of the 15th century by Hubert Van Eyck and his brother Jan that is an icon of Belgium, Early Netherlandish art and an art historical watershed.

The altarpiece, formally known as The Mystic Lamb of 1432, is in the Cathedral of St. Bavo in Ghent, Belgium, and has remained on public view during years of restoration, study, research and documentation. Not a great view, mind you, what with all the people and stuff going on, but they built a protective transparent enclosure to give visitors a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see some of the greatest people in their fields, from carpenters to retouchers, work on one of the world’s greatest pieces of art. The creation of the Closer to Van Eyck site with its dense database of information and unparalleled pictorial documentation made it possible for the whole world to see with their naked eyes things that were not only the purview of a select group of professionals, but that even said professionals could not see with their naked eyes.

When I first discovered the website in 2012, I spent a whole weekend immersed in its Chutes and Ladders-like maze of fascinating content. I checked it regularly for years afterwards, but my interest eventually petered off when I found it wasn’t getting fresh updates. I saw yesterday when writing about the Caravaggio exhibition that the Getty Foundation and the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage in Brussels had big news regarding Closer to Van Eyck. The site has had a major update and now has brand new photographs in nosebleed high res of the polyptych at various stages in the conservation process. There are more technical images available — it started out with just X-rays, now that’s just scratching the surface of their offerings — and a freaking cool feature that allows you to compare several views of the panels at the same time.

The altarpiece was painstakingly recorded at every step of the conservation process through state-of-the-art photographic and scientific documentation. Thanks to the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage’s imaging team, digital processing and design led by Frederik Temmermans of Universum Digitalis and the Vrije Universiteit Brussels, and imec’s Department of Electronics and Informatics, the altarpiece can now be viewed online in visible light, infrared, infrared reflectograph, and X-radiograph, with sharper and higher resolution images than ever before. Visitors to the site can now also adjust a timeline to view key moments in the conservation process, and have access to simultaneous viewing of images before, during, and after conservation. Users can zoom in even closer on details of the painting, exploring microscopic views of the work in 100 billion pixels. […]

“We are proud and pleased to now also offer unparalleled access to the results of the first stage of the restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece,” says Dr. Ron Spronk, professor of Art History at the Department of Art History and Art Conservation at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada and Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, who initiated and coordinated Closer to Van Eyck. “Our site provides images and research materials of unprecedented quality and scope, both on and below the paint surface that will serve both specialists and general audiences for many years to come. We truly have come much, much closer to Van Eyck.”

Not least because they discovered that the vast majority of Van Eyck’s original brushwork had been overpainted, more than 70% of it, so most of what people have been seen of the Ghent Altarpiece wasn’t Van Eyck’s paint at all. Much of the conservation work done thus far was dedicated to removing as much as the overpaint as possible to reveal the artist’s true hand without damaging the delicate original paint layers beneath.

This website is unbelievable. It’s captures all my favorite things: technology in aid of cultural patrimony, specialized skills being taught to a new generation, rich content clearly displayed for all to enjoy without firewalls or payment, and good Ghent almighty praise be to the massive photographs. The weekend is over, but you might need to take a personal day off work so you can have all the time you need to get microscope-close to Jan Van Eyck.

I would suggest you start here with a tour of the site to get a feel for the layout and organization from their very brief and clear video summaries, then bounce around the menu climbing ladders and falling down chutes. Stock up on water and snacks because you won’t be budging from your seat for hours.

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See the Borghese Caravaggios in a museum with functional climate control

Friday, November 3rd, 2017

Giving them a break from the stifling heat, pain-lifting humidity and stench of humanity, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles announced that they will be putting on a rare exhibition of three of the Borghese Gallery’s masterpieces by Michelangelo Merisi, the artist principally known as Caravaggio. The three pieces chosen for this rare departure to foreign climes are iconic: Saint Jerome Writing, also known as Saint Jerome in His Study, Boy with a Basket of Fruit and David with the Head of Goliath. The three works were painted at the beginning, middle and end of Caravaggio’s career, which makes them a great prism through which to view the artistic and personal shifts in the artist’s very turbulent life.

Boy with a Basket of Fruit (ca. 1593-94) represents the beginning of the artist’s career when he moved from Lombardy to Rome and first attracted attention as a painter of realistic genre scenes and still lifes. Saint Jerome (ca. 1605) portrays the saint as a scholar reading and annotating sacred passages in the dramatically spotlight manner that Caravaggio made famous. In David with the Head of Goliath (ca. 1610), painted at the end of the artist’s career in his more somber and expressive later style, Caravaggio included his own features in Goliath’s head, purportedly in penance for his having committed a murder in May 1606. All three paintings were acquired by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a nephew of Pope Paul V, who knew Caravaggio personally and was one of his primary patrons.

“Caravaggio continues to exert tremendous influence on art today. His exceptional combination of truth to life and drama, and that famous chiaroscuro, gave birth not only to a new style of painting, but also inspired generations of painters with his psychological naturalism,” said Davide Gasparotto, senior curator of paintings at the Getty Museum. “These rare loans are prime examples of Caravaggio’s exceptional talent and innovation.”

The loan is in aid of the Caravaggio Research Institute, a project that seeks to create a database of everything we know about Caravaggio and his work, an accessible digital reference constantly updated with the latest and greatest information from art historical research on the man to laser scans of paintings and everything in between. It will allow interested amateurs, scholars, curators, conservators, museums and other institutions to have a world of knowledge about Caravaggio at their fingertips, and for them in turn to contribute what they’ve discovered.

The project is sponsored by FENDI which somehow links it to the value of the Made in Italy brand. It’s a laudable goal that I hope to see succeed and become a standard for all researchers no matter what the subject, but how about they fork over some of the billions they make flogging logoware to fashion victims to FIX THE A/C IN THE GALLERIA BORGHESE?! Seriously it’s insane that the director of the gallery has a deep-pocketed sponsor for the research institute which is under no particular time pressure while the paint is literally peeling off the canvases in the museum itself.

Okay. Deep breaths. I’m good now, thanks. (Until the next time I recall the horrors I witnessed.)

The Getty has a pre-existing relationship with the Borghese Gallery, a fascination, even. In 2000 the Getty Research Institute (GRI) hosted an exhibition about how Prince Marcantonio Borghese IV made extensive alterations and renovations to the villa and rearranged its prized collection to turn it into a full-fledged public museum instead of a private house that allowed visitors the way it had been since Cardinal Scipione Borghese’s days. Marcantonio turned to architect Antonio Asprucci to turn his vision of the new museum into a reality, and they worked closely together on the project for two decades starting in 1775. Craftsmen, builders, painters, antiquities experts all dedicated themselves to this ambitious goal with an attention to detail that was recognized as an artistic achievement without parallel in its time.

It was enormously influential on museum design. The Louvre’s first ancient sculpture galleries were modeled after the ones at Villa Borghese and not in a coincidental way. In 1799, Napoleon hired antiquarian Ennio Quirino Visconti, the same person who had catalogued the Borghese sculpture collection, to organize the new statuary gallery of what was then called the Musée Napoleon, the first public museum in France which would open in the Palais du Louvre in 1803. Visconti consciously repeated what had been so successful at the Borghese estate: he tied the sculptures to the spaces they were in by creating ceiling and wall paintings on the same theme. Four years after what we now know as the Louvre Museum opened its doors, Napoleon made the reference to the great Borghese collection even more explicit when he strong-armed Marcantonio’s son Camillo Borghese, husband of Paolina, to sell him 300 of his family’s most important pieces which he then happily installed in the Musée Napoleon.

The GRI’s exhibition on the subject was the result of its acquisition of a group of 54 drawings, most of them by Asprucci involving their plans for the ground floor of the villa, that illustrate just how painstakingly detailed the Marcantonio/Asprucci renovation was. The drawings cover the imagery that helped create the thematic consistency between the objects on display and the villa itself, how it was to be decorated and furnished, how best to light it and how to display the statues to their greatest advantage. All that industry and dedication produced one of the great steps forward in museum design and the Borghese Gallery today is still largely arranged along the lines established by Marcantonio Borghese and Antonio Asprucci.

Caravaggio: Masterpieces from the Galleria Borghese opens at the Getty Center on November 21st and runs through February 18th, 2018.

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Vivid color and a prosciutto clock from Pompeii

Thursday, November 2nd, 2017

By a series of link-hops that began with archaic Greece and what I hope will soon be a post of its own (it all depends on whether I can get my grubby mits on good pictures), today I wound up in Pompeii. With a prosciutto. A prosciutto-shaped sundial, to be exact. It was portable, as far as we know the earliest portable sundial surviving, which is even more notable a title when you consider that it’s made out of bonze and managed to make it through the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. intact.

It dates the 1st century A.D. and was first unearthed on June 11th, 1755, in the early Bourbon-era excavations of the site of Herculaneum. The sundial was found in the House of the Papyri, a handsome private villa where a library of charred scrolls were discovered. The scrolls got the lion’s share of the attention, but the silver-gilt bronze portable sundial so recognizably shaped like a prosciutto hanging from the bone while it cures did get some love from the Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, the ambitious knowledge compendium edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond D’Alembert.

Drawing of both sides of the sundial in Antiquita di Ercolano, 1762.The only problem is the description was not particularly accurate. (Many of the entries in the Encyclopédie left something to be desired in that arena.) The sundial was “in the form of a sleeve,” according to them. In 1762, the first scholarly work to recognize the prosciutto clock for its awesomeness was published. It was the third volume of a much less general encyclopedia — Antiqities of Herculaneum — and the authors corrected the factual errors, barely disguising their contempt that the French encyclopedists couldn’t even recognize a prosciutto when they saw one. Horologists have been discussing the ham with undiminished fervor ever since.

The sundial is now part of the permanent collection of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. It was briefly in New York City this spring as part of the Time and Cosmos exhibition at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. That’s where it found a new fan who introduced new technology to the investigation of the sundial.

Now the “pork clock” ticks once more. Recently re-created through 3-D printing, a high-fidelity model of the sundial is helping researchers address questions about how it was used and the information it conveyed.

The model confirms, for instance, that using the whimsical timepiece required a certain amount of finesse, says Wesleyan University’s Christopher Parslow, a professor of classical studies and Roman archaeology who made the 3-D reconstruction. All the same, “it does represent a knowledge of how the sun works, and it can be used to tell time.” […]

After Parslow was asked about the pork clock, he was inspired to build a 3-D model. He took dozens of photos of the timepiece at its home institution, Italy’s National Archaeological Museum of Naples. A 3-D printer at his university churned out the model—in plastic rather than the original silver-coated bronze—in a matter of hours.

Like the original, Parslow’s model bears a dial, in the form of a slightly distorted grid, on one side. The vertical lines are marked for the months of the year. The horizontal lines indicate the number of hours past sunrise or before sunset.

The original clock is missing its gnomon, the part of a sundial that casts a shadow, but an 18th-century museum curator described it having one in the shape of a pig’s tail, so Parslow re-created that, too.

Parslow then experimented with the sundial outdoors. The clock is hung from a string so that the sun falls on its left side, allowing the attached pig’s tail to cast a shadow across the grid.

The user aligns the clock so that the tip of the tail’s shadow falls on the vertical line for the current month. Finally, the user counts the number of horizontal lines from the top horizontal line to the horizontal line closest to the tip of the shadow. That indicates the number of hours after sunrise or before sunset.

It’s conceivable that he might even be able to tell time to the half-hour, but without the original gnomon he’s having to tinker with curly tail to get the most detailed readings, and it’s not at all clear that the device was meant to be all that precise. A portable sundial was a prestige item more than a practical one and nobody was counting billable hours in 15 minute increments.

The Prosciutto Clock led me to another extraordinary image, this one tweeted by the Pompeii Sites account. This is the collection of pigment cups left behind by painters fleeing the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D., most of them with the pigments or raw materials thereof still in brilliant color.

Following the trail of Internet breadcrumbs, I found Dr. Sophie Hay’s reply to the Pompeii Sites’ tweet of the rainbow of pigment jars. She was on the team that excavated those pots, which is insanely cool. The containers and their dazzling contents came from a painter’s workshop near the House of the Chaste Lovers where an unfinished fresco, a red frame around a white square, was found. On the same insula — a large multi-use block of more than 1500 square meters with homes, retail like a bakery and wine shop, and artisan workshops — a room was found in classic Pompeiian “frozen in time” mode. Apparently before the eruption a crew was working on the hydraulic network while painters had started redecorating the frescoes in the main hall. They had just finished the preparatory drawings when something suddenly came up, almost certainly Vesuvius’ roasting hot insides. The artists must have been in a rush because they left all of the pigments, which were certainly expensive not to mention necessary to their livelihood, behind. This great find gave the structure its modern name: the House of the Painters at Work.

The House of the Chaste Lovers, named after a completed fresco depicting a modest kiss at a dinner, belonged to wealthy baker (the bakery storefront next door was apparently his) and is an exceptional survival in a lot of ways. It’s one of very few two-story buildings in Pompeii with the second story still attached to it. The bakery’s oven and millstones are intact, as are two of its stables, complete with skeletal remains of seven animals. It has been excavated off and on since 1982, and the public have only been allowed in on very rare occasions. The week of Valentine’s Day this year was one those occasions, a tribute to the famous fresco with its sweet kiss on the reclining couch.

The pigment bowls were no longer in situ by then. In 2014, Professor Massimo Osanna, Director General of the Pompeii archaeological site, deposited the entire collection of pigments cups in the Laboratory of Applied Research which specializes in the study and conservation of Pompeii’s unique combination of archaeological materials, including organic, mineral and lithic remains. It has a state-of-the-art climate control system to keep the most delicate remains from degrading, and is therefore best equipped to preserve the vivid color of the ancient pigments.

Graphic artist Gareth Blayney made a series of drawings of how the shopfronts might have looked before the Vesuvian apocalypse for Dr. Hay and they are all beautiful, but the one of the paint shop truly does the riot of pigment jars justice.

Gareth Blayney: Pompeii Prints &emdash;

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Pictish stone with fearsome derriere found

Wednesday, November 1st, 2017

Pictish stones are usually abstract designs or animal figures that are stylized enough to look abstract to the untrained eye. That’s why they’re known as “symbol stones,” and why even experts don’t know what all of the symbols recorded from the 350 or so known Pictish stones represent. One theory is that they could be a sort of proto-heraldic assemblage identifying these large, imposing standing stones as the mark an important local family.

Roadwork on the A9/A85 highway in Perth, Scotland, has unearthed a Pictish Symbol Stone in which the symbol is a man, not a V-notch, not a circle, not something that could be an eagle if you squint at it long enough, but a clear outline drawing of a man carrying a spear in his right hand and a club or staff in his left. He is large and physically imposing and while he is wearing a cloak and shoes, the clothing is kept to a minimum in such a manner to emphasize his powerful glutes and quads. He is also sporting an unusual hairstyle: the front, and only the front, of his scalp is shaved. Other facial features have worn away, but from what little is left, it seems his nose was large and in charge.

There is no precise date for the stone as of yet. The spear he carries is of a type used in the middle of the 1st millennium A.D., which is a broad enough range to not tell us a great deal. If it’s actually 500 A.D., that is early for Pictish stones. There are no known Pictish sites in the area, which makes the discovery of this stone all the more significant. It may even refer to a specific local potentate.

A spokesperson for Perth and Kinross Council said: “The fearsome figure probably served to warn travellers and visitors that they were approaching his residence or territory.

“The study of the carving and what it can reveal about life in Pictish Scotland will continue. The Scottish Treasure Trove has been notified and the carving will be allocated to a museum in due course.

“After an inspection of the find spot, no further archaeological works were considered necessary and the roadworks have resumed.”

Mark Hall of the Perth Museum and Art Gallery was called in to the worksite when the stone was discovered. He documented it thoroughly in situ before it was removed and roadwork continued. The stone is now being kept at a mysterious undisclosed location where it will be studied and conserved while the Treasure Trove committee revs into gear and makes the decision everyone knows it’s going to make anyway. Obviously the ancient stone will be declared treasure. Then the only question is which museum will get to keep it.

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