Archive for November, 2018

If these gilded Chippendale torchères could talk…

Saturday, November 10th, 2018

A pair of five-foot torchères made by iconic cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale that witnessed some of the juiciest scandals of the Georgian era have entered the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art and are now on display there. The museum acquired the candle-holders for $640,000 in a July sale of Thomas Chippendale works at Christie’s London. The seller was Washington D.C. collector S. Jon Gerstenfeld who had owned them since 1995. In the 220 years before then, the giltwood torchères illuminated the sexy goings-on at Brocket Hall in Hertforshire.

Of columnar form with finely carved acanthus leaves, swags, fluting, and oval masks depicting the Roman goddess Diana, these remarkable works exhibit Chippendale’s masterful understanding of neoclassical proportion, scale, and ornament. Monumental in size, they were designed in 1773 for the grand drawing room of Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire, England, the county seat of Sir Peniston Lamb.

Thomas Chippendale is perhaps best known for his landmark book of furniture designs, The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director (first published in 1754), which was highly admired and widely used as a source of inspiration by cabinetmakers and architects in both Europe and America. As such, Chippendale is most often associated with the many works in mahogany or walnut that follow his designs. These torchères are among the very few pieces made by the master himself and are therefore considered exceedingly rare.

Originally part of a set of four (the other pair were sold separately in 1994), the candle holders adorned a room that was already replete with Chippendale furnishings. The estate of Brocket Hall was purchased in 1746 by Matthew Lamb, a wealthy barrister and Member of Parliament who would be enobled nine years later and created 1st Baronet of Brocket Hall. In 1760 he built the stately neoclassical mansion that stands today. The Grand Saloon, a banquet hall built sparing no expense to make it fine enough to receive royalty, was filled with furniture custom-made by Thomas Chippendale. This room alone cost £1,500, the price to construct an entire mansion at that time.

When his father died in 1768, Peniston Lamb acceded to the baronetcy and became the master of Brocket Hall. He married Elizabeth Milbanke in April of 1769 and significantly boosted by her beauty, charm and facility for making friends and lovers at the highest levels of English society, Lord and Lady Melbourne quickly advanced socially and politically. The fact that less than a year after their marriage Lord Melbourne was already cavorting with an actress better known for her private performances posed no obstacle.

The actress in question, Sophia Baddeley, wrote in her memoirs (published under the pseudonym Elizabeth Steele in the voice of a faux roommate following “as told to” convention) about Lord Melbourne’s pursuit of her.

This gentleman was about twenty-one years of age, and had been married about ten months to a very amiable woman. For a length of time, he used every means to engage her [Sophia’s] attention at Ranelagh, but finding that an improper place for an interview, at least such a one as he wished, he applied to a friend, in confidence, to make her, in his name, an offer of share in his fortune, in exchange for the possession of her heart. This friend brought her a letter, including a bill for 300£. which he very politely pressed her acceptance of, as a bagatelle, and to consider it only as a proof of his esteem, and that liberality which his affection for her would study to convince her of.

Sophia of course nobly declined this offer on the grounds that Lamb should pay all this attention and consideration to his lovely wife, not her. He redoubled his efforts and next thing you know, they were found together “drinking tea,” her memoirs would have it. Melbourne “threw up the parlour window, and precipitately leaped out.” My, such a guilty reaction for someone caught in the innocuous act of sipping tea. Oh and, just out sheer politeness, I’m sure, “as an atonement for his intrusion,” Melbourne “left bank notes on the parlous table, to the amount of two hundred pounds.”

Lady Melbourne was no slouch in the extramarital activities department. She caught the eye of the Prince of Wales, the future King George IV, when she was in her early 30s, had been married for a decade and was in an active relationship with George Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont, widely believed to be the father of her second son William, the future Lord Melbourne, who would find himself notoriously cuckholded when his wife, Lady Caroline Lamb, had a scandalous affair with Lord Byron. She famously had (Lady Melbourne hated her daughter-in-law but was a friend and confidant to Byron even during the intensely public affair that so humiliated her son. Byron would later marry her niece.)

MP and historian Sir Nathaniel Wraxall wrote about her in his posthumous memoirs:

“A commanding figure, exceeding the middle height, full of grace and dignity, an animated countenance, intelligent features, captivating manners and conversation; all these, and many other attractions, enlived by coquetry, met in Lady Melbourne. Her husband had been principally known by the distinguished place that he occupies in the annals of meretricious pleasure, the memoirs of Mrs. Bellamy or Mrs. Baddeley, the syrens and courtesans of a former age.

The annals of meretricious pleasure were surely illuminated by the Chippendale torchères. The Prince of Wales was a frequent vision to Brocket Hall where he enjoyed the liberal hospitality of the lady of the house without complaint from its lord. And what did have to complain about when there was so much benefit to be had from his wife’s liaisons with the highest aristocracy in the land? Melbourne’s irrelevance in Parliament and penchant for ladies of ill-repute were no barrier to advancement. In 1770, he was made an Irish Baron. In 1781 he got bumped up to Viscount (also Irish) and in 1784 he was appointed Gentleman of the Bedchamber to his Royal Highness, who was (not coincidentally) entertaining Lady Melbourne in that bedchamber at the time. In 1815, during the Regency of the Prince, Melbourne got the boost all the way up the Peerage ladder when he was created Baron of the United Kingdom.


A gallon of 2,000-year-old wine found in tomb

Friday, November 9th, 2018

Almost a full gallon of ancient wine has been discovered in a tomb in the city of Luoyang, Henan province, central China. The tomb dates to the Western Han Dynasty (202 B.C.- 8 A.D.) and excavations have unearthed a large quantity of jade, clay and bronze artifacts in the tomb. The copious grave goods were found in excellent condition, among them a pot-bellied bronze vessel that was found to contain a pale yellow liquid. Archaeologists haven’t explain whether or how the pot was sealed, but the lid must have been decently attached or else the contents would have evaporated. Instead, researchers were able to pour a full 3.5 liters of liquid into a beaker. Laboratory tests still need to be done on the fluid to confirm the identification, but it looks and smells like wine, specifically wine made from rice or another grain.

Similar-aged rice wine had earlier been found in other tombs dating back to the Western Han period. Liquor made from rice or sorghum grains were a major part of ceremonies and ritual sacrifices in ancient China. It was often contained with elaborate bronze cast vessels.

Shi said the bronze pot containing the liquid is one of the two big bronze items unearthed from the tomb. The other is a lamp in the shape of a wild goose, which was the first of its kind found in the city of Luoyang, capital of 13 dynasties, with a history of 3,000 years.

The tomb was constructed of hollow bricks, a technique that was common in the Western Han period for upper class tombs. The clay bricks were more expensive but more durable than wood. They were made in molds and stamped with relief designs before being fully cured. At 2260 square feet in area with six chambers and a corridor, this tomb held the remains of an important individual. The skeletal remains of said individual, an adult male, were found in the main chamber.

The main chamber also contained the lion’s share of the artifacts. In addition to the large bronze vessels and the bronze goose lamp, archaeologists unearthed bronze mirrors and cups. In the north chamber were painted pottery vessels, copper plates, copper pots, copper stoves and other funerary offerings.

It’s likely that the wine was an offering as well. Rice wine played an important role in celebrations, ceremonies, religious rituals and funerary rites.


9th century coin hoard found in bog

Thursday, November 8th, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered an exceptional group of more than 250 9th century coins in a bog near Ribe, Denmark. A metal detector hobbyist found the first coin earlier this year, an extremely rare piece known as a face/deer coin after the stylized face design on the obverse and the deer going nose-to-nose with a snake on the reverse. Only 11 face/deer coins were known to exist before this summer. The Museum of Southwest Jutland got wind of it on August 14th and contacted the finder the next day. That’s when they discovered there wasn’t just one more face/deer coin, but a whole bunch more, likely deposited in the wetland as a ritual sacrifice.

Obverse of the face/deer coin with a stylized face in the center. Photo courtesy Southwest Jutland Museums.With the help of the finder, museum archaeologists surveyed the site using metal detectors and precision GPS to document every discovery. Over two days, they found 174 coins, 172 of them face/deer coins, the last two with Viking ships adorned with shields on the obverse and deer on the reverse. The coins were spread over an elongated oval about 165 by 50 feet in area, a distribution typical of coin deposits that have been scattered by repeated passes with plows. The way they were spread out suggests they were not buried in the bog, but rather placed on the ground in a single deposit, likely in a bag that was torn apart and destroyed over the centuries.

The team returned to the site in late October to excavate it. This time they found another 78 coins, 77 face/deer, 1 ship/deer. The condition of all of the coins is excellent. They were in such great shape that many of them shone like new through the clods of peat when they were recovered by the archaeologists.

“This is an exceptional find that means a quantum leap in our understanding of minting. They are Danish coins and clearly minted for the purpose of being implemented in Ribe,” [Museum of Southwest Jutland’s Claus] Feveile told DR Nyheder.

“This completely shifts our understanding of how we used to mint and the process of coin production.”

With no loops, perforations or clippings, it’s clear the coins were part of a money economy before their ritual deposition. The question of how much of a real monetary economy early Viking cities employed as opposed to a precious metal weight economy is a fraught one in the scholarship, and finding so many coins deposited in one place and preserved in perfect condition will give numismatic experts the unique opportunity to determine how many of these coins were minted and circulated. Initial examinations have already revealed that many different stamps were used to strike the coins, indicating a significant output that was in no way imaginable based solely on the two handfuls of coins known before this summer.

When these coins were struck in the first half of the 9th century, Gudfred and later his sons ruled as kings of the Danes. Gudfred is the first Danish king we have decently reliable evidence of in contemporary chronicles. He fought against Charlemagne and the Franks. His son Horik I (the only son whose name is recorded but not the only one to rule) carried on his father’s legacy by raiding the Carolingian Empire of Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious. We know little about Gudfred and his sons’ monetary policies or really much of anything about their reigns beyond their interactions with the Franks. The hoard may shed a whole new light on an obscure historical period.

The coins unearthed thus far were briefly on display at the Museum of Southwest Jutland for a week until November 4th before being removed for further study. The excavation at the find site continued through October 25th. Between August and now, a total of 252 coins have been recovered. Archaeologists don’t think there are many, or even any, left to find.


17th c. wood palisade found in Québec City

Wednesday, November 7th, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of a 17th century defensive fortification in Québec City that was the first reinforced wood palisade in North America. The structure was unearthed by archaeological contractors during the renovations of a building on Sainte-Ursule Street in Old Québec. A construction worker spotted a small piece of wood sticking out of the sand below street level. From that small fragment excavation revealed a tract more than 65 feet long of a thick wooden structure. The remains of the palisades are in extraordinary condition. The waterlogged clay soil preserved the organic remains for 325 years.

The rempart de Beaucours was built in 1693 to protect Québec City from artillery attack. It replaced a wood stockade built in 1690, the first landward defenses to encircle the city. The stockade ran between 11 small masonry redoubts for gun batteries and artillery defense. It was built under pressure of an invasion from England’s Massachusetts Bay Colony and given its limitations, it would perform admirably during the Battle of Quebec in October of that year. It withstood a six-day siege leaving the English forces soundly spanked.

That victory was at least in part due to good luck, however — English commander Sir William Phips made a bunch of unforced errors — and as a consequence of the close call Governor-General Louis de Buade de Frontenac commissioned Ingénieur du Roi Josué Berthelot de Beaucours to build a rampart strong enough to withstand a frontal assault from full English cannon, strength that Phips had not deployed. Construction began in summer of 1693 and 500 men (the city’s population was between 2,000 and 3,000 at that time) built two wooden walls 13 feet high. The walls were anchored in a trench and the space between them filled with sand. That’s what allowed them to absorb the impact of heavy artillery. The tops where fitted with pointed wooden stakes.

The palisade was replaced during another period of high tension with Britain. In 1745, the city got new defensive walls, these ones made of stone. The masonry walls still encircle the Old City today, part of the most complete set of city colonial fortifications preserved in North America. There are elements ranging in date from the founding of Quebec in 1608 until the British garrison’s departure in 1871. Beaucours’ palisades were known from maps and historical accounts, but no remains of them have been found before. The discovery fills an extremely significant gap in the evolution of the city’s defenses.

Teams are now working to extract the artifacts as quickly as possible before temperatures plummet and jeopardize the site.

Several pieces of wood have already been dug out and carefully brought indoors, where they will be dried out over a two-year period.

A large central beam will likely have to be hauled out with a crane, said [archeologist Jean-Yves] Pintal.

Once the wood has been dried and stabilized, the reconstructed palisade will go on display at a location yet to be determined.


Farmer plows up Archaic kouros

Tuesday, November 6th, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered four Archaic era kouros statues in Atalanti, central Greece. The first of the sculptures was discovered by the property owner when he was plowing a field. He unearthed the limestone torso of a nude male youth 2’9″ high and immediately alerted the regional archaeological authority to his find. The kouros was recovered and transferred to the Archaeological Museum of Atalanti.

The Ephorate of Antiquities of Fthiotida and Evritania dispatched an archaeological team to conduct a thorough field excavation of the find site and environs. They have been digging there since mid-October and have found another three life-sized kouroi. In a test trench on the north section of the site, the team found a limestone kouros four feet high. It is intact from head to the thighs and depicts a bearded man with his left leg forward. Next to it was the lower torso of a male 2’8″ long extending from the lower back to the tibia. The plinth that runs along the back surface is intact. The third kouros was found last Friday (November 2nd). It is 3’1″ from throat to thighs and the left leg is extended. A trihedral block found right next to it is likely a fragment of the base of the third statue.

It’s a remarkable haul for such a short excavation of a small portion of a field which has seen such recent agricultural activity, but the Archaic sculptures aren’t the only archaeologically significant remains discovered at the site. In deeper layers than the ones where the kouroi were located, archaeologists unearthed seven graves dating from the 5th century B.C. through the second. The grave goods are reportedly impressive although no details are forthcoming yet. This was not a random group of burials. Their arrangement and location near the modern city Atalanti indicates they were part of an organized cemetery of the ancient Mycenaean city of Opus, founded in the Late Helladic period (1600–1100 B.C.) and well-populated until the Gothic invasions of the 4th century.


Bag that may have held Walter Raleigh’s head found in attic

Monday, November 5th, 2018

A red silk velvet bag found in the attic of West Horsley Place in Surrey may have been used to carry an illustriously gory cargo: the embalmed head of Sir Walter Raleigh. It’s a long shot. There is no organic residue visible to the naked eye that suggests the bag was used to hold the decapitated head of a man executed for treason and the soft, elegant bag is not the type that would have been used to place the head immediately after the execution.

Raleigh’s head had an extensive history continuing long after it was separated from his neck. Sir Walter was arrested in July 1603, less than four months after the death of Queen Elizabeth, for conspiring to overthrow King James I. At his trial that November, Raleigh denied vociferously having plotted against the king. The only evidence was the written confession of his alleged co-conspirator who was not allowed to testify and be cross-examined at trial.

Nonetheless, Raleigh was convicted. His death sentence was commuted by King James and he remained imprisoned in the Tower of London until 1617 when the king pardoned him so he could go on yet another epic voyage of discovery, this time seeking out the mythical city of El Dorado in Venezuela. James had ended two decades of war with Spain when he signed the Treaty of London with King Philip III in 1604, so part of the deal with the pardon was that Raleigh wouldn’t resume his old pirating ways and interfere with Spanish colonies or shipping.

When Raleigh’s men disregarded that stricture and raided the settlement of Santo Tomé de Guayana, Raleigh lost his son Walter and sealed his own fate. Upon his return to England in June 1618, he was arrested for the 1603 treason conviction, his pardon now invalidated by the violence against the Spanish colony. He was in poor health and was escorted to London very slowly. A couple of months and a couple of failed escape attempts later, Sir Walter Raleigh was back in the Tower of London where he would spend his last days.

The Royal Warrant for the execution dated October 28th, 1618, specified Raleigh would not be drawn, hanged and quartered, the usual execution method for traitors, but rather the king’s “pleasure is to have the head only of the said Sir Walter Raleigh cut off at or within our palace of Westminster.” The king’s pleasure would not have to wait long, likely driven by his desire to clear the diplomatic slate of the Raleigh imbroglio so he could get back to the business of arranging his son’s marriage to the Spanish Infanta. The next morning, October 29th, 1618, Raleigh was taken to the Old Palace Yard at Westminster Palace where he was beheaded.

The body was buried in St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster, out of sheer expediency. It was the closest to the palace, and this whole business was done in haste in the hopes of avoiding angry crowds. Raleigh was a national hero; popular sentiment was very much on his side. Shipping his headless body to Beddington where Raleigh and his wife had planned to be buried together would have run the risk of drawing far too much attention.

According to the earliest known published account of the execution, Sir Walter’s head “was shewed on each side of the Scaffold, and then put into a red leather bag and his wrought velvet gowne throwne over it, which was afterwards conveyed away in a mourning coach of his Ladyes.” Lady Raleigh had the head embalmed and kept it with her for the remaining 29 years of her life. One source, 18th century antiquarian William Oldys, reported that she preserved the head “in a case.”

Carew Raleigh, the only son of Sir Walter to survive his father, inherited West Horsley Place upon the death of his maternal uncle Sir Nicholas Carew in 1643. He lived there with his mother until her death in 1647. Sir Walter Raleigh’s head lived with them too. After Bess’ death, the head passed to Carew. He told Elias Ashmole (the man the Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum is named after) that he still had his father’s skull in the 1660s.

Carew sold West Horsley Place to Sir E Nicholas in 1665 and moved to London where he died the next year. He was buried with his father’s body at St. Margaret’s Church, but it was his two eldest sons Walter and Carew who would go to their eternal rest with Sir Walter Raleigh’s head at St Mary’s Church in West Horsley.

Beheadings are something of a recurring motif in the history of West Horsley Place. Nobody that we know of was actually executed there, but several of its owners have met the slicing side of the headsman’s axe and last year conservators assessing the condition of the building discovered an actual executioner’s axe.


Greek vase looted from Warsaw museum during WWII returned

Sunday, November 4th, 2018

A 4th century B.C. Greek vase that was stolen from the National Museum in Warsaw by German occupiers has been returned to Poland. The red figure lekythos with a rare sphinx design, one of very few in Poland, is a small piece at just 3.7 inches high and 2.4 inches wide, but it is of immense historical importance because it is the first archaeological object plundered during the war that has been recovered by the nation.

The vessel, made to store oils and perfumes, was discovered during excavations in the east Crimean town of Kerch, one of the most ancient cities in Crimea which was founded as the Greek colony of Panticapaeum 2,600 years ago. By the early 20th century, it belonged to Józef Choynowski, a Polish collector who was born in the Kiev area. An avid archaeologist, he participated in digs in Ukraine and elsewhere in Russia and amassed a large, ecclectic collection of prehistoric crafts, prints, paintings, osteological remains and archaeological material.

In 1901, Choynowski decided he would exhibit his entire collection in Warsaw and then donate it to the museum. The exhibition opened in the autumn of 1902. A few months later, on March 19th, 1903, Józef Choynowski officially donated his collection to the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts in Warsaw, stipulating that it must be permanently on display and that no part of it would ever be loaned or moved out of Warsaw. In December of 1923, Choynowski’s collection of 4380 objects was transferred to the National Museum in Warsaw.

It would know less than 20 years of peace. Art historian, archaeologist and SS Untersturmführer Peter Paulsen was in Poland within days of Warsaw’s surrender on September 27th, 1939. As leader of the Sonderkommando Paulsen, his brief was to “secure” objects of archaeological and historic significance from the conquered territory. Nazi officials from Hitler on down had no high opinion of Poland’s cultural patrimony, so the artworks and antiquities deemed to be “Germanic” cultural assets were the explicit focus of the SS special command. The Veit Stoss altarpiece in Krakow, for example, the largest Gothic alterpiece in the world made in the late 15th century specifically for the High altar of Krakow’s St. Mary’s Basilica, counted as German because the sculptor Veit Stoss was originally from Nuremburg, even though he lived and worked in Krakow for 20 years and the altarpiece had been commissioned by the regent of Poland.

In the end, the Sonderkommando Paulsen just stole everything it could and shipped it to Germany to stash in museums, castles, salt mines wherever they had a nook or cranny to accommodate the ever-expanding collection of patrimony plundered from occupied countries. Warsaw’s library and the national museum were stripped of far more than the few items listed as desirable in lead-up to the invasion. The Choynowski collection was plundered and many of its most prized pieces exported to Germany.

Without any clear records of what was taken by the SS, dispersed or destroyed by the ravages of war, Poland’s Ministry of Culture has struggled since the war to figure out which of Choynowski’s pieces are missing. Its database of war losses currently lists about 60 objects from the collection, but that is in no way definitive.

Thankfully, it was enough to get this one little lekythos back. The vase was slated to be sold in 2017 at the Gerhard Hirsch Nachfolger auction house in Munich. The auctioneers checked the database, saw that it was looted from Poland during war and alerted the ministry. The seller was Ingrid Haack. It had been in her family for decades and she had no idea of its ugly ownership history. She promptly agreed to withdraw it from the sale and return it to Poland.


Naughty mosaic found in 2nd century latrine

Saturday, November 3rd, 2018

A ribald mosaic has been discovered in a Roman latrine at the ancient site of Antiochia ad Cragum near modern-day Guney on the southern coast of Turkey. The mosaic covered the floor of the 2nd century A.D. latrine, providing some visual entertainment for the gents as they made use of the public facilities. It was rather naughty entertainment at that, a good fit for the environment.

The mosaic consists of two mythological scenes that don’t exactly cleave to the Bullfinch versions. One is of Narcissus, only instead of being entranced by the reflection of his beautiful visage, he is entranced by his beautiful phallus. The second features Ganymede, described in the Illiad “the handsomest mortal man on earth,” a youth so beautiful that Zeus took the form of an eagle and carried him away to Olympus to serve as his cupbearer. The mosaic flips that account and depicts Ganymede having his genitalia sponged clean by a bird.

“We were stunned at what we were looking at,” said Michael Hoff, an archaeologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “You have to understand the myths to make it really come alive, but bathroom humor is kind of universal as it turns out.” […]

Narcissus is shown with an uncharacteristically long nose, which would have been considered ugly by the beauty standards of the time. He looks down, presumably admiring the reflection of his conspicuous penis instead of his face.

In myth, Zeus disguised himself as an eagle to kidnap the Trojan adolescent Ganymede and make him a cupbearer to the gods. (The myth offered a model for relationships between men and adolescent boys in ancient Greece.) In art depicting that abduction, Ganymede is often shown holding a stick and rolling hoop as a toy.

In the image in the latrine, Ganymede instead holds tongs with a sponge, a reference to the sponges that would have been used for wiping the toilet. And Zeus is not an eagle but a heron, with a long beak grasping a sponge and dabbing Ganymede’s penis.

“Instantly, anybody who would have seen that image would have seen the [visual] pun,” said Hoff. “Is it indicative of cleaning the genitals prior to a sex act or after a sex act? That’s a question I cannot answer, and it might have been ambiguous then.”

The floor was discovered on the last days of this season’s excavation of Antiochia ad Cragum. The University of Nebraska team has been excavating the ancient city, built in the 1st century A.D. by Roman client king Antiochus IV of Commagene, since 2005. An enormous mosaic from the public baths made international news when it was discovered in 2012, and another large floor mosaic was discovered in an adjacent temple the next year. They were geometric and floral in pattern, however, whereas the latrine mosaic is figural. Naughty Narcissus and Gamy Ganymede are the only examples of figurative mosaics found thus far at Antiochia ad Cragum.


Ball in the Stone Part III: The Treasure

Friday, November 2nd, 2018

The journey’s twists and turns had taken their toll. Mainly on my feet. Sitting on a bench near Keat’s grave, looking at the pyramid and the Porta San Paolo under the warm sunlight, I was weary but content. I realized that my half-formed idea of walking as much of the Aurelian Wall as remained would be too ambitious for a week-long trip, but I had done the full south perimeter and that felt like a real accomplishment.

Only the matter of the cannonball remained. I still wanted badly to capture it even though walking around the wall up to the north gates was no longer an option at this point. The Piramide metro station rose up to play the part of my Merlin, cutting through the city to deliver me north to Castro Pretorio where I could pick up the trail of the wall again and walk along it towards the Porta Pinciana and the Borghese Gardens where my quest had been so cruelly interrupted coming from the other direction.

My busted feets were revitalized by the sheer happiness of walking a new stretch of wall, one I had never ever seen before when I lived in Rome. Castro Pretorio station is named after the Praetorian Guard barracks whose remains are embedded in the wall. I was delighted to find modern-day offices and barracks of the Italian military adjacent to the Metro station. One does enjoy a 2,000-year-old recurring theme.

For a length I was able to walk directly under the looming shadow of the wall, one section of which was topped with razor wire, as if it were still a bulwark against all manner of barbarians overunning the city’s defenses (or at least foolhardy idiots trying to scale a particularly unstable piece). While I soon had to cross the insanely busy multi-lane Corso d’Italia instead of walking directly under it, I had every hope that I would be able to spot the cannonball in the tower. I greeted the Porta Pia with a jaunty how-de-do. I doffed my cap to the late Porta Salaria, demolished in 1921. I stopped short, foot brakes squealing Looney Tunes-style, at the church of Saint Teresa of Avila. This was the marker. Across the Corso d’Italia, now split into lanes on either side of an underpass, somewhere in that section of wall the treasure awaited me.

Crossing the small lane to the fence keeping traffic vehicular and pedestrian from falling into the underpass, I gazed hungrily at the towering heights of brickwork. And there it was. A large hole like so many areas of wear and tear I had seen on my journey along the walls. The cannonball itself was barely visible. The sun was in my eyes and it is so much smaller than the hole it carved out for itself in 1870. It was a dark curve more than anything.

Click to claim your reward.The reward had to be brought back for the benefit of mankind. Them’s the rules of the hero’s journey. Even a dark curve would count as long as the camera could capture it. One shot. Then another. Is that…? If I zoom in can it be…? And so it came to pass as I had scarce dared hope. The Ball in the Stone was mine. Now it is yours too.

I all but flew to the Porta Pinciana and strutted down the Via Veneto living the history nerd’s most dolce vita. Okay so the wings kinda gave out and I snagged a bus at the bottom of the street, but the shine of my final tally of seven gates, miles of largely uninterrupted walls and one precious cannonball picture could not be dulled.


I can’t believe I missed this

Thursday, November 1st, 2018

A famous medieval icon of the Madonna and Child traditionally held to have been painted by Saint Luke the Evangelist has been conclusively identified as the work of late 13th century artist Filippo Rusuti, creator of the grand upper facade of St. Mary Major. That mosaic depicting Christ enthroned among angels, saints and the symbols of the Evangelists actually bears the artist’s signature in mosaic tiles. The facade is today mostly hidden by the 18th century loggia built over it, but the verisimilitude of the signature made it possible for experts to confirm the one on the icon.

Art historians had previously attributed it to the Master of San Saba due to some stylistic similarities to frescoes in the nave of the Church of San Saba. A restoration that began in 2017 used the latest technology to analyze the panel painting (canvas mounted on walnut). That’s how the previously invisible signature of the artist was discovered. Like the mosaic, the icon is Byzantine in style with rigid figures imbued with symbolism rather than naturalistic postures and affect.

The icon’s permanent home is the church of Santa Maria del Popolo to which it has deep ties extending back to the 13th century. The church’s founding and early history is hazy — many church records were destroyed during the Napoleonic occupation of Rome — but it does appear on a list of Roman churches from the late 1220s, early 1230s. The physical structure as it exists today is largely Baroque, an expansion and reconstruction designed by Gianlorenzo Bernini in the mid-17th century that drastically altered its 15th century predecessor. The greatest international claim to fame and tourist attraction of Santa Maria del Popolo today, the Cerasi Chapel with its two Caravaggio masterpieces, Crucifixion of St. Peter and Conversion on the Way to Damascus, dates to the Baroque reconstruction.

Long before the Caravaggio pilgrims lined up on the church steps waiting for it to open, however, pilgrims seeking the blessings of the Madonna traveled to Santa Maria del Popolo to venerate the icon. Legend dates its miraculous reputation back to the earliest records of the church. The story goes that the icon of Virgin and Child was painted by the very hand of St. Luke the Evangelist and kept with the rest of the most important relics in Christendom in the Sancta Sanctorum of the Lateran palace, the Pope’s residence. In 1230, the Tiber overflowed its banks, as it was wont to do, and with the flood came plague. To cure the city of this pestilence, the Pope led the city in a procession carrying aloft the icon to Santa Maria del Popolo. The plague ended and the Madonna of San Luca became one the most venerated icons in Rome.

Several Popes and cardinals were passionately devoted to the icon. The high altar of Santa Maria del Popolo was commissioned, likely by Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, in 1473 to showcase it. One of those popes, Sixtus V, put Santa Maria del Popolo on the list of the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome in 1586, replacing the church of Saint Sebastian on the Appia outside the walls, solely because of the importance of icon.

I came so close to seeing the restored icon last week, darn it. It is currently on display at the Castel Sant’Angelo through November 18th. I didn’t even realize it was there and I probably wouldn’t have thought anything of it even if I had known because I’ve seen the icon at Santa Maria, albeit not within such close view. I did have the Castel Sant’Angelo’s exhibition of arms and armature on the short list, however, and saw the other half of that show at the Palazzo Venezia. Time got away with me is all, what with all the questing and wall walking.





November 2018
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