Archive for April, 2019

Leonardo’s St Jerome coming to US

Tuesday, April 30th, 2019

St. Jerome Praying in the Wilderness by Leonardo da Vinci is coming to the US in July. It will go on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the master’s death. The  painting is part of the Vatican Museum’s collection, which, inconceivably vast though it is, only has this one painting by Leonardo da Vinci. As a matter of fact, it is the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in Rome. It is also one of maybe a half-dozen paintings whose attribution to Leonardo da Vinci has never been in doubt.

Four of the 15 or so surviving Leonardo paintings are incomplete, and St. Jerome is one of the four. The lion is still a drawn outline, as are Jerome’s foot, his robe draped on the ground, left hand, outstretched right arm holding a stone, one of his attributes, with which he will beat his chest. A church in the upper right of the panel is also a rough outline.

The painting represents Jerome (A.D. 347–420), a major saint and theologian of the Christian Church. The scene is based on the story of his later life, which he spent as a hermit in the desert, according to the 13th-century Golden Legend. The penitent Jerome—aged, gaunt, and nearly toothless—kneels in prayerful meditation before a cave in a rocky landscape. Reclining before Jerome is the tame lion, his companion in the desert and a central figure in the story of Jerome’s life. The saint’s face and gestures convey Leonardo’s theories on human physiognomy and the psychology of expression.

In its unfinished state, the painting shows us that Leonardo did not proceed in a wholly disciplined way. He was particularly interested in creating a detailed, anatomically correct under drawing for the saint’s ascetic body. The elegant silhouette of the reclining lion seems now especially powerful, because there is almost no modeling beyond the outlines. A close examination of the paint surface reveals the presence of Leonardo’s fingerprints, especially in the upper-left portion of the composition. Leonardo used his fingers to distribute the pigments and create a soft-focus effect in the sky and landscape.

Leonardo was painfully slow at painting, which is one of the reasons his oeuvre is so miniscule. He started this panel around 1483 when he was in Milan. When he died in Amboise, France, in 1519, it was still far from finished. We don’t know who commissioned it or why Leonardo kept altering it and working on it nigh onto 40 years.

The work is currently on display in a new location, the Braccio Di Carlo Magno on the left side of St. Peter’s Square, instead of in its usual spot in the Pinacoteca Vaticana. Access is free and the location is much more conducive to quiet contemplation than the frenetic mob scene in the Vatican Museum.

The Met’s exhibition runs through October 6th, 2019, after which St. Jerome will head back across the Atlantic the Paris where it will join other masterpieces by Leonardo at the Louvre’s quincentenary Leonardo exhibition.

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Reenactor shot with medieval cannon

Monday, April 29th, 2019

A woman was hit by a cannon ball during rehearsals for a historical battle reenactment commemorating the 500th anniversary of the death of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I in Mindelheim, Swabia, southern Germany. The 23-year-old woman was loading a medieval cannon when the weapon fired unexpectedly, hitting her directly on the arm.

Police have confirmed that the woman had the necessary licence for handling cannons. They also have indicated that they do not believe the injuries were the result of deliberate action on the part of another individual.

The injury was severe. She had to be flown by helicopter to a hospital in Munich where surgeons immediately operated to save her arm from amputation. It appears they were successful, although some news accounts report she lost a finger.

She was one of 350 reenactors from the Confederation of Upper Swabian Landsknechts (named after a famed corps of mercenaries ) engaged in the group’s yearly “Spring Drill Weekend.” I’m not sure why an event commemorating the death of Maximilian I on January 2nd, 1519, would require a battle reenactment completely with medieval cannon fire beyond the fact that people just dig firing cannons. Maximilian didn’t die on the battlefield or of a wartime injury or illness. He was traveling from the royal palace in Innsbruck to attend parliament in Linz, a long, arduous journey for a man who had already been sick for a long time at this point. From the description of his symptoms, it was probably colon cancer that claimed his life. He was 60 years old.

In his younger days he had name for himself as an outstanding jouster and military leader, however. His nickname was “the Last Knight,” because he embraced the idealized virtues of chivalry and was an avid student of the “seven knightly responsibilities” (riding, climbing, shooting, swimming, wrestling, dancing & courting, jousting). At the same time, influenced by humanist philosophy, Maximilian was a great patron of the arts, spoke and read multiple languages and introduced modern concepts and technologies to the field of battle.

One example of of his novel approach was his founding of the first Landsknecht army in 1488. He wanted a reliable, well-trained, organized force that could be called up whenever necessary instead of a mishmash of feudal lords with troops loyal to them, assorted mercenaries and infantry that had to be levied and dissolved before and after every conflict. The Landsknechts were highly successful, developing a reputation for skill that saw them fight all over Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Maximilian’s successor as Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, sent them to fight the French in Italy in 1527. When they didn’t get paid in a timely fashion, they mutinied. The 14,000 Landsknecht soldiers formed the majority of the troops who decided to get paid via pillage and infamously sacked Rome. Some of them made themselves at home in very grand style indeed. In the Hall of Perspectives in the Villa Farnesina, the room where Agostino Chigi had held his lavish wedding banquet just nine years earlier, restorers found this written on the wall close to the marital bedroom: “1528 –  “Why should I who write not laugh – the Landsknechts have set the Pope on the run.”

I almost wrote about that episode in the post on the restoration of The Wedding of Alexander and Roxanne, but decided it was a bit too tangential. It goes to show just how extra of a nerd I am that I was pleased to have a pretext to bring it up now courtesy of the reenactment group even though the news story it pivots off of is so grim.

Maximilian has made his presence felt on this here long blog before now, btw.  The Triumphal Procession, a gouache 117 feet long painted by Albrecht Altdorfer in praise of the Emperor’s military accomplishments, ancestors mythical and real, pagentry and wealth, went on display for the first time since 1959 in 2012 at the Albertina Museum in Vienna. A complete print of another of the works in that series, The Arch of Honour of Maximilian I, a monumental woodcut engraved by Albrecht Dürer, was displayed in 2015 after an incredible restoration by conservators at the National Gallery of Denmark’s Statens Museum for Kunst. The British Museum’s print was conserved around the same time and the process was so excellently documented I had to post about it to share the videos and images. Last but certainly not least, Maximilian was the first husband of adolescent duchess and all-around hardass Anne of Brittany.

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Stolen Breeches Bible returned

Sunday, April 28th, 2019

A 404-year-old Bible that was stolen from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in the 1990s has been returned after being found in a museum in the Netherlands.

“After being identified as stolen, officers from the Leiden Museum, along with the DA’s office here in Pittsburgh, the FBI in the Netherlands and the FBI in the Netherlands and the FBI art crime team arranged for the return of the Bible,” said [FBI agent Robert] Jones.

The theft was discovered many years after it happened, in April 2017 insurance audit of the library’s holdings. Auditors found out that 314 books were missing from the Oliver Room, the rare books room which can only be accessed by scholars and researchers by prior appointment. It is not and has never been open to the public. The value of the lost books and pages added up to an estimated $8 million.

An investigation revealed that the thefts had taken place over a period of two decades. It was an inside job, an obscenely cupidinous betrayal by Gregory Priore, the sole archivist for the Oliver Room’s collection who systematically removed entire books or pages with important maps or images, cut out with an X-acto knife, and walked them down the block to book seller John Schulman, co-owner of the Caliban Book Shop. Schlman would pay him up front and then sell the books and amputated pages at a profit. Because all the most effective hypocrites hide in plain sight, Schulman had once been the chairman of the ethics committee Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America. Priore was fired when the thefts were discovered. Last year Priore and Schulman were charged with multiple counts of theft, conspiracy and other crimes related to the scheme.

The FBI Pittsburgh office has been looking for the 314 missing items and have so far recovered 18 books and 293 maps, plates and pamphlets. The 1615 Geneva Bible was traced to the American Pilgrim Museum in Leiden via the sale receipt from its 2015 acquisition by museum director Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs from a private seller for $1,200. Its estimated market value today is around $5,500, but Pittsburgh paid something in the neighborhood of $12,000 to get the Bible back from the museum safely.

The Pilgrims didn’t own this particular volume, as far as we know, but it was translated by English Protestant expatriates in Geneva during the reign of  Catholic Queen Mary and a copy of this version of the Bible was known to have accompanied the pilgrims on the Mayflower. Bangs planned to display it at future exhibitions on books owned by the Pilgrims.

The edition is also known as the Breeches Bible after an unusual translation of Genesis 3:7. Instead of the King James Version’s “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons,” in this version Adam and Eve go beyond the basic crotch-concealment of a fig leaf apron into full lower-body coverage. “Then the eyes of them both were opened, and they knewe that they were naked, and they sewed figtree leaves together, and made themselves breeches.”

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Wild boars unearth medieval coin hoard in Slovakia

Saturday, April 27th, 2019

Wild boar can now join badgers as some of the most effective archaeologists of the animal kingdom. Diligent boars in the Choč mountain near Likavka, Slovakia, unearthed a large hoard of silver coins and two gold coins from the late 15th, early 16th century and then generously left them behind for a nice married couple to find during a hike. The couple had the presence of mind not to touch the coins. They alerted archaeologists and waited for three hours at the find site to ensure somebody less morally upright than they and the boars wouldn’t interfere with the treasure.

Because of the couple’s responsible approach, Slovakian archaeologists had the extremely rare opportunity to excavate a coin hoard in situ. Usually they only see them when people show up to their offices with bags of loot and dump them out on their desks. Over an area of two square meters (about 21 square feet), archaeologists recovered more than 1600 silver Hungarian denarii.

In the shallow hole, there was the broken clay bottom of a jug with coins that were, thanks to corrosion, attached to the remains of the fabric on the inner side of the jug. Nearby, there was a metal pot-lid.

The treasure was covered by a fine layer of soil. We can assume that the person who covered the coins was in hurry. The treasure was located near to an historical trade road.

Researchers suspect that the coins were buried around 1527, a year in which a dynastic conflict over the Hungarian throne broke out between Ferdinand of Habsburg, (brother of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) and  John Zápolya, Voivode of Transylvania. John was crowned king by one faction of nobles, Ferdinand by another. While John was busy dealing with a peasant uprising, Ferdinand invaded Hungary. In September of 1527, Ferdinand’s forces, mostly German and Austrian mercenaries but with a few thousand allied Hungarian troops, soundly spanked John Zápolya’s Hungarian army. Ferdinand was crowned King of Hungary on November 3rd, 1527, but the upheavals were far from over. Zápolya regrouped and returned in 1528 with a new army. Ferdinand defeated him again, and this time Zápolya turned to the Ottoman Empire to fight his battles for him. By 1529 Suleiman the Magnificent had not only kicked the Germans and Austrians out of Hungary but was laying siege to Vienna.

Whoever buried this hoard had a lot to lose in this war-torn period. A labourer at that time earned between 6 and 10 silver coins per day. They’d never see a single gold coin in their life and certainly wouldn’t be able to get their hands on two of them on top of thousands of silver ones.

The coins are still being counted and cleaned. Once they’ve been thoroughly documented and researched, the hoard will be exhibited in the Liptov museum in Ruzomberok. As for the finders (the human ones), they will reap the rewards of their conscientiousness.  The monetary value of the coins will be determined by experts, and because the finders acted in total accordance with cultural heritages laws by leaving the treasure at the find site and calling archaeologists, they have earned the right to a finder’s fee in the amount of 100% of the market value. I hope they buy the boars some acorns or carrion or something with some of that cash.

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Farnesina wedding frescoes to be restored

Friday, April 26th, 2019

A High Renaissance fresco in the Farnesina palace in Rome will undergo a much-needed restoration this year. The Wedding of Alexander and Roxanne by Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, known as Il Sodoma (the Sodomite), has suffered from its proximity to the rising damp and constant traffic of the Tiber. There are cracks, areas where the paint is lifting, surface deposits from water and grime and plaster loss. The cleaning, protective glazes, consolidation of plaster and paint, stucco repair and reconstruction of missing wood elements are expected to be completed within the calendar year.

Bazzi, a contemporary of Raphael and Pinturicchio, was particularly sought out for his frescoes. He counted two popes and the nobility of Siena and Rome among his patrons. The Sienese banker Agostino Chigi, treasurer to Pope Julius II, owner of an international monopoly in alum and the richest man in Rome, hired Il Sodoma along with the likes of Raphael and Sebastiano del Piombo to decorate the interior of his villa in Trastevere.

Built as an bright and airy suburban palace, this home was planned and executed as a showpiece of untrammeled wealth. Unusually for his time, Chigi used it as a headquarters for his banking business as well as his personal home, and he wanted the design to convey all the grandeur money could buy. Raphael’s Triumph of Galatea and Cupid and Psyche cycles adorn the loggia on the ground floor.

The frescoes in the master bedroom on the first floor had a more private audience in mind. Sodoma painted scenes from the life of Alexander the Great: his marriage to Roxanne and his magnanimous reception of the family of Darius after the Persian defeat at the Battle of Issus. (Ten years later he would marry one of those family members, Darius daugther Stateira. Roxanne had her killed a year later after Alexander’s death.)

The principal scene is the wedding which occupies the north wall. Although it’s not really the wedding so much as the beginning of the honeymoon. Alexander holds out his crown, offering it to his new bride, while she sits on their marriage bed, eyes demurely downcast, body covered in name only by a gossamer drape of fabric, a winged Amorino at her shoulder and a bunch more at her feet.

Chigi commissioned the work in 1519 to welcome his own bride in High Renaissance style, and the symbolism of great king marrying the daughter of a minor Bactrian nobleman was pointed. Agostino’s love life had been checkered, to put it mildly. He had had been a lover of the celebrated courtesan Imperia, among many others, but his attempts at securing social advancement through marriage, most notably with Margherita Gonzaga, daughter of the Duke of Mantua Francesco Gonzaga, never came to fruition. In 1511, he met a pretty young girl in Venice. She was from a poor family, had none of the advantages of rank and wealth he was looking for in a spouse, but he fell in love with her and moved her into the villa to live with him. Over the next seven years, they had four children together.

Then, perhaps faced with an encroaching sense of his mortality, Agostino decided to make it legal. On August 28th, 1519, the feast of St. Augustine, his name day, Agostino Chigi wed Francesca Ordeaschi. Pope Leo X was the officiant. He threw in a little extra service when he legitimized Agostino and Francesca’s children after the wedding.

Agostino Chigi died in 1520. The villa was in 1580 by  Cardinal Alessandro Farnese the Younger who gave it his name (in explicit contravention of the terms of Chigi’s will). It remained in Farnese hands until 1735 when it was given to the Bourbon King Charles III of Spain and King of Naples and Sicily by his mother Elisabetta Farnese, Queen Consort of Spain. In 1927 the Farnesina was acquired by the Italian state. Today it is the seat of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, a prestigious national science academy.

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Wari metallurgist’s tomb found in Peru

Thursday, April 25th, 2019

Archaeologists almost literally fell into the tomb of a 1,200-year-old metallurgist during an excavation in Huarmey, Peru. The team from the Warsaw University’s Centre for Precolumbian Studies was exploring a ceremonial square where religious rituals where known to have taken place and the remains of sacrificed llamas have been discovered. One of the students working on the site didn’t notice there was a deep hole near him until his leg fell into it. He was fished out unharmed and archaeologists decided to check out that hole deliberately this time.

The space contained the burial of a young man. Because of the location of the grave initially the archaeologists thought he was a sacrifice victim, but further investigation found no evidence that the man, about 20 years old at time of death, had been ritually killed. He was placed in the wet clay of the grave in a seated posture wrapped in a textile which has not survived. We know it was there because its pattern left an imprint on the clay.

When the first skeletal remains were unearthed, there were no grave goods found in the burial space. Complete excavation revealed that the youth was indeed buried with objects, a dozen used tools. It just took them a while to find them because they were all placed in one location: on his chest with his hands on top of them. They were tools, most of them bronze — a fine-toothed saw, an axe, several knives, a chisel — and had originally been bundled in fabric as well. Some fragments of that textile have survived.

Analysis carried out by Toronto University’s Branden Rizzuto showed that the tools were made of a rare type of bronze – copper alloy with arsenic, rather than more common tin.

[Dig leader Prof. Miłosz] Giersz said: “The alloy with arsenic guaranteed that these were really hard tools that could be used for a variety of farm and carving jobs.”

The most astonishing finding was an obsidian knife, as the material was rare in the Wari culture. Giersz explained: “Obsidian was considered a very valuable raw material in the Wari culture, as well as in other cultures of America, it was imported from a very long distance, this particular one from Quispisis, obsidian outcrops located over a thousand kilometers in a straight line north of Huarmey”.

There is extensive wear and tear on the tools which strongly suggest they were the tools of the deceased’s trade. Some of the teeth are broken off on the saw, others are bent. The saw is also decorated. There’s a rectangular grid design in the middle, a pattern seen on ceramic vessels from that period which is believed to have been a maker’s mark. Perhaps this was his maker’s mark as well.

Even stronger evidence that the young man was a professional metallurgist is the inclusion of slag in the burial. A byproduct of the smelting of ore, slag isn’t found at random in Wari tombs. Archaeologists believe it was a deliberate burial meant to symbolize his trade.

The ceremonial square where he was found is located at the foot of a mountain. At the top of that same mountain, the Polish archaeological team discovered an enormously significant tomb in 2012. The tomb was intact, unlooted and held the remains of 64 individuals, most of them women, high-ranking aristocrats of the Wari empire, including three royal women in their own individual chambers. It was the first unlooted Wari royal tomb ever discovered, and it was filled with grave goods, around 1,200 artifacts made from precious metals, alabaster and other luxury materials. It dates to the 8th century, so around the same period when a young metallurgist was buried at the foot of the mountain.

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Did the Inca loot ancient mummies?

Wednesday, April 24th, 2019

Excavations at the ancient site of Pachacamac on the Pacific coast of Peru have unearthed a 1,000-year-old cemetery. Université Libre de Bruxelles’s Center for Archaeological Research (CReA-Patrimoine) have been excavating the site 25 miles southeast of Lima for 15 years and have found numerous cemeteries. This one is in an area of the archaeological site that hasn’t been excavated before.

[The team] found a cluster of burials in foetal positions, wrapped in numerous layers of plant materials, nets and textiles.

“These burials were interred in groups” says Professor Peter Eeckhout (Université libre de Bruxelles, ULB) – director of the Ychsma Project – “interred in deep pits sunk into the sand, accompanied with ceramics and other offerings, then covered with wood and rushwork roofs”.

Previous excavations have found an unusually high proportion of disease in the skeletal remains. Inca sources claim the city was a religious center with a reputation for healing, making it a pilgrimage site for people suffering from illness. The latest find confirms those accounts. Physical anthropologist Dr. Lawrence Owens led the team that examined the remains.

“Most of the people at the site had hard lives, with various fractures, bad backs, bad hips…but the individuals from this cemetery show a higher than usual concentration of tuberculosis, syphilis and really serious bone breaks that would have had major impacts on their lives. Still, the fact that most of these are healed – and that disease sufferers survived for a long time – suggests that they were being cared for, and that even in the sites’ early history people felt a duty of care towards those less fortunate than themselves”.

Pachacamac was founded by the Wari around 200 A.D., but most of the major public buildings and temples were constructed by the Lima and Ychsma cultures between 800 and 1450 when the polity was absorbed into the Inca Confederacy. The Inca respected the local creator god and the city’s namesake Pacha Kamaq, incorporating him into their pantheon albeit as secondary to the Incan creator god Viracocha. They built several new temples in the city, expanding the facilities for pilgrims and spreading its reputation as religious healing center throughout the Confederacy.

As with most of the mummy bundles unearthed at Pachacamac (one salient exception was found last year), the ones found in the recently-discovered cemetery are not intact. They were damaged during the construction of a large building above the cemetery under Inca rule. It’s not just general damage caused by building work or the extensive looting that took place in the 17th century after the Spanish conquest. There is evidence here of targeted action against the mummies. Almost all of the mummies are missing their heads and some other specific parts.

This strongly suggests the Inca deliberately desecrated the city’s ancient dead, perhaps harvesting them for their own religious purposes. The Inca treated their own graves with reverence, but they were not related to the ancient peoples of Pachacamac and while they promoted some of the local traditions, they didn’t revere their dead as they did their own ancestors.

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Face-to-face with a Neolithic dog

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2019

Using facial reconstruction technology to recreate the visages of long-ago people is a fashionable trend in archaeology. Now for the first time that technology has been applied to man’s best friend: a Neolithic dog whose skeletal remains were found in a tomb on Orkney.

Built between 3000 and 2400 B.C., the Cuween Hill chamber tomb on Orkney was first excavated in 1901. The cairn features a passageway leading to a central chamber with four small cells opening off it. The remains of at least eight people were found inside — five skulls in the central chamber, two in two of the side cells, one at the entrance — and the remains of numerous dogs. Skulls and bones from 24 dogs were discovered on the floor of the central chamber. Radiocarbon testing dated them to 500 years after the tomb was built, which means they were added to the cairn by residents, likely for symbolic or ritual purposes.

Historic Environment Scotland (HES) commissioned the Diagnostic Imaging Service at Edinburgh University’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies to CT-scan one of the Cuween dog skulls in the collection of the National Museums Scotland. Armed with the detailed scan, HES’s Digital Documentation team produced a 3D print of the skull. Forensic artist Amy Thornton used the printed skull as the base for a realistic reconstruction of the dog’s head. It was not an easy task.

Amy Thornton, who trained in facial reconstruction methods while undertaking an MSc in Forensic Art at the University of Dundee, said: “This reconstruction has been a particularly interesting project to be involved in, as it marks the first time I’ve employed forensic methods that would usually be used for a human facial reconstruction and applied these to an animal skull.

“This brought its own set of challenges, as there is much less existing data relating to average tissue depths in canine skulls compared to humans.

“The reconstruction was originally created in clay using traditional methods, with a 3D print of the Cuween Hill skull as the base to build the anatomy on to. The completed sculpture was then cast in silicone and finished with the fur coat resembling a European grey wolf, as advised by experts. The resulting model gives us a fascinating glimpse at this ancient animal.”

Osteological analysis of the bones found in the cairn indicate he was a big boy, the size of a large collie. Archaeologists think the dog were active members of the farming and herding communities of Late Neolithic Orkney.

Steve Farrar, Interpretation Manager at HES, said: “Just as they’re treasured pets today, dogs clearly had an important place in Neolithic Orkney, as they were kept and trained as pets and guards and perhaps used by farmers to help tend sheep.

“But the remains discovered at Cuween Hill suggest that dogs had a particularly special significance for the farmers who lived around and used the tomb about 4,500 years ago. Maybe dogs were their symbol or totem, perhaps they thought of themselves as the ‘dog people’.

Or maybe they interred their most beloved dogs in the symbolically important cairn for their own sake, as the most of elite pet cemeteries.

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Galle Chandelier restored sans goldfish

Monday, April 22nd, 2019

A magnificent gilded bronze chandelier with a uniquely whimsical design is the subject of a new exhibition at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. The Galle Chandelier was made in 1818-9 by bronze caster and gilder Gérard-Jean Galle in Paris.  Acquired by the Getty in 1973, it has been on display at the Getty Center, one of the gems of its decorative arts collection, since 1997. Earlier this year it was removed for conservation and is now back on view in Flight of Fancy: The Galle Chandelier.

The new exhibition places the chandelier at eye-level so visitors can view the piece up close. On display along with it are images of some of the design details and prints and illustrations that explore Galle’s inspiration for the work. There are also be interactive video panels that will show a rendering of what the chandelier looked like with the candles lit.

Gérard-Jean Galle came from a family of casters and gilders. His father Claude was one of the premier producers of gilded bronze of his time, creating works for Marie Antoinette, among others. The son took over the family business after his father’s death in 1815, but expensive decorative ornaments weren’t in high demand in post-Napoleonic France. The restored Bourbon monarchy was constitutional now and keen to distance itself from the dizzying spending and ostentation of the Ancien Régime. While what was left of the old nobility did return, they did so in highly reduced circumstances, their ancient feudal powers gone and their lands worked by people they actually had to pay. The new money, businessmen and the professional class, didn’t have the same passion for festooning shiny gold geegaws in every possible nook and granny.

Galle’s skill and craftsmanship were certainly recognized. He won the silver medal at the 1819 Exposition des Produits de L’Industrie Française (Exhibition of French Products of Industry), but got little business from it. He tried the direct approach, writing a letter to Louis XVIII offering to sell  the works he had exhibited at the Exposition for a price that would be “modest for the government.” The government declined.

One of those objects was a chandelier that was either the twin of the one owned by the Getty or the very same. Galle called it a lustre à poisson (fish chandelier) and described it thus in the letter:

Fish chandelier: In the middle of a blue enameled globe scattered with stars is a circle with the signs of the zodiac and six griffins carrying candles … [below is a glass bowl fitted with] a plug intended for the removal of the water which one places in the bowl with small goldfish whose continuous movement will give agreeable recreation to the eye.

The idea of a live fish swimming in a bowl under a chandelier lit by 18 candles is certainly, uhh, innovative. I can’t imagine the fish would have had a good time of it. The globe design was a novelty as well. The gold zodiac symbols on the blue field remind me of the Montgolfier brothers’ historic hot air balloon which first took to the skies before King Louis XVI of France and Queen Marie Antoinette at Versailles in 1783.

Galle’s workshop stayed in business despite the royal refusal. He received a gold medal at the Exhibition of Products of French Industry in 1823 and finally did sale some of his pieces to Louis XVIII, earning the title fournisseur de sa majesté (supplier to his majesty), but it wasn’t enough to bring him any financial security. The Revolution of 1830 kneecapped his market yet again. He was forced to cut his workforce in half and the business ultimately went under. He died in poverty in 1846.

Flight of Fancy: The Galle Chandelier will run through April 19th, 2020.

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Old Coke bottle sells for $110,700

Sunday, April 21st, 2019

To be fair, it’s a really, really old Coke bottle, a modified prototype of the curvaceous form that has become a pop culture icon. There are only three prototypes of the contour bottle known to survive, and this is the only one that is completely intact with nary a scratch, chip or any signs of wear whatsoever to mar its handsome green surface. In fact the hammer price is something of a bargain, all things considered.

It was born in 1915 when the Coca-Cola Bottling Company in Atlanta sought to differentiate itself from its competitors by replacing the plain, straight-sided bottles everyone used with “new bottle, a distinctive package” that would make Coke instantly recognizable. Once divorced from the drug store soda fountain counter, the beverage’s success in bottled form had spawned many imitators. Coca-Cola first tried to beat off the copycats with a distinctive diamond-shaped label in 1906, but because many stores kept their soda bottles in big buckets of ice, the paper labels often slipped off.

The 1,000 bottling plants franchised to produce Coca-Cola at that time were required to emboss their bottles with the famous cursive lettering trademark created by Frank M. Robinson, partner and bookeeper of Atlanta pharmacist Dr. John S. Pemberton who invented the soft drink in 1886. The problem was that as recognizable as the Coca-Cola lettering was, imitators were shameless about copying it for their sodas. Brands like Koka-Nola, Murphy’s Coca-Cola, Mo-Cola and Koke, either straight-up stole the script or modified it ever so slightly the public to dupe the public.

Coca-Cola launched a contest among the eight or 10 large glass works that supplied its current bottles to create a new design. Benjamin Thomas, co-founder of the Coca-Cola Bottling Company and developer of its worldwide bottling system, wrote that their mission was to create a “bottle so distinct that you would recognize if by feel in the dark or lying broken on the ground.” The proposed designs were to be sent to the bottling company headquarters in Atlanta along with a prototype bottle. Eleven bottles were submitted.

A committee of Coca-Cola bottlers and lawyers assembled in Atlanta in August of 1915 to pick the winning design. The bottle designed by staff machinist Earl R. Dean at the Root Glass Company in Terre Haute, Indiana, was the clear winner. He and his co-worker Clyde Edwards had been sent by shop foreman Alexander Samuelson to the public library to research the coca plant and kola nut, in the hope their shapes would provide inspiration. They didn’t. Instead, they came across an image of the curved, ribbed cocoa pod. Dean quickly drew up a sketch for a contoured, fluted bottle and within hours a few samples were created.

The first design did require some modification for practical reasons. The diameter of the base was smaller than that of the middle of the bottle. The former had to be widened and the latter slimmed down in order to keep the bottles from toppling over on the conveyor belt and so they’d fit into the bottling machines that were already in use. Root made the changes and created a new sample bottle for the Coca-Cola Bottling Company’s approval. The revised prototype was approved and a limited-run production followed to make bottles for testing in four bottling plants, two in Alabama (Birmingham and Anniston), one in Augusta, Georgia, and one in Nashville, Tennessee.

This was a top secret operation, with only the bottling plant owners and a few supervisors allowed on the premises during the trial runs. The bottles used were apparently destroyed after the testing (fragments from several of the bottles were found in the garbage dump of the Birmingham plant in an excavation in the late 1970s). The bottle’s new design worked like a charm. Cosmetic changes were made — the city was moved to the bottom of the bottle and the patent date to the middle of the bottle under the Coca-Cola logo — but the Coke bottle’s shape was set. The contour bottle was introduced nationally in April of 1917 and quickly became famous worldwide.

The bottle coming up for auction was discovered in an extensive collection of Coca-Cola memorabilia originally assembled by a retired Coca-Cola employee who had once worked for Chapman Root, founder of the Root Glass Company. The base of the bottle is stamped “Atlanta, GA, 1915” and under that is the date the bottle was patented by Alexander Samuelson (November 16, 1915). The Coca-Cola logo is on the bottom. The dates, placement of the trademark and its pristine condition indicate this was the modified prototype, not one of the first samples made at the Root factory, nor one of the bottles used in the test production. It is the only known example.

One of the original prototype bottles is owned by the Coca-Cola Company and was recently part of an exhibition dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the iconic bottle at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. A second was sold at auction in 2011 for $250,000. Earl Dean’s first pencil sketch of the bottle sold at that same auction for $237,500.

“This bottle is a missing link in the history of Coca-Cola. From the moment it arrived in our hands, we knew it would create a buzz. It’s considered a highly important piece, not only by Coca-Cola collectors but also advanced bottle collectors,” Morphy said. The new owner of the bottle is a private collector who prefers to remain anonymous.

The auction took place over three days (April 12-14) and Coke memorabilia was only part of it. Most of the items were antique coin-operated games and gambling machines, Old West collectibles and assorted advertising. The catalogue is an absolute blast. It makes me yearn to create my own personal Coney Island in my basement.

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