Giant Justinian gets Getty grant

A monumental oil on canvas painting in dire need of conservation will get the help it needs thanks to a $176,800 grant from the Getty Foundation. Emperor Justinian, made in 1886 by Orientalist French painter Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant and now in the permanent collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida, will be restored as part of the Getty’s Conserving Canvas initiative, which provides funds and expertise in the latest conservation methods that will be taught to the trainees in the program.

For centuries, it was common practice to protect canvas paintings by backing or lining them with another canvas to create a moisture barrier and provide greater structural integrity, but a shift toward minimal intervention has produced a knowledge gap among today’s museum conservators in how to treat lined paintings.

Conserving Canvas aims to ensure that conservators remain fully prepared to care for these important works of art through a combination of training activities and information dissemination. […]

The John F. and Herta Cuneo Conservation Laboratory at The Ringling will partner with Artcare Conservation to carry out the conservation treatment of “Emperor Justinian” in its Miami studio. International collaboration involves four postgraduate mid-career painting conservators from the United States, Canada and Colombia who have been invited to participate as trainees in various stages of the structural treatment. Two junior painting conservators at The Ringling will also take part as trainees.

Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant was a Parisian painter who, influenced by a voyage to Spain and Morocco in 1872, became enamored with Orientalist style and subjects. He was known for large-scale pieces, murals in particular after 1880, and Emperor Justinian is one of his larger works at 13.3 x 22 feet. You can see the influence of Moroccan design in the tile and fabrics. The rich golds and red, characteristic elements of his palette, still manage to shine even after years of neglect and damage.

The work has only been owned by two people. Dry goods magnate and avid art collector Godfrey Mannheimer bought it from the artist in 1887. He donated it the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1890 and for a time at the turn of the century is was prominently displayed there, but in 1928 the museum returned it to the donor’s family, namely Mamie Manheimer (Godfrey’s daughter) and her husband Dr. Leonard Dessar. John Ringling bought the monumental canvas from them in 1928.

Son a German immigrant harness maker, John Ringling was born in Iowa to a large family of modest means in 1866. He was 18 when he teamed up with four of his brothers and an established showman to form The Yankee Robinson and Ringling Bros. Double Show. Less than five years later in 1888, the Ringling Brothers had their own show. They were innovators — the circus first to travel the country by train — and when they bought Barnum & Bailey in 1907, they became the biggest show in the country.

In 1905, John married Mable Burton. His investments in railroad, oil, real estate (at one point he owned 25% of the Sarasota area) and entertainment made him very wealthy, and he and Mable spent lavishly on travel, art and property. John and Mable built a splendid collection, acquiring top quality art works, furnishings and decorative objects on every trip to Europe. They filled Ca’ d’Zan, the sumptuous Venetian Gothic style palace they had built in Sarasota in 1926, with their acquisitions, and the massive 36,000-square-foot mansion gave their collection plenty of room to grow in its 56 rooms.

Mable died in June of 1929 aged just 54 from diabetes and complications from Addison’s disease. John was devastated by the loss of his beloved wife, and his misfortunes would spill over into his finances later that year. The Wall Street Crash hit his investments very hard. Still, he set in motion the vision he and Mable had always had to use their collection as the core of an art museum “to promote education and art appreciation, especially among our young people.” In October of 1931, the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art opened its doors.

John died in 1936. In his will he bequeathed his entire estate, museum and collection included, to the people of Florida. The state didn’t take on the job of administering the museum with enthusiasm in the first decade. It was only open off-and-on and not maintained properly. In 1946, the first Arthur “Chick” Austin, Jr., an expert in Baroque art, was hired as its first director. From then on, the Ringling Museum of Art developed into one of country’s finest.

In 1980 it was declared the official State Art Museum of Florida. Twenty years later, the State gave Florida State University governance of the museum. Today the museum complex (which includes the Circus Museum, the Historic Asolo Theater, the Ringling Art Library and the John F. and Herta Cuneo Conservation Laboratory),  is one of the largest university art complexes in the country.

Emperor Justinian has spent most of its decades in lovely Sarasota rolled up in storage. The paint has flaked very badly and there are a number of holes in the canvas. The flaking on the left side of the work is so severe, protective facings have been applied to the surface to keep any more paint from falling off. The conservation team will first stabilize the paint and reduce the significant distortion in the canvas. Discolored varnish will be removed and areas of paint loss will be judicious filled in. New lining fabric will be affixed to the back of the original canvas to give it structural support.

When conservation is completed, the painting will be given pride of place in one of The Ringling’s largest galleries. I’m eager to see how they frame it. I love a huge frame and a piece that size can take a lot frame.

(Sorry about that shamelessly not-quite-alliterative tile. It was so close, though.)

Marble torso found at Forum dig

The excavation of the Via Alessandrina, a 16th century road that runs from Trajan’s Forum to Nerva’s Forum in the heart of Imperial Rome, has turned up a large white marble torso. It is almost five feet high, even missing its head and lower body, and depicts a male figure wearing a draped garment.  Unlike the marble head that was unearthed on the same dig at the end of May, this piece was not recycled into a medieval wall, nor are the two statue parts related to each other in any way.

This one was found among rubble in an area that had been abandoned after a collapse during a period of demolitions that took place in the area in the 9th century. Previous excavations in 1998 and 2000 Archaeologists believe that the torso is from one of 60-70 statues of Dacian warriors that decorated Trajan’s Forum when it was built in the early 2nd century A.D.

Trajan’s Forum was the last, largest and most grandiose of the five imperial forums (Caesar 46 B.C., Augustus 2 B.C., of the Peace 75 A.D., Nerva (97 A.D.). There’s evidence that the plan for the new forum was actually conceived in the last years of the reign of Domitian (r. 81-97 A.D.), but if so, he only made a start at the job. The slopes of the Quirinal Hill had to be leveled to carve out the 4.2 hectares of space the Forum of Trajan would occupy. Its primary practical function was likely the administration of justice whose complexity had far outgrown its earlier spaces in the Caesar’s and Augustus’ fora. It was also a glorious reflection of Trajan’s victories against the Dacians (101-102 A.D., 105-106 A.D.). Trajan’s booty from the defeat of the Dacians funded the construction of the forum. It was completed in 112 A.D.

In the location where the Forum of Augustus and the Forum of Trajan was a courtyard with a columned portico on three sides richly decorated with colored marbles (the columns were veined green marble, the pavement slabs alternating green and pinkish-red). Above the columns was an architrave decorated with a bas relief of griffons and topped with gilded bronze inscription celebrating the construction of the forum by Trajan with the proceeds of the Dacian wars. The statues of the Dacian warriors adorned this portico.

The existence of a grand space connecting the old forum of Augustus with the shiny new forum Trajan built was only discovered during excavations in 1998-2000. Those excavations also unearthed pieces of statues very similar to the recently-unearthed one. They are now on display in the Market of Trajan – Museum of the Imperial Forums. The latest find will be conserved and studied and then will join its compatriots on display in the museum.

In tangentially related news, for the first time since I can remember, the forums are now open to visitors. Instead of having to stand at modern street level looking down over balconies, you can now go down the ever-gated stairs and walk four of the five Imperial Forums, plus the Republican-era Roman Forum. The new Forum Pass allows visitors to walk a three-mile route over footbridges. The single ticket costs 16 euros, purchased online or at the ticket office at the base of Trajan’s Column. From there you walk through Trajan’s Forum and then, through a series of medieval cellars that are all that remain of the buildings in the Alessandrino neighborhood that was destroyed in the 1930s of the Via dei Fori Imperiali above, you cross the street to the Forum of Caesar. From Caesar’s Forum you walk to the Forum of Nerva, then to the Curia and into the Roman Forum and the Palatine.

It’s an awesome walk, and for the longest time people weren’t allowed down to the ground levels of any of the fora. The loophole I found last year was a nighttime sounds and lights shows walking the same route. It was really fantastic, but it was, well, nighttime, so you’re experiencing less the pure archaeological site than the rare views of silhouetted ruins against the night sky and projected images that convey how the buildings looked in their heyday.

Dickens museum buys lost portrait

The Charles Dickens Museum has acquired a long-lost miniature of the author as a young man 175 years after it was last seen in public. The museum launched an appeal last November to raise £180,000 to secure the portrait for its collection at 48 Doughty Street, the historic home in which Dickens wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.

The miniature first re-emerged in 2017 part of a box of assorted odds-and-ends including an old recorder, a brass dish and a metal lobster that was being sold at auction in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. The buyer bought the box for £27. The portrait was covered in yellow mold that obscured its details, but after some Googling its new owner thought it might be a depiction of Dickens. In 2018, the buyer sent the portrait to the Philip Mould & Co Gallery in London where it was conserved and studied. Free of its bilious crust, the portrait was identified as the portrait whose whereabouts have been unknown for more than 170 years.

It was painted in late 1843 by Margaret Gillies, one of the foremost miniaturists of her time and a particular favorite among literary luminaries. Dickens sat for it six times during the period when he was writing A Christmas Carol. He was 31 years old. Gillies exhibited it at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1844, and that year a black-and-white print of it was used as the frontispiece of A New Spirit of the Age, a collection of essays about great Victorian writers, Dickens first among them.

That poor quality rendition of the portrait would become the sole extant version. Gillies wrote in 1886 that she had “lost sight of the portrait itself” and nobody else knew where it was either. Philip Mould’s researchers think it made its way to South Africa in the 1860s with one of the sons of George Eliot’s partner George Henry Lewes. Gillies’ daughter was married to another of Lewes’ sons and the families were close.

It will go on display starting October 24th and is expected to be a regular feature of the museum’s holiday celebrations. The watercolor is fragile so it won’t be on display all the time to ensure the long-term preservation of its paint.

Kayaker finds Roman glass, pottery off Kent coast

In a new addition to the annals of random people finding ancient artifacts, a sea kayaker has discovered pieces of Roman glass, pottery and tile off the coast of Ramsgate, Kent. The kayaker was in shallow water at low tide and with the clear day, he was able to just reach in and pick up the objects including a beautiful cobalt blue glass vase that looks like it could have been made yesterday, large pieces of high-end Samian ware pottery and a roof tile with a human fingerprint smudged on the surface.

Mark Dunkley, a marine listing adviser with Historic England, said it was the sort of find which just did not happen in the UK. “It is the rarity of the material and the quality of the material that is really significant. In my experience this stuff just does not exist in an underwater context anywhere around Britain. It is a really significant find.”

The style of the artifacts dates them to the end of the first or beginning of the second century, a period when this area had two important Roman forts guarding the Wantsum Channel, a strait used by the Romans as a major trade route linking the English Channel and the Thames estuary.

While it’s possible these objects could have washed to shore from an ancient shipwreck, it’s just as possible that they were discarded or buried along the shoreline but what was dry land then has now eroded into the coastline. Archaeologists from Historic England planned to explore the find site on Wednesday but the tides made it impossible. The revised plan is to investigate the location in August when the tides are more quiescent.

Prehistoric treasures found in Hungarian cave

Precious artifacts and bones dating to the Bronze Age have been discovered in the Baradla dripstone cave in northeast Hungary. A team of archaeologists from Eötvös Loránd University has been excavating the cave for four years. Lajos Sándor, a metal detector hobbyist working with the team, was scanning part of the excavation path, an area he’d scanned many times before, when he unexpectedly got a strong signal from behind the rocks. The archaeologists excavated the spot with their special wooden tools and unearthed bronze artifacts, ceramics, human and animal bones from two periods: the Bükk culture from ca. 5000 B.C., and the Bronze Age Kyjatice culture from ca. 1200 B.C.

The Bükk culture artifacts are pottery fragments with ornate geometric decorations. They abstract patterns and yellow, red, white and black paint distinguish them from the kind of ceramics made by more local peoples. The Bükk were great travelers who came to the northeastern hills from the Hungarian Great Plains, bringing their crafts and well-developed agricultural knowledge.

From the latter period is a distinctive grouping is of 59 decorated bronze pieces, most of the disc-shaped, some sparrow-tail shaped. They were found in a hollow near an underground stream covered with a stack of rocks.  The way they were piled suggests they may have been mounted on a garment that was folded up and covered with the rock stack. If it existed, the garment has rotted to nothingness over the millennia; not even small traces of it were found.

The animal bones were found heaped up in piles indicating ritual feasting and/or sacrifices took place in the Baradla cave. The human remains are thought to date to the Neolithic era.

These all point to the Baradla cave having been a sacred place thousands of years ago. [Lead archaeologist Dr. Gábor] Szabó said:

“These days, the cave walls are covered in black soot, but back then they were glowing white, it had to be a beautiful space. Even today, smelling the air of the Baradla cave, you feel that it is a mystical place. It is an astounding interior.”

Szabó thinks that similarly to Stonehenge, the Baradla cave must have been an ancient holy place where communities arrived even from far-away lands to witness the rituals performed there.

“This place could have functioned as a destination for pilgrimages. Sacrifices were made, sacred places were established, there were initiation rituals – the quality ceramics, the piles of animal bones, remains of food materials serve as proof for that.”

The find is all the more remarkable because the cave has been picked over by looters since the 1700s and has been studied and excavated by researchers for 150 years.  Today Hungary’s most famous stalactite cave, thousands of tourists tramp through it every day. The treasure was secured by the cave’s mineral output, covered by 8-12 inches of limestone, and by its conversion into a tourist site as the thick limestone was paved with a layer of concrete. The two combined to keep the treasure out of view of looters for centuries.

Animal and human bones will be subjected to isotope analysis and radiocarbon dating. The cave’s constant temperature of 53.6ºF is cool enough for good preservation of bone, so there’s a chance researchers might be able to extract viable DNA as well. The bronze and pottery artifacts will be taken to the Hungarian National Museum for conservation and eventual display.

This season’s archaeological excavation will continue through August and the team will return for the last dig next year. After that, the cave will be developed into a treatment center for people with respiratory conditions. It’s not clear to me how this asthma cave scheme will be pulled off, as the cool temperatures and 100% humidity make it unlivable for people today just as it was for people 7,000 years ago, but that’s the plan.