Fire destroys historic castle in Okinawa

The UNESCO World Heritage site of Shuri castle in Okinawa, Japan, suffered devastating damage in a fire this morning. The castle is of great significance to Okinawa’s cultural heritage in three ways: it was built in the  Sanzan Period (14th century) as a castle, was expanded and used as the palace of the king during the Ryukyu Kingdom, and it was rebuilt with meticulous care to historic preservation after it was shelled by US forces during World War II.

“The cause of the fire has not been determined yet but a security company alarm went off at around 2.30 in the morning,” Ryo Kochi, a spokesman with the Okinawa prefectural police said.

“It started at the main temple and looks to be spreading fast to all the main structures … firefighters are still battling the fire,” he added.

The fire continued to burn for hours even as firefighters from nearly a dozen engines worked tirelessly to extinguish it. The loss is immense. The Seiden, the main hall, and the Hokuden, the building to the north, the Nanden south of the main hall,and the Bandokoro, the former reception area that is now a museum, were entirely destroyed.

From 1429 until the end of the Ryukyu Kingdom in 1879, it was the royal court, center of government and foreign trade as well as the king’s residence. The wood structures are susceptible to fire and burned three times over the centuries, in 1453, 1660 and 1709. They were rebuilt.

When Okinawa was taken over by Japan and the kingdom fell in 1879, the castle was used as an army barracks. It was designated a national treasure in 1925, but the Japanese Army used its underground tunnels as a headquarters, so it was deliberately targeted for shelling during the Battle of Okinawa at the end of May 1945. Again the castle caught fire and most of the buildings were lost.

Enough of it was standing by 1950 to house the University of the Ryukyus. Reconstruction of the second main gate was completed in 1958, and a major reconstruction project began in 1992 to restore the main buildings and walls. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000.

Torlonia statues to go on display, for realsies now

After years, decades, even centuries of teases, talks and legal proceedings that went nowhere, a selection of ancient marbles collected by the princely Torlonia family will go on display early next year. Ninety-six of the 620 Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan and Roman sculptures in the famed Torlonia Collection have been cleaned and conserved and will be exhibited in The Torlonia Marbles. Collecting Masterpieces at the Palazzo Caffarelli on the Capitoline. The exhibition runs from March 25th, 2020 through January 10th, 2021.

Culture Minister Dario Franceschini announced in 2016 that a deal had been struck to exhibit 60-90 of the most important pieces in the collection in early 2017. As it is now almost the end of 2019, obviously those best laid plans ganged most aft a-gley. The delay was just the latest skirmish in a decades-long battle between the Torlonia family and the government that began when Prince Alessandro Torlonia closed the museum on the Via della Lungara in Trastevere to “repair the roof” in 1976. When work was completed, the entire building had been illegally subdivided into 98 apartments.

The collection suffered the consequences. It was shoved willy-nilly into a warehouse, statues leaning against each other at random and left to collect dust. The government took the family to court and in a 1979 decision, a fine was assessed for the crime against cultural patrimony in the amount of the collection’s value. The judgment was never enforced.

All attempts over the next four decades to get the Torlonia to donate or sell the collection to the state, or even just hose it down once in a while and put it on public display, failed. The 2016 announcement seemed to be the long-awaited breakthrough, but when Prince Alessandro died in 2017 the plans hit a snag while the terms of the will were sorted out. He left the collection to the Fondazione Torlonia, the foundation he established in 2014 to preserve the marbles and the Villa Albani Torlonia.

Acquired in the 19th century mainly from nobility in financial distress and construction works on the family’s property in Vulci, Cervetri, Portus and Fiumicino, the Torlonia Collection is the largest private collection of ancient art in the world. The statuary was installed in the a former granary on the Via della Lungara in 1875. It was a private museum, never open to the general public, only to select visitors and scholars.

News of its quality and quantity spread via published catalogues. The 1884 catalogue of the Torlonia Collection compiled by Carlo Lodovico Visconti lists 615 statues, reliefs, portrait busts, monumental vases and sarcophagi, all of them photographed by the Danesi firm and published in the accompanying volume of plates. This was one the earliest catalogues to be published with pictures instead of drawings, and the first to photograph every single piece in the collection. It would become indispensable a century later when preeminent art historian of antiquity Carlo Gasparri retraced the ownership history of each of the sculptures in the collection, filling the gaps in the record to create a concordance between the Torlonia inventory and the catalogues from the collections of much older noble families acquired by the Torlonia. Even today the 1884 catalogue remains an essential reference to the Torlonia sculptures and was used by the curators and conservators working on the new exhibition.

The 96 pieces that will go on display next year were conserved with financial support from jewelers Bvlgari. They were in good condition, in need of cleaning more than restoration. After the exhibition on the Capitoline, the group will go on a world tour of museums, dates and venues to be determined. By the time they come back to Rome, the goal is to have a permanent home for the entire collection to be open to the public for the first time in its existence.

Kitchen Cimabue sells for $26.6 million

"Christ Mocked" by Cimabue, ca. 1280. Photo courtesy Actéon and Eric Turquin.Cimabue’s Christ Mocked, discovered in an elderly lady’s kitchen in Compiegne, France, has sold at auction for a hammer price of 19.5 million euros, 24 million euros ($26.6 million) including fees. The pre-sale estimate for this 13th century masterpiece by an artist whose exceedingly rare work has literally never come up for auction before was $6.6 million, so yeah, to quote Jon Lovitz in A League of Their Own, well then, this would be more, wouldn’t it?

Dominique Le Coent of Acteon Auction House, who sold the masterpiece to an anonymous buyer near Chantilly, north of Paris, said the sale represented a “world record for a primitive, or a pre-1500 work.”

“It’s a painting that was unique, splendid and monumental. Cimabue was the father of the Renaissance. But this sale goes beyond all our dreams,” Le Coent told The Associated Press. […]

Le Coent said experts were off the mark because it was the first time a Cimabue had ever gone under the hammer. “There’s never been a Cimabue painting on sale so there was no reference previously on how much it could make,” he explained.

The Acteon auction house has not revealed the identity of the buyer but did note that a “foreign museum” was among the bidders. Indeed, it would be astonishing if there weren’t more than one museum amongst the would-be buyers. There are only 11 known Cimabue paintings in the world, all in museums. There aren’t going to be any other opportunities to make a score like this.

The former owner, who is her 90s and was selling her home and all its contents, is now a millionaire 20 times over. The rest of her stuff sold for 6,000 euros. Everything that wasn’t deemed salable got carted off to the dump. Had the auction appraiser not spotted the little tempera-on-poplar-panel 10×8-inch piece hanging on the wall over the hotplate and thought it might be worth a few hundred thousand as an Italian primitive original, that Cimabue could have suffered the same fate.

Seneca Village finally gets its due in Central Park

Permanent Seneca Village marker installed in 2013. Photo courtesy Hyperallergic.One hundred and sixty-two years after the predominately African-American residents of Seneca Village were literally beaten out of their homes by New York police, the great urban park that was built over the once-thriving community has finally given it long-overdue attention. Plaques marking significant locations of the site have been installed inside Central Park as part of a new Discover Seneca Village exhibition.

Seneca Village was founded in 1825 by free African-Americans in what was the farmland miles away from downtown Manhattan. Slavery was still legal in New York state. Full emancipation was two years away, but even then systems were in place to deprive black people of the rights of citizenship. For an African-American man to be allowed to vote, he had to own at least $250 worth of property and have resided in the state for three years.  When Seneca Village was formed out of farmland lots stretching from W82nd to 88th Streets between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, therefore, those lots meant much more than simple home ownership. In 1855, only 100 black men qualified for the vote in New York. Ten percent of them lived in Seneca Village.

The community became ethnically mixed with influx of Irish and German immigrants in the 1840s. Seneca Village had a population of less than 300 when the New York legislature decided to build a city park and authorized taking the land by eminent domain. More than 1,600 people were forced to sell their property and moved out to make way for Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux landscaped urban paradise. The Senecans went to court to keep their homes, fighting for two years until they were violently removed in 1857.

The construction of Central Park and New York’s short memory quickly erased the existence Seneca Village. It has only been revived in recent decades thanks to the 1992 publication of a book about the history of Central Park and the sustained efforts of historians, researchers and archaeologists culminating in the first excavation of the site of the village in 2011.

“The Institute for the Study of Seneca Village History has been studying Seneca Village for decades, through archeological excavations as well as research about the community and its descendants. This exhibit of signage will be a valuable way for the public to begin to explore the history of this extraordinary community, which is still not widely known, and to inspire discussion about its meaning today,” founders of the Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village History said in a statement.

Sites highlighted by the new plaques include Seneca Village’s significant gardens, churches, homes and infrastructure. Several plaques also detail what life was like for Seneca Village residents, including the significant Irish-American community that made up about one third of the village’s residents. The conservancy plans to keep the signage on exhibit through October 2020.

The new signs are not permanent; they are part of an outdoor exhibit dedicated to Seneca Village, its critical importance in the history of slavery, emancipation, African-American and immigrant life in New York city in the first half of the 19th century. To take a walk through the Seneca Village exhibition in Central Park, start at the West 85th Street entrance. A map marking the significant sites will lead you through 16 key locations explained by the signs at every stop. (A pdf of the map can be downloaded here.)

Edit: I cannot believe I didn’t post this yesterday. Two calendar gaps in one month!1 I can’t even blame the scheduling system this time. I just plum neglected to mash the button like an idiot.

Golden sword found in Scythian warrior grave

An early grave of a Scythian warrior buried with a golden sword has been unearthed in the Mount Mamai cemetery near the village Velyka Znamyanka in Zaporizhia Oblast, central Ukraine.

Scythian sword, ca. 6th century B.C., after excavation. Photo courtesy Mount Mamai.

Archaeologists exploring a small tumulus found a trench with animal bones and fragments of clay amphorae. There are characteristic Scythian funerary offerings. They then unearthed two graves within the mound: a large central one and a smaller one on the periphery. The central burial had been thoroughly looted in antiquity and archaeologists were only able to recover one arrowhead and some bone fragments. The remains suggest the occupant of this grave was an elderly male.

The accompanying grave had also been interfered with it, but it still contained the skeletal remains of a young man about 18-20 years old. He was interred with a rare large grey clay amphorae, fittings from a horse’s bridle, an iron battle axe, bronze and bone arrows and the star of the funerary show: an akinakes (a Scythian dagger or short sword) with a gold plated scabbard, a grip with a leaf motif and a cross-guard with granulation details.

Not only had the young warrior been buried together with his weapons, but also with some ornaments; the archeological team found beads made of glass paste, a red deer tooth necklace, a gold earring and a gold pendant with chalk inlay.

The Mount Mamai burial grounds, the largest barrow cemetery in the region and one of the largest in Europe, has been excavated for 32 years, a long-term salvage operation to recover as much archaeological material as possible before the site is destroyed by erosion from the construction of the Khakhovka Reservoir. Already a quarter mile of the shore has fallen into the lake in just three decades, so archaeologists are fighting a battle against time. Artifacts and remains dating as far back as the Neolithic era through the Middle Ages have been unearthed there. Of the 700 burials thus far excavated, around 400 are Scythian.

The discoveries made this season are so exceptional the 32nd dig has been dubbed the most successful yet. The very fine grave goods would be more than significant on their own, but the burial is even more notable because it dates to the 6th century B.C., making it the earliest Scythian burial found at Mount Mamai and extending the window of the cemetery’s usage during the Scythian period. The other Scythian tombs that have been excavated there are at least two centuries older.

The objects have been cleaned and will be conserved at the Museum of Local History in Kamianets-Dniprovsky.

Gilded scabbard after cleaning. Photo courtesy Mount Mamai.