Archive for December, 2019

V&A acquires flea market porcelain treasure

Saturday, December 21st, 2019

An 18th century “holy grail” of English porcelain sculpture discovered at a flea market in France has been acquired by the V&A (pdf). The 8-inch figure was found in southwest Brittany by retired English porcelain dealer Louis Woodford in 2011. He recognized its significance as an early and unique example of London porcelain manufactured by the Chelsea porcelain factory around 1746–49. There is only one other extant example of this design is in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum, but its original white glaze has been altered with colored enamel decoration.

It was produced during the Chelsea porcelain factory’s earliest years, the triangle period (1743-1749), named after the incised triangle-shaped mark on the bottom of the wares. The milky white, shiny, glass-like glaze with surface pitting was typical of this period. The figure was slipcast in porcelain from the original clay model sculpted by premier London sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac.

Born in Lyon, France, in 1702, Roubiliac learned his trade under Baroque sculptor Balthasar Permoser in Dresden before studying under Nicolas Coustou in Paris. He moved to London in around 1730 and worked for established sculptors before striking out on his own with a statue of Handel in 1738. Commissioned for Vauxhall Gardens, the statue was instantly famous, widely reproduced in prints for decades, elevating Roubiliac to the top echelon of sculptors in London and ensuring a thriving career primarily in portrait commissions. All of his known surviving works were made in London.

Art historical and stylistic analysis strongly suggest that Roubiliac was the creator of the original model for Head of a Laughing Child. Roubiliac was a friend of Nicholas Sprimont, the owner and founder of the Chelsea porcelain factory, and evidence suggests Roubiliac considered using Chelsea porcelain for a major sculptural commission in the first few months of the factory’s opening. Additionally, the quality of modelling and the style of the Head, which combines Italianate, French and German influences, all point to Roubiliac as the author of the work. This is supported by documentary evidence revealing Roublilac’s roots and training in both France and Dresden, where he acquired extensive knowledge of Ancient Roman and Baroque sculpture.

Roubiliac would have sculpted the head in clay approximately 20 per cent bigger than the resulting porcelain figure. From this model, multi-part plaster moulds were taken at the Chelsea porcelain factory and then used to cast several versions of the head in porcelain. These were then carefully dried in a process that saw them shrink considerably. The porcelain heads were then glazed and fired at a high temperature.

Sprimont was godfather to Roubiliac’s daughter Sophie. It’s possible that the joyous young woman captured in porcelain was modeled after Sophie. She was born in 1744 and would have been between two and five years old when the sculpture was made.

The Vauxhall Gardens statue of Handel is now in the collection of the V&A, as is another Chelsea porcelain based on a terracotta original by Roubiliac, a portrait of William Hogarth’s beloved pug, Trump. The newly acquired Head of a Laughing Child has gone on display with them in the V&A’s British Galleries.


Ötzi’s cord is world’s oldest bowstring

Friday, December 20th, 2019

Ötzi the Iceman, the 5,300-year-old Neolithic glacier mummy discovered by hikers in the Otztal Alps in 1991, has set another record: he is the owner of the oldest known bowstring in the world. In fact, Ötzi’s whole kit — quiver, arrows, bowstring and unfinished bow — is the oldest hunting equipment in the world.

Made of three strands of twisted fibers, the cord was found in the quiver. The Iceman had carefully wound it into an S-shaped bundle and tied a knot at the end, not unlike how I store my extension cords. It looks like a hemp rope and experts at the South Tyrol Museum of Archeology where Ötzi and his stuff are kept were not able to determine whether the cord was made of plant or animal fiber. The former would be unusable for a bowstring because they lack the necessary flexibility to withstand the tension of the bow.

Only three examples of Neolithic bowstrings are known to have survived. A study by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) compared prehistoric bowstrings recovered from alpine glaciers. Using a microscopic fiber sample from the string found in Ötzi’s quiver, the team confirmed that it was made of the leg sinew of an undetermined animal, not from plant fibers, and therefore ideally suited for a bowstring. The cord is almost six-and-a-half feet long, long enough to fit the 5’11”-long yew stave Ötzi had almost finished fashioning into a bow when he was killed. Stretched out to its full taunt length, the cord, which is 4mm in diameter relaxed, would be 2-3mm in diameter, a perfect fit for the width of the notches in the arrows Ötzi carried. A loosely wound bundle of animal leg sinew was also found in his quiver, perhaps raw material for bowstring production.

The rest of Ötzi’s gear also lends unique insight into Neolithic hunting practices, touching on a range of subjects from trade to tool use to the kinesiology of the hunt.

Ötzi’s 1.83 m long, unfinished bow made of yew (Taxus baccata) gave a unique, informative glimpse into how Neolithic bows were manufactured. The bow was first freshly cut from an 8-10 cm thick yew tree. He had already made good progress with his work, but the bow probably needed to be shortened and thinned. The best shooting results are obtained when the bow approximately corresponds to the height of the archer. For Ötzi that would have been approximately 1.60m. The investigation was able to establish that Ötzi’s bow had been worked with a hatchet from both directions. Whether this had been done by Ötzi himself cannot be determined. The question of how to work the ends of the bow to fasten the string also remains open. Junkmanns proposed the hypothesis that Ötzi could have purchased the rough bow on the way, which would possibly explain why he had an unfinished bow with him in the high mountains.

Even the Iceman’s quiver is the only known Neolithic carrying case for arrows. It is 86 cm long and stitched from doeskin (Rupicapra rupicapra). One side of the quiver is reinforced with a hazel wood stick. At the upper end of the quiver a flap of stiffened leather protected the arrows carried within. If required, it could be opened very quickly and an arrow could be pulled out with a single motion of the arm.

The quiver’s interior held 14 arrows, two of which were ready to fire and complete with arrowheads and fletching. They represent the best preserved examples of Neolithic arrow production in Europe. Neolithic arrows were most often made from branches of suitable bushes like hazel (Corylus avellana) or, as with Ötzi, from the branches of the wayfaring tree (Viburnum lantana). Three feather halves were attached to the end of Ötzi’s arrows with birch tar glue and bound with thin nettle fibers. They represent the only preserved fletchings in Europe. The three-part, radially-placed fletching for stabilizing the arrow during flight has remained virtually unchanged since the Neolithic.

The SNSF study has been published in the Journal of Neolithic Archaeology and can be read here.


Bronze Age horned man found in Denmark

Thursday, December 19th, 2019

An archaeological survey at the site of a planned gravel pit expansion in Kallerup, Denmark, this February unearthed an exceedingly rare grouping of Bronze Age artifacts: a man wearing a horned helmet, a large ceremonial axe and two horse-headed snake figures. They were made of bronze about 3,000 years ago.

It was a metal detectorist volunteering with the team of archaeologists from the Museum Thy who made the initial find. Peter Jensen was scanning the field for remains of a Royal Air Force Stirling airpcraft that was shot down by German bombers on November 4th, 1943. Instead of aluminum airplane parts, his metal detector alerted to the presence of a large piece of bronze.

Archaeologists dug it up and recovered a bronze figure of a man topped with a horned helmet. It is double-faced, a Bronze Age Danish Janus, each face with its own pair of horns. (One of them had broken off and was found in the soil.) Nothing like it has been found before in Denmark. It would have originally been fitted to a pole for ceremonial purposes. Next to the broken horn emerged the top of a ceremonial axe a foot in diameter. Instead of continuing to excavate in situ, they removed the find en bloc, wrapping the soil around and under in plaster and transporting it to a laboratory at the Moesgaard Museum.

A CT scan revealed the precise shape and location of the axe and the presence of two figurines with the heads of horses and serpentine bodies. The scan gave archaeologists a 3D roadmap for the excavation. After three days of painstaking work, the objects were fully revealed.

The axe was cast over a clay core and was a masterpiece of metallurgy in its day. Ceremonial axes from the Bronze Age are rare finds. Large ones like this piece are even more rare. They were made as individual artworks, and the Kallerup axe is unique in its rounded spade-like edges that end in spirals. Spirals were a widespread motif in Bronze Age religious iconography, but this is the only known axe to incorporate them so distinctly in the design. The two figures of stylized horse heads on long, serpentine necks are also well-known motifs in Bronze Age art.

The artifacts will be stabilized and conserved. If all goes as planned, they will be put on display in the newly refurbished exhibition space at the Museum Thy when it opens in 2021.


Human teeth used as beads found in Turkey

Wednesday, December 18th, 2019

Two 8,500-year-old teeth used as beads have been discovered at the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in central Turkey. Three teeth with holes that appeared to have been deliberated drilled in them were unearthed between 2013 and 2015. A study, now published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, confirmed that two of three had been drilled through for use as beads.

“Not only had the two teeth been drilled with a conically shaped microdrill similar to those used for creating the vast amounts of beads from animal bone and stone that we have found at the site, but they also showed signs of wear corresponding to extensive use as ornaments in a necklace or bracelet,” University of Copenhagen archaeologist and first author of the article Scott Haddow said. He added:

“The evidence suggests that the two teeth pendants were probably extracted from two mature individuals post-mortem. The wear on the teeth’s chewing surfaces indicates that the individuals would have been between 30-50 years old. And since neither tooth seems to have been diseased — which would likely have caused the tooth to fall out during life — the most likely scenario is that both teeth were taken from skulls at the site.”

Human teeth drilled for use as ornaments have been found before at prehistoric sites in Europe, but these are the first examples from the Near East.

“Given the amount of fragmentary skeletal material often circulating within Neolithic sites, not least at Çatalhöyük where secondary burial practices associated with the display of human skulls were frequent, what is most interesting is the fact that human teeth and bone were not selected and modified more often. Thus, because of the rarity of the find, we find it very unlikely that these modified human teeth were used solely for aesthetic purposes but rather carried profound symbolic meaning for the people who wore them,” Scott Haddow explained.

The symbolism might have been connected to the deceased from whom the teeth were extracted — a memento mori, for example, or an attempt to capture some element of their characters and spirits. The rare ornamental human teeth were not found in graves which is particularly notable because many beads made from the bones and teeth of animals have been discovered in a funerary context at Çatalhöyük. That suggests the human teeth may have been specifically excluded from burial practices.


Two princely tombs found near Griffin Warrior tomb in Pylos

Tuesday, December 17th, 2019

Found in a previously unexplored field near the Palace of Nestor in Pylos in 2015, the richly furnished shaft tomb of a Mycenaean warrior was filled with precious artifacts of unprecedented quantity and quality, more than 3,000 objects including gilded weapons, gold rings, a massive gold chain, thousands of semi-precious stone beads, seal stones and between his legs, an ivory plaque engraved with a griffin on a rocky landscape. Two years later one tiny agate sealstone of Cretan manufacture emerged from its thick lime accretion to reveal itself as one of the greatest masterpieces in ancient Greek art, far more advanced in craftsmanship than anybody realized the Minoans were capable of in 1,500 B.C.

The discovery of the richest tomb ever found in ancient Greece, dubbed the Griffin Warrior tomb after the extraordinary ivory plaque, made headlines all over the world. It put a global spotlight on the archaeological motherlode at Pylos. Excavating the land immediately to the east of the Griffin Warrior tomb, the University of Cincinnati archaeology team who made the sensational find in 2015 have now discovered another two elite Bronze Age tombs replete with grave goods.

This excavation was a long time in coming. The plot is privately owned. University of Cincinnati archaeologist Carl Blegen, who discovered the Palace of Nestor in 1939, unearthed an important beehive grave right at the edge of the property in the 1950s and asked the owner for permission to excavate the site but was denied. More than six decades would pass before Greek authorities were able to get access to the property and give another University of Cincinnati team the chance to fulfill Blegen’s goal.

Excavations began in 2018. Due to the delays in securing the site for excavation, the team was not able to perform a ground-penetrating radar scan that would give them hard data on where to dig. Instead, archaeologists used landscape features to determine where to dig. Once the currant plants covering the land were removed, large concentrations of stones (an estimated 40,000 of them) and several large slabs on the southeast of the parcel indicated to archaeologists there might be something worth pursuing.

They were right. By the end of May, the team had discovered two previously unknown beehive-shaped vaulted tombs. Tholos VI and VII are the same type as the tomb discovered by Blagen 63 years earlier and the entrance passages of the three tombs are parallel to each other. This was a ceremonially important burial ground along the road from the Palace of Nestor to Chora, not a tomb or two placed on a prime hilltop real estate.

The vaults of both tombs had collapsed (that’s where all the stones came from) and tons of soil and rock had fallen in to the space. Nonetheless, there are clear archaeological strata inside the chambers. Tholos VI has a large chamber 40 feet in diameter and walls reaching 15 feet above the tomb floor. Tholos VII is smaller, 28 feet in diameter with surviving walls rising six-and-a-half feet above the floor. Carved stones were found on the floor of Tholos VI that cannot have fallen from the vault. They were likely recycled from the Palace of Nestor.

The tombs were replete with artifacts and jewelry — Baltic amber, Egyptian amethyst, carnelian, gold. Flakes of gold leaf, now crumbled, had once adorned the rough stone of the walls. These expensive imports attest to Bronze Age Pylos’ extensive trade links, despite its remote location. The tombs can only have belonged to the Mycenaean elite, likely aristocracy.

Artifacts found in the princely tombs tell similar stories about life along the Mediterranean 3,500 years ago, Davis said. A gold ring depicted two bulls flanked by sheaves of grain, identified as barley by a paleobotanist who consulted on the project.

“It’s an interesting scene of animal husbandry — cattle mixed with grain production. It’s the foundation of agriculture,” Davis said. “As far as we know, it’s the only representation of grain in the art of Crete or Minoan civilization.”

Like the grave of the Griffin Warrior, the two family tombs contained artwork emblazoned with mythological creatures. An agate sealstone featured two lion-like creatures called genii standing upright on clawed feet. They carry a serving vase and an incense burner, a tribute for the altar before them featuring a sprouting sapling between horns of consecration, Stocker said.

Above the genii is a 16-pointed star. The same 16-pointed star also appears on a bronze and gold artifact in the grave, she said.

“It’s rare. There aren’t many 16-pointed stars in Mycenaean iconography. The fact that we have two objects with 16 points in two different media (agate and gold) is noteworthy,” Stocker said.

The genius motif appears elsewhere in the East during this period, she said.

“One problem is we don’t have any writing from the Minoan or Mycenaean time that talks of their religion or explains the importance of their symbols,” Stocker said.

UC’s team also found a gold pendant featuring the likeness of the Egyptian goddess Hathor.

“Its discovery is particularly interesting in light of the role she played in Egypt as protectress of the dead,” Davis said.

Excavations will continue for at least another two years, and documentation and conservation of the huge number of artifacts will take even longer.


Dogs discover dinosaur fossil on Somerset beach

Monday, December 16th, 2019

Poppy and Sam discovered the mineralized skeleton of a dinosaur while enjoying a walk on the beach at Stolford, Somerset, on Saturday. Their owner Jon Gopsill was walking them at low tide when they stumbled on a skeleton five and a half feet long that had been exposed by recent storm activity.

Gopsill is a paleontology fan and has found several fossils before, but they were mainly ammonites, not a large Mesozoic marine reptile. He has reported Poppy and Sam’s find to Somerset Heritage and sent photographs to the Natural History Museum in London.

Dr. Mike Day, curator in the Earth Sciences department at the Natural History Museum, confirmed the skeleton was likely to belong to an ichthyosaur, though he is unable to say for certain without inspecting it in person.

Dr. Day explained:

“Looking at this specimen, based on the number of bones in the pectoral paddle, the apparent absence of a pelvic girdle, as well as the distinctive ‘hunch’ of the back, this is likely to be the remains of an ichthyosaur.

It is not possible to identify the exact type of ichthyosaur from these images alone, however.”

NB: The news service article (carried verbatim in several media outlets) describes ichthyosaurs as “porpoise-like sea mammals,” and while they were porpoise-like in some morphological aspects, they were not mammals. The name itself should have been sufficient to overcome this basic fact-checking deficiency as any 10-year-old and/or viewer of a quarter century of blockbuster movies could tell you “saur” comes from the Greek for “lizard.” Dinosaurs, all of them, were reptiles. Everyone knows this. You can tell Poppy and Sam know it.


Monkeys in Bronze Age Greece fresco identified as Indus Valley species

Sunday, December 15th, 2019

Monkeys depicted in a wall painting from the Late Cycladic I period (17th century B.C.) in Akotiri on the Greek island of Thera have been identified as grey langurs, a species native to southern Asia thousands of miles from Minoan Thera.

The fresco decorates the north and west walls in a room of a building dubbed Beta 6. The monkeys climb and frolic above undulating bands of blue that likely represent water, using the rocks that emerge from the waves as jumping off points for their simian games. Its composition, dynamism and bold lines convey a natural setting with an almost abstract restraint. It is known as the Blue Monkey fresco — the color of the monkeys match the waters beneath them — but they’re definitely a slate blue in the greyish family.

Marie Nicole Pareja at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia teamed up with primatologists to re-examine the mystery monkey paintings. One stood out. “When they looked at this wall painting, they all straight away unambiguously said ‘that’s a langur’,” says Pareja.

The team has identified the monkey as a grey langur (Semnopithecus). As well as its distinctive fur, the monkey was depicted holding its tail in a characteristic S shape.

Grey langurs live in southern Asia in what is now Nepal, Bhutan and India – and particularly in the Indus Valley. During the Bronze Age, the region was home to the Indus Valley Civilisation, one of the most important societies of that time. Although it was past its peak, the Indus Valley Civilisation was still advanced for its time, with large cities and elaborate water supply systems.

As there were no native species of monkey in Bronze Age Greece, it was always known that these lively fellows were exotic imports. However, most artwork from the period that features monkeys involve species native to Egypt, which was far closer to home and had an established trade network with ancient Greece.

Did Minoan Greeks visit the Indus? “I wouldn’t be surprised if someday in the future we found evidence for that kind of direct contact,” says Pareja, but right now there is none. It is also possible the visit was the other way round, but again there is no evidence.

Instead, it may be that Greece and Indus were connected via Mesopotamia, another Bronze Age civilisation centred on what is now Iraq. Langurs may have been imported to Mesopotamia for menageries, where visiting Greeks saw them.

“It’s evidence of this far-reaching trade, these relationships with these far-flung areas,” says Pareja. Even in the Bronze Age, it seems there was a lot of exchange between seemingly separate civilisations.


Ka statue of Ramesses II found under home

Saturday, December 14th, 2019

A unique statue of Ramesses II adorned with the “ka” sign has been discovered. The ka was the life-force of an individual, the key spirit of a person that continued the live after physical death. It was the ka, entombed with the body it once inhabited, which ate the food offerings and dwelled in the ka statue to keep itself (and therefore the deceased) eternally alive. The only other ka statue of a pharaoh that has been found is the life-sized wooden statue of the 13th Dynasty pharaoh Hor (ca. 1750 B.C.), discovered in the pharaoh’s tomb in 1894 and considered an artistic masterpiece of the period.

The statue was found on private property in the town of ​​Mit Rahina near the temple of the god Ptah in ancient Memphis. A 62-year-old man excavated under his house and came across large blocks of stone immersed in the ground water. Unauthorized excavation is illegal in Egypt due to the potential for damage to archaeological material and the risk of artifact trafficking. Police busted him earlier this month and Ministry of Antiquities archaeologists began a salvage excavation.

The team unearthed the top half of a rose granite statue of 19th Dynasty pharaoh Ramesses II (r. 1279–1213 B.C.). The statue is 1’10” wide and just shy of 3’5″ high and depicts the pharaoh wearing a tripartite hair wig with the symbol for “ka” (two upraised arms connected in the middle forming a u-shape) over his head. On the back pillar is the hieroglyphic inscription “Ka Nakht Mari Maat,” literally “The Powerful Loved Bull Maat”.  Ramesses’ regnal name was Usermaatre Setepenre, meaning “The Maat of Ra is powerful, Chosen of Ra.” (The Greek name for Ramesses, Ozymandias, of Shelley look-on-my-works-ye-mighty-and-despair fame, is derivation of Usermaatre.)

The blocks of stone were the remains of a temple to Ptah, patron deity of the ancient capital of Memphis. In addition to the statue, 19 blocks of rose granite and limestone engraved with dedications to Ptah, cartouches of Ramesses II and depictions of the pharaoh engaged in the Heb Sed ceremony, a ritual celebrated when a king had ruled for 30 years (and every three to four years after that, which would turn out to be a lot because his reign lasted 66 years). It’s likely the ka statue was connected to the Heb Sed celebration of Ramesses the Great’s long and successful reign.

The remains found so far have been recovered and transferred to the Mit Rahina open air museum. There they will be conserved and stabilized while excavations continue.


Stolen Klimt found in garden wall of gallery it was stolen from

Friday, December 13th, 2019

A uniquely important painting by Gustav Klimt that was stolen in 1997 from the Ricci Oddi Gallery of Modern Art in Piacenza has been found in the garden wall of said gallery. On Tuesday, December 10th, maintenance workers discovered a metal door while cleaning ivy off the wall. Behind the door was a niche filled with rocks and metal scraps. Resting on the debris was a black plastic garbage bag. Inside the trash bag was Portrait of a Lady, painted by Gustav Klimt in 1917 and estimated to be worth $66 million.

Jonathan Papamerenghi, a member of the Piacenza council with responsibility for culture, did not exclude the possibility that the painting had been left in the wall by thieves who wanted to return it.

“It is very strange, because, immediately after the theft, every single inch of the gallery and garden was checked with a fine-tooth comb,” he told La Repubblica. “The strangest thing is that the painting is in excellent condition. It does not seem like it has been locked under a trapdoor for 22 years.”

It can’t have been. At least not unless the thieves rebagged it, because the company that made the garbage bag only came into existence a decade after the theft.

Portrait of a Lady was a focal point of the Ricci Oddi Gallery before there even was a gallery. Collector Giuseppe Ricci Oddi donated his prized collection of artworks to the city in 1924 and construction began on the gallery. Between then and its inauguration in 1931, Oddi continued to buy art, purposely seeking out pieces that would fill blanks in his collection and enhance the artistic value of the new gallery. Klimt’s painting was one of those key purchases.

Authorities don’t know exactly when the painting was stolen. The theft was discovered the morning of Saturday, February 22nd, but the police think the theft took place three days earlier. How an art gallery could be unaware their greatest masterpiece was missing is a weird, complicated tale that wouldn’t be out of place in a novel.

It begins a year earlier in 1996 when 18-year-old art student, Claudia Maga, noticed that Portrait of a Lady bore distinct similarities to another work by Klimt, Portrait of a Young Lady, missing since 1912. The pose, proportions and even the beauty mark on the cheek were identical. She contacted the gallery’s director and they had the painting X-rayed at the local hospital. It confirmed the accuracy of Maga’s keen eye: the lost portrait was underneath. Apparently Klimt had painted over it out of grief when the model, his lover and muse, died suddenly.

This discovery made the Ricci Oddi Gallery the proud owner of the only known double portrait by Gustav Klimt. They immediately planned a dedicated exhibition at another location in the center of the city while the gallery building itself was undergoing renovations. Paintings were boxed up and put in storage. Doors were unlocked, the security system turned off and a stream of workers went about their business.

On February 22nd, gallery staff realized the Lady was gone, not boxed up, not stored, not moved to a temporary location, but stolen. The only clue was the paintings heavy gilded frame left behind by the thief. It was found on the roof next to a skylight with an opening around the perimeter. Police hypothesized that the frame had been hooked by a fishing line and the painting reeled up and out through the skylight, an outlandishly improbable scenario that proved impossible when the heavy frame was found to be too large to fit through the skylight’s opening.

The investigation took several turns after that A fingerprint was found on the frame. A forgery turned up on April Fool’s Day 1997. Years later an art thief claimed the stolen painting had in fact been stolen months earlier and replaced by a copy and the copy was then stolen to cover up the fact that it was a copy. The stolen original had been sold for bundles of cash and kilos of cocaine. The stolen copy would be returned on the anniversary of the theft. DNA was found on the frame in 2016. All leads fizzled out.

Given the copy of a copy story and the oddness of the garden wall find site, confirming the authenticity of the portrait is of the utmost priority. All indicators are positive however: the wax stamp, gallery stamp and the period labels on the back of the canvas appear to be original.

The Ricci Oddi has been inundated with requests for more information since the news broke. They haven’t been able to disclose much of anything while the painting is still being officially authenticated and the police investigation is ongoing. To quench the public thirst, they have set up a page on their website that they will update with news as it becomes available.


Rijksmuseum lives its gold cup dream

Thursday, December 12th, 2019

One of the Rijksmuseum’s most cherished dreams has come true with the long-term loan of a solid gold cup by the Netherlands’ most famous goldsmith Paul van Vianen.

Paul van Vianen was the most important scion of a famous family of silversmiths from Utrecht, and he enjoyed star status in his lifetime. Subsequent generations of silversmiths looked to him as their primary source of inspiration, and artists collected his original works or copies of them. Rembrandt was among the artists who owned plaster casts of objects made by him. Van Vianen ventured out into the great wide world at the age of 16, and he worked at several famous Central European courts before ultimately joining the Prague Royal Court of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, which he continued to serve until his death in May 1613.

The lid features the gods enacting a proverb from Terence’s comedy Eunuchus that “without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus freezes.” The metonym signifying that love needs food and wine to live was a popular motif in Northern Mannerist art of the second half of the 16th and first half of the 17th century. It appeared in paintings, engravings and as prints in emblem books. Rubens was fond of the motif and painted several version of a chilly Venus needing to be warmed with the fruits of Ceres and Bacchus.

The body of the cup depicts the myth of Diana and Actaeon, described by Ovid in Book III of his Metamorphoses. Actaeon comes across the Huntress bathing with her nymphs and an enraged Diana transforms him into a stag. He flees and is devoured by his own hounds. Another work of Vianen’s on the same theme, a large silver basin made in 1613, was acquired by the Rijksmuseum in 1947. It shares design and composition elements with the cup, most notably the central figure of Actaeon beginning to sprout antlers.

The cup was created in Prague in 1610 for Heinrich Julius, Prince of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. Heinrich Julius spent years at the court of Rudolph II, enlisting the emperor’s aid in his struggle against the proudly independent burghers of Brunswick who were not even remotely interested in relinquishing 200 years of autonomy and bending the knee to their ostensible prince. There’s a portrait of the prince in full armour on the inside of the cup.

After Heinrich Julius’s death in 1613, the cup passed to his daughter Sophia Hedwig, wife of Count Ernest Casimir I of Nassau-Dietz. It spent the next two centuries as the greatest masterpiece in the collection of the Dutch royal family. In 1881 it was sold to a German collector, much to the Rijksmuseum’s dismay. The museum mourned its loss by crafting a gilt copper replica, a wan simulacrum of the original. Last year the gold cup was offered to the Rijksmuseum. The Wessels family bought it for them, so while the cup is still privately owned, it will be on public display at the Rijksmuseum in perpetuo.

Gilt copper replica (left) and original gold cup (right). Photo courtesy the Rijksmuseum.






Add to Technorati Favorites