Largest 15th c. ship being pieced back together

The Newport Ship, the largest, best-preserved 15th century ship ever found, is being pieced back together like a giant jigsaw puzzle in a warehouse in Newport, Wales.

The remains of the massive merchant ship about 400 tons displacement and 100 feet long were discovered in June 2002 during construction of an arts center on the banks of the River Usk. Archaeologists from the Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust (GGAT) built a coffer-dam around the site and excavated the remains of the large vessel capable of carrying a load of about 200 tons.

The ship was not laden with cargo, belongings or even ballast. It was in dock when it gave up the ghost, slated for repair or demolition. One coin – a French petit blanc — placed in the keel likely for good luck, dated the ship to the late 1440s. A smattering of other artifacts were found, including a gaming piece, a brass fitting from a helmet, stone shot for a swivel gun, a bilge bump and the ubiquitous nit comb. The artifacts and tree-ring analysis of the timbers indicate the ship was built in the Basque Country in 1449, and carried wine on the Lisbon-Bristol trade route for the next 20 years. While it was docked in Newport, the ship collapsed and the hull flooded. The part of the ship that could be easily accessed was disassembled leaving the lower part of the hull for archaeologists to discover 600 years later.

Bob Evans, chairman of the Friends of the Newport Ship:

“There are no other surviving vessels from the early 15th century; a time when ship design was developing rapidly and we have much to learn from the way in which she was built and how she would have sailed”.

At first the plan was to preserve only a few representative timbers, but when the discovery of the Newport Ship made the press, a public campaign persuaded the Welsh National Assembly to budget the time and £3.5 million for a full excavation. In order to preserve the ship, it was taken apart timber by timber, each piece numbered and placed into freshwater tanks for storage. The last piece of the puzzle, massive keel, had to be cut into sections. It was removed in November 2002.

It takes a long, long time to stabilize waterlogged shipwrecks. The Mary Rose was hosed down in polyethylene glycol (PEG) for three decades. Because the Newport Ship was recovered in approximately 3,000 pieces rather than as a whole hull, the timbers could be soaked simultaneously and evenly in the tanks. Conservators soaked the timbers an ammonium citrate solution to remove iron salts before soaking in PEG. Then they shortened the treatment period (and cost in materials; PEG is a petroleum product and very expensive) by freeze-drying the PEG-saturated timbers.

The conservation process is almost complete now and reassembly is the next frontier. The total weight of the timbers is more than 25 tons. Friends of the Newport Ship are working with experts from Swansea University to design and built a cradle as a support structure

“We have received two further shipments of dried timbers during the year so that we now have around three quarters of the recovered timbers preserved and ready for reassembly,” explained Mr Evans.

“We aim to have the remaining timbers back at the Newport Ship Centre by the end of 2020. The latest shipment includes some of the big framing timbers which are very impressive in terms of their size and the high standard of carpentry they exhibit. […]

He added: “We do not want to put it together in the wrong way or have to take it apart again, so we must be certain that we know exactly how each timber fits together before we start.

“Work continues on finding a building in the Newport area which is big enough to house the Ship and we hope to make an announcement on this in a few months’ time.”

Two Boys with a Bladder head for LA

The J. Paul Getty Museum has acquired, and even more importantly received an export license for, Two Boys with a Bladder, a chiaroscuro masterpiece by 18th century British painter Joseph Wright of Derby.

The recently rediscovered painting depicts two young boys, boldly lit by a concealed candle, inflating a pig’s bladder. In the 18th century, animal bladders served as toys, either inflated and tossed like balloons or filled with dried peas and shaken like rattles. While bladders appeared frequently in 17th-century Dutch painting they were depicted less frequently in 18th-century Britain. It was a motif that Wright made his own; the elaborate costumes that the boys wear are of the artist’s own invention, in the style of British “fancy pictures.” The dramatic pictorial effect created by the concentrated candle light within a dark interior setting was in vogue in much of Europe in the late 16th and 17th centuries, but it was not until the 18th century that English artists picked up the theme, Wright being among the first to do so.

Wright is famed for his nocturnal scenes. His “Candlelight Pictures” used a single candle in the center of the canvas as the sole light source to create high-contrast scenes of people clustered around a subject (the Borghese Gladiator, an orrery, a kitten) in rapt attention. Wright deployed the dramatic chiaroscuro effect pioneered by Caravaggio in his religious themed paintings for the Enlightenment interests of science, philosophy, natural history in domestic settings. Joseph Wright made the Enlightenment literal with his inky black and warm, textured light illuminating the big and small wonders of the Age of Reason, and his works were immediately popular, reproduced as large-scale prints and widely sold.

Wright’s engaged the scientific approach in his method as well as his subjects. His niece explained his inventive technique for creating nocturnal scenes:

“His mechanical genius… enabled him to construct an apparatus for painting candlelight pieces and effects of fire-light. It consisted of a framework of wood resembling a large folding screen, which reached the top of the room, the two ends being placed against a wall, which formed two sides of the enclosure. Each fold was divided into compartments, forming a framework covered with black paper, and opening with hinges, so that when the object he was painting from was placed within the proper light, the artist could view it from various points from without.”

He made the canvas itself something of an scientific experiment, layering metal leaf underneath the focal lit area of the painting, in this case the bladder. This was a technique Wright invented to use the reflective properties of the metal to boost the shine of the faux candlelight through the layers of paint.

When another candlelight picture, An Academy by Lamplight, sold at Sotheby’s in 2017 for just under $10 million (a new record for a piece by Wright), the Arts Council recommended the government impose an export bar in the hope a British institution might raise the large sum needed to keep the painting in the country. None did and the work is now in a private collection somewhere. This time around, the Arts Council let it go without a fight.

“Two Boys with a Bladder is a remarkable discovery that sheds new light on Wright’s work at the most important moment of his career,” said Davide Gasparotto, senior curator of paintings at the Getty Museum. “It is a compelling example from his most important and successful genre, candlelight paintings. Moreover, Wright’s innovative experimentation with the use of metal foil embodies a sense of technical and scientific exploration that typifies the intellectual milieu of the midlands on the eve of the industrial revolution. It is a major addition to the Getty’s holdings of art from the English golden age.”

Extremely rare Assyrian rock reliefs found in Iraqi Kurdistan

A team of Italian and Kurdish archaeologists have discovered 10 exceptionally rare Assyrian rock reliefs at the archaeological site of Faida in northern Iraqi Kurdistan. The reliefs were carved into the banks of an ancient canal four miles long that was dug out of the bedrock in the 8th-7th century B.C. to irrigate fields. Most known Assyrian bas-reliefs were discovered in royal palaces. The last time Assyrian reliefs carved onto rock faces, not on palace walls, were found was 1845. They were discovered by French consul Simon Rouet at the nearby ancient sites of Khinis and Maltai.

The panels depict a ruler, believed to be  Neo-Assyrian King Sargon II (r. 722–705 B.C.), leading a parade of Assyrian deities and animals. He is stands at both ends of the procession (Tablet 1 of the Epic of Gilgamesh: “He walks out in front, the leader, and walks at the rear, trusted by his companions”). The statues of seven Assyrian deities are carried in the parade on the backs of animals. Ashur, head of the Assyrian pantheon, rides on a dragon and horned lion. His wife Mullissu is on a throne supported by a lion. Ishtar, the “Queen of Heaven,” goddess of love and war, is on a lion. Her twin brother the sun god Shamash is on a horse. Moon god Sin is also on a horned lion, and storm god Adad is both a horned lion and a bull. Nabu, god of wisdom, literacy and scribes, is on a dragon. The animals bearing the representations of the gods face right, the direction of the current that flowed through the canal.

Sargon’s new capital, Dur-Sharrukin (modern-day Khorsabad), was 40 miles south of Faida, and the great metropolis of Nineveh (modern-day Mosul), a regionally important center of religious worship and trade since the 3rd millennium B.C. and the largest city in the world with an estimated population of 100,000 at its peak under Sargon’s son Sennacherib, was 10 miles southwest of Dur-Sharrukin. Improving the arability of the area around these important population centers was a priority for Sargon and his successors. Sennacherib would build a canal 30 miles long to bring water to Nineveh, a section of which was built with arches and cement and may have been the world’s first aqueduct.

We’re incredibly lucky the reliefs are still there. The tops of three of them were spotted by British archaeologists in 1973, but constant turmoil between the Kurds and the Iraqi government followed by the Iraq War made further exploration impossible. In 2012, archaeologists took advantage of a small window in the conflicts to discover another six reliefs. Then in 2014 ISIS occupied the area. The front line was 15 miles away from the precious reliefs, but thankfully they were so little known they weren’t subjected to the Islamic State’s greed for looting artifacts and selling them on the antiquities market or destroying them.

ISIS was kicked out in 2017, and in September and October of 2019, the Land of Nineveh Archaeological Project (LoNAP) was able to return to fully document the finds.

“The reliefs suggest that politically charged scenes of royal power and its divine legitimacy might have been commonplace,” said Harvard University archaeologist Jason Ur, who is researching ancient water systems in the region. The discovery shows that these works of art were “not just in the imperial palaces but everywhere, even where farmers were extracting water from canals for their fields.” […]

The expedition itself used advanced technologies, including laser scanning and digital photogrammetry, to record every detail of the stone panels and their context. A drone provided high-resolution aerial photos that will allow researchers to map the entire canal network.

These unique reliefs are still under constant threat. Looters damaged one of the panels last May in the attempt to steal it. Construction of a stable by a local farmer inflicted further damage on another panel. Increasing development is a major threat as well — the ancient canal was cut through when a new aqueduct was built in 2018 — and erosion is a constant enemy. The canal was cut into a hill and it is entirely full of layers of earth deposited as the hill eroded. LoNAP’s ultimate goal is to preserve the site — reliefs, including those of Khinis and Maltai discovered in 1845, and the canal system itself — as an archaeological park with UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.

Stolen painting found in gallery wall verified as missing Klimt

Portrait of a Lady, the painting by Gustav Klimt found last month in the garden wall of the modern art museum it had been stolen from 22 years earlier, has been authenticated. The Ricci Oddi Gallery of Modern Art in Piacenza announced Friday that art experts engaged by the city prosecutor’s office verified that the painting was the original completed by Klimt in 1917.

Since the gardener’s discovery on Dec. 10, the canvas had been kept in a vault of a local branch of Italy’s central bank while experts used infrared radiation and other non-invasive techniques to determine if it was the original “Portrait of a Lady.”

Experts said the painting was in remarkably good condition. One of the few signs of damage was a scratch near the edge of the canvas that may have resulted “from a clumsy effort to remove the portrait from its frame,” said Anna Selleri, an art restorer from the National Gallery in Bologna.

X-rays revealed the earlier work — 1912’s Portrait of a Young Lady — that Klimt had painted over to create the current portrait, making this work his only known double portrait. X-rays also found that Klimt had largely reused the whitish skin of the earlier portrait’s face for the second portrait, keeping the head in the same position and location.

The mystery of who stole Portrait of a Lady in 1997 is no closer to being solved. Police can’t even tell at this point if the painting ever left the gallery grounds or if it’s been whiling away a couple of decades in a niche in the wall behind a metal door. Traces of organic material found on the canvas may lead investigators to new information.

Edith Wharton’s copy of The Age of Innocence donated to her home

The only surviving copy of The Age of Innocence known to have belonged to Edith Wharton herself has been donated to the Mount, Wharton’s former home and now a museum dedicated to her. Donated by book collector Dennis Kahn, the edition is a 1921 sixth printing of her most successful novel. It bears her signature and a bookplate from Sainte-Claire-du-Château in Hyères, a restored convent on the French Riviera where Wharton wrote The Age of Innocence between September 1919 and March 1920.

Wharton gave away books, including signed volumes for charities to sell, and her heirs scattered others. More than 1,000 nonfiction volumes that she owned were destroyed during a World War II bombing while stored in London. Another portion of her library, preserved at a castle in Kent, England, was cataloged and assembled by the British bookseller George Ramsden and acquired by the Mount in 2005.

Mr. Kahn’s gift bears the bookplate of a Wisconsin businessman and philanthropist, Norman D. Bassett, who died in 1980 at 89; Mr. Bassett had collected autographed books since he met Mark Twain as a teenager. Nynke Dorhout, the Mount’s librarian, said, “We are still researching the Bassett connection” to flesh out the provenance.

Published in 1920, The Age of Innocence was Wharton’s 12th novel. By then she was already an acclaimed author, but this was her greatest success to date. It was a popular and critical smash, garnering her the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1921. She was the first woman to receive the award, beating Sinclaire Lewis in a twist reversal of the committee’s decision.

This year is the centennial of its publication and the Mount, the home Edith Wharton designed and had built in 1902 in Lenox, Massachusetts, is planning numerous events to celebrate the occasion. The donation of the only known surviving English-language edition of her masterpiece to have belonged to the author will usher in the centennial year with an official unveiling on January 24th, Edith Wharton’s 158th birthday.

Only tenuously connected to the above but I’m taking the opportunity anyway: at the Mount are buried Wharton’s beloved long-haired Chihuahas Mimi and Miza. They were laid to rest on a hillside visible from the library and sitting room. I bring this up solely as a pretext to post this picture of Edith Wharton, stylish as hell in her mutton chop-sleeve seersucker suit, with Mimi and Miza on her lap looking witheringly into the camera, eyes so narrow they put the Frye “not sure if” meme to shame. The picture was taken in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1889-90.

Just for comparison’s sake, and because I can never get enough of Mimi and Miza’s baleful expressions, here they are three years earlier (1886) with Edith’s embezzling, unfaithful, mentally ill husband Edward and his terrier Jules.

Miza and Mimi are said to haunt the Mount. I can’t imagine a more chilling pair of ghosts.