From the Met’s film vault

This year is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 150th anniversary. To celebrate their sesquicentennial, the Met has been uploading movies from their vast archive of films about art going back to the 1920s.

The Met’s Office of Cinema Works opened in 1922 when the moving image captured on film was less than 30 years old. The medium was still considered the cultural inferior to its cousin the so-called legitimate theater. The Met was one of the first museums to embrace its great education potential. The Office of Cinema Works produced films that would be screened first for museum members and then to visitors. It filmed the museum’s excavations in Egypt and made documentaries about the museum, objects in its collection, artist profiles, explanations of different artistic techniques.

Because the Office’s mission was educational, from its earliest days in 1922 the films it produced were made available for rent to other museums, schools and societies. The Met soon did brisk business in film distribution as well as production. They also pioneered the use of safety film. To be able to send their films to more screens and make them as easy and safe to use as possible, in 1928 they moved from the industry standard 35mm nitrate film to 16mm non-flammable acetate that could be screened with portable projectors.

The Office of Cinema Works was active through 1935, and its descendants at the museum continue to produce films about art well into the 2000s. Most of the 1,500 treasures in its climate-controlled vault have been in permanent retirement, however. Starting in January of this anniversary year, From the Vaults has been releasing a film from the archive every Friday, beginning, as is only right and fair on the Internet, with a film about cats.

Earlier this month, From the Vaults released a self-referential gem: The Hidden Talisman, a 1928 historical romance/ghost story that was filmed at the original Cloisters. The faux medieval setting is very apt to the drama. The first Cloisters was only in use for 24 years, from its opening in 1914 until the Met Cloisters as we know and love it today moved to its current location in 1938, so this film is a rare glimpse into a long-gone classic.

Here’s another great early one from 1924 about the Met’s Armor Galleries.

View the rest of the treasures from the Met’s film vaults on the museum’s YouTube channel.

Girl with a Pearl Earring revealed Tuesday

In 2018, the Mauritshuis museum performed an in-depth scientific examination of Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece Girl with a Pearl Earring (ca. 1665). The last time it had been thoroughly examined was during a 1994 conservation, and technology has grown by leaps and bounds since then. The goal of the Girl in the Spotlight project was to discover new information about the master’s brushstrokes and impasto, about his use of pigments, oils, canvas and other materials.

The research was conducted in public view in a specially-made glass enclosure in the museum’s Golden Room gallery. Over the course of two weeks, a team of specialists deployed state-of-the-art technology including MA-XRF scanning, optical coherence tomography and digital microscopy to analyze the painting. The project was documented in daily posts by lead conservator Abbie Vandivere on the outstanding Girl with a Blog, which is a wonderland of information about Vermeer, his most famous work and the latest conservation practices.

More than two years have passed since the project’s conclusion, and during that time researchers have published individual reports focusing on one particular aspect of Girl with a Pearl Earring in the journal Heritage Science. Now the full results of the technical examination have been published and the Mauritshuis is making a bit of a fanfare about it, putting up a placeholder for a web page dedicated to revealing the findings. On Tuesday, April 28th, the page will go live.

Meanwhile, if you’ve got a little time on your hands to do a deep dive into the nitty-gritty of one of the world’s most famous paintings, you can read all the previously published papers from the Girl in the Spotlight project leading up the final report. They each stand on their own so you can read whatever catches your eye, but they are intended to be read in the following order:

  1. From ‘Vermeer illuminated’ to ‘The Girl in the Spotlight’: approaches and methodologies for the scientific (re-)examination of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.
  2. Revealing the painterly technique beneath the surface of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring using macro- and microscale imaging.
  3. Mapping the pigment distribution of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.
  4. Comparison of three 3D imaging techniques for paintings, as applied to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.
  5. Imaging secondary reaction products at the surface of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring by means of in situ macro X-ray powder diffraction scanning.
  6. Beauty is skin deep: The skin tones of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.
  7. Out of the blue: Vermeer’s use of ultramarine in Girl with a Pearl Earring.
  8. Fading into the background: the dark space surrounding Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.

And the last but certainly not least of them: The Girl in the Spotlight: Vermeer at work, his materials and techniques in Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Excavation of Etruscan tomb in Corsica complete

Archaeologists have completed the excavation of the 4th century B.C. Etruscan tomb discovered last year in Aleria, Corsica, and it is an even richer archaeological motherlode than initial reports suggested. Studies of the grave furnishings have already begun and will shed new light on Etruscan funerary customs in Corsica.

The discovery of the exceptional hypogeum tomb of an elite Etruscan was first announced by France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) in March, 2019. The ceiling of the tomb had collapsed onto the burial chamber, so the team had to dig from the top down until they hit proverbial paydirt. At the time of the announcement, they had gotten down to the burial chamber, exposing about 15 pottery vessels, a bronze mirror and a skull. By mid-April, the team had unearthed the full burial chamber.

The deceased was found in a supine position, the head tilted to the left with arms alongside the body. The jewelry suggests she was female, as she was wearing gold earrings. She also wore two gold and copper finger rings. The body was surrounded with 40 ceramic vessels. To the right of her head were two large skyphoi (drinking vases with large handles on each side) and on the left side a small aryballos vessel. Along her right leg were found another skyphos and three oenochoai (wine jugs) decorated with female figures. These were all of local manufacture.

Two pottery alabastrons (a small perfume or oil vessel) were placed on her feet and next to them a group of small cups painted black, two bronze mirrors and an askos (vessel with one or two spouts on top for pouring liquids). Along the left side of the woman were a dozen cups of different shapes and sizes, including one in the shape of a head.

When excavations ended in April 2019, the team had recovered more than 200 artifacts, the skeletal remains of the deceased and skeletal remains from animals left in vessels. To ensure their preservation, the objects were only just released from the soil to be sent to laboratory for full cleaning, documentation and conservation. The painted pottery made in Etruria is particularly fragile because it was never fired. Unlike the black and red glazes typical of Greek pottery, the paint, especially the white used to highlight, can easily be damaged by even the mildest abrasion (like cleaning dirt off the surface). Conservators protected the paint by fixing it with an adhesive made from the swim bladder of a sturgeon, a natural glue that, unlike the acrylics often used, is completely reversible.

In the laboratory, the vessels were thoroughly excavated, cleaned and stabilized. Conservators discovered some surprises during the process, elements that could not be detected during the field excavation. Using a sophisticated CT scan technique called tomodensitometry, the objects were X-rayed in 360 degrees and the images reconstructed in 3D. This scan can see through dense clusters of artifacts and even reveal details about the method of manufacture.

Twenty-two of the recovered objects were scanned. One of the skyphoi was found to contain a cup, likely used in a funerary ritual. A group of vases believed to have been deposited inside a now-decomposed woven basket, include a cup containing a small bronze ring. Four other such rings were found nearby and are believed to have been part of the basket. One of the alabastrons contains a metal rod, likely a perfume or ointment applicator stick. Engraved images on the back of mirrors depicts women holding such a stick in one hand and an alabastron in the other.

Next on the conservation agenda are the two bronze mirrors with bone handles. They have suffered significant damage over the millennia. Conservators will study them next, hoping to decipher any images carved on the non-reflective surface.

Skeletons found buried in foundations of 11th c. castle

The excavation of Břeclav Castle in the Czech Republic, has unearthed the skeletal remains of three people in the medieval foundations, possibly the victims of ritual sacrifice. The individuals were found under the 11th century walls discovered last year. They had been placed next to each other over the first layer of stone of the rampart and their positions suggest they may have been tied together. An iron object a foot and a half long was placed over them. It is tapered on one end, but the object is too corroded to be identified.

“These unfortunates seem to have fallen victim to some drastic pagan practice, or murder”, explains [archaeologist Miroslav] Dejmal. “It is hard to imagine that all three died at the same time by accident. And most importantly, placing them on the first layer of stones of the newly rampart and the position of the bodies, suggests they were in fact sacrificed.” […]

“Next week, together with anthropologists, we will try to learn more about the dead. We’ll see if we can find out if they were related or whether they were ‘locals’. It has been suggested that they might be slaves, possibly prisoners of war, who were used to build the walls and then perhaps sacrificed or executed. Even though the rampart builders had been converted to Christianity by around 1050, many, often harsh, pagan practices still survived.”

I would hesitate to chalk this up to the work of crypto-pagans. The builder of the castle, Bretislav I, Duke of Bohemia, was Christian, as was his father, his father before him and so on all the way back to the first Duke of Bohemia, Bořivoj I, in the 9th century. The Přemyslid dynasty includes two saints, Ludmila and her grandson Wenceslaus of Christmas carol fame. Christianity was well-established by the early 11th century, two denominations of it (Slavic Orthodox and Roman Catholic), no less. If the trio was indeed sacrificed for the good of the castle, you can’t assume Bretislav and/or his subordinates didn’t have knowledge of it or even a hand in it. It certainly couldn’t have been done without people on site being aware of it.

Foundation sacrifice stories abound in the folklore of many cultures around the world. Numerous countries in Eastern Europe — Serbia, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary — have folk songs dedicated to a legendary foundation sacrifice. The Walled-Up Wife and its many variants tell of masons building a castle whose work is magically dismantled every night. They learn that they must wall up the first woman who visits the next day in order to break the nefarious spell and finish construction. The architect’s wife turns out to be the unfortunate victim.

Folklorists beginning with Jacob Grimm, the elder of the fairy tale-collecting brothers, have hypothesized that the foundation sacrifice stories originate with pre-Christian rituals dedicated to appeasing deities/spirits of the landscape angered by people building things on their turfs. Want to build a bridge over a river? Better give the river god some recompense for all the future drowning victims he’s going to miss out on.

The New Statistical Account of Scotland (1845) recounts that no less Christian a figure than St. Columba, the Irish missionary who evangelized the Scots in the 6th century, buried his best friend in the foundations of the monastery of Iona.

When Columba first attempted to build on lona, the walls, it is said, by the operation of some evil spirit, fell down as fast as they were erected. Columba received supernatural information that they would never stand unless a human victim was buried alive. According to one account, the lot fell on Oran, the companion of the saint, as the victim that was demanded for the success of the undertaking. Others pretend that Oran voluntarily devoted himself, and was interred accordingly. At the end of three days Columba had the curiosity to take a farewell look at his old friend, and caused the earth to be removed. Oran raised his swimming eyes, and said, “There is no wonder in death, and hell is not as it is reported.” The saint  was so shocked at this impiety that he instantly ordered the earth to be flung in again, uttering the words, “Uir! Uir!  air beal Orain ma’n labhair e tuile comh’radh,” that is, “Earth! Earth! on the mouth of Oran that he may blab no more.”

The author shares the juicy story but doubts its veracity, accusing the “druids” of having made it all up to slander Columba and Christianity “especially as the savage rite imputed to him was only practised by the heathens.” 

Absolute unit of an Ottoman shipwreck found

Maritime archaeologists have discovered a dozen shipwrecks off the coast of Lebanon in the Levantine Basin. Ranging in date from the 3rd century B.C. to the 19th century, there are wrecks from the Hellenistic, Roman, early Islamic and Ottoman eras. A team from the Enigma Shipwrecks Project (ESP) found the wrecks up to a mile deep on the sea floor. They scanned and documented the area with remote operated vehicles, capturing high-resolution images and HD video. The field exploration of the wrecks ended in late 2015, but as researchers continue to work on the data and artifacts, the find has been kept under wraps until now.

One ship dominated the others in size and in richness of cargo. It was an Ottoman merchant vessel that sank around 1630 during a voyage between Egypt and Istanbul. At 140 feet long displacing 1,000 tons, it was so huge that two regular ships could have fit comfortably on its deck and its hold contained hundreds of artifacts of astonishing diversity representing 14 different cultures, among them western North Africa, China, India, Italy, Spain and Belgium. Artifacts include the earliest Chinese porcelain ever found on a Mediterranean wreck, Italian ceramics and Indian peppercorns.

The objects illustrate the global reach of trade in the early 17th century and how consumer demand in one country drove production of goods across the globe.

The Chinese porcelain includes 360 decorated cups, dishes and a bottle made in the kilns of Jingdezhen during the reign of Chongzhen, the last Ming emperor that were designed for sipping tea, but the Ottomans adapted them for the craze then spreading across the East – coffee drinking. Hidden deep in the hold were the earliest Ottoman clay tobacco pipes found on land or sea. They were probably illicit because there were severe prohibitions then against tobacco smoking.

[ESP archaeologist Sean] Kingsley said: “Through tobacco smoking and coffee drinking in Ottoman cafes, the idea of recreation and polite society – hallmarks of modern culture – came to life. Europe may think it invented notions of civility, but the wrecked coffee cups and pots prove the ‘barbarian Orient’ was a trailblazer rather than a backwater. The first London coffeehouse only opened its doors in 1652, a century after the Levant.”