Archive for January, 2021

Medieval coin hoard, “princess” ring found in Poland

Sunday, January 31st, 2021

A large pot filled with 6,500 coins from the early 12th century has been discovered in a corn field in Słuszków, west-central Poland. Most of the coins identified so far are silver cross denarii. They were placed in linen sacks and hidden in a large earthenware vessel. Buried with the coins were fragments of lead and four gold rings — two granulated bands with polished cabochon stones and two wedding bands. One of the rings is a wedding ring engraved with a Cyrillic inscription reading “Lord, help your servant Maria.”

The village of Słuszków is famous as the find site of Poland’s largest medieval coin hoard, discovered in 1935. That hoard of 12,500 silver cross pennies — the largest deposit of cross denarii ever discovered — and another 500 assorted silver coins and scraps was also buried in the early 12th century. The find was poorly documented at the time, and researchers went to the site in November 2020 to take some pictures and talk to the residents about the famous discovery.

The find spot was not where the official story said it was in the northern part of town at the boundary of three properties. Dr. Adam Kędzierski of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences spoke to a local priest who told him that he had heard back in the 1980s from the treasure hunters who discovered the first hoard that the find site was the field near the road. The team scanned the field with a metal detector and two days later, a small exploratory trench revealed the pot crammed with coins.

Because of the high value of the hoard, the geographical proximity to even greater hoard and the rings, archaeologists suspect there may be an aristocratic connection. One possible candidate for the identity of Maria is the wife of Silesian prince Piotr Włostowic. Little is known about her beyond her name and that she was a daughter of Sviatopolk II, Grand Prince of Kiev and ruler of the Kievan Rus from 1093 to 1113. Maria’s older half-sister Zbyslava was married to Duke Bolesław III of Poland, and Piotr was Bolesław’s voivode, the country’s most powerful administrator and military leader.

The professor who translated the inscription has posited a unified theory of Słuszków hoards almost as entertaining as it is speculative, hypothesizing that the hoards were Maria’s dowry, cached in 1146 when Piotr Włostowic found himself the target of one of the factions fighting over the succession after Bolesław’s death. Piotr was tortured, blinded and exiled, but far from cowed. He fled to the Kievan Rus and persuaded them to change allegiance to the faction that had not mutilated him. Next thing you know, Włostowic was back in Poland and voivode again until his death in 1153.

Late Roman milestones found in Brescia

Saturday, January 30th, 2021

Column milestone found on Via Milano in Brescia. Photo courtesy Soprintendenza Archeologia Belle Arti e Paesaggio per le Province di Bergamo e Brescia.An archaeological exploration of the Via Milano in Brescia before sewer works has discovered three ancient milestones from the late Roman period. Two of them take the standard form of the Roman milestone — cylindrical pillars– one 5’3″ and one 5’11”. The third is a column more than eight feet tall. All three of them are engraved with long inscriptions including imperial titles that are typical of milestones from the 3rd and 4th centuries.

The milestones were found seven feet under the surface. A fourth artifact — an intact altar with a dedicatory inscription — was discovered with them. Why they were all grouped together in one trench is unclear. It’s possible that’s simply where they fell in antiquity, but unlikely. This could have been a temporary cache intended to be used in construction only to be forgotten. In the Middle Ages and early Modern period, ancient marbles were commonly ground up to make lime or otherwise recycled in construction. Archaeologists hope to expand the excavation area and answer the question of when they were placed there and why.

Similar milestones have been found in neighboring areas before, but these are the first ones discovered in the city of Brescia. Their epigraphy alone would make them particularly significant because it’s been years since any Roman inscriptions have emerged in Brescia, so finding four in one place, each of them monumental, was like hitting the archaeological lottery.

Funerary inscriptions found during previous roadworks led archaeologists to hypothesize that the modern-day Via Milano was built over an important Roman road leading in and out of ancient Brixia. (Roman cities typically used the roads out of town as necropoli because burial was forbidden within the walls.) One of the stones is engraved with the Roman numeral II, marking the spot two Roman miles (1.8 modern miles) from the city center. The discovery confirms the hypothesis that this was a major artery in line with the decumanus maximus, the main road leading to the very heart of the city, the forum.

The objects have been removed and will now be cleaned and conserved. They will then go on display, either in Brescia’s Santa Giulia archaeological center, or, if adequate space, security and visibility can be arranged, on the Via Milano where they were found.

Rare miniature portrait of Henry III identified

Friday, January 29th, 2021

A miniature portrait has been identified as a rare surviving image of King Henry III of France. Just over two inches tall, the portrait was billed as an image of Sir Walter Raleigh when it was sold sight unseen in the English countryside during lockdown last year. Conservators at Philip Mould & Co, a London art gallery that specializes in historical portraiture, identified the subject as Henry III.

When the frame was removed, experts found another notable name on the back of the portrait: Jean Decourt, in a contemporary annotation, perhaps an autograph by the artist himself, that reads “Faict par decourt 1578.” Decourt was a master miniaturist and in-house painter for Charles de Bourbon, Prince de la Roche-sur-Yon, in 1553 before going on to become court painter to Mary Queen of Scotts, widow of King Francis II of France, in 1562. He was in England in 1565-6 where he painted Queen Elizabeth I and her favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. He was appointed Peintre du Roi by King Charles IX of France after the death of François Clouet in 1572.

When Charles IX died of tuberculosis in 1574, he was succeeded by his 22-year-old brother Henry. As the fourth son of King Henry II, young Henry never expected to inherit the French throne. He had been deemed an excellent candidate for the throne of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, however, bringing French military and financial support to the table. Polish nobles elected him to the throne in 1573. He was crowned on February 21, 1574. His brother died without legitimate male issue in June. Not even six months after taking the throne, Henry ditched Poland and hightailed it back to France to claim the big prize.

He reigned for 25 years, impressive longevity in the turmoil and back-biting of the Wars of Religion. In the end, he had too many enemies to die in his sleep. He was the first King of France to be assassinated, stabbed to death in 1589 by a Catholic League partisan.

The life – and in particular, the sexuality – of Henri III has long been discussed and debated by historians. 16th century writers often referenced his fondness for wearing women’s clothing at court entertainments and for his male companions, dubbed at the time ‘mignons’, who slavishly copied the king’s dress. Indeed, the contemporary diarist, Pierre de L’Estoile’s (1546-1611) description of the mignons – who wore “their hair long, curled and recurled by artifice, with little bonnets of velvet on top of it like whores in the brothels, and the ruffles on their linen shirts [ruffs] are of starched finery and one-half foot long, so their heads look like St John’s on a platter” – could equally be applied to the fashions worn by Henri in this miniature.

It was also L’Estoile who commented on the king’s own fondness for cross-dressing: “The king made jousts, tournaments, ballets, and a great many masquerades, where he was found ordinarily dressed as a woman, working his doublet and exposing his throat, there wearing a collar of pearls and three collars of linen, two ruffled and one turned upside down, in the same way as was then worn by the ladies of the court.”

This delicate, sensitive and incredibly realistic likeness of Henri III contains all the hallmarks of Decourt’s style, in the extraordinary meticulousness of the details, the particular attention paid to the clothing, the jewels treated in volume with their cast shadows, the incredibly lifelike, modelling of the face (which is slightly pale) and in the artist’s habit of placing the reflection of light in the pupil of the eye, rather than the iris as Clouet did.

Researchers are following the trail of this extraordinary piece, trying to trace how a previously unknown royal portrait miniature wound up in England. One likely hypothesis is that it was spirited out of France during the Revolution, Pimpernel-style. Henry III wasn’t all that popular with royalists; he certainly wasn’t with revolutionaries, and very few of his portraits survived the anti-monarchical iconoclasm of the period.

Philip Mould is giving the Louvre first crack at buying the portrait which was likely painted in the Louvre itself when it was a royal palace.

Golden eagle relief found in Templo Mayor

Thursday, January 28th, 2021

Archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have discovered a bas relief of a golden eagle in the Templo Mayor under the streets of Mexico City. It is finely carved into the red tezontle (a porous volcanic stone commonly used for construction in Mexico) floor. At 3.5 feet long by 2.3 feet wide, this is the largest bas relief of the 67 found thus far at the Templo Mayor.

The relief was carved along the central axis of the chapel dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, Mexica god of war, in use during the reign of Moctezuma I (1440-1469). It’s large size and prime location on the west plaza of the Sacred Precinct underscore its significance to the Mexica. It is close to the Cuauhxicalco, a circular building whose name means “place of the eagle’s cup” which according to 16th century Spanish chroniclers is where the rulers of Tenochitlan were cremated.

“This floor is unique among the whole Templo Mayor complex, as it contains bas-reliefs that symbolize the site’s dual nature. On the south side, where we are currently exploring, elements such as this raptor are linked with Huitzilopochtli’s mythical life cycle. In contrast, the bas-reliefs located at the northern section —the former ones uncovered in 1900 by Leopoldo Batres, and the latter ones by the PTM and Mexico City’s Urban Archaeology Programme (PAU)— depict representations associated with Tlaloc, the water cycle, and regeneration of maize.”

Aguilar Tapia said that thanks to the work made by archaeologists Eduardo Matos Moctezuma and Leonardo López Luján, the project has a definite stratigraphic correlation. This sequence allows researchers to know the constructive layer where the findings belong, thus identifying the time they were made. […]

The plaza’s floor was covered since the Pre-Columbian era during Templo Mayor’s expansions. “That is why is it so well preserved,” Aguilar Tapia said. “It is an element that was never seen by the Spaniards.”

The relief was unearthed in early 2020, and during the pandemic-enforced pause in fieldwork, researchers studied representations of the golden eagle in other media, for example the 16th century Codex Borgia.

According to Aguilar Tapia, one of these representations is found in Codex Borgia’s page 50, where a golden eagle stands on a mesquite —a tree that was believed to grow from a flayed skin deity. “What interests us is that in terms of iconography, this image is very similar to the bas-relief found on fieldwork. Both representations have knifelike feathers that emulate the ones used on ritual sacrifices. This reminds us of the Nahua name of the raptor: Obsidian Eagle.”

For the Aztecs, the bird of prey had a close relationship with war and sacrifice. It was also considered as the Sun’s nahual or shapeshifting spirit, and therefore as Huitzilopochtli’s tutelary deity.

When fieldwork resumes, the excavation of the eagle floor will be completed. Archaeologists hope to find other bas reliefs. Once the floor is fully excavated, the team will carefully raise the stones so they can explore the older layers underneath them for earlier architectural features of the temple. The floor will then be returned to its original location, stone by stone.

Rare Armada maps saved for the nation

Wednesday, January 27th, 2021

Ten hand-drawn maps that are the only surviving contemporary drawings of the defeat of the Spanish Armada have been saved from export into an unknown private collection and will be acquired by the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN). The ink and watercolor drawing were sold to a private collector last July for £600,000. The foreign buyer applied for an export license and the Culture Minister placed a temporary bar on export to give a UK institution time to raise the purchase price and keep these irreplaceable pieces in the country. The NMRN’s campaign achieved the goal in just eight weeks, thanks to grants from the Royal Navy (£100,000), the National Heritage Memorial Fund (£212,800) and the Art Fund (£200,000), and donations from the public.

The maps were drawn by an unknown artist probably from the Netherlands as there is a Flemish language annotation in the margin of one drawing and evidence of removed inscriptions on some of the other maps. They are cognates of now-lost engravings made in 1590 by Augustine Ryther. They are not copies of those engravings, although it’s also possible they were copies of Ryther’s source: drawings by Robert Adams, the military engineer who was Surveyor of the Queen’s Works and whose abilities as a draughtsman and cartographer placed him in the ranks of the great miniaturists of the Elizabethan court. Whoever drew these maps stopped midway through the job. Researchers believe these drawings may have been intended for unauthorized publication in the Netherlands and were abandoned when the official Ryther engravings were published.

The drawings are sequential depictions of the clash progression of the engagements that resulted in the surprise victory of the heavily outnumbered English fleet over what had been Europe’s greatest naval power. On July 22nd, 1588, an invasion fleet of 138 ships was dispatched by King Philip II to conquer Britain, depose its Protestant Queen and end the harassment of its New World treasure ships by British privateers. They were sighted off the coast of Cornwall on July 29th and first engaged two days later near Plymouth by British ships commanded by Lord High Admiral Charles Howard, 2nd Baron Howard of Effingham, and Vice Admiral Francis Drake.

The first three maps depict the sighting, first engagement and its aftermath. The fourth depicts Drake’s capture of Nuestra Senora del Rosario and Howard’s pursuit of the Armada. Map five features the capture of the San Salvador and the battle off Portland Bill. The sixth continues the Portland Bill engagement, the seventh the subsequent battle off the Isle of Wight. The English pursuit of the Spanish to Calais is on map eight. The ninth map depicts the high drama of the fireship attack against the Spanish ships anchored at Calais. The final map covers the Battle of Gravelines on August 8th, the last engagement before the Spanish fleet was blown off-course to the North Sea where it met destruction at nature’s hand rather than Elizabeth’s.

The maps are incredibly detailed artistic renderings of ships’ movements over the nine days from first sighting to final clash. (See this page on the NMRN website for a thorough explanation of the drawings.) Despite their international significance, the earliest date on the record today of somebody owning the ten drawings is 1828 when they were in the collection of bibliophile antiquarian MP Roger Wilbraham. They remained in the family for seventy years before being sold at auction to London booksellers J. Pearson and Co. William Waldorf Astor bought them from J. Pearson. It was the Astor descendants who sold them last year.

The National Museum of the Royal Navy is still taking donations for the Astor Armada Drawings, now to ensure their conservation and display both in Portsmouth and on a national tour when COVID permits.

Wood pipes from Roman aqueduct found in Lyon

Tuesday, January 26th, 2021

An archaeological survey in advance of real estate development in the Point du Jour area of Lyon has unearthed double wooden pipes from the ancient Roman Yzeron aqueduct. The excavation in the 5th arrondissement, Lyon’s westernmost neighborhood where the Roman city of Lugdunum was founded in 43 B.C., revealed the remains of two parallel pipes installed at the bottom of a ditch more than nine feet deep and more than 13 feet wide at its opening. The wooden pipes were broken by modern construction, but the surviving sections add up to a total length of 80 feet.

The conduits were made from large oak trunks. The trunks were hollowed out creating a trapezoidal void six inches in diameter. This would have allowed a large volume of water to pass through. The pipes were installed on a slight slope from west to east into the city. They were encased in clay to make them as watertight as possible. Once the pipes were installed, the ditch was backfilled to pack them in safely.

Archaeologists found a coin from the Augustan era in the backfill, and radiocarbon and dendrochronological dating of samples taken from the pipes all confirm that the conduits were installed at the beginning of the 1st century. The date, west-east orientation and the route the pipes take identify then as part of the Yzeron aqueduct.

The aqueduct carried water from a basin of the Yzeron river about 12 miles southwest to the ancient city of Lugdunum, modern-day Lyon. Begun around 9 B.C. in the reign of Augustus, it was the second of four aqueducts built by the Romans to supply Lyon’s water needs. The Point du Jour pipes may have been a provisional route into the city, or a diversion off the main canal or even a test run/prototype.

Whatever their purpose, the conduits didn’t serve long. A massive masonry stack nine feet square with more than five feet of its height extant was built in the filling of the ditch right smack on top of the double wooden pipes, destroying them. Archaeologists believe the masonry pile is the base of a pile of the Brévenne aqueduct whose remains have been found on both sides of the excavation. The Brévenne piers were built in this area in the middle of the 1st century.

Antiquarium of Pompeii reopens

Monday, January 25th, 2021

The Antiquarium of Pompeii reopened today after an extensive refurbishment and decades of closure. You’d think a site like Pompeii which under normal global circumstances draws millions of visitors would have a permanent museum to house the thousands of artifacts unearthed there and the fragile plaster casts of Vesuvius’ victims, but   it hasn’t since the Antiquarium closed after the earthquake that devastated Naples in 1980, and even that iteration of it was hobbled because Allied bombing destroyed a whole gallery in 1943. After 36 years, the Antiquarium opened again in 2016 but only for a few temporary exhibitions.

The museum was launched in 1873 by Giuseppe Fiorelli, Pompeii’s pioneering director of works who was the first to cast the cavities in the ash left behind after the victims’ bodies decomposed. Amedeo Maiuri, director of works for almost four decades (1924-1961), expanded the Antiquarium early in his tenure.

The renovated museum harkens back to Maiuri’s concept for it. He was the first to dig below the Vesuvian layer to explore Pompeii’s pre-79 A.D. history, and the new exhibitions are arranged sequentially to tell the full story of the city, from its earliest antecedents during the archaic period (7th-6th century B.C.) to its tragic demise. The 11 galleries are divided into six sections — Before Rome, Rome vs. Pompeii, Pompeii is Problematic, All Italy, Starting from Scratch and the Last Day.

Artifacts on display include little-known objects dating to the Samnite era (4th century B.C.) and iconic discoveries like the frescoes from the House of the Golden Bracelet, the treasure of silverware discovered in the country villa in Moregine a third of a mile south of Pompeii and the triclinium from the House of Menander. Some of the newest finds are also exhibited, like the collection of amulets from the House with a Garden and the most recent plaster casts of victims, two human and one equine found in the villa of Civita Giuliana.

The re-opening of the museum after so many decades of travail is “a sign of great hope during a very difficult moment,” Pompeii’s long time director, Massimo Osanna, said. He was referring to the harsh blow that the pandemic’s travel restrictions have dealt to tourism, one of Italy’s biggest revenue sources.

On display in the last room of the museum are poignant casts made from the remains of some of Pompeii’s residents who tried to flee but were overcome by blasts of volcanic gases or battered by a rain of lava stones ejected by Vesuvius.

“I find particularly touching the last room, the one dedicated to the eruption, and where on display are the objects deformed by the heat of the eruption, the casts of the victims, the casts of the animals,” Osanna said. “Really, one touches with one’s hand the incredible drama that the 79 A.D. eruption was.”

The redesigned museum will now be the first stop for visitors to the Archaeological Park of Pompeii.

Rome in 3D

Sunday, January 24th, 2021

History in 3D lives up to its name. The virtual recreations of ancient temples, cities, palaces and fortresses are vividly rendered in granular detail with realistic lighting effects and animated fly-ins. They’ve built models of everything from Sevastopol in 1914 to the flooding of Titanic’s grand staircase to Corinth in the 2nd century.

Four years ago, their most ambitious project, a reconstruction of Rome’s city center as it was in 320 A.D. Rome in 3D, made its debut on their YouTube channel. They had already been working on it for years and had enough of it ready to make a riveting trailer, a few tantalizing minutes of what promised to be the most comprehensive virtual recreation of ancient Rome ever made. The aim was to integrate it into a game engine, building a fully realized city based on the latest, most accurate information to provide an immersive experience of walking its streets.

At the time of the trailer’s debut in March 2016, the project was scheduled to be completed in a few months. In June, a second trailer with new buildings (mainly the Capitoline temples), debuted.

Almost two years passed before the next trailer, a walk-through of the Colosseum, was posted.

The entire ancient city of Rome, it seems, proved to a very, VERY big bite, and while History in 3D was determined to chew it, the jaws would have to grind for much longer than expected. In the meantime, they released pieces of the whole to give a glimpse into their work. Trajan’s column in all its original polychrome glory is a straight masterpiece. Even setting aside that it’s only part of an infinitely greater whole, on its own it represents years of research and modelling.

Last month, History in 3D released their latest Rome in 3D video. They assured followers that the project was still ongoing, that they had encountered challenges and obstacles but were surmounting them and coming back better than ever, deploying new technological tools to redesign buildings and objects. The new trailer showcases the Forum, the beating heart of Roman society, and it is a huge leap forward in quality.  (This blog entry describes what you’re seeing as you stroll/fly through downtown Rome.)

There’s no specific timeline for the completion of the project, but fingers crossed, they expect a walk-through app will be ready for release in a few months. Trajan’s Column will get an app of its own so it can be explored scene by scene in all its spiral glory. This is something I have dreamed about, because it’s shocking to me that there is basically no high-resolution photography online detailing Trajan’s Column whose reliefs are so densely populated and complex that naked-eye view can never satisfy.

Follow History in 3D on YouTube and Facebook to stay apprised of all exciting developments.

Shipwreck neckerchief covered in Masonic symbols

Saturday, January 23rd, 2021

A neckerchief found inside a 19th century shipwreck at Muriwai Beach, West Auckland, New Zealand, has been restored and found to be replete with Masonic symbols. The neckerchief was discovered in the bilges of the wreck of the Daring, a New Zealand-built two-masted schooner that was dashed on the shore in an 1865 storm.

Built in 1863 in Mangawhai, the Daring is New Zealand’s oldest ship (six years older than the Cutty Sark) and is almost completely intact. It was made of local native woods using techniques not used anywhere else and is of invaluable significance as a unique survival of 19th century New Zealand shipbuilding.

The remains of the 55-foot schooner was exposed by shifting sands on May 27, 2018, and souvenir hunters had had their way with it even though public access to the beach is prohibited because it is part of military air weapons range. Within two days of its discovery, the ship was cordoned off for its protection and archaeologists surveyed it. Seven months, reams of paperwork, 24/7 security, several heavy trucks and one million dollars later, the wreck was raised and moved to a more secure location for stabilization.

Artifacts recovered from the wreck include a pair of pristine leather shoe, coins, clay pipes, a cup, wine bottle caps, a partial leather belt with buckle, parts of a straw hat, comb and one wadded up grey ball that turned out to be the neckerchief. Cleaned of the muck and dried out, the textile revealed itself to be made of pure silk and festooned with Masonic symbolism in cloud-like medallions against a crimson background.

Masonic symbolism overlaps significantly with religious — Jewish and Christian — iconography as its rituals and imagery were heavily influenced by Kabbalistic mysticism as well as the Hermetic Christian tradition. Those types of images are rife on the neckerchief.

There’s a seven-branched candlestick, each candle alight. In Freemasonry, the menorah represents the mysticism of the number seven, the spiritual energy that radiates from the center of the world east to west, north to south, zenith to nadir. At ceremonies it is lit in a spiral clockwise from the outside in (1-7-2-6-3-5-center candle) or the reverse (counterclockwise from the center candle out) to charge the energies of the lodge brothers.

Another Jewish symbol, the hexagram aka Star of David, formed from two superimposed triangles, is intertwined with a third triangle to create a nine-pointed star, a symbol of 4th Degree Scottish Rite. And while it looks like a Greek temple, Solomon’s Temple makes an appearance too, identifiable from its checkerboard floor and the initials J and B, for Jachin and Boaz, the name of two pillars at the Temple’s entrance, flanking it. Above it is the Blazing Masonic Star, symbolizing the zenith of the Mason’s journey. Underneath it is a laurel branch, symbol of peace.

The most well-known symbol of Freemasonry, the Square and Compasses. The G at the center, a reference to the unpronounceable name of God, is in this example encased in a six-pointed star. It invoked the protection of the Almighty against all evil spirits.

On the Christian side of things is a rose and cross, reference to Rose Croix, a nickname for Scottish Rite Freemasony in England and Wales. The pelican in its piety, a popular medieval motif symbolizing Christ’s sacrifice, is faded but clearly identifiable from the long curved neck of the bird as it pierces its own breast to feed its young in the nest. A lamb lying on a book with seven seals dangling off its top cover. This is the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of Christ, sits atop the Book of Revelation which is adorned with the Seven Seals that only Christ can break at the end of the world.

Other assorted symbols include crossed Masonic gavels, emblematic of the authority of the Master in every Lodge, a Masonic handshake, a cockerel, symbol of Mercury, the key transformational catalyst in alchemical reactions and a Masonic metaphor for the initiate’s transformation from base human to enlightened Mason, and a shield with the initials A.L.G.D.G.A.D.L., which stands for À la Gloire du Grand Architecte de L’Univers (to the Glory of the Grand Architect of the Universe).

The ship will become the centerpiece of a new building at the Mangawhai Museum, close to where the Daring was built in 1863. The artifacts found inside it will also be part of the exhibition.

A final denoument for Mucha’s Slav Epic?

Friday, January 22nd, 2021

Alphonse Mucha’s Slav Epic, a series of 20 monumental paintings depicting important events in Slavic history, may finally get the dedicated permanent exhibition space the artist wanted almost a century after the works were completed. When we last we saw our Slavic heroes in 2012, the series has just been put on display at the Veletrzni Palace in Prague over the protests of art lovers and the Mucha family.

Mucha gave the series to the city of Prague on condition that it build a pavilion for their display. This was no small matter as canvases are enormous — 26 feet wide by 20 feet high — and World War II, Communist disapproval, chronic lack of funds and chronic legal wrangling with the Mucha family, the permanent Slav Epic gallery never materialized.

After being rolled up in storage for decades, the paintings went back on public display for the first time since Mucha’s 1939 death at the castle of Moravský Krumlov in southern Moravia in 1963. They remained there until 2012 when Prague flexed its muscles. The Veletrzni Palace was the only place with enough wall space to accommodate the monumental works, but the poorly controlled fluctuations of temperature and humidity made it a dangerously inadequate space for canvases that had suffered so much already. The fact that the palace had also been used during the war to hold Jews before they were deported to concentration camps was no deterrent to Prague officials, but it sure pissed off the Muchas, especially as several family members had been among those imprisoned in Veletrzni Palace.

As far as Alphonse’s grandson John was concerned, Prague would not own the Slav Epic until they built the pavilion as per Mucha’s condition. Until then, the series was better off at Moravský Krumlov. Prague’s argument was that they owned the works free and clear because the legal donor was not the artist, but rather the sponsor who paid for them, American plumbing supplies magnate Charles Crane, and Crane had made no requirement as to the display space.

The Mucha family and the foundation they founded took the dispute to the law. Possession being nine tenths of it, nothing changed on the ground until it got worse. In 2016, Prague announced that all 20 canvases would go a two-year tour of Asia. This would have been the first time they left what is now the Czech Republic. That meant more rolling of the massive paintings, more transportation in precarious conditions of fluctuating temperature, moisture and pressure.

John Mucha filed suit yet again to keep the fragile egg tempera-on-canvas works in the Czech Republic, but the courts failed to stop the tour. It went on as planned. When the Slav Epic finally returned home in 2019, Prague announced that the paintings would return to Moravský Krumlov until the city had an appropriate facility for the series.

Now the epic saga about an epic saga may finally come to a conclusion: an innovative multi-use development in Wenceslas Square in the heart of historic Prague has offered the city a custom-designed gallery to be the new home of the Slav Epic. The developer will pay all expenses for construction of the exhibition space in its Savarin project which would be complete within five years.

“Over the years, we have heard many ideas about where to install the Slav Epic. Prague has been looking for its home for almost 100 years now and we are convinced that the Savarin Palace fulfils my grandfather’s wish, on which he conditioned his gift to Prague. Thomas Heatherwick presented to us and also consulted the vision of exhibiting the twenty canvases of the Slav Epic, and I am convinced that my grandfather would be proud of such a presentation of his masterpiece. As I have already said several times, the moment the issue of the Slav Epic’s home in Prague is clarified, I will withdraw the lawsuit with the city, because the will of my grandfather will be fulfilled,” says John Mucha, grandson of painter Alfons Mucha.

The new exhibit tailored to the Slav Epic in the Savarin project would offer an exceptional and globally unique exhibition space in the city centre. At the same time, it will not burden its surroundings with a greater movement of people, as the exhibit would be entered from the inner courtyard and accessibility for visitors will be also made easier by the newly created interconnection to the underground station with a direct entry into the spaces of the Savarin project. The exhibit over an area of 3,500 m2 would be entered through the newly created gardens and the listed building of the historical riding school, which will be the centrepiece of the whole Savarin project.

The exhibition space of the epic and of the life’s work of Alfons Mucha will be 10 metres high, which will enable the presentation of the Slav Epic in a uniform visual view according to the original intention of Alfons Mucha. Then it will all be enhanced by the entry hall into the gallery, technical facilities, a shop with souvenirs related to Alfons Mucha and a space for the gathering of groups for guided tours. The whole area of the exhibit shall be conceived as the life path of Alfons Mucha and how this path led to the creation of the Slav Epic.

Here’s a cool thing. The Mucha Foundation commissioned a virtual reality version of the Slav Epic. Digital artists at Nexus Studios create a virtual experience in which the viewers see the monumental works in an ideal gallery and to step inside the first painting in the cycle, The Slavs In Their Original Homeland, and explore its environment. It is compatible with VIVE Pro headsets and is free for download here.




January 2021


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