Marble skull identified as lost Bernini masterpiece

An exquisitely modeled marble skull sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini for Pope Alexander VII in 1655 has been rediscovered in the Dresden State Art Collections. It was by no means hidden. It was on display, in fact, at Schloss Pillnitz palace south of Dresden when curator Claudia Kryza-Gersch spotted it while scouting items for a future Caravaggio exhibition. Several of Caravaggio’s paintings feature skulls (three St. Jeromes and two St. Francises, that I can think of), so she had the marble piece brought to the Dresden State Art Collections’ restoration laboratory for examination and conservation.

The life-size skull is made of white Carrara marble and is anatomically correct in minute detail from cranial sutures to the blade-thin nasal septum. Even the interior has been hollowed out and finished to full realism. Kryza-Gersch and the team of conservators at the workshop realized upon examination that this was an exceptionally high-quality piece. All they knew about it was that it came from Rome.

She hit the archives to find out more about its background and discovered that the skull had been acquired in 1728 from the noble Roman Chigi family by Friedrich August I of Saxony, aka Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. Most of the 168 objects acquired in the sale were ancient sculptures. Only four of them, including the skull, were Baroque. The skull stayed in the archaeological collection out of sheer inertia. Curators of Augustus’ collection and later of the state collection were focused on the antiquities and had no interest in the more contemporary sculptures.

Then Kryza-Gersch made a eureka-level discovery: in correspondence from Baron Raymond Le Plat, Augustus’ art buyer, right before the Chigi sale went through, Le Plat referred to one of the four modern works as “a famous death head, work of Cavalier Bernini.” Further research through the Chigi archives and Bernini scholarship explained the full background of the piece. It was commissioned by Pope Alexander VII, né Fabio Chigi, on April 10th, 1655, just three days after his election as pope. He summoned Bernini to a private audience where he commissioned the sculptor to make him a lead sarcophagus to keep under the papal bed and a marble skull to keep on his desk.

The sleeping-over-a-coffin thing may have been a tad on the extra side, but keeping reminders of the impermanence and fragility of mortal life was not uncommon at the time. The memento mori was a very widespread theme in art, décor and jewelry. In fact, Bernini’s skull served double-duty when it appeared in a memento mori portrait of Alexander VII by Guido Ubaldo Abbatini, a student of Bernini’s, that is now in the collection of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.

The portrait joins the newly-rediscovered skull in the new exhibition, Bernini, the Pope and Death.

The exhibition examines both the plague of Rome in 1656/57 and the pieces jointly created by Bernini and Alexander VII, who are rightly regarded as a “dream team” of the baroque era. In an attempt to provide as broad a context as possible for the skull, other parts of the presentation are dedicated to the Chigi family as promoters and collectors of art, to the rivalry between Bernini and Francesco Mochi, and to Bernini’s influence on the works of Balthasar Permoser, the court sculptor working in Dresden at the time.

Bernini, the Pope and Death runs at the Semperbau in Dresden until September 5th. You can take an online virtual tour of the exhibition led by  Claudia Kryza-Gersch which is being offered free of charge on several Wednesdays and Thursdays in June.

150 Merovingian sarcophagi in situ

A vast Merovingian-era cemetery with more than 150 heavy lidded stone sarcophagi has gone on display in a new exhibition center built around the archaeological site in Luxeuil-les-Bains. The concentration of well-preserved stone sarcophagi is unique in eastern France, and in terms of area and density of remains, this is one of the largest and most important Merovingian sites in Europe.

The Gallo-Roman city of Luxovium grew over a 2nd century B.C. Gallic sanctuary to its namesake deity Luxovius. Hundreds of Gallic votive statuettes and dedications to Luxovius and his associated goddress Brixta have been discovered. The town at the foot of the Vosges was known for its hot springs, and the 1st century bathhouse  became the heart of a prosperous spa district. Roman Luxovium was devastated by Attila’s forces in 451, but while the town was, according to a 7th hagiography, a vegetation-choked ruin, the thermal baths were still very much in working order and still in use in 590 when Saint Columbanus had a monastery built there as a permanent home for his community.

The site preserved in the new museum was first discovered during a preventative archaeology excavation carried out in 2008-2009. Out of the old parking lot in the center of town, archaeological material from 2,000 years of history emerged, with the oldest remains from a 2nd century domus. The domus was abandoned in the early 4th century and reused as a pagan necropolis. A large early Christian funerary basilica, Saint-Martin, was built at the Abbey in the 5th-6th centuries. The entire church, including the sanctuary, was used for burials. About 350 burials have been unearthed in total, including the 150 stone sarcophagi. One crypt with elaborate vaulting was built in the 670s as the final resting place of Saint Valbert, third abbot of the monastery. His remains were translated as relics all over Europe, so there’s nothing much of Saint Valbert left in Saint Valbert’s crypt, but it attests to how sacred and important a space Saint-Martin was considered to be.

The church was rebuilt in the early 9th century and major modifications altered its architectural character beyond recognition. Saint-Martin evolved from monastic church to parish church in the 12th-13th centuries. It was demolished in 1797 during the dissolutions of the French Revolution. Today the foundations of the church are visible around the dense population of sarcophagi.

Dubbed L’Ecclesia, the new exhibition center was designed by architect Michel Malcotti with a suspended metal framework that allows visitors to explore walkways and stations throughout the site without a single pillar obscuring the landscape.

Each station has a theme that explains the remains of the Saint-Martin archaeological site :

  • The Saint-Martin site
  • The funeral basilica and methods of burial
  • The crypt of Saint Valbert
  • Ancient habitat
  • The late phases of the Saint-Martin church

A play of light stages these discoveries, drawing attention to details such as an inscription, a sarcophagus cover, a decoration, wells… The whole is accompanied by explanations in the form of reconstructions, 3D animations, plans, models, films, windows, to fully live this experience.

Extend your visit with the in-depth gallery, opening both on the remains and on the heritage of the city . A real link between the styles and eras of this rich heritage. This space details Irish monasticism, the Frankish world and the influence of Luxeuil Abbey, which was one of the most powerful in Europe.

NGA acquires long-lost sibling of Dossi Aeneid painting

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., has acquired a painting by 16th c. Ferrarese master Dosso Dossi, reuniting it with its other half, which has been in the museum since 1939.  The Trojans Building the Temple to Venus at Eryx and Making Offerings at Anchises’s Grave (c. 1520) has not been seen since the mid-19th century. It emerged at Christie’s Old Masters auction on April 21st where it was purchased  for $400,000 by an anonymous individual who then donated it to the NGA.

The Trojans and its companion piece, traditionally titled Aeneas and Achates on the Libyan Coast, were part of a cycle of 10 paintings made to encircle the cornice of the study of Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. The works depicted scenes from the Aeneid and adorned the top of the room. On the walls below them were five large-scale works by Bellini, Titian and Dossi.

The richly decorated study was one of the Camerini d’Alabastro (small rooms of alabaster), a suite of private rooms Alfonso had built and clad in white marble (hence the moniker) to make a striking backdrop for the bright colors and dynamism of the Venetian masters he’d commissioned to decorate the walls with scenes from Greco-Roman mythology. Feast of the Gods, a collaboration of Giovanni Bellini and Titian which is also in the NGA, Feast of the Cupids (Titian), Bacchanal of the Andrians (Titian), Bacchus and Ariadne  (Titian), adorned its lower walls. Dossi was not Venetian, but he was heavily influenced by Titian’s palette and finely-detailed landscapes.

The Trojans Building the Temple to Venus is a scene from Book V of The Aeneid when the Trojan refugees set out for Italy with a much-reduced fleet after Juno tricks the women into burning the ships. Some Trojans stay behind and  found a city. Aeneas makes offerings at his father’s tomb (foreground), and in the distance at Eryx a new temple to Venus is being dedicated.

When Alfonso II, the last duke of the legitimate Este line, died without heir in 1597, the Pope refused to recognize the Holy Roman Emperor’s appointment of Duke of Modena Cesare d’Este, Alfonso II’s cousin from the cadet branch of the family. Pope Clement VIII claimed Ferrara and kicked the cadet branch out of the city. Ferrara would be administered by a Papal Legate acting as a civil governor until the 19th century.

The masterpieces in the Camerino d’Alabastro and the rest of the great Este collections were confiscated by Papal Legate Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini who kept what he wanted and sold the rest. All 10 of the panels of the Aeneas frieze remained in place high on the walls until they were bought by Cardinal Scipione Borghese in 1608. The stayed in the Borghese family until they were acquired by a Spanish collector in the early 19th century. At this point they were still intact as a group. The last time they were documented together was in 1856. Sometime later, the series was dispersed. Worst of all, one of Dossi’s Aeneid paintings was cut in half, creating two works out of Aeneas and Achates on the Libyan Coast and The Trojans Building the Temple to Venus at Eryx and Making Offerings at Anchises’s Grave.

Not that the right section of this work has reemerged, it suggests the left scene has been misidentified. Instead of Aeneas and Achates preparing for departure on the Libyan Coast, a scene from Book I of the epic, it is now believed to represent the Aeneas and Achates building ships to carry them to mainland Italy from Sicily in Book V.

Intact Punic tomb found in Malta

An intact Punic tomb has been unearthed in Żabbar, southeastern Malta. The 2,000-year-old tomb was discovered during expansion of the sewer network to the south of the island. Archaeologists opened the seal tomb to find a diverse group of vessels typical of the Punic period. They are excellent condition, almost all of them complete.

The contents of the tomb include one large amphora, two urns, an oil lamp and a glass ungentarium. Several of the larger urns contained cinerary remains, and the bones of an adult and a young child were found inside the tomb as well. This is evidence that the tomb was in use from the later Punic era through the early Roman era.

“The burial rite was altered through the Punic and Roman times. Sometimes the bodies were burnt, and other times they were buried intact in the grave. Cremation necessitated a variety of resources, including wood to burn the body and the presence of a person throughout the whole process of cremation which took several hours,” the [Water Services Corporation] said.

Malta was colonized by Phoenicians in the 8th century and played an important role as a centralized stop along their Mediterranean trade routes. Another Phoenician colony, Carthage, took control of Malta in 480 B.C. and remained in control until they lost the island to Rome in the Second Punic in 218 B.C.

Technically it was incorporated into Rome’s Sicily Province, but Malta was granted a certain autonomy under Roman rule and by the 1st century it had its own senate and popular assembly. The island appears to have maintained many of its ancient Punic cultural traditions, including funerary practices, well into the Roman imperial era. Even today Malta’s connection of Phoenicia is indelible; a 2005 genographic study found an unexpectedly strong prevalence of genetic markers shared between the people of coastal Lebanon and Malta. More than half the Y chromosome lineages in Malta originated with the Phoenicians.

The remains and pottery have been removed from the site and transported to a laboratory for cleaning, conservation and analysis.

Looted temple lintels repatriated to Thailand

Two hand-carved lintels have been returned to Thailand 50 years after they were stolen from ancient temples and smuggled out of the country. They were officially handed over to officials from the Royal Thai Consulate in a ceremony that included traditional Thai dancers and prayers at Los Angeles on Tuesday.

The 1,500-pound sandstone lintels were carved in the pre-Angkorean Baphuon style in the 9th-10th century when Thailand was part of the Khmer Empire. They were stolen from the Nong Hong Temple and the Khao Lon Temple in northeastern Thailand in the 1960s. The last time the Nong Hong lintel was documented in its original location was 1959. The Khao Lon lintel was in place until at least 1967. Avery Brundage, then President of the International Olympic Committee and an insatiable collector of Asian art, bought the former from a London auction house in 1966 and the latter from a gallery in Paris in 1968.

Brundage donated some of his enormous collection to the city of San Francisco and the Asian Art Museum was built to house it in 1966. He bequeathed the rest of his collection to his museum after his death in 1975. Today the museum has 7,700 Brundage pieces in its 17,000 piece collection. The problem is Brundage, a notorious anti-Semite and racist, gave not a single rat’s ass about the ownership histories of any of the loot in his collection, so now the museum is paying the price for Brundage’s cavalier covetousness.

The worm turned on the lintels in 2016. A picture of one of the lintels caught the eye of a Thai non-profit cultural heritage organization and in September of that year, Consul General of the Royal Thai Consulate in Los Angeles visited in person. He told museum curators that the lintels had been stolen and Thailand wanted them back. The museum ghosted him and other Thai officials until the Department of Justice opened an investigation in 2017.

After a long and thorough investigation, the US Attorney’s filed an asset forfeiture complaint against the City of San Francisco in October, 2020. It detailed the evidence that the lintels had been stolen, including correspondence between Brundage and both the London and Paris galleries concerning archaeological evidence that the lintels had been looted and appeals from Thai officials for their return.

The museum’s argument was that there was no explicit proof that the lintels were stolen, but temples do not willingly sell pieces of themselves, especially structural features carved with scenes of religious import, and Thai laws going back to 1935 prohibit the export of protected cultural artifacts except under extremely limited circumstances which require a license. They also claim the letters between Brundage and his loot suppliers were talking about a third piece which Brundage returned to Thailand in 1970. Those dogs didn’t hunt, as the saying goes, and in February 2021 the parties settled the case with the museum agreeing to consent to the forfeiture.

The lintels are scheduled to arrive in Thailand on Friday. After an initial examination by experts from the Thai Fine Arts Department, the carved stones will go on display at the Bangkok National Museum for three months.