Original polychrome paint found on Duomo sculptures

November 28th, 2022

Restoration of the marble reliefs on the north façade of the Duomo of Florence has revealed original polychrome paint on an exterior sculpture of Madonna and Child with Adoring Angels. The sculptures date to 1359-1360 and are mounted in an arched niche above the Porta dei Cornacchini, the door in the north wall of the cathedral. While the marble in the background is colorful — the Duomo is famous for the white, pink and green marble cladding that gives the cathedral its distinctive look — the sculptures themselves were previously believed to have been left the natural white of the marble.

The marbles of the north façade were in dire need of conservation, having suffered extensive erosion from rainwater runoff, deposits of surface dirt, black sulfurous encrustations and bird poop galore. Since restoration work began in September 2021, experts from the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore have cleaned more than 10,000 square feet of marble. The process revealed extensive traces of the paint, including the brown iris of Mary’s left eye, the blue-green color inside her mantle, red on the outside of her mantle and a rich damask pattern on the garment worn by the Christ Child. This is the first time such large sections of polychrome paint have been found on an exterior sculpture of the Duomo. Previous finds were just tiny glimpses — a few dabs of gilding and light blue on other sculptures.

Earlier attempts at restoration did more harm than good to the original colors. A coating of brown oxalate applied directly to the surface of the marble in the 1950s has darkened over the decades, obscuring the traces surviving paint. Conservators removed the layer of fluorosilicate over the oxalate, but decided to keep the oxalate in place because it protects the surface of the marble even as it darkens it.

The museum has said that this sculpture group was most likely not the only one on the Duomo in polychrome, though now they appear to be marble white.

The find has led to the image of the Duomo as one in color, with white, green, and pink on the exteriors and red and gold mosaics on the facade.

“The exciting find of multiple colors of the figures on Porta dei Cornacchini of the Florence cathedral,” said Duomo museum director Timothy Verdon. “It reminds us that Florence at the end of the 14th century and beginning of the 15th was a very colourful city. The cathedral also had painted statues with gilding on the wings of angels and on clothing – thus, a celebration. A celebration that we forgot and are beginning to rediscover.”

See the conservators at work cleaning decades of filth off the sculpture in this video:


Gold disc brooch found in 7th c. Basel grave

November 27th, 2022

An excavation of the Kleinbasel neighborhood of Basel, Switzerland, has brought to light 15 graves, some of them richly furnished, from an early medieval burial ground. The presence of a burial ground from this period had been known since the 19th century, so a rescue archaeology excavation was undertaken in the area before installation of new utility pipes. Earlier this year the excavation unearthed the 6th century grave of a young girl buried with a dazzling array of about 380 beads. The recent discoveries prove that the cemetery was more densely populated than archaeologists realized.

One of the highlights of the newly-discovered graves is that of an elite young woman who was about 20 years old when she died in the 7th century. The grave was damaged during construction in the early 20th century. The skull is lost, as is the body below the knees, but the riches she was buried with remain. The grave contained a rare gold disc brooch made of a base plate made of a non-ferrous metal that was then topped with gold. The disc was then adorned with gold wire filigree and inlayed with green garnet gemstones and blue glass. The brooch likely held together a cloak, now gone, at her neck. She was also wearing a necklace made of 160 glass, amethyst and amber beads (or had them sewn onto the collar or bodice of her garment). There was also a leather strap decorated with metal crosses that terminates in a large amber pendant. Around her waist was a belt with an iron buckle and a silver tongue. Hanging from the belt was a chatelaine with pierced Roman coins, metal artifacts and a bone comb.

Other notable graves found in the current excavation include a child’s grave containing a large silver inlay belt buckle, metal belt fittings, scissors and a comb, and a stone cist grave containing the skeleton of an adult man. The man’s face bears the unmistakable evidence of violent blow from a sword. Amazingly, the man survived the disfiguring injury as he died after it was fully healed.

Basel was founded as a Celtic oppidium, or fortified settlement, in the 1st century B.C. The Romans built a military camp on the site of the settlement and by the end of the 1st century A.D., it was absorbed into the Roman province of Germania Superior. Roman control weakened in the 3rd century, but the troops along the Rhine managed to repel invasions from the Germanic Alemanni confederation several times in the 4th century. The Alemanni finally won around 406 A.D., settling throughout the Swiss Plateau. They and the Franks after them occupied the old Roman castle and the town’s fortunes were revived. It was minting its own coins in the 7th century and was made a bishopric in the 8th. The Roman castle was converted into Basel’s first cathedral. What is today the Kleinbasel area was the castle/cathedral hill, the nucleus of the early medieval settlement.

Healthy snacks, grilled meats at Colosseum tailgates

November 26th, 2022

An excavation of the Colosseum’s sewer systems has revealed the ancient Roman versions of Cracker Jacks and ballpark franks and it’s melon and mutton. The study aims to learn more about how the ancient sewer and hydraulic systems operated under the Flavian Amphitheater with a particular focus on solving the mystery of how the underground was flooded during water spectacles. In January 2021, wire-guided robots were sent to video record and laser scan the drains and sewers under the arena. A year later, a stratigraphic excavation of the south collector of the sewer network began, clearing 230 feet of muck that contained archaeological treasure in the form of ancient garbage.

Sewers are often constipated with archaeological material from the very bowels of daily life in the ancient city, and the sewers under the Colosseum contain a unique variety of organic remains left by both the spectacles and the spectators. The excavation of the south collector brought in a rich harvest: the discarded remains of chestnuts, walnuts, pine nuts, hazelnuts, figs, peach pits, plum pits, cherry pits, olive pits, blackberries, elderberries, melon seeds and grape seeds, evidence of the snacks consumed by the audience in the bleachers during the games. They didn’t just have snacks in the stands. It seems spectators rigged up braziers so they could grill up some meat, mostly pork and mutton, as they watched people and animals being butchered for sport.

Remains of animals who starred in the games were found as well. There were bones of bears of different sizes, possibly used in acrobatic displays, lions, leopards, ostriches and deer, likely used in the venationes (staged animal hunts). There were also dogs of different sizes. The smallest was less than a foot in height, but stocky and strong, a predecessor of the dachshund. Remains of plants that grew in the Colosseum showed a wide degree of biodiversity, ranging from blackberries to boxwoods and laurels. Some of the plants were spontaneous growth (the international animal and human feces spread led to hundreds if not thousands of different non-native plants taking root in the Colosseum); the evergreens were probably deliberately planted for landscaping.

The excavation also recovered artifacts. As you would find under the sewer grates of the sports arena today, there’s a lot of spare change down there. Archaeologists unearthed 53 bronze coins from the Late Imperial era, and a rare orichalcum sestertius struck in 170-171 A.D. to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the ascension of Marcus Aurelius to the imperial throne. Personal objects found include bone game dice, a bone pin and clothing elements (shoe nails, leather, studs).

I can’t embed this video from the Facebook page of the Archaeological Park of the Colosseum, but do yourself a favor and follow the link because it shows urban spelunkers from the organization Roma Sotterranea (Underground Rome) exploring the sewer, squeezing through uncomfortably tight, mucky spaces and pointing out the brick stamps inscribed with the names of the makers which identify the period when that stretch of construction or repairs was done.

Celtic gold hoard coin stolen in museum heist

November 25th, 2022

A hoard of Celtic gold coins from the 1st century B.C. was stolen in a daring smash-and-grab burglary from the Celtic and Roman Museum in Manching, southern Germany. Thieves made away with 483 coins in the early hours of Tuesday, November 22, and Bavaria’s State Criminal Police Office have launched an international investigation to find the perpetrators and the treasure they stole.

At 1:17 AM, several fiber optic lines were cut at a telecom hub a kilometer away from the museum, severing internet and telephone service to 13,000 homes and businesses in Manching, including at the Celtic and Roman Museum. This also cut off the alarm linking the museum’s security system to the police. Exactly nine minutes later at 1:26 AM, an emergency exit at the museum was pried open and two display cases made of bulletproof safety glass were broken into. At 1:33 AM, the thieves disappeared into the night with the entire hoard of gold coins. Nobody noticed the loss until the museum staff arrived for the work day. Police were alerted and arrived around 9:45 AM.

The largest Celtic gold find to appear in the 20th century, the hoard was discovered in 1999 years ago at the site of an ancient Celtic settlement in Manching. Found in a sack buried under the foundations of a building, the bowl-shaped coins were struck from Bohemian river gold, evidence of how Iron Age Manching was connected to trade networks in central Europe.

It has been on display at the museum since 2006 and is its flagship attraction. The authorities fear that in its original form, the coin hoard will be impossible for the thieves to sell, and that even though their historical value tops 1.6 million euros, the coins will be melted down to sell for their mere gold value. Each coins weighs 7.3 grams for a total hoard weight of about four kilos, which at current prices would be worth about 250,000 euros.

Because of the delay in discovery of the theft, police missed crucial hours of investigations. There are now dozens of investigators working on the case.

Broken safety glass of the display cabinets where the treasure was held. Photo courtesy Frank Maechler/dpa.[Guido Limmer, the deputy head of Bavaria’s State Criminal Police Office] said there were “parallels” between the heist in Manching and the theft of priceless jewels in Dresden and a large gold coin in Berlin in recent years. Both have been blamed on a Berlin-based crime family.

“Whether there’s a link we can’t say,” he added. “Only this much: we are in touch with colleagues to investigate all possible angles.”

Bavaria’s minister of science and arts, Markus Blume, said evidence pointed to the work of professionals.

“It’s clear that you don’t simply march into a museum and take this treasure with you,” he told public broadcaster BR. “It’s highly secured and as such there’s a suspicion that we’re rather dealing with a case of organized crime.” […]

Limmer, the deputy police chief, said Interpol and Europol have already been alerted to the coins’ theft and a 20-strong special investigations unit, codenamed ‘Oppidum’ after the Latin term for a Celtic settlement, has been established to track down the culprits.

Many happy turkey returns!

November 24th, 2022

I am taking the day off for feasting purposes. May you derive as much enjoyment as I from being elbow-deep in the cavity of a large bird. Happy Thanksgiving!

Coins with only mention of Roman “emperor” authenticated

November 23rd, 2022

Coins that are the only evidence of the historicity of the otherwise unrecorded Roman so-called emperor Sponsian have been found to be authentic 3rd century issues. The history of these coins is sketchy and there are some stylistic anomalies that have cast doubt on their authenticity since they first emerged in 1713. Plus, they portray an alleged emperor that appears nowhere else on the historical or archaeological record.

The coins were first documented by Carl Gustav Heraeus (1671–1725), Inspector of Medals for the Imperial Collection in Vienna, in March of 1713. He recorded the acquisition of eight coins found in Transylvania. Another 15 coins that match Heraeus’ description came to light starting in 1730, and scholars believe they were part of a wider assemblage that was sold to a number of different collections over the years, including The Hunterian museum at the University of Glasgow.

Among the four coins from the wider assemblage now in the collection of The Hunterian is one featuring the unknown “emperor” Sponsian. It is designed in the style of coins from the mid third century, but the design on the reverse is a copy of a Republican-era silver coin from the 1st century B.C. That reverse design would have been close to 400 years old when the Sponsian coin was made. That and other atypical features of the wider assemblage coins have led scholars to peg them as fakes, perhaps the work of a talented forger working in early 18th century Vienna who duped Heraeus.

A new study published in the journal PLoS ONE took a closer look at the Sponsian coin in The Hunterian using modern imaging techniques to detect evidence of forgery like artificial aging methods. The surface scratches and wear and tear on the coin could have been created by forgers abrading the coin, but earthen deposits were found on the coin, and forgers do not customarily cram or glue dirt onto their fakes.

They applied visible light microscopy, ultra-violet imaging, scanning electron microscopy, and reflection mode Fourier transform infra-red spectroscopy to the four coins and, for comparison, two undoubtedly authentic Roman gold coins.

The analysis revealed deep micro-abrasion patterns typically associated with coins that were in circulation for an extensive period of time. The researchers also analyzed earthen deposits on the coins, finding evidence that after extensive circulation, the coins were buried for a prolonged period before being exhumed. Together, the new evidence strongly suggests the coins are authentic.

Considering the historical record alongside the new evidence from the coins, the researchers suggest that Sponsian was an army commander in the Roman Province of Dacia during a period of military strife in the 260s CE.

So he wasn’t exactly a Roman emperor in the typical sense of the term. He was a local ruler of a relatively remote Roman province that happened to be a gold mining outpost, giving him access to the raw material for minting his own gold coins while the chaos of invasions distracted the legitimate emperors, such as they were during the Crisis of the Third Century.

1,700-year-old spider monkey found in Teotihuacan

November 23rd, 2022

Photograph of skeletal remains of sacrificed eagle (left) and spider monkey (right). Photo courtesy the Project Plaza of the Columns Complex.The remains of a spider monkey have been discovered in the pre-Hispanic central ceremonial complex of Teotihuacan, Mexico. Spider monkeys were exotic animals not native to the arid highlands of Central Mexico, and this one was likely a diplomatic gift from Teotihuacan’s Maya neighbors. Radiocarbon dated to the second half of the 3rd century A.D., the spider monkey is the earliest example of a primate in captivity in the Americas, and the first evidence of gift diplomacy between Teotihuacan and the Maya city-states in the Early Classic period (250-550 A.D.).

Located about 25 miles northeast of what is now Mexico City, Teotihuacan was a religious, cultural and commercial center in the Mexican Highlands from the 1st century until its collapse around 500 A.D. At its peak in 450 A.D., it was the largest and most populous city in the ancient Americas with a conservative population estimate of 150,000. Half of the people in the Valley of Mexico lived in Teotihuacan.

It was not ruled by dynastic kings like the Maya polities. We don’t really know what form of government ran Teotihuacan, but we know it had powerful warlords because in the late 4th century, one of them conquered the Maya power center of Tikal 600 miles away. Maya inscriptions record Teotihuacan contact with the Mayan world reached as far as Honduras, perhaps even conquering city-states there, and certainly spreading its cultural presence, notably its characteristic obsidian crafts and architectural styles.

The complete skeleton of the spider monkey was unearthed at the Plaza of Columns Complex of Teotihuacan. It is a sacrificial offering deposited at the temple with its hands tied behind its back and feet tethered together. This type of binding was common among human and animal sacrifice victims buried alive. Next to it were found the complete skeletal remains of a golden eagle, the skull of a puma, several rattlesnakes and ritual objects (greenstone figurines, shell artifacts, obsidian blades). The monkey was female and between five and eight years old at the time of death. Analysis of the remains found that it was captured before the age of three and lived in captivity for more than two years after that. It ate a diet of maize, arrowroot and chili pepper, all of which had to have been prepared for it by humans. Before its arrival in Teotihuacan, it lived in a humid environment and ate plants and roots.

This finding allows researchers to piece evidence of high diplomacy interactions and debunks previous beliefs that Maya presence in Teotihuacán was restricted to migrant communities, said [anthropological archaeologist Nawa] Sugiyama, who led the research.

“Teotihuacán attracted people from all over, it was a place where people came to exchange goods, property, and ideas. It was a place of innovation,” said Sugiyama, who is collaborating with other researchers, including Professor Saburo Sugiyama, co-director of the project and a professor at Arizona State University, and Courtney A. Hofman, a molecular anthropologist with the University of Oklahoma. “Finding the spider monkey has allowed us to discover reassigned connections between Teotihuacán and Maya leaders. The spider monkey brought to life this dynamic space, depicted in the mural art. It’s exciting to reconstruct this live history.”

The find has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and can be read in its entirety here.

How to move a quarter ton of Renaissance masterpiece

November 21st, 2022

London’s National Gallery recently moved a monumental altarpiece by Renaissance master Filippino Lippi. It is 6’8″ high, 6’1″ wide and weighs 526 pounds, so this was no easy feat. The team captured it on video to give people a glimpse of the complex systems and technologies requires to handle fragile works of this scale.

The altarpiece depicts the Virgin Mary breastfeeding the infant Christ while Saint Jerome and Saint Dominic kneel at her feet. The setting is a hilly, verdant landscape. A lion fights off a bear on the left. On the right is a small church. Tiny figures of a man and donkey in the center background may be a reference to the family’s Flight into Egypt.

The tempera painting on poplar panel originally stood in the church of San Pancrazio in Florence. It was commissioned by the Rucellai family, wealthy Florentine wool merchants, around 1485 who installed it in the chapel adjacent to their personal funerary chapel. During the Napoleonic suppression of the churches in the early 19th century, the altarpiece was removed from the former church (San Pancrazio was made the seat of the city lottery in 1808) and returned to the Rucellai family who had originally commissioned it. They sold it to the National Gallery in 1857.

The National Gallery moved the altarpiece from Room 59 to Room 11 earlier this year. Room 11 is smaller and octagonal, which makes maneuvering the space challenging, but even removing it from the long, wide wall of Room 59 posed enormous risks. Thankfully the National Gallery’s staff is up to the task, having custom-designed mechanical aids capable of moving so large, heavy and priceless an artwork. These sorts of devices aren’t available at Lowe’s. As Thomas Hemming of the museum’s Art Handling Team puts it in the video, “Everything’s very bespoke because it’s a very niche kind of requirement to move pictures.”

Thanks to these custom rigs, paintings of all sizes can be moved quickly and securely through the building to a new location, and temporarily stored before they are reinstalled. It is very cool to see them at work.

Sweet potato pie, 17th century style

November 20th, 2022

While menu planning for the upcoming meal events that traditionally feature any number of pies, consider Elizabeth Grey, Countess of Kent’s potato pie from her 1653 cookbook
A True Gentlewomans Delight: Wherein is contained all manner of Cookery: Together with Preserving, Conserving, Drying and Candying, Very necessary for all Ladies and Gentlewomen.

Elizabeth Grey was one of Queen Elizabeth’s attendants before her marriage, and one of Queen Anne of Denmark’s favorites after. She was also a good friend of the indomitable Lady Anne Clifford. As an aristocrat at the courts of two queens, Elizabeth Grey didn’t really do a lot of hands-on cooking herself. She was, however, an avid collector of recipes both medicinal and culinary. After her death in 1651, her collection of medical recipes was published and was so popular it went through 22 editions. Piggybacking off the countess’ posthumous success as a home pharmacologist, publisher W.J. Gent had a runaway success with her collection of cooking recipes. It was a huge best-seller as well, going through 21 editions in 55 years.

She didn’t actually write any of these books, as she was dead at the time, and there’s a solid chance the cookbook’s recipes weren’t so much collected by her as written by her chef, Robert May, or made up by Gent himself. Attribution to Elizabeth Grey mattered far more as a promotional tool than on any factual basis. Increasing literacy and average incomes created a burgeoning market among consumers with a little money in their pockets hoping to get their piece of the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

So back to her potato pie. The potato was a recent arrival on European shores, imported from the Americas. The ones Elizabeth used would have been more like a sweet potato than the Yukon golds we see on the Thanksgiving table today. It was an exotic vegetable, expensive and in this pie paired with other pricey imports like spices, dates and sugar. The recipe:

A Potato Pie for Supper

Take three pound of boyled and blanched Potatoes, and 3 Nutmegs, and half an ounce of Cinnamon beaten together, and three ounces of Sugar, season your Potatoes, and put them in your Pie, then take the marrow of three bones, rouled in yolks of Eggs, and sliced Lemon, and large Mace, and half a pound of butter, six Dates quartered, put this into your pie, and let it stand an hour in the oven; then make a sharp caudle of butter, Sugar, Verjuyce, and white Wine, put it in when you take your Pie out of the oven.

Three whole nutmegs seems like it would be, well, insane, so I hope she means three measures of some sort. Verjuice is a sour juice derived from squeezing crab apples and unripened grapes. It was common in 17th century cooking. A caudle is a hot, thick drink ranging from an eggnog consistency to a thin porridge consistency.

The Getty has drawn up a simpler modernized version of Elizabeth Grey’s potato pie. There’s no bone marrow in it (sad) and a lot less nutmeg (happy!), so it’s a sweet potato pie that is very much congruent with modern iterations. I vote put the marrow in and see what happens.

House of the Vettii reopens

November 19th, 2022

The House of the Vettii, one of the largest and richest homes in Pompeii, prodigiously endowed with a fresco of Priapus that has become an icon of the city, reopens to the public on Tuesday after years of complex restoration.

The House of the Vettii was the home of Aulus Vettius Restitutus and Aulus Vettius Conviva, freedmen brothers who made a fortune as wine merchants and ascended the social ladder. Restitutus was a candidate for aedile, a magistrate responsible for holding public games and the maintenance of public buildings. Conviva was an Augustalis, a priest of the cult of the deified Augustus, a position of civic importance that was more akin to a magistracy. In this role he would have funded major public works projects.

The Vettii bought the house, originally built in the 2nd century B.C., after the earthquake of 62 A.D. It was in a tony neighborhood that many of the wealthy homeowners had left rather than rebuild. When the rich moved out, the nouveau-riche moved in. Freedmen who had made big bucks in trade like the Vettii were a prime example of the trend. They bought the aristocratic villa, repaired it and expanded it, adding a huge peristyle garden with statues and fountains. Every room was lavishly painted with frescoes on mythological motifs, telegraphing their wealth and the new status it bought them. Priapus, his massive phallus balancing on a scale against a bag of money, welcomed visitors in the vestibule of the house. Two large bronze strongboxes were placed in the atrium so everyone who got past Priapus would be confronted with the the most literal possible representation of the wealth of the Vettii.

The frescoes are mostly in the Pompeiian Fourth style, a combination of the previous three styles (faux marble veneers from the first, architectural trompe l’oeil from the second, ornate, stylized ornament from the third). The Vettii frescoes provide unique insight into the transition between the Third and Fourth style of mural painting. There is also a remarkable series of striking black and red frescoes depicting groups of cupids performing a variety of tasks, mythological ones like celebrating a festival of Bacchus and a festival of Vesta, sure, but of particular note are the representations of daily work, including the gathering and pressing of grapes, buying and selling the wine, dyeing and cleaning clothes in a fullery, picking flowers and making garlands for sale, making perfumed oil and making coins. The cupids are also captured at leisure, hunting on goat-back, racing in chariots pulled by deer and taking part in an archery contest.

The room adjacent to the kitchen was painted with a series of explicit erotic frescoes. It may have been a visual menu of options offered by an enslaved prostitute Eutychis who advertises her services for two asses (plural of as, the lowest-value Roman coin) on a graffito at the entrance of the house.

The domus was first excavated between late 1894 and early 1896. In the 1950s reinforced concrete roofs were added to the peristyle to protect the architectural remains from the elements. It was no longer protecting it, however. On the contrary, the flat concrete roof was unsound and directly contributing to water infiltration and damage.

Already affected by works in 1995, when the problem created by the concrete roofs of the 50s was evident, the house was partially reopened in 2016, after 12 years of closure and then closed again after 3 years for further restoration. Interventions that involved the roofing but also the paintings, with the removal of the patina created by previous restorations.

The old concrete roofs have now been replaced with sloped roofs formed from hollow blocks on metal frameworks. The wooden roofs added in the 1990s are still functional but needed refurbishment, and a new rainwater drainage system was devised to integrate the new roofs with the existing drainage system.

Conservators also cleaned and conserved the wall and floor decorations and the fixtures of the garden. It was a painstaking process of cleaning, regrouting and integrating interventions from different periods with the aim of recovering the legibility of the images and colors.




December 2022


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