Notably unromantic portrait of Admiral Nelson found

November 12th, 2017

A portrait of Admiral Horatio Nelson depicting his war wounds in all their unvarnished glory has been rediscovered after 100 years out of public view and knowledge in private collections. It will go on display at Philip Mould & Company’s Pall Mall gallery starting November 13th. To celebrate its return, it will be displayed next to meticulous replicas of the fanciest accessories depicted in the painting: Admiral Nelson’s iconic bicorne hat, recreated according to his precise instructions Lock & Co. Hatters of St James’s who made the original hat by Nelson’s commission, and the still-lost Chelengk jewel very conspicuously pinned to the front of the hat in the portrait.

It was painted in 1799 by Leonardo Guzzardi, an artist at the court of Queen Maria Carolina and King Ferdinand of Naples and Sicily. Maria Carolina, 13th child of the formidable Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Francis I of Austria, sister to Marie Antoinette of France, was a great patron of the arts and had a particular fangirl admiration for Admiral Nelson. She herself may have commissioned Guzzardi to capture Nelson’s likeness when the hero, painter and monarchs were in Palermo after their majesties’ hasty departure from Naples with French troops hot on their heels. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d sought a portrait of the admiral. Earlier in Naples she had told her son she’d have a portrait painted of Nelson so he could stand under it every day and say “Dear Nelson, teach me to be like you.” (Maria Carolina had a lot in common with her mother.)

In this portrait Nelson is emaciated and battle worn, with a scarred head, a missing arm (undetectable in the rendering), a blood-shot eye, and largely missing eyebrow. The portrait is uncompromising, so much so that one past owner, no doubt discomforted by the broken eyebrow, had it painted in to match that on the right. The wound had happened during the heat of engagement with the French at the Battle of the Nile at Aboukir Bay in Egypt in August 1798, whilst standing on the quarter deck with Edward Berry. A shard of iron struck Nelson’s forehead, slicing the skin and leaving an inch of skull visible. The piece of flesh, cut at jagged angles as seen in this portrait, hung down over his right eye, leaving him momentarily blinded. Such was the shock that Nelson, caught in the arms of Berry, famously cried out “I am killed. Remember me to my wife”. He was taken below deck, where the surgeon treated the wound with adhesive strips and gave Nelson opium to reduce the pain. His treatment, however, was supposedly interrupted by news that the French flagship L’Orient was on fire, at which moment Nelson ran back up on deck. This moment is captured by a theatrical portrait attributed to Guy Head [National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, BHC2903], in which Nelson is shown on deck with a burning ship beyond, blood dripping from his bandage onto the shoulder of his white shirt. The injury left Nelson disorientated and severely concussed, and the pain of the wound was such that he was forced to wear his hat tilted back, as seen in the present work, for some months.

Positioned conspicuously on top of his hat is the legendary Chelengk jewel. The jewel, made of diamonds, was gifted to Nelson by the Grand Sultan Selim III on 13 December 1798, in appreciation for saving Aboukir Bay (then part of the Ottoman Empire) from assault by Napoleon. The impressive jewel attracted wonder but also adverse comment, especially when Nelson took to wearing it – unofficially – on his naval uniform hat in a show of undaunted vanity. The gift also included a scarlet pelisse lined with sable fur and two thousand sequins (a type of small gold coin), to be shared amongst the wounded.

All of Guzzardi’s portraits of Nelson derive from a single head-type painted in early 1799 in Palermo, where the artist and subject had flown following the Jacobin revolt in Naples in December 1798. Guzzardi, about whom very little is known, was described at the time as a ‘Celebrated Artist at Palermo, Portrait Painter to the King’, and although few of his works have survived, the existing examples reveal a highly distinctive style with a preoccupation for vivid flesh tones, bold colouring and sharp treatment of facial features.

The first painting Guzzardi did of Nelson was a full-length portrait depicting him in the full dress uniform of a rear admiral. He stands in the foreground on the deck of a ship, his left hand pointing in a weirdly awkward way towards a naval battle behind him on the right, a representation of the Battle of the Nile. The scarlet pelisse is draped over a chair under his pointing finger and the Chelengk jewel takes up half the front of his pushed-back hat.

There are 14 replicas of this portrait known to exist, some painted by Guzzardi, and the group can be split into two according to the admiral’s accessories. In the first iteration, he wears only the insignia of the Order of the Bath and the St Vincent naval medal around his neck. The later works include the star of the Turkish Order of the Crescent, a private issue gold medal for the Battle of the Nile and the official naval gold medal for the Battle of the Nile. While the newly rediscovered painting has the full complement of medals, experts believe they were later additions, that this portrait is one of the early group.

Art historians have known about this particular version of the portrait from archival records and photographs, but the last time its location was known was 1897 when it was documented in the collection of Alfred Morrison, an avid collector of Nelsoniana. He had bought it from Thomas Gullick, a London art dealer who had found the painting rolled up and gathering dust somewhere in Italy in the early 1880s. Even though less than a century had passed since it was painted, and even though the sitter has some very unique distinguishing features and was once one of the most famous people in the world, both the artist and the subject were unknown at that time. Gullick identified it right quick and tried to sell it to Earl Nelson (he passed) and the National Portrait Gallery (they also passed).

Morrison’s vast collection was broken up and sold by his widow. Some pieces went up for auction, others were sold privately. There are extant records of these sales but none of them mention this painting. It made its way to the United States where it was acquired by George M. Juergens of New York. A friend of the family bought it after Juergens’s death in 1987. That friend still owns it today. It seems he’s willing to sell it, however, as Philip Mould & Company is accepting purchase inquiries.

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Ex-grasshopper found in Van Gogh painting

November 11th, 2017

Conservators have discovered the body of a definitely deceased grasshopper resting in disarticulated peace among Vincent van Gogh’s Olive Trees. Mary Shafter at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, was examining the work under a microscope as part of a research project for the upcoming catalogue of the museum’s collection of 104 French paintings when she spotted the little guy entombed in the deadly embrace of van Gogh’s thick impasto in the shadow of the first olive tree on the right. At first she couldn’t tell what it was; she thought it might be the leaf debris or an imprint left by leaf on the paint when it was still wet. A closer inspection at the foreign body revealed that it had a head (a decapitated one) and was animal, not vegetable.

Van Gogh liked to paint out of doors, en plein air, as the French (and art historians) call it. Conservators working on his paintings often find leaves, sand, specks of dirt, even small bugs embedded in the canvas. Grasshoppers are not so common. The members of the Nelson-Atkins team were excited by the grasshopper find, and at the prospect of the creature adding new information to the record about when Van Gogh painted Olive Trees. The general date is known, 1889, which was a troubled time for the artist. The year before he’d had his massive break-up out with his former bestie Gauguin followed in short order by the ear cutting incident. In 1889 Van Gogh checked himself into the asylum at the Monastery Saint-Paul de Mausole in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and remained there into 1890. The team hoped that if the grasshopper’s date of death could be identified from its stage in the growth/reproductive cycle or seasonal changes, then they might be able to conclusively determine whether Van Gogh painted Olive Trees during his stay in the mental health ward.

Paleoentomologist Dr. Michael S. Engel of the University of Kansas and American Museum of Natural History in New York City, came to their aid. He observed the insect under the microscope and realized that it was incomplete. The scattered body parts were missing the thorax and abdomen. He also was able to discern no sign of movement in the paint where the grasshopper’s bits were embedded, which means it was dead and dismembered before it hit the wet paint. This grasshopper was not pining for the fjords anymore by the time it landed on its eternal resting canvas. It therefore had nothing to contribute to the dating of its now thoroughly glamorous coffin.

So the trapped grasshopper came to nothing, new data-wise, but it’s still a thrilling little slice of Van Gogh’s process frozen in time. He was deeply passionate about capturing life in movement in its natural setting. In one letter to his brother Theo from 1885, he went off on an extended rant about artists who reuse the same old backdrops, tableaux vivants, orientalist and heroic themes, rehashed styles, even models in their studio set pieces, how phony and lifeless their depictions were. He named names too.

Perhaps you think that I’m wrong to comment on this — but — I’m so gripped by the thought that all these exotic paintings are painted in THE STUDIO. But just go and sit outdoors, painting on the spot itself! Then all sorts of things like the following happen — I must have picked a good hundred flies and more off the 4 canvases that you’ll be getting, not to mention dust and sand &c. — not to mention that, when one carries them across the heath and through hedgerows for a few hours, the odd branch or two scrapes across them &c. Not to mention that when one arrives on the heath after a couple of hours’ walk in this weather, one is tired and hot. Not to mention that the figures don’t stand still like professional models, and the effects that one wants to capture change as the day wears on.

That passage, which is not really a complaint so much as a recognition of how valuable working outdoors was to him despite the million irritants, explains exactly how the grasshopper likely got into the paint. He was either blown onto the wet canvas by wind or perhaps got stuck on it when Van Gogh lugged the large, heavy painting back home.

Visitors to the museum have been fascinated by the find. The grasshopper bits are less than half an inch in size and can’t possible compete with the density, vibrancy and complexity of Van Gogh’s brushstrokes, but that hasn’t stopped visitors from doing their utmost to spot the wee body parts in the shadow of that tree.

While the grasshopper becomes an engaging topic for museum visitors, more significant research on Olive Trees is underway. Analysis by Mellon Science Advisor John Twilley confirms that van Gogh used a type of red pigment that gradually faded over time. These findings suggest that areas where van Gogh employed this red, either alone or mixed with other colors, appear slightly different today than when the painting was completed.

“Color relationships were central to van Gogh’s practice,” said Aimee Marcereau DeGalan, Louis L. and Adelaide C. Ward Senior Curator of European Art. “Since we now know that portions of the canvas where van Gogh employed this particular red pigment have faded, those color relationships are altered.”

The artist’s letters often referred to his works by their dominant colors, which means the more recent changes in appearance can present uncertainty as to which painting van Gogh alluded to in his descriptions. With funding through the museum’s Andrew W. Mellon Endowment for Scientific Research in Conservation, more research is being conducted to evaluate the impact of these color shifts. The research is expected to clarify the original appearance of Olive Trees and to offer a clearer understanding of its place within van Gogh’s series of works on this theme.

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Hilarious exhibition at Frans Hals Museum

November 10th, 2017

The Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, northwest Netherlands, will tickle visitors’ funny bones with an exhibition dedicated to depictions of laughter in the paintings of Dutch Golden Age masters. The Art of Laughter: Humour in in the Golden Age is the first museum exhibition to treat the subject of hilarity in 17th century artworks with the seriousness it deserves. It’s the first show to focus on the topic at all, which is curious when you consider how rich a vein of it runs through the artworks of the period.

Frans Hals is often called ‘the master of the laugh’. More than any other painter in the Golden Age, he was able to bring a vitality to his portraits that made it appear as if his models could just step out of the past into the present. Hals was one of the few painters in the seventeenth century who dared portray his figures – often common folk – with a hearty laugh and bared teeth. Merriment and jokes are prominent features in his genre paintings; artists in the Golden Age frequently used it in their work. Now – centuries later – the visual jokes are harder to fathom. A great deal of new research into the field has been carried out, particularly in the last twenty years, and we are beginning to get an idea of the full extent of seventeenth-century humour. […]

The exhibition showcases some sixty masterpieces from the Low Countries and beyond by Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Jan Steen, Judith Leyster, Adriaen Brouwer, Gerard van Honthorst, Jan Miense Molenaer and Nicolaes Maes. Works by these and other artists will be shown in the context of an introduction and seven specific themes, including mischief, farce and love and lust, and one room is devoted to each of them. The exhibition ends with the comical self-portrait, in which painters feature in their own jokes. Thus humour eventually arrives at the artists themselves, creating an intriguing finale. There will also be a small selection of joke books, incredibly popular in the seventeenth century, which confirm the reputation of the Dutch as an unusually cheerful and humorous people. According to an Italian contemporary, the writer Lodovico Guicciardini, who was living in the Low Countries at that time, the Dutch were ‘very convivial, and above all jocular, amusing and comical with words, but sometimes too much.’

I wonder if the Frans Hals Museum has detected any hidden poopers in the artworks on display. The Edwardian curators of the Royal Collection were not amused by the Dutch penchant for ribald humor as expressed in their Golden Age paintings. It’s funny to think of the vast chasm in curatorial outlook between the priggish post-Victorians and the modern Dutch who take such pride and pleasure in the joie de vivre evinced by their Old Masters, even to the point that they’ve thorougly researched the paintings so we too can get the jokes that viewers in the 17th century would have gotten at a glance.

The paintings on display are a deep bench, loaned from institutions all over the world. In order to defray the cost of shipment, insurance, installation and security, entrance to the exhibition will cost an additional €5 on top of the general museum entrance fee. It’s still a bargain, though, because one ticket to The Art of Laughter will also get you into the companion exhibition, A Global Table, which looks at Golden Age still lifes with their tables and sideboards groaning with food, as primary sources of information on the effect of the Netherlands’ colonial holdings and global trade network on how people ate back home.

One of the 53 paintings in the Laughter exhibition, Gerard van Honthors’ absolutely charming Smiling Girl, a Courtesan, Holding an Obscene Picture, which is totally a meme waiting to happen (suggested caption: “Guess what? THIS GUY’S BUTT!”), is still in the process of being moved from the Saint Louis Art Museum. It won’t get to Haarlem until the end of the month. For now, her mischievous grin is represented by a reproduction created by artist Rinus van Hall in 24 hours. Here’s a nifty time-lapse video of him at work:

The The Art of Laughter runs from November 12th, 2017 through March 18th, 2018. A Global Table opened late last month and runs through January 7th, 2018.

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London Mithraeum is finally home again

November 9th, 2017

The remains of the Temple of Mithras discovered under central London’s Walbrook Square in 1954 has returned to its original location and it looks great, better than it has in 50+ years. The temple, first built around 240 A.D., was unearthed by archaeologists William Francis Grimes and Audrey Williams in the very last days of a two-year archaeological survey of the site before the construction of new office buildings. The temple was identified as a Mithraeum when the beautifully sculpted head of Mithras, complete with Phrygian cap, was found. A reporter happened to be there and took a picture. Mithras’ beauty caused a sensation and almost half a million people came to visit the excavation.

The ensuing public outcry forced the city to abandon its original plan — the demolition of the temple to make way for ugly concrete squares of cheap mid-century offices — and come up with a compromise solution. The excavation would be extended and once the archaeologists were done, the temple remains would be removed and reinstalled a few hundred feet away at ground level so the public could enjoy it. In 1962, plan B was completed and London’s Mithraeum was reconstructed on an empty patch of land on Victoria Street. The objects discovered would go the Museum of London, except for the incredibly rare surviving wood benches and joists from the temple’s original floor, preserved in the waterlogged soil where the lost Walbrook River had once coursed. They were thrown out like so much trash.

Unfortunately plan B was poorly executed. Modern concrete was used to patch up holes and build up some of the lost masonry. The temple was not installed in its original configuration and was basically unrecognizable compared to how it had looked in situ. Things did not improve as the city grew up around it, leaving it looking like a random, weird, squat rectangle of brick and mortar benches.

In 2010, the Walbrook Square site was bought by Bloomberg LP who planned to build a grand new European HQ there. Of course they knew about the potential for archaeological remains under the site, so an in depth survey was commissoned and this time the soggy muck of the lost Walbrook River turned in an even more spectacular feat of preservation. The excavation unearthed entire city streets, large slices of Roman London from its earliest days in 40 A.D. to the final withdrawal of Roman troops in the 5th century. Wood streets, wood walls, wood wells, a wood door, thousands and thousands of assorted objects made of leather, wood, textiles as well as metal and stone. The oldest dated writing ever found in Britain was discovered on one of hundreds of Roman wood tablets from the Bloomberg dig.

The Bloomberg coporation has far deeper pockets than the small potatoes real estate developers in 1954, so it made ambitious plans to include all of these archaeological marvels in an underground display space in the Bloomberg. Not only would Roman London’s many layers be viewable to the public, but it would foot the bill to rescue the poor, benighted reconstructed temple remains from their incongruous street-level location and overmortared neglect. The temple would return to its original location, dismantled, cleaned of modern interpolations and reinstalled in situ as it had once been. There it would have the chance to be seen in its proper context, safe from the elements, and would even be reunited with another piece of the temple that was discovered during the recent excavation.

Tha planned opening date for the new Bloomberg building and its greatest of all basements was 2017, and right on schedule, the London Mithraeum at Bloomberg SPACE opens November 14th.

Michael Bloomberg, the founder of the company, said they were stewards of the ancient site and its artefacts. “London has a long history as a crossroads for culture and business, and we are building on that tradition.”

The Mithraeum incorporates a new daylit art gallery at ground level with an opening installation, Another View from Nowhen, by the Dublin artist Isabel Nolan. A huge glass case displays more than 600 of the 14,000 objects found on the site, including a wooden door, a hobnailed sandal, a tiny gladiator’s helmet carved in amber, and a wooden tablet with the oldest record of a financial transaction from Britain.

You can’t just walk in to see this archaeological treasure. Entrance is free of charge, but you must book first to guarantee entry. Click this link to book tickets, and have a poke around the website while you’re at it because it’s really very good. They worked hard to collect images and footage of the 1950s excavation and have incorporated them effectively on the site.



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Bologna’s medieval Jewish cemetery rediscovered

November 8th, 2017

Bologna’s medieval Jewish cemetery has been rediscovered almost half a millennium after it was obliterated by order of Pope Pius IV. Unearthed between 2012 and 2014 during archaeological explorations of a site slated for housing development, the cemetery contains 408 graves, all aligned in parallel rows heads pointing to the west, and zero gravestones. It’s a miracle the former remained in any way intact considering what happened to the latter.

The discovery announced by the Bologna and was presented Tuesday at a news conference by Bologna Mayor Virginio Merola and other officials, including Bologna’s chief rabbi and Jewish community president.

The graves discovered included those of women, men and children, the regional superintendence for archaeology stated at a press conference Tuesday. Some had been buried with ornaments made of gold, silver, bronze, hard stones and amber, the superintendance [sic] said.

Pope Pius IV, canonized a saint by Pope Clement XI in 1712, would be appalled to hear any burials had been found unmolested and complete with grave goods. He certainly tried his utmost to ensure the opposite outcome. A zealot and ascetic who as a youth had eagerly worked as an inquisitor before being elected to the Holy Office permanently in 1550, Antonio Ghislieri rose in the ranks to become inquisitor general for all of Christendom in less than seven years. He was appointed by Pope Paul IV who, not coincidentally, was also a major proponent of the Inquisition and of an anti-Semitism so hateful and brutal that Hitler used his ghettoization system as a blueprint for his own.

When Ghislieri was elected pope in 1566, he picked up where his mentor had left off, rejecting the slight softening of the draconian anti-Jewish laws Pope Pius IV had attempted when he succeeded Paul IV. Pius V promulgated the Bull Hebraeorum gens sola on February 26, 1569, which opens with much the same gross nonsense Paul IV’s Bull had opened with:

“The Jewish people fell from the heights because of their faithlessness and condemned their Redeemer to a shameful death. Their godlessness has assumed such forms that, for the salvation of our own people, it becomes necessary to prevent their disease.”

The forms in question were usury, helping thieves and robbers profit from their illegal activities (pawning, maybe?), and the worst crime of them all “lure the unsuspecting through magical incantations, superstition, and witchcraft to the Synagogue of Satan and boast of being able to predict the future.” They probably turned people into newts too, but their victims got better before trial.

The Bull concludes with the decree banishing all Jews from the Papal States, excepting those in Rome and Ancona, within 90 days. A convent in Bologna was explicitly instructed by to destroy the cemetery, the largest Jewish cemetery in the Europe which had been in continuous use since the 14th century, by the Pope later that year.

In November 1569, Pius handed over the cemetery to the nuns of the nearby cloister of St. Peter the Martyr and directed the sisters “to dig up and send, wherever they want, the bodies, bones and remains of the dead: to demolish, or convert to other forms, the graves built by the Jews, including those made for living people: to remove completely, or scrape off the inscriptions or epitaphs carved in the marble.”

Four ornate Jewish gravestones now displayed in Bologna’s Civic Medieval Museum are believed to have come from this cemetery.

Archaeologists found evidence of the sisters’ (or somebody’s, at any rate) handiwork in more than a third of the graves, 150 of which bear clear the tell-tale marks of deliberate, malicious desecration. The tombstones are simply gone. Destroyed so thoroughly as to not leave a trace, or employed in some other context where they are unrecognizable as anything but a piece of stone.

The human remains found in the graves will be given a respectful burial at a time and place yet to be determined.

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Pylos warrior tomb’s tiniest treasure is its greatest

November 7th, 2017

When the intact grave of a Bronze Age man was discovered in Pylos, southwestern Greece, two years ago, it was so dense with luxurious grave goods that it set a new record for the wealthiest single grave ever found in Greece. Its location, next to the so-called Palace of Nestor of Trojan War fame, and the richness of the contents even generated breathless speculation that this might be the tomb of a Homeric hero. Entirely groundless speculation — the shaft tomb is around 300 years older than the palace which was destroyed in 1,180 B.C. — but it’s an inescapable side-effect when archaeologists discover ivory-handled, gold-covered weapons, four gold signet rings, more than 1,000 semi-precious stone beads, silver and bronze cups, a massive gold chain, 50 seal stones decorated with Minoan motifs, carved ivory and ever so much more, enough to reignite a million childhood fantasies of pirate booty treasure maps where X always marks the spot.

Little encrusted piece before conservation. Photo courtesy the University of Cincinnati.After the dust from the dig had settled, the team, led by University of Cincinnati archaeologists Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker, had unearthed more than 3,000 burial objects, all of which were sent to the Archaeological Museum of Chora for triage, study and conservation. One of the objects was a small sort of kite-shaped piece caked in thick lime accretions entirely obscuring its surface. It was put in the To Do pile while conservators focused on the larger ticket items, like the heaps of gold, weapons and jewels.

They were finally able to beging cleaning the wee thing — it’s less than an inch and a half long — a year later and discovered that under all lime scale was one of the greatest pieces of art in Greek history. It’s a sealstone, not made of precious metals like the signet rings found in the tomb, but of agate. This one’s value is in the astonishing detail and precision in the miniature carving.

The “Pylos Combat Agate,” as the seal has come to be known for the fierce hand-to-hand battle it portrays, promises not only to rewrite the history of ancient Greek art, but to help shed light on myth and legend in an era of Western civilization still steeped in mystery. […]

Davis and Stocker say the Pylos Combat Agate’s craftsmanship and exquisite detail make it the finest discovered work of glyptic art produced in the Aegean Bronze Age.

“What is fascinating is that the representation of the human body is at a level of detail and musculature that one doesn’t find again until the classical period of Greek art 1,000 years later,” explained Davis. “It’s a spectacular find.”

Even more extraordinary, the husband-and-wife team point out, is that the meticulously carved combat scene was painstakingly etched on a piece of hard stone measuring just 3.6 centimeters, or just over 1.4 inches, in length. Indeed, many of the seal’s details, such as the intricate weaponry ornamentation and jewelry decoration, become clear only when viewed with a powerful camera lens and photomicroscopy.

“Some of the details on this are only a half-millimeter big,” said Davis. “They’re incomprehensibly small.”

The miniature masterpiece portrays a victorious warrior who, having already vanquished one unfortunate opponent sprawled at his feet, now turns his attention to another much more formidable foe, plunging his sword into the shielded man’s exposed neck in what is sure to be a final and fatal blow.

This thing is unbelievable. I think I’ve stared at the fallen fighter on the left for a solid hour.

Here is an enlarged drawing of the artwork so you can see the astonishing detail the carver was able to achieve with whatever meagre magnification options were available in 1,500 B.C. (or maybe none at all):

Beyond all the superlatives that can and should be showered upon this marvel of artistry, researchers believe the sealstone reveals new information of major significance about Minoan culture and their interactions with the Mycenaeans who so thirstily drank of Minoan culture and spread it throughout the Greek mainland.

In a series of presentations and a paper published last year, Davis and Stocker revealed that the discovery of four gold signet rings bearing highly detailed Minoan iconography, along with other Minoan-made riches found within the tomb, indicates a far greater and complex cultural interchange took place between the Mycenaeans and Minoans.

But the skill and sophistication of the Pylos Combat Agate is unparalleled by anything uncovered before from the Minoan-Mycenaean world, say the researchers. And that raises a bigger question: How does this change our understanding of Greek art in the Bronze Age?

“It seems that the Minoans were producing art of the sort that no one ever imagined they were capable of producing,” explained Davis. “It shows that their ability and interest in representational art, particularly movement and human anatomy, is beyond what it was imagined to be. Combined with the stylized features, that itself is just extraordinary.”

The revelation, he and Stocker say, prompts a reconsideration of the evolution and development of Greek art.

“This seal should be included in all forthcoming art history texts, and will change the way that prehistoric art is viewed,” said Stocker.

For more about the Griffin Warrior tomb, check out this thoroughly documented, content-rich website created by Davis and Stocker and the Pylos team. Pictures are a bit small, alas, but they need to pinch bandwidth pennies because conserving an enormous quantity of priceless archaeological artifacts is an expensive proposition, especially trying to keep the fragmentary bronze armour from falling apart. You can contribute to the project here. All donations go directly to conservation.

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Sasanian loom discovered in Northern Iraq

November 6th, 2017

Archaeologists excavating the site of Gird-î Qalrakh in the Iraqi-Kurdish province of Sulaymaniyah have discovered a loom from the Sasanian period, around the 5th or 6th century A.D. The loom weights, made from clay, survive in a mudbrick structure with mudbrick shelving and/or benches in the interior. (Make sure to click on the image to see it full size because everything is baked mud color and looks the same in the small pic. You can see the round loom weights with holes in them clearly on the center left of the shot in the large version.)

Sasanian and even more ancient Neo-Assyrian remains have been found at Gird-î Qalrakh since it was opened to archaeological exploration after the ouster of Sadam Hussein, but the site is still largely unexplored, an alluring terra incognita that attracted the attentions of Prof. Dirk Wicke, expert in Near Eastern Archaeology from the Institute of Archaeology at Goethe University in Frankfurt. In 2015, he secured funding to lead a team of Goethe University archaeologists and students to the Shahrizor plain in Northern Iraq. This year’s six-week dig is the program’s second campaign.

The objective of the excavations on the top and slope sections of the settlement hill, some 26 meters high, was to provide as complete a sequence as possible for the region’s ceramic history. Understanding the progression in ceramics has long been a goal of research undertaken on the Shahrizor plain, a border plain of Mesopotamia with links to the ancient cultural regions of both Southern Iraq and Western Iran. These new insights will make it easier to categorise other archaeological finds chronologically. The excavation site is ideal for establishing the progression of ceramics, according to archaeology professor Dirk Wicke: “It is a small site but it features a relatively tall hill in which we have found a complete sequence of ceramic shards. It seems likely that the hill was continuously inhabited from the early 3rd millennium BC through to the Islamic period.”

However, the archaeologists had not expected to find a Sasanian loom (ca. 4th-6th century AD), whose burnt remnants, and clay loom weights in particular, were found and documented in-situ. In addition to the charred remains, there were numerous seals, probably from rolls of fabric, which indicate that large-scale textile production took place at the site. From the neo-Assyrian period (ca. 9th-7th century BC), by contrast, a solid, stone-built, terraced wall was discovered, which points to major construction work having taken place at the site. It is possible that the ancient settlement was refortified and continued to be used in the early 1st millennium BC.

That’s an extraordinary leap forward in understanding of a little known site accomplished in only six weeks, and it’s only scratching the surface. Dr. Wicke plans to return with his team next year to pick up where they left off, but first he has to ensure they have the financial support for a proper excavation and that the volatile political climate will be stable enough to keep everyone as safe as possible.

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Unique Punic War lion helmet found off Sicilian coast

November 5th, 2017

A team of divers have made a unique discovery on the seabed off the coast of Sicily: a Punic War-era helmet with a lion decoration. It is a Montefortino helmet, a Celtic style that was spread from central Europe down the boot of Italy to Western Europe. They typically are a half ovoid shape with a small knob at the crest and cheek flaps tied under the chin by leather straps. Rome adopted the helmet style and then forcibly adopted much of the world while wearing them, so they also became known as “Roman helmets.” The lion, or possibly a lion skin posed in an aggressive stance, decorates the crest knob. This is the first lion decoration ever found on this type of helmet. The only example even vaguely in the same category had some kind of bird decoration, but it was very stylized and can’t be pinned down. The lion, on the other hand, is clearly a lion.

Marine archaeologists have dated the helmet to 241 B.C., based on some of the pottery remains at the find site, the style of the armour and the date of a battle which has proven an incalculably rich source of archaeological material from the First Punic War. Egadi, an island in the Aegadian archipelago about 4 miles off the west coast of Sicily. It was the site of one of the last naval clashes of the First Punic War. In 241 B.C., 200 Roman ships went up against 100 Carthaginian ships in the Battle of the Egadi Islands. Well, actually, the Roman ships appear to have gone up against other Roman ships, mainly, captured by Carthage in previous naval battles such as the Battle of Drepanum (249 B.C.) in which Polybius claimed 97 ships had been taken and absorbed into the Punic navy. Rome’s superior numbers took the day this time, and Carthage was soundly spanked. So soundly, in fact, that they surrendered shortly thereafter ending the First Punic War.

The net effect of Carthage’s deployment of Roman vessels is that even though Rome won the Battle of the Egadi Islands most emphatically, the ship parts, cargo and weapons strewn on the seafloor are predominantly Roman. The lion helmet could be as well, but that can’t be confirmed because of how widespread the Montefortino helmet was at the time of the First Punic War.

Possibly the lion-theme decoration can be traced back to a city allied with Rome where the influence of the myth of Hercules – who was often represented wearing lion skin on his head – was strong.

It is also possible that the lion insignia indicated a rank of authority within the Roman army at this time. “The helmets could have been worn by any number of mercenaries of South Italian or Sicilian origin. The problem is, both sides were hiring in the same areas,” Royal told Haaretz. “The Romans also wore a version of this style. Hence, some helmets were likely worn by mercenaries in service of the Carthaginians, but some may also represent Roman soldiers lost in the battle.”

Also representing shipfuls of dead Roman soldiers is the large number of bronze battering rams (rostra) which are still rare finds, but have increased geometrically thanks to Egadi’s extraordinary pile of Roman battle detritus. Out of the 13 battering rams found so far at Egadi over the past decade, only two of them have inscriptions identifying them as Carthaginian. The others have inscriptions too, but all of them in Latin.

The vicious, spiky-looking bronze battering rams are of great historical significance because of their badassness and rarity, yes, but finding so many in one place connected to a single battle has provided scholars with a unique opportunity to study the ships they used to be attached to, now long since rotted away in the balmy Mediterranean waters. The rams were fixed to the prow of ships, custom cast to ensure a perfect fit along the bows. Researchers can calculate the dimensions of the keels based on the size and shape of the rostra.

Based on those measurements, the researchers believe the ships were triremes, the principal type of warship in the Roman-era Mediterranean, which boasted three decks of oarsmen.

The archaeologists calculate that the ships could not have been more than 30 meters long and just 4.5 meter in beam, far less than the 36 meters previously estimated for the Athenian trireme. […]

In battle, the trireme was propelled solely by its 170 rowers. These wooden ships are believed to have been able to achieve a speed of 10 knots at the critical moment of impact.

Rams mounted below the waterline had three horizontal planes that would slice into their targets’ timbers, cracking the enemy ship. The dispersal of amphorae and other goods on the seabed indicates that ships were indeed sunk, but did not break up.

The lion helmet, the other helmets and battering rams recovered this season are currently being cleaned and conserved. Archaeologists to learn more about the one-of-a-kind lion helmet and to expand our understanding of Rome’s naval capabilities by studying the finds.

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Ghent Altarpiece restoration website is a stunner

November 4th, 2017

As part of their 2010 agreement to fund the restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece, the Getty Foundation’s Panel Painting Initiative stipulated that the entire process be documented and photographed in dizzyingly high resolution and every detail from dendrochronology reports to pictures of a few inches worth of newly cleaned paint be uploaded to a dedicated website. Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece is a masterpiece of online information sharing, a worthy helpmeet, technologically speaking, to the massive oak panel polyptych painted in the first half of the 15th century by Hubert Van Eyck and his brother Jan that is an icon of Belgium, Early Netherlandish art and an art historical watershed.

The altarpiece, formally known as The Mystic Lamb of 1432, is in the Cathedral of St. Bavo in Ghent, Belgium, and has remained on public view during years of restoration, study, research and documentation. Not a great view, mind you, what with all the people and stuff going on, but they built a protective transparent enclosure to give visitors a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see some of the greatest people in their fields, from carpenters to retouchers, work on one of the world’s greatest pieces of art. The creation of the Closer to Van Eyck site with its dense database of information and unparalleled pictorial documentation made it possible for the whole world to see with their naked eyes things that were not only the purview of a select group of professionals, but that even said professionals could not see with their naked eyes.

When I first discovered the website in 2012, I spent a whole weekend immersed in its Chutes and Ladders-like maze of fascinating content. I checked it regularly for years afterwards, but my interest eventually petered off when I found it wasn’t getting fresh updates. I saw yesterday when writing about the Caravaggio exhibition that the Getty Foundation and the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage in Brussels had big news regarding Closer to Van Eyck. The site has had a major update and now has brand new photographs in nosebleed high res of the polyptych at various stages in the conservation process. There are more technical images available — it started out with just X-rays, now that’s just scratching the surface of their offerings — and a freaking cool feature that allows you to compare several views of the panels at the same time.

The altarpiece was painstakingly recorded at every step of the conservation process through state-of-the-art photographic and scientific documentation. Thanks to the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage’s imaging team, digital processing and design led by Frederik Temmermans of Universum Digitalis and the Vrije Universiteit Brussels, and imec’s Department of Electronics and Informatics, the altarpiece can now be viewed online in visible light, infrared, infrared reflectograph, and X-radiograph, with sharper and higher resolution images than ever before. Visitors to the site can now also adjust a timeline to view key moments in the conservation process, and have access to simultaneous viewing of images before, during, and after conservation. Users can zoom in even closer on details of the painting, exploring microscopic views of the work in 100 billion pixels. […]

“We are proud and pleased to now also offer unparalleled access to the results of the first stage of the restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece,” says Dr. Ron Spronk, professor of Art History at the Department of Art History and Art Conservation at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada and Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, who initiated and coordinated Closer to Van Eyck. “Our site provides images and research materials of unprecedented quality and scope, both on and below the paint surface that will serve both specialists and general audiences for many years to come. We truly have come much, much closer to Van Eyck.”

Not least because they discovered that the vast majority of Van Eyck’s original brushwork had been overpainted, more than 70% of it, so most of what people have been seen of the Ghent Altarpiece wasn’t Van Eyck’s paint at all. Much of the conservation work done thus far was dedicated to removing as much as the overpaint as possible to reveal the artist’s true hand without damaging the delicate original paint layers beneath.

This website is unbelievable. It’s captures all my favorite things: technology in aid of cultural patrimony, specialized skills being taught to a new generation, rich content clearly displayed for all to enjoy without firewalls or payment, and good Ghent almighty praise be to the massive photographs. The weekend is over, but you might need to take a personal day off work so you can have all the time you need to get microscope-close to Jan Van Eyck.

I would suggest you start here with a tour of the site to get a feel for the layout and organization from their very brief and clear video summaries, then bounce around the menu climbing ladders and falling down chutes. Stock up on water and snacks because you won’t be budging from your seat for hours.

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See the Borghese Caravaggios in a museum with functional climate control

November 3rd, 2017

Giving them a break from the stifling heat, pain-lifting humidity and stench of humanity, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles announced that they will be putting on a rare exhibition of three of the Borghese Gallery’s masterpieces by Michelangelo Merisi, the artist principally known as Caravaggio. The three pieces chosen for this rare departure to foreign climes are iconic: Saint Jerome Writing, also known as Saint Jerome in His Study, Boy with a Basket of Fruit and David with the Head of Goliath. The three works were painted at the beginning, middle and end of Caravaggio’s career, which makes them a great prism through which to view the artistic and personal shifts in the artist’s very turbulent life.

Boy with a Basket of Fruit (ca. 1593-94) represents the beginning of the artist’s career when he moved from Lombardy to Rome and first attracted attention as a painter of realistic genre scenes and still lifes. Saint Jerome (ca. 1605) portrays the saint as a scholar reading and annotating sacred passages in the dramatically spotlight manner that Caravaggio made famous. In David with the Head of Goliath (ca. 1610), painted at the end of the artist’s career in his more somber and expressive later style, Caravaggio included his own features in Goliath’s head, purportedly in penance for his having committed a murder in May 1606. All three paintings were acquired by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a nephew of Pope Paul V, who knew Caravaggio personally and was one of his primary patrons.

“Caravaggio continues to exert tremendous influence on art today. His exceptional combination of truth to life and drama, and that famous chiaroscuro, gave birth not only to a new style of painting, but also inspired generations of painters with his psychological naturalism,” said Davide Gasparotto, senior curator of paintings at the Getty Museum. “These rare loans are prime examples of Caravaggio’s exceptional talent and innovation.”

The loan is in aid of the Caravaggio Research Institute, a project that seeks to create a database of everything we know about Caravaggio and his work, an accessible digital reference constantly updated with the latest and greatest information from art historical research on the man to laser scans of paintings and everything in between. It will allow interested amateurs, scholars, curators, conservators, museums and other institutions to have a world of knowledge about Caravaggio at their fingertips, and for them in turn to contribute what they’ve discovered.

The project is sponsored by FENDI which somehow links it to the value of the Made in Italy brand. It’s a laudable goal that I hope to see succeed and become a standard for all researchers no matter what the subject, but how about they fork over some of the billions they make flogging logoware to fashion victims to FIX THE A/C IN THE GALLERIA BORGHESE?! Seriously it’s insane that the director of the gallery has a deep-pocketed sponsor for the research institute which is under no particular time pressure while the paint is literally peeling off the canvases in the museum itself.

Okay. Deep breaths. I’m good now, thanks. (Until the next time I recall the horrors I witnessed.)

The Getty has a pre-existing relationship with the Borghese Gallery, a fascination, even. In 2000 the Getty Research Institute (GRI) hosted an exhibition about how Prince Marcantonio Borghese IV made extensive alterations and renovations to the villa and rearranged its prized collection to turn it into a full-fledged public museum instead of a private house that allowed visitors the way it had been since Cardinal Scipione Borghese’s days. Marcantonio turned to architect Antonio Asprucci to turn his vision of the new museum into a reality, and they worked closely together on the project for two decades starting in 1775. Craftsmen, builders, painters, antiquities experts all dedicated themselves to this ambitious goal with an attention to detail that was recognized as an artistic achievement without parallel in its time.

It was enormously influential on museum design. The Louvre’s first ancient sculpture galleries were modeled after the ones at Villa Borghese and not in a coincidental way. In 1799, Napoleon hired antiquarian Ennio Quirino Visconti, the same person who had catalogued the Borghese sculpture collection, to organize the new statuary gallery of what was then called the Musée Napoleon, the first public museum in France which would open in the Palais du Louvre in 1803. Visconti consciously repeated what had been so successful at the Borghese estate: he tied the sculptures to the spaces they were in by creating ceiling and wall paintings on the same theme. Four years after what we now know as the Louvre Museum opened its doors, Napoleon made the reference to the great Borghese collection even more explicit when he strong-armed Marcantonio’s son Camillo Borghese, husband of Paolina, to sell him 300 of his family’s most important pieces which he then happily installed in the Musée Napoleon.

The GRI’s exhibition on the subject was the result of its acquisition of a group of 54 drawings, most of them by Asprucci involving their plans for the ground floor of the villa, that illustrate just how painstakingly detailed the Marcantonio/Asprucci renovation was. The drawings cover the imagery that helped create the thematic consistency between the objects on display and the villa itself, how it was to be decorated and furnished, how best to light it and how to display the statues to their greatest advantage. All that industry and dedication produced one of the great steps forward in museum design and the Borghese Gallery today is still largely arranged along the lines established by Marcantonio Borghese and Antonio Asprucci.

Caravaggio: Masterpieces from the Galleria Borghese opens at the Getty Center on November 21st and runs through February 18th, 2018.

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