Six gold torcs found in Jersey Celtic coin hoard

December 8th, 2014

The massive hoard of Celtic coins that was raised in a single block from a field on the Channel Island of Jersey in 2012 is proving to be even more precious a treasure trove than was immediately obvious, and that’s saying a lot since the Le Catillon II treasure is the largest Celtic coin hoard ever discovered. The original estimate of the number of coins by volume was 30,000 to 50,000. As the Jersey Museum’s conservator Neil Mahrer has worked his way down the hoard, unsticking the corroded coin cluster, the estimated number has increased to 70,000.

Finders Richard Miles and Reg Mead first began to search for the hoard when a woman told them a story 30 years ago about a pot of silver coins found when her father uprooted a tree on their farm in Grouville parish. She didn’t know exactly where this fabled discovery had happened but she knew the general area and Miles and Mead secured permission from the current landowner to search the field with metal detectors during the brief window between harvest and planting. Over the decades they scanned the property with no success until in February of 2012 they found 60 Celtic coins. They dug a little deeper and encountered a large solid object. Mead grabbed a handful of the soil on top and found a few silver coins inside. Being extremely responsible and awesome people, they immediately filled in the hole and alerted Jersey Heritage to the find.

It’s because of their dogged determination spanning three decades and their respect for the archaeological context that the Le Catillon II hoard was archaeologically excavated from the site and is now being archaeologically excavated in an extremely cool glass-walled laboratory in public view at the Jersey Museum. Richard Miles and Reg Mead are part of the conservation team. They’ve been particularly helpful in coin identification, classification and cleaning, and of course they’re superstars to museum visitors.

The first gold peeked through the vertical face of the hoard in July of 2012. When the green corrosion from the silver and silver alloy coins was washed away, a thin sheet of flattened and twisted gold that had once been a torc was revealed. Later that month, conservators found another gold torc above and to the left of the first one. Only a couple of inches of it were visible at first, but the curve looked proper to the original curve around the neck and there was no evidence of twisting or flattening. This tendered the exciting prospect that there might be an intact gold torc amidst the layers of packed coins.

It has been two and a half years since the first glimpses of torc, and only now have conservators gotten down to the layers where they are nestled. It took close to two years to get all the permits and funding sorted. During that time, Mahrer and the conservation team removed 2,000 loose coins from the surface and cleaned them. This summer, they were finally able to start work on taking apart the coin block, laser scanning each coin in the mass and after its removal to ensure they have as detailed a record of the block and coins at every possible stage. The hoard is too big and dense for X-rays to give conservators an excavation road map, so they’re only discovering what’s in there as they go along.

In the beginning the finds were coins and organic material. To preserve the organic material (mainly peat and plant stalks), the team had to move very slowly during the unsticking process. They found that, as expected, most of the coins in the hoard were staters and quarter staters of the Coriosolitae tribe. Unexpectedly, they regularly encountered petit billons, a small denomination that is so rare a few tens of them were known before this hoard. They’re so rare that nobody knows what tribe made them or when. Other numismatic surprises are two coins from the Osismii tribe, the Coriosolitae’s western neighbors: one a five-sided stater that contains some gold, one is a solid gold quarter stater of the Bull Standard type.

In November, they reached the torc area. The solid gold torc was first revealed to have a join in the back, a hole through which a pin would be inserted to close the piece around the neck. Then they found another much larger torc.

At first it appeared to be a thick, tightly curved gold torc but when cleaned back a bit it was revealed as a pair of solid gold “wheels” at the end of a thick, curved, gold torc collar. The wheels are about 4cm accross and the collar part about 15mm thick. We’ve now cleaned back enough coins to see that the torc appears to be constructed from two semi circular parts which would have fitted together to be worn. We’ve think we’ve exposed about 90% of the first part with the wheels and about 50% of the second. We don’t know what the other ends of both are like yet. The sheer size of this piece is amazing in comparison to everything else we’ve seen yet and the torc surface appears to be in good condition and of a very pure gold.

And then they found even more:

In the same way that we found the large torc while clearing around another one, we have continued to find more new pieces as we cleared around it. We’ve found another of the sheet gold objects long visible on the hoard’s side. This new one seems very similar but is possibly in better condition. We have also partially uncovered two other smaller diameter possibly solid gold torc sections, one towards the rear of the hoard and another towards its centre. As such we just don’t know how far the rich area of jewellery extends throughout the hoard’s body, but it’s certainly further than we initially thought. What we are going to do over the next few months therefore is to extend the coin removal out from the torc area to a 5cm depth over the whole surface and see what we find.

That makes a total of six torcs — five gold, one gold-plated — found so far in an area the size of a shoebox. For more about the history of the coins, the hoard and its discovery, check out the Treasure Island page on the Jersey Heritage website. Keep your eye on Neil Mahrer’s Treasure Island Blog to follow the exciting developments as the conservation continues.

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1927 washroom from Orient Express for sale

December 7th, 2014

A marquetry inlaid mahogany corner washroom complete with all of its ceramic and steel interior fittings made for a sleeping car of the Simplon Orient Express around 1927 is going up for auction next week at Bonhams’ 20th Century Decorative Arts sale. This gem of architectural and iconic Art Deco geometric floral design has a pre-sale estimate of $10,000-$15,000 which is really quite reasonable when you consider that a double cabin on the Paris-Istanbul run of the Orient Express today will set you back $9,270 per person, double occupancy, or $17,840 for a single traveler.

The washroom was created by René Prou, a design pioneer who helped midwife the birth of Art Deco in France. Born in Nantes and educated in Paris, by the time he was 23 in 1912, he was chief designer of furniture company Maison Gouffé and had earned a reputation as a visionary, a decorator for the “goût moderne” (modern taste). He exhibited at the 1925 Paris show of International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts that launched and named the Art Deco style and after that became the head of the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs. Prou became famous for creating the most luxurious train, hotel and ocean liner interiors of the interwar years.

His signature touches were the lacquered panels carved with geometric flower accents. Between 1926 and 1929, Prou designed six different carriages for the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, the hotel and luxury travel company that operated the original Orient Express before World War I and the Simplon Orient Express after the war in its Art Deco heyday. His engraved panels were soon recognized as the quintessence of the “Orient Express Style,” sumptuous in material but with the streamlined elegance and smooth lines of the machine age.

He worked with masters like architect Paul Nelson and glassmaking genius René Lalique on the interior decoration of the Orient Express. Lalique carried the decorative motifs Prou engraved and inlaid on the mahogany and Finnish burr birch paneling into his glass panels. Prou also designed the polished bronze Art Deco lamps in the train and the armchairs that were soon widely copied for home use.

This particular washroom was made around 1927 from a model designed around 1926. A maquette, a scale model 24 inches tall and wide, of the sleeper car with the mahogany corner washroom is included in the auction lot. The washroom is 78.5 inches high, 36 inches wide (closed) and 29 inches deep. It is made of lacquered and marquetry inlaid Honduran and Cuban mahogany and opens to reveal a ceramic wash basin, round shaving mirror, four built-in holders for toiletries, one half-length mirror in each door and multiple compartments in the bottom for trash and accessories.

The provenance is unbeatable: the washroom and maquette come directly from the corporate archives of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits.

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Shackled remains found in Gallo-Roman necropolis

December 6th, 2014

A team of archaeologists with France’s National Institute of Preventative Archaeological Research (INRAP) have unearthed shackled skeletons from a Gallo-Roman necropolis in Saintes, southwestern France. The property was slated for construction of a detached home and an archaeological survey of an adjacent plot last year found evidence of ancient funerary usage. From September to November of this year, the excavation discovered 100 graves dating to the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D.

These were very modest burials. Most of the graves contain double burials, two people buried head to toes in rectangular trenches. One grave was a multiple with five people, two of them adult women and two of them children. Only one of them included any grave goods: a small child buried with seven vases and a coin over each eye to pay the ferryman conveying him over the river into the underworld. The vases date to the second half of the 2nd century A.D. which makes this burial with a funerary practice entirely different from the others one of the later graves in the necropolis.

Perhaps the most intriguing discovery were the remains of five shackled individuals. Three of them are adult men, one is an adult of unknown gender and one is a child. Of the four adults, three had iron shackles hot riveted to their left ankles alone. The fourth had a shackle on the right ankle and a larger one, known as a “bondage collar” or “straitjacket,” around his neck. The child had a shackle on his or her left wrist that was more rudimentary than the ones the adults were made to wear into eternity. It’s flat and curved around the wrist where the ends are riveted together.

Individuals with shackles have been found before from this period in France, but this discovery is notable for having five of them. The adult shackled around the neck and ankle is also unusual. Researchers are hoping to find out more about these people’s lives and deaths by analyzing the human remains, artifacts and shackles. Ideally they’d like to discover the cause of death for all the interred, what kind of food they ate, what kind of work they did, whether they lived together in the same community. If they came from the same place, or at least lived in similar conditions, the bones and teeth will attest to that.

Saintes, known in antiquity as Mediolanum Santonum, was an important regional center in the Roman province of Aquitania. It was founded around 20 B.C. when the Roman roads connecting to Burdigala (modern-day Bordeaux) with its copious tin and lead trade to other towns in the region were expanded. Built at the western end of the Via Agrippa, the major artery that linked Lugdunum (Lyon) to the Atlantic coast, Saintes quickly became thoroughly Romanized with monumental public architecture and utilities.

The necropolis is 270 yards west of the great Roman amphitheater of Saintes. Large enough at its greatest extent to seat 12,000-18,000 people, the amphitheater is one of the largest and oldest in France today. Construction began during the reign of the emperor Tiberius (14-37 A.D.) and was finished around 41 A.D., under the reign of Claudius. As Roman amphitheaters generated significant death both in the construction phases and in their express purpose, it’s possible that the dead of the necropolis were somehow related to the amphitheater.

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Wolsey’s Angels need rescuing and fast

December 5th, 2014

Four bronze angels created for the never-completed tomb of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, lost for centuries, could be scattered again if we can’t raise £1,540,247 by December 31st. As of right now, £3,459,753 has been raised, thanks to a £2 million grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, £500,000 from the Art Fund and donations from individuals through the Victoria & Albert museum’s Wolsey Angels Appeal. I really cannot emphasize enough how much of a monstrous travesty losing the Wolsey Angels would be.

It was Cardinal Wolsey himself, at the peak of his power in 1524, 10 years after he was appointed Cardinal Archbishop of York, on his ninth year as Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII, who commissioned the angels from Florentine sculptor and architect Benedetto da Rovezzano. Benedetto was famous by then as a builder of tombs for the notables of the short-lived Florentine Republic, church reliefs, statues for sepulchral monuments to saints. His Republican sympathies and wholesale loss of patrons after the re-establishment of the Medici rule ultimately drove him out of Florence. In 1519 he moved to London and remained there for 24 years, making sculptures and tombs for the royal court.

Wolsey’s commission was for a monumental tomb in Renaissance style with an angel standing on pillars nine feet tall in each of the four corners, but his end would come before the tomb was completed and in any case his circumstances had changed, to put it mildly. When Wolsey was unable to secure an annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, he wasn’t just fired; he was arrested. In 1529, Henry confiscated Wolsey’s property, including the residence of Hampton Court thenceforth known as Hampton Court Palace and Benedetto da Rovezzano’s four bronze angels and other finished parts of the tomb including the striking black marble sarcophagus. Wolsey died on his way to London to answer to charges of treason in November of 1530.

Henry VIII decided he would use the elements of Wolsey’s tomb to make an even grander tomb for himself, and who better to commission than Benedetto da Rovezzano? Benedetto set up a workshop and foundry at Westminster and set to work on the king’s tomb. By 1543, the tomb still wasn’t finished and Benedetto’s health was suffering so he returned to Italy. According to Vasari, Benedetto experienced vertigo and sight impairment as a result of “standing too long over the fire in the founding of metals, or by some other reasons,” and eventually went completely blind. He died around 1554.

Henry VIII died in 1547 with the tomb incomplete. He was buried with his third wife and mother of his son, Jane Seymour, in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. His three children — Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I — each said they’d have the tomb completed and Henry interred in it, but it never happened. In 1565, Elizabeth moved the tomb parts to Windsor where they were still being kept 80 years later when the dislocation of Civil War struck them. With the Parliamentarian victories in 1645, most of the tomb was sold off. Only the black sarcophagus remained at Windsor. Charles I wanted to buried in it at Westminster Abbey, but the 59 Commissioners who found him guilty of high treason against himself refused permission. Instead he was buried in Henry VIII’s vault in St. George’s Chapel on February 9th, 1649. A suitable use was eventually found for the black coffin: in 1805, King George III gifted the Wolsey-Henry-Charles sarcophagus to serve as a final resting place for Admiral Lord Nelson’s body in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

As for the angels, they disappeared after the Civil War fire sale. It took 350 years for them to turn up again. Unmoored from their illustrious history and unrecognized by appraisal exports, two of the angels came up for auction at Sotheby’s in 1994. The catalogue described them as bronze angels “in the Renaissance style,” not realizing they were originals of major historical significance by a name artist. They didn’t even include a photograph accompanying the entry in the catalogue. The pair sold for £12,000. A few years ago, the auction pair were finally recognized. Italian art historian Francesco Caglioti came across them in the possession of a Paris antiques dealer. He researched the angels and found an exact description of them in a 1530 inventory of Wolsey’s property.

Caglioti didn’t stop there. He went on a quest to find the other two angels, and against every conceivable odds, he found them in 2008 at Harrowden Hall, a Northamptonshire estate that was acquired by the Wellingborough Golf Club in the 1970s. Nobody knows when the angels got there; they were already in place when the stately home became a clubhouse. All four of them were there, as a matter of fact, because the two that were sold at Sotheby’s in 1994 had actually been stolen from the Wellingborough Golf Club in 1988. The angels were standing on posts flanking the entrance gates back then. The golf club people just figured one pair had been stolen for their lead value (they had no idea the angels were even bronze) so they moved the surviving pair indoors and wrote off the loss. As soon as they found out they had Wolsey’s Angels, the club lent them to the V&A for safekeeping.

Now here is the crux of the travesty. Because of the statute of limitations and the many hands and countries with varying applicable laws the stolen angels have passed through, the Wellingborough Gold Club cannot get the angels back from the Paris dealer. Instead, he’s going to sell his pair to the Victoria & Albert for £2.5 million. He may donate some portion of his filthy lucre to the Golf Club, but then again he may not. The Wellingborough has made the same offer for its pair of angels (they can’t be sold to the highest bidder because they are part of the heritage listing of Harrowden Hall) which is why it will cost £5 million to save the four Wolsey Angels for the nation.

Hilary Mantel, author of the Tudor-era historical novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, had this to say about the rediscovery of the Wolsey Angels:

“Thanks to the discovery of Wolsey’s angels, a great Englishman we have forgotten may have his monument at last. The recovery of Wolsey’s angels is one of those miracles that historians pray for; something that seems irrevocably lost has been there all the time. To claim the angels for the nation would connect us to one of the liveliest eras of our history and one of its most remarkable men.”

I asked Brodie Lyon, the V&A’s Annual Fund and Appeals Manager, if there was another large grant in the works to make up for the alarming shortfall and there was none that he could announce publicly, which I hope means there are arrangements going on in the background but could just as well mean that there is no plan B. We need a last minute fundraising push because if this sale doesn’t go through, it looks like those two Paris angels could wind up anywhere in the world and there isn’t a damn thing the law can do about it even though there is no dispute about the fact that they’re stolen goods of immense cultural significance to Britain.

Save the Wolsey Angels!

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Northernmost hacksilver hoard found in Aberdeenshire

December 4th, 2014

Archaeologists from National Museums Scotland (NMS) and Aberdeen University’s Northern Picts Project have unearthed a hoard of Late Roman and Pictish silver fragments in a field in Aberdeenshire (the exact location of the hoard of more than 100 pieces is being kept secret to deter looters). It’s a hoard of hacksilver — bits of larger silver objects cut up for use as currency — made from coins, vessels, bracelets, brooches and more between the 4th and 6th century A.D. This is the northernmost hoard of Late Roman hacksilver ever discovered and the Pictish silver is unique.

As part of the Glenmorangie Research Project, an investigation into the history of early medieval Scotland funded by the Glenmorangie whisky company, National Museums Scotland experts will analyze, document and catalogue every silver fragment in the hoard. The project’s aim is to gain a better understanding of how silver went from a new, exotic Roman material to the most prestigious precious metal used to decorate high status objects in early medieval Scotland.

The discovery fits in to a sequence of silver use and re-use over several centuries that can now be studied alongside two other Scottish hacksilver hoards, the purely Late Roman silver from Traprain Law, East Lothian and the Pictish silver from Norrie’s Law, Fife.

These hoards contain a range of interesting material: earlier items from all over the Roman Empire, but also some unique objects and other later objects which have links to Ireland, the near continent and Anglo-Saxon England and give a snapshot of Scotland in Early Medieval Europe.

NMS researchers hope the comparison of the hoards will help illuminate the interactions between the late Romans and Picts. So far, the project’s investigations in northeastern Scotland have found that the area Picts were part of powerful early medieval kingdoms.

This phase of the project is expected to take three years, but you won’t have to wait that long to see some of the Aberdeenshire hoard in person. Select pieces from the hoard will go on display at the University of Aberdeen’s King’s Museum January 20th to May 31st, 2015.

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Turner’s Mount Aventine sells for $47.5 million

December 3rd, 2014

Rome, from Mount Aventine, one of less than 10 paintings by Joseph Mallord William Turner still in private hands, sold at Sotheby’s in London for £30.3 million ($47.5 million). It’s a new record auction price for the artist, surpassing the previous record-holder, the sublime Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino by $2 million and leaving its pre-sale estimate of £15-20 million ($24,530,000 – $32,707,000) in the dust. In fact, it’s the highest auction price for any pre-20th century British artist.

A landscape of Rome viewed from the Aventine Hill looking north over the Tiber, the 1835 painting wasn’t done live, but rather from the sketches Turner did of the city during his 1828 visit. It’s an unusual prospect: the bustling Porto di Ripa, the Trastevere dock yards in front of the Ospizio di San Michele, in the midfield left, with Saint Peter’s dome in the far distance, the Ponte Emilio in center, and the Capitoline Hill with the bell tower of the Palazzo del Senatore crossing the horizon to the right. On the curve of the Tiber’s right bank stand the ruins of the ancient city: the Roman Forum, the Circus Maximus, even the arches of the Colosseum visible in the misty light of dawn between the trees of the Aventine on the far right of the canvas.

It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1836 to much acclaim. It remained the property of the man who commissioned it, Hugh Andrew Johnstone Munro, until his death. It was purchased from the estate in 1878 by Archibald Primrose, the Fifth Earl of Rosebery and future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (March 5th, 1894 – June 22nd, 1895), who also bought Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino. The Primrose family owned both paintings until they sold Campo Vaccino four years ago to fund an endowment that will support the Rosebery estates indefinitely.

The painting’s rarity, classic subject matter, impeccable provenance and exceptional condition engendered the bidding war. The award-winning success of the movie Mr Turner, starring Timothy Spall as the artist, may have played a part too, at least in keeping Turner’s name on people’s lips.

Alex Bell, joint international head and co-chairman of Sotheby’s Old Master Paintings Department, said: “It is hard to overstate the importance of Rome, From Mount Aventine. There are no more than half a dozen major works by Turner left in private hands and this work must rank as one of the very finest.

“This painting, which is nearly 200 years old, looks today as if it has come straight from the easel of the artist; never relined and never subject to restoration, the picture retains the freshness of the moment it was painted: the hairs from Turner’s brush, his fingerprint, the drips of liquid paint which have run down the edge of the canvas, and every scrape of his palette knife have been preserved in incredible detail.”

The buyer is an anonymous phone bidder who went up against three strongly motivated bidders on the floor. I’m hoping we’ll get a press release from a museum claiming responsibility. If the buyer plans to take it out of Britain, he or she can expect a temporary export ban like the one that delayed, but ultimately was unable to block, the Getty’s acquisition of Campo Vaccino.

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Iron Age tunic found in Norway glacier recreated

December 2nd, 2014

In 2011, archaeologists exploring the rapidly melting Lendbreen glacier in Norway’s Breheimen National Park discovered an intact woolen tunic dating to between 230 and 390 A.D. It is the oldest garment ever found in Norway, and it wasn’t new when for unknown reasons it was left on a glacier to freeze solid. There are several patches and the sleeves were sewn onto the tunic after the original manufacture. Although it could have been decades old, it was still entirely in wearable condition, and yet it was found bundled up and covered in horse manure. Archaeologists speculated that its 5’9″ wearer removed it believing himself to be hot, a common delusion caused by hypothermia, but it may also have been put to some other purpose rather than as clothing.

Its exceptional condition and the visible repairs afford researchers a unique chance to examine Iron Age wool, textile production and garment construction. To learn more about how the tunic was made, two museums — the University of Olso’s Museum of Cultural History and the Norwegian Mountain Museum in Lom — will create reproductions using traditional techniques. It’s going to be a highly detailed and complex process that enlists the labour of expert craftsmen.

First they have to source the proper wool. Ancient Norwegian sheep breeds had two kinds of wool: the long, stiff, water-resistant outer coat known as overhair, and the soft, fluffy inner layer known as underwool. The two layers were used to make different kinds of garments. The overhair was ideal for outerwear to protect from the elements, but the Lendbreen tunic was made almost entirely from underwool.

Wool from most modern sheep breeds is akin to the ancient underwool, but wild breeds still have the two layers. Researchers are therefore securing the wool of Norwegian wild sheep from a farmer at Hareid in northwestern Norway’s Sunnmøre region. Then traditional wool spinnery at Selbu Spinneri wll separate the overhair from the underwool by hand. They have no idea how long this painstaking work will take (my guess is a long damn time). Once the overhair has been plucked out, the spinners will spin some of the underwool on a hand spindle just as it would have been done in the Iron Age. (Spinning wheels were invented in the 18th century. EDIT: According to the linked release about the project, that is, but several erudite commenters below have corrected the contention. I suspect is a translation error and they were referring to mechanized spinning.) The project can’t afford to spin all the wool they need by hand, so some of it will be spun mechanically.

Because the tunic was woven in a diamond twill pattern, the Selbu Spinneri will sort the underwool into shades of grey so the darkest and lightest wool can be woven into this distinctive pattern. Once spun, the yard will be woven into the diamond twill textile on a vertical warp-weighted loom, an ancient machine that is simple, functional and slow.

Consisting of a simple upright frame with two horizontal beams, the loom is leant against a wall. The vertical warp threads hang freely from the upper beam. To keep the warp threads taut, stones or other heavy weights are hung from the bottom of bundles of warp threads. The weaving is done from the top of the loom downwards and every line of weft thread is beaten tightly in place with a sword beater.

The textiles will be woven by handweaver Lena Hammarlund from Gothenburg. Lena specializes in reconstructing prehistoric textiles.

Lena Hammarlund from Gothenburg, you are so cool.

After Ms. Hammarlund does her thing, the woven textile will be sewn into two tunics by traditional tailors from Heimen Husflid in Oslo. Once the tunics are completed, they will go on display, one at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, the other at the Lom museum. The latter is just six miles east of the Lendbreen glacier and has a large collection of artifacts recovered since the thaws began accelerating in 2006.

Marianne Vedeler, Associate Professor at the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo, hopes the reconstruction won’t just give us a new understanding of the manufacture of ancient woollen clothing, but will also have an impact on Norwegian clothing design today.

“Clothes were not consumer items in the Iron Age. It was important to be able to re-use clothing, and in those days clothes lasted a long time. Today, we spend enormous resources on clothes. And modern clothes are not durable. If we can use local raw materials and create clothing of high quality, it will be good for us all. We are therefore hoping that designers will be inspired by this example of old, Norwegian design. If we can create modern textiles from a prehistoric design, we hope also to be able to give a boost to the Norwegian wool industry. Sadly, much of the wool from the old sheep breeds currently goes to waste.”

I’m picturing a Norwegian wild sheep overhair trench coat. I know I’d wear one.

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View restoration of della Francesca’s Resurrection by app

December 1st, 2014

The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca, a fresco judged by Aldous Huxley to be “the best picture in the world,” is receiving a much-needed restoration. A team from Florence’s conservation institute the Opificio delle Pietre Dure will spend a projected 18 months in the Upper Tiber Valley town of Sansepolcro, Tuscany, restoring the 15th century masterpiece and they will do it in plain view of the public thanks to a custom scaffolding bridge that will leave the painting visible while experts work on it. Public restorations are increasingly common these days, but this project will vastly expand the range of public view with an app that will allow people to follow the restoration from the comfort of their own smartphones. The app debuts in January.

Restoring The Resurrection is a complex problem. Piero della Francesca used different types of paint — fresco, tempera — and design techniques. Pigments like cinnabar red lacquer, malachite and white lead are typical of tempera. Because of the diverse materials, restorers will have to work on the painting inch by inch. The Opificio experts have studied the work using 20 non-invasive techniques — among them UV imaging, infrared imaging, careful visual examination of the surface — and found areas where the paint is discolored, flaking and cracking, and which of those are original, which past restorations. There are places where the fresco’s plaster is peeling off the wall. A 3D reconstruction of the work derived from the imaging data indicates that damage and dirt have obscured many of the painting’s unique perspectival elements.

The wall itself is in need of repair because multiple earthquakes over the centuries have caused structural problems. Although it adds another layer of difficulty to the project, treating the wall has an upside. Restorers are hoping it will answer questions about when the painting was moved to its current location. Della Francesca painted it for the Town Hall in the 1460s to celebrate Florence returning control of the building and some measure of political autonomy to Sansepolcro, but it was originally on the wall of another room in the building. The bottom-to-top perspective suggests it was once placed higher than it is now. It was thought to have been moved to its current room in the 16th century, but there are a lot of open questions about the history of the work.

In Huxley’s 1925 essay The Best Picture (pdf), he provides a whole other backstory:

The best picture in the world is painted in fresco on the wall of a room in the town hall. Some unwittingly beneficent vandal had it covered, some time after it was painted, with a thick layer of plaster, under which it lay hidden for a century or two, to be revealed at last in a state of preservation remarkably perfect for a fresco of its date. Thanks to the vandals, the visitor who now enters the Palazzo
dei Conservatori at Borgo San Sepolcro finds the stupendous Resurrection almost as Piero della Francesca left it. Its clear, yet subtly sober colours shine out from the wall with scarcely impaired freshness. Damp has blotted out nothing of the design, nor dirt obscured it. We need no imagination to help us figure forth its beauty; it stands there before us in entire and actual splendour, the greatest picture in the world.

If Huxley’s description is accurate, the condition of the work has degenerated precipitously in just 90 years.

The Resurrection has a profound connection to Sansepolcro. Piero della Francesca was a native son (the sleeping soldier in the brown armour underneath the staff of Jesus’ banner is thought to be a self-portrait). He incorporated the city’s symbolism into the painting. The rock in the bottom right depicts the stone from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that according to legend pilgrims Arcanus and Aegidius brought back from Jerusalem with them when they founded the town they then named after the church. The Christ figure from the painting is the central element of the city’s coat of arms.

Then there’s the more recent history when The Resurrection saved Sansepolcro from destruction in World War II. In 1944, Royal Horse Artillery captain Anthony Clarke was ordered shell the city in advance of Allied infantry troops. Clarke had seen the obliteration of the monastery at Monte Cassino as a result of Allied bombing, a destruction that turned out to be not just futile (the Germans weren’t occupying the monastery as the Allies believed) but counterproductive since German paratroopers moved into the ruins which gave them outstanding cover and made them very hard to dislodge. He had also read Huxley’s essay and remembered, even though he had never seen the painting, that The Resurrection was in Sansepolcro. Taking an enormous personal risk, Clarke did not relay the order to fire.

He later said his commanding officer had come on the radio urging him to get on with it so he had to stall for time, peering at the town through binoculars and assuring his commander that he could see no German targets to go after.

It was a brave action. Had Allied infantry been ambushed as they advanced on Sansepolcro, his court martial would have been brutal.

But, for the love of art, he kept the guns silent. The Germans fled and the town was liberated the following day without any damage to the 500-year-old work of art.

There’s a street named after Tony Clarke in Sansepolcro now.

The restoration is estimated to cost 200,000 euros ($250,000). The town council has scared up 40,000 euros from its threadbare budget. Former Buitoni pasta and sauce executive Also Osti has pleged 100,000 euros. A friend convinced him to donate, and he was easily persuaded because he although he now lives in Switzerland, he lived in Sansepolcro, headquarters of the Buitoni company, for many years. His son was born there. The city is working on raising the remaining 60,000 euros from other private donors. Meanwhile they have enough to get started and keep going for a while.

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Lost avant-garde painting found in Stuart Little’s living room

November 30th, 2014

Art historian Gergely Barki was watching Stuart Little with his daughter Lola on Christmas Day 2008 when he recognized a painting above the living room fireplace as Sleeping Lady with a Black Vase, a lost masterpiece by Hungarian Avant-Garde painter Róbert Berény. Berény painted Sleeping Lady with a Black Vase at the turn of 1927/1928. The model was his second wife, cellist Eta Breuer who posed for several of her husband’s post-Impressionist works, often with her cello even though she had stopped playing professionally when she married Berény. Barki, a researcher at the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest, is writing a biography of the artist and recognized the painting from the last known record of it: a black and white photograph taken at an exhibition in Hungary in 1928. It was bought at that exhibition by an unknown person, perhaps someone Jewish who fled the country before or during World War II. In the chaos of war and its aftermath, Sleeping Lady with a Black Vase disappeared.

After he beheld the work in living color casually hanging behind Hugh Laurie, Geena Davis and a stylishly attired CGI mouse 90 years after its disappearance, Barki barraged Sony Pictures, Columbia Pictures, cameramen, propmasters, directors, anyone connected with the movie that might have some information about the painting, with emails, but nobody knew where the piece was. It was no longer on Sony’s books because at some point between 1999 and 2002 it had been loaned to the CBS drama Family Law and was removed from the warehouse inventory at that time.

Two years later, he heard from Lisa S., an assistant set designer on Stuart Little. She had bought the painting for $500 from an antiques store in Pasadena specifically for the movie because she thought its cool elegance was perfectly suited for the Little’s New York City apartment. Lisa S. had tracked it down in another warehouse and purchased it from Sony just because she liked it so much. When she contacted Barki, she had no idea of the history of the painting hanging on her bedroom wall.

After Barki visited the painting in person and confirmed its identity, Lisa sold it to a private collector. That collector has now been persuaded to sell it in Hungary. It will go up for auction at the Virag Judit Art Gallery in Budapest on December 13th with a starting price of 110,000 euros ($160,000). Gergely Barki won’t make a dime off of his discovery, but he will have a great story to tell in his biography of the artist.

Róbert Berény’s fame today is centered around his being one of The Eight, a group of artists who introduced the Post-Impressionist avant-garde to Hungary in 1909. He had studied art in Paris starting when he was 17 years old in 1904, exhibiting with the French Fauvists and then incorporating the influence of Cezanne and Matisse into his work with The Eight. The Eight had a profound influence on Hungarian culture, literature and music as well as the visual arts.

In addition to his work in painting and other graphic arts (he designed a well known propaganda poster entitled To Arms! To Arms! for Béla Kun’s Hungarian Revolution of 1919), Berény was also a writer, violinist, pianist, composer and inventor who experimented with moving film and even made an early version of 3D glasses. He and his first wife Ilona Somló, nicknamed Léni, were also close friends with pioneering psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi and were involved in early psychoanalysis experiments including ones on telepathy.

In his personal life, Berény was a notorious lothario. Among his lovers are numbered Marlene Dietrich and a so-called “Russian princess” who may actually have been Anna Anderson, the Polish factor worker who for decades claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra and magical survivor of the firing squad that slaughtered the Romanovs in 1918.

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Help fund Sandby ringfort excavation

November 29th, 2014

If we ever want to find out what happened at the Sandby Borg ringfort in the 5th century A.D. that left dead bodies to rot where they fell and treasure hidden for 1,600 years, we’re going to have to contribute funds. Sandby Borg was discovered on the island of Öland off the southeastern coast of Sweden in 2010 when the presence of looting pits alerted archaeologists to the site. A scan with metal detectors found five hoards each containing highly decorated gilded silver brooches, finger rings, silver bell pendants and glass beads with millefiori designs, buried in the corners of five houses in the central block of the fort.

The next year, archaeologists from the Kalmar County Museum in Sweden returned to excavate and found human skeletons of men killed by violence. In subsequent digs, more skeletons were discovered for a total of at least 10. This summer a potentially highly significant gold solidus was found in a posthole of House 40. In September of this year, for the first time the remains of a small child aged two to five years were found, an extremely important discovery since it suggests there were families in the fort, not just adults. The child was found in the same house as a middle aged man (50-60 years old) who was found lying prone in the fireplace. He was probably struck by a weapon and fell face-down into the fireplace where he came to a gruesome end.

So far less than 3% of the fort has been excavated. Each year archaeologists have only a few short days to dig test pits and every time they’ve uncovered tantalizing evidence of the horror that befell the residents of Sandby Borg in the 5th century. They don’t have the funding to thoroughly excavate any one part of the ringfort, however, which is not only frustrating for our insatiable historical curiosity, but also potentially dangerous since it leaves precious archaeological context and material culture in danger of interference.

Enter Kickstarter. The Kalmar County Museum Department of Archaeology has started a campaign to raise 400,000 kronor ($52,000), a modest goal that will allow them to zero in on one area and produce a book about their finds.

If we reach our goal with this Kickstarter campaign, we will be able to excavate the remaining 1/3 of the house known as House 40 and produce a richly illustrated book presenting the results in English and Swedish. This is the house where at least six people are lying dead on the floor. Two of them have already been recovered, but the remaining four or more are still there. One main objective of investigating the rest of the house is to recover the skeletons. Furthermore, this particular house has proven to contain numerous potential clues to what actually happened here, and why. The Roman gold coin mentioned above is one example; some exquisite details from weaponry are another. The funding will cover both costs for personnel during fieldwork and post-excavation work and analyses, but also for the production of the book.

You have to donate at the 1,000 kronor level ($134) to get the book. If you have deeper pockets (15,000 kr, or $2,012), you can secure a VIP tour of the site personally guided by lead archaeologist Dr. Helena Victor. If you’re Oprah rich, pledge 50,000 kr ($6,700) and you get to get in the trenches and dig! God that’s such a cool reward I can’t even stand it.

The Kickstarter has been open since November 27th and has already raised 68,155 kronor just from small donors. The deadline is December 31st. A donation would make a fine present for the history nerd on your list.

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