800 medieval illuminated manuscripts digitized

March 16th, 2019

England and France may have had one or two little issues with each other in the Middle Ages, but all is forgiven now and 800 medieval illuminated manuscripts have been digitized and made available to the public on the websites of the British Library and Bibliothèque Nationale de France. The BL and BnF have the largest collections of medieval illuminated manuscripts in the world. To make some of these masterpieces accessible to the general public, both libraries worked together with funding from the Polonsky Foundation, a charitable organization that focuses on preserving and sharing cultural heritage primarily through the digitizing of important collections.

The carefully curated collection features works created in Medieval England and France between 700 and 1200 A.D.

The manuscripts have been selected for their historical significance in terms of relations between France and England during the Middle Ages. They are also of unique artistic, historical or literary interest. Produced between the eighth and the end of the twelfth century, they cover a wide range of subjects, illustrating intellectual production during the early middle ages and the Roman period. Among these manuscripts are a few precious, sumptuously illuminated examples such as the Benedictional of Winchester around the year 1000, the Bible de Chartres around 1140 or the Great Canterbury Anglo-Catalan Psalter produced circa 1200.

With this corpus being of undisputable scientific interest, the programme is also characterised by several manuscript recovery operations: digitisation, online dissemination, restoration, scientific description and even mediation.

The BnF portal provides access to all 800 manuscripts. They are grouped according to themes, authors, places and centuries for ease of navigation and can be searched in English, French and Italian. The technical tools are downright nifty. Manuscripts can be viewed side-by-side for comparison. They can be annotated online and the annotations downloaded as json files for sharing. Manuscript pages can be downloaded as individual images or the entire manuscript can be download as a PDF.

The BL portal presents a selection of manuscripts. Articles on subjects like medieval legal, medical and musical writing place the works in their historical context and significance. There are also pieces on the wider background of illumination, book-making, science and learning in the Middle Ages. A few of the manuscripts in the collection have been highlighted here, and boy are they showstoppers — lavish illustrations, intricately carved ivory and precious metal covers, hymnals, psalters and a phenomenal bestiary.


Panorama of London 20 feet wide goes on display

March 15th, 2019

A huge panorama of London as it was at the end of the Napoleonic wars has gone on display at the Museum of London. The watercolour over pencil work was painted by Pierre Prévost in 1815. As huge as this panorama is, it is just a fraction of what it was meant to be. It’s a preparatory study for a panorama more than 100 feet wide. Prévost successfully completed the behemoth, the epitome of his work as a panoramist, but it is now lost.

Panoramas were all the rage starting in the late 18th century. The term was coined by artist Robert Barker in 1787 when he had the idea to create a 360° view of a city in detailed perspective. Viewers would stand in the center of a custom-built rotunda and immerse themselves in the vista of a distant city. Barker built his first rotunda and panorama in 1793 and by 1800 they had taken off like wildfire.

Prévost was one of the premiere artists of the form. His first panorama, View of Paris from the Tuileries, was created in 1799. Many others followed, including views of Amsterdam, Athens and Jerusalem. He went to London to make a panorama of the city in 1802 (also lost), during the brief break in the Napoleonic wars after the Piece of Amiens, and then returned after Waterloo in 1815 to create the view from Westminster Abbey of which this prep is all that remains.

Painted from the bell tower of St Margaret’s church, right next to Westminster Abbey, the view encompasses the Abbey, its graveyard, the Middlesex Guildhall (then only 10 years old), the medieval Houses of Parliament which would be destroyed in a catastrophic fire in 1834, St. James’ Park, the Palace of Whitehall’s Banqueting House, the future Trafalgar Square and the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Prévost captures not just London’s architecture, but its lifeblood as well. There are street scenes of people going about their business — carts carrying goods, shops, a factory — and views of the bustling shipping trade on the Thames.

The finished panorama was exhibited in a rotunda in Paris. That the preparatory drawing has survived is remarkable. Highly finished, detailed, scale sketches were necessary to create so enormous a finished painting, but only one other is known from the many panoramas in Prévost’s oeuvre, a view of Constantinople now in the Louvre.

It was recently rediscovered at sold at auction at Sotheby’s on July 4th, 2018, for 250,000 ($330,000). The Museum of London was able to acquire it with the support of the Art Fund, the Aldama Foundation and several private donors. Since then it has been conserved by museum experts and is on display for the first time as of today.

The photograph cannot do this work justice because it’s so much wider than it is high, but thankfully the Museum of London has create a neat video that scrolls over the panorama with key sites labelled.


Campaign secures Neolithic ball for Perth Museum

March 14th, 2019

An intricately carved Neolithic stone ball discovered in the Ochil Hills near Sherriffmuir in Perthshire, central Scotland, will stay in its native soil after a fundraising campaign secured it for the Perth Museum and Art Gallery. The 4,000-year-old stone was declared Treasure Trove according to Scottish law and allocated to the Perth Museum, but because budget cuts have slashed its acquisitions budget, the museum had to raise money to secure it. The Perthshire Society of Natural Science opened an online crowd-funding campaign and was able to raise £1625 well before the March 26th deadline. A grant from the National Fund for Acquisitions chipped in matching funds.

Stone balls carved in the Late Stone Age (around 3200 – 2500 BC) are a big thing in Scotland. Out of about 530 that have been found in Northern Europe, 520 of them were found in Scotland. More than a third of them are in the National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh. That the Sheriffmuir Ball will remain local is all the more significant because it is one of fewer than 50 of the known Neolithic balls to have decorative carving and it’s a particularly elaborate one. It’s also one of the most southernly balls ever found in Scotland.

Since the first one was discovered 150 years ago, archaeologists have debated what the purpose of the balls might have been. None of them have been found in or near burial, so they were not used as funerary offerings or grave goods. They could have been weapons, tools or status symbols, or perhaps a combination of any of those.

They are roughly the same size and while remaining circular in dimensions, they have been carved to have lobes or knobs. The ones that are decorated have spirals and curved carved into the surface. The Sheriffmuir Ball has a grid pattern on one lobe, five parallel lines on another and an off-center circle on a third.

You can explore it in the 3D model created by National Museums Scotland:


Boston College tackified and neglected mascot is Meiji masterpiece

March 13th, 2019

A bronze eagle that spent 90 years exposed to the harshest of elements on a column like an aquiline Simeon Stylites has been found to be a masterpiece from Japan’s Meiji period (1868–1912). The 340-pound bronze of an eagle taking flight (or landing) was donated to Boston College in 1954 by Gus Anderson, a gardener who had inherited it from the estate of collectors Larz and Isabel Weld Anderson (no relation) after the latter’s death in 1948. The Andersons had acquired it in Japan during their 1897 honeymoon. They installed it in the Japanese garden of their palatial estate, Weld, in Brookline, Massachusetts, where it remains for five decades. When it moved to Boston College it was again placed outdoors, this time perched atop a 34-foot column in front of Gasson Hall. It was also gilded for some ungodly reason, possibly because the eagle is the mascot of the college’s sports teams and their colors are maroon and gold.

In 1993, a workmen making repairs to Gasson Hall saw from their high viewpoint that the eagle had taken a beating by the severe New England weather. It was removed from the column and disassembled into five component parts. Each of them was used to make a plaster cast from which a replica of the eagle was created. The replica was then put on top of the column and the original boxed up, each part in its own box, and stored in the studio where the casts had been made.

It was broken down and unappreciated for a couple of decades until an artist who had traced its history alerted the college that they actually had something special there.

The university called in the local firm Rika Smith McNally & Associates to conserve the work.

A Meiji attribution was confirmed by an analysis by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The high lead content corresponded with karakane alloys used by Meiji artists to achieve a hallmark fluidity in wavy parallel lines, which are “incredible” around the beak and eyes, says Rika Smith McNally.

“When we got to the pupil, we knew we were dealing with a Japanese Meiji work because the eyeball was made using the shakudo technique,” in which a raised black copper pupil is attached to the centre of a gold-leafed eye, she adds. “It gives a very animated appearance to the eye.”

The eagle, put back together and restored to its original glory, has gone on display at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art in Eaglemania: Collecting Japanese Art in Gilded Age America, an exhibition centered around the eagle, its importance as a motif in Japanese art and the fashion for Japanese art in among the wealthy bluebloods of late 19th century Boston. The exhibition runs through June 2nd of this year.

“The McMullen Museum is pleased to celebrate the painstaking restoration and research that recently revealed the artistic significance of a virtually lost monumental bronze masterpiece from Japan’s Meiji period,” said McMullen Museum Director and Professor of Art History Nancy Netzer. “The exhibition and accompanying scholarly volume contextualize the history of Boston College’s eagle sculpture and the argument for its probable attribution to the circle of master artist Suzuki Chōkichi (1848–1919) with an array of magnificent loans, many of which have never been displayed publicly in New England.”

This video recounting the bird’s journey from ruination to renewal has some breathtaking views of the details of the sculpture. I got a lump in my throat when the conservators removed ever so gently cotton swabbed away that hideous gilding.


Police seize smuggled leather Hebrew manuscript

March 12th, 2019

Turkish police have seized a leather manuscript believed to have been looted from Syria in an anti-smuggling operation in Kırşehir, central Turkey. Two individuals identified only as Erkan Ş. and Kısmet G. were stopped by the Kırşehir Police Department Anti-Smuggling and Organized Crime and Anti-Narcotics Department while driving on the Ankara-Kayseri highway. Stashed on the side of the seat wrapped in a blanket was the 12-page volume. The suspects were arrested and charged with antiquities trafficking.

According to suspects’ testimonies to the police, they bought the manuscript in the southeastern Mardin province and were planning to sell it in Istanbul for a large sum of money.

The manuscript was stolen from a museum in Syria during the conflict and was brought to Mardin illegally, the suspects said in their testimonies.

That’s all the information reported so far, which is barely any information at all. It’s only post-worthy because of the illuminations.

The manuscript is 16 pages long and is written in Hebrew in gold ink. The cover has metallic accents: four birds, one in each corner, on circular perches and a Star of David with a red stone in the center hexagon in the middle of the page. Most of the sheets are illuminated with an intriguing variety of images, including a dragon or griffin, two cows looking at each other challengingly, a hamsa hand, a menorah, a Star of David, an owl with a skull on its belly and a man in draped robes.

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I find the iconography fascinating. The owl with a skull on its belly and the man in draped robes are particularly intriguing. The owl is listed among the abomination birds in Leviticus and in medieval Christendom it was often used to symbolize Jews as creatures of darkness because of their rejection of Christ. As for the man, the prohibition against graven images put a damper on figural depictions in Jewish art, but it didn’t prevent it entirely. There are frescoes, mosaics and manuscripts with images of Biblical figures, even ones from pagan mythology employed as metaphors. He could be a representation of a prophet or anybody else, for that matter. He does bear a resemblance to other rough drawn images of Jesus, however.

If it is meant to be Christ, he and the skull-bellied owl share the volume with unambiguous symbols of Judaism, the Star of David and the menorah, and the hamsa hand, a symbol very common in albeit not exclusive to Judaism. Not that I’m any kind of expert, or even a well-informed amateur, but I wonder if this be an artifact from one of the Jewish Christian communities that are known to have been in Syria in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, like the Ebionites or Nazarenes.

\end shamelessly speculative romp

The manuscript has been transferred to the Kırşehir Museum Directorate which will study it and determine its origins. Here’s hoping the findings are released.


Silver gilt cup from Texel shipwreck restored

March 11th, 2019

A silver gilt cup found in the wreck of 17th century merchant ship in the Wadden Sea near the island of Texel, northern Holland, has been restored and put on display at the Kaap Skil Museum on Texel.

It was one of more than a thousand objects recovered from the wreck site in 2014 after shifting sediment exposed them to the elements. Centuries under layers of silt and sand in the cold waters of the Wadden Sea had preserved organic materials in astounding condition. High-end textiles were found in beautiful condition, including silk stockings, a red velvet pouch embroidered with silver thread, and a silk gown so exquisite that one professor described it as “the Night Watch of the costume world.”

Known as the boxwood wreck, after its cargo of boxwood timbers, or Texel wreck, it was carrying artifacts of such exceptional quality that there was immediate speculation that it might have been transporting members of aristocracy, perhaps even royalty, or at least their stuff. A leather book cover stamped in gold with the coat of arms of King Charles I suggested a Stuart connection and in the initial excitement of the find, the silk gown was identified as having belonged to Jean Kerr, Countess of Roxburghe, lady-in-waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria. That hypothesis was disproved when researchers discovered the dress was made in Northwestern Europe, not England.

The most recent findings of the ongoing study into the wreck, announced at the Rijksmuseum last Thursday when the show cup was unveiled, point to the ship having been a Dutch trade vessel traveling from the Levant and Mediterranean through the Straits of Gibraltar. Its cargo attests to its voyages — boxwood trunks, French and Italian pottery, caftans from the Ottoman Empire, a Persian rug,

The silver gilt cup was also made in continental Europe, likely southern Germany. The cities of Nuremberg and Augsburg were known for their silversmiths who produced show cups like this. Unfortunately the seal that would precisely pinpoint the shop where it was made is missing, but the style of the cup dates it to the late 16th century, so at least 50 years before the ship’s last voyage, estimated to have taken place about 1650.

When it was recovered from the water, the metal cup was in worse shape than the fine silk stockings. It was broken into three pieces and and severely dented, coated in heavy black corrosion. Most of the dents were repairable, thankfully, and the thick crust of corrosion was removed. Restorers worked on it for four years to reveal the intricate details of its decoration. It chased and molded with floral motifs, vases and masks. Standing on the lid is a figurine of Mars. He would have originally held a shield, now lost.

The sometime showpiece is now a showpiece once again, on display from March 9th to September 9th at the museum’s exhibition of select objects from the boxwood wreck. The 450-page report on the wreck, Wereldvondsten uit een Hollands schip (World finds from a Dutch ship, according to the always questionable Google Translate) is available for sale at the museum. I couldn’t find it online, much to my disappointment, because I would nerd out all over that.


Bulgari funds Largo Argentina refurb; cats are cool with it

March 10th, 2019

Makers of fine jewelry and timepieces Bulgari has agreed to fund the restoration of the Area Sacra of the Largo Argentina to the tune of one million euros ($1,123,000). In 2014, the brand funded a €1.5 million restoration of the Spanish Steps. That was completed in 2016, and in a shocking development, there was €485,593 of that funding left when the job was done. Bulgari had agreed up front that any unused moneys would be relayed to another historical site in Rome among the countless number in dire need of care.

Bulgari and city officials have been working out what to do with the remainder of the donation since last year. Last month Rome mayor Virginia Raggi announced that the Area Sacra of the Largo Argentina was the lucky winner, and that Bulgari had chipped in an addition €500,000 to make the site fully accessible to visitors.

Attempted restorations to the Area Sacra are nothing new. The city has been at it off and on for a decade, starting a project when they’ve scared up a few ducats to only to stop abruptly when the coffers are empty again. The result is a confused mixture of weedy and garbage-strewn ruins with stacks of unlabeled stones. It’s a damn shame, and not so much because you can get a glimpse of part of the tufa foundations of the curia of Pompey’s Theater. That’s really more of a Julius Caesar-related marketing ploy. Yes, Caesar was stabbed to death in that general area. He walked up what is now the Via Arenula to the curia where Brutus, Cassius and the rest of the lean-and-hungry assemblage of assassins awaited him with concealed daggers.

Circular Temple built by Quintus Lutatius Catulus in 101 B.C. Largo di Torre ArgentinaBut Pompey’s Theater was massive, extending from what is now Campo de’ Fiori to the Largo Argentina. Even when it was intact the curia was a comparatively small bit at the end of a 100-column quadriporticus, dwarfed by the amphitheater at the other end which was kind of the point of the exercise as Rome’s first permanent theater.

The overall significance of the site, and the reason the curia was used for senatorial business, are the four Republican-era temples whose remains still stand in the Area Sacra. It is the largest surviving section of Republican architecture in Rome. They range in date from the 4th to the 2nd century B.C., and the parts of them that managed to cling to life after centuries of quarrying and overbuilding were rediscovered in the early 20th century during works to modernize Rome’s infrastructure. Protective walls were built around the temple site and the piazza with its tram lines and wide roads was constructed with a big ol’ Republican pit in the middle.

Stacks of architectural remnants in the Area Sacra and overseer.Now that the Area Sacra of Largo Argentina has been selected as the recipient, concrete steps have to be taken to convert theoretical plans into practical plan of execution. Experts will need to study the site thoroughly, make specific architectural designs and invite bids from contractors for the new construction. None of that has happened yet. Right now, the preliminary plan is that the ruins will be secured, the randomly arranged architectural remains organized, two new walkways and an elevator will be installed to make the descent down the Republican level possible. The ambitious goal is for the project to be completed by mid-2021. We shall see.

Meanwhile, the big question that leaps to everyone’s mind, I’m sure, is what is to become of the cats? As an unabashed fan of the Largo Argentina Roman Cat Sanctuary, naturally I had to reach out to the fine folks who run it to get the real scuttlebutt on the refurbishment plans and the impact they might have on the sanctuary. Silvia Zerenghi confirmed that the sanctuary was not in any danger. About a month ago their lawyers were called and reassured that the revitalization project would not displace them, that the sanctuary would remain undisturbed in its current location.

So it seems the cats and their staff will be left alone, which is very much how they like it. All the same, the sanctuary is not resting on its laurels (getit?!). “We are always a little suspicious, of course,” says Zerenghi. “It is the feline nature, I think, we have learned,” and just like the adorable deadly predators it caters to, the sanctuary is fully prepared to hiss and bite should circumstances shift treacherously. The last time they were threatened with eviction, the sanctuary marshaled its supporters to call, email, blog and generally deluge the mayor, the Superintendence and the press with protests. All talk of eviction ceased and the status quo won the day. They’re ready to turn on the floodgates again at a moment’s notice. Clearly the lesson was learned thoroughly the first time which is why the government went out of its way to forestall any concerns the sanctuary might have before the news broke. Mess with the cat, you get the claws.


Princess vs. Countess: a topless duel over flowers

March 9th, 2019

In August of 1892, a duel took place in Liechtenstein. The two adversaries took the field armed with rapiers to take satisfaction in blood over an unpardonable outrage: a dispute over a flower arrangement.

The precise nature of the disagreement has been lost in the mists of time. All we know is that Princess Pauline Metternich, granddaughter of Napoleonic-era Austrian statesman Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, and Countess Anastasia Kilmannsegg, wife of the Statthalter of Lower Austria, had conflicting visions of how the flowers should be arranged at the Viennese International Exhibition of Music and Theater of 1892. Both of the ladies were high society fixtures in Paris and Vienna of the late 19th century. Both of them volunteered for a number of charitable organizations and were active supporters of the arts.

The Internationale Musik und Theaterwesenausstellung was the artistic event of fin de siècle Vienna, and while little remembered today, its influence was enormous and has played a foundational role in the perception of musical culture extending to the present. Inspired by the madly popular trend for world fairs launched by the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851, the Viennese International Exhibition was a showcase of the greatest music Europe’s most musical city could offer and the first large-scale marketing blitz to monetize and promote that artistic output. It was the first and only world’s fair ever to focus exclusively on music and theater, and the very idea of “classical music,” defined as European music from the mid-16th century through the end of the 19th, was birthed there on May 7th, 1892. By the time the exhibition ended on October 9th, the notion was firmly established, as was the image of Vienna as the capital of European music.

Princess Pauline and Countess Kilmannsegg held important volunteer positions at this once-in-a-lifetime event. The Princess served as Honorary President, the Countess as President of the Ladies Committee. It was the Princess’ idea, in fact, the expand the purview of the festival to cover theater as well as music, and to make it international (in the Eurocentric sense) instead of a the original idea which was a far more modest exhibition dedicated to the history of Austrian music. Because of her operas like Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana were staged to great acclaim at the Exhibition. (Not in a single bill together, though. The classic CavPag pairing debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in New York a year later.)

The Princess also founded the Flower Parade down the main street of the Prater, a tradition she began in 1886 that continues to this day, and she was described in one paper (before the duel) as “having inherited a courage which borders on insanity from her father, Count Sandor, who was famous for his hair-brained extravagances.” So maybe that explains why whatever the Countess had to say about the flower arrangements at the International Exhibition so deeply appalled the Princess and why she was willing to take it to the point of bloodshed.

Princess Pauline Metternich, then 56 years of age and so great a doyenne in Austrian society that she was held in far higher social regard than the Empress Elizabeth, challenged Countess Kilmannsegg to a duel. As dueling was illegal in Austria, they and their seconds Princess Schwarzenberg and Countess Kinsky respectively, went to Vaduz, capital of Liechtenstein, to let their rapiers do the talking.

Presiding over the encounter was Baroness Lubinska, a Polish noblewoman who had been sent for from Warsaw to oversee the violence. The Baroness was a medical doctor, a rarity for women at that time, and rarer than that, she practiced Listerite principles. This was an important asset for someone who might have to field-dress rapier wounds. The Baroness had seen first-hand how easily infection could set in with even superficial cuts in battle because dirty clothes would be stabbed into the wound and make it fester, so she told the male footmen and coachman to turn around and ordered the dueling parties to strip to the waist.

This was not to be a duel to the death. The aim was first blood only. Princess Metternich and Countess Kilmannsegg, both topless, picked up their rapiers and engaged. After a few exchanges, one received a small cut to the nose, the other one to the arm. Contemporary reports, sparse on detail, are inconsistent about which one of them took which blow. Either way, first blood had been drawn by Princess Metternich. She was declared the winner and fighting ceased. The doctor dressed their wounds and the seconds suggested the ladies embrace and kiss. They did so and thus ended the great Topless Flower Arrangement Duel of 1892.

The encounter caused a sensation. It became known as the Emancipated Duel and scenes of topless women swordfighting became very popular on stage, screen and in naughty postcards.

EDIT: Darnit, too many smart people read this blog. It seems there is no hard evidence for this duel ever having taken place. The contemporary accounts were basically gossip. I can’t help but hope that the Princess denied it happened to preserve her privacy. Yeah, that’s the ticket. PISTOLES AT DAWN for anyone who tries to persuade me otherwise.


6500-year-old skeleton found in Bavarian cornfield

March 8th, 2019

Archaeologists have discovered the skeletal remains of an adult male dating back to the Middle Neolithic under a cornfield in Lower Franconia, Bavaria. The skeleton was found under less than 16 inches of top soil but despite the agricultural activity that took place for decades a foot above him, the bones were in unusually good condition with the skeleton almost complete and all the teeth still pearly white. The high lime content of the soil preserved the bones by preventing their calcium oxide from leaching out into the ground.

A winery plans to built a new facility on the 3.2 acre site and because archaeological material has been found in the area before, archaeologists were engaged to excavate the site before construction began. The Neolithic skeleton, dubbed “Fred” by the archaeological team, was found in a crouched burial position, his legs turned to the side and his knees bent. In the grave with him were a worn stone axe and seeds of some type of grain. He was between 20 and 30 years old at the time of his death about 6,500 years ago.

According to Dr. Heidi Peter-Rocher, a professor of archeology at the University of Wurzburg, Fred’s bent leg burial pose was one of several used by communities in the area during the Neolithic Period. Scientists are divided about what the pose could mean, with some speculating that it is meant to emulate humans’ position at birth or during sleep.

Along with Fred, archeologists found ceramic plates, remains of food, seashells and other graves. These included the skeleton of a 12 year old boy who was buried in the area some 4,500 years ago at the dawn of the Bronze Age.

To ensure the most meticulous possible excavation, archaeologists removed the skeleton en bloc, digging a perimeter trench around it and fitting a wooden box around the section of soil with Fred still embedded in it. He will be transported to Munich for thorough examination in laboratory conditions.

Fred’s fate after that is uncertain. Bavaria is the only state in Germany with a law granting full ownership of archaeological finds to the landowner, not the state. That means the wine cooperative Franconia gets to decide whether they want to keep Fred, the other human remains and artifacts. If they keep the Neolithic skeleton, however, they will have to pay to store and conserve it and that’s an expensive proposition. The discoveries will delay the construction of the new wine-making facility already and the excavation costs alone are expected to run in the area of two million euros. The company has not yet decided if they’ll give Fred to a museum or pay the significant moneys necessary to conserve him in perpetuity.


Raphael’s School of Athens cartoon restored

March 7th, 2019

The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio is widely considered the visual embodiment of the rebirth of classical philosophy and art that gave the Renaissance its name. Raphael painted the fresco for the Stanza della Segnatura, the room in the Vatican housing Pope Julius II’s library, between 1509 and 1511. The artist started with a full-scale preparatory cartoon in charcoal, red and white chalk on paper in 1508-9. It was massive, over nine feet high and 26 feet wide, and was made by gluing together 210 pieces of “royal paper” (large format sheets about 12×16 inches in dimension). More than 50 individuals, the great philosophers of antiquity centered around Plato and Aristotle, populate the cartoon, with only a couple of figures from the final fresco missing, including Heraclitus, whose face is said to be a portrait of Michelangelo, then working just down the hall on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It is the largest surviving Renaissance cartoon.

Raphael was employed by Pope Julius on the recommendation of Bramante to fresco the room. The commission served a political role as much an aesthetic one. There were already frescoes on the walls by Piero della Francesca, but he had been hired Alexander VI whose papacy was already infamous. Julius was keen to cover the walls with new frescoes that would erase the imprint of his Borgia predecessor, a sort of damnatio memoriae by artistic proxy.

Only 27 years old when he began The School of Athens, Raphael created a vision that transposed the ideas of Renaissance humanist thought into figural and architectural forms. The fluid lines of his initial drawing illuminate his creative process, the apparent ease with which he conceived an intricate mural that would take two years to complete. It’s also the only version of The School of Athens done entirely by Raphael’s own hand. He had staff to help him paint the fresco itself.

He used the cartoon as a literal outline, poking holes (still clearly visible today) through the lines of the faces, garments, folds and bodies. Because the completed cartoon was so massive, it could not be applied smoothly all at once to the plaster surface of the wall and have the trace-over last for two years of painting. Raphael instead used it to show Julius II a clear view of the full complex composition of the fresco and as a master template, drawing through the perforations onto individual papers just large enough to cover one day’s work.

Even so, the cartoon matches the finished fresco almost exactly, with only a few centimeter’s difference on the right side. The architectural design on the top part of the fresco is not on the cartoon, or rather just the foundations of it are, barely visible and only spotted by researchers in 1972. Most of the remarkable vaulted gallery in deep one-point perspective that rises above and behind Plato and Aristotle was painted directly onto the plaster.

Even in Raphael’s all-too-short lifetime (he died at age 37) the cartoon was recognized as a masterpiece in its own right. It was described as the “well-finished cartoon” because the lion’s share of the information necessary for the fresco was included: the figures, the setting, the poses, the facial expressions, the direction of the light, the highlights and lowlights of his chiaroscuro.

That a cartoon as delicate as it is massive survives intact after five centuries of wars, pillage and dispersed cultural patrimony is largely due to Cardinal Federico Borromeo (1564-1631), Archbishop of Milan and founder of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, the second public library in Europe after the Bodleian. He was an erudite man, a prolific writer and connoisseur of the arts who amassed an immense collection of 45,000 manuscripts and books with the deliberate intent of creating a library that would be an invaluable resource for scholars.

For a hundred years after its creation, the cartoon disappears from the historical record. It reappears in 1610 in a legal document stating that Fabio II Visconti Borromeo, Count of Brebbia (and holder of two far more excellent titles: Decurion of Milan and Judge of the Streets), loans the cartoon to Cardinal Borromeo until such time as Visconti requests its return. That time never came.

In 1618 the cardinal founded Pinacoteca Ambrosiana to house his great collection of paintings and drawings, including works by Caravaggio (Basket of Fruit) and Leonardo da Vinci (Portrait of a Musician) alongside Raphael’s cartoon, still technically on loan. It became officially part of the Ambrosiana collection in 1626 when the cardinal bought it from the count’s widow Bianca Spinola Borromeo for the then-astronomical sum of 600 imperial lire.

It remained at the Pinacoteca, one of its greatest treasures and biggest draws, until 1796 when the greatest scourge of Italy’s patrimony, Napoleon Bonaparte, entered Milan. Five days after his forces took the city, Napoleon proclaimed that Milan now owed France 15 million lire and any and all artworks of value. Dominique-Vivant Denon, director of the Louvre, was tasked with drawing up a list of Milan’s most important pieces that would be summarily pillaged and sent to the museum in Paris.

On June 25, 1796, box upon box of treasures from the Ambrosiana left Milan destined for the Louvre. Leonardo’s Musician was in them, his notebooks from the library’s collection and Raphael’s The School of Athens cartoon. It was subject to extensive restoration — relined with canvas, mounted on a new frame, missing parts filled in — before being put on display. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, the sculptor Antonio Canova was dispatched to the Louvre to reclaim the works taken from the Papal States. While he was at it, he arranged the return of the Ambrosiana’s stuff too. The cartoon was back in Milan by 1816.

It was restored again in 1887. This time the work done was even more extensive. The cartoon was reframed, and most significantly, was attached to a new canvas backing for support. The wars of the 20th century jerked it around some more. In 1915, with northern Italy the target of Austro-Hungarian aerial bombing, the cartoon went back to Rome for first time since it was drawn by Raphael 400 earlier. It was kept safe in the Vatican until the war was over. In 1942 it went underground, secured in the bank vault of the Cassa di Risparmio delle Provincie Lombarde, and good thing too because the Abrosiana was bombed and had to be rebuilt after the war.

The vicissitudes of the past two centuries left the cartoon worse for wear. The paper had yellowed (browned, even) making the chalk, charcoal and lead drawing hard to read and water damage was pervasive. It had also been mounted in a new frame and showcase in 1966, then state-of-the-art but inadequate for modern conservation techniques which require constant inspection and monitoring.

In 2014, the Ambrosiana launched an ambitious program of conservation and study. A team of experts from the College of Fellows of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, the Higher Institute for Conservation and Restoration of the Vatican Museums, the Milan Superintendency and the Conservation and Restoration Centre “La Venaria Reale” worked with professors from several Italian universities to preserve the work, reverse old restoration errors and create a new showcase to protect the cartoon while make it entirely visible to visitors.

Both front and back were treated. On a custom table with a moveable bridge that allowed conservators to hover over the surface, the cartoon was cleaned with low pressure micro-suction devices like those used in surgery. Old polymer glue used with strips of canvas in the 1966 restoration to expand the perimeter which had shrunk over time was removed. Conservators also repaired tears and lined the back with layers of Japanese tissue paper in different sizes and shapes to relieve stress on the supports and recover the original flatness of the cartoon. The last step was to apply a new canvas lining and mount the cartoon in a new frame.

Here’s a video of conservators in 2017 removing the first layer of Japanese tissue paper from the back of the cartoon a year after it was applied to stabilize it:

Here’s the conservation team applying canvas lining to the back of the cartoon:

After a year of study and three years of painstaking labour, the cartoon will return to its dedicated exhibition gallery at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana on March 27th.





March 2019
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