Hasan Niyazi, a fine blogger and even finer person

April 6th, 2014

I first encountered Hasan Niyazi’s blog Three Pipe Problem in May of 2010 after he emailed me through the contact form. He said lovely things about my blog, a kindness that I would come to learn was entirely characteristic of this generous, open-minded, curious and warm man, and asked me for feedback on his own even though after less than six months of posting he already had far more traffic than I did.

My review was basically a drawn out version of “wow, what a great blog.” I loved how he viewed contemporary pop culture through an art historical lens, like in his incomparable videogame review A Medici Assassin in a Digital Renaissance: Assassin’s Creed II, his post on Donatello’s David which points out the influence of the piece on manga and game design, and in his riveting recaps and analyses of the first two seasons of the Showtime series The Borgias.

I was also impressed by how in depth his posts were while never feeling dense or requiring any effort to finish. Although my average post length had increased significantly from my early days of two sentences, a link and a blockquote, at the time I still kept things short unless I had a specific assignment like a contest entry or if I’d been drawn down a historical rabbit hole. Hasan’s fearless if-you-build-it-they-will-come willingness to pursue his interests as far as they took him inspired me to take a plunge into longer, more research-intensive pieces a little more often.

It was his passion for art history, especially that of Renaissance Italy and Raphael in particular (we had a lovely Raphael geekout in the comments of this post), that shone through in every post. He was a scientist by education which grounded his writing in a rigorous, evidence-based approach, but there was nothing dry or mechanical about it. The title of his blog was a Sherlock Holmes reference from The Red Headed League:

“As a rule,” said Holmes, “the more bizarre a thing is the less mysterious it proves to be. It is your commonplace, featureless crimes which are really puzzling, just as a commonplace face is the most difficult to identify. But I must be prompt over this matter.”
“What are you going to do, then?” I asked.
“To smoke,” he answered. “It is quite a three pipe problem, and I beg that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes.”

Like Holmes, Hasan took his time to unravel Gordian knots with deliberation and thoughtfulness rather than just cutting through them, bringing together his scientific background and love of art in all forms to illuminate a subject in a way that appealed to professional art historians as much as to teenagers touring the Louvre. From an email he sent me a few years back:

I had a 15 year old Belgian kid write to me the other day – explaining how he’d been in Paris with his family and on a Louvre Tour. When they passed the Pastoral Concert [a painting currently attributed to Titian but previously thought to be by Giorgione and whose authorship is still debated], the tour guide just gave the standard description about it. The kid questioned him about the attribution to Varro and how the figures are not a mystery at all if you’ve read Varro. Rather than get angry, the tour guide bought him one of those expensive catalogue books and encouraged him to pursue his interest in the field. Wow!! All because he read my article [Titian and Giorgione: ethereal picnic with a difference].

Hasan Niyazi died unexpectedly on October 28th, 2013. To celebrate his love of art history and his commitment to open online access to art historical resources, bloggers who knew and loved him have dedicated entries to him today, the 531st anniversary of Raphael’s birth and the 494th anniversary of his death. It’s a wonderful collection of work that you can find listed here.

The Three Pipe Problem blog archives will remain as a testimony to the brilliance of his intellect, the generosity of his spirit and wide-eyed wonder at the beauty in this world.

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Byzantine monks used asbestos under wall paintings

April 5th, 2014

Ancient sources tell us that asbestos was used in antiquity for its fireproof properties primarily in textiles and candle wicks. The 2nd century Greek geographer Pausanias in Book I, Chapter 26 of his Description of Greece describes a golden lamp in the temple of Athena that burned all year on a single wick made of “Carpasian flax, the only kind of flax which is fire-proof.” Pliny the Elder dedicates a whole chapter of his Natural History (Book XIX, Chapter 4) to incombustible linen napkins woven out of asbestos fibers.

It is generally known as “live” linen, and I have seen, before now, napkins that were made of it thrown into a blazing fire, in the room where the guests were at table, and after the stains were burnt out, come forth from the flames whiter and cleaner than they could possibly have been rendered by the aid of water. It is from this material that the corpse-cloths of monarchs are made, to ensure the separation of the ashes of the body from those of the pile.

Pliny says the Greeks call these fibers asbestinon, meaning “inextinguishable.” He believes they grow in the heat of the Indian desert, not realizing that the fibrous substance is actually a mineral rather than a plant.

Asbestos continued to be used in the Christian era. Marco Polo mentions Tartars using a cloth made from fibers dug out of a mountain that whitens in fire, and the 10th century Persian geographer Ibn al-Faqih al-Hamadani, aka Ibn al-Fatiq, in his Concise Book of Lands records how clever scammers in Jerusalem sold Christian pilgrims little chunks of asbestos as pieces of the True Cross. The fact that they burned without being consumed by fire was seen as proof of authenticity. In the early 1800s, physics professor Jean Albini made a fireproof suit out of asbestos cloth and took it on a tour of Europe.

The use of asbestos in construction, however, has no such pedigree. That has been thought to be a relatively recent development of industrialization, first implemented in the late 19th century. Researchers from UCLA have discovered that Byzantine monks on Cyprus beat them to the punch by 700 years or so. Underneath 12th century wall paintings in the monastery of Enkleistra of St. Neophytos the UCLA team found a layer of chrysotile (white asbestos) in the finish coating of the plaster.

The researchers weren’t looking for asbestos. They were analyzing the paintings using an impressive panoply of technologies, among them infrared, UV and X-ray fluorescence imaging, and microsamples examined by scanning electron microscopy and gas chromatography mass spectrometry, to determine whether the materials changed over time. It was one of those microsamples, taken from an 1196 wall painting of the Enthroned Christ, that revealed the presence of chrysotile.

The sample was taken from the red frame of the book Christ is holding and consists of four layers: a dark brown top layer that was likely a varnish, an intense red cinnabar paint layer, the asbestos-rich orangey layer, and underneath them all, a plaster layer made mostly of plant fibers. Researchers believe the chrysotile was used to enhance the red cinnabar layer.

“[The monks] probably wanted to give more shine and different properties to this layer,” said UCLA archaeological scientist Ioanna Kakoulli, lead author of the new study, published online last month in the Journal of Archaeological Science. “It definitely wasn’t a casual decision — they must have understood the properties of the material.”

The closest asbestos mine was in the mountains about 40 miles inland from the coastal monastery. The monks, like their leader St. Neophytos, sought isolation in their monastery, so they weren’t likely to have traveled inland personally. They likely took advantage of a regional trade network to purchase their materials.

Although asbestos has only been found under that red cinnabar layer thus far, the UCLA team plans to return to the monastery to examine more of the wall paintings, and to look for asbestos that may have been missed in previous studies of other Cyprus wall paintings.

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Forster Flag, oldest known American flag, for sale

April 4th, 2014

The 1775 Forster Flag, the oldest surviving American flag known, will be going under the hammer at New York City’s Doyle auction house on April 9th. It’s not the Star and Stripes we know as the American flag today, of course. It’s a red silk flag with 13 short white stripes in the canton (upper left quadrant of the hoist). What gives is the “oldest known American flag” title is that it’s the earliest surviving flag that was deliberately designed to represent the nascent United States with 13 white stripes, one for each of the 13 colonies. It’s also the only remaining Revolutionary War flag still in private hands. Since the remaining 29 Revolutionary War colors belong to museums or other institutions, it’s likely that this will be the last chance for one to come up for public sale. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the pre-sale estimate is $1,000,000 – $3,000,000.

The current owner is the Flag Heritage Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and research of flags. They bought it in January of 1975 from Constance Knight Hodgdon, a descendant of the first owner, Samuel Forster of Manchester, Massachusetts. Forster was a successful merchant who was active in local politics and, as hostilities between the colonists and the British escalated leading to the expansion of the militia units, was elected Lieutenant of the Manchester Company, First Regiment of Militia, Essex County. That was in December of 1774.

On April 19th, 1775, the British Army marched towards Concord to confiscate a cache of weapons. Thanks to a very famous midnight ride by a certain Boston silversmith, the militia of Concord and Lexington had been alerted to the impending arrival of the regulars. The first shots of the American Revolution were fired at Lexington in the early morning. The British troops then advanced on Concord only to be repulsed by the Minutemen. By the time the Manchester Company reached Medford, 12 miles east of Concord, the British had already retreated. The company stayed in the area for five days just in case the redcoats returned.

According to Forster family lore, the red silk flag was captured from the British at the Battle of Lexington on April 19th. The cross of St. George was in the canton (the upper left quarter). That symbol of Britain was cut out and replaced with a square of red silk. Thirteen buff-colored bars representing the original colonies were then stitched onto the canton, six on one side and seven on the other.

Samuel Forster returned to Manchester where the company would remain, guarding the coastal towns from British naval attacks. The Forster Flag, now the company’s colors, benefited greatly from this assignment. Other regimental colors suffered from constant hoisting and lowering and battlefield damage. The few military colors that did survive, by long tradition were carefully preserved and handed down as precious mementos of regimental history.

The Forster Flag descended to Samuel Forster’s son, Israel (1779-1863), a prominent citizen of Manchester and a major in the War of 1812, whose stately home on the town’s main street, built in 1804, still stands today. A canton of white and blue stripes from a second flag found there is now in the collection of the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. Early newspaper accounts report that the Forster Flag was on loan to the Massachusetts State House in Boston when Samuel’s brother, Israel, died in 1818, and that the younger Israel (Samuel’s son) had a difficult time retrieving it, since “state authorities … were for a time disposed to cling to it.” After this, the Flag descended through further generations of the Forster family, who held it for a total of two hundred years.

And they treated it right. The flag shows some wear along the hoist, but that’s just proof it was actually flown. It comes with a pair of tassels and a dress sash which may or may not be original but have certainly been with the flag for a very long time. Unlike the Star-Spangled Banner, the Forster Flag was saved from souvenir hunters subjecting it to death by a thousand cuts. Nobody recycled it for its lovely crimson silk. Nobody hung it outside in the weather or exposed it to the color-leaching rays of the sun. Nobody tried to restore it in some destructively ham-fisted fashion. The Forster-Knight family preserved it flawlessly for 200 years.

The Flag Heritage Foundation picked up where they left off, preserving it in ideal conditions for the next 39 years. It is the most valuable flag in their collection now and they’ve only decided to part with it to help endow the Whitney Smith Flag Research Center Collection at the University of Texas at Austin’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. It’s a noble cause.

This collection is a vast and unique library and archive documenting flags and their history. It includes the holdings of the Flag Research Center, created in 1962 by Dr. Whitney Smith, who is widely recognized as the foremost authority on the subject. The collection contains thousands of books, charts, pamphlets, serials, clippings and flags, as well as many associated objects. Including considerable research materials related to American history and Americana, with detailed information about the development of our national and state flags, as well as those of every foreign country, the collection is widely considered the greatest of its kind in the world.

The Forster Flag will be on display at Doyle New York (175 East 87th Street) this weekend and Monday. After that, it will be available for viewing by appointment only until the auction on Wednesday.

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New York Public Library puts 20,000 maps online

April 3rd, 2014

The New York Public Library, in addition to having a glorious Beaux Arts main building, has a vast collection of historic images. More than 800,000 images are available for perusal in its Digital Collections, an invaluable resource on the history of New York. I would have made much use of it in this blog but high resolution images are only available for a fee of at least $50 apiece which is rather pricey for works out of copyright.

This has bummed me out for years, so when I read that the NYPL was releasing more than 20,000 digitized maps, I assumed that we’d only be to view these cartographical works in versions too small to appreciate the details, which is bad enough with pictures of people or buildings but is infinitely worse with maps. Something something ass u me, because the entire collection can be viewed in exquisitely high resolution on the website and can even be downloaded! All you have to do is create an account free of charge on the NYPL’s Map Warper site and once that’s done, you see an Export tab on each map entry from which you can download the high resolution file.

Fair warning: the Map Warper takes ages to load, or at least it has for me at various times over several days. Everything I’ve accessed has eventually loaded without errors, but it took minutes. I suggest opening it in a new tab to wait out the load time. Once you have your account, be prepared to wait again for the maps to load. From the comments on the NYPL’s blog entry announcing the release, it appears to be your basic birthing pains and they have top men on it. Top. Men.

In any case, gems like these are worth the wait.

We’ve been scanning maps for about 15 years, both as part of the NYPL’s general work but mostly through grant funded projects like the 2001 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) funded American Shores: Maps of the MidAtlantic to 1850, the 2004 Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) funded Building a Globally Distributed Historical Sheet Map Set and the 2010 NEH funded New York City Historical GIS.

Through these projects, we’ve built up a great collection of: 1,100 maps of the Mid-Atlantic United States and cities from the 16th to 19th centuries, mostly drawn from the Lawrence H. Slaughter Collection; a detailed collection of more than 700 topographic maps of the Austro-Hungarian empire created between 1877 and 1914; a collection of 2,800 maps from state, county and city atlases (mostly New York and New Jersey); a huge collection of more than 10,300 maps from property, zoning, topographic, but mostly fire insurance atlases of New York City dating from 1852 to 1922; and an incredibly diverse collection of more than 1,000 maps of New York City, its boroughs and neighborhoods, dating from 1660 to 1922, which detail transportation, vice, real estate development, urban renewal, industrial development and pollution, political geography among many, many other things.

One of the neatest features the Map Warper offers is the ability for members to rectify a map, meaning overlay it as accurately as possible over a modern digital Google Map using control points on both maps. Here’s a handy tutorial on how to rectify:

And here’s a before and after of a particularly warp-heavy map from sea to shining sea:


I love this one of New Orleans because the 1860 map is basically identical to the modern map only of course the city boundaries have sprawled much further afield now:


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Anglo-Saxon ring engraved with Christian and pagan symbols

April 2nd, 2014


The Saffron Walden Museum in Essex has acquired a rare Anglo-Saxon gold ring engraved with a combination of Christian and pagan symbols. The ring was discovered in 2011 by metal detectorist Tony Carter in Uttlesford, Essex, and was declared treasure. In order to buy the ring and four other gold and silver artifacts discovered in the area, the museum had to raised £60,000 and £7,500 in donations. Since the grants were matching funds, the donations were necessary for the whole plan to come together. The campaign was successful and now all five pieces are going on display in a new showcase starting April 5th.

The ring, dubbed the North-Essex Ring, is the centerpiece of the new display. It’s a gold signet ring with a rectangular bezel and a heavy hoop 26.6mm in diameter at the widest point. It weighs a total of 20.1 grams and its composition is 92-94% gold, 5-6% silver and the rest a copper alloy. The square bezel and broad hoop are a Frankish form — for comparison see this Frankish ring from approximately the same period unearthed in the Mulsanne, France, and now in the British Museum — but the decoration on the North-Essex Ring is distinctly Anglo-Saxon.

On the bezel is engraved a belted male figure, possibly naked despite the presence of the belt. There is no visible clothing like the male and female figures on the Mulsanne ring wear. The man is holding a bird in one hand and a staff topped with a cross in the other. Above his head is another bird, bigger and more detailed. Both of the birds have curved beaks, indicating they’re birds of prey and the detail in the larger one identifies it as a Style II design, a zoomorphic style in which whole animals are depicted in an elongated, stylized fashion. Some of the pieces from the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial are decorated in Style II.

The decoration and ring style date the piece to around 580-650 A.D., a period when the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Kent, Essex and East Anglia were first introduced to Christianity. Pope Gregory I sent Augustine, a Benedictine monk who would become the first Archbishop of Canterbury, on a mission to convert King Æthelberht of Kent in 597 A.D. The combination of pre-Christian North European motifs and the Christian crossed staff makes the ring an extremely rare example of religious syncretism from this transitional period.

Another of the five objects secured by the Saffron Walden Museum is also a rare example from a transitional period in British history, albeit a much later one. It’s a gold ring from the 16th or early 17th century. The band is decorated with circular medallions in which are engraved scenes from the passion of the Christ. This imagery is Catholic, but from a time when people had to hide their adherence to Roman Catholicism to save their necks.

They don’t have a religious significance, but there are two historically significant gold coins in the new collection. They’re Gallo-Belgic class four gold staters struck in the Somme area in northwest France in the mid-2nd century B.C. Both of them are quite worn, one of them bent along the edge, indicating they were in circulation for some time before winding up in the ground. Very few class four gold staters have been found in Britain, and these are the earliest ever discovered in the district.

The last two artifacts are a silver hooked tag from the 9th century A.D. decorated with stylized animals that once held niello accents although the black enamel is long gone. (it’s known as Trewhiddle-style decoration) and an identified silver object with engraved niello animal figures from the 8th or 9th century.

All of the artifacts will be on display together starting April 5th. The museum has made a replica of the North-Essex Ring available so visitors can handle it and appreciate its size and decoration in person, which I think is a nifty idea that more museums should incorporate in their exhibitions.

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Barrels of 700-year-old poop found in Denmark

April 1st, 2014

Archaeologists excavating I Vilhelm Werners Square in Hans Christian Andersen’s hometown of Odense, Denmark, are delighted to have found barrels full of medieval excrement. Poop is a boon to modern archaeology because it can tell us more about the daily lives of past people than golden treasures, and this particular poop is very well preserved thanks to having been buried in an oxygen-poor environment.

The content of the barrels was immediately identifiable from the odor which was still pungent after 700 years in barrels under layers of the city. The first round of analysis found that 14th century Odensians were fans of raspberries, as well they should be. Scientists also found fragments of moss, leather and fabric all of which are thought to have been used as toilet paper. (Moss toilet paper? Would it have been, like, a clump attached to soil? How does it stay intact otherwise? Because if the structural integrity issue was dealt with, I imagine moss would make a pretty comfortable tp.)

Markings on the barrels indicate that they were not initially used as latrines. An anchor carved on one suggests it was used to transport or store herring, a major source of trade for medieval Odense. The barrels themselves are generally in good condition, which makes sense because you wouldn’t want to recycle a busted barrel for use as a cesspit. Containment is key to sewage management.

The poop barrels were unearthed last year. Continuing excavations on the site this year discovered even more barrels in an unusual configuration. Three barrels were stacked on top of each other and strapped together with strong wicker. At the base of the pit archaeologists found a mat of reeds and a pipe system made of recycled roof tiles. It seems this was a homemade water well, with the pipes used to draw water into the barrel well and the reed mat as a filter to keep sludge out of the water. On each side of the barrel stack are the remains of pillars, probably used to hold aloft a small roof to project the well water from bird poop or leaves or any other such contaminants.

The well is also from the 1300s and may have originally been in the courtyard of a home. It could also have been part of a beer brewing apparatus. Near the well archaeologists found a store of partially germinated barley, a key supply for beer making.

The Werners Square area is thought to be the oldest area in Odense, settled from at least the 11th century, and possibly as early as 988 when historical sources claim a bishopric was established there. The first recorded bishop, Reginbert, was sent to Odense by King Canute the Great in 1020 or 1022. The excavation, which began in 2013, hopes to reveal the earliest days of Odense going back to King Canute’s day. Preliminary studies found the remains of one of the oldest datable streets from around 1100.

The dig, which is the largest in the city’s history, is open to visitors every Tuesday and Thursday at 1:00 PM. The archaeologists’ workshop is also open to visitors on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from noon to 3:00 PM. I wonder if there were visitors present when the fragrant poop barrels were discovered.

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Stolen Renoir on display at Baltimore Museum of Art

March 31st, 2014

Sixty-two years after it was stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art, Renoir’s Paysage Bords de Seine is once again on display in the museum’s galleries. The little 5 1/2″-by-9″ landscape, reputedly painted by the Impressionist master for his mistress on a linen napkin at a cafe on the shores of the Seine in 1879, first made the news in 2012 when it was put up for auction by a woman (later revealed to be one Marcia “Martha” Fuqua) who claimed she bought it at a flea market for $7 in a box lot along with a plastic cow and a Paul Bunyan doll. That story soon turned out to have more than a few gaping holes which were exposed when a Washington Post reporter discovered evidence in the archives of the Baltimore Museum of Art that the painting had been stolen from the museum on November 17th, 1951.

The sale was canceled while a federal court decided who owned legal title to the painting. Possible contenders were the museum, Fuqua and the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company which had paid the museum $2,500 after the theft. The insurance company declined to pursue their own claim because they believed that the Renoir should return to the Baltimore Museum of Art. In January, the court decided that even if Fuqua was an “innocent owner” who had no idea the painting was stolen when she acquired it, a thief cannot pass title to a new owner, innocent or otherwise. The landscape was going back to the museum.

Since then, BMA conservators have treated the work — it was in excellent condition and only needed a surface cleaning — to prepare it for its triumphant return. On March 30th, The Renoir Returns exhibition opened to the general public. Paysage Bords de Seine is on display with more than 20 other important pieces bequeathed to the museum by collector and benefactor Saidie Adler May. A dedicated collector of Impressionist and early 20th century art, Saidie Adler May left her entire collection to the Baltimore Museum of Art, but this is the first time, believe it or not, that the museum has dedicated an exhibition to Saidie May’s donations. Works from the May collection by Mondrian, Klee and Miró join the Renoir in the two-gallery show. May’s own artwork also gets display space next to the masterworks.

Earlier articles said that according the records of the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in Paris, the painting was purchased by Herbert L. May, Saidie’s estranged husband, in 1926. According to the BMA’s press release about the exhibition, however, Saidie and Herbert bought the painting together in November of 1925. Museum researchers discovered a diary in which she wrote about her acquisition of the Renoir. She bought it from Bernheim-Jeune along with an oil sketch by Georges Seurat, paying $2,000 for both. The diary entry and the original receipt of the purchase are part of the exhibition, as is the Seurat.

Researchers also found evidence supporting the linen napkin story.

New research conducted by the BMA’s conservation and textile departments confirms part of Saidie May’s story about Renoir painting the landscape on a linen napkin at a restaurant on the Seine for his mistress. Since Renoir was not married at the time, there is no conclusive information about the identity of his mistress, but the surface of the painting is in fact a linen damask with an elaborate geometric weave. It was unusual for painters to use this type of fabric as a background, but very common for table linens of that period. It turns out to have been a good choice, as linen increases in strength when wet and is smoother than wool and cotton.

As for what happened to the painting between 1951 and 2012, it doesn’t look like we’ll be getting answers any time soon. The FBI has closed its investigation because they don’t have enough evidence to arrest someone for the theft or even for knowingly possessing stolen goods. There are too many contradictory stories to pin anything on anyone.

One key witness, and possible suspect, was Martha Fuqua’s mother Marcia Fouquet. She was an art student in Baltimore in 1951 and had at least one friend who worked at the museum. Borders and family, including her son Matt, recall seeing the painting in her home in the 80s and 90s. The FBI did interview her before her death in September of 2013, but didn’t actually ask her if she was involved in the theft or even if she had the painting hanging in her home. Special agent in charge of the investigation Gregg Horner says: “I did not ask her about the Renoir. I did not feel that the timing was right. She’s a very interesting lady, very well-educated. We had a nice, pleasant conversation. I talked to her in general terms about her art.” He never followed up with her because of her precipitous decline in health (she was 85 years old and had cancer). “Given her illness,” Horner said, “I didn’t think it was appropriate.”

I am completely perplexed by this. It’s not idle curiosity, after all. He’s an agent investigating a crime. What is the point of interviewing a witness/suspect IF YOU DON’T ASK THEM ABOUT THE CRIME? I mean, a pleasant conversation about her art? Bizarre.

Anyway, there’s a silver lining to the theft, because now there’s this crazy adventure to add to the history of the painting and the museum is poised to take full advantage of the little landscape’s new notoriety (don’t forget to buy the magnet at the gift shop!). It’s also brought Saidie Adler May’s invaluable contributions some well-deserved and belated recognition. The Renoir Returns runs through July 20, 2014.

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Wadsworth Atheneum acquires Artemisia Gentileschi self-portrait

March 30th, 2014

The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, the oldest public art museum in the United States, has acquired a rare self-portrait of Baroque master Artemisia Gentileschi. Self-Portrait as a Lute Player was the leading lot in Christie’s Old Master Paintings auction on January 29th. With a pre-sale estimate of $3-5 million, the painting failed to meet the reserve and did not sell at the auction. Christie’s then offered it to the Wadsworth Atheneum which last December received a $9.6 million donation from the Charles H. Schwartz Fund for European Art earmarked for the acquisition of pre-19th century art. The final price the museum paid has not been released, but curator Oliver Tostmann says it was significantly less than the low estimate of $3 million.

Self-Portrait as a Lute Player is the first work by Artemisia Gentileschi in a New England museum. It’s also the first painting in the museum’s Baroque Italian art collection that was done by a woman. It will join works by her father, Orazio Gentileschi, and by Caravaggio, the great innovator of the age who was a strong influence on Artemisia’s mature work. Orazio is represented by a painting of Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (1621-24), a subject that Artemisia returned to repeatedly in what may be her most famous and dramatic works. The Wadsworth Atheneum’s Caravaggio is Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy painted in 1594.

The Morgan Memorial Building, home of the Wadsworth’s European collection, is currently in the last two years of a five-year refurbishment project so Artemisia’s Lute Player won’t be on display right away. When the building reopens in Fall of 2015, she will be the centerpiece of the inaugural exhibition. The premier members of the museum’s Society of Daniel Wadsworth will be given a special preview of the work this spring (you can join, but it’ll cost ya $2,500.)

One of no more than three known self-portraits that are thought to have been painted by Artemisia Gentileschi (the others are Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting in the Royal Collection in London and the Allegory of Inclination, a fresco on the ceiling of the art gallery in Casa Buonarroti in Florence) is probably the most recognizable), Self-Portrait as a Lute Player was painted around 1616-1617 when Artemisia was 25 years old and had just been inducted into the prestigious Accademia del Disegno in Florence, the first woman ever to be accepted into that august assemblage of artists.

Her patrons included Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, a great-nephew of the great Michelangelo, and Cosimo II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. It’s likely that the latter commissioned Lute Player since it appears in the inventory of the Villa Medici at Artimino in 1638, only 20 or so years after it was painted. The inventory describes it as “A picture on canvas 1 1/2 braccia high and 1 1/4 braccia wide in a black frame bordered in gold, the portrait of Artemisia playing a lute painted by her own hand.” (A Florentine braccio is 58.4 centimeters, which would make the portrait 87.6 cm x 73 cm when in fact it’s 77.5 x 71.8 cm, but it was probably trimmed by idiots over the centuries. You can see the bottom edge crops the arm and lute awkwardly.)

Her success at the Florentine court was unprecedented for a woman and was all more astonishing considering the personal horror that brought her to the city. In 1611, when she was 17 years old, Artemisia Gentileschi was raped by Agostino Tassi, a colleague of her father’s and full-on psycho stalker who had already raped at least two women (his sister-in-law and one of his wives, the latter of whom disappeared and was probably murdered by bandits Tassi hired). The rape trial lasted seven months and all except a few final pages of the transcripts have survived. Artemisia, per standard legal practice in the Papal States at that time for all woman who accused someone of rape, was tortured with thumbscrews to prove she wasn’t lying. Tassi was convicted but only served eight months in prison after the judge pardoned him.

Even though Tassi’s testimony — denials coupled with completely fictitious claims about Artemisia’s purported promiscuity which fit handily into the blame-the-victim template that still haunts the halls of justice today — was blatantly false and widely seen as such, the scandal of the trial generated so much malicious gossip against her that a few months after Tassi’s conviction, she was hastily married to Pierantonio Stiattesi, a mediocre Florentine artist, and left Rome with him to start afresh in Florence where she supported them with her commissions. Her husband proved to be a deadbeat who ran up huge debts and forced her to leave Florence with creditors baying for blood. She dumped the bum and moved back to Rome in 1621 without him.

Her immense gifts have been recognized by art critics from the beginning, but for many centuries the rape trial overshadowed her talent. It was 20th century feminist analysis that brought Artemisia Gentileschi back into the spotlight to take her rightful place among the greatest artists of her era.

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What is this hinged imperial white jade piece?

March 29th, 2014

An imperial white jade object from the 18th century that is as mysterious as it is beautiful will be going up for auction at Bonhams next month. Made for the Qianlong Emperor (reigned 1735-1796), sixth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, the piece is made out of two hollowed rectangles that are connected to a central triangle via two hinges. They hinges work, allowing the rectangles to move from laid out straight to fully vertical.

The hinge-fitting embodies much of the artistic and historical pre-occupations of the Qianlong period. Carved from exceptionally fine and lustrous white stone, with even the minor flaws most cleverly incorporated into the scrollwork, the thinly hollowed supremely challenging yet technically flawless piece is representative of the highest skill of the 18th century craftsman. Furthermore it falls into a group of jade pieces carved with the Qianlong fanggu mark, specifically carved with archaistic designs inspired by archaic bronzes to reflect the concerns of the Qianlong Emperor with drawing moral strength and righteousness from the examples of the ancients.

The ancient bronze that inspired this piece was described in the 1751 catalog of the imperial bronzes as a “Han Dynasty ornament,” which means they had little idea what it was for either.

The Qianlong Emperor was a passionate collector of art. His agents would buy up entire private collections from people who had fallen in hard times or whose descendants didn’t want to be associated with them because they had taken the wrong side during the wars of the Qing Conquest. There are thousands of jade pieces in the imperial collection and almost all of them were acquired or commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor.

Although he was an artistic polyglot who welcomed the fusion of Chinese and Western styles (the famous bronze animal heads of the Chinese zodiac were made during his reign), the Qianlong Emperor saw himself first and foremost as the keeper of China’s artistic heritage. His collection of ancient bronzes was unparalleled, as was his collection of antique paintings. An incredibly prolific poet in his own right, he adopted a practice of the Song dynasty emperors and inscribed his poems on paintings in the collection.

That desire to integrate the glorious past of China’s cultural heritage and its glorious present as incarnated by him may be key to identifying the purpose of the hinged jade object. There is another hinged white jade piece similar to this one which is engraved with an imperial poem.

The poem appears to refer to the jade piece as a ‘ruler’ to be used to ‘compare lengths’ with ‘precisely fitting workmanship’. This pre-occupation with the idea of measuring is also connected to the idea of the benevolent ruler who is guided well.

That’s not to say this was its original purpose. The Han bronze may have had a whole other significance to which the Qianlong Emperor ascribed his own meaning.

The piece is estimated to sell for £200,000 to £300,000 ($333,000 – $500,000), but the market for Chinese antiquities is insane right now so those numbers could go increase geometrically. The auction catalog is not available yet. They’re usually released four weeks before the auction, so if you’d like to leaf through it, check this page the last week in April.

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Piece of cake from 1924 Vanderbilt wedding found

March 28th, 2014

A 90-year-old piece of cake from the wedding of Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt to John Francis Amherst Cecil on April 29, 1924, has been rediscovered and donated to the Biltmore House collection. The small sliver of fruitcake, that most enduring of cake varietals, was found by Frederick Cochran when he was going through a trunk he inherited from his aunt Bonnie Revis, formerly a cook at Biltmore House. It was in a tiny beige box stamped “Biltmore House” on the lid.

Cochran looked inside and saw what he thought was a piece of cheese (fruitcake looks cheesy after a century, it seems). He called Biltmore House and reported his find. Biltmore Museum Services collections manager Laura Overbey went to Cochran’s home to examine the artifact and bring it back to the great estate in Asheville, North Carolina. She recognized the box from the two distinctive monograms on either side of the “Biltmore House” on the lid as those of Cornelia Vanderbilt and John F. A. Cecil, which marked the box and its contents as originating at their huge society wedding.

As far as she knew, however, there was no cheese gifting at the Vanderbilt-Cecil wedding. It wasn’t until she overheard a couple of conversations that she was able to put the pieces together.

Back at Biltmore, one of Overbey’s coworkers happened to be talking about “how a friend had found a piece of Grover Cleveland’s wedding cake” — and she realized what she likely had in the pretty little box. Even more coincidental, as she walked into the office of her director, Ellen Rickman, to tell her the news, she heard an oral history to which Rickman was listening, about Cornelia’s nuptials.

“Right as I was coming in the door, this gentleman (on the recording) is saying he remembers getting a small box of fruitcake for the wedding,” Overbey said. Thus it was that an interview done in 1989 helped a collections manager in 2014 to identify a piece of cake from 1924.

In the interview, an elderly Paul Towe, whose father worked at Biltmore in the 1920s and ’30s, recalled attending Cornelia’s wedding as a small boy. His sister, Sarah, was a flower girl, and he remembered that “everybody got a little white box with their name on it with a piece of fruitcake.”

That would explain why Bonnie Revis had a sliver of the cake, because it was widely distributed to all the staff and attendants, and she was cook from 1924 to 1935 (coincidentally almost exactly the duration of the Vanderbilt-Cecil marriage). Cornelia’s late father George Vanderbilt (grandson of railroad magnate Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt) and her mother Edith Stuyvesant Dresser were deeply involved in the Asheville community and employed hundreds of people at the estate. When Cornelia, only child of George and Edith, married the Honorable John Francis Amherst Cecil, third son of Lord Cecil and the Baroness Amherst of Hackney, direct descendant of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth I’s Lord High Treasurer, the entire town assembled outside All Souls’ Church to watch the couple and 1,000 guests arrive and depart.

Many workers at the Biltmore Estate were guests or actually part of the wedding. When the newlyweds left the church arm in arm after the ceremony, they and the wedding party walked through an arch of crossed flowering branches held by 44 children of Biltmore Estate staff. The youngest, Polly Ann Flower, greeted them at the end of the arch wearing a little white Cupid outfit.

There are no records surviving of what kind of wedding cake was served, but fruitcake was traditionally the groom’s cake, so it’s like this sliver was carved off John Cecil’s cake rather than whatever massive confection served as the primary wedding cake. It was made by Rauscher’s, identified by a stamp inside the bottom of the box, a bakery in Washington, D.C. George and Edith had a home on K Street in D.C., and Cornelia was staying there when she met Cecil. He was ten years older than her and an accomplished diplomat. When they met in 1923, he was the first secretary at the British Embassy and part of a group of highly eligible men known in D.C. society as the “British Bachelors.” Cornelia and John hit it off right away, announcing their engagement just a few months after they met.

John Cecil resigned his position before the wedding, choosing instead to focus on the management of the Biltmore Estate. It became his life-long vocation. He continued to live at and manage Biltmore until his death in 1954, twenty years after his divorce from Cornelia. She, on the other hand, got married to an English banker in 1949 and moved to England where she spent the rest of her life. John and Cornelia’s sons took over management of the estate after John’s death, George Henry Vanderbilt Cecil running Biltmore Farms (the successful dairy farm branch), his younger brother William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil taking on the Biltmore Estate, including the house and vinyards he planted. Their children manage the estate today.

As for the piece of cake, it is now in the freezer, for historical rather than culinary preservation purposes. It is still inside its original gift box, protected by several nested Ziploc bags.

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