15th c. art stolen from prince by Nazis found

April 19th, 2016

Three 15th century paintings stolen from the Tuscan villa of the Prince of Luxembourg by the Nazis have been found after 72 years. The artworks were first targeted in 1940, under the extension of what had originally been anti-Semitic Italian Racial Laws instituted by Mussolini to kiss Hitler’s ass in 1938. The laws stripped Italian Jews of assets, including art works. In 1940, that law was widened to cover “enemy nationals.” Neutral Luxembourg was occupied by Nazi Germany that same year, and Prince Felix of Bourbon-Parma, husband of Charlotte, Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, and grandfather of the current Grand Duke, was suspected of colluding with the Allies. Under that pretext, the Bourbon-Parma art collection in the Prince’s Villa Borbone delle Pianore in Camaiore, near Lucca in northwest Italy, was confiscated by the Fascist government.

The Prince had other fish to fry at the time. He and his children fled Luxembourg when Germany invaded, traveling through France and Portugal before sailing to the United States. They spent a few months as the guests of General Foods heiress and then-richest women in the United States, Marjorie Merriweather Post, who had become friends with the ruling family when her husband was appointed US Ambassador to Belgium and Envoy to Luxeumbourg in 1938.

The collection remained in the villa until the spring of 1944 when it was stolen by the 16th SS Panzer Grenadier Division which a few months later would earn even more infamy with massacres of civilians. The SS ultimately planned to transport the loot to Berlin, but first the Bourbon-Parma art and many other works pillaged by the 16th Division were delivered to Dornsberg Castle in the Tyrol, then the residence of Karl Wolff, General of the Waffen-SS and Military Governor of northern Italy. Art looted from all over northern Italy was collected at Dornsberg, and organized and documented with standard Nazi efficiency.

It never got to Germany. In 1945, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives unit of the U.S. 5th Army, better known today as the Monuments Men, under the leadership of Captain Deane Keller recovered the stolen artworks from Dornsberg Castle. Prince Felix read about the liberation of the looted Bourbon-Parma collection in a news article and claimed ownership of the pieces stolen from him. Many of them were still there and the Prince got them back in 1949.

Around 40 of the works stolen from Villa della Pianore were not in Dornberg, among them marble busts of Bourbon rulers of France and paintings by Canaletto, Dosso Dossi, Paris Bordone and Perugino. Prince Felix filed a damages claim and the Italian government reimbursed him for their value, assessed at the then-astronomical sum of $4 million lire, in 1945. The missing works were never forgotten. Seventy years later, the Carabinieri Art Squad of Monza started digging through archives trying to track down these long-lost pieces. After two years of scouring the documentary and photographic archives of the Cini Foundation in Venice, the Zeri in Bologna, the Siviero and Capitoline Archives in Rome, museum center of Florence and the art library of the Castello Sforzesco in Milan, the Carabinieri discovered one of the lost pieces, a Madonna and Child by Gianni Battista Cima (1460-1518), hanging on the wall of a home in Monza in December of 2014. The family said they had inherited it from a relative who was an art dealer and had no idea of its dirty past. Another of the missing paintings, Holy Trinity by Alessio Baldovinetti (1425-1499), was found in the same home. The third work, Circumcision/Jesus Presented at the Temple by Girolamo dai Libri (1474-1555), was discovered in the home of another family who had inherited it from a collector who died in 1945.

The two families have been charged with receiving stolen goods, but the charges aren’t likely to stick. Meanwhile, the three paintings are at the Pinacoteca di Brera where conservators will give them some much needed love. The works are not in great condition, faded and damaged from their altogether too exciting adventures. The government has yet to decide where the paintings will reside permanently.

“Unparalleled” Roman villa found in Wiltshire

April 18th, 2016

In February of 2015, rug designer Luke Irwin was converting a small barn on his southwest Wiltshire property into a ping-pong room for his very lucky children. Not wanting to mar the beautiful landscape with an overhead cable strung from the farmhouse to the bar, Irwin insisted electricians lay the cables for the future game room underground. When they dug the trench, they came across a flat, hard layer 18 inches under the surface. It was a red, white and blue mosaic in a geometric woven pattern known as guilloche.

Irwin took a picture of the mosaic and sent it to the Wiltshire Council. Within 24 hours, council archaeologists were on the spot. They identified the mosaic as a top quality Roman work of the kind you’d see only in the most expensive, important villas in Roman Britain. Geophysical survey of the site found that the mosaic was in the destroyed or collapsed wing of a large Roman villa. The gateway where the mosaic was found leads to the modern farmhouse and outbuildings which obviously cannot be excavated, but archaeologists believe they were built in the center of where the ancient villa once stood. The farmhouse stands on a slab of Purbeck marble that is likely of Roman origin.

In April of 2015, the Wiltshire Archaeology Service, Salisbury Museum and Historic England worked together to dig a few test pits in key areas of the property. They were able to confirm that the villa was built between 175 an 220 A.D. and was regularly renovated through the mid-4th century. It was three storeys high with a footprint of at least 165 feet x 165 feet, and possibly as large as 230 by 230 feet. There’s evidence that it was pillaged in 360 A.D. only to be reoccupied in the 5th century.

Other artifacts discovered underscore how rich and important the owners of the villa were. There are hundreds of discarded oyster and whelk shells which would have been cultivated on the coast and been transported alive to Wiltshire from the coast in barrels of salt water. Archaeologists also found a Roman well in excellent condition, a bath house and, unassuming in the garden where it was used as a geranium planter, the stone coffin of a Roman child. There’s high status pottery, coins, brooches and copious animal bones both domestic and wild which bear the signs of butchering.

Only a few test pits have been dug, but Roberts said it was clear the walls of the villa were probably still more than a metre high, although they are buried under alluvial sediment from a nearby river. In addition, the mosaic has been revealed to be of particularly high quality. “Everything about this villa suggests it was made of the highest-quality materials,” added Roberts. “We have identified bits of stone that have come from at least 13 different British quarries. This was the country house of a powerful, rich Roman. Doubtless he also had a city house in London or Cirencester.”

Intriguingly, the house was not destroyed after the collapse of the Roman empire, said [Historic England archaeologist Dr. David] Roberts. Archaeologists have discovered timber structures erected in the fifth century. Roberts said the remains from this period, between the end of Roman occupation and the completion of Saxon domination of England, could open a window into one of the least understood periods in British history. It could also reveal how people responded to the collapse of the Roman empire, the superpower of the age.

Other than the construction of the labourers’ cottages that would be converted into the current farmhouse, the property has been left alone and undeveloped, used primarily as grazing land, since the villa was last inhabited in the 5th century. This gives archaeologists a unique opportunity to explore one of the largest Roman houses in Britain with little to no interference from later agriculture or construction. Dr. Roberts called the villa “unparalleled in recent years,” a “hugely valuable site in terms of research, with incredible potential,” and one of the best sites he has ever worked on.

And yet, the test pits have all been refilled and there are no current plans to further excavate this momentous find.

[Roberts] added: “Unfortunately, it would cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to fully excavate and the preserve the site, which cannot be done with the current pressures.

“We would very much like to go back and carry out more digs to further our understanding of the site. But it’s a question of raising the money and taking our time, because as with all archaeological work there is the risk of destroying the very thing you seek to uncover.”

The discovery of the villa has inspired Irwin to design a line of rugs with mosaic patterns. They even made rug tesserae, little cubes of hand-woven silk set between wool lines. I like how they’ve distressed the rugs so that have faded and “missing” areas like real ancient mosaics.

Runestone lost for 250 years found in garden patio

April 17th, 2016

A thousand-year-old runestone missing for 250 years has been found in the garden of a home in the village of Boddum in Thy, northern Jutland, Denmark. It all started in November of 2015 when farmer Ole Kappel called the Museum Thy to report he had a stone with some carved lines on it lying in his garden. He asked for an expert to examine it and tell him what it was. In March, Museum Thy archaeologist Charlotte Boje Andersen and National Museum of Denmark runologist Lisbeth Imer were amazed to find that the stone lying around in Kappel’s garden was the Ydby Runestone, carved between 970 and 1020 A.D. and last seen in 1767.

“It was one of the biggest moments in my time as an archaeologists and a completely one-of-a-kind discovery that highlights how important Thy and the western part of the Limfjord were in the Viking era,” [Andersen] said.

The Ydby Runestone was first documented in 1741 by bishop and antiquarian Erik Pontoppidan in the second volume of his collection of notable Danish inscriptions, Marmora Danica. Pontoppidan reported that the stone was moved from a place known as “Hellesager,” where it had stood upright over a triangular underground tomb surrounded by stones, to the village of Flarup. In 1767, Danish naturalist and illustrator Søren Abildgaard tracked down the runestone near Flarup. He made an accurate drawing of stone and the runes on three of its four sides and recorded its location in his travel diary.

After that, the stone disappeared. We don’t know when it was displaced, but landscape painter RH Kruse looked for it assiduously in 1841 and it was no longer there. None of the residents had any information about the runestone. A local farmer told Kruse that as far as he knew, the stone hadn’t been there for 50 years. A teacher named Nissen who was an avid documenter of runestones wrote to the National Museum in 1898 that he’d learned the stone had been used to build a railway bridge and was probably underwater.

Kruse had the wrong idea, thankfully. Ole Kappel acquired the stone 25 years ago when he bought a farm property and demolished the house. Thankfully he had the presence of mind to salvage what he could, including a pile of old stones from the foundation of the farmhouse. He took some of the stones home and used them in his landscaping. In fact, he told the thrilled experts, there more of the old farmhouse stones in his front yard patio. Andersen and Imer took a look at the pavers and saw two pieces that matched the shape of the runestone. Kappel’s sons Anders and Kristian pried up the two stones and more runes were revealed.

Imer was able to identify the stone because the extant runes matched the one recorded in Abildgaard’s drawings. Translated into English, it reads: “Thorgísl and Leifi’s sons placed/ at this place/ the stone in memory of Leifi.” Based on the parts that are missing, Imer thinks the stone, which was about six feet high and three feet wide when intact, was broken into about eight sections. All together, the rediscovered pieces form about half of the original runestone.

Andersen has checked the records and she thinks the stone was swiped in the 1820s when the farm Kappel bought was built. The farm was just a few hundred meters from the runestone’s last known location. The owner appears to have helped himself to the runestone and used it as raw material to build the foundations of his farmhouse. The Kappels plan to keep looking for the other missing pieces.

The recovered stones went on display at Heltborg Museum for a month so residents of Thy could see their long-lost cultural patrimony. The stone is now in the National Museum of Denmark where experts will assess whether it should be declared treasure trove. (It should be and will be.)

Tombstone of early priest found in front of Mexico City cathedral

April 16th, 2016

Engineers with the Trust of the Historic Center of Mexico City were installing one of eight new lampposts to illuminate the facade of the Metropolitan Cathedral when, digging deeper than expected, they came across the tombstone of one of the first Catholic priests in Mexico. They notified the Program of Urban Archaeology (PAU) of the Templo Mayor Museum and their archaeologists excavated the find.

The horizontal slab was found in front of the central door of the cathedral about four feet beneath the current floor. It’s a greenish volcanic stone called chiluca and is engraved around the borders with an epitaph in ancient Castilian recording the name of the priest: Miguel de Palomares. It’s followed by an inscription in Greek which has yet to be translated but could be de Palomares’ birth and death dates. Carved on the middle of the stone is a shield with three fleurs de lys, possibly a reference to the Dominican order whose emblems include fleurs de lys, although they’re usually added to the end of crosses or squeezed together to form a cross.

It’s not known whether Miguel de Palomares was a member of the Dominican order. He was a prominent figure in Mexico City in the first half of the 16th century, a member of the first church council convened in the cathedral. He died in 1542 and was buried near an altar inside the first church which was later demolished to make room for the current cathedral. Archaeologists have not yet lifted the slab and so don’t know whether his remains are still buried beneath it.

Today it’s the largest cathedral in the Americas, but the first church on the site was a more modest affair. It was built in 1524, three years after the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan. Hernán Cortés himself laid the first stone at the crossroads of the four cardinal points at the southern boundary of the Sacred Precinct. The stones used to build the church were taken from the destroyed Templo Mayor.

The first bishop of Mexico, Franciscan Juan de Zumárraga, was appointed in 1530. The Archdiocese of Mexico was established in 1546 with Zumárraga as archbishop. The church was now designated a cathedral, but it was deemed too small for the seat of an increasingly important archbishopric. The funding for a new cathedral was sorted out in 1552. Work on the foundations began in 1562 and construction would continue for centuries. The original church was demolished in 1628 when enough of the new cathedral was built to make it usable. It was finally completed in 1813.

The discovery of the slab sheds light on how Cortés didn’t just destroy the Aztec sacred architecture and reuse the materials, but rather integrated structures into the church.

The nearly 2-metre-long slab was sunk into the same level of the stucco floor of what appears to be an Aztec temple. The cathedral was simply built over the temple and apparently used the same floor. The Spaniards apparently gave the floor only a thin coat of lime whitewash before using it for their church.

“The Spaniards, Hernán Cortes and his followers, made use of the pre-Hispanic structures, the temples, the foundations, the floors,” said Raúl Barrera, an archaeologist for the government’s National Institute of Anthropology and History. “They even used the walls, the floors. They couldn’t destroy everything all at once.” [...]

Archaeologists have long known the Spaniards often appeared to prefer to build their churches atop Aztec temples, but it was thought that was for symbolic purposes, to signal the displacement of old Aztec gods by the Christian church. But it may also have been a practical decision, as the pre-Hispanic temples had good foundations, walls and floors that the Spaniards could use, saving them the trouble of building new ones.

Construction of the new cathedral damaged the tombstone. It is perforated with a large hole that likely had a post or cross embedded into it. Chiluca is a delicate stone, and since this one has already been damaged, archaeologists are being very cautious before attempting to raise the slab and transport it to the Templo Mayor Museum.

Other architectural elements from the first church have been unearthed alongside the slab. There are stones next to the slab that archaeologists believe were part of the long-defunct altar. They’ve also found the remains of a perimeter wall from the original church.

It’s very rare for archaeologists to have a chance to study known historical figures, and as Miguel de Palomares was associated with an important transitional period after the conquest, PAU experts hope they’ll find his remains which would give us new information about Catholic burial practices in the first half of the 16th century and the diet of Spanish colonists.

Incredible 17th c. silk gown found in shipwreck

April 15th, 2016

There are hundreds of shipwrecks buried under the sands of the Wadden Sea near the island of Texel off the coast of North Holland. A natural barrier between the North Sea and Wadden Sea, Texel was an important center of maritime trade. Ships anchored in the Texel roadstead, a sheltered area in the lee of the island, waiting for propitious winds, waiting out bad weather or taking on crew and cargo, only to be wrecked in sudden unexpected storms. Many wrecks are protected by the sand, but as currents shift they can be exposed to the more damaging elements of sea. Divers from the Texel Diving Club keep an eye on the condition of wrecks and recover artifacts that have been unburied and are in danger of destruction.

In August of 2014, divers discovered that artifacts from one known wreck, a well-armed merchant ship buried since it sank in the 17th century, had been exposed. They didn’t know what the objects were at first. It was just a bundle in the sand. It was only when the brought the bundle to the surface that they realized they’d recovered antique textiles. The find was not announced to protect the site from interlopers while conservators examined and stabilized the finds.

Conservators discovered that the bundle included a unique survival in exceptional condition: a silk damask gown of such high quality that it must have belonged to a noblewoman of very high rank, perhaps even royalty. Buried under the seabed for 400 years or so, the delicate silk was spared the ravages of both oxygen and animals. The dress has a bodice with loose-fitting sleeves and sleeve caps and a full pleated skirt open in the front. The neck has an upright collar. The style is of a type seen in paintings from the early 17th century.

The dress is just one element of an extensive wardrobe that includes a jacket, silk knee socks and silk bodices woven with gold and silver thread. All of these pieces are the same size, so archaeologists believe the clothes belonged to one full-figured woman. Only the gown shows signs of significant wear, which suggests it was intended for everyday use, as does the lack of rich silver and gold embroidery seen in the bodices.

The dress has been examined by experts from the Rijksmuseum, the University of Amsterdam and the State Service for Cultural Heritage (RCE), all of whom agree that it is one of the important textile finds ever made in Europe. Professor Emmy de Groot of the University of Amsterdam called it “the Night Watch of the costume world.”

Other artifacts were recovered from the wreck site. There’s Italian pottery, a silver gilt vessel, a red velvet pouch embroidered with silver thread that contained a two-sided lice comb made of cow horn, pomanders (openwork spheres that held sweet-smelling flowers or herbs for elegant people to sniff when the environment was particularly rank), and a number of leather book covers in different sizes, some with locks. One of them is stamped in gold with the coat of arms of King Charles I, which suggests at least part of the cargo was Stuart property. Perhaps the lady with the very fine wardrobe was a member of the Stuart family.

In addition to the passenger belongings, the ship’s cargo was remarkably varied. In addition to the wardrobe and expensive personal belongings, the ship was carrying boxwood — a dense, fine-grained wood widely used for musical instruments, chess sets and decorative carving — mastic from the Greek island of Chios, crates archaeologists believe held frankincense or myrrh, tobacco and aniseed. These objects found at the same time in the same context make the find a priceless historical time capsule that sheds new light on trade, politics and how people lived and worked on ships in the 17th century.

The gown and other treasures are now on display at the Kaap Skil Museum on Texel. The finds belong to the Province of North Holland. After the month-long exhibition ends on May 16th, the artifacts from the wreck will be further studied and conserved at North Holland’s Huis van Hilde archaeology center. Once the research is complete, the Kaap Skil Museum will display the finds in a permanent exhibition.

UPDATE: The likely owner of the gown has been identified.

Viking treasure pokes finder in Denmark

April 14th, 2016

Søren Bagge had only been metal detecting for a couple of months in August of 2015. With no particular expertise, he picked a field near Lille Karleby on the Hornsherred peninsula of Zealand, Denmark, to scan just because he happened to have grown up nearby and so could easily stop at home for coffee breaks. The first couple of days he found a few Arabic silver coins. The next signal from his metal detector was weak too, but when he dug into the top soil, he found a small silver cup. He’d felt something pointy stabbing him as he was digging up the cup, so he suspected there was more to be found in the spot and rushed to alert the Roskilde Museum.

It was the weekend, though, and nobody was around to pursue his lead. Bagge put the cup back where he found it and reburied it to keep it safe until Monday. On Monday Roskilde Museum archaeologists did a small excavation on the spot. About a foot below the surface they encountered multiple artifacts and realized they had a Viking hoard on their hands. They removed the entire lot in a soil block to excavate it with careful deliberation in laboratory conditions.


Before excavating the soil block, archaeologists took it to Roskilde Hospital where it was CT scanned in the Radiology unit. The scan showed there were a great many artifacts encased in that soil block. It gave archaeologists a blueprint of how to proceed. There is video of the block’s arrival at the hospital and the scan. This video is in Danish, but you don’t have to understand what they’re saying to appreciate the excitement of the CT reveal.

The excavation revealed an exceptional treasure of 392 pieces. The silver cup Bagge found was one of two. There were 53 gilt bronze and silver pendants, more than 300 beads made of glass, amber, rock crystal and silver, 18 Arabic and Western European coins, a braided silver chain, a bracelet or arm ring with five smaller rings attached, elaborately decorated pieces from France, Eastern Europe and Ireland or Scotland. Some of the objects of Scandinavian manufacture were already antiques when they were buried in the second half of the 10th century.

I hesitate to play favorites with so many beautiful and important pieces, but the large ball penannular brooch, also known as a thistle brooch, is breathtaking. Penannular brooches were relatively common in the Viking era, but nothing like this one has been found in Denmark before. It’s Irish or Scottish and was made in the 10th century. It’s called a thistle brooch because it is decorated with three spheres in the shaving brush shape of the thistle bud. The brooch is large — 10 inches long — with a wicked long pin. It was that pin which poked at Søren Bagge when he was digging.

These large brooches were worn by elite men, high-ranking clerics and royal family members, with the pin facing upwards. There was a law on the books in Scotland that provided compensation for people who were accidentally stuck by long-pins. In a little historical irony, the reason the thistle is the national emblem of Scotland is that, according to legend, a barefoot Norse invader stepped on a thistle during an attempted nighttime raid on a Scottish army encampment. His cries of pain warned the Scots that the Vikings were coming and Scottish forces successfully repulsed the attack.

Another impressive import/pillaged piece in the hoard is a trefoil strap mount with acanthus decoration. This was a Frankish design which would later be copied in Scandinavia, only the Norse usually put stylized animal designs or geometric shapes inside the three leaves rather than the French acanthus motif. The French used trefoils as fittings on a sword strap. The Vikings converted them into a jewelry — belt buckles, brooches — and they’re usually discovered in women’s graves where there are no swords or any other weapons, for that matter. The Frankish style dates the piece to between the late 8th century and the 10th century.

Seven hollow silver beads in the hoard are of both Scandinavian and Slavic origin. The six largest, most elaborate beads decorated with rich filigree and showing the remains of gilding were probably manufactured in Poland or West Russia in the 9th or 10th century. They are very rare finds in Scandinavia. The seventh bead, on the other hand, is rounder with a silver spiral applique’ that is more typical of Scandinavian beads.

The bracelet or arm-ring with the rings attached is certainly a Scandinavian piece. The four smaller rings are closed with a knot, and the fifth and smallest ring is threaded through a heavy silver bead. The rings would have clinked together and chimed when the wearer moved her arm. Archaeologists think the design might represent Odin’s dwarf-forged gold ring, Draupnir (“the dripper” in Old Norse), which “dripped” eight rings of equal weight to the original every ninth night. In Norse mythology, it’s a symbol of fertility and prosperity.

As for the silver cup that started all of this, it and its companion are different. One is decorated with triangle designs close to the lip. One is plain. The decorated one is bigger and heavier than the plain one. Both were likely drinking goblets for the upper echelons of Norse society. Other Viking hoards also include silver cups, one larger and more ornamented than the other. Archaeologists think the uneven sets may have been used during important banquets or festivals where the honored guest would get to use the fancier cup and the host would take the plainer one. The style of the cups indicate they were made between 700 and 1000, but since the treasure was buried up to 50 or so years before the latter date, we can shave a few years off of that broad estimate.

The treasure went on display at the Roskilde Museum in December and is now in the National Museum for further study.

Was a lost Caravaggio found in an attic in France?

April 13th, 2016

A leaky roof may be responsible for the rediscovery of a long-lost Caravaggio masterpiece. In the attempt to reach the leaking roof of a 17th century house outside Toulouse, in April of 2014 the homeowners broke through a door in the attic that they had never noticed was there. Behind the door was an oil painting depicting the Biblical heroine Judith beheading Assyrian general Holofernes while her begoitered maid Abra holds open a bag in which his head will be placed. It was covered in dust but otherwise in excellent condition. The family called in local auctioneer Marc Labarde to assess the painting. He cleaned the white film of grime off the face of the maid with cotton balls and water and identified it as a 17th century painting from the school of Caravaggio.

Labarde called in friend and Old Master expert Eric Turquin to examine it further. Turquin spent two years cleaning, conserving and studying the painting. He had it X-rayed and analyzed with infrared reflectography. He found key elements characteristic of Caravaggio’s work: great speed of execution, bold, secure brushstrokes and, because Caravaggio never made preparatory sketches first, changes done midstream to the positioning of Holofernes’ right hand and Judith’s face. Two Caravaggio experts examined the painting and agreed with Turquin that it was the original work lost almost 400 years ago. Another determined it was a copy, albeit a very good one.

Caravaggio painted an earlier Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598–99) which is now part of the collection of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. He made the second in Naples during the first decade of the 17th century. We know of its existence because Frans Pourbus the Younger, a Flemish painter at the Gonzaga court in Mantua, wrote about it in a letter to his boss, Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. Dated September 15th, 1607, the letter noted that Caravaggio’s Madonna of the Rosary, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, was for sale in Naples for 400 ducats. Pourbus also mentioned seeing another Caravaggio painting, a Judith and Holofernes, for sale.

What he didn’t tell Gonzaga was that both works were owned by a good friend of his, Flemish artist Louis Finson. The Duke was unwilling to spend 400 ducats on one Madonna, because a few years later Finson took it to Amsterdam with him. Finson also took Judith Beheading Holofernes to Amsterdam. Both Caravaggio works are listed in his will, but after his death in 1617, the Madonna was acquired by a consortium of artists including Peter Paul Rubens for a church in Antwerp while Judith disappears from the historical record.

Caravaggio was very famous in his lifetime, and while he never had a literal school or workshop with students like other masters did, he had followers who copied his works and painted pieces of their own that were heavily influenced by Caravaggio’s style. Louis Finson was one of the first Flemish Caravaggisti, as the followers were known, as was Rubens. Finson lived in Naples in the early 17th century when Caravaggio was there too. He owned several of Caravaggio’s original works and copied others. The Finson version of Judith Beheading Holofernes was considered a very faithful copy and since the original was lost, for close to 400 years, Finson’s copy was the only extant image of the work. Finson didn’t take it to Amsterdam and it is now on display in the Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano in Naples.

The French government has placed an export ban on the painting which means it cannot leave the country for 30 months. This will give experts plenty of time to study the work in greater detail, and will give French museums the opportunity to tap potential donors for the astronomical sum — something in the $130 million range — required to buy the work should it prove to be an authentic Caravaggio. As a contemporary copy of some quality, Louis Finson’s version will play an important role in the authentication process. One expert believes the newly discovered work is in fact another copy by Finson.

Unique Pictish Stone on display at Elgin Museum

April 12th, 2016


Three years have passed since Andy Johnstone broke a plough on a 1,500-pound Pictish Symbol Stone in a field in Dandaleith, near Craigellachie in northeastern Scotland. Landowner Mr. Robinson reported the find to the Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service (ACAS) and its experts determined the stone is Class I, the earliest type of symbol stone. It dates to the 6th-8th century B.C. and the symbols — an eagle, a crescent, a V-rod, a mirror case symbol, a notch rectangle and Z-rod — are carved on two adjacent sides, a unique configuration so far as we know.

Mr. Robinson allowed the five and a half foot-long pink granite stone to remain on his property for a year before arrangements could be made to remove it for conservation. In 2014, the Dandaleith Stone was transferred to Graciela Ainsworth Sculpture Conservation in Leith, Edinburgh, where Graciela Ainsworth’s team conserved it, documented it and laser scanned it to create a 3D model of the stone.

Meanwhile, the symbol stone was declared a Treasure Trove and the Scottish Archaeological Finds Allocation Panel allocated the find to the Elgin Museum, Scotland’s oldest independent museum (est. 1842), in Elgin, just 15 miles north of Dandaleith. The museum then had to raise the funds to pay the landowner and finder a fee equal to its assessed market value, plus more to pay for transportation, conservation and display. The fundraising was successful, thanks to contributions from the Heritage Lottery Fund, AIM, the Art Fund, the Pilgrim’s Trust, and Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service.

On March 1st of this year, the Dandaleith Stone was transported to the Elgin Museum by Graciela Ainsworth. She also brought the carved Pictish and early Medieval stones from the museum’s permanent collection that were conserved at her Edinburgh facility. The next day, the Dandaleith Stone was hoisted into position in the museum’s new display by the Elgin Marble Company which generously donated the equipment, time and manpower necessary to raise the massive stone and install it vertically next to a new row of lit shelves to display the museum’s other, much smaller carved stones.

The new Pictish Stone display opened to the public on Saturday, March 26th. Ploughman and finder Andy Johnstone was invited to cut the ribbon at the exhibition opening.

Rare 13th c. tile floor on display under new shelter

April 11th, 2016

An extremely rare surviving 13th century tile floor at Cleeve Abbey in Somerset is now back on display under a new, state-of-the-art shelter. The oak shelter will protect the 40 x 16-foot section of pavement from the elements, something its predecessor, a tent, could not do.

Cleeve Abbey was a Cistercian monastery founded by William de Roumare, Earl of Lincoln, in 1198. Populated by only 12 monks in the beginning, by the mid-13th century there was a cruciform church, a cloister, chapter house, sacristy and dormitory. The refectory was constructed in the second half of the 1200s, probably around 1270, and it was paved with expensive polychrome encaustic tiles nine inches square. Each tile is decorated with heraldic designs. The arms of several aristocratic benefactors of the monastery were kiln-baked into the floor tiles, including the chevrons of the earls of Gloucester from the de Clare family, the lion rampant of the earls of Cornwall, the double-headed eagle of Richard of Cornwall, second son of King John of Magna Carta fame, who bribed his way into election as King of the Romans (ie, King of what would become Germany) in 1257, and the three white lions of the Royal Coat of Arms representing monastery patron King Henry III, Richard’s brother. Archaeologists believe they were manufactured by a tilery in Gloucestershire and installed to celebrate the marriage of Edmund, 2nd Earl of Cornwall, to Margaret de Clare in 1272.

In the 15th century, the old refectory was demolished and a new, larger refectory was built just to its north. The old tile floor was not reused elsewhere (the usual practice when dealing with luxurious features like these tiles), but buried, keeping it in situ in its original configuration virtually undamaged for 400 years. Thanks to its hiding place, the floor made it through the Dissolution of the Monasteries unscathed while the abbey church was demolished. Henry VIII sold the abbey property and other structures, stripping any valuable architectural features for individual sale. The abbey became a farm, and most of the buildings are still standing today because of it.

The Cleeve Abbey tiled pavement is the only large example of a decorated medieval refectory floor in Britain. The fact that it survived with its original placement still intact makes it a rarity of international significance. A smaller piece of the 13th century church floor was also discovered at Cleeve Abbey, and while it too is made of colorful encaustic tiles, they have been relain and look like a patchwork quilt now.

The old refectory floor was rediscovered in 1876. To protect it for future generations, the floor was reburied until 1951 when it was again exposed and displayed to the public. It was covered each winter to save it from inclement weather and uncovered during the summer months so tourists could view it.

In the 1990s, tests by English Heritage found that the tiles were dangerous deteriorating from their exposure to the elements. Thermal stress was damaging the protective glaze surface and eroding the detailed patterns in the clay, while microbes and high salt gnawed away the priceless pavement. In an attempt to prevent further damage, English Heritage installed a marquee tent over the floor tiles, which helped keep the sun’s rays from hitting the tiles directly but was only a temporary solution while they worked on a permanent one.

Last year construction began on a new shelter made of louvred oak slats which allow light to enter the space for optimal viewing, but keep direct sunlight from beating down on the tiles. There’s a ventilation system which keeps the temperatures inside the enclosure stable at all times. Visitors can enjoy the floor comfortably from seating and viewing platforms.

The new shelter opened on Good Friday, March 25th, 2016, and will be open daily through October 21st, 2016, which is when Cleeve Abbey closes for the winter. It will open again next spring.

17th c. treasure hidden during uprising found in Bulgaria

April 10th, 2016


A treasure of silver jewels buried in the 17th century has been found near the northwestern Bulgarian city of Montana. The hoard was discovered by local residents who very responsibly reported the find to the National Museum of History in Sofia. There’s a tiara, two forehead bands, two ear tabs, connectors between the headpieces and the ear tabs, a pair of earrings and two rings. They are all made of silver and are of very high quality, decorated with expensive, highly skilled techniques including filigree, granulation, niello, gold leaf and a green glass-like mass that is probably enamel. The objects were placed in a leather purse, surviving fragments of which were found at the site.

The jewelry is almost certainly local work. The area was known for its very fine gold and silversmiths. The work of the Chiprovtsi smiths was famous all over Eastern Europe for its complexity and delicacy. They had access to a steady supply of precious raw materials, thanks to local silver ore deposits which were extensively mined in the 16th and 17th centuries.

After the Ottoman conquest of the Second Bulgarian Empire in 1396, some areas were granted the right of Christian self-government, among them the village of Chiprovtsi and neighboring towns. When silver ore was found in the region in the second half of the 15th century, the population of the villages swelled with Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Albanians and German miners while the old Catholic nobility appears to have ruled virtually undisturbed with only a token Ottoman representation in the municipal government. Chiprovtsi was closely linked to the Catholic ecclesiastical hierarchy as well. The official residence of the Catholic archbishops of Bulgaria was Chiprovtsi’s Monastery of St. Mary.

The mix of peoples, strong Catholic leadership and quasi-autonomy of the region spurred residents to seek to overthrown the Ottoman Yoke. The Chiprovtsi Uprising, a rebellion of Roman Catholic (and some Eastern Orthodox) Bulgarians against Ottoman rule, was precipitated by Austria’s capture of Belgrade from the Turks on September 6th, 1688. Chiprovtsi Catholics had been trying to induce the monarchies of western Europe to take Bulgaria from the Ottomans for more than four decades, coming very close several times to triggering elaborate invasion plans that ultimately fell through. When Belgrade fell to the Austrians, the Chiprovtsi rebels thought that after so many false starts, the moment had finally come. Hopeful that the Austrians would send reinforcements to support the uprising, extend their victory east and ultimately liberate all of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule, the insurrectionists rose up and fought the Ottomans and their Magyar allies.

It did not go well. There was no coordination between Austrian and Bulgarian forces, and the Turks handily won the military encounters. The decisive battle took place near Montana, then called Kutlovitsa, in October of 1688. The Ottomans won decisively. They captured Chiprovtsi on October 18th and razed it to the ground, killing almost everyone and enslaving whoever survived. While a much-reduced guerilla resistance continued for a few months, the Austrians never came and much of the remaining population fled west to the Danube or north to Wallachia. Archbishop Peter Knezevic led the emigration to Wallachia. Few Christians remained in the northwest and the Ottomans ruled directly, stripping the Bulgarian nobility of their old privileges and political power.

The National Museum of History experts believe the cache of silver jewels was a family fortune buried in the turbulent days of the Chiprovtsi Uprising in the fall of 1688. Since almost everyone in the area was killed in battle, executed, enslaved or fled, there was nobody left to dig up the treasure.

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