Rare 7th c. silver bowl found in western Netherlands

July 5th, 2014

Leiden University archaeologists have unearthed a rare and beautiful silver bowl from the from the early 7th century in Oegstgeest, a town in the province of South Holland in the western Netherlands. It was discovered just over a year ago, on June 4th, 2013, during the excavation of village from the 6th and 7th century on the banks of the Rhine. The find wasn’t announced for a year to allow the team to complete the excavation without interference from treasure hunters and lookie-loos.

The silver bowl itself dates to late antiquity, probably around 300-500 A.D., and is decorated with plant and animal figures in gold leaf. On the inside, three large trees or plants go from the base of the bowl to a border frieze. The plants divide the frieze into three sections separated by rosettes. Each section features animal figures running, one set appears to be three deer, another is two bucks and a dog, the third is two mythological animals, one of which appears to be carrying a human leg in its mouth. These decorative motifs suggest the bowl was originally manufactured in the eastern Mediterranean or Middle East.

It’s the elaborate gold and garnet appliqués that date to the first half of the 7th century. The base of the bowl is inset with a central disc that has garnets inlaid in a cross pattern. Between the garnets are swirls made of knotted gold wire. Tiny versions of the swirls decorate the border of the disc. There are two mounts with suspension rings added to the outside of the bowl. They too are gold with garnet accents and swirls of knotted gold wire. The style of decoration is from the German Rhineland (except for the suspension rings which are more in keeping with English and Scandinavian styles), so someone took an expensive Eastern bowl and made it even more expensive by adding Germanic gold accents.

The rings are characteristic of hanging bowls and the handsome interior decoration would certainly be more effectively shown off if the bowl were suspended with the interior visible. However, in order to hang evenly the bowl would have needed a third ring and there’s no evidence of a third mount on the bowl, not even rivet holes. It’s possible the piece was in the process of being manufactured, which would make it a very rare artifact captured mid-production.

The bowl was presumably used as a drinking vessel or a wash basin initially, but at some point a small hole was made in the base of the bowl from the outside in. The hole would have made it impossible for the bowl to hold liquids without leaking and it seems to have been done on purpose.

The ancient village was criss-crossed by several small waterways leading to and from the Rhine. The bowl was found in one of those small waterways, and archaeologists believe it was deliberately deposited as a sacrifice.

Researchers are assuming that the bowl, which is 21 centimetres wide and 11 centimetres high, was buried as part of a ritual sacrifice. Such gilded discoveries are extremely rare. This one is exceptional because such bowls were usually made of bronze. In addition, they were not, as a rule, lavishly decorated with gold leaf. This means that we are dealing with an artefact that is unique, not only for the Netherlands, but for all of Western Europe. (Until the discovery of this bowl there were no indications of the presence of a local or regional elite on the Oegstgeest settlement. It may be that in this period some members of the elite lived on ‘simple’ farms.)

The was in pieces when it was first found. A full restoration funded by the Province of South Holland has returned it to its former glory. The bowl is now on display at the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities as part of the Golden Middle Ages exhibition that runs through October 26th. After that, it will be exhibited in the museum’s permanent collection on long-term loan from the Province of South Holland.

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Check out this huge Snow White poster

July 4th, 2014

When Walt Disney’s groundbreaking Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released in 1937, it was accompanied by one of the largest publicity campaigns in film history. A wide variety of posters, banners and standees were created for distribution to theaters all over the world. Many of them are highly sought after by collectors today, but none more so than the elusive 24-sheet billboard. Made from 24 sheets lithographed separately and then knitted together to form three character groupings spanning an incredible 19-and-a-half feet in width and 9’11″ in height, only a few of them were ever produced and only one of them is known to survive. Behold its awesomeness:

The surviving billboard had lost its bottom left panel, but it has now been fully restored and placed on linen. It’s going up for sale at Heritage Auctions’ Vintage Movie Posters sale in Dallas on July 19th with a presale estimate of $10,000 – $20,000. That’s actually relatively modest considering that a handsome but much less rare One Sheet is being offered at the same auction with a presale estimate of $5,000 – $10,000. (A fantastic set of standees of Snow White and all Seven Dwarfs is a steal at $2,500 – $5,000, assuming they go that low.)

All of these promotional materials were the work of Swedish-American illustrator Gustaf Tenggren. The characters — Snow White, The Evil Queen, the Witch, and the Dwarfs — were designed by Albert Hurter and Joe Grant. Disney hired Tenggren, who was already well known for his Arthur Rackham-influenced fairy tale illustrations, in 1936 to create the backgrounds and give the forest and cottage an old world illustration look. He was also in charge of painting the posters and other advertising materials for the movie.

Tenggren then deployed his signature style and exceptional attention to detail in the backgrounds and settings of Pinocchio, particularly the village streets and Gepetto’s Workshop, but his tenure at Disney would be brief. His last movie was Bambi for which he painted intricate forest scenes. They were not ultimately used because they were considered ill-suited to the aesthetic of the picture. Tenggren left Disney in 1939.

In 1942 he went to work for Little Golden Books, illustrating one of the greatest of them all: the immortal The Poky Little Puppy by Janette Sebring Lowrey, which remains in print to this day and is the all-time best-selling hardcover children’s book in English. For more about Tenggren’s remarkably varied art, see Lars Emanuelsson’s World of Gustaf Tenggren website and Gustaf Tenggren blog.

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The pursuit of Happiness. Period. Or not.

July 3rd, 2014

The official transcript of the Declaration of Independence puts a period after the iconic phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The transcript is drawn from an 1823 engraving by printer William J. Stone who was commissioned by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams to make a facsimile of the original manuscript on parchment written by Timothy Matlack, clerk to the secretary of the Second Continental Congress, and signed by the Continental Congress on August 2nd, 1776. (July 4th is the day the Declaration was officially adopted, not the day John Hancock put his John Hancock on it.) The Stone engraving is the most frequently reproduced version of the Declaration of Independence.

By the time Stone made his copy, the original was already suffering from condition issues. That’s why he was commissioned to copy it, in fact, so there would be a version for distribution to the surviving signers, their families, luminaries of the Revolution like Lafayette and public institutions nationwide. Stone’s engraving is considered the closest thing we have to the Declaration when it was still legible. The original, now on display in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., is kept in a bulletproof glass case filled with inert argon gas. The writing is so faded as to be next to illegible.

It’s impossible to confirm with the naked eye, therefore, whether there was a period after “the pursuit of Happiness” in the original. Professor Danielle Allen from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, thinks there was not, that Stone made a mistake that has been carried forward nearly two centuries. It’s not pedantry that underpins her analysis. The punctuation plays a significant part in the interpretation of the preamble.

The period creates the impression that the list of self-evident truths ends with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” she says. But as intended by Thomas Jefferson, she argues, what comes next is just as important: the essential role of governments — “instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” — in securing those rights.

“The logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights,” Ms. Allen said. “You lose that connection when the period gets added.”

Correcting the punctuation, if indeed it is wrong, is unlikely to quell the never-ending debates about the deeper meaning of the Declaration of Independence. But scholars who have reviewed Ms. Allen’s research say she has raised a serious question.

“Are the parts about the importance of government part of one cumulative argument, or — as Americans have tended to read the document — subordinate to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’?” said Jack Rakove, a historian at Stanford and a member of the National Archives’ Founding Fathers Advisory Committee. “You could make the argument without the punctuation, but clarifying it would help.”

Several early documents support Allen’s argument. There is no period in any of the official versions written or printed in 1776. Thomas Jefferson’s original rough draft has a semicolon after the pursuit of Happiness, just as it does at the end of all the “that” clauses in the sentence. The Dunlap Broadside, printed in Philadelphia on July 4th, 1776, uses a triplicate dash, an m-dash followed by a space and a hyphen.

There is a period in an unauthorized leaked version of the Declaration published in Benjamin Towne’s newspaper, the Pennsylvania Evening Post, on July 6, 1776. The first official document to include a period after Happiness was the 1777 broadside printed by Mary Katharine Goddard. The first public issue of the Declaration to include the names of all the signatories (minus one, Thomas McKean of Delaware, who may have signed after Goddard’s version was printed), the Goddard broadside was commissioned by Congress for distribution to the states. Goddard and Towne knew each other well. Towne began his career in the print shop of William Goddard, Mary’s father, and Mary had reprinted Towne’s version in her own paper, the Baltimore Journal, on July 10th, 1776. It’s no surprise, therefore, that she stuck with Towne’s punctuation when she printed the official broadside in January of 1777.

Allen thinks the period made its way into Towne’s bootleg printing as an artifact of the many diacritical marks Jefferson included in his drafts to convey the flow of it as a document to be read out loud. You can read her paper about it, Punctuating Happiness, here (pdf). She goes into very persuasive and fascinating detail, analyzing the early written and print versions, breaking down the stylistic differences between John Adams’ work and Thomas Jefferson’s and ever so much more. It is seriously a page-turner and very appropriate reading for the day.

The National Archives found it persuasive as well. They are now looking into making some changes to their online presentation of the Declaration based on her work, and are examining the possibility of deploying new imaging technology to photograph the Declaration through its encasement and reveal details not visible to the naked eye.

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1st c. B.C. Gallic chariot tomb found in France

July 2nd, 2014

Archaeologists surveying the site of highway construction in Warcq, a town in the Ardennes department of northeastern France, have unearthed a rare Gallic chariot tomb from the first to mid-second century B.C. Inside the tomb is an aristocrat of Remi tribe, one of the first Celtic tribes to have settled Gaul. They buried their aristocrats in pits, resting on top of their chariots, since the 6th century B.C. and several hundred of them have been unearthed in the region.

This one is unique, however, for several reasons. It is exceptionally large at five square meters (54 square feet), dwarfing the other known tombs of this type. It was also found intact, untouched by tomb robbers, and in an exceptional state of preservation. The waterlogged clay soil has preserved most of the timber framing, including the roof which has collapsed on the tomb contents. The late date of the burial is also exceptionally rare. Most Remi chariot tombs date to the start of the second Iron Age (5th-4th century B.C.).

The team has not yet been able to determine if the human remains belonged to a man or a woman. A man, a chieftain and military leader, is the likelier candidate, but women have been found in chariot tombs as well. Forensic anthropologists will attempt to determine sex from the skull and pelvic bones, but if they’ve sustained too much damage to be identifiable, the grave goods will help pinpoint whether a woman or a man was buried there. Military artifacts will point to a man’s burial, household goods to a woman’s. To the left of the skeleton archaeologists found some beads, but they were probably part of the deceased’s coat rather than grave goods in their own right.

The metal strapping from the two wheels of the chariot has survived, and amazingly enough, so have fragments of gold leaf that archaeologists believe once coated the inner wheel. The hubs are decorated with bronze features inlaid with glass paste. These precious elements strongly indicate this was a ceremonial chariot rather than a utilitarian piece.

Buried with the deceased were four horses. They were quite petite, 4’3″ at the withers, and were sacrificed specifically to accompany their master on his or her journey to the afterlife. Their skeletons appear to be intact at this point. The skull of one of them was lodged under one of the wheels of the chariot, but the bones of two horses buried along the western wall are still articulated. Four horses are another unusual feature in a Remi chariot tomb. The common find is a simple pair of horses. The remains of a fifth smaller animal (possibly a pig) have also been unearthed.

This survey was only scheduled to last three weeks before highway construction began, so the archaeologists are battling against time to get everything out of the grave with proper deliberation. Officially they have three days left, but they have far more to do than can be done in such a short window. In order to excavate the full site, they have to remove the collapsed ceiling planks. They can’t just yank them out, though, because they’re incredibly rare artifacts in their own right. Instead, each plank has to be coated in plaster strips to ensure they maintain structural integrity before being moved very slowly to keep them intact.

The President of the General Council of the Ardennes, Senator Benedict Huré, has assured the archaeologists that they will have all the time they need to properly excavate the tomb, “a week or more if necessary.” That’s not exactly a reassuringly generous offer, but the alternative is to rebury everything and pave it over, so here’s hoping they get the time they need to do a thorough job of extracting the archaeological remains.

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Min Fanglei reunited with its lid in Hunan museum

July 1st, 2014

A large bronze ritual wine vessel from the Late Shang dynasty (12th/11th century B.C.) that is the greatest example of its kind has been donated to the Hunan Provincial Museum where it was reunited with its lid after almost 100 years of separation. It was slated to be the star lot at a Christie’s Asian art auction on March 20th, but a group of Chinese collectors came together to buy the artifact for the museum. The private sale went through on March 19th, one day before the auction. The sum paid is undisclosed, but the scuttlebutt is that it was around $30 million.

At more than two feet high, the Min Fanglei (Min is the name of its maker inscribed inside the vessel’s neck, fanglei is the word for “wine vessel”) is the largest archaic bronze of its kind, taller even without its lid than any other known example with lids.

The vessel’s massive size distinguishes this extraordinary work as one of the foremost examples of its kind. The surface is intricately cast with stylized animals and mysterious monster masks that provide a fascinating insight into early Chinese culture and beliefs. The crisp, precise casting of this complex design vividly illustrates why bronze vessels created during the Shang and Zhou dynasties rank among the finest examples of bronze casting the world has ever seen.

When it last passed through Christie’s hands in 2001, the vessel sold for $9,246,000, then a world auction record for any piece Asian art. It remains a record price for an archaic Chinese bronze sold at auction.

It was certain to blow right through that figure had it gone under the hammer in March. The Hunan Provincial Museum would have found it very expensive to go head-to-head against the deep-pocketed collectors that have driven prices for Asian art into the stratosphere over the past decade or so. It declared its intention to bid, but odds are slim it would have won. Wanting the masterpiece rejoined with its lid in the museum inspired Taiwan collector Robert Tsao to contact his fellow collectors abroad, in Taiwan and on the Chinese mainland and call for a united front: nobody bids to give the museum a chance to win. The private purchase ensured nobody else could kill the reunion plan.

The Min Fanglei was unearthed by peasants in Taoyuan County, Hunan province, in 1922. The son of the peasant brought the lid to his school in the hope that the schoolmaster could identify it. The schoolmaster immediately recognized what a treasure it was and bought the lid for 800 hundred silver dollars. Meanwhile, a businessman from Hubei province (Hunan’s neighbor to the north) got wind of the find and bought the body of the vessel for 400 silver dollars. That’s how the two parts got separated.

The lid was sold to a military officer who gave it to the Hunan government in 1952. In 1956 it became part of the permanent collection of the Hunan Provincial Museum. The body was sold to the city of Shanghai in 1924 and then purchased at auction by foreign collectors. While the lid stayed in China, the vessel traveled the world, jumping from collector to collector in the US, the UK, Japan and France. It was a French collector who bought it at the 2001 Christie’s auction. He died earlier this year, which is why the Min Fanglei was on the market again.

The Min Fanglei arrived in Changsha, Hunan’s capital on June 21st. On June 28th at a ceremony at the museum, officials placed the lid on the vessel for the first time in a century. It will go on permanent display at the Hunan Provincial Museum in 2015 when it reopens after a three-year renovation.

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Medici princess freed from bad Victorian Photoshop

June 30th, 2014


A portrait of Isabella de’ Medici, daughter of Grand Duke Cosimo I of Tuscany and his wife Eleanor of Toledo, has been liberated from the atrocious Victorian overpaint that had replaced all her individuality and dignity with a cheeseball beauty standard better suited to a cookie tin lithograph than a Renaissance court painting. The portrait was acquired by the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh in 1978 when it was reported to be a portrait of Eleanor of Toledo by Bronzino. Bronzino did a portrait of Eleanor wearing a gorgeous brocade dress that is one of the most famous works of the period, but the Carnegie painting was so markedly inferior to that masterpiece that to call the attribution sloppy is a drastic understatement.

The museum’s curator of fine arts Lulu Lippincott suspected it was a modern fake and planned to deaccession the piece. Before lowering the boom, she asked chief conservator Ellen Baxter to determine whether it was a fake. Baxter found that the painting had cracks in it that were characteristic of a panel painting rather than an oil on canvas. The stamp of Francis Leedham, a 19th century British restorer who specialized in the terrifying practice of transferring paintings from wood or fresco to canvas (read a summary of the process here, if you dare), on the stretcher confirmed that this painting was already at least a century old in the Victorian era.

X-rays revealed that underneath the corny lady was the portrait of an older woman with puffy undereyes, a bit of a double chin, a handsome nose bump and significantly larger hands. This subject also sported a halo and held an alabaster urn in her meat hooks, attributes of Mary Magdalene that had been painted over after Leedham had transferred the portrait to canvas. The face and hands were extensively repainted, probably to make the distinctive subject more conventionally “pretty” and appealing to potential buyers.

It was Lulu Lippincott who identified the sitter. She compared the dress, the least tampered with element of the painting, to other portraits of Medici women and found a painting of Isabella de’ Medici wearing the same garment. Born in 1542, Isabella was a luminous figure in the Medici court during her short life. She was beautiful, vivacious, fashionable, intelligent, well-educated, a lover of the arts. Her father Cosimo doted on her. When she was 16, her father arranged a politically expedient marriage for her to Paolo Giordano Orsini, Duke of Bracciano. He was a violent man, an avid hunter, fighter and future leader of the Papal armies, but he lived in Rome and Cosimo saw to it that his daughter (and her dowry) stayed with him in Florence.

Cosimo gave her an exceptional amount of freedom for a noblewoman of her time. She ran her own household, and after Eleanor’s death in 1562 [corrected from 1559, thank you Edward!], Isabella ran her father’s too. She threw famously raucous parties and spent lavishly. Her father always covered her debts and protected her from scrutiny even as rumors of her lovers and excesses that would have doomed other society women spread far and wide. Her favorite lover was said to be Troilo Orsini, her husband Paolo’s cousin.

Things went downhill fast for Isabella after her father’s death in 1574. Her brother Francesco was now the Grand Duke, and he had no interest in indulging his sister’s peccadilloes. We don’t know what happened exactly, but in 1576 Isabella died at the Medici Villa of Cerreto Guidi near Empoli. The official story released by Francesco was that his 34-year-old sister dropped dead suddenly while washing her hair. The unofficial story is that she was strangled by her husband out of revenge for her adultery and/or to clear the way for him to marry his own mistress Vittoria Accoramboni.

Isabella was painted repeatedly during her lifetime, often by Alessandro Allori, a prominent Medici court painter and student of Bronzino’s. The Carnegie’s portrait is one of the last.

Lippincott believes that the picture was painted around 1574, and that the halo and urn were added shortly after the work was completed. The Mary Magdalene attributes transformed the portrait into a “symbol of repentance”; Isabella’s brother Francesco, who became head of the family in 1574, was less accepting of her scandalous lifestyle. “This may have been Isabella’s attempt to clean up her act,” Lippincott says.

Conservator Ellen Baxter cleaned up the portrait’s act, removing yellowed varnish and all that tragic overpaint. The age and stability of the paint layers made it a relatively straightforward process, although once the Victorian modifications were gone, there were areas of paint loss, particularly around the edges. Baxter filled in the blanks with a light, judicious hand.

Watch this video to see her in action:

Now that the Isabella has been liberated from a later era’s bad taste, attribution can be revisited. For now, the Carnegie is attributing the portrait to the circle of Alessandro Allori, although it could be the work of the master himself.

Meanwhile, Isabella is going on display in the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Faked, Forgotten, Found: Five Renaissance Paintings Investigated exhibition, a fascinating glimpse behind the conservator’s curtain as viewed through the analysis and conservation of five Renaissance paintings in the museum’s collection. The exhibition debuted Saturday and runs through September 15th.

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Runes confirm Thor’s hammer amulet is a hammer

June 29th, 2014

This spring, metal detectorist Torben Christjansen found a small amulet in Købelev on the Danish island of Lolland. Just one inch long and wide, the piece is in a shape known as Thor’s hammer, a design thought to invoke the protective power of Thor and his dwarf-forged hammer Mjolnir. About 1,000 of these Viking-era amulets have been discovered in Scandinavia, the UK, Russia and the Baltic countries, often unearthed in women’s graves. There has been some debate, however, on whether they were representations of Thor’s hammer, even stylized versions. Skeptics point out that the shaft is disproportionately short to be a hammer, and the head too symmetrical.

Christjansen reported the find as treasure trove to the local Museum Lolland-Falster where curators dated it to the 10th century. The amulet was cast in bronze and has traces of the silver or tin plating and gold plating that once adorned it. One side of the hammer’s head is decorated with interlacing pattern, the other side with a runic inscription seven characters long. This is the first Thor’s hammer amulet ever found inscribed with runes.

Because the runes were so small — three to seven millimeters high — and the surface corroded from the centuries it spent in the ground, the Museum Lolland-Falster curators sent the amulet to the National Museum of Denmark for their experts to decipher. Examining it under a microscope, museum runologist Lisbeth Imer was able to translate the inscription and it resolves the hammer question in the bluntest terms possible: the runes read “Hmar is x,” or in modern Danish “Hammer is” (the x isn’t a letter but a delimiter between two words). Translated into English the inscription simply says “This is a hammer.”

There are two mistakes in the runes. The author left out the first a in “hammer” and flipped the S-rune backwards à la Toys-R-Us. These could have been errors of literacy or a function of the tiny space the writer had to inscribe. Even if his or her spelling was spotty, the rune carver would have derived status and prestige from being literate in a society that prized writing.

The hammer wasn’t the only artifact Christjansen found on the site. He discovered pieces of silver needles and a matrix used to make brooches. These finds could indicate there was a jewelry-making workshop in the area. If so, the hammer could have been made locally. There are no plans currently for an archaeological investigation of the site. Christjansen will keep surveying the area with his metal detector, however, and Museum Lolland-Falster curators will be working with him going forward.

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25 quipu found at Inca site south of Lima

June 28th, 2014

Archaeologists excavating the 15th century Inca archaeological site of Incahuasi, about 90 miles southeast of Lima and 20 miles inland from the coast of central Peru, have found 25 quipu, groups of knotted and dyed strings tied together that were used by the Inca for keeping records. The quipu are in various shapes, sizes and configurations. The longest is two groups of strings tied together to form a row three feet wide, with an additional tail in the center where the two strands meet. The smallest is just a few inches wide, the size of a small notepad.

Quipu (also called “khipus” or “talking knots”) typically consisted of colored, spun, and plied thread or strings from llama or alpaca hair. They aided in data collection and record-keeping, including the monitoring of tax obligations, census records, calendrical information, and military organization. The cords contained numeric and other values encoded on knots in a base-10 positional system. Some quipu had as many as 2,000 cords.

In widespread use for 800 years or so in cultures that had no written language, the quipu were targeted for destruction by the Spanish conquistadors. They were collected and burned. Today only a few hundred have survived because they were used as grave goods. The Incahuasi quipu, on the other hand, were not found in a funerary context but rather unearthed in the city’s warehouses where they were used in the management of whatever was stored there, most likely agricultural products. Ceramic pots recovered from the warehouses are marked with symbols for maize and other crops.

Incahuasi was founded in 1450 by King Túpac Yupanqui who expanded the Inca empire south along the coast and established the city as an administrative and military center for the ongoing campaign against the local Huarcos people who resisted the Inca invaders. He called it New Cusco, after the Inca capital, and planned the city to be a smaller scale replica of the original. The architecture was therefore deliberately grand, meant to convey imperial power. Structures found so far include 64 circular columns, ushnu (terraced pyramids) temples, forts, soldier’s barracks, ceremonial courtyards, warehouses, grain stores on a plan of streets and squares similar to the northern capital. It’s the most important Inca archaeological site in coastal Peru.

The climate is dry, a sub-tropical desert, which required the construction of canals and irrigation systems to enable agriculture. It also preserves organic material like knotted cotton strings. Their condition is so good that conservators have actually been able to iron them, believe it or not. The strings of the longest one were crimped and tangled, so curator Patricia Landa Cragg placed a damn paper towel on top of them and passed an iron over it. The treatment works like a charm, as you can see in the photograph left where the strings on the left side have been ironed while the ones on the right have not. There’s video of Patricia explaining the process on this page (which is currently down but was working fine earlier). The video also shows some of the other quipu found at the site and the recovered ceramic pottery.

For more about this fascinating and complex system of 3D language (there’s some evidence quipu weren’t just used for accounting purposes, but also to record literature and mythology), see Harvard’s Khipu Database Project.

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Rediscovered Artemisia Gentileschi Magdalene breaks record

June 27th, 2014

A rediscovered painting by Baroque master Artemisia Gentileschi sold for a world record €865,500 ($1,175,211) at a Sotheby’s auction in Paris on Thursday. The final price including buyer’s premium was far in excess of the pre-sale estimate of €200,000-300,000 ($271,568-407,352), driven up by seven bidders competing against each other.

The previous auction record for a painting by Artemisia Gentileschi was £419,500 (about $715,000 at today’s exchange rate) set at 1998 Sotheby’s sale in London. It was the same Self-Portrait as a Lute Player that failed to sell at auction due to an overly-optimistic reserve in the millions of dollars last January. The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford acquired it in a private sale for an undisclosed sum in March.

Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy was thought lost, its existent only known from an early 20th century black and white photograph in the library of an Italian art dealer. Sotheby’s experts rediscovered it in a private collection in the south of France where it had been secreted away for 80 years. The old picture is thought to have been taken when the painting was acquired by the family of the current seller for their collection.

It’s no wonder that Mary Magdalene was subject to a bidding war. It is a particularly striking example of Artemisia’s Caravaggio-influenced play of light and dark. A large canvas at 32 by 41 1/3 inches, the piece depicts the Magdalene is the throes of religious ecstasy. The conventional wisdom is that it was painted between 1613 and 1620, the period during which Gentileschi became a highly sought after and respected artist in Florence. Some scholars believe it’s an even earlier work because they see her father’s influence in the color palette while her Florentine work saw her move away from that and develop her own signature style. Her Florentine period also featured more luxurious elements, while this painting is downright Spartan. Sotheby’s Old Masters experts think she painted it shortly after the devastating rape trial in 1611 when she was still in Rome. They believe she may even have used herself as a model, since she wouldn’t have had a great deal of access to paid models as a young woman artist still in her teens.

The abandoned, blissful pose and the way the figure fills the frame is unusual. Artemisia’s father Orazio set his subjects farther back. This composition is all Artemisia, an early glimpse into her burgeoning creative vision. The religious theme illustrated by a figure bathed in a single strong beam of divine light was popular at the time (Caravaggio was a master of the form) but Artemisia’s treatment — the tight framing, Mary pictured as a regular woman without overtly religious iconography, the sheer ecstasy — takes a highly personal approach to the subject. Compare it to two other ecstatic women from her oeuvre, Cleopatra at the moment of her death and Danaë at the moment of her impregnation by Zeus as a shower of gold. Magdalene seems so much more naturalistic and unbridled rather than posed and conventional.

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The Odyssey in LEGO

June 26th, 2014

The LEGO construction geniuses of VirtuaLUG have outdone themselves this year, building a vast world that follows the journeys of Odysseus. The LEGO Odyssey was made for Brickworld Chicago 2014, a convention where LEGO artists come together to share knowledge and show their work. VirtuaLUG is known for its large, complex world-building, usually representations of famous literature like The Wizard of Oz and The Lord of the Rings.

They outdid themselves this year with The Odyssey. It’s the largest model yet at nearly 300 square feet. The gorgeous Aegean ocean required 400,000-500,000 dots to make. There are just shy of a million in the entire piece. There are moving parts, flashing lights, even a fully functional water feature. The level of detail, the textures of ocean, island, animal and giant, the diverse color palettes and architecture all combine to lend each section its own distinct character. Then there are the whimsical touches, references to the LEGO movie, the inclusion of the VirtuaLUG builders as a ship’s crew and best of all, the trireme crewed entirely by Wookies.

The LEGO version of the Homeric saga starts with Troy and the devious horse that broke the decade-long siege. The sides of the horse are open so you can see the treacherous Greeks waiting within to deliver destruction unto Ilium. From there the model follows Odysseus’ ships as they travel to the Island of the Lotus Eaters, Polyphemus’ Island where the sheep are large and adorable, Aeolus’ Island with the neatest mechanics, the Isle of the Laestrygonians, with amazingly dynamic articulated giant cannibals and Odysseus’ destroyed ships in the harbour, Circe’s Island complete with a finely laid out table and formerly human swine, the strikingly black, red and white Hades guarded by Cerebus, the Island of the Sirens, freaky Scylla and churning Charybdis, the Isle of Helios with the god’s adorably sacred cattle, the soaring white highrise temple of Olympus, the craggy white and blue Island of Calypso, and finally Ithaca, crammed with surly suitors and Odysseus’ son and wife fending them off.

There are great pictures on VirtuaLUG’s Flickr page, each with a brief description of the part of the story being represented. To get a real sense of the impressive size and scope of the piece, however, you must view the full tour of the installation guided by VirtualLUG’s Chris Phipson in the video below. It’s long at 22 minutes, but it’s essential viewing because you get to see extremely important details including the swirly multi-colored portal of Hades (8:50), the working fountain in Troy (11:35), the light-up lightning bolt Zeus sent to destroy Odysseus’ ship after his men ate Helios’ sacred cattle (14:08), the unbelievably complex underwater scene with swimming sharks or dolphins chasing a Nereid (15:02) and my personal favorite, the phenomenal moving wind features of the Isle of Aeolus (5:00).

Note: around 16:20 he refers to the Isle of Circe, when in fact it’s the Isle of Calypso. He just mispoke. Earlier in the tour at 5:50 he covers the real Circe bit where Odysseus’ men were turned into swine.

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