Dragons return to Kew Gardens’ Great Pagoda

October 29th, 2017

The Great Pagoda at Kew Gardens is in the midst of a major restoration project that will return it to its original glory. This is a tall order, no pun intended, for a wooden octagonal tower ten stories high that was built in 1762. Towering 50 meters (164 feet) above London, the Great Pagoda was unique for its time with its height, Chinese-inspired design and spectacular bird’s eye view of the city. It was the highest Chinese-style building in Europe. A great many people doubted that so tall and thin a structure could even survive and expected it to fall down at any moment. Not everyone would have been unhappy with that outcome, mind you. Horace Walpole, antiquarian, author and son of Prime Minister Robert Walpole, disliked it immensely. He complained in correspondence with a friend that he could see it from his Strawberry Hill House, his Gothic estate in Twickenham, and that if it kept on like this, soon it could be seen from Yorkshire.

Kew Gardens wasn’t the national botanical garden then that it is now. That didn’t happen until 1840. It started out as a private garden with a collection of exotic plants created by Lord Capel John of Tewkesbury on the grounds of Kew Park near Richmond Palace. After the 1751 death of Frederick, Prince of Wales, heir to the throne and father of the future King George III, his wife Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales, greatly expanded the little exotic garden. She commissioned architect Sir William Chambers, a favorite of John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, Augusta’s closest advisor (some said lover, some Svengali), to design several new structures and follies for Kew Gardens. Over the decades he built the Gallery of Antiquities (now demolished), the Temple of Pan (demolished), the Temple of the Sun (demolished), and still standing today, the Ruined Arch, the Temple of Bellona, the Temple of Aeolus, the Orangery and the Great Pagoda.

Chambers was uniquely suited to that last task. Born in Sweden to a Scottish merchant, he had worked for the Swedish East India Company for almost a decade starting when he was 17 years old. While in its employ, Chambers went to China three times and dedicated himself to the study of Chinese architecture. When he came back to Europe for good, he chose to pursue architecture, studying with masters in Paris and Italy before opening starting his own firm in London in 1755. Just two years later, thanks to John Stuart, he had made the big time garnering an appointment as tutor in architecture to the Prince of Wales. That same year he published a book about Chinese architecture that made a huge splash and popularized Chinese style in design, fashion and the decorative arts. His list of subscribers might as well have been Debrett’s Peerage — His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, Her Royal Highness the Princess Dowager of Wales, His Royal Highness the Duke, and a few rungs down on the ladder, the Earl of Bute.

Here’s how he described Chinese towers in Designs of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines, and Utensils:

The towers called by the Chinese Taa, and which the Europeans call likewise pagodas, are very common in China. In some provinces, says Du Halde, you find them in every town, and even in the large villages. The most considerable of them all are the famous porcelain-tower at Nang-Kingj, and that of Tong-Tchang-Fou, both of which are very magnificent structures.

In regard to their form, the Taas are all nearly alike being of an octagonal figure, and consisting of seven, eight, and sometimes ten stories, which grow gradually less both in height and breadth all the way from the bottom to the top. Each story is finished with a kind of cornish, that supports a roof, at the angles of which hang little brass bells ; and round each story runs a narrow gallery, inclosed by a rail or balustrade. These buildings commonly terminate in a long pole, surrounded with several circles of iron, hanging by eight chains fixed to the top of the pole, and to the angles of the covering of the last story.

He began construction on the Great Pagoda at Kew Gardens in 1761, four years after the book was published. Chambers followed the template he’d written about in his book to the letter, using the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing as his model. He went for the most ambitious goal referenced in his book, the ten story tower, even though in reality Chinese towers have uneven numbers of floors, seven ideally. Each floor he made just 30 cm (12 inches) narrower than the one underneath it. It was also a riot of color originally. The roofs were tiled with varnished iron plates and had a dragon perched on each corner. The dragons were hand-carved out of wood and gilded. Over time the varnished iron roof tiles were replaced with slate and the dragons were removed in 1784 during roof repairs. Nobody knows for sure what became of them. Gossip has it that they were sold to pay King George IV’s gambling debts, but they weren’t made out of solid gold and you can’t really hock gilded wood dragons. The true story, confirmed by at least one contemporary, is probably more mundane than that: they were simply neglected and rotted away.

Pagoda roof view of repaired hole from World War II bomb tests. Kew Gardens, Historic Royal Palaces.Architect Decimus Burton, a botanical enthusiast as well as one of the leading architects of the Greek Revival, Regency and Georgian styles, proposed a restoration of the Great Pagoda to its original splendour, but he was denied on the grounds that the sum of £4,350 it would require was just too princely. Piecemeal restorations have taken place since, mainly to the roofs — holes were cut in each floor during World War II so British bomb designers could test the trajectories and movements of their bombs when dropped — and while there was some talk of going for a larger magnitude reconstruction that would include replica dragons, nothing came of it for decades.

Except for a brief window in 2006, the tower has been closed to the public. That sad loss is soon to be remedied, however, because the ambitious restoration is scheduled to be completed and the Great Pagoda reopened in all its iridescent 18th century glory come spring of 2018. And yes, there will be dragons. All 80 of them are going back to their respective corners. The eight dragons on the first roof will be carved by hand out of wood, just like the originals. The ones on the higher story will be more workmanlike, made out of nylon on 3D printers and virtually indestructible.

Technology can only help so much. This is not a relatively simple matter of creating an exact copy of an existing object. Not only were all the dragons long gone decades before Louis Daguerre took that first picture of a Parisian street, but they aren’t even any extant depictions of the dragons. Curators have had to rely on archival resources and research into the Chinoiserie style of the period to recreate the carving and paint colors. See them at work in these fantastic(al) videos:

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Cache of Assyrian cuneiform tablets found in Iraq

October 28th, 2017

Archaeologists have unearthed a cache of 93 cuneiform tablets at the ancient city of Bassetki in Kurdistan. Most of them, 60, were discovered in a ceramic pot stashed in a room of a structure from the Middle Assyrian period. It and two other vessels had been wrapped in a protective coating of clay, which was providence because the building itself was long-since destroyed. It might even have been a deliberate choice spurred by the tablets themselves.

“The vessels may have been hidden this way shortly after the surrounding building was destroyed. Perhaps the information inside it was meant to be protected and preserved for posterity,” [dig leader] Professor [Peter] Pfälzner said.

“It is not yet known if the tablets contain business, legal, or religious records.”

“Our philologist, Dr. Betina Faist, deciphered one small fragment of a clay tablet. It mentions a temple to the goddess Gula, suggesting that we may be looking at a religious context.”

“I hope the texts will yield a wide variety of detail about the history, society, and culture of this little-researched area of northern Mesopotamia in the second millennium BC,” he added.

A team from the Institute for Ancient Near Eastern Studies (IANES) at the University of Tübingen has been excavating the site near the town of Dohuk in the autonomous providence of Kurdistan, northern Iraq, since 2013. It was a statue fragment looted during from the Iraqi National Museum in 2003 during the chaotic period after the US invasion that tipped archaeologists off to Bassetki’s potential significance. The statue in question was a cast copper base with human legs and lower body of a naked man which had been discovered in 1975 near the modern-day village of Bassetki. Even though the top of it is missing, it is still incredibly heavy at 150 kg (330 lb) and an inscription on the base tells of Akkadian king Naram-Sin (2254–2218 B.C.), grandson of Sargon the Great, first ruler of the Akkadian Empire. It recounts his successful suppression of a revolt, his elevation to the godhead by the residents of Akkad city and their construction of a temple to him in the city center.

The statue, the only ancient object known to have been found in the Bassetki area, was later recovered by US troops who found it hidden in a cesspool behind the house of antiquities dealers suspected of trafficking in looted artifacts which they obviously were. The rediscovery of the enormously significant piece piqued the interest of Professor Peter Pfälzner who, in collaboration with the Directorate of Antiquities in Dohuk, began to excavate Bassetki with the IANES team. They found that today’s sleepy little village was preceeded by a bustling settlement that was founded around 3000 B.C. and thrived for at least 1200 years after that. As early as 2700 B.C. a defensive wall protecting the upper city from would-be marauders was already standing. The team also found large stone structures dating to around 1800 B.C. and Assyrian cuneiform tablet fragments from around 1300 B.C. Translations of the tablet remains, as much as they were possible, revealed there had once been a temple to the weather god Adad at Bassetki.

Geomagnetic surveys also discovered a smattering of ruins outside the ancient downtown. There was a lower town about a half mile long, a complex network of roads, multiple residential neighborhoods, expensive and expansive homes of the wealthy and a monumental building of some sort dating to the Bronze Age. The town was hopping in its day, located on a highway dating to around 1800 B.C. that connected it to Mesopotamia and facilitated extensive trade. The whole time they were doing this work, by the way, they were less than 30 miles from ISIS-controlled territory. Archaeology ain’t for the lily-livered.

“Our finds provide evidence that this early urban center in northern Mesopotamia was settled almost continuously from approximately 3000 to 600 BC,” Professor Pfälzner said.

“That indicates that Bassetki was of key significance on important trade routes.”

Most of the 93 recently-discovered cuneiform tablets were unfired, which always makes them a conservation and translation headache. They are brittle and easily worn by simple erosive elements. Their preservation challenges only increased when the building burned down around them. Researchers will study them with the latest and greatest equipment in the hope of being able to read at least part of the texts.

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Looks like Obelix dropped something in Helvetia

October 27th, 2017

Swiss archaeologists have discovered a large stone block they think is a prehistoric menhir. My headline is deceptive, I freely admit (I can’t resist an Asterix reference), because the stone was discovered at the Bronze Age site of Breitenacher outside of Bern and thus far predates even fictional menhir-slinging indomitable Gauls. The Archaeological Service of the Canton of Bern has been excavating the site near Kehrsatz in advance of construction and have unearthed the remains of an extensive Bronze Age settlement dating to around 3500 years ago. The monolith is two meters (6.6 feet) long and 1.3 meters (4.3 feet) in width and weighs somewhere in the environs of two or three tons. It is ovoid in shape, coming to a gentle point at the top end.

Its siliceous sandstone identifies it as having come from the debris ridge of a nearby glacier and there is no direct evidence of tooling, carving or working by human hand on the surface of the stone, but archaeologists don’t think it just randomly landed where they found it. It wasn’t deposited there by glacial movement. Humans were involved. Which humans, when and how is unclear.

Traces on the ground … suggest that the stone was once laid vertically and was lying in a pit at the beginning or during the Bronze Age settlement. The location of the stone, equidistant from several Bronze Age houses, could imply that it played a role in the construction of the city, for example as a point of reference. Similarly, other blocks, which have not yet been exhumed, may have been around. It is also possible that the stone was used in earlier times, in the Neolithic, and that it was moved to make room for the construction of the Bronze Age houses.

By its size and shape, the stone of Kehrsatz looks like a menhir (breton maen , hir ). This term refers to oblong, often uncut, isolated stones used to mark the location of places of worship or assembly. The megalithic alignments and dolmens (tumulus) of the Neolithic, about 4500 to 5000 years old, probably had similar functions. In Switzerland, there are about a hundred of these megalithic monuments, mainly in the Lake Geneva region, in Valais and at the foot of the Jura. In the canton of Bern, a dolmen used as a collective grave was updated a few years ago in Oberbipp.

To date, only about fifteen isolated menhirs have been discovered in Switzerland. These are usually simple blocks from one to four meters high. The best example of the canton of Bern is for the moment in Sutz-Lattrigen, on Lake Biel. The discovery of a menhir at Kehrsatz would therefore be an event. This interpretation must in any case be verified by examining other stones in the vicinity. This discovery would be all the more interesting because, with the exception of a few isolated finds, very little is known about the settlement in the Stone Age around the city of Bern.

The possible menhir has been raised and moved to an indoor facility where it can be protected from the elements and studied further. Once the site has been fully excavated, authorities plan to return the stone where it was found and put it on public display. Construction on the mixed-used development will proceed after excavations have been completed.

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Update: National Museum secures Galloway Hoard

October 26th, 2017

National Museums Scotland has successfully raised the £1.98 million ($2,550,000) necessary to acquire the Galloway Hoard. Half of the money will be given to metal detectorist Derek McLennan, who discovered the hoard in a field in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, in 2014, as an ex gratia payment in accordance with the terms of the Treasure Act which awards finders of artifacts adjudicated to be treasure a cash sum equivalent to their market value as an incentive to disclosing these kinds of discoveries instead of looting them for secret resale or to keep for themselves. The other half will go to the landowners, the Church of Scotland, which will dedicate its share to the local parish in which the treasure was found.

The Galloway Hoard was assessed by the valuation committee at such a large sum because it is the richest Viking hoard ever discovered in Britain. It includes silver jewelry, silver and gold ingots, a unique gold bird-shaped pin, a lidded silver-gilt pot, arm rings, brooches, a solid silver cross pendant decorated in enamel with the images of the Four Evangelists, bejeweled aestels (manuscript pointers), glass and crystal beads, a rock crystal jar and much more. Besides the sheer quantity and quality of the precious objects in the hoard, they are without parallel in the different places and cultures they came from. The rock crystal jar is believed to have been made in the Middle East; the lidded pot is Carolingian; the glass beads are Scandinavian; the stamp-decorated bracelets are Irish; one of the silver pieces is engraved with runes at first thought to be Scandinavian but have been found upon closer examination to be Anglian. The ages of the objects vary significantly as well. The hoard was buried in the early 10th century, but the Carolingian pot was at least a century old by then, so it was likely kept as an heirloom for several generations before being used to hold the treasures it still contained a thousand years later.

Some of the greatest of the treasures found inside the vessel are of little pecuniary but inestimable archaeological value. They are the remains of textiles that survived wrapped around several of the pieces stored inside the vessel and around the pot itself, plus leather and wood fragments. These exceedingly rare surviving organic materials, never found before in a hoard of this age, contain a wealth of information about the Viking Age, its travel and trade routes. They’re also a major conservation challenge, which is one of the reasons the Galloway Hoard was not allocated to a Galloway museum. NMS has the resources, expertise and carefully controlled conservation environment to ensure the continued survival organic remains.

The hoard has been on temporary display at the National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh since the summer. The exhibition just closed on October 1st, but fear not, the treasures will be back in public view after a period of conservation and study. Here is Martin Goldberg, curator of the museum’s Early Medieval and Viking collections, guiding viewers through the exhibition and some of the objects from the Galloway Hoard.

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Disk from da Gama ship is earliest known marine astrolabe

October 25th, 2017

One of the objects found in the excavation of the shipwreck from Vasco da Gama’s second voyage to India discovered off the coast of Oman in 2014 has been identified as an astrolabe, a marine navigational tool that could calculate latitude based on the position of the sun. Marine astrolabes are very rare with only 108 of them known to exist. This one is the oldest of them all.

When divers discovered the copper alloy disc in the debris field of the Esmeralda, a ship in da Gama’s fleet that sank in 1503, there was no direct evidence on its surface of it being an astrolabe. All that was clearly visible were raised decorations — a Portuguese royal coat of arms and the esfera armilar (armillary sphere), King Manuel I’s personal emblem — which identified it as Portuguese. There is no writing on the disk and no other artifacts that might shed light on some aspect of the disk (age, purpose) were discovered near the find spot.

There were hints of its true function, however. Its round shape, its dimensions (17.5cm in diameter, 1.5mm thick), the hole in the center and the remains of what was likely a suspension bracket at the top so it could be worn as around the neck suggested it might be a very early astrolabe. Age of Discovery marine astrolabes were generally heavier and ballasted so they could hang plumb for optimal calculations even on a swaying, bobbing, rearing ship in heavy winds.

The Esmeralda disk doesn’t have the weight or cutouts common to the more typical examples from the 16th century. Because of the significant design differences, the marine archaeologists who examined it could not compare it to its brethren to confirm whether it even was an astrolabe. They’d need navigational markings to know for sure and while they thought there might be some very faint lines on the back, they were barely visible to the naked eye.

Into that breach stepped Professor Mark Williams at WMG, University of Warwick, and his trusty laser scanner. The high-tech scan and 3D model created from the data revealed that there were indeed markings on the disk, lines etched along the edges, each line exactly five degrees apart. Those are the navigational markings the team was looking for. Sailors used them to measure the height of the noonday sun to calculate their latitude on long voyages through wide-open seas. Vasco da Gama’s second voyage to India in which the Esmeralda was lost took his fleet down all of west Africa, across the Cape of Good Hope, up the east coast to Mombasa and then east to India. It took years and was extremely dangerous. A tool that could give you some idea of where in the dickens you were was invaluable on journeys of such enormous scale.

The precise date of manufacturer is unknown at this time, but it’s decades older than the any other marine astrolabe we know of.

[Expedition leader David] Mearns said: “We know it had to have been made before 1502, because that’s when the ship left Lisbon and Dom Manuel didn’t become King until 1495, and this astrolabe wouldn’t have carried the emblem of the King unless he was King.

“I believe it’s probably fair to say it dates roughly to between 1495 to 1500. Exactly what year we don’t know – but it is in that narrow period.”

He added: “It rolls back this history by at least 30 years – it adds to evolution, it adds to the history, and hopefully astrolabes from this period can be found.”

Here’s a video capturing the exact moment the astrolabe was dug out of the sand.

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Face of elite ancient Peruvian “Lady of the Four Brooches” reconstructed. Kinda.

October 24th, 2017

In April of last year, archaeologists discovered a 4,500-year-old intact burial of a noblewoman at the ancient site of Apero in Caral, northcentral Peru. Her remains were found buried in the Huaca de los Idolos, a pyramidal structure made of overlapping platforms accessible via a central staircase built by the Norte Chico civilization, the oldest in the Americas which flourished in the area between the 4th and 2nd millennia B.C. She was carefully positioned in a crouch and wrapped in layers of textiles, a swath of cotton wrapped around her head, another cotton textile wrapped around body. Thus wrapped, her body was then bundled in a final layer, a reed fiber mat that was fastened closed with ropes. The mummy bundle was placed atop a stone basin containing plant matter offerings including a bowl of mate fragments, tubers and seeds. That was covered with a layers of ash and soil.
 
Pinned to the cotton sheath that was wrapped around her body archaeologists found four “tupus,” brooches carved in the shape of animals: two birds with long tail feathers and chrysocolla minerals as eyes and two howler monkeys. They were placed on top of her shoulders and earned her her modern moniker. Underneath her where her tucked head almost touched her knees was a splendidly long necklace made of 460 white mollusk shell beads with a large pendant made from the shell of the spondylus mollusk. This was a rare and luxurious item that attests to her high position in Apero society, as do the tupu fasteners.
 
Caral was a major urban center, long thought to be the most ancient city in the Americas and is certainly one of its most ancient. Covering more than 150 acres in area and inhabited by 3,000 people at its peak, it one of the largest Norte Chico sites known and its most thoroughly studied. No evidence has been found of defensive structures — no walls, no earthenware ditches, no battlements — nor have any weapons, mass graves or other indicators of warfare. Neither have archaeologists found remains suggesting the Norte Chico peoples practiced human sacrifice as later civilizations like the Incas would. About 14 miles from the main city of Caral, Apero was Caral’s harbour town and its primary source of fish.
 
Since the discovery of the mummy bundle, the Lady of the Four Brooches has been studied thoroughly. She was about five feet tall and right-handed. While her elaborate grave goods, burial method and location indicate she was a member of the elite of Apero, her bones show tell-tale signs of hard work during her lifetime, likely in agriculture or perhaps the local mainstay, fishing. She also appeared to have suffered a serious fall shortly before her death, fracturing three bones. Her skull was flattened on top between the occipital and parietal regions, the result of intentional cranial deformation done when she was a baby before her skull bones had hardened, a widespread practice around the world, including in ancient Andean societies. She was between 40 and 50 years when she died.
 
To bring her features back to life, an international team of archaeologists, scientists and artists collaborated on a facial reconstruction project, now complete. This was not a simple task. Her skull is 4,500 years old, after all, and has areas that are missing or severely stained by the decomposition process and the remains of the organic materials she was wrapped in. Brazilian 3D computer graphic artist Cicero Moraes was enlisted to turn that skull into a face. It took him two months to fill the gaps in the skull, replacing the missing eye socket by mirroring the complete one, comparing the Lady’s skull with that of a modern Peruvian woman of similar age and genetic ancestry and utilizing computer technology that simulates natural facial muscles using the skull as a foundation.
 
I don’t know why he would do such a thing in an ostensibly scientific research project, but he also softened the Lady of the Four Brooches’ features. He altered her markedly square, strong jawline he described as “masculine” so that her chin was more pointed giving her a softer more “feminine” appearance. (Women can’t have square jaws now? Somebody alert Paulina Porizkova to her lack of femininity stat!) He also hid her flat skull behind a headdress which was not among her grave goods. Cranial modification was not something hidden by the societies that practiced it. That was the opposite of their intent. In fact, it was often a designator of societal status and considered beautiful. There is no justification I can think of for projecting one’s own highly subjective aesthetic choices using a modern woman’s skull to distort the reconstruction. It should map directly to her real skull. What’s the point of using all those complex data tables and software to build up the soft tissues in an anatomically accurate manner if you’re going to gin up the bones they map to because you think a lady’s jawline isn’t dainty enough?
 
This bizarre choice is covered in the news stories and press materials entirely without comment as if it were totally ho-hum and not worth addressing. They just get right to the (admittedly compelling) finished digital reconstruction, unveiled Wednesday, October 11th, by the Ministry of Culture in Lima. I get it, because I’m always curious about facial reconstructions and have covered several, but I’ve never seen this kind of deliberate modification based on perceived chin cuteness and the artist’s preferred head shape. So I’d like to tell here she is, but the best I can do is say here are a few parts of her, including how her handsome adornments looked when worn.


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Roman hair from the Capitoline Museums for Janet Stephens

October 23rd, 2017

Janet Stephens, intrepid hairdressing archaeologist, was on my mind often as I traipsed through the rooms full of Roman busts in the Capitoline Museums. Her intensive research on Roman hairstyling coming from her perspective as a professional stylist, a unique viewpoint that gave her special insight into an arena most historians know nothing about, led her to fascinating discoveries like that Roman matrons likely had their elaborate braided updos sewn together instead of wearing wigs. She also unravelled the complexity of the seni crines, the characteristic hairstyle of the Vestal Virgins.

When I interviewed her almost six years ago, I asked her what changes she’d like to see in the archaeological community if she had her choice. She replied:

I would love it if all archaeological museums would display their sculptures out in the middle of the room instead of in niches and against walls! And I wish there were mirrors behind every small sculpture displayed in a case.

The Capitoline Museums have not made her dream come true, I regret to report. It’s a damn shame because that mirror idea is brilliant. The good news is that even though the busts are still on shelves up against the walls facing the room, many of the female portraits have been turned just enough that you can see the sides and back of their hair. You might have to crane a bit to do it, but it is now possible to see the business end of the Roman women’s hairstyles and even get a pretty decent picture of several of the most interesting ones. Yes, some Stretch Armstronging is required, but nothing too contortionist for single-jointed, non-rubberized people to handle.

I looked for hair that I couldn’t recall having seen her recreate on her YouTube channel yet and that had some intricate elements to it. Nobody famous, therefore, because Janet has already done quite a few empresses and society leaders. My final choices range in date from the 1st century A.D. through the 4th, and all these nameless Roman ladies have in common are great ornatrices and fly dos.


The last woman’s hair is less complex than some of the others, perhaps, but I found its tiger-striped elegance no less intriguing, so she gets the big embed to show off the fine details.

Simple, but stripey.

All of these busts were spread out in the ancient marbles gallery, keeping company with some of the famous sculptures of antiquity. My last post on the Capitoline Museums will cover the big names too. Stay tuned!

 

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Looted mosaic from Caligula’s barge repatriated

October 22nd, 2017

I am devastated to report that my Roman idyll is at an end. I still have at least two more posts I want to write about the wonders I’ve seen, but not today because I’ve been up for what feels like a hundred hours straight and so am going with a new story. It is Rome-related, however.

On Thursday evening, a section of marble opus sectile flooring from a great barge built by the infamous Emperor Caligula was officially returned to Italy. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. confiscated the piece (which was being used as a coffee table in New York City) last month as part of an investigation into antiquities trafficking. The investigation revealed the true origin of the “coffee table” was one of the Ships of Nemi, built around 35 A.D., and that it had been stolen from Italy during World War II. It was made into a table top and acquired by a Park Avenue antiques dealer who kept it for almost five decades without realizing its unique history and inestimable archaeological value.

The Ships of Nemi were the only known examples of Roman ceremonial parade barges, not so much functional ships as massive floating palaces. Caligula’s were decorated with the same luxurious materials and architectural finishes found in an early imperial terrestrial palace: lavish marble inlay floors, statuary, fountains, gardens, heated baths and even a temple to Diana. They were so huge — the largest 73 meters long by 24 meters wide, the smaller 71 x 20 — that they would barely have had any room to maneuver on the surface of the small Lake Nemi. The emperor likely used them as extensions to his lakeside villa, follies harkening back to the pleasure barges of Greece and Egypt of the type enjoyed by his ancestor Marc Anthony during his years at the side of Queen Cleopatra. They may have been used to celebrate the festival of Isidis Navigium, a ritual dedicated to Isis in her role as protector of sailors that took place on March 15th to reopen the navigation season.

After Caligula was assassinated in 41 A.D., the barges were sunk in Lake Nemi and all knowledge of their connection to the emperor was lost. Fishermen pulled up ancient maritime artifacts from the wreck sites for centuries, and their tales of Roman treasure ships wrecked in antiquity lying on the lake bed were widely known in Italy. The first attempts to raise the barges took place in the 15th century when architect Leon Battista Alberti was commissioned by Cardinal Prospero Colonna to recover what was then believed to be a single wreck. Alberti built a floating platform from which he dropped ropes fixed to harpoons. It wasn’t just a failure, it was enormously destructive. The scale of the barges and their depth (about 60 feet below the surface) made getting purchase on the whole structure impossible. The hooks tore up hunks of wood which Alberti studied, learning for the first time that some were sheathed in lead. He also recovered some lead piping whose maker’s marks were erroneously associated with Tiberius and later Trajan, but the project never went any further.

Later attempts to explore the wrecks weren’t salvage operations so much as straight looting expeditions. Pieces of wood were pried off the ships and carved into curios for the tourist trade. Bronze oar locks sculpted into the shape of lions’ heads were sold to antiques collectors. Finally in 1928 a pioneering maritime excavation was initiated to save the Nemi ships from the depredations of time and covetous people. The water level of the lake was lowered to expose the remains of the barges. They looked great, but decay set in immediately as soon as they were exposed to the air. With no means to preserve the delicate wood, experts suspended the project in 1930, resuming only when the government agreed to build a museum on the spot, right over the wrecks. That would keep them safe from the elements.

The Museo delle Navi Romane opened on the shores of Lake Nemi in 1936, a proud Benito Mussolini presiding over the inauguration. Only eight years later, these one-of-a-kind survivals of Roman shipbuilding burned to the ground the night of May 31st, 1944. Allied bombs hit the museum in response to Nazi anti-aircraft artillery. Museum staff also report having seen German troops going through the museum that night with a torch, so it’s possible they burned it down themselves because they sucked so hard. By the time US troops arrived on June 4th, the only artifacts left in the museum were a few of the salvage items recovered from the wrecks before they were raised.

That’s why this coffee table section is so disproportionally important. This one piece of marble mosaic floor is one of only a handful of objects still known to exist from the Nemi Ships.

The antiques dealer, Helen Fioratti, said she and her husband, Nereo Fioratti, a journalist, had bought the mosaic in good faith in the late 1960s from a member of an aristocratic family. The sale was brokered, she said, by an Italian police official famed for his success in recovering artwork looted by the Nazis.

“It was an innocent purchase,” Ms. Fioratti said in an interview. “It was our favorite thing and we had it for 45 years.”

Ms. Fioratti, who owns L’Antiquaire and the Connoisseur, a noted gallery for antiques from Europe on East 73rd Street, said she did not intend to fight the seizure because of the expense and time it would take. Still, she said she believes she has a legitimate claim to ownership. “They ought to give me the legion of honor for not fighting it,” she said.

For her part, Ms. Fioratti said she had no papers proving ownership and she could not remember what her husband had paid for the mosaic. She said he had learned about the piece from a friend, who told him the aristocratic family was looking for a buyer.

When the piece arrived at their Park Avenue home, they paid to have a marble frame attached to the square of flooring and then put it on a pedestal in their living room. Over the years, Ms. Fioratti said, curators who visited had told her they were interested in procuring it for their collections. “I could have made a fortune,” she said.

Pardon me while I roll my eyes as far back as humanly possible. Yes, truly, what a martyr you are for buying an ancient artifact with zero history of ownership and a trumped-up fictional background and then liking it so much you didn’t profiteer off your war loot.

It doesn’t look like she’ll be charged for possession of stolen property at this point, even though that is what the search warrant said the authorities were looking for when they seized the piece.

 

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Nero’s Domus Aurea blew my mind.

October 21st, 2017

Technically it qualifies as one of Rome’s hidden gems simply because it is so enormously overshadowed by its neighbor, the Colosseum, which was built on the site of an artificial lake that had provided a lovely prospect to Nero’s massive palace on the Oppian Hill above. It’s weird to think of it as hidden, however, because it was just so insanely huge in its day. Nero took advantage of the Great Fire of 64 A.D. to confiscate a stretch of land in central Rome more than 80 hectares in area.

By the time of his death four years later, the palace almost entirely covered three of the seven hills, and it wasn’t even finished yet. Lavish beyond anything that had been seen before, ingeniously designed to be cross-lit with windows and skylights galore, the palace was really a complex of pavilions linked by grand open spaces that could be used in a myriad of ways. The interior was decorated with exquisite frescoes, marble inlays, mosaics and gilded stucco reliefs that reflected the light to create dazzling optical illusions. It was this play of light and shine that gave the Domus Aurea its name.

Deliberately destroyed by Vespasian (r. 69-79 A.D.) to erase the memory of Nero and his works from Roman history — it was Vespasian who had the lake drained to build the Colosseum as a symbolic return of Nero’s purloined property to the people of Rome — the ruins of the imperial palace were reused by Trajan (r. 98-117 A.D.) as the foundation for a great complex of public baths. He tore the marble inlays, mosaics and frescoes off the walls and floors and reused them in the baths. The damaged walls were rebuilt with tidy bricks and the open spaces filled with soil.

By the time the underground spaces were rediscovered in the 15th century, nobody even remembered that the baths were Trajan’s (they were believed to be the Baths of Titus), and they certainly had no idea that the “grotte” (caves) underneath were part of the long-vanished Golden House. Still, what little was still visible of the Neronian structure had a great influence on Renaissance art. Treasure hunters and artists would lower themselves into the so-called caves and copy the delicate floral and figural frescoes on the walls by torchlight. They then used this newly discovered style in their own artwork when they decorated the walls of Renaissance palazzi. It became known as the grotesque style after the “grotta” in which the originals had been found. (Only centuries later did the term evolve into the grotesque figure as we know it today.)

The Domus Aurea and Trajan’s Baths began to be identified correctly starting in the 18th century, and later excavations would ultimately reveal about 150 identifiable spaces from the Domus. For many years, including all the years I lived in Rome as a child and young adult, whatever was left of Nero’s famous Golden House was closed to visitors. It was structurally unsound, prone to sudden collapses and moisture seepage that sometimes reached the level of outright waterfalls. So when I read that parts of it were reopening for guided tours with a new virtual reality element that recreated how the palace had looked in its heyday, I was more than up for it.

To call this visit one of the highlights of my Romecoming is to vastly understate the case. It. Was. Amazing. Our guide was an archaeologist, deeply knowledgeable and brimming with love and enthusiasm for the incredible site. The site itself …. It’s sublime. Even denuded of all of Nero’s vanities, it still cannot be denied. Huge. Beautiful. Frigidly cold. And the virtual reality element was like the most fantastic rollercoaster Octagonal room skylightride I’ve ever been on. Without a doubt it is the greatest combination of ancient setting and cutting edge technology I have ever had the fortune to witness. It takes you on a tour through time, and even though you’re sitting down the whole time wearing a goofy VR helmet, you feel like you’re moving through time with it. I would do it every day if I could.

This short film shows you some of the 3D reconstructed elements seen in the introductory video (which they awesomely projected on the brick wall of the Trajanic-era entrance hall) and in the VR experience.

This is the money documentary that covers the four years of painstaking restoration done by hundreds of experts that made the reopening of the site possible. You need to use autotranslated closed captioning if you don’t speak Italian, and as usual the translations are pretty bad, but if you can stand to deal with the gibberish, it is worth it for the views of the space alone.

 

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Paolina Borghese’s (unairconditioned) feet

October 20th, 2017

Set in the Mannerist splendour of Cardinal Scipione Borghese’s villa on the Pincian Hill, today the Galleria Borghese is one of Rome’s most beautiful museums. Its owner spared no expense to create a suburban party palace that would set off his superlative collection of paintings, sculpture and antiquities. Frescoed ceilings and walls, inlaid marble floors and every other sumptuous architectural feature you can imagine serve as the backdrop to one of the greatest private collections of art ever amassed.

As the nephew of Camillo Borghese, Pope Paul V, Scipione benefitted handsomely from papal nepotism (not coincidentally, the English term derives from the Italian word for nephew), first garnering the elevation to the cardinalship and then a heap of other titles, benefices and revenues that would make the most exploitative Roman tax farmer blush. Much of those moneys he spent amassing an art collection worthy of the crowned heads of Europe. One of those crowned heads, in fact, the notoriously self-crowned head of Napoleon Bonaparte, bought a large part of it from his wastrel brother-in-law Camillo Borghese in the early 19th century. It would form the nucleus of the Louvre’s collection.

Apollo and Daphne by Bernini.Before it was chipped away by his heirs after his death, the collection included 12, count them, 12 Caravaggios. Today that figure is reduced by half, still an incredible concentration of paintings by the master of dark and light in a single small museum. When Caravaggio’s Youth with a Basket of Fruit, The Young Bacchus Ill and David with the Head of Goliath come to life at night, they get to play Texas Hold ‘Em with the likes of Raphael’s La Fornarina and Woman with Unicorn, Corregio’s Danae, Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love and Boticelli’s Madonna and Child with the Young St. John the Baptist and Angels. If they need to sweeten the pot, they let figures by Rubens, Parmigianino, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Pinturicchio, Andrea del Sarto, Canaletto, and Perugino chip in. If they’re really in the mood to party, Paolina Borghese, sister of Napoleon Bonaparte and wife of Camillo Borghese, rises from the marble couch the sculptor Antonio Canova captured her on and brings the heat. Bernini’s extraordinary, almost unbelievable Apollo and Daphne are too realistically frozen in mythological time to play along.

With so many world class treasures of the arts to enjoy, the Galleria Borghese was an obvious addition to my itinerary, all the more so since it would allow me to post an update to a past story. Remember this story from 2013 about Paolina Borghese’s dainty shoes discovered in the University of Aberdeen museum archives? I was delighted to find that according to my viewcount stats, it has been consistently popular ever since, largely thanks to foot fetish websites. Well, for all you feet fans out there, here’s Canova’s representation of Princess Paolina’s doggies.

I thought I had posted about a distinctly less entertaining story, but I can’t seem to find it in the archives so I guess I never did. The Galleria Borghese needs a new climate control system. I read about this situation a couple of years ago, if I recall correctly, and it was dire then. The ancient air conditioning was so hobbled that it barely produced enough cool air to keep the areas around the units at proper temperature, so they had to leave windows open to let some of the heat out of the hot, humid rooms and institute reservation-only ticketing to control the numbers of people allowed in at any given time. When I read about it back then, they were raising money to replace and update the whole system, but it was an expensive proposition and the Italian government wasn’t exactly rushing to spend that dough.

It still hasn’t been fixed, and y’all, it was bad. I mean really, really bad. I was genuinely horrified to my core by what I saw and experienced. The larger rooms with the more popular works (mainly Renaissance Old Masters) were stultifying, and you could actually see the moisture damage on the surface of oil paintings. One was so bad the paint was cracking in a line down the middle and bubbling up. Only a few of the works even had the protection of a glass panel covering the canvas. Only one of the 20-year-old air conditioners was blowing any air. I put my hand over it and it was lukewarm. It was deeply upsetting, so much so that I almost wished I hadn’t gone because seriously they need to shut the doors to human bodies and the heat, dirt, bacteria and effluvia they inevitably bring into a space and fix this monstrous state of affairs immediately. It is a true state of emergency. I can only hope against hope that my ticket price might help right this terrible wrong.

 

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