Adoration of the Magi cleaning reveals new details

September 29th, 2014

Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi has been in the hands of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure conservation institute in Florence since November of 2011 after Uffizi Gallery curators determined that the painting’s progressive darkening was becoming an increasingly urgent problem. After a year of preparatory work deploying a wide array of diagnostic technologies — Fourier Transform Infrared spectrometry, X-ray fluorescence, Infrared reflectography, X-Ray imaging, 3D relief for the measurement of micro deformation, Optical Coherence Tomography, chemical analysis, spectrophotometry — to analyze the paint and wood panel, conservators began cleaning the surface a year ago.

The oil on panel painting was commissioned in March 1481 by the Augustinian monks of the monastery of San Donato in Scopeto, but Leonardo, who was then a youth of 29 just starting his career, sought greener pastures with Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, and the next year moved to Milan leaving the Adoration of the Magi incomplete.

The painting on wood, measuring about 2.5 by 2.5 metres (8.2 by 8.2 feet) depicts the three wise men who paid tribute to the infant Jesus in Bethlehem, but it also includes a riot of human figures, battling horses, architectural designs, landscapes and skies.

Done on 10 slabs of wood glued together, it has blank areas, areas with under-drawings, and sections in advanced stages.

“This is perhaps the most quintessential work-in-progress in the history of art,” said Cecilia Frosinini, one of the directors of the ongoing restoration of the work, which is slated to return to Florence’s Uffizi Gallery next year.

“Leonardo never wanted this to be seen by anyone at this stage, probably not even by those who commissioned it, probably not even his assistants. This is the phase in which he was still elaborating in his mind what the final work would look like,” she said, standing in front of the piece.

The monks eventually turned to Filippino Lippi who completed his Adoration of the Magi in 1496, and Leonardo’s piece wound up in the collection of the de Medici family 100 years later. The Medici restorers filled in paint and added layers of clear and brown varnish to give it a more finished, monochromatic look.

In addition to the accumulation of dirt, smoke and pollutants, the Opificio curators had to deal with all those past restorations. The paint and varnishes have changed over the centuries, oxidizing, discoloring, sometimes separating, sometimes adhering to the original surface and blending into it, so conservators had to be very selective in deciding what to remove. The bottom layer of varnish, for example, could be kept as a fixative and a patina, so there was no danger of damaging the original paint. Their goal was not to return the painting to original condition which simply cannot be done, but to restore its readability and brightness in a way that respects the passage of time while ensuring the most authentic and stable possible result.

The cleaning phase is almost done now (about three quarters of the painting has been cleaned) and it has brought to light much of the expressiveness of Leonardo’s faces, color details like the blue of the sky, design elements like the volume of the clothing and figures previously invisible to the naked eye. You can now see builders working on the ancient temple in the left background, and even subtle sketched details. One of the horses on the right has several heads in different positions, while other horses have an extra leg, evidence that Leonardo wasn’t working from a perforated cartoon outline, but rather drawing freehand as he painted.

The cleaning is expected to be finished in 2015, after which the team will turn their attentions to the wood panels. There are four major vertical cracks that need to be fixed to restore structural integrity to the fragile work. The total cost of the four-year process is expected to be €170,000 ($218,000), which will funded by the Friends of the Uffizi Gallery. Once restoration is complete (hopefully by the end of 2015), the Adoration of the Magi will return to the Uffizi Gallery where it will be on display in a special room along with two other works by Leonardo.

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Cartier brooch in $60 box of costume jewelry sells for $17,550

September 28th, 2014

A “Tutti Frutti” Art Deco Cartier brooch found in a £38 ($60) box of costume jewelry sold at auction on Friday for £10,800 ($17,550). The anonymous seller bought the box at a tabletop sale in Staffordshire, not realizing that there was a tiny treasure inside.

The brooch has a central ruby engraved with a stylized flower growing from two leaves. On either side of the ruby are three alternating cabochon emeralds and sapphires. Underneath the ruby are four pavé diamonds in a platinum geometric Tetris-like setting. A slender gold pin connects the ruby top to a base of six pavé diamonds flanked by two cabochon sapphires. The piece is signed “Cartier, London.”

Cartier’s “Tutti Frutti” line has become one of its most famous styles. It debuted in the 1920s, a dramatic break from the severe geometries and monochromatic emphasis of Art Deco. Officially named “pierres de couleur” (colored stones), the style was inspired by traditional Indian jewels and the same floral patterns of the Moghul emperors that inspired those gorgeous chintz textiles I wrote about recently. Cartier had done business in Indian since Pierre Cartier was commissioned by Queen Alexandra to make an Indian-style necklace from several pieces in her collection. Cartier London thus became the center of work in Indian gemstones and design.

Jacques Cartier, head of the London office, traveled to India in 1911 and was so struck by what he saw there that he soon integrated Indian style and gemstones into the company’s jewels. Agents in India bought gemstones, among them vintage stones carved with the leaf, flower and berry shapes characteristic of the Moghul period. Cartier’s designers in Paris, New York and London took the Indian stones and mixed them with the white diamond severity of Art Deco to create uniquely colorful patterns that injected naturalism and color into Art Deco shapes.

Society fashion plate and Singer sewing machine heiress Daisy Fellowes had a famous example custom made by Cartier in 1936. It was called the Collier Hindou and she bought it as a consolation prize for herself after the hardships of the Depression forced her to sell her yacht. (I guess that’s the insanely rich version of a breadline.) The necklace became known as the Tutti Frutti, but according to Cartier, the style itself wasn’t given the name until 1970. According to British Museum curator and Cartier expert Judy Rudoe, the “pierres de couleur” style became known as “Tutti Frutti” colloquially in the 1940s, probably inspired by bakelite fruit jewelry popularized by Carmen Miranda and her Tutti Frutti hat.

Tutti Frutti pieces go for millions of dollars today. They are highly sought after by jewelry collectors so much so that even tiny little brooches in Derbyshire auctions draw bidders from all over the world and exceed their pre-sale estimates by more than £2,000.

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Charles Calvert signet ring maybe found in Maryland

September 27th, 2014

A brass signet ring bearing the initials “CC” has been unearthed at the Zekiah Fort archaeological site in Waldorf, Maryland. Students from St. Mary’s College of Maryland led by anthropology professor Julia King discovered the 17th century ring on June 13th during a six week excavation that has turned up, among other artifacts, glass trade beads, lead shot, gunflints, arrowheads and pipes. The ring is highly distinctive, and King believes it either belonged to Charles Calvert, 3rd Baron Baltimore, Governor and Proprietor of Maryland, or it was a diplomatic gift in his name.

Since the discovery, King and her colleagues and students have been studying historical records to determine its origins and have been unable to tie it to anyone besides Calvert. She believes that the ring was used as a diplomatic gift by a representative of Calvert’s to the Indians, as a gesture of good will. The archaeologists hope to do more work at the site and learn more about the history of the ring though records and studying the remains of other structures and artifacts.

“We don’t think that Charles Calvert went up there,” King said. “He’s sending his counselors, diplomats, his rangers, carrying this ring as a gift.”

So far all the research into the historical record has returned no other likely candidate for the CC initials, and given his direct involvement in the settlement of Zekiah Fort, the context strongly suggests this ring was his, if not a personal accessory then one created as a token for his representatives to use a gift.

Zekiah Fort was a settled by the Piscataway Indians in 1680 when they were forced to leave their ancestral lands north of the Potomac River. The English colonists had been significantly encroaching on their territory for more than 20 years, and conflicts with the neighboring Susquehannock and Seneca drove the Piscataway into Charles County in southern Maryland. Baltimore had the fort built ostensibly as a refuge for about 320 Piscataway, but it’s no coincidence that English settlers, not rival Native Americans, promptly moved onto the lands of the displaced.

The location of the fort was lost until 2011 when researchers from St. Mary’s College of Maryland and the College of Southern Maryland poring through historical documents identified the spot as a field that was a fortuitous island surrounded by development. The 100-acre site — complete with woods and historic trails as well as the fort site — was bought by Charles County in 2012. Grants from the Maryland Historical Trust and the Charles County Board of Commissioners funded this summer’s archaeological excavation.

All the artifacts will be sent to state experts for conservation. If the ring can be confirmed to have belonged to Charles Calvert or to have been a diplomatic gift from him, it will be one of very few personalized Calvert artifacts found in Maryland. Although Charles’ grandfather George Calvert, 1st Baron Baltimore, did all the work to secure the charter to the land north of the Potomac River on either side of the Chesapeake Bay, he died a few weeks before it was issued. His son Cecilius or Cecil received the proprietorship in his stead but he ruled from across the Atlantic, never stepping foot in Maryland. Cecil made his 24-year-old son Charles his deputy governor and after his father death in 1675, Charles became the governor and proprietor. He was the first Calvert to take possession of Maryland in person. (Leonard Calvert, Cecil’s brother acted as deputy on site as well, but he was never a Proprietor.)

This is why Calvert family artifacts are hen’s teeth rare, and why the ring could be of immense historical significance.

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First coin in a hoard of 22,000 is one millionth PAS find

September 26th, 2014

Britain’s Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) has reached a milestone in a most dramatic fashion: its one millionth recorded find is a 4th century Roman coin proved to be the first in a hoard of 22,000 coins. It was found on November 16th of last year by semi-retired builder and metal detector hobbyist Laurence Egerton on the Clinton Devon Estates, near Seaton Down, Devon. He found the first two coins just under the surface, then dug deeper. His shovel came up overflowing with similar coins.

Here’s video his wife shot of his discovery:

Egerton alerted the Devon PAS Finds Liaison Officer and the county archaeologist. He was told to remove all the loose objects and refill the hole while the Devon County Council arranged a professional excavation. Just to be sure nobody else interfered with the hoard, Egerton slept in his car next to it for three nights. Between November 18th and 22nd, contract archaeologists excavated an area of three square meters around the find spot.

They found thousands of coins stuck together in one main group in a small pit. There are two concreted lumps within the main group which may indicate several deposits were made over time. The lozenge shape of the main deposit suggests they were buried in something flexible like a bag rather than, say, a chest. Underneath the coins fragments of what may be a fabric of some kind were recovered. They’ll be tested to determine whether they could be the remains of the bag that once held the coins.

The Seaton Down Hoard was transferred to the British Museum where the coins were lightly cleaned so they could be valued in compliance with the Treasure Act. The total weight of the coins is 68 kg (150 pounds). They range in date from the 260s A.D. to the 340s with 99% of them struck between 330 and 341 A.D. in the reigns of Constantine and his sons Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans. The most recent coins date to 347-8 A.D. from the joint reign of Constantius II and Constans, the latter of whom was the last legitimate Roman emperor to visit Britain in 343 A.D.

Almost all of the coins are a very common type known as a nummus made of copper-alloy with a small amount of silver. (The handful of 3rd century coins are radiates.) Most of them, more than 11,000, were struck at the mint in Augusta Treverorum (Trier), with 3500 struck in Lugdunum (Lyon) and 2000 at Arelate (Arles). In total an impressive 17 mints are represented in the hoard, and there are some ancient forgeries of indeterminate origin too.

The millionth PAS find, the first coin Egerton unearthed, is a nummus struck in 332 A.D. at the Lyon mint to celebrate Constantine’s founding of the new imperial capital of Constantinople. The obverse of the coin features a personification of Constantinopolis, a laureate and helmeted bust with a scepter over the left shoulder; the reverse depicts winged Victory standing on ship’s prow, holding a scepter of spear in front of her and a shield behind.

Coin hoards from the reigns of Constantine and his sons are among the most commonly found in Britain, but Seaton Down is notable both for its large size (the fifth largest ever found in Britain) and because it was excavated and recorded by archaeologists. All the other big Constantinian hoards, like the one of 22,670 coins unearthed at Nether Compton, Dorset, in 1989, were never recorded, analyzed or studied before being returned to the finder who broke up the collection and sold the coins piecemeal. Copper coins weren’t considered Treasure Trove by the laws at that time, and the local museum that kept the hoard until it was returned to finder just didn’t have the resources to study it properly.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme was founded in 1997 to help prevent that kind of loss to the nation’s scholarship cultural heritage. In this case it has functioned as planned, giving archaeologists the opportunity to remove the coins in solid blocks so that even tiny fragments can be analyzed for key information by an institution (the British Museum) that has the technology, expertise and funding to thoroughly study and document the find.

The hoard was officially declared treasure this month. Next on the schedule for the Seaton Down Hoard is for its market value to be determined by the Valuation Committee. The Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery in Exeter, the museum in Devon closest to the find, wants to get a jump on the process. They’ve launched a fundraising campaign so they’ll have the money to pay the finder and landowner the amount of the valuation and keep the hoard together in the county where it was discovered. You can donate online here.

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Do you recall the 1954 London Mithraeum dig?

September 25th, 2014

It all began in 1952 when a team of archaeologists from the Roman and Medieval London Excavation Council dug a few exploratory trenches on a construction site in central London’s Walbrook Square. Victorian buildings on the site had been all but leveled by German bombs during the Blitz. The ruins were slated to be demolished a new office block for an insurance company to be built at the location. The only reason archaeologists were there is that the lost river Walbrook had once flowed through the area so the site was surveyed to record alluvial deposits that would establish how the Walbrook changed over time. Informative, but far from glamorous.

For two years the excavation, led by Welsh archaeologist Professor William Francis Grimes and Audrey Williams, puttered along drawing no interest whatsoever. They were almost done when the team unearthed the walls and floors of a stone building from the Roman period. They thought it was a private villa or maybe a public building until in mid-September they found an altar at one end that identified the structure as a temple. As historically significant a find as it was, it was still slated to be destroyed to make way for the ugly new grey box of offices.

Then on Saturday, September 18th, 1954, the last day of the excavation, a marble head of the god Mithras, identifiable by his characteristic Phrygian cap, was found. The handsome young deity would have gone unnoticed too if it hadn’t been for a newspaper photographer from nearby Fleet Street who was on the spot and took some pictures. They were printed the next day in The Sunday Times and caused an immediate sensation.

For weeks it was front page news. Immense crowds flocked to the site to see the temple, an estimated 400,000 people in total. The question of the temple’s dire fate was now a national scandal. It was debated in Parliament and twice in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill. The problem was nobody had the money to preserve the temple in situ. The government was broke and the developers couldn’t afford to move the planned building. Ultimately a compromise was worked out: the Ministry of Works would fund additional excavation and the developers would pay to remove the temple and reconstruct it at ground level for public display.

The extended excavations unearthed more sculptures — a group including Minerva, the hand of Mithras and a head of Serapis that were deliberately buried under the nave perhaps to keep them safe from depredation or as a respectful deposition when the temple was rebuilt and re-dedicated to the god Bacchus. Pottery from the earliest layers indicates the Mithraeum was first built around 240 A.D. It was extensively reconstructed in 350 A.D. after which it remained in use until the end of the Roman period.

The sculptures were conserved and put on display in the Museum of London where they joined a relief of Mithras slaying the Bull of Heaven that had been unearthed at Walbrook in 1889. The relief has an inscription that may shed light on the temple’s construction: “Ulpius Silvanus / Emeritus Leg(ionis) II Aug(ustae) / Votum Solvit / Factus Arausione” meaning “Ulpius Silvanus / veteran of the Second August Legion / paid his vow / made at Orange.” “Made” in this case doesn’t refer to the relief sculpture, but rather to Ulpius Silvanus himself, either he was discharged (made a veteran) or initiated into the Mithraic religion (made a devotee of Mithras). The Walbrook Mithraeum itself could be the vow he paid.

The temple was rebuilt in 1962 on Queen Victoria Street, 300 feet or so from its find site and 30 feet above its original depth. The ancient masonry was put back together using modern cement mortar on a crazy-paving floor. The original floor was wood. We know this because some of the joists were found during the excavation thanks to the preserving power of the waterlogged Walbrook soil. It looked … weird, to put it generously, out of place and squat and not at all like it had looked in situ. Grimes said the 1962 rebuild was “virtually meaningless as a reconstruction of a mithraeum.”

In December 2010, Bloomberg LP bought the Walbrook Square site to build its new European headquarters. The archaeological survey has retread some of the same ground as the Grimes excavation but has found oh so much more amazingness. The new complex will integrate the archaeological discoveries into the construction, and the Temple of Mithras will be part of that plan. In 2011, stonemasons carefully dismantled the reconstructed temple, removing the 1960s concrete and carefully storing the original Roman stone and tile. It will be rebuilt with a care for authenticity this time, installed 25 feet below ground level in the same spot where it was found. The underground space will be a public exhibition area in the Bloomberg building. The building is scheduled to be complete in 2017.

The Museum of London is collaborating with Bloomberg to ensure the Walbrook Mithraeum re-reconstruction is done properly this time. The museum has extensive records from 1954, but they have no extant color images of the temple in situ. In order to get as many details as possible about the temple, both for the reconstruction and to more thoroughly document this exceptional find while people who remember it are still around, the museum is collecting oral histories, pictures, home movies, ephemera about the 1954 dig.

They’re also hoping someone somewhere may have some actual pieces of Roman stone or mortar. At the time, construction workers and visitors were known to have pilfered themselves some souvenirs, so there could well be something very important cluttering up people’s attics that they may not even realize. Anything that reveals the original color of the stones, bricks, tiles and mortar would be very helpful. The oral histories, images, etc. will be included as part of the Temple exhibition in the Bloomberg building.

If you have any memories, information, images or souvenirs of the 1954 excavation, email the Museum of London at oralhistory@mola.org.uk or call them at 020 7410 2266 during office hours.

Now, thanks to the ever-delightful Pathé archive, please enjoy two newsreels about the dig. The first is a short clip of the excavation site. The fellow with the glasses is Harold Plenderleith, a pioneering conservator and archaeologist who part of the team who excavated King Tutankhamun’s tomb, Sir Leonard Woolley’s digs at Ur, and the Sutton Hoo ship burial. How’s that for an archaeological trifecta?

A more detailed look at the sculptures recovered and their conservation:

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Barcaccia fountain in Piazza di Spagna restored

September 24th, 2014

The restored Barcaccia fountain in Piazza di Spagna, RomeThe Barcaccia fountain at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna reopened to the public Monday after a 10-month restoration. The restoration cost 209,960 euro ($268,000) and was funded entirely by the sale of advertising space on site during eight months of the work. According to Paola Conti, technical director of Technicon, the firm contracted to restore the fountain, the most time-consuming aspect was removing the calcification that in just 15 years since the last restoration had grown up to a centimeter thick. They also had to remove biological organisms that thrive in the wet, light-filled environment. Old plaster from past repairs was replaced and finally the entire structure painted with a protective coating.

The fountain was built between 1627 and 1629 by Pietro Bernini, father of Gian Lorenzo Bernini whose architecture and sculpture would come to define Baroque Rome, in the shape of the low flat-bottomed river boats used to carry cargo across the Tiber in the 17th century. This was a very unusual approach in Mannerist Rome, more sculptural than architectural, a naturalistic, deceptively simple design that symbolized the fruitfulness and plenty of a boat low in the water, laden with bounty. Legend has it that during the devastating flood of Christmas 1598, the high waters, which reached a top mark of 20 meters above sea level, carried a boat all the way to the Piazza di Spagna. When the waters receded, the boat was stranded in the exact spot of the fountain. Ostensibly that’s why Bernini built the fountain in the shape of a boat 30 years later.

Barcaccia before restorationPope Urban VIII commissioned Pietro Bernini to build the fountain as part of a program envisioned by earlier popes that would place fountains in every major piazza in Rome. Urban also wanted to celebrate his restoration of the great Acqua Vergine aqueduct, originally built in 19 B.C. by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Augustus’ son-in-law and right hand man. The pope had appointed the elder Bernini architect of the aqueduct in 1623, so having him build a new fountain to take advantage of the refreshed water source was a fitting bookend.

The Acqua Vergine is unique among Rome’s aqueducts in that it was the only one that continued to work even in the devastated Medieval city through the Renaissance revival of public works. In the 14th century, when almost the entire city population was clustered on the malarial and flood-prone banks of the Tiber because they were bound by the range of the professional water carriers, only rione Trevi, the district at the foot of the Quirinal hill blessed with a fountain fed by the Acqua Vergine, had a significant population relatively distant from the Tiber. That Trevi fountain was not the one you see today with the giant statue of Oceanus guarding ever so many tourist coins. The current fountain was built in 1762. The Medieval one was a modest affair, a rectangle with three basins, enlarged in the 15th century to a wide trough fed by three spouts.

The old Trevi Fountain in "Descrittione di Roma antica e moderna" by Federico Franzini, 1643The aqueduct was regularly maintained and repaired during the heyday of the Western Empire, but even after the Goths sacked the city in 537 A.D., specifically targeting the aqueducts, the Acqua Vergine kept trucking. This is mainly attributable to its nearby source and the predominance of underground tunnels. The water starts as rainfall in the Alban Hills, then filters through volcanic tuff before springing up in a town about eight miles east of Rome called Salone. The aqueduct starts at Salone, so it doesn’t have far to go to get to Rome, and since it was intended to water the lower-lying areas of the city, the pathways stay down low too. It was restored once in the 8th century by Pope Hadrian I and that seems to have kept it going until the 15th century when Pope Nicholas V commissioned a restoration project.

There were always issues, mind you. It needed repair and cleaning on the regular to keep the water flowing, and the city magistrates passed all kinds of laws to keep people from tainting it by bathing their livestock and doing their laundry in the Trevi basin. Then there were all the individuals illegally tapping into the conduit to water their personal homes and gardens. A pope was one of the greatest offenders on that score: Pope Julius III, who swallowed up so much Acqua Vergine for his new home, the Villa Julia (built in 1553) and its elaborate grounds and entrance fountain, that by 1559 the Trevi fountain ran dry. To address the choked supply, in 1570 Pope Pius V had the Acqua Vergine restored all the way back to Salone. Urban VIII’s intervention in 1623 extended the path of the aqueduct to supply the growing city. It was this restoration that brought the water to the location of the current Fountain of Trevi.

Piazza di Spagna; the Keats-Shelley Memorial where Keats died is the buff-colored palazzo to the right of the Spanish StepsThe Barcaccia played a more poignant historical role 200 years later. The poet John Keats lived the last few months of his life in a house on the Spanish Steps. So devastated by tuberculosis that he often cried upon waking to find himself still alive, Keats took comfort from the soothing sound of the Barcaccia’s flowing water. It made him think of a line from the Jacobean play Philaster by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher: “As you are living, all your better deeds / Shall be in water writ.” Inspired by that line, Keats asked that his tombstone be inscribed solely “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” no name, no date. When the tuberculosis finally claimed his life on February 23rd, 1821, his friend and carer Joseph Severn couldn’t quite bring himself to comply with Keats’ final wish. Instead, he took the opportunity to castigate the critics who had never appreciated Keats’ genius in life.

“This Grave / contains all that was Mortal / of a / Young English Poet / Who / on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart / at the Malicious Power of his Enemies / Desired / these Words to be / engraven on his Tomb Stone: / Here lies One / Whose Name was writ in Water. 24 February 1821″

Although the fountain was inaccessible to visitors during the restoration, it and the conservators were visible thanks to an innovative plexiglass enclosure. Seeing is nice, but the Barcaccia is an interactive experience. It was specifically designed for people to drink from. The pure and delicious Acqua Vergine springs from jets at the bow and stern. Travertine platforms at each end of the boat give you a place to stand, albeit a rather damp place, so you can stretch out and quaff mightily from the water’s spouts. At Monday’s inauguration of the pristine fountain, the mayor of Rome Ignazio Marino, culture councillor Giovanna Marinelli and the Capitoline Superintendent Claudio Parisi Presicce were the first to drink from the newly reactivated water. They used a plastic cup, though, which is just wrong, in my opinion. They should have stretched out like the rest of us, sashes and suits be damned. Virgin Water in a plastic cup? I mean really.

You can see the fountain cleaned and the waters turned back on in this Italian news story about Monday’s inauguration:

 

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MoMA finds lost 1913 film with all-black cast

September 23rd, 2014

New York City’s Museum of Modern Art has discovered footage of a previously unknown 1913 film with vaudeville and Broadway pioneer Bert Williams starring in a cast of all black actors. It’s not a completed film that a movie theater would have received, but rather seven reels of unassembled daily rushes, multiple takes from each scene, that the director and editor would later edit together into the finished picture. The museum discovered the footage in its collection of 900 negatives from the Biograph studios that were rescued from destruction by MoMA’s first film curator, Iris Barry, when the company’s Bronx warehouse closed in 1939.

It is the earliest surviving film to feature an all-black cast, and is among the earliest ever shot. The Foster Photoplay Company, a Chicago film production company founded in 1910 by theatrical promoter and entertainment journalist William Foster, released what is thought to be the first all-black picture, The Railroad Porter, in June of 1913. MoMA researchers discovered that the Bert Williams film was shot in September of 1913. None of the early Foster Photoplay movies have survived. (Unrelated but interesting coincidence: William Foster worked as a publicity promoter for Bert Williams and his partner George Walker’s groundbreaking 1903 musical In Dahomey, the first full-length musical comedy written and performed by African-Americans to be staged in a Broadway theater, and its equally successful 1906 follow-up Abyssinia.)

Unlike the Foster pictures which were created, shot and performed by black artists, only the actors in the recently discovered footage were black. They were employed by the famed Biograph Company, the film production company which launched the careers of D. W. Griffith, Mack Sennet, Mary Pickford, Lilian Gish, Mabel Normand and Lionel Barrymore. Biograph hired Bert Williams, who by then was hugely famous for his vaudeville routines, musicals and best-selling song recordings, to star in their all-black comedies. He had to wear blackface, which is as incongruous as it is gross considering that none of the other actors (that I can see in the stills, at least) are in blackface.

Even though it includes elements of minstrelsy, the general subject matter and approach does appear to be more in keeping with the “race films” that Foster and other black producers made to counter the ugly stereotypical caricatures of on-screen minstrel pictures.

Of historical relevance is the display of adult romantic feelings between black performers, which was largely considered unacceptable to white audiences into the first two decades of the 20th century. In the film, a repeated, lengthy kiss between Williams and his costar appears to be the earliest surviving portrayal of a serious romantic relationship between black characters on film. The film also features a lengthy early example of African American vernacular dance, with a nearly two-minute, full-cast performance of a cakewalk, the dance that Williams and partners George Walker and Aida Overton Walker had made an international sensation with theater audiences and the white upper class around 1900.

Although no main title, intertitles, script, or production credits have survived with the film, MoMA’s curators tried to reconstruct the film’s narrative, ultimately piecing together what appears to be a middle-class comedy centered on the membership of Williams’s character in a black social club, with an additional plotline concerning Williams and rival suitors vying for the hand of the local beauty after a day of fairground activities, a bit of larceny, and a night of exhibition dancing.

The plot and characters of the film aren’t the only historically significant elements of this find. There’s also behind-the-scenes footage of the black cast interacting with the white crew on set in New York City and on location in what curators believe is Englewood, New Jersey.

The unedited rushes and MoMA’s research will go on display at the museum’s 100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History exhibition on October 24th. The assembled footage will be screened at MoMA’s 12th annual film preservation festival To Save and Project on November 8th.

Meanwhile, here’s a 1916 Biograph picture starring Bert Williams that has survived intact. As with the cakewalk scene in the recently discovered film, A Natural Born Gambler features one of Bert Williams’ most famous vaudeville routines. It’s the final scene of the picture (beginning at 19:30) in which Williams pantomimes an entire poker game alone.

The Internet Archive, bless its generous heart, has an impressive collection of Bert Williams’ music. His recordings were wildly successful, selling in the hundreds of thousands back when a record that moved 10,000 copies was considered a best-seller. His most famous was probably Nobody, but my favorite is 1920′s When The Moon Shines on The Moonshine both because it’s catchy and because it’s such a perfect little window into the first year of Prohibition.

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Napoleon and Josephine had a prenup

September 22nd, 2014

The day before Napoleon and Josephine’s wedding, the couple signed a marriage contract, but it wasn’t like a license you’d get from city hall. It takes a hard-nosed practical approach we’d recognize today as a prenuptial agreement, and quite a progressive one at that.

Article 1: There will be no community property between the future spouses. … Accordingly, the future spouses will not be liable for each other’s debts and mortgages.
Article 2: Each of the future spouses will enjoy separately and individually the property, rights and actions both movable and immovable belonging to them and that may belong to them thereafter in any capacity and any manner it is and in which it may consist. …The future wife will not be bound to seek her husband’s permission for acts that would entail the alienation of her capital. The future husband also authorizes the future wife to continue the functions of guardianship that have been granted her of the two minor children issue of her first marriage.
Article 3: Each of the future spouses will contribute half of the expenses of the marriage.
Article 4: The future husband establishes for the future wife a dowry of 1500 livres annuity for life, ancient value. …
Article 5: In case of dissolution of marriage, the future wife and her heirs reclaim: 1) clothes, linen, rags, lace, silver, jewelry and diamonds for the personal use of said future wife, 2) all the furniture and other movable objects and whatever type they be that the future wife or her heirs can prove were acquired by her or that otherwise belong to her.
Article 6: The future wife declares and the future husband recognizes that the furniture, linens, silverware and generally all the movable tangible assets of which the future wife is now in possession that was community property between her and her first husband and that continues with her children lack her having made an inventory within the time limit prescribed by law. That the future wife is to proceed to make this inventory and is about to be completed. That she, future wife, can not declare now the amount of this fortune because it all depends on the question of knowing if she will accept the community or whether she will renounce it, however she cannot determine that until after the making of the inventory.

It seems that lack of inventory may have been a deliberate oversight on Josephine’s part. Without an itemized list, who’s to say which items she wanted to take should the marriage fall apart was community property from her first marriage? Then there’s the deception both spouses engaged in. Josephine was six years older than Napoleon and this was subject of some societal and familial tut-tutting, particularly on his family’s side. So in the official marriage contract, Napoleon is aged by one year and Josephine rejuvenated by four.

On the afternoon of March 8th, 1796 (18 Ventôse IV by the French Revolutionary Calendar), the marriage contract was signed by Napoleon Bonaparte, Chief of the Army of the Interior (he had already been appointed Chief of the Army of Italy on March 2nd, but the promotion didn’t take effect until March 11th, the day he left Paris with his army to invade Italy), and Rose Marie Josèphe Tascher, widow of Alexandre François Marie de Beauharnais. It was notarized by Maurice-Jean Raguideau de La Fosse and Étienne-Gabriel Jousset and witnessed by the future general and future count Jean-Léonor-François Le Marois, Napoleon’s aide-de-camp. On March 9th, 1796, Napoleon and Josephine were wed.

The notary Raguideau reportedly thought this marriage was a terrible idea, not for Napoleon but for Josephine. This anecdote is from the questionably accurate Memoirs (Volume 2, Chapter XXIX) of Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, a diplomat and former schoolmate of Napoleon’s who served as his secretary shortly after the marriage.

When Bonaparte was paying his addresses to Madame de BEAUHARNAIS, neither the one nor the other kept a carriage; and therefore Bonaparte frequently accompanied her when she walked out. One day they went together to the notary Raguideau, one of the shortest men I think I ever saw in my life, Madame de Beauharnais placed great confidence, in him, and went there on purpose to acquaint him of her intention to marry the young general of artillery,—the protege of Barras. Josephine went alone into the notary’s office, while Bonaparte waited for her in an adjoining room. The door of Raguideau’s office did not shut close, and Bonaparte plainly heard him dissuading Madame de Beauharnais from her projected marriage. “You are going to take a very wrong step,” said he, “and you will be sorry for it, Can you be so mad as to marry a young man who has nothing but his cloak and his sword?” Bonaparte, Josephine told me, had never mentioned this to her, and she never supposed that he had heard what fell from Raguideau. “Only think, Bourrienne,” continued she, “what was my astonishment when, dressed in the Imperial robes on the Coronation day, he desired that Raguideau might be sent for, saying that he wished to see him immediately; and when Raguideau appeared; he said to him, ‘Well, sir! have I nothing but my cloak and my sword now?’”

Because both parties lied shamelessly, the contract would have been null-and-void had it ever seen the inside of an honest courtroom. Instead, when Napoleon tired of Josephine’s lovers, debts and her uterus’ insistence on not producing an heir, he divorced her. They had a formal divorce ceremony on January 10th, 1810, and although Napoleon married Marie Louise, Archduchess of Austria, just two months later, he and Josephine remained friends. Napoleon ordered that she retain the rank and title of empress, granted her full ownership of the Château de Malmaison and a pension of 5 million francs a year. She was at Malmaison when she died in 1814 while Napoleon was in exile on the island of Elba. Her name was the last word he spoke on his death bed in 1821.

There are two extant copies of Napoleon and Josephine’s prenup. Napoleon’s personal copy went to the National Archives because he didn’t have time to have it sent to him before his departure for Italy. Josephine’s copy, bound in a portfolio of rose morocco, has been in private hands for two centuries. It was sold at the Osenat auction house in Paris on September 21st. Three phone bidders drove the price from the €60,000 to €80,000 ($77,000 – $103,000) pre-sale estimate to a final cost including fees of €437,500 ($560,000).

The buyer was the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts, a privately-owned museum in Paris that bought Napoleon and Josephine’s divorce agreement from Osenat in 2007. Now they have the legal bookends of one of history’s greatest love stories.

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Another dreamy Turner painting of Rome for sale

September 21st, 2014

In July of 2010, Los Angeles’ J. Paul Getty Museum bought Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino, a shimmering vista of the Roman Forum between the Capitoline and the Colosseum painted from memory by Joseph Mallord William Turner in 1839. The work had only had two previous owners and is in exceptional never-restored condition, so it far exceeded its pre-sale estimates and sold for $45 million, a new record for a Turner. The British government put a temporary export ban on the work to give UK museums a chance to match the price and keep the masterpiece in the country, but the ban expired before any museums could get anywhere near the sum and the Getty is now the proud owner of Turner’s glorious last painting of Rome.

Come December, the Getty will have an almost impossibly rare opportunity to secure another of Turner’s late Roman landscapes with the exact same provenance in the same untouched condition. Rome, from Mount Aventine will go up for auction at Sotheby’s Old Masters sale in London.

Alex Bell, joint international head and co-chairman of Sotheby’s Old Master Paintings Department, added: “There are fewer than ten major Turners in private hands known today and this work must rank as one of the very finest.

“This painting, which is nearly 200 years old, looks today as if it has come straight from the easel of the artist; never relined and never subject to restoration, the picture retains the freshness of the moment it was painted: the hairs from Turner’s brush, the drips of liquid paint which have run down the edge of the canvas, and every scrape of his palette knife have been preserved in incredible detail.”

Both paintings were commissioned by Scottish landowner and art collector Hugh Munro of Novar, one of Turner’s most important patrons. Turner painted Rome, from Mount Aventine in 1835, seven years after his last trip to Rome and one year before he and Munro traveled to Turin together. (Munro was the only patron of Turner’s ever to join him on a trip to Italy.) He based the painting on detailed sketches from the 1828 trip, sketchbooks that are now in the permanent collection of the Tate.

The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1836 and was a huge hit with critics. The Morning Post described it as “one of those amazing pictures by which Mr Turner dazzles the imagination and confounds all criticism: it is beyond praise.” Munro kept the work in his London home until he died in 1864. It was sold along with Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino, another of Munro’s commissions painted by Turner in 1839, at an 1878 auction of art from the Munro estate. Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, bought them both, Campo Vaccino for £4,240 and Aventine for £6,142. The latter was a record for a Turner work at that time, but Primrose could afford it because he had just married Hannah de Rothschild, scion of the great banking family and the richest woman in Britain. That record held for 10 years even during a period when Turner’s growing popularity drove prices way up.

Both paintings remained in the Primrose family for four generations. Rome, from Mount Aventine has been on long-term loan to the National Galleries of Scotland for 36 years. The family has decided to sell this one for the same reason they sold the last one: to secure an endowment that will provide for the maintenance of the Rosebery estates. The NGS hasn’t commented on whether it will attempt to buy the painting at auction, but with a pre-sale estimate of £15-20 million ($24,530,000 – $32,707,000) that is likely to be left in the dust, the NGS is going to have to do a ton of fundraising to compete with the inky deep pockets institutions like the Getty.

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Skeletons holding hands found in lost chapel cemetery

September 20th, 2014

A team of archaeologists from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) has unearthed the skeletal remains of an adult male and female who are still holding hands 700 years after they were buried side by side. The lovers were found along with nine other individual burials at the site of a cemetery on the north side of the Chapel of St Morrell in Hallaton, Leicestershire. They human remains have been radiocarbon dated to the 14th century.

Built on the side of a hill that appears to have had sacred structures on it at least since the Romans, the chapel was a site of pilgrimage in Middle Ages, in use from the 12th century to the 16th. The last documentary evidence of the chapel as an active pilgrimage site is the 1532 will of Frances Butler, a Hallaton priest. He left all his worldly goods to another priest, Edmund Oliver, with the stipulation that he travel to four shrines to ensure the ideal disposition of Butler’s soul. “St Mawrell of Hallaton” was one of the four.

Sometime after that it fell into disuse. Eventually the chapel crumbled and its location was lost to memory. The hillside became the locus of an annual Easter custom called the Hare Pie Scramble and Bottle Kicking in which hardy men from Hallaton and the neighboring village Medbourne chase a wooden canteen down the hill and over a stream. The event begins on Hare Pie Bank, so named because that’s where the hare pie gets eaten before the bottle kicking begins.

A decade or so ago, local historian John Morison found a reference in a 1606 Glebe Terrier (a survey of parish lands that were income-generating parts of a clergyman’s benefice) that the “Chapel of St Morrill” was on or around Hare Pie Bank. The Hallaton Fieldwork Group (HFWG) did a geophysical survey of the site which found a square perimeter about 120 feet across with various architectural features inside. Together with ULAS and some local volunteers, they began excavating Hare Pie Bank.

This is the fourth year of excavations on the site. The tiled floor of the chapel has been unearthed, along with the remains of walls and lead from the windows. Coins were found dating to between the 12th and 16th centuries, confirming the documented period of activity. Underneath the chapel remains archaeologists found Roman remains, among them a square ditch that may be evidence there was a temple on the site. Given that the vast Hallaton Treasure of more than 5,500 Roman and British coins, a silver bowl, ingots, jewelry, the complete skeletons of three dogs, the bones of more than 300 pigs consumed in a feast and an exceptional Roman cavalry parade helmet were discovered just a few hundred yards from Hare Pie Bank, it seems likely that this area has held ritual significance since before the Roman conquest.

So it makes sense, considering the hill’s long sacred history, that there would be a chapel built on the site. It’s not clear, however, why the small chapel had its own cemetery.

Vicki Score, ULAS project manager, said: “We have seen similar skeletons before from Leicester where a couple has been buried together in a single grave. The main question we find ourselves asking is why were they buried up there? There is a perfectly good church in Hallaton. This leads us to wonder if the chapel could have served as some sort of special place of burial at the time.”

The team believe the chapel may have been an area of pilgrimage. Alternatively, the bodies might have been refused burial in the main church, perhaps because they were criminals, foreigners or sick.

Further study of the skeletal remains might help explain their burial. So far, in addition to the lovers, one older male has been found with a wound from a sharp weapon like a pole axe on his skull that was probably what killed him. The teeth of a young man who was buried with his legs raised to his chest indicate that he experienced trauma as a little boy. He’s likely to have been felled by illness, and in fact there is a reference by a 17th century historian to Hallaton having been a holy place visited by flocks of sick people.

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