Silhouette album, now without arsenic poisoning

A ledger book containing 1,800 cut-paper silhouette portraits made by English immigrant William Bache in the early 1800s has been digitized by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Portraits of luminaries like George and Martha Washington keep company with Virginia tavern keepers and Caribbean priests, people from all income levels and professions.

This unique record of Federal-era social history was acquired by the NPG in 2002. In 2008, conservators discovered that the album contained arsenic which made it unsafe for display, never mind allowing researchers to leaf through it, a’ la The Name of the Rose.

The National Portrait Gallery used Getty’s support to overcome these limitations by fully digitizing the entire volume. Robyn Asleson, the lead curator and curator of prints and drawings at the National Portrait Gallery, also completed extensive research that confirms the identities of hundreds of sitters in New Orleans and generates a new understanding of traveling portrait artists at the turn of the 19th century. […]

Asleson and research assistant Elizabeth Isaacson scanned through, digitized newspapers, history books, baptismal records, wills and other legal documents to unveil the identity of sitters, including many of Afro Caribbean descent for whom no other likeness is known to exist. Users of the microsite can now “flip” through pages of the album and click on high-res images of each portrait to learn the sitter’s full name, lifespan or years active and the date their portrait was created.

William Bache had no artistic training, but he was able to develop a successful career as a silhouette maker, traveling to cities all over the eastern seaboard of the United States and reaching as far south as Cuba. He used his own patented version of a physionotrace, a mechanical drawing frame first invented in France in the waning days of the Ancien Régime, to capture the outline of people’s profiles and reproduce them quickly and cheaply. His newspaper advertisements emphasized the cheap part, offering “four correct profiles for 25 cents,” about $5 in today’s money.

The fixed features of the face like the shape of the nose, jaw and brow were subject of intense study in the late 18th century. Pioneered by Swiss poet and minister Johann Kaspar Lavater, author of the seminal work on physiognomy (1775-1778), the pseudoscientific pursuit correlated the physical features of the face to a person’s character and personality. In order to document the physiognomy of an individual in the most objective way possible, Lavater advocated tracing the “lines of countenance,” the contours of a person’s head and face, to measure their proportions and angles and thereby “scientifically” determine their character.

To ensure the most accurate possible record of the lines of countenance, Lavater devised a method to trace a profile from life by mounting a wood frame to the side of a chair. The subject sat facing forward, gripping the frame and its rigid mounts to stay as still as possible. A piece of tracing paper was fitted into the frame and a candle lit on the other side of the chair. He would then trace the shadow cast by her face onto the paper.

An even greater leap forward in removing artistic interpretation from portraiture was achieved by engineer and engraver Gilles-Louis Chrétien in 1784. He invented the physionotrace, a wooden frame large enough for a person to sit in turned to the side. The person’s chin was supported and fixed the head so it would not move. The artist/machinist would then trace a life-sized or scale portrait using a pencil connected via a metal arm to another pencil that made a copy on a separate sheet of paper.

Within a week, that drawing could be quickly reproduced in scaled-down sizes. They became a popular fashion trend in the French Revolutionary and First Empire period. Sitters would buy portrait packages of the large likeness and smaller prints, which could be filled in with extremely precise details. Each portrait was identical, unlike the painted portrait miniatures.

This mechanism was very well-suited to the production of silhouettes. You got an outline of the profile on the spot, and an easy and fast means to reproduce the exact profile on a smaller scale. Unfortunately the patent records of Bache’s 1803 physiognotrace were destroyed in an 1836 fire, so we don’t know exactly what his machine was like. His partner Isaac Todd wrote that it was different from its predecessors in its ability to “trace the human face with ‘mathematical correctness’ without touching it.”

Flip through the digitized Ledger Book of William Bache’s silhouettes on this website. Each silhouette is clickable for individual identification. You can also navigate it by name using the index.

Kitchen reno in York rediscovers 17th c. frescoes

A group of 17th century wall paintings have been discovered during renovations of a flat in Mickelgate, York. A section of painted plaster was first discovered behind a kitchen cabinet by refitters working on the apartment of Dr. Luke Budworth. He later found a larger section boarded up high on the wall below the ceiling.

The paintings are believed to date to the 1660s. They are scenes from a book that was popular at that time, Emblems by poet Francis Quarles, first published in 1635. An emblem book was a collection of allegorical or symbolic images illustrating epigrams, poems and/or commentary. Quarles took the form in a new direction with his Emblems, paraphrasing the Bible in the complex figurative language of the metaphysical poets and adding a verse epigram at the end. Each Emblem was accompanied by an illustration in the grotesque style (meaning cherubs and florals and filigrees inspired by the frescoes of the Domus Aurea, not in the modern sense of “grotesque”) by engraver William Marshall.

(Fun fact: Quarles had 18 children with his wife Ursula. Among his many, MANY direct descendants were several poets, including the African-American luminary of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes.)

Damage to the wall paintings makes them difficult to identify, but one of the scenes of the ceiling frieze is the Marshall illustration of Book V, Emblem X. An angel is picking the lock of a cage holding a man captive. It’s a representation of Psalm 142.7 “Lord, free my Captive Soul; and then thy Praise/Shall fill the remnant of my joyful Days.” Under the painting of the angel freeing the captive soul is the epigram that concludes that emblem, painting in white text over a black background:

Paul’s midnight voice prevail’d; his music’s thunder
Unhinge’d the prison-doors, split bolts in sunder :
And sitt’st thou here, and hang’st the feeble wing?
And whine’st to be enlarged? Soul, learn to sing.

Simon Taylor, Historic England’s senior architectural investigator for the north region, said it was an “exciting rediscovery”.

“We think they are of national significance and in the context of York, where domestic wall paintings are quite rare, they are of special interest,” he said.

The wall the scenes are painted on could be older than the buildings on either side of it, he said.

The paintings are also cut off by the ceiling and the front of the building, which could help researchers piece together the development of the street.

Luke can’t afford the expense of full conservation out of his own pocket, but he’s seeking funding for the project. For now, he has covered up the frieze with a high resolution printout of pictures of the paintings to protect them from the sun.

1,400-year-old Moche murals of two-faced men found in Peru

The excavation of the late Moche (c.600–850 A.D.) archaeological site of Pañamarca in northwestern Peru has uncovered two new murals painted on the adobe brick walls of an ancient architectural complex. They depict two two-faced individuals, one painted on the top, one on the bottom of a single adobe pillar in the hall.

Both two-faced figures are wearing headdresses or crowns and vividly colored clothing with large belts. They hold unusual items in their hands. The top one carries a goblet with four hummingbirds in one hand and feather fan in the other. The bottom man is waving a feather fan (unlike the rigid feathers of his neighbor’s fan, his feathers are captured in motion) and a stick-like object in his other. Damage to the painting makes it difficult to identify what it is.

There is no known precedent for these figures in Moche art. They don’t have features typical of Moche deities — namely zoomorphic elements like fangs, claws, tails or wings. Archaeologists hypothesize that the two two-headed figures may have been an artistic exploration of depicting people (and feathers) in motion, so not two-headed monsters or gods, but men captured in blurred movement like two frames of animation in one panel. They may also be wearing masks.

Constructed beginning in around 550 A.D., the Pañamarca architectural complex is richly decorated with murals that are unique iconographic testaments to Moche ritual, clothing, adornments and even to their trade links over long distances. Only an estimated 10% of the wall paintings at Pañamarca have been uncovered since the first mural was discovered in 1958. The hall of pillars is particularly dense with these murals, and archaeologists still don’t know what the room’s purpose was, but it probably was not meant for public use because the passages are very tight and warren-like.

The Paisajes Arqueológicos de Pañamarca research project has been ongoing since 2018 under the joint leadership of an international team of archaeologists from Peru, Columbia University and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. These murals were discovered during last year’s dig season. The summer 2022 dig aimed to document the stratigraphic phases of construction of the monumental temple complex and to excavate and conserve any murals encountered.

There is now a clearer throughline for Peruvian history and culture thanks to recent finds at Pañamarca and earlier ones made there during the past century. Digital photography, photogrammetric modeling, and virtual reality simulation will make these insights more widely available.

“Pañamarca was a place of remarkable artistic innovation and creativity, with painters elaborating on their knowledge of artistic canons in creative and meaningful ways as the people of Nepeña established their position in the far southern Moche world,” said Lisa Trever, Lisa, and Bernard Selz Associate Professor of Pre-Columbian Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University.

Video tour the restored House of the Vettii

The House of the Vettii, home to one of Pompeii’s most extraordinary assemblages of frescoes, recently reopened to the public after more than two decades of closure. (It was partially reopened in 2016, allowing visitors into the entrance area and the atrium, but closed again entirely in 2019.) Visitors briefly got a chance to rub shoulders with archaeologists, architects, engineers and landscaping experts as they embarked on a comprehensive multi-disciplinary restoration project to conserve the famed wall and floor decorations, address major structural issues, renovate the colonnaded garden and install a new state-of-the-art drainage system.

Some of the more challenging aspects of the conservation involved fixing previous well-intended interventions gone awry over time. The concrete roof added in the 1950s to protect the villa’s remains from the elements was now exacerbating water penetration. Layers of wax applied to the frescoes for their protection and to give them a glossy sheen had to be painstakingly removed to restore the visibility of the of the magnificent detail in the architectural and mythological motifs.

The peristyle garden was restored with careful attention to the original plant species that grew there. Marble fountains, basins, pilasters and statues discovered in the garden of the villa in 19th century excavations are in the Naples National Archaeological Museum, but fine copies have now been installed in the garden to recreate its sumptuous hardscaping.

Another major renovation correcting a former misguided curatorial approach that was once common: locking up sexually explicit Roman art and artifacts behind closed doors to spare the weak sensibilities of women, children and the lower classes. Only gentlemen were deemed to have the moral fortitude to withstand the view of mighty erections and fornication in every position. They alone would be allowed into the locked Secret Cabinets where museums hid all the phalluses and deities mid-coitus that the Romans had displayed with pride, like the iconic fresco of Priapus weighing his erection against a pile of coins which welcomed all visitors at the front entrance of the villa.

In the case of the House of the Vettii, a room adjacent to the kitchen in the servants’ area of the villa was decorated with erotic wall paintings. Archaeologists believe it was used for prostitution, a hypothesis confirmed by the discovery of an inscription offering a “Greek and well-mannered” woman named Eutychis for the bargain price of two asses. An iron door was added in the 19th century and kept locked with access to the room only allowed upon request of men whose monocles were primed and ready to pop. That door has at long last been removed.

But it’s the frescoes in the main rooms of the house that are the real money shots of the House of the Vettii, and this video tour led by historian Darius Arya for Ancient Rome Live captures their intense color and dazzling detail beautifully. He also does an excellent job at explaining the mythological scenes and how they connect to the personal histories of homeowners Aulus Vettius Restitutus and Aulus Vettius Conviva, freedmen brothers who became wealthy merchants and rose high in the city’s social ranks. 

This video captures overhead views that include the new roof that drains properly and the meticulous restoration of the interiors.

Roman mosaic found under Aldi supermarket site

An archaeological survey of the site of a future Aldi supermarket in Olney, Buckinghamshire, has uncovered a Roman polychrome mosaic. The mosaic consists of geometric designs made with tesserae in four colors: dark grey, red, dark blue and white. One thick border contains the two-strand woven guilloche pattern. The larger decorative panel contains Solomon knots, stylized palmette patterns that look like stretched out hearts and diamond shapes.

The mosaic paves the floor of a large room in a Roman building. Most of the mosaic that has been recovered thus far was from the edge of the room. The remains of two smaller rooms were found next to it. Mosaics were expensive decorations usually reserved for the homes of the wealthy or public buildings. It is not clear which function this structure had. Several other stone structures found at the site were identified as a bath house or water collection cisterns.

The design style is consistent with the work of the Durobrivan group from the East Midlands and as such likely date to the third quarter of the 4th century. This school of mosaic art is named after Durobrivae, a Roman town in what is now Water Newton, Cambridgeshire. Durobrivae was a civilian settlement attached to a 1st century A.D. Roman fort that is about 50 miles north of Olney. It was a center of production for a distinctive light-on-dark pottery type known as Nene Valley Colour Coated Ware, and one of the 10 or so identified school of mosaic design in Roman Britain.

The excavation was triggered by the location of the planned Aldi which is near the Roman site at Olney, the remains of an ancient settlement dating to between the 2nd and 4th centuries A.D. Archaeologists expected, therefore, to make some Roman finds, but were thinking more along the lines of burials rather than a luxury mosaic installation.

Much of the mosaic pavement extends under a city street, so unfortunately it will not be fully excavated. Nor will it be removed. The mosaic will remain in situ, covered for its protection. Archaeologists and cultural authorities have proposed a plan to keep it safe while construction continues.