Casa Buonarroti digitizes Michelangelo’s drawings

The Casa Buonarroti museum in Florence has embarked on a new project to digitize figure studies, architectural designs and handwritten notes by Michelangelo and make the ultra-high resolution images available on their website. The goal is to upload the most significant drawings in the Casa Buonarroti’s collection to create an online catalogue of Michelangelo’s greatest works on paper, and now first 20 pages have now been uploaded.

The 20 pages include some recto and verso (front and back) sheets, denoted on the thumbnail with two arrows in the upper right corner. It’s a fascinating glimpse into Michelangelo’s art and life, seeing, for example, an iconic image like the dynamic male nude preparatory study for his Battle of Cascina fresco on one side of the page and his literal shopping list on the other. Or anatomical studies for one of his Pietà sculptures backed by anatomical studies for figures in the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel.

The digitization of these materials gives artists, scholars and anyone else with even a passing interest access to works that are too fragile to be widely handled. The paper has to be protected from exposure to light, fluctuating temperatures and humidity levels, so the sheets are kept in carefully controlled environments. The pages were conserved before digitization, removing the artifacts of previous interventions and revealing some drawings that were obscured by flawed restoration attempts. Each sheet is also extensively annotated with background information, transcripts of texts and historic and artistic commentary.

Here’s one passage from a Madonna and Child study illustrating how content-rich the curator’s comments are:

The observation of the drawing allows one to follow the entire compositional process. First of all, Michelangelo sketched out both protagonists in black chalk, with a highly spontaneous handling: the fast, parallel hatching is combined with a soft, loose outline, drawn with a tormented manner. Initially, the face of the Madonna appears faintly sketched to the left, intent on looking down, in profile, at the Child in her arms, to be modified and rotated up three-quarters to the right, while gazing into the distance with an absorbed expression. Perhaps lost in the premonition of future pains, the Virgin’s head is executed on a smaller dimensional scale than the rest of the imposing body and with much more finished results, thanks to a soft chiaroscuro obtained with a broad-tipped black chalk, which lends the face a veil of shaded melancholy. This initial phase of compositional analysis was followed by the pictorial deepening of part of the figure of the Infant Jesus, perfectly executed even in the colouring, thanks to the overlapping of multiple techniques, all typical of Michelangelo’s heritage. The artist outlined the profile, already characterised by numerous pentimenti, with a red chalk, which he used together with a very shaded black chalk also to model the body with its rosy complexion, and interpreted the precious chiaroscuro effects with highlights of white lead, applied with chalk for the parts in light, and retouches of brown ink wash, applied with a very fine-tipped brush, for the areas of greater darkness. At this point, Michelangelo had to abandon work on the sheet, leaving the drawing with a distinct difference in finish, intentional and related to his graphic interests.

Boston museum returns Egyptian child sarcophagus to Sweden

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has returned an ancient Egyptian clay child sarcophagus to Uppsala University’s Museum Gustavianum more than 50 years after it was stolen under mysterious circumstances.

Made of alluvial clay, the sarcophagus dates to the 19th Dynasty (1295–1186 B.C.). It is 43 inches high and vividly painted. The child is depicted wearing a headdress of blue and yellow stripes tied with a headband of white, blue and red lotuses. Lotus petals cover the collar on his chest. The head and chest are on a cut-out section that can be removed to access the interior. Beneath the collar are more lotus flowers, wadjet eyes and the goddess Nut with outstretched wings flanked by Anubis seated jackals. The bottom part of the sarcophagus is covered with hieroglyphs identifying the deceased as a boy named Pa-nefer-neb.

The MFA Boston acquired it in 1985, and the ownership record seemed to be thorough and above-board, even at a time when museum’s paid zero attention to that sort of thing. It was sold by one Olaf Liden claiming to be an agent of Swedish artist Eric Ståhl (1918–1999). A letter ostensibly written by Ståhl described how he had personally discovered the sarcophagus in Amada, Egypt, in 1937, and the Egyptian government had later gifted it to him for his aid in the archaeological rescue operations before construction of the Aswan Dam. The coffin’s authenticity was attested to in writing by Swedish experts.

It was the MFA itself that realized this story was complete fiction, that Ståhl was never involved in any archaeological excavations in Egypt, that the letter and authentication documents were forged and the sarcophagus had been purloined from the Swedish museum, smuggled to Boston and fraudulently sold. The trigger was the 2008 publication of previously unseen photographs from the archive of the Petrie Museum. The sarcophagus was in one of the pictures: a shot of a 1920 archaeological excavation in Gurob, Egypt, by the British School of Archaeology under the direction of British archaeologist Flinders Petrie. A note with the photograph stated the coffin had been given to Uppsala University in 1922 as part of the partage system that was common at the time. All institutions involved in digs got a cut of the artifacts, basically, in exchange for their funding and fieldwork.

MFA curators initiated an investigation and contacted the Gustavianum to let them know about the discrepancy. Provenance researchers from both museums cooperated and shared information during the process. They found that the sarcophagus went missing from the museum’s stores in 1970 or earlier. It was not deaccessioned or traded. Both parties came to the same conclusion: the coffin had been taken from the Gustavianum illegally and should be returned.

“It is very gratifying that this return has now come to pass. The child’s sarcophagus is an important item in our collections and it means a lot to the museum and the University that it has now been returned to us. The sarcophagus is an excellent complement to our Egyptian collections and will now be available for research,” says Mikael Ahlund, Museum Director of Gustavianum, or Uppsala University Museum. “But the sarcophagus needs some work and it will be some time before it can be shown to the public in Gustavianum,” he adds.

You can see the petite coffin being unpacked upon its return to Sweden in this video. 

Garforth Roman lead coffin to go on display

The Roman lead coffin discovered in Garforth, near Leeds, in 2022 will go on display for the first time in an exhibition at the Leeds City Museum next month.

The coffin was unearthed in an excavation of a previously unknown cemetery containing burials of more than 60 men, women and children from the late Roman and early Saxon periods (5th-8th centuries). The lead coffin was used as the inner lining of a larger wood coffin which has decayed leaving only the metal interior in place. Lead coffins were expensive and rare, only affordable by the elite of Romano- British society. Pieces of jewelry — a bracelet, glass bead necklace and ring — were found inside the coffin, confirming the aristocratic status of the deceased.

When it was first discovered, the skeletal remains of an adult woman between 25 and 35 years of age were found inside the coffin. Later analysis of the contents of the lead coffin found the partial remains of a young child buried at the same time as the woman.

The coffin and its lid are currently being conserved and stabilised for display at Leeds City Museum, as part of the new exhibition Living with Death.

Kat Baxter, Leeds Museums and Galleries’ curator of archaeology, said: “This is a truly unique and remarkable find which has potentially huge implications for our understanding of the history of early Leeds and those who made their home here.”

She added: “The discovery of the remains of a second individual within the coffin is fascinating, particularly as they belonged to a child.

“It poses some interesting questions about how people more than 1,600 years ago treated their dead.”

Ms Baxter explained the Roman lead coffin was the only one of its kind ever discovered in West Yorkshire.

“We’re delighted to be able to display the coffin so quickly after excavation, and we’re looking forward to sharing this amazing piece of history with our visitors,” she said.

1777 eye-witness sketch of camp followers donated to Museum of the American Revolution

A previously unknown and unpublished sketch depicting soldiers and camp followers marching through Philadelphia in 1777, has been donated to the Museum of the American Revolution. The soldiers were troops from the North Carolina Brigade, and this pen-and-ink drawing is the first depiction of them known. It is the second known eye-witness drawing of camp followers.

The sketch captures the North Carolina Brigade going through Philly on August 25, 1777, on their way to join the Continental Army before the Battle of Brandywine (September 11, 1777). Two soldiers walk in front of a large open wagon. The wagon driver is on horseback between them and an officer on horseback takes up the rear. The wagon carries two women, one holding a baby.

The inclusion of female camp followers – who shared life on campaign with enlisted husbands and fathers and supported the troops by sewing, doing laundry, and selling food – exemplifies a direct defiance of known regulations at the time about how women following the army could use wagons. Earlier in August, before the march depicted in the sketch took place, Washington himself brought up issues of women and children slowing down his troops, calling them “a clog upon every movement.”

The reverse of the page has sketches of five men in dynamic action, three of them captured drawing their swords from different angles, two throwing punches.

The scene was identified by an inscription written underneath it: “an exact representation of a waggon belonging to the north carolina brigade of continental troops which passed thro Philadelphia august done by …” Unfortunately, the name of the artist was lost in an old attempt to repair the paper. Museum curator Matthew Skic analyzed the handwriting and compared the style of the drawing to other works from the period, ultimately identifying the artist as Pierre Eugène du Simitiére, a portrait painter, naturalist and coin collector born in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1737 who became a naturalized citizen of New York in 1769. He moved to Philadelphia in 1774.

It’s more than fitting that this unique view of history penned by du Simitiére should join the collection of the Museum of the American Revolution. He was a dedicated collector. He founded the first museum of natural history in the United States from his private collection of specimens and his coin collection was the first to be sold in America. He assiduously documented the Revolution as it happened, before it was even a revolution, in fact. He collected ephemera (pamphlets, broadsides, communications, newspaper stories) of democratic uprisings in America going back to the 17th century. He attempted to publish his massive history of the American Revolution, but his appeal to Congress for financial report failed. His art put food on the table, and even then he was deeply involved in the newly-independent country. He was a consultant for the committees who designed the Great Seal of the United States, and he added the Eye of Providence to the pyramid.

“We were thrilled to piece together the many illuminating and significant parts of this sketch’s history through our unparalleled scholarship here at the Museum of the American Revolution,” said Dr. R. Scott Stephenson, President and CEO of the Museum. “As we round out our celebration of Women’s History Month, we revel in the discovery of this new depiction of female camp followers as highlighting the lesser-known stories and critical roles of women throughout the American Revolution are at the heart of the Museum’s offerings.”

Hallaton Roman cavalry parade helmet recreated

Two replicas of the gilded silver Roman cavalry helmet found at Hallaton have been created, one by silversmith Rajesh Gogna using computer aided-design and 3D printing, the other by archaeologist Francesco Galluccio using traditional tools Roman smiths would have used. They are now both on display, one at the Hallaton Museum, the other at the Harborough Museum in Market Harborough alongside the original helmet.

An important Iron Age British shrine was discovered outside the village of Hallaton in Leicestershire in 2000. Dating to around the time of the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 A.D., it was a ritual enclosure of great significance to the local Corieltavi tribe who held feasts there and made offerings of animals and valuables. In 2001, excavations unearthed more than 5,500 British and Roman coins, jewelry and animal bones as well as a helmet which would have been worn by a Roman cavalry officer.

The helmet was in thousands of pieces when it was found embedded in thick mud. Archaeologists weren’t even sure what it was until they excavated the soil block in a conservation laboratory and uncovered the larger fragments, including a cheekpiece adorned with a relief of an emperor trampling a barbarian under the hooves of his horse while a winged Victory holds a laurel wreath over his head. Conservators worked for ten years to excavate the fragments from the soil block. In 2011, the conservation team revealed they’d found seven cheekpieces (obviously not all from a single helmet) and a helmet bowl.

The fragments were painstakingly conserved and pieced back together and today the helmet is 80% complete with some gaps filled to give it structural support. It was made of an iron sheet covered with a thin sheet of gilded silver. The decorative designs — a laurel wreath encircling the bowl, a scrolling foliate pattern on the neckguard, swags and the high-relief bust of woman flanked by lions and rams on the browguard — were made with the repousse technique, ie, hammered into the surface from the back. The raised decorations were gilded and would have stood out against the silver background. Only a handful of silver Roman cavalry helmets are known, and so early an example in a freshly-conquered part of the empire is a unique find.

Two thousand years buried in mud corroded and damaged its once-shiny surface. It looks sort of lumpy and brown today and the details of the decoration are hard to make out with the naked eye. In order to create the replicas, museum curators, art historians, illustrators and conservators worked together to re-examine the helmet, photographing it under bright light looking for shapes and motifs that were then cross-referenced with other art pieces from the mid-1st century. The archaeological illustrator used the annotated pictures and 3D scans as a guide to recreating the areas where the decoration was missing. The process revealed a previously-undetected pair of griffins holding an amphora between them on the rear of the helmet bowl.

Rajesh Gogna transformed the archaeological drawing into a 3D model and then 3D printed it in resin. He used modern techniques of copper electroforming, silver-plating and gilding to recreate the helmet, adding hand-crafted elements (brass fastening loops, rivets, hinge pins). Thanks to the 3D printing, he was able to create an identical second copy. Meanwhile, Rome-based archaeologist and replica maker Francesco Galluccio went old school, utilizing his expertise in recreating Roman armor to manufacture a replica with traditional tools the original maker of the helmet would have recognized.

The original helmet is now being exhibited in a new case, with both cheekpieces reattached. The other five cheekpieces found at the Hallaton ritual site are on display with it.