Diana Cecil’s lips restored to former thin splendor

Restoration of a 17th century portrait of Diana Cecil, great-granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth I’s chief advisor William Cecil, has revealed her original thin upper lip and high forehead, removing the overpaint that had artificially plumped her pucker and lowered her hairline. The conservation also revealed the signature of the artist and the date hidden in the folds of the curtain: Cornelius Johnson, 1634.

The portrait is one of two of Diana Cecil in The Suffolk Collection, a group of 400 works, many portraits of aristocrats and royals but also other masterpieces by the likes of Vermeer, Turner and Rembrandt, amassed by the Howard family from the 17th to the 20th century. Diana’s sister Elizabeth was married to a Howard, which is how he portraits came to be in the collection. The greatest portraits of The Suffolk Collection are nine full-length pieces by the premiere Jacobean portraitist William Larkin, one of which is a 1614 portrait of Diana Cecil painted when she was about 15 years old. Her high forehead and fine upper lip are in evidence even at that young age.

Diana Cecil was considered one of the great beauties of the Jacobean nobility. She married twice, first to Henry de Vere, 18th Earl of Oxford, in 1624, barely a year before his death, and again in 1629 to Thomas Bruce, who would be created 1st Earl of Elgin by King Charles I in 1633. The newly-restored portrait of Diana was made the year after her husband received that rich favor.

In the later portrait, Cecil wears a fashionable blue satin bodice and full, trailing skirt. In contrast to the earlier portrait, elite fashion is characterised by understated elegance, rather than opulently patterned fabric or complicated layering, English heritage said.

Plain silk, satin or taffeta were the height of fashion, with one or two focal points, such as the red ribbons laced across the front of Cecil’s bodice, holding the stomacher in place, and a matching red rose at her breast and a patterned fan, which she holds half-open in front of her.

The Suffolk Collection is displayed at Kenwood House, a stately neoclassical villa in Hampstead administered by English Heritage. The later portrait of Diana Cecil recently underwent conservation so that it could be put on display. It had suffered significantly from having been rolled up widthways, damaging the paint surface, and old varnish had yellowed, dimming the once-brilliant colors. The removal of the old varnish uncovered the touch-ups to her lips and hair, likely made in the late 19th or early 20th century in a failed attempt to repair some of the damage from the rolling and update her looks in keeping with beauty standards of the time while they were at it.

Alice Tate-Harte, collections conservator (fine art) at English Heritage, said in a press release: “As a paintings conservator I am often amazed by the vivid and rich colours that reveal themselves as I remove old, yellowing varnish from portraits, but finding out Diana’s features had been changed so much was certainly a surprise!

“While the original reason for overpainting could have been to cover damage from the portrait being rolled, the restorer certainly added their own preferences to ‘sweeten’ her face. I hope I’ve done Diana justice by removing those additions and presenting her natural face to the world.”

The restored portrait of Diana Cecil will go on display next to the portrait of her second husband Thomas Bruce at Kenwood House on November 30th.

Louvre acquires $26 million kitchen Cimabue

Four years after a late 13th century painting by medieval master Cimabue was discovered in the kitchen of an elderly woman in Compiegne and sold at auction to a private buyer for $26.6 million, Christ Mocked has officially entered the collection of the Louvre Museum.

It’s been a long, strange journey for the tempera-on-panel depiction of Jesus being taunted by the crowd after his trial before the Sanhedrin. Originally part of an altarpiece diptych of scenes from Christ’s Passion and crucifixion, at some point the panels were disarticulated and sold off individually to collectors keen to acquire one of only 11 known panel paintings by the great Cimabue (1240-1302). The only two other known panels believed to have been part of the original altarpiece are now in the Frick Collection in New York and the National Gallery in London, but only confirmed as the work of Cimabue in 2000.

While the Frick was acquiring its then-unattributed panel and the National Gallery’s was slumbering unrecognized in a Suffolk stately home, Christ Mocked was hanging over a hotplate in a Compiegne kitchen, mistaken by its owner for an old Russian icon. It was only when the lady, then in her 90s, decided to move out of her home and have its contents appraised by a local auction house, that its true identity was discovered. She had no idea where it came from. Louvre researchers think it may have been sold to her ancestors in 1830 by an art dealer from Pisa named Carlo Lasinio who was likely responsibly for selling the other two known panels at the same time.

When it went under the hammer in October 2019, it was the first Cimabue ever to appear at auction, so it was no surprise when the 10-inch panel blew past its pre-sale estimates to sell for nearly $27 million. The buyer was a London collector purchasing it on behalf of the Alana collection, a private collection of Italian Renaissance art in the US. The outfit filed for an export license in December and the French government promptly denied it, declaring the work a national treasure and blocking its export for 30 months to give the Louvre the chance the raise the purchase price and add the Cimabue to its collection.

It’s been more than 30 months, so there was either an extension granted or the announcement was kept under wraps until now. Either way, the Louvre managed to raise the necessary millions thanks to the big revenues from licensing its name to the Louvre Abu Dhabi and a sizable donation from the non-profit American Friends of the Louvre organization.

Christ Mocked will now join Cimabue’s monumental painted panel, Maestà, in the Paris museum. The two works are a fascinating juxtaposition of Cimabue’s range and vision. The Virgin and Child in Majesty Surrounded by Six Angels (aka Maestà) is formally posed in the Byzantine hieratic style. The other two panels of the diptych Christ Mocked was a part of are also painted in that same iconographic style, but Christ Mocked takes a very different approach. It is the first work of Cimabue that seeks to present a naturalism and verisimilitude in the expressions, postures and rendering of space. The faces of the characters in the back are hidden by those of the rows in front of them. They wear contemporary clothing against a backdrop of contemporary Tuscan architecture, conveying their humanity and modernity to the viewers of the time. The materials he used — gold, lapis lazuli, red lacquer — were among the most brilliant and expensive of the time, artfully employed by later masters like Giotto ( c. 1267-1337) and Duccio (1260-1319), who are often credited with introducing the kinds of innovations seen in Christ Mocked.

Maestà is currently undergoing restoration, and Christ Mocked is being examined by conservators. Its condition is very good, with little paint loss and almost no overpainting, so it will be cleaned and conserved to restore its vivid original color before both panels are presented to the public together in 2025.

Silesian bracteate hoard found in western Poland

A hoard of medieval Silesian bracteate coins has been discovered in the city center of Szprotawa, western Poland. There are about 100-150 coins minted between 1250 and 1300 in the hoard. Some of the coins were found in cylindrical stacks, indicating they were carefully arranged before being placed in a textile bag with some loose coins. The bag was then tightly tied to keep the coin stacks in place before being buried at a shallow depth on one of the main streets connecting the market square to the Głogowska Gate in the city’s 13th century defensive walls.

Silesian bracteates were minted on one side of a thin silver plate leaving an impression on the obverse that appears on the reverse as a negative. The silver had a high copper content, which is why the surface of the coins now has a green patina. The bracteates were of comparatively low value because of their low precious metal content and susceptibility to wear and tear. Rulers often recalled the coins and replaced them with new ones to refresh the value of the rapidly depreciating coins.

The historic center of Szprotawa is undergoing a comprehensive revitalization program that includes the reconstruction of all the communications infrastructure, new bicycle paths leading to a bicycle station, the renovation town hall, the secondary school, police headquarters and two historic churches. The work is being carried out under the supervision of archaeologists as the medieval city was all but levelled in World War II — an estimated 90% of Szprotawa was destroyed — making the archaeological material underground all the more significant.

Most of the finds so far have been the remains of 19th century tenement house cellars built after the demolition of the medieval walls, but earlier remains have also been uncovered, notably fragments from a 15th century bridge, pieces of the city wall from the early 14th century, the remains of a tower and a section of the medieval Głogów Gate.

The coins are of particular significance because of their dates. First recorded in around 1000 A.D. as a small settlement, Szprotawa was grated town rights in 1260 and full city rights in 1304. Its defensive walls were built by Silesian Piast Duke Konrad I of Głogów after he granted Szprotawa its town rights, so the coins were minted as the city came into its own.

Europe’s oldest functioning compass found in Estonia wreck

One of the artifacts recovered from the wreck of the medieval ship unearthed near the Old Town Harbor of Tallinn, Estonia, in 2022, is Europe’s oldest dry compass still in working order.

The cog was excavated from its location on Lootsi Street and transported to the Estonian Maritime Museum in four pieces. Archaeologists of the Estonian Maritime Museum and experts in ship conservation from Finland have been cleaning and conserving the cog in a purpose-built hall where visitors can see the work in progress.

The excavation and conservation process uncovered a number of finds in excellent condition, including leather shoes, wooden spoons and tools, preserved by the waterlogged mud of the harbor. The shoes were well-worn and repaired, so not cargo intended for sale. This suggests the ship was sunk in an accident and everyone who could escape did so, leaving behind their belongings. The compass and the well-preserved remains of two rats who apparently did not desert the sinking ship were the most surprising finds.

[Archaeologist Priit Lätti of the Estonian Maritime Museum] aid that Estonia’s medieval ships really stand out among other similar finds because they are not empty. Medieval ships found in Germany and the Netherlands are mostly empty, the researcher said.

“Ours are full of finds, and the finds are wall to wall, giving us clues about everything from eating habits on board to clothing to navigational equipment,” he said.

Archaic stone anchors found off Syracuse

Two stone anchors from the Greek Archaic Period (800-480 B.C.) have been discovered on the seabed off the coast of Syracuse, Sicily. They were spotted by a private individual who reported it to the Superintendence of the Sea of the Sicilian Region. The Superintendence followed up with a survey of the reported find site. They documented a three-hole triangular anchor about 27 inches long, and a second one with a single hole and ovoid shape.

The intervention was carried out on a marine area of about 250 square meters, which was surveyed and documented in order to verify the presence of additional archaeological finds. A protection operation that saw the two underwater units engaged, with the support of the vedetta V.7007 of the Naval Operations Section of the Guardia di Finanza of Syracuse, which ensured safety at sea during the dives.

“This type of intervention,” says Regional Councillor for Cultural Heritage and Sicilian Identity, Francesco Paolo Scarpinato, “confirms the importance of collaboration between public agencies and law enforcement agencies in safeguarding cultural heritage. Also of great value is the collaboration of private individuals that, over the years, has casually led to the identification of numerous artifacts, with the only common goal of recovering and enhancing our cultural heritage.”

The two anchors will be recovered and conserved for display in a local museum.